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Tom Wayman's Introduction

Visible Consequences, Invisible Jobs

We live in a society that hides from itself the basis of its existence. North American culture - high and low, popular or elitist - presents almost nowhere the realities of daily work. This collection of poems thus is a light turned on what our society wraps in darkness: the humour, sadness, joy, anger and all the other emotions that accompany our participation in the workforce.

Our jobs form the central and governing core of our lives. Our daily work - be it blue or white collar, paid or unpaid - determines or strongly influences our standard of living, who our friends are, how much time and energy we have left to spend off the job. Our employment determines or strongly influences where we live and what our attitudes are to an enormous range of events, people, objects, environments. No other activity in daily life has more personal consequences for us than the work we do (or are looking for).

Our jobs also re-create each day every aspect of our society. Because we go to work, our fellow citizens are provided with food, shelter and clothing. Through our employment, people are educated and entertained, methods of transportation are organized, children are raised, and much, much more. But an accurate depiction of what occurs in the workforce is overlooked and ignored by virtually every aspect of the surrounding culture. An honest examination of daily work is missing from our movies and television, news media, schools, advertising, fine arts.

Something considered taboo must be happening at the centre of our life - and so at the heart of our society - if our culture is willing to depict endlessly the consequences of our jobs, but not to portray the jobs themselves. For example, our literature, in book after book, anthology after anthology, presents a literary portrait of a nation, a society, in which nobody works. One possible explanation for this strange fact is that during twelve years of public education, almost no time is devoted to an account of the history and present conditions of employment in North America. What happens to human beings on the job is not considered a topic for major consideration by our school curriculums, even though working is the activity that eventually will occupy most of the waking lives of every student. For example, as Paperwork was in preparation in the fall of 1989, I was sent two new literature textbooks aimed at high schools. Both were organized thematically; one, Themes on the Journey (Nelson), identifies what its editor considers the sixteen major themes of "the human journey." These themes include love, death, nature, as well as art, national identity, war. Work is never mentioned. The second collection, Themes for All Times (Jesperson Press), identifies seven themes as representing human life "for all times": relationships, faith and belief, conflict, survival, freedom and equality, dealing with today, facing tomorrow. Again, nowhere in this text is daily work worthy of mention, let alone study.

This almost pathological avoidance of looking at everyday jobs is just as evident in popular culture. Any trip around the TV dial will reveal a complete absence of anything resembling true depictions of daily employment. Where jobs are shown, such as hospital work or police work, these portrayals are fantasies, romanticizations, trivializations. Police work is not like Hill Street Blues or Miami Vice, any more than medical employment is like General Hospital or St. Elsewhere. This can be verified in only a few minutes of conversation with an actual nurse, doctor, lawyer, detective or uniformed officer.

We expect less than honesty from advertising, and we are not disappointed in our expectations when the source of advertised products is supposedly presented. My favourite is "The Land of Dairy Queen," the apparent origin of the tasty ice cream snacks. Here images of mounds of chocolate and ice cream obscure entirely the realities of cocoa production in the Third World and minimum wage service jobs here at home. How much more pleasant to imagine a magical origin for the objects sold to us, than to see clearly where things come from.

Avoiding a consciousness of how human beings really spend their lives is not just an interesting sociological or artistic phenomenon. The pervasive taboo against a portrayal of our daily work tangibly hurts us.

As a college teacher, I ask my students how many of them, before they selected their course of studies, talked at length to someone doing the job that is the student's career goal. Often half or more of my students have never done this. The taboo against an accurate look at daily work has thus put them in some peril: they are expending considerable time, money, and effort preparing themselves for a job about which they have only the shakiest or most romantic impression. More immediately, our high school students graduate (or they drop out) largely ignorant of what labour laws and regulations protect them in the workforce, and what opportunities and shortcomings are offered by unemployment insurance, workers' compensation, and similar work-related programs. Again, the potential for pain is great. Young people can fall prey to unscrupulous employers by accepting wages, conditions and hours that violate legal standards. Or, where young employees sense that laws are being broken, they are uncertain how to seek redress.

Whether we are young or old, the taboo hurts us by the cultural silence that smothers what happens to us every day on the job. In this eerie quiet, we each feel isolated, uncertain whether we are the only person who responds to our employment as we do. We counter this isolation with "shop talk," gossip about our specific workplace with our immediate peers. But overall, the silence helps keep us from a collective discussion and understanding of the effects our work has on us, and exploring how we might together fundamentally improve our working lives.

As well, the taboo ensures that our culture perceives our contribution to society as insignificant. For the culture of any society establishes a system of values. What is talked about and otherwise portrayed in art, education, entertainment is seen as having value. What a society is silent about is implicitly understood to be without importance or merit. As long as the supermarket tabloids suggest that we worry about the state of Burt and Loni's relationship, rather than consider, say, alternate means of organizing our own daily lives, we are likely to regard ourselves and what happens to us as less important than those figures and events the surrounding culture insists repeatedly are the proper subjects of our attention and concern. For instance, the deaths of seven astronauts are viewed as an international tragedy, and so they are. But why are the deaths of seven miners in a cave-in any less a tragedy? Don't the miners also leave behind spouses, children, unfulfilled hopes and dreams? Why are some individuals so overvalued and the contribution of the majority of us so undervalued?

This situation saps our willingness to act to change our lives for the better. After all, if we're not the important men and women in society, if our contribution to the community is culturally regarded as worthless, why should we speak out or act collectively to improve our lives? And this lack of self-confidence hurts us, because it strikes at the root of democracy. As the social critic Bob Black puts it: "Once you drain the vitality from people at work, they'll likely submit to hierarchy in politics, culture, and everything else."

The poems of this collection, though they were written individually for many different reasons, together break the taboo against a depiction of our real lives and affirm the vital importance of what the majority of us do all day. Using humour, outrage, poignancy and sorrow, the poems celebrate how our work contributes to creating the society in which we all live, and how our jobs shape our individual lives. If film stars, sports idols and politicians were to vanish tomorrow, the world would still be fed, clothed, housed, etc. because of our efforts. This is not the message that bombards us daily from TV screens, billboards, books, magazines, art exhibits, classrooms. But it is a truth that Paperwork proves beyond doubt.

The poems of Paperwork, though, are not intended to be an exhaustive or comprehensive look at the new work writing that has begun to appear across North America. Instead, like its predecessor anthology Going For Coffee (Harbour Publishing, 1981), Paperwork offers a sampling of what I consider the best of the new poetry about jobs and the working life. As with any anthology, then, the selection reflects the strengths and weaknesses of its editor's judgment. My major criterion for including a poem in Paperwork - besides literary accomplishment - is that the poem present an insider's view of the workplace. I am convinced that an outsider's vision of a jobsite or other work situation, however sympathetic, lacks the accuracy that the insider brings to the writing. And accuracy is essential to clear thinking - and writing - about daily employment and its human consequences.

Because Paperwork shows us jobs with an insider's eye, we find here both extensive use of detail (often detail that only an insider could know) and comedy (since jokes remain a major way the human race gains perspective about its difficulties). A further examination of these and other facets of the emerging work literature can be found in my Inside Job: Essays on the New Work Writing (Harbour, 1983).

The poems in Paperwork are grouped into eight sections. "Corncobs on the Slag Road" gathers poems concerned with outdoor work; "Something They Claim Can't Be Made" presents poems on women in the paid workforce; "Piece by Piece You Deliver Yourself" offers poems on service work; and the fourth section, "The Work of Looking for Work," deals with unemployment.

"Dear Foreman," the fifth section, is about production work indoors. This is followed by "Calling You on my Break," which contains poems on how jobs affect human relations. The poems of "When They Push the Buttons to Rise" look at work mainly from a managerial perspective, or describe an employee's direct response to that perspective. The final section, "Less Like Ants," focusses on ways we assess and sometimes resist the limitations our work imposes on us. This section, and Paperwork, closes with two poems from the 1983 public sector general strike in B.C. For it is during a general strike, as at no other time, that it becomes absolutely evident that without our work society ceases to function. Not all the words and images of managers or elected officials, nor the fantasies created by advertising or entertainment, can define the world during such an event. Our value and importance are unquestioned.

By their very nature, however, poems resist the set categories I have established here. For example, there are poems about women in paid employment throughout the collection. Assessments of a specific job and/or a working life appear in many sections also. Even my indoor/outdoor distinction is not an exact one: building construction begins outside, for instance, but by the time the last tradespeople are employed, the work is primarily indoors.

So, despite my attempts to slot these poems according to their major topics, this writing insists that it is multidimensional. Exactly like the human beings who wrote the poems, and the men and women about whom they speak, these poems defy easy generalization and refuse to be narrowly defined. This is part of their power as art and as people. When we look at them, we see as in a mirror our true selves, our real lives. This is not an experience we are used to. We may be exhilarated or depressed, amused or scornful, respectful or enraged at the sight. But until we observe accurately who we are and where we are, we cannot move forward to better our lives. We can shift from one consumer or political fantasy to the next, but that is not the same thing as improving our common existence. It is the gift of these marvellous poems that they show us both our actual present and a door into the future.

Tom Wayman
Winlaw, BC