The author Toni Morrison began writing because of a void she felt in the books she read, even in the time of rapid change in the 1960s. “Things were moving too fast in the early 1960s-70s… it was exciting but it left me bereft…. There were no books about me, I didn’t exist in all the literature I had read… this person, this female, this black did not exist centre-self.” I have felt this myself with the majority of the literature I have read over the past thirty years. As I have commented previously, the working classes, irrespective of gender or ethnic background, have rarely been portrayed in anything but overly dramatic caricatures. It is of course why I started Proletarian Poetry, but it also haunts my own writing as I try not to mimic that which I am critical of.
Both writers and readers will question who their writing is for. I think both will initially say it is for themselves; I know I write to help me think clearly and improve my mood. But of course we also write because we feel we have something to say, a unique take on something (if the writing is good that is) and then possibly we are writing about a group of people who are either neglected in literature or misrepresented.
This was certainly Toni Morrison’s reason, and also in the case of Fred Voss’ poem, Factotums, where he tells of a workmate who ‘catches’ him reading, so he turns, “Bukowski’s Factotum/to the side so the machinist can’t see the cover.” The machinist himself has only ever read one book, “He was probably forced to read Of Mice and Men in High School/told how important it was/made to hate it/like castor oil.” I know with my own sons, they often feel the same way about books being foisted upon them at school.
Voss can’t imagine having only ever read one book, and lists a series of great novels he has read many times. He then wonders, what if the workmate only knew that “Melville jumped ship and lived with cannibals on a South Seas island/Dostoyevsky hauled 150-pound loads of rocks in a Siberian prison.” That these authors led lives away from their writing, that in fact what they did was their writing. Voss himself has been a machinist for some thirty years and his canon of work reflects this experience. For as he concludes, what if the machinist knew, “he is what we are all writing about, his walk/his whistle/the way he leans against his machine-table like he has fought 300 wars.”
And that is what I am trying to do in my own writing, but more importantly for our purposes with Proletarian Poetry, whether it is the complexity of Kim Moore’s My People, Dean Atta’s I Come From, or the bouncers, barmaids, butchers, postmen, miners, labourers, or grandparents throughout many of the other poems. It is the poetry of working class lives that tries to go beyond the sensational and miserable.
Fred Voss has been a machinist for 30 years, picking up the pen and the wrench to chronicle what goes on between tin walls. He has published three books of poems with Bloodaxe, Goodstone (1991), Carnegie Hall with Tin Walls (1998) and Hammers and Hearts of the Gods (2009). His work has been featured prominently by the magazines Bête Noire in Britain and the Wormwood Review in the States, and he won the 1988 Wormwood Award. Love Birds, a collaboration with his poet wife Joan Jobe Smith, won the 1996 Chiron Prize. In 2011 he was featured poet in a hardbound limited edition of Dwang from Tangerine Press. His debut novel, Making America Strong, is available from World Parade Books. He lives in Long Beach, California, and works in a nearby factory.
‘What’re you readin’?’
walking by my machine at lunch asks me as I turn Bukowski’s Factotum
to the side so the machinist can’t see the cover
‘A novel,’ I say
‘Only novel I ever read was Of Mice and Men,’ he says
and walks off
He must be at least 50 years old
I can’t imagine
a lifetime reading just one novel
Moby-Dick 4 times Crime and Punishment 5 times
Huckleberry Fin 3 times Madame Bovary The Sun also Rises
The Trial Post Office Ham on Rye David Copperfield Ulysses…
27 years reading novels in front of my toolbox
He was probably forced to read Of Mice and Men in High School
told how important it was
made to hate it
like castor oil
What if he knew
Melville jumped ship and lived with cannibals on a South Seas island
Dostoyevsky hauled 150-pound loads of rocks in a Siberian prison
Hemmingway walked 10 miles with his knee blown off on a WW1 battlefield
Bukowski drank wine with winos in skid row
then shouldered sides of beef in a slaughterhouse
What if he knew
I wrote a novel that takes place entirely inside a machine shop
full of men just like him
What if he knew
he is what we are all writing about
the way he leans against his machine-table like he has fought 300 wars
a 3-tooth smile with black machine grease all over his arms like nothing
will ever get him down
What if he knew
John Steinbeck pitched hay and would never have lifted a pen if not
[Factotums originally appeared in Fred Voss’ collection Hammers and Hearts of the Gods (2009) published by Bloodaxe, and is published here with their kind permission]