Jill Magi: Labor Lost and Found



by Jill Magi

Last fall I found myself at the gate of an archive. Remembering something from my labor and union past and thinking about my work life at present, I came across the on-line finding guides for the Wagner Labor Archive at New York University. The writings here are a warm-up to my trip into that archive. As of this spring, I’ve been inside, but that writing—is it poetry?—is slow to come along. For now, I’m using exposition to trace the outline of a shape I do not yet know.

November 4, 2008

On the day of an historical election, after weeks of hearing the word “socialism” used as a weapon (as they bail out the banks), I am anxious. So to offset this feeling, I browse around the internet—a way of tuning out, not unlike a drug, or a prayer that I will find the thing I need—

I come across the site of the Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives at New York University. It is one of the few places inside Bobst Library that is open to the general public. (Pick up a pass at the door that reads “Tamiment” and carry it with you wherever you go.) Scrolling through pages and pages of linear feet of “radical America.” A virtual tour: exhausting, seemingly exhaustive, but probably not the full story—

I am thinking of the word “resistance” and of the historian Robin D. G. Kelley who has pointed out the problem in believing “that the only struggles that count take place through institutions.” There are stories passed on, in everyday people trying to uphold the contract, in silences too, and when there is no contract.

What will my Labor be?

A Thru-Hiker’s Handbook

In 1998, days after my grandmother died, I read The Thru-Hiker’s Handbook to the Appalachian Trailfrom cover to cover. Robert Pinsky said that he used to read the dictionary as a child—the joy of words with no plot. Comfort in the catalogue, its delightful open field of choice, chance. Comfort in the document that resists the conclusion of the documentary—so if traffic and weather radio reports, sound recordings of the Hudson, or framing the changing sky may be our art, then perhaps—I’m plotting now—why not these finding aids, this record of labor? A fetishistic compositional move born out of a sense of endangerment? The archive: perhaps above all else, a record of a belief in inscription. Paper, articles, brochures, audio tape. Materials able to be filed, boxed, measured out in feet. Collecting, submitting, hauling, believing in “the work.” Endangered waste turned into—

“FOIA” translates

“Freedom of Information Act”


Acquired from the FBI

The librarian has faith that the searcher exists and so prepares for her to enter; I want to bring the finding aids to you. I highlight, copy, paste. Do you recognize a name? A workplace? How many radicals in your blood? Have you heard from them recently?

February 23, 2009

Dear Reader:

Did you think this book would be about childbirth? It might be fine to think about exhaustion, struggle, making a certain kind of love and effort tangible, new life, to hold the archive’s books in cradles, measuring out linear feet, first steps—



as cultural expression,

pace of,

patterns of,

and pleasure, as


January 29, 2009

I hustle around the newly renovated halls of one University where I teach, getting ready for a new semester. This time, I’m registering to take a class; I’m on the other side.

There is a new welcome center that feels like a gallery—floor to ceiling windows, street-level, colorful details with the school logo lining one whole wall, flat screen computer monitors invite me to “check the status of your application.” To get to the registrar and bursar’s office, I walk down a set of concrete steps into a basement. The door to the boiler room, ajar, and it smells, in this stairwell, of burning fuel or wet paint or a combination of the two. I exit the stairwell and the air is stuffy. The light is fluorescent and down here there are no windows. Some of the same design accents—orange counters, signs in dark grey Helvetica—are present, carried over from the gallery-like space upstairs—

remembering the old university building across the street that housed admissions, registrar, bursar, cafeteria, all on the first floor, with windows to the street, all emptying out into a shared lobby space where professors criss-crossed with librarians, janitors with students, administrators with clerical staff, adjuncts and full time, going to the library, going to the bursar, going to class, going to eat, talking to each other, or at least seeing each other. A Rauschenburg print alongside a thumb-tacked roommate request with tear-off phone numbers; posters for gender studies colloquia alongside “Used Textbooks for Sale.” Perhaps that sense of “commons” was always disingenuous—

In this new basement space accessed only by workers and the students who they’ll end up “serving,” six workers, all people of color except for one, sit behind counters in the heat, serving students, processing registrations, taking money, delivering news that the loan won’t cover everything or the credit card won’t go through—

Sometime in the Fall of 1995

I remember a poem that my friend J. wrote over ten years ago and brought in to our graduate poetry workshop. For me, the poem keeps resurfacing. I remember lines something like this:

to Brooklyn, he said,

where they used to make things

not faxes

The speaker of the poem is making small talk with a cab driver on her way home. She struggles to get in to the cab, carrying bags:

my skin stuck to the vinyl in the heat

In our workshop there was discussion for a long, long time about the words for the mechanics of that moment when she tries to slip into the cab, over the seat. Everyone was looking earnestly for the best and most true verb. And I’m thinking now that the poem had to do with production, labor, and the artist’s body. She is noticing, moving through these internal and external geographies, getting stuck, aware. This is her position, living in Brooklyn where the rent is (was) affordable.

Back in the workshop, already trained to treat words as things, we apparently didn’t have the desire to speak to the subtext, the story under this poem’s surface—though maybe our interest, all of us “investing” in our writing, should have been high. I am thinking of what is unspoken in this field of labor, devoid of things—

March 4, 2009

Dear Cecilia,

Lately I’ve been noticing what “being an artist” means in the shape of things—how there’s no money in it yet so many young people from the middle class are flocking to art schools. I remember Laura Elrick asked about this in her talk at Segue a couple years ago: “What explains this surge in artistic production and product?”

Here’s something I said a couple weeks ago at a gallery talk on “Need, Demand, and Desire: Reevaluating the Artists’ Artifact”: The ultimate artifact these days is the artist’s body itself, I believe. This body I write from—this is what sells in colleges and universities. I stand as a testament to the middle class, liberal democratic fantasy of “being an artist.” My body says: “artists exist.” Yet, if this society was truly as interested in these ideas of art, freedom, and individual expression that it seems to want to display, then why are artists’ and working people’s lives becoming more difficult? Maybe there is a direct relationship between the real lack of choice and the landscaping of the appearance of freedom and self-expression. More lack, more landscaping.

What do you think? Write back when you have the time—



Work, as cultural expression,

day as unit of,

distinction between,

and hobby

distinction between,

and labor,

distinction between,

and leisure,

February 18, 2009

I’m thinking of Andrea Fraser’s performance and essay, “Isn’t This a Wonderful Place? (A Tour of a Tour of the Guggenheim Bilbao)” on the museum now built not as a traditional disciplinary institution—modeled after arcades and prison designs, but as open and airy, the patron moves about freely, the emphasis is on big spaces, choice, the color white, the presence of glass—an architecture that says “freedom,” just as the artist supposedly “chooses” to resist the capitalist world and its entrapments.

My poetry classroom is on the 4th floor, it has glass walls, and every week, prospective students and their parents parade past and look in. Maybe the liberal arts education is in some ways similar to the contemporary museum or “galleria” shopping mall?

Sometime in the Spring of 2007

A story: when I was a writer in residence at the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, I participated in the “open studio” weekend along with the visual artists. I framed and hung some works. I put a stack of my books on a table. I worked on this book, Threads, for ten years. It cost $15. All weekend I sold one book, one book was stolen or went missing, and I sold a framed work on the wall for $800.

Continued: January 29, 2009

After I wait in the registration line marked off by color-coded Tensa barriers, I am told that I have a hold on my record and I am given a number to call. The woman who writes the number down on a customized school-logo post-it, is holding her head, saying “I can’t take this smell. I have to talk to my supervisor.” I tell her “I’m sorry” and I am, but I know that my saying so hardly helps anything.

Upstairs, where there’s cell phone service and fresh air, I sit and make the call. I am put on hold for a long time and give up, walk over to the welcome desk, and ask someone if they can help. “Sure!” There’s a wall featuring a chalkboard—just one way the room denotes “school” even as all writing surfaces throughout the university have changed over to whiteboards—and on this wall, above the welcome desk, someone has written “Information!” in bold lettering. I tell them my situation, adding that I am “faculty” (I leave out the “part-time” detail) and they say “Oh, no, nothing we can do” and “Yea, that happened to me once” and I want to tell them that I don’t need them to make me feel like part of a group. But they are there for just that: no function except to provide a feeling of service, an impression that things work.


worker, older,

reevaluation of life by older,

restructuring of bodies of,

rivalries between,



Sometime in March

Today after class, a student invites me to check out “The Poetry Brothel” where you can hear a poet read and then, if what you hear pleases you, you can pay that poet money and go into a room and get a private reading. I wasn’t sure if I was being invited to pay or get paid—either way, I said no and asked him if he had ever heard of Andrea Fraser’s controversial video piece of she and an art patron having sex for a set price. The student had not heard of her—he wrote down her name as I spelled. Another student we rode the elevator with said she knew some sex workers and so she objected to the venue’s name and premise. I noticed that the entire exchange happened without argument or even the inclination that there would be one. When the elevator doors opened, everyone said “Bye! Have a good weekend!”

[ . . .]

(Special thanks to Ellen Baxt, Tisa Bryant, Tonya Foster, Jennifer Firestone, and Joanna Sondheim for their feedback and their encouragement.)

Jill Magi works in text and image and writes essays as well. Her books include Threads (Futurepoem 2007) and Torchwood (Shearsman 2008). Forthcoming is the text-image-essay project Poetry Barn Barn! (2nd Avenue Press) and an essay in The Eco-language Reader (Portable Press at Yo-Yo Labs). She teaches at City, Goddard, and Eugene Lang Colleges.

Copright© 2009, by Jill Magi. All Rights Reserved.

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