Cail Judy was 19 when he started working the night shift at the Maple Leaf slaughterhouse in Brandon, Man.
After the daytime workers had all gone home, Judy would show up to clean the mess left behind.
“I had to clean the de-hairing machine,” Judy recalls, “which was a three-storey-tall machine with this giant auger in the bottom, and it would slap the hair off pigs when they came through the chute.”
“So my job when I got in was to take a pitchfork and firehose, and I’d have to basically unfur it, and [the fur] would come out in these huge clumps, like giant bricks.”
It was this experience that in part made Judy turn to writing as a creative outlet.
“That was one of the worst experiences of my life. It was something that really stuck with me and seared into my brain. So when I got back into writing, that was the first thing I really sat down to write about.”
Since then, Judy has worked throughout Canada and abroad, including stints as a tour guide in Alaska and a high-school teacher in the United Kingdom.
Judy, now 28, has since settled in Vancouver. Besides working as a residential-care worker, camp counsellor for at-risk youth, and account manager, he is trying to develop a name for himself as a local poet.
He is part of a long list of writers who have joined the work force, from desk jobs to the service industry, in order survive as poets in the most expensive city in North America.
Listen: Judy reads his poem “Blackout Pact” [audio:https://thethunderbird.ca/files/2013/03/Cail-reading-3.mp3]
Working within the confines
Beyond sheer survival, though, many poets of Cail’s generation have turned the necessity of work into a virtue by allowing their day jobs to inform their artistic voice.
Mariner Janes, manager of the Downtown Eastside’s mobile needle-exchange program, will see his first major publication, The Monument Cycles, come out next month with Vancouver’s Talonbooks press.
His job, which includes distributing harm-reduction materials throughout the neighbourhood, hasn’t simply allowed Janes to get by while developing his writing on the side.
The emotionally taxing work has played a major role in framing Janes’ artistic explorations of history and memory in the city.
“A lot of the stuff that I’m writing about is about struggles against gentrification, struggles against displacement, struggles around trying to help people with mental illness and addiction and trying to come to some understanding of what they’re going through.”
Janes did feel conflicted, though, about appropriating the voices of the community for his own artistic ends.
“It’s a complicated question. If I was to talk about somebody’s life story in some way, would that be ripping the words out of their mouth, or worse, doing the colonial thing, where you’re speaking for them or you’re saying: ‘Well, you know, this guy can’t speak for himself, so I’ll tell his story’?” Janes said.
“I struggled with writing about it for a long time and the kind of exploitative element of what I was doing.”
Although he’s been working in the Downtown Eastside for about six years, Janes has only now come to terms with the ways his job has seeped into his artistic project over the years.
“It’s always been a big part of my writing, whether I liked it or not. I fought it for a long time, and now I don’t anymore.”
Listen: Janes reads his poem “The Ambassador” [audio:https://thethunderbird.ca/files/2013/03/Mariner-The-Ambassador.mp3]
The weight of tradition
Poets have been weaving their work on Canada’s West Coast into their writing for a long time. Writers like Robert Swanson, Brian Fawcett and Peter Trower all incorporated their work in the forest industry as part of their individual poetic identities.
Resource-industry jobs have been declining in B.C. That’s why more local writers are turning to new kinds of work to pay the bills: teaching, social-service work, bartending.
Rhea Tregebov, assistant professor in the creative writing department at UBC, sees this trend reflected in the kind of jobs her students get, both before and after graduating, in order to supplement their writing careers.
“In terms of strict blue-collar work, I don’t know many students that would be working in the old-fashioned industrial or skilled trades,” Tregebov remarked.
Kate Braid is one contemporary writer, however, who’s managed to make her career out of blurring the distinction between craft and traditional labour. The veteran poet spent her working years during the 1980s in lumber and construction, eventually becoming one of the few female journey carpenters in the city.
Surrounded by often lukewarm if not outright antagonistic colleagues, Braid turned to writing to deflect the feelings of isolation she had while working in this male-dominated industry.
For her, writing was an act of “desperation.”
“I had no one to talk to, no other way to make sense of construction [and] male culture. I was keeping detailed journals after every day… but I came home exhausted after eight to 10 hour days of doing heavy labour, sometimes six days a week, so my lines got shorter until finally I realized I was writing poetry.”
Initially a creative outlet to help find her voice in construction, poetry eventually came to define part of Braid’s identity until the act of construction and the act of creation became difficult to separate.
“I was passionate first about construction, using poetry as a way to comfort myself, keep myself going. Slowly, I became passionate about the poetry as an end in itself.”
“They felt integral, each fed the other,” she explained. “I loved both. I needed both.”
Braid eventually left the construction industry altogether in 1991 to devote herself to writing full-time, publishing her first collection, Covering Rough Ground, the same year.
Braid has since established herself as one of the pre-eminent voices in Vancouver poetry and has published multiple volumes devoted to her experiences as a female carpenter, including a recently published memoir called Journeywoman: Swinging a Hammer in a Man’s World.
Listen: Braid reads her poem “Nails” [audio:https://thethunderbird.ca/files/2013/03/Kate_Braid_Nails1.mp3] (with permission of Kate Braid and Clyde Reed, first published in Turning Left to the Ladies [Palimpsest Press, 2009])
Then and now
Braid finds the current prospects of younger poets who are trying to sustain themselves while carving a space within the local scene, like Janes and Judy, considerably more bleak than when she started publishing in the early ’90s.
“The average sales for a poetry book used to be around 400 [copies]. I’m sure the number of sales is lower now. With e-books, it’s even worse. So it’s all about the day job.”
In addition to teaching poetry to both undergrad and masters students at UBC, Tregebov has an extensive publishing record herself, and she’s observed a similar decrease in the opportunities available to poets who try to make it in the local scene.
“I find Vancouver doesn’t have much of an infrastructure. I lived in Toronto, and the Toronto Arts Council is very, very healthy, versus zero here. You can apply for funding to the B.C. Arts Council, which is dreadfully underfunded. And federal [funding] is the most competitive you can imagine.”
Tregebov has noticed some of the ways this financial strain has crept into the work of not only her students, but local poets in general.
“You’ll often see the sense of marginalization that people get from being somewhat trapped economically by what they love. And also writing about work… there’s often an ironic, wry wisp at being on the other side of the counter.”
Toughing it out
Judy is slightly more optimistic. He finds that the mentality that comes from having an occupation is just as important as the paycheque it brings.
“It’s that 20 minutes when you get home from work after you have a shower, where you sit down at your desk and you’ve just got time to yourself and you try to make something happen,” Judy says.
“I find that those tend to be a lot more productive than if you just have too much time, because too much time can be crippling too. The thing is, you still want to be hungry to write, but it’s nice to not actually be physically hungry.”
Judy is part of a writing collective called Wolf Mountain, which bases its artistic principals on this blue-collar work ethic.
The motto of Wolf Mountain is “making poetry tough again.”
“You’re working hard all day, we’re working hard as well,” Judy explains. “Not for your dime necessarily, but for your attention.”
“So our aesthetic is, we’re going to put on our work shirt, our old blue jeans, and we’re going to work our asses off to make something that you’re going to engage with.”
“That’s the idea,” he remarked. “That’s the ideal.”