by Paul Hlava Ceballos | Contributing Writer
Alex Gallo-Brown is a born and raised Seattleite, writer, activist, and father. I first met Alex back in spring of 2017 when we organized a group poetry prompt for a mutual friend’s wedding. We immediately bonded over shared book and movie recommendations. Our lives had familiar arcs and echoes, from the low-wage jobs that defined our young adulthood to the pursuit of creative writing in New York. Alex has been a cook, waiter, barista, caregiver, and has held a dozen other odd jobs. In New York, he received his B.F.A. from Pratt; he also holds M.A. from Georgia State. I was delighted to meet someone whose poetry I admired and also lived according to the same ethics and diligence they put into their craft. Alex has been a labor organizer, educator, and has volunteered for local political campaigns. He has given seminars on workers’ rights at Garfield High School during the Martin Luther King Day celebration and march, as well as poetry readings at the Hugo House and KUOW. We have shared new poems, and he has invited me to have Thanksgiving dinner with his family when I had nowhere in the city to go. I recently caught up with Alex over email to discuss his new book and other projects.
First of all, I want to say congratulations on Variations of Labor. It’s quite an achievement to have a book that poets read and people outside the poetry world connect with too. As someone who has known you for a few years, I can see your different faces in the book, its jobs and themes. Let’s start on those variations—as a labor organizer, did you set out to write a book on class and labor? And when did you realize you wanted to expand that definition to include other, traditionally uncompensated forms of work?
The short answer is that no, I didn’t set out to write a book on labor or class. The collection represents work produced over a fairly long period of time (one of the short stories goes back almost ten years), and my interests and concerns certainly fluctuated over that time. As I looked back on individual poems and stories, however, I began to identify certain unifying themes: work—specifically low-wage work—being one of those but also issues of class and race as well as a feeling of collective, socially experienced grief: not for a world that was lost but for a world that has never been, not in this country, anyway: a place where the vast majority of residents feel safe, at peace, and at home.
The collection only really began to coalesce in 2017 after my uncle, a longtime low-wage worker, died while my wife was pregnant with our first child, and I was employed at a workers’ center here in Seattle. As I began to write poems about and for and to him, it struck me that my grief was a form of invisible, uncompensated labor—only one of the many types of relational or emotional work that people perform each day without much recognition, appreciation, or remuneration. I understand that there is some controversy around using the phrase “emotional labor” outside of its original context (it was first coined by the sociologist Arlie Hochschild in the 1980s to describe the extra work that service workers do to make their customers feel comfortable), but I have found it useful to think about our efforts outside of capitalist labor relations as forms of work. When we are able to recognize that it takes work to be in productive relationship or community with each other, it makes it harder to justify those arguments that only those people who “work hard” (i.e. earn significant amounts of money) deserve shelter, food, or health insurance.
Or that only people belonging to a certain race or gender deserve to have those basic necessities met. I can’t help but think of the phrase “emotional labor” in the context of gender; the way I hear it used mostly refers to maintaining relationships and fluid social dynamics—work traditionally put on women. The expectation for women to have empathy and simultaneous emotional reserve—things like being the office mom, remembering birthdays, soothing enflamed egos, etc.—is work that goes without pay or often acknowledgement, and is not usually taught to boys. I can only imagine how this would be compounded in the service industry.
There are a couple moments in the book where men show empathy and emotional vulnerability, which I see as radical acts. Well, first, I should say the men in book cover the full spectrum of emotional availability. I am thinking about two scenes specifically; first, in “The Morning Tournament,” after a character does a legally questionable job and makes $2,000, he looks from the diner window at a busker and thinks, “What a bum.” I laughed out loud in exasperation reading this like, “Dude, you were broke just 5 pages ago!” In contrast to him, in the poem “Another Way of Saying Fear,” the speaker sees an angry suburban dad yelling at a TV in a bar and has the urge to wrap him in a blanket and console him. Both are kind of humorous, kind of tender moments that illustrate to me the way cultural hierarchies are maintained by the ways we connect with, or fail to connect with, one another. How do you see emotion taking part in the world you mentioned that has never been, where residents feel safe?
I think that you are right that the burden of emotional labor, of empathy, of care, has historically fallen on women and other people outside of the dominant position (people of color, queer people, etc.). But men, even privileged white men, often have difficult, complex emotional lives (as well, I think, as a desire to care for other people in addition to being cared for) and unfortunately little ability to express those emotions, to enact that care. In some ways, I think that gender is kind of an unspoken subject of the book. In the stories in particular, the men reflect a kind of emotional, psychological stuntedness that arises exactly from the conflict described above. The men are grieving, they are afraid, they are lost in their lives, their world is changing around them. Occasionally, they are able to reach outside of themselves to connect with other people, but more often than not they lash out, they self-isolate, they look for answers where there are none.
In the poems, it is a little different. The speakers desperately want to connect with the people around them, to wrap people up in love, to make them feel safe. But they, too, are alienated, as a result of their own economic exploitation, the grief they feel for their lost loved ones, the strictures of American masculinity, the violence of the American racial system, or all of the above. And they also most often find themselves alone, reflecting while trying to heal.
In the poems, the speaker’s vulnerability in seeing, connecting, wrapping in a blanket is their strength. Does poetry offer itself as a kind of answer, then?
Well, poetry has certainly been an important “answer” for me personally in my ongoing struggle to remain engaged, thoughtful, and attendant to my own life. That is probably true for the speakers, as well. The word “song” repeats in several poems, and I think they view the act of lyricizing as liberatory, as temporarily peacemaking.
But I hesitate to speak generally about “answers” or “solutions.” When I was younger, I very much did want to find a single, unified remedy (whether it be poetry, poker, romantic love, class struggle, or organic farming) to the problem of my own suffering. And what I found instead was that to lead a healthy (or at least relatively non-violent), meaningful (or at least not hopelessly alienated) life required a lot of waiting, being open to change, listening to other people, and different forms of work—relational, psychological, political, intellectual, creative, professional, and so on.
I see those moments of change in the characters of the book, too. The questions that end the story “The Union Organizer,” for example, showed the speaker feeling a lack of solidity in his life or direction. Having spent the majority of my life working in service jobs or other blue-collar work, I connected with that feeling. Feeling like I wished I could afford the dinner and drinks I was serving to people—a feeling a little bit like spite for the people who could afford them, but more like a desire to prove to them something about myself that they couldn’t see. But I didn’t know how to prove it, or even what it was, or what to do with that feeling. Can you tell me more about this feeling of alienation in your own life and work?
I think the easiest way to answer that question is to talk about when I haven’t felt alienated—when I used to work as a caregiver for people with disabilities, for example, or when I was trying to form a union with my co-workers at the grocery store, or when I am having a successful (or even sometimes unsuccessful) organizing conversation. On the personal side, I mainly feel the absence of alienation when I am connecting with (or caring for) my wife or daughter or friends or family. It has something to do with feeling useful to other people, or to a political or social cause, or to a community—to feel the emergence of my own humanity as it comes into contact with the humanity of others. Unfortunately, the vast majority of my work experiences have produced the exact opposite feeling—dehumanization or instrumentalization in the service of completely pointless causes: serving fancy appetizers to rich people, for example, when I used to work as a caterer, or selling smoothies to athletes when I worked in a gym. The competition inherent to capitalism contributes to (or perhaps, in an era of surplus material resources, creates) the feeling that we are all out for ourselves and inhibits, in my view, possibilities for deep connection.
I’m thinking of how the competition inherent in capitalism works in the service industry to leave not just the workers but even the people being served feeling disconnected. This is a particularly western cultural phenomenon—economies that have grown to fill the spaces that family or close neighbors once occupied. And your book is full of such encounters, like the cook who observes and mistrusts the new Seattle tech workers, or the complicated moment of the caregiver who imagines their patient seeing contempt in other caregivers. And I love that in your life you’ve chosen two careers, labor organizing and art making, that strive to form connections against such cultural forces.
I’d like to end with some questions about writing. Your stories and poems have deceptively welcoming points of entry—maybe it’s the narrative “I” drawing the reader in—but the way they move us is quite complex. We have been speaking about alienation, and the poems are full of disembodied voices talking to or alongside the speaker. Or referencing an unseen mind, body, and beard. Even the poem “Where I Stay,” which is a narrative scene, is being split down the middle. The language objects in the book draw together or pull apart the people involved in dynamic ways. Who are some of your literary wellsprings or heroes? How has your relationship to language changed over the years? Where do you hope it goes from here?
Those are great observations and questions. I’m not sure I have many literary heroes anymore, for a variety of reasons. When I was younger, I found inspiration in writers like Sherman Alexie, Junot Diaz, Raymond Carver, Denis Johnson, Pablo Neruda, James Baldwin, Richard Yates, and even Charles Bukowski. (It’s obviously a very male list.) More recently, I’ve been drawn to writers like Jericho Brown, Mary Miller, Claudia Rankine, Mark Nowak, and Ben Lerner.
I think I’m always interested in writers who are aesthetically and intellectually ambitious but also want to communicate with people who don’t have graduate degrees or come from aristocratic backgrounds. When I start to feel like a work of literature is written by and made for people from an elevated class, I am often turned off. (Not always, however—there is the occasional snob who redeems themselves through the sheer force of their intellectual and creative powers.) Over time, I have also become more aware of how many white writers, including previous heroes of mine, seem to be unconsciously writing only for white readers (see Jess Row’s recent book White Flights for more on this), or how many male writers seem to be writing only for male readers, and have tried to adjust my literary attention accordingly. I’m not so interested in participating in the reinforcement of the dominant dynamics of power.
For most of my life I’ve struggled to understand my own relationship to the complicated matrices of power that constrain and loom over and infect our American lives. I’m often brown-skinned and misperceived as Latino (or Asian or even black), but I’m technically white (my ancestors are Jewish and Italian). My parents had modest incomes, but they also had college degrees and raised me in a house filled with novels, film, and visual art. I play sports and am often read as conventionally masculine, but I also write poetry and used to work as a caregiver for people with disabilities. I want to write about that and also becoming a father while being fatherless and bringing up a child in apocalyptic times. You know, small stuff. You think I can pull it off?
Haha, it’s a small task, but I think you can. And I’ll be there to read it.
Alex Gallo-Brown is the author of Variations of Labor and The Language of Grief. He is a poet, journalist, and labor organizer in Seattle.
Paul Hlava Ceballos is the recipient of a 2019 Artist Trust Fellowship award, as well as a Poets House fellowship, and a 4Culture Artist Grant. He was part of Cave Canem’s Writing-Across Cultures workshop and has been published in the Best New Poets Anthology. His work has been published in Narrative Magazine, BOMB, the PEN Poetry Series, Acentos Review, the L.A. Times, among other journals and newspapers, and have been nominated for the Pushcart. He has an MFA from NYU and currently lives in Seattle, where he practices echocardiography.
Cover image by Devon Midori Hale