One of the pleasures of having interns on board is their fresh ideas. Sam recently suggested we videotape our open mic sessions, and invite a reader to offer more reflection on the writing and reading of their piece.
From the January reading, we feature Thomas Sabatini, who also hosted our open mic. Our featured presenter was historian Bill Lawson, who talked to us about Michael McGovern, a poet and ironworker in Youngstown’s early history, whose verse is about the plight of laborers. We invited Thomas to emcee the open mic, as he is also a historian, and has been working to improve labor conditions of the part-time faculty at YSU. We asked him some questions about the piece he wrote and read that night.
What inspired you to write the poem you read?
Honestly, I’m not sure I’d call the bit I read a poem, but the occasion for it’s composition was most assuredly the reading of Michael McGovern’s poetry.
Do you feel that poetry was a good fit for the subject matter?
Poetry is an ideal form of expression for labor issues because verse is the language of toil, especially when sung or recited. Work songs are as old as work. Word play is often the language of work and those who are good at it are prized coworkers who bring joy to our daily drudgery. Besides, one cannot compose a 300-page novel while bussing tables or emptying trash cans. One can easily compose a ditty or a stanza, however.
I think we all know this, but we do not often elevate this to the level of “proper” expression. And while it may or may not be accurately classified as poetry, this work is creative and often quite good.
Michael McGovern-a poet who wrote on working class issues-solely used the page to raise awareness; while Staughton Lynd not only wrote about working class issues, he is also an activist, and legal champion. What do you feel is the role of writing in labor issues?
I am not sure that I would agree that McGovern used the page solely to raise awareness because I am not comfortable with the easy opposition between art and activism. I hear in McGovern’s voice a perspective that was common to workers of the his day, that factory workers were the modern peasantry and owners an industrial aristocracy. An audience of his fellow workers would have quickly cheered in agreement, I reckon, and this view animated their overtly political work.
I hope I do not seem pedantic on this point because I see it as important: language, work, and creativity is what makes us human. The cat sleeping next to me as I write this has a very different orientation to the world around it. Other animals share language, cooperate, and use tools, but the degree to which we humans objectify our world in language, plan and coordinate our activities, and shape our planet through technology and work is truly on another scale. We shape our very nature through the societies we create.
The bit that I read at Lit Youngstown’s January 2016 open mic tries to get at this exactly: work is what we do to survive. If we are honest in our understanding of the toil that we do to survive, we suddenly see verses of parents, of prostitutes, of neighbors helping each other out, as verses by workers.
The notion that writing about labor is somehow unique or set apart other writing is quite common and probably says something about the politics of the twentieth century. We often see “labor” as limited to factory production, probably because so much art by and for workers in the last 150 years served the political cause of radical and organized labor. In the United States, at least, the decline of manufacturing and unions in the last forty years or so, has rendered as anachronistic the idea of worker’s art, even the identity of worker.
So what’s the role of labor writing today? It is the same as that which defines the best writing at any time or place. It serves our subjective need to declare our existence and significance. It develops our capacity for empathy and deepens our understanding of the world. It is a chronicle of our successes and failures, our joys and sorrows. But because it talks about the creation of wealth, more than other art, the art of labor chronicles injustice and calls us to action. “Rich man sitting in the shade / Counting all the money that I ain’t made.”
Here is the text of Thomas’s reading.
Apologia of a Labor Historian
As someone who might be called a labor historian, I feel a bit sheepish.
In some way I stand here as a representative of the portrait historians have painted of workers and their art.
In broad strokes and primary colors,
usually masculinist and white, even when proclaiming
“We Can Win!” or “Black and White, Unite and Fight!”
And it’s mostly in red,
or red, white, and blue —
depending on your politics.
And, to be honest, there is grey,
lots of it —
It’s an impressive trick, really. Labor historians have taken all that social realist imagery, all that everyman-heroism, to conjure baseline levels of interest.
I offer, as antidote, this observation.
Almost all of us will work for most of our lives, be that work formally enumerated in the market, or in informal economies.
Is forced labor and impressment not work?
What of children and women toiling
in the family business
or in reproducing tomorrow’s
Bankers or day laborers, venture capitalists or drug dealers
slinging mortgages, 8-balls, and eighths to chip-in for school supplies
or college tuition or whatever marks someone as a person of significance in a
More than concealing so much of the work we do, limiting our understanding of labor to the concerns of unionizable — contracts, wages, seniority, benefits — erases precisely what the industrial workplace has to teach us about being human in our epoch.
Born of an unprecedented ferment of conquest, slavery, empire, and revolution, industrial capitalism combined, engineered, and commodified the world’s labor and resources in fewer than 150 years.
This feat seemed to be governed by a surreal physics.
The deeper the mines went, the taller cities became,
mountains melting into luminous towers.
As communication and transportation technologies collapsed time and space,
the countryside and city grew apart.
Recently imagined differences of nation and race became hulking leviathans
invoking unfathomable material and human destruction.
Workers found themselves cast far from home and as actors in absurdist theaters:
in mines, docks, corporate farms, shop floors,
sorted by every exploitable difference,
pit against each other by the work-process itself
even as they cooperated, on an historically unprecedented scale,
to quite literally remake the world.
The Fortune workers created engineered the very impoverishment of labor as it scripted our fellow actors as nightmarish threats.
Happily, this is not the whole of it.
As machines stole the art from work, workers created art from machine.
Laborers riding the rails from job to job and or spending their live on assembly lines
transmogrified the violent din the train and factory into music,
the harmonica a wailing steam whistle,
the banjo roll a gnashing of pistons,
and Johnny B. Goode took with him, beside the tracks, steel wires, composite
magnets, and copper windings to keep time:
time on his guitar and time for himself.
Herein lies the great dilemma of the Modern. Can we salvage our humanity from the machine?
The world we created — one of unprecedented dislocation and inequality, containing a latent capacity for unprecedented security and cooperation — appears as a menagerie of existential threats from which only obedience to nation and conventional ambition can save us.
Will we fall in line, punch the clock, and bite the backs of each other?
Or will we use our artistic capacity to see ourselves in the Other?
Will we be cowed by the wolf at our door?
Or will we be brave enough to see the world a canvass awaiting all subtle colors and shapes of a future designed, not for profit or personal advantage, but to fulfill human needs?
This is a recording of Thomas reading his piece.
Thomas Sabatini is an historian who has been teaching in colleges and universities since the mid–1990s. He received his Ph.D. in U.S. history from the University of Minnesota in 2006. Throughout his adult life he has been active in the antiwar movement, the movement against police brutality and mass incarceration, and has fought for fairness in the workplace and social equality. He is currently active in the YSU Adjunct Faculty Association, working to win a union for adjunct faculty at Youngstown State University.