While reflecting on the launch of our union and the many thoughtful replies and critiques offered from those who have joined, a few things have become clearer about our organization, its possibilities, and its strategy moving forward. The original materials on our website – manifesto, FAQ, and two essays – articulated a dynamic project with multiple overlapping concerns. Below, we want to sort out these concerns more distinctly. We have identified three main areas of focus for our organization:
First, the obvious: Poets Union is a union for poets. Granted, the idea is somewhat paradoxical, as poetry is not wage labor. However, we aim to support poets in many of the same ways a labor union would: by providing support, resources, advocacy, and solidarity with others in the pursuit of greater control over their production. This branch of Poets Union recognizes poets not only as workers who also write, but also as unique cultural workers—producers of culture—who are very often faced with precarity and poverty. This is especially so for those who are either outside the academy or whose position within it is contingent. Crucially the focus of any funding efforts from the union – unlike most philanthropic and “merit-based” funding for poets – is based on solidarity. We want to break down divisive hierarchies that sort us into deserving and undeserving writers, and in doing so transform competition into co-operation. Additionally, we want to establish solidarity with other unions (e.g. book workers) to advance a labor movement of cultural workers. Relevant to this branch of the union, we want to put out a call for anyone with a background in organizing, fund-raising, mutual aid, and anything else relevant to these tasks to reach out to us.
Second, Poets Union is a call for a strike. We are forming a picket line against certain publishing and funding practices that exploit and exclude, inuring poets to capital in ways both overt and covert. Many of these have been outlined in our manifesto and FAQ, but a short list of practices we are on strike against include: mandatory reading fees, fundraisers disguised as contests, the dominance of Submittable, those who accept Amazon money (and the money itself), and all other institutions and publishers reliant on exploitative, centralized wealth. The work involving this branch of the union calls for writing and critique; investigation and expose; agitation and protest; info sharing and developing practical guides for how to navigate and evaluate various publishers and institutions (including distributors and book sellers). Ultimately, we want to establish a comprehensive, well-documented, and practical set of strategies for resisting practices and entities we find to be exploitative, abusive, and/or corrosive to our position as anti-capitalists. We encourage anyone with an essay to write, knowledge to share, or experiences to discuss to reach out to us and help us engage in further strengthening and clarifying the terms of the strike.
Third, Poets Union is a hub for building new networks of leftist writers, publishers, and bookworkers. This includes the development of new modes of production, distribution, promotion, and funding for our work. Whereas the first two branches of the union – union and strike – seek to work within and against the compromised world of publishing as it stands, this third branch is actually trying to create something new. For instance, we want help those building new networks of distribution to circumvent SPD; new submission portals to counter Submittable; new bookstores and presses that operate co-operatively (or at least more fairly); new networks of funding based in solidarity rather than the professionalized culture of non-profits and foundations. While the union cannot create all of these things itself, it can help coordinate resources, develop lines of communication, and centralize dispersed efforts. Also, we believe the union can be a place for brainstorming, discussion, and the development of projects that don’t yet exist. Thus, we want to encourage people to reach out with projects they are working on and to help keep us informed so we can better link people together.
Essential to our long-term vision is the subversion of the hierarchical and exclusionary structures that dominate literary spaces. Ultimately, these hierarchies are what permit white supremacy and patriarchy to perpetuate themselves despite the work being done to increase representation and diversity in publishing. As long as there is an elite hierarchy, there will be prestige and cultural capital, and these will continually reproduce the forms of domination and exploitation they are founded upon — especially when allied with wealth. Additionally, in challenging hierarchies of value, we want to breakdown the barrier between those deemed “literary writers” and those who are excluded from such an identity. Thus, the union intends to be a source of education for those who are excluded from the MFA system and college more broadly, while also supporting publishing and creative writing programs for incarcerated people. In sum, Poets Union is committed to working against those systems that appropriate writing—potentially a practice of freedom, imagination, and autonomy— into a hierarchical value system whose function is to divide and class its producers.
Admittedly, the vision sketched above is very ambitious, and some aspects are a very long way from realization. As of now, April 2021, the areas of the union receiving the most focus are the first two: union and strike. We want to continue developing these branches of the union through 1) bringing in more people who can commit to prioritizing the union in their efforts; 2) building up the website with relevant essays and resources; 3) forming relationships with other unions and organizations; and 4) developing fund-raising strategies. Toward these ends, we encourage anyone who wants to help in these matters to reach out via email@example.com and to let us know which of the three branches you are interested in helping with, and to tell us a bit about what you have in mind. Over the summer, we believe a lot of work can be achieved to bring these into more coordinated and robust activity, and we intend to open a Slack channel to all our members soon. We look forward to building together.