Archive for Working-class Studies

CFS: Help Wanted, The Poetry of Work

The Floating Bridge Review has issued a special call for submissions on the subject of poetry and work (obviously, one of my favorite subjects!). Stop by and take a look at the guidelines.  Submissions are due on March  31, 2014.

Books that Shaped Work

The US Department of Labor has recently launched a new project titled “Books That Shaped Work” and the public is invited to help compile a list of books about work, workers, and workplaces.  The list already includes such classics as The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, The Jungle by Upton Sinclair, and How the Other Half Lives by Jacob Riis — but there are many more.  I think the list could use some more poetry, don’t you? Click here to read the complete list so far.  The site also includes information about how you can add your own suggestions.



Work at World Literature Today

I’m thrilled that my poem, “Redemption at Ray’s Corner Grocery Store” is part of the new online edition of World Literature Today!  I am in great company for my work joins poems by Dorianne Laux, Joseph Millar, Jim Daniels and Sandee Gertz Umbach.  See the special online section labeled 16 American Working-class Poets for some great work.  Both the print edition and the online edition have been edited by poet and scholar Jeanetta Calhoun Mish who has also written a great article titled “Working at Getting the Word Out in America: Small Presses, Journals, and Websites Publishing Working-class Writing.”  Stop by and read through the rest of the contents.

Brackish Friday

BrackishI fell in love with the poetry of Jeff Newberry years ago, and that love shows through in my review of Brackish posted today at Rattle. Take a look!  Yes, I spend some time in the opening paragraph reminiscing about my years growing up in a blue-collar town, but most of the review focuses on the working-class world of the Florida Gulf Coast.   Brackish is one of the best collections I have read this year!

Read This Book: The Girl Factory by Karen Dietrich

Factory Girl

I know the landscape of Karen Dietrich’s memoir, The Girl Factory.  It’s a small factory town in rural Pennsylvania.  It’s a household where parents work different shifts at the local factory — a mother who works days, while the father takes the “Hoot Owl” (A term used by my family for the night shift — also called The Graveyard Shift).  It’s a house filled with pets and superstition and complicated love.

Certainly, it was this familiar landscape that drew me into The Girl Factory, a memoir about a young girl growing up in the 80’s in Connellsville, Pennsylvania.  But it was the lyrical language that made me stay.

I knew Dietrich’s work as a poet (and because we both attended the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg as undergraduates), but even I was surprised about how she was able to find poetic prose in a dusty and rusty small factory town, especially when the subjects found in her book lead to deeper dirt than what coats the physical surface.

Dietrich starts her book in 1985, when an employer of the Anchor Glass plant (the factory where both of her parents work) goes on a shooting spree killing four supervisors and then himself.  It’s this moment, when the family finds out about the shooting, that Dietrich explains: “There are moments that separate before from after, minutes in time that freeze like a photograph, capture a flash that indicates change.  I start to realize that everything I’ve lived so far has been the before. I don’t know what the after will be.”

What follows as the “after”  is a coming-of-age story about class issues and family relationships, a book that integrates the pop culture of the 80’s and 90’s, and a work that is able to explore even the darker findings of Dietrich’s childhood without losing the lyrical grace of her poetic language.

I have followed Dietrich’s work as a poet (see my review about her chapbook Anchor Glass here), and I preordered The Girl Factory over six months ago.  It didn’t disappoint.  In an age where memoirs are seemingly everywhere — this book certainly stands out as a must read. You can read more about Dietrich and her work at her website.

August Poetry Pick: Rust Fish


Fans of the Scrapper Poet know that I love coming-of-age poetry books, so I’m happy to add Rust Fish by Maya Jewell Zeller to my collection.  Zeller’s debut book tells the story of a girl growing up in the working-class world of the Pacific Northwest.  Using narrative poems that often invoke a strong sense of place, Zeller recounts the uncertainty and brutal life of children, while balancing resilience and hope in her stories.

Rust Fish is divided into four parts, each part beginning with a poem titled “Rust Fish.” The poems, obviously contain images of fish, a symbol may seem somewhat expected in literature of the Pacific Northwest. Indeed, many of us when we think of this part of the country get the instant mental image of salmon struggling against the current to return to their streams to spawn.  Still, the fish found in Zeller’s collection do the unexpected — they are metal decorations that break free at night, fish that long for the moon to bleach them beautiful, or beautiful creatures that can take you to heaven in their gills.  Each poem acts as a preface to the section it proceeds, as the reader is guided through the life of a girl who lives a rough and tumble life.

From the start, we see a strong and tough heroine, and often Zeller’s poems explore gender roles and battles, often relaying violence and heartache.  In “Sibling Rivalry” a child gets revenge on her brother who drills a hole in her Skipper doll: “When I was done/I mutilated Joe/the way a boy tortures beetles/or dismantles toy girls.”  In another poem, a quiet observer watches a neighbor boy lash live crickets to the railroad tracks: “their bodies immobile/and bound in blue fishing line/eyes like tiny moons orbiting a lost planet.”  In yet another poem, “Cousins” the speaker steps away from the mayhem and ponders her role as a girl: “I’ve already had a bath, but the skin/on my soles was creased/from summer running, the callus/of being seven. So Heather/bought a bottle of nail/polish to her room, put me/on the edge of the bed.”  Watching her cousin paint her toenails, the narrator believes she is “the most gorgeous girl I had ever seen.”

Class struggles also abound in this collection, especially shown in such poems as “Saturday Shopping” where the young narrator renames the colors of the clothes in the thrift shop where “black was outhouse hole/or old tire” and “reds ranged/from dictionary cover to hot pepper.” Certainly, the physical landscape, whether its manmade or natural, tells many stories of this hardscrabble life. In the poem, “In the Season of Rivers” the narrator explains that “We learned to drive on mud/slick roads” in a world where “some floods/brought cows across the fields.” In another poem, “The Summer Sky and I Made a Game of Collecting Trespasses” the narrator recounts adventures in dangerous and desolate places questioning, “How many times/did we think about torching/that old barn down, or the unlocked house/strewn with rain-soaked porn.”

Organized in a chronological format, readers follow this young girl as she grows up learning lessons and dreaming what would seem to be impossible dreams, all the while struggling to find a place in this world.  In “Goddammit” she explains that they all “learned to swear from our fathers/when they’re chopping wood/and miss the log.”  In “She Dreams of Being an Artists” the narrator sees beauty in her breath against the frost on a windowpane.”  Certainly, in later poems, the narrator sees a bit of herself in the children in her neighborhood and in her students.  Indeed, in “Neighborhood Kids,” the narrator is pleased when some little boys want the tomatoes from her garden until she learns, at the end of the poem, that they aren’t eating them, but using them as balls and hitting them with their baseball bats.

Rust Fish is a delightful exploration of how sense of place intertwines with story and how we are part of the physical landscape around us.  Rugged and beautiful, Zeller’s poetry is not to be missed — for more information, see the poet’s website here.

Undergrad Lit Mag Memories and Musings

Newpages has recently introduced me to their Undergraduate Literary Magazine Resource, and as a professor I am very happy for this link.  In my creative writing course, I drag all my old copies of lit journals and magazines to the classroom to talk about publishing and introduce my students to online literary journals in our computer labs, but I have to admit that I don’t have a lot of information about undergraduate journals, and this is a great resource.

I also have to admit that I took a quick trip down memory lane while examining the list.  One of my first publications, ever, was in Seton Hill’s literary journal Eye Contact which is on this site.  I was a senior at Pitt Greensburg, basking in the knowledge that working-class poetry existed and that I could be part of this canon — especially when Eye Contact selected my poem, “The Girls on Third Shift” for publication.  Afterwards, I discovered literary markets that did take my factory poems (5 AM, Anti-, Labor, and the minnesota review — just to name a few), but I will always be thankful for the editors at Eye Contact for taking that first poem.  Sadly, it looks like the journal has not updated its website in a while, so I hope that doesn’t mean that  the journal is on permanent hiatus.

As noted, the website is still being updated — but there are some great journals listed!  (So, if you advise an undergraduate journal that’s not on this list, drop the editors of Newpages an email)

This Week With Jo McDougall

Today is the official start of the Chautauqua summer, and during this upcoming week, I will be taking a workshop with poet/memoirist Jo McDougall, whose work I discovered years ago.  If minimalist writing was associated with poetry, this is how I would categorize McDougall’s work.  Using sparse lines and stark images, McDougall is able to capture both a sense of place and true human emotion in tight, precise poems.  She is from the Arkansas Delta but now lives in Kansas, and it’s apparent from her poetry that she is inspired by both her physical surroundings and the everyday person — especially those who come from working-class backgrounds.  I tend to go overboard with details in my drafts of poems (I just hate to let a good image go!), so I think it will be interesting to work with a poet who is known for her tight lines and images.

In other news, I will also be teaching a craft of fiction class at our local library.  I was planning on posting an announcement/invitation on this blog to invite local students, but the class filled up weeks ago!  I have spent the weekend putting the finishing touches on my lesson plans, so now I am ready to go.

Working Class Roundup!

I’m back home, recovering from a wonderful, but exhausting, conference.  I’ve been to many of the conferences hosted by the Working Class Studies Association, and I always feel empowered, but a bit overwhelmed, when I get home.  And this year’s conference was no exception.

Because this is a multi-disciplinary conference, I got to meet a lot of people from a variety of fields and careers.  Yes, there are professors who attend, but there are also veterans, nurses, electricians, union leaders, writers, human service workers, journalists, actors, musicians, artists and mechanics.   They come from all over the country.  What is the one thing they have in common?  They are concerned about class issues in the United States.  When I attend different panels and lectures, I learn so much, but I am also overwhelmed by what I don’t know.  Indeed, it’s hard to formulate the abstract thoughts that are running through my head right now, so I will move forward to talk about the poetry world of the Working Class Studies Conference.

I was sad to hear that Jeanetta Calhoun Mish could not make it to our poetry panel, but was excited to present with poet Sandee Gertz Umbach!  I thought our panel was well received, even though we had a sleepy 8:45 am time slot.  I was also excited to meet up with Nick Coles, who moderated our panel.  Nick doesn’t know this, but he’s partly responsible for my venture into working-class poetry.  When I was 18, I had a class with poet Judy Vollmer who used a book edited by Nick (along with Peter Oresick) titled Working Classics: Poems on Industrial Life.  This is where I was first introduced to the very idea that working class/blue collar life could be part of poetry.

I also sold many copies of both Stealing Dust and Wearing Heels in the Rust Belt ––  note to self: my work appeals more to a working class audience than a general poetry audience.  I need to remember this!

So, now I’m facing another busy week.  For someone who started off the summer with few plans, my days are filling up quickly.

Off to Wisconsin

The last few days have been a blur of last minute preparations for the Working Class Studies Conference which will be held in Madison, Wisconsin. Both conference papers are finished and somehow, I also found time to work on a more scholarly paper about creative writing pedagogy that I sent off for possible publication.

In Madison, I’m so looking forward to presenting with poets Sandee Gertz Umbach and Jeanetta Calhoun Mish. So not looking forward to the plane ride  (many of you may not know this, but I’m petrified of flying.  And don’t tell me that statistics suggest that it’s more dangerous to drive.  I know this.  It does not help with my fears,)

When I get back, I will be immersed in other summer projects including taking two workshops at Chautauqua and teaching a creative writing class at our local library.  It looks like summer is in full swing!

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