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An Interview With Julia Stein

Women, War, and the Working Class

by DOUGLAS VALENTINE

In the previous installment in the Political Poetry series, Afaa Weaver described his urge, as an African American poet, “to touch the proletarian vernacular at its deepest point.”

A few days after the feature on Weaver appeared in Counterpunch, I received an email from a poet friend in Russia.  The Russian exclaimed in mock disbelief: “A proletarian poet in America!  Isn’t that special?”

Sarcasm aside, isn’t that sad?   Sad, because Americans have a noble history of progressive thought.  Consider Melville’s seamen entranced by eloquent tyranny; Huck Finn’s inner dialogue as he debates whether or not to help Jim escape slavery; Jack London’s hobos and union organizers fighting mounted cops, “the right arm of the corporate power of our great cities;” and Steinbeck’s immigrants and outcasts struggling through the detritus of the American Dream.

America’s proletarian literary movement flowered in the first half of the 20th century, when Langston Hughes wrote “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” and Meridel Le Sueur wrote “Women on the Breadlines.” Unlike Robert Frost, the proletarian poets were not idealizing rural life or the insights of uneducated rustics.  They were well read, aware, dangerous, and calling for radical change.

After World War II, spurred by Cold War hysteria, the FBI built dossiers on writers advocating for the working class.  Howard Fast, Arthur Miller and many others were dragged before Congress in an attempt to stigmatize Leftists as un-American and agents of the Soviet Union.  The forces of reaction succeeded; blacklists were circulated, and the working class’s right to free speech was curtailed.  Progressive poets remained as prolific and as relevant as ever, especially in the Civil Rights and anti-War movements, but their poems faded from the mainstream.

Since the 1970s, the gap between rich and poor has steadily increased.  It’s now at feudal proportions.   And it’s tougher than ever to buck the neoliberal poetry establishment, which marginalizes any poet who challenges the assumption that private enterprise equals free expression.

PEN, for example, champions Chinese writer Liu Xiaobo, who praised America’s destruction of Iraq as one of the “best examples of how war should be conducted in a modern civilization.”  Liu Xiaobo has made nasty remarks about Palestinians in particular, and Muslims in general, and yet he still won a Nobel Prize, simply because he is anti-Communist.

Poets know the unwritten rules.   Joe Brodsky was a great poet, but the people who crowned him America’s poet laureate were aware he was a Russian dissident.  Politics matter, and poets know that the tyranny of unfettered capitalism is as determinant a factor in cultural matters as any totalitarian dictatorship.  The alchemy of mainstream poetry is its ability to transform the abusive behaviors of capitalism into high ideals.   This is why poets are sold as solitary figures, detached from the world, drenched in alienation: the image fits so neatly with the “bootstrap” version of the American Dream, in which deserving individuals pull themselves out of poverty to become captains of industry, busting unions and keeping wages low by sending jobs overseas – that uniquely American Dream, like universal healthcare or a publicly funded college education, that is always out of reach of the working class.

Thankfully, progressive poets are plentiful, waiting to be read, ready to dispel the myths and false assumptions of modern America. Julia Stein is one of them.

A resident of Los Angeles, born in Pittsburgh, Stein is a teacher, novelist, editor and critic, as well as a poet with five volumes of poetry under her belt.  Her work is well known and valued by the international progressive community.  Phil Metres describes her latest work, What Were They Like? as “an act of global citizenship” that “tracks the poet’s witness to the depredations of the War on Terror” and offers “humane portraits of the victims of the 9/11 era.”

In her poem, “Shout Three Times,” Stein tells the story of Malalai Joya, the leading feminist in Afghanistan.  At the age of 16, Malalai had already been a refugee in two neighboring nations, dodged American bombs, warlords, and Taliban mobs, written her own epitaph and learned the bounds of her inner strength:

 

She says if she should die remember

she was once a refugee child in a filthy tent city in Iran.

After a landmine took her father’s leg in her first Afghan war

her family fled to the schools in Pakistan

where she inhaled books, inhaled Persian poetry, inhaled Brecht,

exhaled lessons teaching women in the camps.

 

The best days of her life started at sixteen:

she hid her few books under her burka in her second war.

Back home in Afghanistan she breathed out lessons

for girls in a underground school hiding from the Taliban.

 

In her third war the American bombs decorated the land,

the Taliban fled the village,

the warlords rode in to the capitol on trucks.

 

In her fourth war she stood up to denounce

the warlords at the Loya Jirga.

They howled, shrieked, threw bottles at her.

A mob surrounded her house to rape and lynch her, but

she had already fled underground.

 

Her dreams blossomed into school for girls

in blue uniforms and white scarves.

 

 

Throughout her 40-year writing career, Stein has often focused on working class women’s issues.  In 1995 she produced an anti-sweatshop literary reading at Midnight Special Bookstore for the Common Threads, a women’s group formed to educate people about the need to support organizing among garment workers.  Guess sued the group for slander, but Stein and Common Threads waged a 6-month battle against the corporation, and eventually won their case.

Stein’s feminist poetry is realistic.  In her first and second books of poetry, Under the Ladder to Heaven and Desert Soldiers, her poems celebrate the great wave of working women who, for the first time in U.S. history, organized big, lasting unions.  Stein features the 1909 shirtwaist strike (called the Uprising of 20,000) in 1909-1910, the Bread and Roses strike in 1912, and the huge Chicago garment workers strike led by women 1910-1911.   She tells how women joined together to pass legislation forcing factory owners to install sprinklers and fire escapes in their workplaces after the infamous Triangle fire in 1911.  Her poetry mourns the women who lost their lives in the process at the Triangle fire, and emphasizes the importance of keeping their memory, sacrifice, and achievements alive.

Stein’s poetry is also strongly influenced by her Jewish heritage.  In the four part poem “Knotted String,” she tells of the sacrifices made by her immigrant Jewish grandmother Molly Plotkin, who supported eight people by working in a sweatshop sewing garments for rich women and who was the first in her factory to sign up for a union.   Stein describes in “Magic Shawl” how her grandmother suffered the rich women who “swooped like eagles” and tore at her self-esteem with “long talons.”  She tells how deeply her grandmother’s experience affected her:

 

My grandmother taught me to always meekly take in

other peoples’ castoffs and their insults, how to

mend by hand, sew on buttons, collect scraps of cloth.

 

I used to thread her needle when I was a child,

After her death, I kept all her buttons: pearl buttons,

gold buttons with mirrors on them, brown leather buttons

 

From her I grew to love buttons and scraps of materials.

Later at garage sales I’d buy torn quilts I’d take home

to mend knowing my grandmother would approve.

 

Stein’s mother and grandmother accepted the rich women’s “cruelty and castoffs” but also joined the union and worked to recreate themselves as modern 20th century women.   Stein, although taught to “meekly take in other peoples’ castoffs and insults,” chooses not to be submissive.   Overcoming old habits and social structures is a constant struggle, however, one that requires an appreciation of the past, as well as a vision of the future.  Consider her poem “1996” from her book Shulamith:

 

This is the year women started walking again.

In Los Angeles we are walking outside the big whale

of a shopping center, carrying picket signs to get garment workers

a union in our city, our city with its Thai slaves sewing clothes.

 

We are the daughters of Fannie Sellins who was

gunned down in a mill yard, whose hat was stolen from

her dead body by a deputy who laughed at her corpse,

and whose death set off the great steel strike of 1919.

 

We are the daughters of my aunt Sara Plotkin who walked across

Pennsylvania in 1932, organizing in coal fields from Pittsburgh to

Wheeling, West Virginia, sneaking in and out of company towns,

evading spies by carrying a potato sack, and who lived to tell her tale.

 

They whispered to us their secrets, handed them down,

mother to daughter.  We have their courage as our inheritance.

Just as our mothers walked across the coal fields

we have begun to walk across this land.

 

I recently had the honor of speaking with Julia Stein and asking her about her poetry, modern day feminism, and class struggles in America.

DV      In 1973 you organized a reading of 2000 years of women’s poetry at the Los Angeles Women’s Building in English, Japanese, Chinese, French, German, and Spanish.   Forty years has come and gone.   How has the feminist movement, and feminist poetry evolved?

JS       In the 1970s, numerous anthologies of contemporary largely white, middle class women’s poetry were published in the U.S.   Historical anthologies were also published.  For example, in 1972 California State University professor and poet Ann Stanford edited the first volume of 1000 years of women poets in English.  But women of color and working class women poets were largely lacking.  It wasn’t until 1980 that first group of women of color and then working class women in the U.S. started getting their poetry published.   The anthology This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color (edited by Chicanas Cherrie Moraga and Gloria Anzaldua) was a breakthrough in 1981.  After that, many individual women of color established national careers.

As for working class women, anthologist Janet Zandy has published two powerful breakthrough anthologies of working class women’s writing:  Calling Home:  Working Class Women Writings(1990) and What We Have in Common:  Exploring Women’s Lives and Working Class Studies (1995).  These volumes feature both historical and contemporary women authors.  Many working class women poets continue to publish books while some find the first book difficult to get out.

DV       Much of the modern feminist movement has been “of, by, and for” middle class white women, who not only want freedom of choice and equal wages, but wish to become CEOs with million-dollar salaries.  You’re a feminist, but your poetry is about the working class.  Would you care to talk about the class tensions in the feminist movement and the role of poetry in raising awareness within the movement?

JS       Deep class divisions among feminists in the U.S., both in politics and literature, began in the 1970s and have continued to this day.  Most middle class feminists have concentrated on breaking into the professions and breaking through glass ceilings in corporate hierarches.  Small groups of middle class women, like those in the anti-sweatshop group Common Threads, have been short-lived exceptions to the rule.

As for poetry, working class women, many of whom were women of color, self-organized to help raise awareness about our ill-paid and often abusive working conditions.  Judy Grahn was perhaps the first on the West Coast, publishing her “common women” poems in the 1970s.   A dynamite group of working class women poets emerged in San Francisco in the 1980s and 1990s:  Carol Tarlen wrote about her clerical work and about her work with the homeless; Karen Brodine about typesetting; Nelly Wong about  waitressing and clerical work; and Sara Menefee about the homeless.  In Los Angeles I wrote about work as an adjunct professor, Joan Jobe Smith wrote of the sexual politics as a go-go dancer, and Wanda Coleman wrote brilliantly about the racial, sexual, and political aspects of her jobs.  In the West Coast group, Tarlen, Coleman, and Joan Jobe Smith edited magazines while I was a literary critic and arts journalist.

A second strand of working class women’s poet literature has revisited the 1911 Triangle fire:  Chris Llewellyn and Mary Fell won national awards for their brilliant books of poetry about this disaster, which cost 146 garment worker lives in 1911.   So many women have written about the Triangle fire, that Janet Zandy was inspired to write a pioneering piece of literary criticism about it.  I also edited a small book Walking Through the River of Fire:  100 Years of Triangle Fire Poetry (C.C. Marimbo, 2011.).

A few women literary critics have worked to retrieve the wealth of radical women’s poetry:  Charlotte Nekola and Paula Rabinowitz edited the 1987 Writing Red:  An Anthology of Women Writers 1930-1940. Charlotte Nekola says in her anthology that 1930s radical poetry encouraged women to write “on a large and searching scale, with the kind of ‘scope’ that Whitman assumed.” Also Zandy’s anthology Calling Home I mentioned earlier included historical poetry by working class women.

DV      You’ve taught creative writing to teenage girls in the Los Angeles County delinquency system at Camp Scott.  Generally speaking, how has the political awareness of young women changed since the 1970s?  What do young women think about feminism, and do they have an appreciation for the women who paved the way?

JS       I have taught young women in junior college for the last 24 years, and their consciousness varies.  Many young women do strongly connect with Zora Neal Hurston, Gwendolyn Brooks, Maya Angelou, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Carolyn Kizer and Adrienne Rich.  Although many young women are not as dogmatic as 1970s feminists in matters of fashion, some argue that now young women’s voices are still ignored much more than young men’s.  Many young women are dealing with new issues such as arguing for gay marriage, and some are concerned with transgender issues.  Many young women I have taught are very anti-abortion.

DV      Walt Whitman has been a big influence on you.   Why?   Who are the women writers that influenced you most?

JS       David Reynolds’ 1988 book of criticism Beneath the American Renaissance was a huge influence.  Reynolds argues that since the 1820s, rowdy radical working class voices in penny novels, pamphlets, and newspapers helped create an audience for Whitman, and before him Melville.  He argues that these popular working class publications laid the groundwork for much of U.S. egalitarian literature.  Second, I loved reading 1930s women poets influenced by Whitman such as Genevieve Taggard, Tillie Olsen, and Muriel Rukeyser.  These three women wrote what was called Big Poems. Third, reading Whitman closely I learned how his nursing the war wounded in the Civil War gave rise to some of his greatest Civil War poems.  The anti-war poetry in my last book, What Were They Like?, was modeled after Whitman’s Civil War poems in “Drum Taps.” Towards the end of Whitman’s “When Lilacs in the Dooryard Bloomed” the poet speaks about the compassion that informs his poetry:

 

I saw battle-corpses, myriad of them,

And the white skeletons of young men, I saw them,

I saw debris and debris of all the slain soldiers of the war,

But I saw they were not as was thought,

They themselves were fully at rest, they suffer’d not,

The living remain’d and suffer’d

 

Whitman’s words apply just as well today to the “debris” of America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  They also apply to the U.S, right now, where the dead do not suffer, but the living – the wounded soldiers, the broken families, the refugees including many artists still in exile – still suffer.

As for women poets who influenced me, I really like 16th century French poet Louis Labe, who wrote a book-length series of love sonnets like Shakespeare’s.  I liked Labe’s woman voice in love sonnets.  Early on I read Judy Grahn’s “common women” poems which were portraits of working class women. I was influenced by Muriel Rukeyser’s 1930s book-length poem Book of the Dead about workers getting silicosis.  Also two great poets who combined mysticism and political radicalism showed me I could do the same:  Denise Levertov and the Yiddish poet Kadia Molodowsky. I loved Holocaust survivor Irena Klepfisz ‘s Yiddish-English poetry about the Holocaust.

DV      The wonderful African-American poet Wanda Coleman passed away a few days ago.   Would you care to say a few words about Wanda, her contribution to African American poetry, women’s poetry, and the evolution of the poetry of African American women?  

JS      Wanda Coleman’s brilliant work put Los Angeles on the national literary map – not the fantasy Los Angeles of so many writers who visit a few years to work in Hollywood – but the real racially divided city that exploded in the Watts rebellion in 1965; the Chicano “blow outs” where Chicano students in 1969-1970 walked out of the segregated, horrible schools; and the 1992 Justice Rebellion.  Her poetry was the first I ever heard that gave voice that radical, angry underclass Los Angeles.  Wanda reminds me of James Baldwin in poetry because both grew up in urban very poor urban neighborhoods – Watts for Wanda and Harlem for Baldwin. Both lived through huge race riots which they wrote brilliantly about, and both chose to love rather than hate. And both wrote wonderfully about jazz.

Wanda wrote a great poem “The Riot Inside Me” about the black teenager Latasha Harlins, murdered by Korean liquor store-owner Soon Ja a year before the 1992 Justice Rebellion in Los Angeles.  She also wrote an eerie, wonderful poem “Soon Ja.”  Wanda could be tough and tender in the same poem.  She wrote great poetry about men in her book Bathwater Wine: she wrote heart-breaking poetry mourning her loss of her son and her father; she wrote with great honesty about sex with men; and she wrote a great homage to male beat poets who influenced her. I miss Wanda a lot.

DV     “Flowers for Central America” was a six-hour radio show you organized on KPFK radio featuring multi-cultural poets and Central American music.  You’ve done anti-war readings all over Los Angeles, and many were held specifically to benefit Central American refugees in LA.  Please provide us with an excerpt from one of your poems about America’s wars in Central America.  Who are the Central American poets you admire in LA?

JS       I was lucky to hear El Salvadoran poet Claribel Alegria in Los Angeles and write a review of her work.  I also love Nicaraguan poet Ernesto Cardenal, El Salvadoran poet Roque Dalton, and Guatemalan poet Otto Renee Castillo. I really like Hector Tabor’s wonderful first novel Tattooed Soldiers about Guatemalan refugees in Los Angeles.  As for my Central American poetry here is the first half of a poem “When the Tourists Came” from my book Desert Soldiers:

 

the soldiers in the village had vanished, hidden

their eighteen trucks, two tanks, and the four corpses of the

men they had murdered. The tourists ooohed and aaahed:

The hotel overlooked the ice-blue Lake Atitlan.  The volcanos overhead

even seemed to smolder. Guatemala, just like in the posters.

How convenient, a bus to take them shopping at the nearby village

Santiago Atitlan.  They boarded the bus at 10 am sharp,

“Why it’s even air conditioned.” They sped past the poor barrio

where all the girls had been raped by the soldiers, past the

church where two hundred people hid out, …..

 

DV       You helped found Los Angeles local of the National Writers Union (N.W.U.) in 1984.  You were a union delegate to its national conventions, and worked on the L.A. steering committee. How important to writers are the unions and guilds that serve them?  Why don’t American poets more often feature this important political aspect of their intellectual world?

JS       Because 95% of poets don’t see themselves making any money from their poetry, they don’t see the National Writers Union (N.W.U.) as relevant. The N.W.U. helps writers by teaching them to write demand letters to get paid and also teaches about contracts. Most poets, however, don’t know anything about the contracts they sign, and could learn about contracts from the N.W.U. as I did.  Many poets make some money from performing at colleges, so a basic knowledge of contracts would help make sure the poet always gets paid.

DV     Perhaps you would like to talk about Carol Tarlen and David Tarlen’s magazine on working class literature in the 1980s called “Working Classics.”

JS       Carol Tarlen and David Joseph were San Francisco poets.  They were married, and together they wrote poetry, edited magazines, and served as delegates to the S.F. Labor Council.  They were activists for the homeless in the early 1990s, when Tarlen was actually arrested for feeding the homeless. David Joseph edited a magazine called Working Classics during the 1980s, one of the pioneering magazines of working class literature in the country, while Tarlen edited Real Fiction.  Tarlen and Joseph, both Anglo-American working class intellectuals, taught me that their intellectual lineage went back to the Levelers and Diggers in 1650s England, workers who published arguing for democracy.

Carol Tarlen, who was widely published in magazines and anthologies, died in 2004, and after her death, David and I co-edited her first volume of poetry to be published, Every Day Is an Act of Resistance:  Selected Poems by Carol Tarlen (Mongrel Empire Press, 2012). In November, 2013, the San Francisco Public Library announced that the Carol Tarlen and David Joseph papers, including the magazines they edited, are now in the libraries S.F. History Center, and more information can be found at http://sfhcbasc.blogspot.com/2013/07/every-day-is-act-of-resistance.html

DV      In the previous installment of the Political Poetry series, Afaa Weaver described his urge, as an African American poet, “to touch the proletarian vernacular at its deepest point.”  Where do you feel that point is in your work?

JS      In California in the 1970s I worked in East Los Angeles high schools and knew that Chicano poets developed the concept of a “pocho” language, a language that combined Spanish and English, and that they have written poetry in this “pocho” language nationally for over three decades.  Others have called this poetry Chicano English, a non-standard dialect of American English. Inspired by Chicano poets, I wrote some of my first book Under the Ladder to Heaven in Yiddish English, which is what my grandmother spoke to me.  I did translations from Yiddish to English.  One poem is titled “Unzere vunderbare farbrente meydlekh” (Our wonderful, fiery girls) which was what the 20,000 shirtwaist strikers were called.

DV      Last question.   In your poem “The Furies” you talk about Lynndie England.   England was a working class woman, not an officer or policy maker like Bush or Cheney, and yet she became the face of American abuses and war crimes in Iraq.  Would you care to comment about the changing role of mostly working class women in the military, and what can be done to raise their awareness about war-making as one of the capitalist class’s greatest money making schemes?

JS       Before the three poems about Abu Ghraib in my book What Were They Like, the first poem being about Lynndie England, I have a poem titled “Snow’s Falling in Western Pennsylvania” about how poor families stand in the snow to get food relief while the snow also falls “on the President’s car as he rides practicing his speech about/ tax breaks for the rich….”  All the members of the army group Lynndie England was a part of are poor folk from Western Pennsylvania/West Virginia area.

In the third poem in the Abu Ghraib sequence “He Can’t Go Home Again,” about soldier/whistleblower Joe Darby, I wrote how Darby’s home is my birthplace, Western Pennsylvania.  I told in the poem how, in the 1930s, the “government abandoned the miners and left their families to starve/and my great-aunt risked her life to organize to get them food.” I continued,

 

Only in the 1990s have I been back,

after the mines the m ills shut down and the economy collapsed again,

and after the government abandoned them again.

How they tried hardtop make a life a dignity in those harsh green hills.

 

Young men like Joe get jobs as long-haul truckers or the military or the reserves,

Army’s the only way out, the ticket to college.

It’s hard on wives like Bernadette,

her husband Joe away eight months in Bosnia or three years in Iraq.

Most families are used to the long goodbyes.

We have a poverty draft for people like England and Darby.  Lynndie England volunteered because she saw the army as her only means to have adventure.  If we want to reach the Lynndie Englands, we need to provide them with more opportunities.  England’s job before she joined the Army was as a checker in a supermarket.  I once worked with a largely middle class group of women in Common Threads, an anti-sweatshop group modeled after the Women’s Trade Union League (W.T.U.L), which fought for better jobs for working class women before World War I.   We need to revive organizations like the W.T.U.L.  If organizations like the W.T.U.L. could be established in West Virginia, working class women like Lynndie England would have the opportunities they need.

DV      Thank you very much, Julia Stein, for your wonderful poetry, activism, and generosity.

Julia Stein has published five books of poetry.  From the feminist poetry work of her first book Under the Ladder to Heaven (1984) to her poetry about the Central American wars in the 1980s in her second book Desert Soldiers (1992) to the love poems and poems about teaching in SouthCentral during the 1992 troubles in Walker Woman (2004), her poetry ranges from love lyric to explorations of war, peace, and women’s lives.  Her fifth book of poetry, What Were They Like? is about the Iraq War and is available only online from the publisher C.C. Marimbo at http://ccmarimbo.com/

One of Stein’s poems will appear in the forthcoming anthology With Our Eyes Wide Open: Poems of the New American Century (West End Press, March 2014).  For how to pre-order the anthology, contact John Crawford at jcrawfor@unm.edu

For information about the Political Poetry series, visit http://www.douglasvalentine.com/disc.htm