Poet and activist Jen Fitzgerald in part two of an interview about what motivates her to work on behalf of others.
LM: Would you talk about diversity: it seems to go beyond gender and race for you. What other elements of people’s lives would you like to see noted in the larger literary conversation?
JF: There are no varying degrees to which I am not a grapefruit. By which I mean, if you differ in one way from the “ideal” white, straight, Christian male, you differ in all ways within our historical system of divisions. I know, this isn’t easy stuff to digest or to create a tangible problem/solution dynamic that we could just march toward. But this is the lot we’ve been left with so let’s do what all great problem solvers do: start from the present and move backwards as far as we can until consistent patterns emerge. Unfortunately, we are stuck in the present a bit because we are denying the realities of our own realities!
To obtain a complete understanding of our current situation, maybe we shouldn’t argue with folks who feel they’ve been left out of the literary world (or any social sphere). It seems that our knee-jerk response is to explain to them how they are wrong about their own experiences. Especially when their experiences mean that we may have had an easier go at things, that the equitable “meritocracy” has some gaps and cracks, and that we’ve been duped by a hierarchy of difference that simply does not exist outside of our social construct.
My hope is that if we let literature do its job of making human connections, fostering empathy, and illuminating the macro by using the micro, we can forever alter the flow of information and art. We writers hold the key to future generations’ understanding of this place and time. And we are taking it seriously. Let’s listen carefully.
While I am entirely open to all aspects of difference, what I hear from our community and what is omnipresent for me right now are:
Geography: I wanted to represent writers from all around the United States and then eventually international.
Gender: I wanted to speak with folks who identify throughout the gender spectrum.
Race/Ethnicity: I want to present all the various, glorious, and sometimes terrifying ways in which our respective races and ethnicities guide us through this life.
Sexual Orientation: LGBTQ Representation
Ability: I am currently interested in the ways with which we deal with ability and how it translates into our reception of literature.
Class: I still can’t get folks comfortable enough to talk about Class. But we must. It is the undercurrent for almost every surface ripple we see. American society has never been free of a class system and it is dangerous for us to disillusion ourselves into believing differently.
Class is a lens through which we view one another; it fosters preconceived notions and shame. Race and class are two of the hurdles that modern feminism has yet to bound. To say that a Park Slope mother of two with a nanny has the same concerns as a single mother who works 10 hour shifts at a chicken processing plant is to do both a disservice. It returns to the fallacy of “hierarchy of difference;” we can’t heal one without healing all.
I am eagerly awaiting the time when our literary community is ready to have a frank, honest and open conversation about class. We’re getting there.
LM: Why spend so much of your time working on behalf of other writers? Couldn’t you get more writing done if you concentrated on your own career?
JF: I most certainly could! But I am writing, all the time. Even when I’m not at the keyboard or scratchpad, I am making connections and filling my well of experience. My work ethic is such that I can’t sit still, will go for 15 hours a day sometimes.
My first collection of poetry is forthcoming in Spring 2016 with Noemi Press. It is titled, “The Art of Work” and is the result of a two-year journey with poet and photographer Thomas Sayers Ellis to the retail, wholesale, processing plants, slaughterhouses, and killing floors of UFCW Local 342, New York City’s Meat Cutters Union. The poems were born of my experiences at these job sites and the true stories of documented and undocumented worker exploitation. The collection features Thomas’ photographs of the actual job sites and members.
While this collection is getting itself ready for the world, I am at work on essays about Staten Island, my family’s home for two centuries now and a memoir which focuses on a vein of psychopathy that has run through my family on multiple sides for many generations.
And yes, I have a paid job to supplement all my unpaid ones! Maybe it’s the curse of growing up poor— I am never going to settle into my skin enough to relax.
LM: Who are your models and heroes?
JF: The people I admire most fall into two groups:
1) Those whose soul moves them to the arts, but their familial reality is such that they must work long hours and/or multiple jobs, yet they find ways to incorporate their artistic drive into their everyday lives. Like the mechanic that turns old car parts in sculpture or the bus driver that buys oil paints and canvases one by one, waiting for the moment of retirement. Even those who do not have the means to do this, but never let go of that part of themselves inspire me.
2) Those who transcend negative or traumatic situations and use those experiences to enrich their own lives and the lives others— who let those events propel them forward. That is bravery. They are the ones who continue to see the realities of large and small-scale human interaction clearly, even when it pains them to do so.
A poem by Jen Fitzgerald, forthcoming in THE ART OF WORK (Noemi Press, 2015)
(previously Featured by New York Writer’s Workshop for National Poetry Month, 2014)
What comes before is sludge, we seek
surfaces clean as Bakelite, unrelenting
as the bricks forged on soil’s back.
Strip mined shorelines, red clay
pounded with German work ethic;
toil to create the new Black Forest.
Chuck Clovis artifacts to shatter
in industry’s pit. I gave seven years
to that town, sat in the mud
of its history. 18th Century
boarding house; slinging schnitzel,
pouring steins of German import
in a dirndl that choked me
with my own breasts. Pretended
to remember R & H Brewery,
the recreation of our rumored
ancestry; but we are in it
for the novelty, culture
of the second-hand store variety.
Arthur Kill winds a past of division—
young, black caretakers sweep
the steps of the their church.
A monument to the first reverse
of ownership, Sandy Ground
settlement sits silent as a grave
against the backdrop of our collective ruin.