Conducted by Alex Gallo-Brown | Contributing Writer
In early 2017, Patrick Blagrave, the Philadelphia-based poet and publisher, was having difficulty writing, reading, or even thinking about poetry. He was exhausted by the work that was required by his day job, overwhelmed by student loans and other debts, and unsure of how to proceed as a writer or literary comrade. “I felt like I wasn’t thinking about the things that I was always taught poetry was supposed to be about. I was only thinking about money and debt and rent and waking up for a job I hated,” he told me recently. Finally, after receiving “an especially frustrating call” from a debt collector, he decided to compose a series of poems directed to one of the entities that was making his life miserable, Sally Mae. “This sort of unlocked for me a new way of thinking about poetry,” he says. “I was still working and struggling to get by and tired and not eating well, but I was also able to tap into and be fueled by my resentment and anger and fear.” The energy that those feelings produced resulted, first, in the online publication Prolit, which he launched with the tagline “a literary magazine of work, money, and class” in late 2018. (“McDonalds opened before the smoothie and salad / place for us grease fired workers / to fuel up for our sanitation invisibility / hours, our existence only witnessed by / the senior citizens,” reads a poem from a recent issue written by Jack Sadicario.) Then, late last year, Blagrave released Profit | Prophet, a book of his own poems, on Recenter Press, a left-wing literary journal and press also based in Philadelphia.
We corresponded recently about the upsurge in anti-capitalist literature, the difficulty representing experiences that are both individual and collective, and the pleasures of imagining the end of capitalism.
Alex Gallo-Brown: Your work, both as a poet and publisher, seems to me to be part of a growing anti-capitalist vein in American poetry and literature. This follows decades of a relative lack of engagement, in many literary circles, with issues of money, class, or economic systems. Why do you think there was such an aversion to discussing these things—and what has changed?
Patrick Blagrave: That’s a question with a lot of answers, probably more than I know or can speak on. Maybe the most simple one is that you’re unlikely to write about those things if you are financially comfortable, and it’s easier to write, and especially easier to be published and widely read, if you have money. Money and class privilege afford free time, residencies, connections, degrees, submission fees, an agent or publicist, etc. Secondly, most of the people who give out contracts and prizes and grants and make lists of recommendations are invested in, if not making money directly, then upholding a system that maintains the status quo.
This being more or less the case throughout much of Western history means that literary traditions have built up around many other topics but have neglected these, so there aren’t as many models in the canon (with a few notable exceptions). Added to that, American poetry, for most of the last century, valued abstraction, interiority, and exploring the individual more than overtly political writing about social issues and collective concerns. Possibly that is, to an extent, the result of government anti-communist intervention in funding the MFA system, but also it’s just more comfortable for establishment, middle-class publishers, critics, teachers, and even readers to support those things that make them feel important and special rather than something that makes them question things they take for granted or culpable [in an unjust system]. Even when a political poet gets acknowledged, oftentimes they are repackaged to obscure any radical beliefs (for example, branding Pablo Neruda as a very palatable love poet rather than a communist, or uplifting Langston Hughes’s writing about race while carefully excluding mentions of class and, again, communism).
I think the change you mentioned is the result of many different things but probably mostly people being tired of being left out of capitalist success and [them] building new models for writing and distributing poetry that allow for more diversity, experimentation, and dissent.
In your book, you don’t abandon the individual experience altogether—rather, you connect the experience of the speaker (the food they eat, where they work, their private utterances to a loved one) with the economic and social realities that they inhabit. These individual experiences are also collective. Can you talk about the challenges of writing poems that represent both an individual and a collective experience at the same time?
Detailing the time I work per month, or how my hourly wage is spent, or listing my actual outstanding debts—those are all extremely personal things that govern so much of my life. But they are also essentially spreadsheet rows made into sonnets. At the same time, no matter how much of a drone I feel like, that’s never all there is, and it is important for me to remember and to recognize in these poems, as well. There are several brief but meaningful moments where there is a more embodied presence, which stand in some relief to the emptiness of my depictions of workers and debtors, where I document injuries, coffee breaks, baking cinnamon rolls, spending time with my wife and cats, anxiety over how much I sleep. Those are small experiences that may be either good or bad, but they remind me that I should feel more compassionate toward myself, that I am not a machine or a spreadsheet entry, no matter how much [those ideas are] pushed on me.
On the other hand, in poems that are less directly tied to my individual experience, and more in conversation with my community or collective concerns, I felt free to be much more tender. Philadelphia plays a major role in the book because it plays a major role in how I imagine communities. I have great love for this city and its people, so I think the more outward looking poems ended up feeling more personal to me than the ones about my bank account. A poem that is a list of signs and scraps of scenery from the neighborhood I grew up in, for instance, feels very emotional to me because so many people live in them “offscreen,” and I want the best for them.
The first section of your book, entitled “Profit,” is a series of sonnets bound together by themes of money, work, economic exploitation, and social alienation. The second, “Prophet,” is more lyrical, imagistic, and unconstrained, though the concerns are not unrelated. Can you talk about the second series of poems and how you view its relationship to the first?
When I was writing the poems to Sallie Mae, I ended up becoming really charmed by what, at first, was a phonetic connection to Salome [the character from the New Testament]. Then I realized that she was also owed a debt, and that she used it to have John the Baptist killed. I started writing from the perspective of someone like John—a person who was poor, angry, and held captive by rich people, his fate sealed by gross backroom machinations and government promises. He was a prophet, and I’m a sucker for puns. It seemed like a lot of the prophets that I had learned about (I was raised Catholic) were poor outsiders protesting against a dangerous status quo. I don’t think I’m a prophet, obviously, and I try to make it clear in the poems that I’m not taking that on, but I thought it was a useful model for how to explore different ideas for the future.
That was the most important thing that connected the two sections while I was writing. I wanted “Profit” to depict the world that I’m used to under capitalism—in my opinion, one of that system’s strongest tools of oppression is imposing cynicism and a feeling of futurelessness. It wants hope to feel like futility, it rewards ambivalence, and, most importantly, it needs us to internalize the feeling that nothing can change, so why try to change it? I wanted to push against that in the book because it’s been so vital for me, outside of the book, to force myself to fight that.
I struggled a lot with writing “Prophet,” largely because I thought that I needed to illustrate the world [that comes] after this one in detail, and quickly realized that was beyond my abilities, that it was probably outside of any one individual’s abilities. It requires a collective effort. I started to recognize that even knowing that I want what I can’t imagine is important and radical and worth pursuing. “Prophet” begins with a world like one from “Profit”—kind of falling away in this fractured catalog of different possible endings, and it ends in a semi-recognizable Philadelphia in which people attacked by capitalism bind together to save each other, build solidarity against the various manifestations of that assault, and come to the realization that things can be better.
Patrick Blagrave is the author of Profit | Prophet (Recenter Press, 2020) and the founder and editor of Prolit magazine. He lives in Philadelphia.
Alex Gallo-Brown is the author of Variations of Labor (Chin Music Press, 2019) and a labor organizer who lives in Seattle.