Jen Fitzgerald is a poet, essayist, and a native New Yorker who received her MFA in Poetry at Lesley University. She is the host of New Books in Poetry Podcast as part of the New Books Network, a member of New York Writers Workshop, and was a Bread Loaf 2014 Conference participant. She teaches her workshop, “Writing the Silence,” at the New York Public Library. Her first collection of poetry, “The Art of Work” has been published by Noemi Press in September of 2016. Her work has been featured on PBS Newshour and Harriet: The Poetry Foundation Blog and in Tin House, Salon, PEN Anthology, Cosmonauts Avenue, among others and is forthcoming at Colorado Review and Public Pool. She is now in the D.C. area and at work on new poetry and prose collections.
Last month, Jen Fitzgerald released her first collection of poetry, The Art of Work, through Noemi Press. This vivid collection from this talented New York native provides both snapshots of the labor movement (specifically, the meatcutters’ union) to photographic stills of the author’s own place within that history. The collection’s 25 or so poems both drop the reader into the perspective of a worker at his or her station on the killing floor (“Cut, scrape, move to the left”), while at other times observing her own background. For instance, through her gaze on her grandmother (“Survival: Generations”) and through the familiar tale of a “Diner Waitress,” Fitzgerald tells the reader the story of a working class experience from within the skin of the narrator and from a bird’s eye view of the entire system. “Diner Waitress” begins with a morning breakfast rush; in a flurry of activity, the scene is broken up by semicolons while remaining one continuous line, which suggests at Fitzgerald’s ability to net several disparate elements within just half a page of poetry.
Women who work for whims with sensible shoes and a fake grin knowing nothing; could be more American; than an unsure future —
In The Art of Work, Fitzgerald is writing about the history of the meatcutters’ labor union, but also about her own place, or role, within the history of the working class. The story of our labor is the story of human history in its most physical of terms. In this history, Fitzgerald has also captured the yearning that accompanies a life of labor.
Without further ado, I present to you a Q&A with Jen Fitzgerald, a poet by the people, for the people:
What led you to write about meat cutters? Did you begin by writing the poetry itself, or did you first do the research, visit the killing floor, etc.?
I was given the opportunity to accompany a mentor of mine as he took membership and site photos for UFCW Local 342 in New York City. My family worked for and within this Union so it was very “close to home” in this way as well as geographically located in the city where my family has been for 200 years.
Through my experiences over a two year period in multiple job sites, from retail to processing, to slaughter houses, to killing floors, and beyond, I was exposed to a wide breadth and sample of this industry and the men and women who inhabit it. I had no intention of writing poetry, only learning about photography: manual cameras, framing shots, light, subjects, settings, etc. But what I was really learning was “image making.” After our second time out, I needed to process the stimuli I was encountering— the overwhelming stimuli. I did this through writing and once I started, I kept going. Site after site, I processed my encounters through poetry. Through that writing I began to understand what I was witnessing and how the small sample I was privy to represented an enormous industry.
This assembly line is a gear in a larger assembly line which is a gear in an even larger assembly line and so on until we have stretched across the entire map and touched the mouths of every human being in the world.
I really admire the specificity of the details about the meatcutting alongside the larger topic of the labor movement. I felt like I was both given insight into the perspective of the single worker and the oppression of the physical, repetitive, dangerous labor. Was that a difficult balance for you to strike?
Thank you for recognizing and appreciating this balance. The connection and balance were inherent in the observation and rendering because they were immediately apparent.
The details represent the whole. Take a Hunt’s Point processing plant for example: the constant, repetitive motions of taking the same cut of beef and shaping it into the portions that could be sold in a retail setting means standing at a band saw for hours upon hours and making a machine out of oneself to be in symbiosis with another machine—each of you a mere gear in the assembly line. There is a cadence present in this work, and I tried to mimic it in the poem, “Here is the Life We Have Made For You.”
“Cut, scrape, move to the left.
Cut, scrape, move to the left…
sleights of hand.
Cut, scrape, move to the left.”
These small details extend into a much larger machine and that is one of consumption. This assembly line is a gear in a larger assembly line which is a gear in an even larger assembly line and so on until we have stretched across the entire map and touched the mouths of every human being in the world. Beyond the map, we have also extended into historical timelines of the food industry and the history of the labor movement. The two have been very closely tied for hundreds of years.
The micro is macro. The industry responds to need: that of food and that of the ability to feed oneself. The industry is permanence meaning the employer/employee dichotomy of need is also permanence. What varies is level of exploitation present. This level directly correlates with social markers, and to a degree, always has.
Is there a particular magical time of the day in which you work or are there any strange rituals/sage you burn before beginning a writing session?
I write anywhere and whenever I can. While I don’t have any particular rituals, sage and pinion are regular features in my home. I’ve found that the awesome space I carved out for myself as an office (complete with views of the Chesapeake Bay, Ospreys, and Bald Eagles) is distracting and uncomfortable. I have since turned it over to my daughter as a play room. Usually, I just sequester myself to an old, scratched up table in the kitchen that faces the washing machine and write away. I like feeling contained. I am contained physically in a space. My writing is contained in the moments between paying work, activist work, domestic work, and child rearing. Maybe I thrive in those moments or maybe these are what my brain associates with creativity.
As much as it is “poetry of witness,” I was bearing witness to my own history.
I’ve been reading that you’re at work on a memoir and I really admire the piece you wrote about identity in Salon. What inspired you to write memoir instead of poetry?
Thank you again! When I decided to pursue writing seriously in college, I started in nonfiction. I had even completed the first draft of what I thought was my memoir, to the tune of 185 pages, in 2006. So the real question is, what inspired me to write poetry instead of creative nonfiction?
There is a real kinship between the poem and the essay/CNF. They tend to come from the same parts of the brain, the same impetus, make the same connections, and require the same narrative mining.
While studying for my BA and MFA, I realized that I felt really comfortable in the surreal, the lyric, and imagistic/metaphorical. I incorporated much of this in my CNF. I truly enjoyed writing what I thought was “experimental” but turned out to be lyric essays and poetry. I followed that joy and now sit somewhere between the two worlds. Genre hybridity is pretty exciting. And anytime I feel as though I have done justice to an image, thought, or concept I consider it a success regardless of the vessel.
For this collection, it had to be poetry all the way. Most of the writing we have about these populations is almost entirely journalistic. This makes sense because the writers and photographers have existed primarily outside of these socio-economic classes and cultures. Theirs was akin to field work. I had the opportunity to interweave or braid my personal and family narratives with those of the workers. The intersection is seen further when the reader realizes that my family is currently working in this industry and the Union that represents it. As much as it is “poetry of witness,” I was bearing witness to my own history.
Do you think you’ll return to the topic of labor in your poetry?
I am a “working class poet” but can be so without only writing about working class themes. It is who I am, how I was raised, and how I move through the world. If I am to “write what I know,” then I imagine there will always be some semblance of a working class point of view present in my work.
While paying homage to the community from which I came, I tend to resent any prefix or modifier—it lessens the connection to the root word, which is “poet.” Who, exactly is a “poet” without the modifier? Who is an “intellectual?” Who is a “writer?”
Before we can figure out where we belong, we have to decide what kind of writer we want to be and what work we want our writing to do in our community, country, and world.