HOW I HARRASSED THE WORKING CLASSMy Sinful Persecution of Working-Class Poet Jim Daniels
I'm a harasser. Put the cuffs on me; I harassed the working class. And it wasn't even fun. It's not like I groped some factory girl as she leaned over a sweaty sewing machine. That would have been a harassment worth risking. All I did was post an email reply to a "Call for Papers" on the work of "Jim Daniels, Working-Class Poet."
I should've known better than to sign up for the damn "Call for Papers" list in the first place. These "Calls for Papers" (CFPs) are one of the dreary routines of academic life. You get on an email list and they send you notices of upcoming conferences. If you see a topic which interests you, you send them a 250-word proposal and they put you on the schedule.
Like a lot of things about this filthy business, it's utterly corrupt, yet totally unaware of its own corruption; sly, but convinced of its own transparent rectitude. It sounds simple enough: you agree to give a 20-minute talk on your current research, and in return you get a fully funded trip to a mid-range hotel full of plain but eager academics, more than willing to be picked up after a dangerous second glass of Chardonnay.
You don't even need to put any effort into the paper you give. Only grad students worry about that. Nobody cares what you say in those 20 minutes.
I had a rather dramatic demonstration of that fact early on in my career. I unpacked my bag at a conference where I was supposed to give a paper on Wallace Stevens, only to find that I'd brought an article on 18th-century occasional poetry, not Stevens. It wasn't even finished. But I read the damn thing, quavering and expecting to be exposed as a total fraud--and to my astonishment it went over very well. It was so obviously, wildly irrelevant that they took me for a theory guy and treated me with the greatest deference for the remainder of the conference, and even begged me to submit a written version to the CV-padding collection which every conference produces.
I didn't; I was too ashamed. And that's fatal to an aspiring American academic. Out of sheer bitterness, I'm going to let you civilians in on the great secrets of the Tenured Guild. There is one quality which the aspiring American academic in the Humanities must have. Not brains, God knows. Only an amateur would think that.
No--you need the GI system of a buzzard. That's all.
You can feed buzzards pure botulism toxin--put a funnel in their beaks and force it down them till their crops bulge, enough toxin to wipe out a whole city--and they won't even hiccup. They literally can't gag--their gullets don't work that way--and can't be poisoned. To be a Humanities professor, you must be a buzzard.
You can't fake it. I tried, and my friends tried, at Berkeley. We weren't "principled" or anything--God, are you kidding? We'd've killed, literally, for a tenure-track job. But it never comes down to something as quick and simple as killing. It means swallowing toxins in public, for several years running, without betraying a vestigial gag reflex even once.
I never did have that God-given gizzard, and that's how I ended up with this latest harassment complaint. I have a weak stomach, and after a few doses of this stuff I start to vomit it back. That's what happened with this "Call for Papers" e-list: it started to make me angry, then sick.
The cowardice. The proud, eager conformity. The tin ear--if they have to lie, why can't they do it more sonorously?
But most of all, I just could not stand seeing the pose of "transgressor," "boundary-breaker," "resistant" adopted by people who have never done a brave thing in their lives. If they'd just say outright: "Look, we're contestants in a lookalike contest," and competed openly and proudly, they'd be bearable. Like a wet T-shirt contest for ugly people. And why not? Good for them.
But for them to use these sacred terms, the terms of rebellion and courage, and mean nothing at all by them--it was intolerable.
You see, I'm a coward. And like most cowards, I know what real courage is. It's not a good feeling--in fact it's the most wretched feeling this side of sexual jealousy: jellied knees, spasming bowels and rapid heartbeat; the certainty that you're making an idiot of yourself; the misery of hearing all your friends tell you you're stupid; and above all it means you'll never, never get that tenured job.
To be a brave academic is impossible. They just won't let you in. They're slow in some ways--intellectually, of course--but they have the fine-tuned instinct for conformity seen in many herd animals. A zebra with Parkinson's Disease is a dead zebra. Not because the disease is necessarily fatal, but because its herd-mates will kick it to death for its wrong twitches. Academics are kinder, in a way; they just won't let you in the herd at all if you twitch wrong--even once.
That's why it was so unbearable to check my email every day and find another "Call for Papers: Transgression, Tango, and Tampering in Tanzania." They could not write a title without sullying one of the sacred words, like "transgression" or "breaking"--the words I learned to worship listening to my father and uncles sing the sacred Irish songs of doomed rebellion. About people who meant it. Who weren't looking for tenure. Who DIED for it.
All of it started to get to me. I started writing back to the earnest little careerists sponsoring these conferences.
Mistake, of course. But those alliterations--I couldn't take it!
I wrote to one guy who was offering a conference on "Capitalism, Conjugation and Copulating Texts": "You know, the three alliterated nouns don't make you a poet."
He didn't reply.
Jim Daniel was the topic of one of these Calls for Papers. Here's the text which set me off:
CFP: Call for critical-papers on working class poet Jim Daniels. Call for critical-papers on working class poet and short story writer Jim Daniels for a panel presentation at the American Language Association Conference in Long Beach, CA. Presenters should also be creative writers who can participate in a reading at the conference, as well as a discussion on Daniels' influence and what it means to be a working class writer. Panel presentations will be included in a book proposal on Daniels' work. 500 word abstracts, three poems and brief paragraph bio must be received by Jan 20. Put everything in the body of the email.
Prof of English Renny Christopher of California State University, Stanislaus, firstname.lastname@example.orgSean Thomas Dougherty, English Dept, Penn State Erie, SUD1@PSU.EDU
I had to see what a "working-class poet" was, because it was such a lame oxymoron. Not just an oxymoron: a juxtaposition of two terms which were not only mutually exclusive but non-referential in themselves.
"Working class"? What would that mean in America in 2002? That term had been showing up in many of the CFPs lately, and it had to mean something career-centered and fake; that's what that language was for. And it did. God, it did.
Briefly put: "working-class" in the context of contemporary academic "discourse" means "white but claiming victimhood."
Not that there aren't white victims. Fuck yes. Tens of millions--and that's just the US. But they can't deploy their victimhood as a self-promotion device. The ability to do so means that the user is not what he or she claims to be; thus the use of the self-description "working-class" implies its inapplicability.
If you can use it, you ain't it. That's the vile aspect of this self-designation.
I saw it deployed over and over, and always by the sly against the honorable, or the sly against the trusting, or the simple, or the brave. At Berkeley in the late 80s I had these two students: Dave Olenszuck, a loud white guy from Detroit, a real "working-class and proud of it" careerist, and a black woman named LaDonna Simmons. They both wanted to get into law school. (Everybody wanted to get into law school.) And neither of them had the sort of prose style which would allow them to get A's at Berkeley. Not without some help.
The obvious option was to claim handicap. Dave started his campaign early, and loudly. He yelled every hard-luck story he could, to anyone in the room. He was crazy in a useful way, one of those ADD kids who keep the mania long enough for it to become an asset. His stories were impressive: how his dad shot him once with a pellet gun when he got home at 5 am, how he was a tank driver in the Army, how he used to snatch handfuls of crack out of the hands of dealers who came up to his buddy's car.
LaDonna didn't tell her stories. I didn't know she had any till one day when Dave was in my office telling one of his Detroit stories, about how he was transferred to Family Care Services after his dad kicked him out. LaDonna said, "You mean Family Foster Care." Dave squinted at her and said, "Whoa!" like someone had topped his kung fu moves. LaDonna didn't say anything more, but something unprecedented happened: Dave shut up. And left without being pushed.
LaDonna started talking to me after that; Dave, of course, never stopped. Ever. I was wary of LaDonna's stories because I thought that they, like Dave's--like everybody else's--were material for a law school application. But I had to admit they were very sad--which many people's hardship stories weren't. Many were like boasts. LaDonna's weren't; they were sad. She was sad about them, not proud. She hung around me, I realized, because I was SO middle-class that it was a relief for her. It was something she actually...wanted. Would have wanted.
Dave's stories, on the other hand, were porn for middle-class teachers. He knew it very well. We who'd never had the guts to do anything to upset our teachers would goggle at his stories, and he would strut telling them, emphasizing his bravery until you began to wish he'd go away. The next time he told me the story about his father and the pellet gun, my views had changed: I was wishing his pansy-ass dad had done it right--with a .44. Just to shut the bastard up.
November came. Time to send your law-school application. There was a box you could fill out, something like "special circumstances," if you wanted to claim hardship. It was especially important if you were white and still wanted to claim handicap. Dave ticked that box with an X so big it almost ripped the paper. LaDonna refused to tick it at all.
It had been so long since I'd seen anyone do something truly noble that I thought it had to be a trick; she must be going for a different box, something for being black or something. But that wasn't it. She just wasn't going to tick any of those boxes or claim any handicap. I actually begged her to do it; she got mad. I didn't see why then. I see now: because when you do a brave thing, everybody begs you to change your mind.
And you fail; you pay a terrible price. That's what makes it brave. You know how I know that LaDonna's refusal was a brave thing, a morally good thing? Because LaDonna didn't get into law school--any of them. Dave got into a decent one.
And now here was Jim Daniels, getting his own conference on the strength of his self-promotion as the bard of the working class. I hoped against hope that his promo material wouldn't use that old Phil Levine phrase, "voice of the voiceless." But it did! You can't be shy if you wanna be a big vulture! You can't afford to eschew even the cheapest self-congratulatory oxymorons!
So the very first thing I saw on Daniel was a fan informing me that he--yes indeed--gave voice to the voiceless. It's odd; nobody seems to think that the voiceless are voiceless. When they "give voice," they leave the category of the "the voiceless." The only question is whether they ever belonged to it at all.
In Daniel's case, the answer is clearly: no. Daniel's claim to hardship is so stunningly simple a cliche that I didn't believe it for a while: it's the old Irish-Catholic taught-by-nuns-who-were-sexually-repressed story. This stuff was old in 1943. How do you get away with it in 2002?
Well, you do it as "poetry." What's "poetry" in contemporary American culture? In formal terms, the question has no answer; poetry is chopped prose, usually less than 1,000 words long...and that's about it. It has linebreaks and is drip-fed, line by line, to the VERY SLOW. That's the key: Jim Daniel is essentially Garrison Keillor for the VERY SLOW. You may say that Keillor himself doesn't exactly write for the quick-witted. Maybe; but he has a bit of comic talent. And that disqualifies him as poet. Daniel is not only very slow but very, very pious. And that makes him a poet, because poetry is secular sacrament for the slowest Quakers this side of Lowell's ancestors under the headstones.
Here, see for yourself. Here's a sample of Daniel's working-class poetry:
Sometimes I think calmness is love.
Peace, the small caresses and no words.
Uh, didn't I hear that on SNL's Deep Thoughts a few years ago? You might suspect me of quoting a particularly weak couplet, so here are some more samples of Daniel's work:
I can pile up the facts.
My father was never home.
They were both forty.
She cried. They went nowhere.
You hear that first line, "I can pile up the facts"? Clever! You give the list of handicaps by way of refusing to give it, dismissing it but hoping it'll stay in the reader's head, give you extra credit. Not a new technique (Stevens did it 800 times, far more beautifully), but workable. After all, you have to remember this is slowed-down Prairie Home Companion, karaoke for the blind and deaf.
Daniels' first three volumes of chopped prose memoirs were "daring" and "raw." That is, he put in things that pass for daring among Quakers: he titled his first collection M-80 and writes poems with titles like "4th of July in the Factory"--geddit? Patriotism vs. grim working-class scene? Whooo! Just as daring as it would've been in 1902! And "Union Man"--the kind of titles that gets you blurbs from John Sayles! And "the Foreman's Booth"! It's like you were back in some heartwarming American industrial slum--a landscape which has become more comforting and pleasant with every decade, as it recedes into myth.
And after three "raw" and "daring" books, Daniel did the perfectly-timed blissout. "Blissout" as in "sellout to bliss." Why not? By this time he was a professor at Carnegie Mellon University--named after a couple of certified working-class guys and funded to match. And that's how we get his latest book with its odes to calmness and babies and blue sky. You gotta time the sellout: Judge did it, making the loathsome King of the Hill as atonement for his one decent moment in Beavis and Butthead; and now, for an audience far tinier and dumber than Judge's, this fake Union Man does the same move, discovering that once you have tenure and a baby and a house...life's kinda OK. And he sees that as a revelation, a spiritual epiphany.
It wears me out. There are millions of them, and they will never stop. All you can do is fire useless rubber bands at them.
So I did. I sent this email to the organizer of the "Jim Daniel, Working-Class Poet" conference:
The key things to remember about Jim Daniels are:
- He can't write.
- Most of his poems were featured on SNL's "Deep Thoughts" years ago.
- "working class" functions as permission for sentimentality.There--and in MUCH less than 500 words!John Dolan
University of Otago
There were two email addresses given, so I sent that message to both. And got two very interesting replies, which I append here in the interests of science:
To: John Dolan <John.Dolan@stonebow.otago.ac.nz>
Subject: Re: CFP: Working Class poet Jim Daniels (1/20/02; ALA,
From: "Sean Thomas Dougherty" <email@example.com>
you obviously have nothing better to do.
To: John Dolan <John.Dolan@stonebow.otago.ac.nz>
From: Renny Christopher <firstname.lastname@example.org>My mama taught me if you haven't got anything nice to say, don't say anything. Saying nothing, in your case, would have been far preferable. The cfp was a serious call for submissions for a scholarly conference, not a call for snide abuse of the poet, of me, or of anything else. I don't give a good goddamn who you do think can write, but I doubt you and I will agree on anything except, I hope, this one request I make of you--leave me the hell alone now and forever.Renny Christopher
If only I had time to tell you about my two interlocutors, Renny "Carpenter's Daughter" Christopher and Sean "The Stepson" Geraghty! Alas, their working-class credentials are rather wordy.
Since a colleague of mine at this off-world university likes Flann O'Brien, I sent him some of Daniel's work with an allusion to Jem Casey, "Poet of the Pick and Bard of Booterstown." (If you don't get the allusion you haven't read At Swim-Two-Birds; and if you haven't read that, get lost.)
Well, that was it. Harassment proceedings were in session. I had pissed off the working class but good. And as you'd expect from these hard, simple men, retaliation was swift. But not quite in the form you might expect. Did they challenge me to fists'n'boots on the fact'ry floor? Nah. Did they offer to shove an M-80 up my ass and make me into a performance piece titled "4th of July on the Eastern Front"? Alas, no. Did they pitch in for a ticket to New Zealand to do Riverdance in hobnails on me mug? (fer y'see we're all Oirish-American heeere, we be, O aye! As Oirish as Bugs Bunny, or perhaps not quite so much.)
Alas no. Remember the key rule: if you can deploy the term "working class" to your own career advantage, you are no longer covered by the term. And these boyos--more Oirish stuff, y'see? "boyos" is an Oirish workin'-class term of a thing, an' roight off the mean streets of the Oirish quarter o'Pleasant Hill, CA I be, aye and begorrah!--these boyos, as I were sayin', they have washed the wuurkin' class roight off of'em!
In other words, they did the last thing any working class person would do, and the first thing a sleazy academic snitch would do: they got on Netscape, looked me up, found out the name of my superior, and sent him a formal complaint accusing me of harassment. Here 'tis now in all its glory:
Dear Professor Alistair Fox (Assistant Vice-Chancellor),This is an official complaint against one of your faculty, one John Dolan. A few days ago a colleage of mine Prof Renny Christopher, issued a call for papers on the Working Class Studies email list. Since then I have received a number of harassing and taunting emails from your faculty member.I would like them to stop immediately. Could you please take care of this matter.In the United States we have very specific harassment laws regarding email. These laws are based on the laws against unwanted and harassing phone calls.Thank you for your action to resolve this matter before it goes any further.Sincerely,
Sean Thomas Dougherty
501 Station Road
Penn State Erie
Erie, PA 16563-1501
To: "Sean Thomas Dougherty" <email@example.com>From: Alistair Fox <firstname.lastname@example.org>Dear Mr Dougherty,I have forwarded your complaint to the Head of the Department of English, Associate Professor Chris Ackerley, with a request for him to take the matter up with Dr. Dolan.Without having seen the content of the emails that have occasioned your complaint, together with Dr Dolan's comments on them, it is impossible for me to ascertain the validity of the complaint. The most I can say is that the University of Otago expects its staff to observe the same standards of professional conduct in their dealings with members of the wider international academic community as those required in their dealing with colleagues on this campus. These standards are outlined in the University of Otago's Ethical Behaviour Policy, which may be found on the web.Yours sincerely
Division of Humanities
University of Otago
Dunedin, New Zealand
And that, boyo, is how I came to be the pitiful figure you see before ye, a convicted harasser of the wuurkin' classes and a tormentor o'the labuurin' masses, black wi'sin as Mary in a coal mine an' damned ta Hell fur all the masses a wuurkin' class priest could sing fer me puuuur benighted sowl.
And proud of it.