In Defense of Infiltration / Sarah Cook

Photo credit: Kaique Rocha

It’s been on my mind much longer than it has lived in my mouth as an articulated idea. Usually, it takes the visceral shape of, How do I get what I’m here for? or How can my all-the-time needs be fulfilled while on the clock? Or, most simply, How do I make this my thing? From waiting tables to performing cheap university labor to working at small disorganized nonprofits, I cannot deny the years-long existence of this tendency in me, practically from the moment I entered the workforce, to infiltrate. I’ve done it for selfish purposes (finishing a task early and sneakily writing a poem). I’ve done it in socially agreed upon capacities (no customers = no better time to get some reading done). And I’ve done it toward political, by which I mean personal, ends (if I’ve already got these teens making collage postcards, I might as well leave our Senators’ mailing addresses in an encouraging location, might as well teach them about the wage gap).

Infiltration implies resistance, that one cannot accomplish one’s needs or desires through a purely transparent or accepted method. Or else it implies a disconnect between what two people determine as valuable. I would be hard pressed to try and convince my boss that if I can just get these last few lines written down, these last few pages read, I would be in a much better capacity to take that family’s order.

Perhaps this makes me a bad employee. Perhaps I merely have yet to find a job that will let me feel holistically present, fulfilled, one that won’t demand that I compartmentalize these diverse capacities so presumably at odds within me. Poet. Care worker. Has-to-pay-rent-monthly person. Add to this the fact that I swing wildly between manic motivation and a sluggishness that any grown woman should be ashamed of, and it’s no surprise that my obligations and my intentions can sometimes feel slippery and interchangeable. But the fact is that I’ve repeatedly found myself in situations where I’ve felt driven to infiltrate, either to accomplish what I see as most beneficial and responsible or, less glamorously, to try and remain a somewhat sane person, one whose time might be used in a manner reflective of the value of such finite resources.

This situation is nothing new or rare, my insights entirely standard ones. But this is the context that shaped my reception of “In Defense of Imagination,” a conversation recently published in Guernica between Ada Limón and Matthew Zapruder, on the occasion of the latter’s newest book of prose. It’s a sweet interaction, one that veers from poetry’s distilled powers to Dickinson’s feminist trailblazing to descriptions of classroom teaching that give Dead Poets Society a run for its money, and I found it both useful and inspiring, these two accomplished writers paying such genuine attention to all the different ways a word can hold things like acceptance, or grief. Zapruder’s new book, Why Poetry, sounds like a thoughtful, well-researched and self-reflexive read, and the excerpts popping up online prove this. Every time I write that title down, I have to backspace and delete the question mark that I automatically insert at the end, and this seems important: though Zapruder seems wholly invested in the way that questions can shape and deepen one’s love of a thing, his aim with this book is also to give readers some justification, some support, an expansive explanation: not why poetry? but here’s why poetry.

I like Limón’s distinctions between useful and necessary, and I like the way Zapruder says “neat” to show admiration. And I’m most certainly always happier to read this type of exchange, an optimistic and sweeping battle cry on behalf of the generic Poetry world, than to read the clever and pointless attacks and insults—poetry is dead!—that seem to pop up with embarrassing regularity.

I can always manage to quickly forget about those harsh, self-serving criticisms, usually after a brief period of rowdy commiseration and beer drinking. And yet it’s the optimistic defenses—Limón and Zapruder’s conversation, the love letters, the impassioned and straight up happy appraisals of the poet’s life and purpose—that sometimes keep me up at night, leave me feeling as if I’m doing something wrong, as if I must have misunderstood some key component of success somewhere along the way. As if maybe my own version of public rallying would not revolve around a wholly committed defense of Poetry and Poetics. Feelings are feelings, but where in the world does this one come from? Me, a poet, wanting to infiltrate my own love of a thing with suspicion and privacy, with the cold truth of its actual limitations and perhaps even a healthy dose of believing that, at the end of the day, poemdoing is utterly not the same thing as any other form of doing. I stubbornly insist on voicing this awareness even when contexts are made clear: poetry is simply a space for a certain kind of thinking—“anarchic,” even, as Zapruder describes it at one point—and nobody here is trying to claim that it prevents oppression, or that it campaigns, or that it legislates.

It is an awareness of purpose—the actual vulnerable heart of these kinds of discussions, I suspect—that feels uncomfortably poked as I read through conversations like the one between Limón and Zapruder. Almost immediately, Limón points out the invigoration that can be felt at belonging to an occupation so regularly misunderstood or deemed pointless and therefore requiring defense; after all, she cites, nobody questions lawyers and their practice of law, or waiters and the validity or usefulness or reasoning behind why they do what they do.

I am also a poet, though I do not typically call it my vocation, not in the sense that it’s connected to how I pay my bills, and neither does it provide me with even a small source of bonus income. I have been paid a couple of times for things I have written that were not commissioned, things truly born of the soul or whatever else in me, the purpose of writing them having been a deeply and entirely personal one (which, to be clear, does not automatically apply to the content itself). How many people are truly making a living from their poems, not in the poetic sense but the IRL one: making enough money from appearances, and publications, and other writerly accoutrements that I don’t even have access to imagining, that they’re able to confuse their job with their passion? How many people can strictly give one answer to the infamous question, “so, what do you do?”

Perhaps what keeps me up at night is the distinction between making a living and making one’s life, that purpose thing, and the different defenses that each pursuit might earn. No matter what our bosses tell us, there are other ways to conceive of vocation: if we cleave some space between its casual, contemporary usage and the notion of a “career,” one begins to remember that in late Middle English terms, having a vocation was simply to have a calling. It was perhaps the category most exemplified by the poet, committing herself to showing up to the page, like ocean to shore, pulled toward the pursuit of locatable meaning; how the poet’s body moves in sync with some mysterious, natural world, one that continues even in the absence of explanation or understanding—separate from quotas, and tasks, and products. Much like Zapruder and Limón, I am called to poetry the way I am called to look across the Columbia River when driving through the mountains of the Gorge: it is a choice as much as a reflex, primordial grounding meets perpetual vacation.

But it is more and more problematic these days to discuss worklife without delving into the nuanced distinctions between occupation and purpose, between career and calling, given that everywhere we look we are faced with “personal branding” and do what you love narratives that drive us deeper into underpaid, overworked positions, calcifying generic expectations surrounding labor. When “vocation” becomes “career”—when discussions of calling become interchangeable with or serve to mask things like employability and hourly wages—we risk reducing writing to nothing more than content creation, contributing to a system that thrives on the monetization of pleasant things, turning more and more lifestyles into commodified achievements. Hear how all these words sound like statues? Content. Achievement. Brand. A job is a static, paid thing, but a vocation is a vocation is a vocation.

The powerful thing about pursing a vocation, a calling, is not what capitalism trains us to seek of it, folding our hobbies and desires and passions into the same fragile space as our paycheck. The mind open to infiltrating says: What I do is bigger than what you’re probably asking me about, stranger.

If a job fills up our time, it is poetry that fills it up differently, creating loopholes and cyclical trajectories, memorializing and inventing in the same breath. To compare the poet defending her work to the lawyer, the waitress, the librarian, or the barista is not only to conflate certain forms of necessity with art-making, but to suggest that the poet’s skills might be quantifiable to begin with, that one can simply decide to become a poet in a socially recognizable way and then proceed forward in the manner of their choosing: open a poem shop, or start publishing in exchange for immediate money, perhaps even become a celebrity poet in public. I’m moved and engaged by Limón and Zapruder’s discussion of what poetry is for, in a philosophical and, well, a poetic sense, but I’m made sad by the equivocation of art form and job.

Perhaps when the job of the poet is discussed with so few footnotes, what is really being talked about is teaching. I get it: you love poetry, you obtain a degree in English or Creative Writing, and then you pursue professorship and academia all the way. But poetry is not the purview of higher education alone. And while I do understand the poet who aims to teach, whose goal is to pursue their Poethood as one stemming from or revolving around the classroom, I lament the lack of imagination that suggests there’s no other way to do it. It is, I suppose, a grief born of fact: there isn’t really any other clear way to be a poet, not professionally. You can write and publish and read and submit, enter contests and attend AWPs, network, do the obligatory social dances of recognition and branding, and maybe one day you will publish a book, maybe even a few. But you will probably, even then, still have a day job.

It would be remiss of me not to acknowledge this comment from Zapruder, occurring about a third of the way into the conversation:

Some people have seen [prior remarks about the definition of poetry] as the mark of privilege, as if only someone who is magically free of all societal and personal pressures (oh, how I wish!) could “afford” to think in such a way…I hope anyone who reads the book will see that if freedom in the imagination is a privilege, it’s one I believe everyone should have, as a basic human right.

I love this: the acknowledgment, the advocacy, the sincerity. I’d just like to call a spade a spade, a poem a poem. Necessary and useless. Placing “poet” amongst other occupations is like positioning this baby doll as my offspring. We’re all just playing around! That’s why we’re good at poems. We shouldn’t stop writing them, but maybe we should think twice about calling it our job?

To be a poet is an admirable vocation in a world where meanings have been gently kidnapped from their parent words. At the root of things, the failure to distinguish between living and making money is often a failure of privilege, though perhaps just as often it is a symptom of today’s creative economy and the drive to conflate art, work, and life. Still, for all the complicity involved in defending the poet’s work as existing on the waitress-lawyer continuum, it is, at the same time, a radical gesture to reunite “vocation” with calling, to pursue activities separate from pay, ones that reach simultaneously back and forward in time toward the ur-purpose of all purposes: as Lynda Barry says, to make life feel worth living. This is how I understand vocation. Whatever its shape may be, its reach is far beyond the clockable hour.

What we call things matters (see: whatever Trump recently said on Twitter), as words direct our sense-making. Some people look around and say, biology, psychology, accident. Others, magic, meant-to-be, or perfection. Most of us, all of us, fly back and forth between such poles, our reason and our desire and our imagination all sharing the same bed regardless of their different or competing sleep schedules. And some people choose, in the face of harsh realities and limited abilities, in the face of explanation and fact, to leave a little space open in them for optimism and hope, for the birth of a spirit animal, for the way providence sheds a slightly different light on the object before you than does coincidence. It is, undoubtedly, the poet’s choice: you infiltrate reality with meaning, aslant. You write the poem regardless.

Here are some things I do want: more generosity stemming from deep within myself, more confidence in how and when and for whom I define my boundaries, more play, more money, more stability, more responsibility in tandem with the constantly growing amounts of more complicity; to write more poems, to read more poems, to vary when and where and for whom I write those poems; to sneak more creativity into boring jobs, to sneak more political engagement into daily activities, to sneak more vegetables into my boyfriend’s food. To sneak more gratitude and acceptance into my engagements with difference, with poets unlike me, with people who do different jobs than me or even the same jobs but to different ends. To sneak some vulnerability into every single engagement between myself and the page. To sneak the poem into the essay and vice versa.

Poetry is its own form of infiltration: it breaks into language and steals meaning, steals utility, lays bare a wealth of behind-the-scenes linguistic functioning and inserts all manner of happenstance and coincidence and prank where none existed before. Could it ever truly be an occupation when it revolves around infiltrating the means of production themselves? It is always about getting away with something, and often some form of robbery. Though most people choose a better getaway vehicle than words.

Pure infiltration. What other medium, what other linguistic shape or form of communication could allow its own angst to intrude upon its defenses, could allow or even encourage the subordinate to both betray her responsibilities and question the enterprise itself? Perhaps the real job of the poet is to write regardless of circumstance, to cradle the pennilessness of vocation, to pretend for once in this capitalist-centric world that money might be what it actually is: beside the point. As Dickinson might say, the prose in which we are all shut up.

Sarah Cook

Sarah Cook’s writing has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Cosmonauts Avenue, Black Warrior Review, and many gendered mothers. Her newest poetry chapbook, “Somewhere the / shaking,” was published this year by above/ground press. You can find her rollerblading in the Columbia River Gorge and, occasionally, at