Invisible Labour   Spring 2016

When You Handle Poison

Full transparency: for this essay on invisible labour, I will be paid $500 CAD. I will use that money to pay my phone bill, contribute to rent, and fill up my NYC Metro card. It will be the first time I will have been paid for an essay of this kind.

In 2014–2015, I wrote 7 essays of this kind, essays about being a brown, formerly undocumented, queer woman poet-performer navigating white supremacy and misogyny in contemporary U.S. poetry communities. These essays were often responses to injustices my poetry communities had witnessed and endured — at times they included personal and private moments made public. In essays of this kind, I interrogated my own complicity in white supremacy. I challenged myself to reconstruct my creative community and to embrace my anger and negativity. Essays of this kind are not new. And in 2015 alone there were many powerful ones that moved us.The instances of anti-blackness, anti-brownness, misogyny, and transmisogyny are too many to count, and if you are interested in a breakdown of some of the most visible moments read Jenny Zhang’s essay, “They Pretend To Be Us While Pretending We Don’t Exist,” Joey De Jesus’s “Goldsmith, Conceptualism & the Half-baked Rationalization of White Idiocy,” Lillian-Yvonne Bertram’s "The Whitest Boy Alive: Witnessing Kenneth Goldsmith," and the Mongrel Coalition Against Gringpo’s many essays.

The prices of these essays and their aftermath is only becoming clear to me as I sit down to write this very essay:

As a result of taking the time to write essays of this kind, I wrote only two poems in 2015. I withdrew a published book from a press and ceased contact with former editors. I lost a handful of poetry colleagues and mentors. Many friendships have gone to shit.

As a result, in 2015, I withered a little but woke the fuck up. I learned more about who I wanted to be, and what it might cost to get there.

As a result of writing, in 2015, my body became a constantly open wound more sensitive to injury, more ready to respond and repel it.

Essays of this kind are written with the body. If I track the progress of writing, my body becomes the compass. While I write, these become the guiding procedural questions: do you feel anxiety ill, like a constant-vomiting sensation? Do you feel afraid in your lungs? Can you feel the heat coming off those publishing and professional bridges you are burning? Have you said what has needed saying & is the language like wood-chips in your mouth, awkward against your gums? Will your corpse be satisfied with what you have written?

The essay is complete when I feel a satisfactory hollow in my gut. When my partner refuses to read any more drafts because they’ve read nine variations. When I dream abstractly of it and for at least a few days and I refuse to shower wanting to keep the anger on my skin. I sleep with my laptop at the edge of my bed just in case. The essay is ready when I’ve bitten my cuticles down to a pink and fleshy layer and the deadline was weeks ago. The essay is tracked by the body.

I wish I could say I felt more liberated after writing these essays. I don’t. Or maybe I do, but the sensation is so foreign to me, I don’t have the language for it. To feel liberated is to no longer have to make your home into a toxic space: there are no words for this in my world yet. I get a sense that in writing essays of this kind I am investing in the person I may be able to become. I am pushing myself to speak when speaking feels so useless. I am doing this because although it feels like shit, it also feels okay. So, maybe when I’m older, I will feel (more) liberated looking back at my own courage. “Courage is contextual,” says writer and activist Cherríe Moraga to a group of graduate students, including myself, in between drafts of this essay.

This essay, however, is not solely about the writing of those essays. Though the costs or courage of writing those essays is invisible too. Who is with us in the hours before and after publication, our nails down to bloody nubs? During our obsessive checking of e-mail accounts and comment feeds? Who is with us except ourselves when our bodies buzz with energy and fear and self-doubt…

This essay is about what happens after: the very real, but unseen labour that comes after speaking out, after the many drafts, after publication. This is the labor that regularly goes unrecognized as work, even by ourselves as the labourers.

Here are a few instances of what I’m referring to:

When after months of promises and emails about payment for your teaching services, you have to follow-up with the course organizer and their managers... again…

When an abusive member of the poetry community asks you to participate in his reading series…

When a literary magazine wants to cover their ass and edit out the heart of your piece...

When you are too weak to tell a reading host that you don’t want to read with only white people so you try to sass it up...

When you are asked to judge a poetry book contest but have some questions about what yet another POC poetry reading contest would accomplish...

When you and Lucas de Lima are invited to edit a “Latino feature” (for no pay) and you…


If the essays I’ve written are the public, visible work, then the above response emails are the private, off-the-clock part of the work. I will come back to these...

2015 altered me: I’ve been handling poison. I don’t think that at the time, in process, I noticed it. I was, I thought, being contextually courageous. But examining, closely considering, sitting with instances of hate and injustice — mulling them over, making them visible, I see now how I was ingesting poisons whose very purpose are to injure, to oust, or to silence. When we write this way, we approach, unmasked, a venomous material that is not meant for the body. It wants to disrupt the way our blood flows, the curvature of our spines. This doesn’t feel dissimilar to how, starting at age 13, my own grandmother handled chemicals working in a soap factory & how, even now, she feels its damage.

Sitting with a group of women and sharing, one-by-one, our stories of abuse and assault and harassment in NYC’s poetry circles was upsetting though, at moments, empowering too. Voices cracking open a room saying you are not alone. And yet, later, walking home from the meetings, living with those accounts while doing dishes or taking the train, I felt and feel demoralized. Of course you are not alone. The proof is your bodies. There are many of them. Many more of them than you even know about or will know about.

The handling of this poison — the labour to spot and deconstruct instances of capitalist white supremacist cis-hetero-patriarchy at work — is particularly venomous because it performs both personally and systemically. You can’t dismantle it without being simultaneously hurt by it. A person calling me “unintelligent” on Facebook is personal. It hurts me, personally. It offends me, personally. A white editor, however, of a prestigious poetry press publicly calling me, a brown woman, unintelligent in a public conversation about race — to which said poetry editor was not invited — is systemic racism. It hurts widely, historically. It offends, widely, historically. It contains inside itself, like a holding chamber, every instance of racism you’ve experienced. It reminds other brown and black people in the large and public room of Facebook that white gatekeepers are not invested in hearing you, especially when they don’t agree. Their alleged support of anti-racism is a performance, and the truth comes out in the slippage. If this is the dynamic that is happening publicly, imagine the one behind closed doors when books and money and jobs are at stake. This book is unintelligent. This candidate is unintelligent. This spic is unintelligent.

Often the injury is so obscure and slight that it takes work to even realize what is happening. In the moment, after the instance in the above image, I remember feeling mildly annoyed. I remember writing “lol” in a text to a friend about what had happened between me and the editor. In the days following, I was shaken, moody, crying at random intervals of the day not sure why. Explaining to my mom that my “sadness came from the internet” because I didn’t quite know how else to make this seemingly petty thing seem un-petty. I had been called worse things before. I had endured worse things. I knew this white editor was wrong, out-of-line, and would, in the coming days (as she did) publicly apologize to me. I was crying, possibly, at the thought of having to receive her public apology. I didn’t want it. It would do nothing. This public apology, this public performance would not quell what they had just confirmed was happening privately.

I would not be coerced into forgiveness.

I suspect many, if not most, of the essays of this kind have been written for no pay. Me (and many of my peers) are rarely paid for writing. This is part of the job.

I, personally, have produced these essays without compensation because I’ve never been offered any, and because I’m not sure how much money would be adequate (to ask for). How much money is appropriate for handling poison? If, as I describe above, the body tracks the essay and the progress is measured by the damage the body endures, I’m not sure any amount would be adequate or satisfactory.

I would like to admit here — and what I’ve wanted this essay to say to you is: if I did get paid to write anything, if I got compensated for work of this kind, I wish I got paid to write private e-mail responses like the ones above. Writing poetry, when I do it right and when I let it, brings me pleasure and, at times, joy. Writing these essays asks me to grow and take risks.

These e-mails bring me nothing.

These emails make me a teachable-moment, an after-school special.

These e-mails are invisible thorns in my side. The side of my body near my stomach. Below my heart, to be specific.

These e-mails force me into a type of acceptance (capitulation?) that, at times, I’m not really interested in.

In many ways, these e-mails, between a you and a me, are where the real work begins. Put my money where my unpaid mouth is.

What I find difficult about these e-mails is the performance it asks of me — at times civil, or charming, or pleased, or excited, or careful — I am never myself. I am your social justice doll come to life. I distrust the invisibility of this kind of private conversation and what it demands of me. When I have to ask if there will be other non-white poets in the line-up, what I’m really asking is: were you planning on having me be the token? But I can’t say that — that would be too aggressive, too forward, not grateful enough.

Perhaps, when I choose to write essays that demand that I handle poison, as I’m proposing here, I can be poetic, sincere, outraged, aggressive when I do it, I can perform as I please. The exchange between me and an imagined audience feels somewhat adequate, even. This kind of private e-mail exchange is one-sided. I am being asked to educate, to enlighten, to plead. It’s in addition to a type of emotional labour (though this is happening too: notice in the email to the abusive male poet how I try to intimidate and threaten, as if I had any clue what I was doing, as if I wasn’t terrified of the retaliation.) But the labour is more than emotional — it is intellectual, educational. And, in these instances, I sense it’s being dragged out of me and used for purposes that will never reward me. This is a one-sided exchange.

One source of the challenge is that often, because our communities are so intertwined, I have to ask people, specific people I either care for or need to work with, to consider something that was probably their responsibility in the first place to consider. Again, the challenge, here, is both personal and systemic. When an editor asks me to not mention the words “assault” or “harassment” in an essay, I get the sense that they are not really that interested in ending rape culture, and now I’m cornered into either educating them or letting it go. And when many of us say racism is institutional, and you say you want to have a poetry contest for brown and black poets, I feel like we are not speaking the same language. And, finally, when you ask me to collect other brown poets for you to feature on your website, I feel like you have no respect for the work that has been done to end this type of tokenization. What this all signals for me is the intense distance between many of us — and the unpaid and unseen work we do to bridge this gap.

To be clear: disengagement or non-response is not possible for me right now. Friends have told me to walk away, to take a break, but I am a writer who wants to exist publicly. If I disengaged every time I was approached this way, it would likely mean disengaging from the professional poetry community entirely. When, in specific circumstances, I’ve disengaged, when I have said yes or okay or have just let it go, I have regretted it. I realize not all writers feel this way. I realize the burden brown and black or trans or queer people face to even exist, let alone write, could absolve some of us from engaging: the danger of this poison is real.

I am tempted to end this essay by also showing you the supportive, loving, and inspiring e-mails I’ve received this past year. I am also tempted to show evidence of the “useful” conversations that ensued after a few of these email exchanges above. This too is happening. This, too, is altering me. But I’m working to resist this desire for balance, to make it seem like good comes with the bad. I don’t need to say I will continue working (of course I will); I just want you to know that it is happening and that, at many instances, the work is happening invisibly, unknown to anyone but ourselves. If, as Moraga spoke, “courage is contextual,” then to be courageous in this moment is to try not to perform. To not end this moment saying: it’s okay.