• The Poetry of Labor: On Rodrigo Toscano and the Art of Work

    Alissa Quart Introduces Four Poems by Toscano

    The OSHA outreach trainer arrives in Walla Walla, Washington or in Pendleton, Oregon. If he flies to Tulsa or Tucson, he then drives up to 200 miles to wherever the union locals are. He is there to support immigrant worker centers as well as linemen and telecommunications workers, traveling so much that he can lose track of where exactly he is, teaching them how to protect themselves from being injured on the job. He will teach a 30-hour class sometimes, with anywhere from 12 to 40 students. He may ask them how many have suffered a heat-related illness on the job and all their hands go up. They tell him about people who have died or been maimed at work and recount their own near misses. Training here is not lip-service. It also is an ongoing effort to undo the lie that safety is employees’ responsibility, a truism overturned more than 50 years ago with the OSH Act of 1970.

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    What sets the trainer in these scenes apart is that he is also an acclaimed poet, Rodrigo Toscano, author of ten books of poetry, all quite different of one another. While his day job is as a national projects director of the non-profit the Labor Institute, for more than 20 years Rodrigo has also been known in the poetry scene for his highly accomplished, vigilant, even didactic poetry. It’s what tends to be called “experimental,” mostly because it’s both cerebral and relentlessly class-aware and political in a way that can make gatekeepers uncomfortable.

    The 57-year-old’s verse, like the courses that empower workers that he sets up around the country, is poetry that engages with the world of work, including its impasses and oppressions. He tracks the places that refined—or literary and academic—language meets everyday speech, as in the poem below, “Linemen”:

    Thirty thousand linemen in bucket trucks
    Streaming into your distressed environs
    Hitting sixteen-hour shifts, repairing
    Lines that keep your identities well lit

    The typical poetry reader may have recognized, post-Trump, that there are bubbles of American life, without always seeing that even their own bubble is sustained in part by political violence. That’s partly due to the limits within mainstream literary culture, as Rodrigo tells me, where the range of social class identities, work and educational experience, and even ideological affinities are entirely constrained. What a greater spectrum of the former might bring are poems with an awareness of work. Rodrigo’s poems published below, for example, can make the reader see how dependent they really are on the efforts of, say, linemen (“Lines that keep your identities well lit”).

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    The reader is most likely unaware of this.


    Rodrigo is a rarity in today’s literary scene, partially because for much of the last 50 years, the labor of literary production has been siloed from other kinds of labor. There are reasons for this—reasons of norms and habits, as well as ideology. As Mark McGurl observes in his 2009 book, The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing, American creative writing became synonymous with the university writing workshop. That narrowed not only the style and subject matter creative writers used but also narrowed who became “professional” writers in the first place, as the degree programs cost so damn much. (It’s hard to underestimate the effects of these programs, multiplying more than ten-fold to 854 creative writing degree programs from 79 in 1975.)

    Rodrigo is very much not a product of this MFA regime. He was born in San Diego to a Chicano father and a Mexican national mother. His father was a tool salesman and Rodrigo and his brothers spent some of their childhoods bundling tools for their father. His father didn’t make much money, selling along the border, as the Mexican Peso was devalued at the time.

    As a teenager from an economically stressed family, Rodrigo didn’t do particularly well in high school, although he was already a self-described autodidact, reading advanced political philosophy on his own. He was not college-tracked so when he graduated from high school, he launched into a job where he manufactured circuit boards in a factory. At the same time, he was “taking care of my own education,” as he puts it, informally (the use of the care economy to describe self-education seems apropos.) Rodrigo was, in this sense, already “swapping out,” as he writes in one poem, an earlier way of thinking for a more useful new framework:

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    Working folks don’t trade up, let alone, down
    They simply—swap out, shit, folks, ideas.

    When I met Rodrigo in the 1990s, he’d already probably “swapped out” several sets of ideas and ways of being for other ones. I remember he wore a natty wool cap and coined words at a fast pace. (Chance within youth often directs you, as if you were a piece on an Ouija board: it had arranged our meeting at my 23rd birthday party in an East Village club.)

    After many years in Brooklyn, he now lives in New Orleans, that rare example of a city where a poet and a labor worker might afford to own a house. When I talked to him the other week on the phone, Rodrigo was still coining words, making up the word “monosectoral” to meet the needs of our conversation—to describe how little economic, class, labor, and ideological diversity there is in our literary society and how little that sphere is concerned with issues that people in other industries have to face, including injury. (This “monosectoralism” can be said to be true of journalists also.) I now will use this word myself.

    Perhaps what we need to triumph over literary society’s monosectoral vision is to do what Rodrigo writes about in his poem “Swapping Out,” which like so many of his poems is achieved, demotic and immaculate, and as art sometimes electrifying. Rodrigo writes here that when “something’s not working” we should take the givens—of how labor is treated, and the norms of our creative writing sphere—and “Swap that shit out,” as Rodrigo writes, “let’s get moving.”


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    Four Poems by Rodrigo Toscano


    Thirty thousand linemen in bucket trucks
    Streaming into your distressed environs
    Hitting sixteen-hour shifts, repairing
    Lines that keep your identities well lit
    The lines that give your powered distinctions
    The punch they need to remain—aesthetic.
    That is, when the lines are down, days on end
    Your projects oblivious to these men
    And the striving families they’re part of
    Start losing power, hour by hour.
    By around the fifth day, you’re like the rest
    Overheated, exhausted, half crazy
    And perhaps becoming dimly aware
    Linemen have zero power in the arts.

    Linemen Rodrigo Toscano BURLINGAME, CA. Juan Chavez, a maintenance electrician at the San Mateo County Hospital. Public workers here are represented by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. Photo by David Bacon.


    God (yes, god) an uprooted fence, that one
    Went on a ride during the hurricane
    It was wild, it was also destructive
    But only to people who love fences
    And want them in place, dug in dutifully
    Not flying around, god (yes, god) hurling
    Smashing into shit, conjuring spirits
    Muscular movements managing messes
    The holes re-dug, the posts re-positioned
    God (yes, god) hadn’t dreamt of Hondurans
    Before the wild flying, the flopping down
    How battalions of migrants stand sturdy
    Steadily regirding the wrecked city
    Alongside good neighbors, resurrected

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    Rodrigo Toscano Photo by David Bacon.

    The Cut Point

    The trashmen do come
    and that’s a miracle
    on top of the marvel of
    home water heaters
    and central air cooling

    Your whole life
    is brained up
    by designs of others
    alongside others
    executing plans

    This density
    of intentions
    is the world
    you navigate
    even in sleep

    There’s a Grand Rebellion
    against this world
    taking many forms
    one such one is
    lyric poetry

    These failed rebellions
    deepen the myths
    we tell ourselves
    about ourselves
    in kooky ways

    Why’s everything become
    rejoinder on rejoinder
    this ceaseless
    chatty inflation

    The trashmen know
    the cut point
    AC repair crews know
    the cut point
    some poets maybe

    The density is we
    the needle to cloth
    is we and surely
    the rivet to plate
    is Zoon Politikon

    The ‘likes’ and ‘follows’
    do come
    dressed as miracles
    vaguely intentional
    fizzling fast

    Behold (is an old word
    meant to—behold
    what’s beholden
    to something
    say, this tub faucet)

    The density
    of intention here
    calls up legions of
    poetic actors
    pushing limits

    The water that flows
    is a cut point
    the pipes that held it
    are cut points
    the dam, the dials

    But what about clouds
    have we rebelled
    against wily whisperings
    are clouds merely

    No matter, the trashmen
    have arrived
    on top of the marvel of
    a no. 2 pencil
    tracking the point

    Rodrigo Toscano SAN LEANDRO, CA. Workers at the recycling sorting facility of Alameda County Industries sort and process paper, cardboard, plastic, glass, and metal from trash collected in local cities. Workers voted for Local 6 of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union in November 2014. Photo by David Bacon.

    Swap Out

    There’s no phrase in the entire English tongue
    That gives me the tingles more than “swap out.”
    Working folks don’t trade up, let alone, down
    They simply—swap out, shit, folks, ideas.
    Something’s not working? Have you tried and tried?
    Ok! Swap that shit out—let’s get moving.
    But the problem is, where get the parts, and how?
    Let alone, at the time when you need them.
    But even this tune of have-nots and haves
    Is something folks swap out, if the tale’s stale.
    Working folks, you’ve noticed, prefer new things
    Things they’ve thingified to—thingaramas.
    There’s another phrase that’s kin to “swap out”
    And that is­­­, “crap out”, most folks just—crap out.


    Rodrigo Toscano is a poet and essayist based in New Orleans. He is the author of ten books of poetry. His latest book is The Charm & The Dread (Fence Books, 2022). His previous books include In Range, Explosion Rocks Springfield, Deck of Deeds, Collapsible Poetics Theater (a National Poetry Series selection), To Leveling Swerve, Platform, Partisans, and The Disparities. His poetry has appeared in over 20 anthologies, including Best American Poetry and Best American Experimental Poetry (BAX). Toscano has received a New York State Fellowship in Poetry. He won the Edwin Markham 2019 prize for poetry. He works for the Labor Institute in conjunction with the United Steelworkers, the National Institute for Environmental Health Science, National Day Laborers Organizing Network educational / training projects that involve environmental and labor justice culture transformation.

    Alissa Quart
    Alissa Quart
    Alissa Quart is the author of five acclaimed books of nonfiction including Bootstrapped: Liberating Ourselves from the American Dream (Ecco, 2023, out now in paperback). They Are Squeezed, Republic of Outsiders, Hothouse Kids, and Branded. She is the Executive Director of the non-profit the Economic Hardship Reporting Project. She is also the author of two books of poetry Thoughts and Prayers and Monetized. She has written for many publications including The Washington Post, The New York Times, and TIME. Her honors include an Emmy, an SPJ award and a Nieman fellowship. She lives with her family in Brooklyn.

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