Critics Page

Jason Labbe

I want to believe that poetry can affect change—in people, in cultural practice, and in policy. But it is impossible to trace or measure whatever change we poets might be making, because the relationship between the action of writing and its effect are not one-to-one. After all, haven’t we agreed that poetry’s readership consists primarily of other poets? Even so, I believe that the conservation of energy always applies, meaning that any outrage, despair, anxiety—whatever compels the poet—will at least find its way to others who need to know they are not alone. Even if the poet’s protest is merely local and microcosmic, no action is futile if the smaller things add up to the overall effect. Here, I am beginning to sound like an overtly political poet. But I am not one. My political, environmental, and social concerns play out in a more fragmented and dissociative mode than manifesto or direct confrontation.

My poems are made from the materials of my daily life, simply because it’s all I have. Of course some of this is banality, quietude; but my materials also include whatever horrible thing I encounter whose language sticks to me. On the street, in the news, wherever. I have never attempted to stop the anxieties we live with—around war, the environment, oppression—from flying straight into the domestic realm and throwing comfort, complacency, and culpability straight to the floor. I am not excused from the predicament. I participate. I am a part of it, and it is a part of me. Flipping through my work from the last fifteen years, I see grief and anxiety manifest throughout: my close friend’s brother returns from his deployment in Iraq and commits suicide. An oil spill overwhelms the Gulf of Mexico, as a vortex of plastic particulate gathers in the North Pacific. The screens we surround ourselves with never turn off—we never turn off—and the endless chatter lights every window on the street eerie blue.

Many of the poets I know live at a great psychic distance from those who have supported Tr*mp. In my experience, few from the Poet Class involve themselves directly with Blue Collar America, except for armchair sociological study, exhausting storms of Facebook debates, or sleepless nights wondering how the downtrodden could support a regime that has no interest in their upward mobility. Some poets I know have neo-conservative families from whom they are actively distancing themselves. Today, it is all so binary. But I am lost—so lost—somewhere between both realms. Yes, I am a poet with two degrees and live a relatively urbane existence. But from my late teens to my mid-twenties, to pay for school, I worked on and off in the machine shop where my father is a foreman. I operated a brutal milling machine that seemed designed to remove my hand. We worked the night shift, twelve hours, five to five, and went to bed at daybreak covered in tool oil and metal shavings. Now, most Sundays I sit with my father and watch motorcycle racing, as he tries his hardest not to smoke too many cigarettes. He is the person I love most in the world, and we are the closest we’ve ever been. He voted for Tr*mp.

I am grateful for A Mere Rica (Chax, 2017), the recent collection by Vietnamese-American poet Linh Dinh, who chooses to live street-level, writing among the working class people I once thought I wanted to transcend. The last part of the book is an interview in which Dinh says, “Instead of schmoozing and networking with other writers, I’ve been getting drunk with plumbers, roofers, cashiers, jailbirds, and cops.” He adds, “If given a chance to spend an afternoon with a National Book Award winner or manicurist, I’d choose the latter.” He sees himself outside of the Poet Class, and his poems present a nation that is not on the brink of apocalypse, but already in the middle of one. The work is bald and easy to understand; it wastes no time with ambiguity or wordplay in its politics and social criticism. Dinh even goes so far as to take down football, an absurd expression of American barbarism devoted purely to gaining territory. In this work I am finding a fresh sense of permission to go there in my own writing, to put aside fears of didacticism, to be sad and angry about everything, to engage a more intimate and direct poetics of protest and outrage. To stand closer to all that is busted and ugly. To be a poet and working class, not one or the other. 


Jason Labbe

JASON LABBE is the author of Spleen Elegy (BlazeVOX, 2017) and lives between Bethany, CT and Brooklyn, NY.