On Poverty

Alison Stine
February 29, 2016
Comments 35

In the wake of Claire Vaye Watkins’s “On Pandering,” there were many responses; notably, critiques of the essay’s failure to address the author’s white privilege. But no one addressed class privilege in the essay, which begins with a slam on rural Pennsylvania, a poor place Watkins says smells like pigshit, and which she described “to faraway friends [as] murdersome.” Watkins was in Appalachia for an academic job, which she left.

She was a tourist in what she calls “coal-Amish-fracking country.” I live there.

I’m a solo mother living with my son on a ridge in the foothills of Appalachian Ohio, where a fracking injection well a few miles away is maybe/probably to blame for my occupational asthma; where, for dinner, I defrost deer shot by a neighbor; where I can’t remember the last time I bought clothing not from Goodwill. We burn our trash here. We fix our cars with beer cans and hose. My black work boots I’ve worn since I was thirteen. I didn’t go to the dentist for seven years.

My grandfather finished the eighth grade. My parents, college (the first in both families to do so), and I made it through graduate school. But I pursued writing. And while the road to being a writer has been paved for me—as for Watkins, as for every woman I know—with sexism and harassment, it’s also land-mined with class barriers.

Art is not the class I was born into. It’s not only that writing doesn’t pay well; it costs a lot of money for the privilege of not being paid, even for the consideration of not being paid. It’s not simply that paying magazines’ submission fees is a luxury for me and for many others, but that being an unpaid intern—a funnel toward publication or an editorial position—is a pipedream when you’re juggling which of the bills to pay this month, wondering if water is more important than heat.

Writing connections are often class connections. It costs money to attend writers’ conferences, including job conferences, or to “take time off” from a job to attend a residency. These experiences have become important for a writing life, both for the competence they lend to resumes and for networking, which can lead to publication.

Art is not the class that most of the writers I grew up loving were born into, either. Not James Wright, son of a worker at Atlas Glass and a homemaker. Not Octavia E. Butler, daughter of widowed mother who worked as a maid.

But literary writing has become tangled with a higher class: academia. Watkins was an assistant professor at Bucknell University, adjacent to the “coal country town” which “On Pandering” disparages, and located in the small, privileged college town of Lewisburg, which her essay contrasts as “actually quite pleasant.” Though her essay acknowledges the vast class differences between the adjoining places, it presents no possible solutions to the poverty just outside the academic bubble, but only a mockery of it, including a joke about a nearby coal seam fire. Mine fires, caused by smoldering coal, are environmental disasters. They can burn for years, posing serious health hazards to people in already-exploited places—people who can’t afford, like Watkins did, to just leave.

But the coal disaster in Centralia, Pennsylvania, is presented in “On Pandering” as a joke: “That vein, by the way, is expected to continue burning for another 250 years. So if you haven’t visited Centralia, there’s still time.” The poverty of others is distasteful, something to laugh at. And then to run from.

Watkins now is an assistant professor at the University of Michigan. Indeed, if you look at the contributors’ notes of many leading journals or the finalist bios of prizes, you might believe that professors are the only ones who write anymore.

Teaching at the college level was traditionally a good job, if you could get it. But most of us can’t. Most creative writers in the academy now end up as adjuncts, not making ends meet (or having job security or insurance); not having the time, energy, or physical stamina to do their own work, while teaching four or more sections of English Composition a semester (that translates into grading, on average, about 300 drafts).

That was me, for a while. Then I was offered a section, and when I asked how much it paid—because I have to pay a babysitter for my young son—I was only told by the (male, white) department head: “We have adjuncts who will do it at any price.”

As disgusting as this statement is, it’s true. And it means that only writers with working spouses or families who support them, or who have independent wealth, can teach. And that most college English departments—we’ve long known this, but don’t seem capable or willing to do anything about it—run on exploitation.

So I work several jobs now. I work for a website for solo moms, I freelance write and report, I copyedit and tutor, and I have a lead on extra work selling corn chips at supermarkets on weekends. And while I love teaching writing and believe I could have made a difference in academia, and a better life for my son there, I also believe that contemporary literature’s heavy focus on the professor class is a detriment not only to writers’ lives but also to the work being produced.

It reinforces the damaging message that the only lives worth writing (or reading) about are the ones professors lead.

I think of Herbert Scott and his book Groceries, about working in a grocery store. I think of Kathy Fagan handing hot dogs out of a drive-up window. I think of Tyehimba Jess teaching high school. I think of David Dodd Lee on the night shift in a hospital storeroom. While these writers, like Wright and others, made the leap to academia, they certainly didn’t start there, and their work has a deepness of experience and empathy that is missing from the work of the privileged.

Making art is more than a leisure activity exclusively for the well-off. For some, including the poor, it’s a calling that cannot be denied. There is no stronger motivation than that. There is no brighter fire.

There are other voices beyond professors. Other kinds of lives, other struggles that are real, vividly imagined, and deserving of time. One of the ways of validating lives is by allowing them space to speak, by setting up your conference or your contest in a way that supports writers who are poor and less connected, in a way that actively looks for them.

This means no submission fees. This means paying your interns—and your writers. This means shorter residencies for writers who will be fired from their jobs if they leave for long, or who have children without nannies. This means searching for writers to celebrate beyond New York and outside of academia. This means putting up flyers for your journal and posters advertising your readings not just at the hipster coffeehouse and AWP elevator, but at community colleges and laundromats, at halfway houses and homeless shelters. This means recognizing that not everyone—including every writer—has internet at home, not everyone has a working printer, not everyone can apply for a grant early or at all, not everyone has an hour of free time, not everyone can write when they are not bone tired or hungry or cold.

While some progress has been made with regard to working for—or at least acknowledging the dire need for—gender and racial diversity in literature, thanks to the work of groups like VIDA and We Need Diverse Books, nothing has been done to champion class diversity in writing.

Why is it still okay, as “On Pandering” did, to make fun of the poor? Why is it still okay to forget them? And what voices are we losing out on when there is an entry fee to even being heard?

I think of Nora Piece working as a custodian, among many other jobs. I think of Donald Ray Pollock at the Mead Paper Mill. I think of Jane Hamilton farming in an apple orchard. And I think of Christina Baker-Jones.

You probably haven’t heard of Christina Baker-Jones (yet), because she worked three jobs at the same time: as a student worker during the day, at McDonald’s at night, and crushing boxes in Wal-Mart layaway department until well after dawn. You will hear of her, because her stories are sharp and aching, and because her drive is strong. She married a former co-worker at McDonald’s, went back to college in her early thirties—and graduated. That kind of spirit cannot be silenced. That kind of voice doesn’t pander. It prevails.

And I have to tell you: the smell of manure that “On Pandering” mocks? It comforts me. It reminds me of home. Of farmers, like my family. Once someone tried to insult my uncle by calling him a “dirt farmer.” But those are the people I come from.

Sometimes we can be activists. We can burn things. We can shout—and call out. Sometimes, for safety reasons, for not-starving reasons, for not-wanting-to-be-fired reasons, for not-wanting-to-be-abused-again reasons we cannot. I am scared about the ramifications of voicing this.

But as a poor white woman with an invisible disability (deafness), I have enormous privilege. It is much more difficult to be a writer of color, a writer with a visible disability, a trans writer. Those paths are not only land-mined, they are actively blocked, the bridges dynamited out, the directions sabotaged.

Though I am embarrassed and afraid, sliding into the rural poverty my parents worked hard to escape, I have family not far away who help out with my son when they can, and my county, though the poorest in the state, is supportive of those who are struggling. So every time I read a mischaracterization of the poor written by professors, I cringe. Because that’s not how it’s like.

Unless you publish the voices of the poor, how will you know about the basket of fruit by the doors of the grocery, free for any child to eat? How will you know about the night when someone anonymously paid for the entire town to attend the movies? How will you know about shaking creosote from woodstoves? Or finding hen-of-the-woods? Or how the ground jerks when the coal mine is dynamited? Or how the mechanic gives away free tires? Or how to steep nettle tea, or how to collect it wild by the river in your arms?

The experiences and imaginations of the poor are as rich as those of anyone born into privilege or tenured as a professor. Sometimes, imagination is all we have.

We are poor because we were born that way. We are poor because our husbands or girlfriends left us, or our families disowned us, or our partners abused us. We are poor because we are raising children and children need things, like food. We are poor because of illness or disability. We are poor because the city where we live is expensive, but we don’t have the savings to leave. We are poor because we spent those savings on rent. We are poor because our rent was raised. We are poor because our fifteen-year-old car broke down again. We are poor because of student loans. We are poor because there are no jobs, or there are not enough jobs, or we’re working three jobs, but none pay a living wage.

We are not poor out of lack of hard work. We are not poor because we “want it less.” We stay poor because of institutionalized sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, ageism, and classism.

We stay poor because doors stay closed.

35 thoughts on “On Poverty

  1. One hundred percent agreed American writing is suffering from the lack of diversity in life experience for writers. Many BA MFA asst.prof etc etc have little experience outside the Ivory Tower. The result is that they often have nothing to say. Try working in a seminary, for a financier, for a mafia wife, in an impoverished desert community. Take faith struggling real writers, these academic lives are turning up much well written but banal work. Only the genius shines through. One reason I know this — I read for a big lit journal and sometimes am a judge. Finding writers who can write outside of their deadly safe lives is the challenge.

  2. I am grateful to Stine for writing this piece. I have a PhD in the physical sciences and I’ve been sadden, shocked, and driven away from practicing research by the reality of the academic economy. Leaving that world almost feels like leaving a cult. I believed in a set of rules, to not care about my finances or my health or anything but my academic work. I am wholly outside of rules now. I’m much healthier and happier and settled though to arrive here I had to cut an appendage off.

  3. Great piece on the Ponzi scheme that is the MFA/Ph.D. in creative writing!! I’m a Michigan MFA grad. and I recently went to a pleasant holiday gathering of MFAs from the first graduating class (80s) to the present.

    The angst was palpable and could have been sliced through with a butter knife.

    Michigan now offers its MFA students year-long funding after graduation. The stipend is very modest, but it gives grads a third year to polish up writing projects and/or pursue employment prospects. As it was described to me, the Michigan MFA program is “floating” in money and so used some of it to give MFA grads an opportunity to devote time to their writing.

    One of my MFA classmates is a very successful novelist and poet whose novels have been made into films. Another of my classmates worked as a non-tenured faculty member (including at Michigan after graduation with an MFA) for 30 years. The others whom I studied with are living (I hope) lives that they find fulfilling.

    Landing a tenure-line faculty position in creative writing is, in many respects, the Holy Grail of the MFA. The reality, as evidenced in this essay, is that many MFAs end up living lives of quiet desperation.

  4. “Indeed, if you look at the contributors’ notes of many leading journals or the finalist bios of prizes, you might believe that professors are the only ones who write anymore.”

    Bravo! Another elephant in the room nobody wants to acknowledge. If you’re a working class writer outside of academia, good luck with ‘winning’ one of these contests or placing a book during an ‘open’ reading period. The decks are stacked, and it has nothing to do with the quality of your writing.

  5. The hypocrisy of the markets that charge a fee for submission (the number of which is growing every week, alas) is astounding, and appalling. I think a great deal is revealed by a typical comment: “The cost of submitting is less than you spend every day at Starbucks.”

  6. Alison has one item wrong here: “And that most college English Departments—we’ve long known this, but don’t seem capable or willing to do anything about it—run on exploitation.” Actually, it’s not just English departments. There are adjuncts across a vast array of disciplines who are exploited by the modern economics of college staffing. Of course this exploitation is itself the result in many institutions of the under-funding of colleges, especially public institutions. (The Yales of this world have no excuse for using adjuncts or grad students as solo class instructors.) This is not just an “English” problem.

  7. This is fantastic. My friend, Allie Marini, who is a managing editor at Zoetic Press, wrote about these issues recently as well (http://rhizomaticideas.com/the-fallacy-of-the-serious-writer/). My own family is from deep Appalachia and I personally struggle with my identity and background; if nothing else, the fear of never being taken “seriously” as a writer has kept me swimming the genre pools. Thanks for writing so eloquently about this.

  8. I don’t know if you will read this, as I rarely read the comments on things I publish because of trolls, the anger of people who project their own shame, and the people who love to practice missing the point entirely and try to teach you something they think you should know. All of those people have showed up in the comments for this post and I am writing to thank you for giving me permission to show up too. Thank you for reminding/ teaching me that there is more than one way to be a writer, that there should be no shame in not being able to afford one type of writer’s life, the one that depends on connections and conferences and cushy teaching jobs you cling to because the market is exploitative and you’re afraid to be uncomfortable. I am a writer and the past year has been the most uncomfortable of my entire life. Until I read this piece, I was sure that being broke was a reason not to write or tell my truth. You’ve named some of my heroes, reminded me of my heritage, and expanded my empathy. We have a right to be here. Thank you for showing up on the page.

  9. When a freelance writers like me submit to a magazine or publisher, recipients don’t know what color we are. I never submit to a market that charges me a fee.
    But it is time were were paid fairly. Others may write for less, but you generally get what you pay for. That’s how to get and keep readers instead of moaning about declining readership.

  10. I am always grateful to read your words, Alison. This piece really struck a chord in me…as an Appalachian, as an Appalachian who left, as a former adjunct, as a professor, as someone who has read countless stories by and of the poor, as someone who tries to ignore the homogenous literature of writing programs similar to the one I attended, and as someone who has contributed to that literature. I laughed at the Centralia joke when I read On Pandering, because I’ve developed that response as a coping mechanism toward a lot of the realities of my home region. I laugh because, as Carrie Fisher once said, “It’s funny, or else it would just be true.” I don’t examine that impulse enough, or consider the damage it does to my home region, to my own identity, to the people who stayed, to the people who can’t leave…

    I don’t want to dismiss On Pandering. I do think it makes a valid point about sexism. But I do want this piece to be married to it. This should be a constant companion piece. You cannot read one without the other. Reading both On Pandering and On Poverty has made me take an even deeper look at my own privilege and my own complicated feelings about class. It also makes me think about whether or not one essay can do all things. Can it address sexism, classism, race, place, etc. in one 2,000 word container? I don’t have an answer because I need more time with the question. Maybe it’s best worked out in an essay.

  11. I have great compassion for your struggle to make ends meet, as I do for anyone suffering the crushing weight of poverty. I grew up in rough circumstances, too, and those memories inform everything I am to this day.

    But this blog post misrepresents Watkins’ piece, cherrypicking quotations out of context to make it sound as though she is mocking Appalachia. It’s clear to this reader (and most, I’d wager) that she is not slamming the region nor the poor. Her terse descriptions of the bleakness of the place is a way to make concrete the difficult lives of those who live there. She clearly isn’t making a haha joke about, say, the coal seam burning under Centralia. It’s a bitter line to capture a bitter truth.

    It’s a shame that this misreading gets wrapped up in what is a truly moving meditation on the difficulty of creating art while impoverished. That, at least, has a wincing honesty to it.

  12. Thank you for speaking up, out. Your courageous words written so beautifully, touched me to the bone. Vital. I want to read more of your writing. Please keep writing.

    • As others have mentioned, Claire Watkins herself doesn’t exactly come from privilege, though I suspect some of what helped her break OUT of poverty to privilege were some of the wilder aspects of her background. Claire Watkins wasn’t exactly “just” a poor girl growing up in Nevada; her parentage likely had some to do with the early attention she received, which helped her climb out of her childhood situation. A random woman with two kids who lives in the Appalachia mountains, with a couple of kids and a broken-down car and a disability doesn’t often have the same chance to break out as a writer that the daughter of a notorious cult member does. The story is just plain not as interesting to readers. Just a thought.

  13. Watkins has written about class–her own background is not that of a typical academic. (See her NYTimes piece about colleges, it’s good.) That was what was so confusing about her Pandering article for me. I am thankful to Stine for writing this (as someone who came from poverty, first to go to college, etc.)–we need to remind our fellow writers that it’s not all the Brady Bunch out there (dens, braces, new bikes, housekeepers). Maybe this article was written for Watkins’ new class, new milieu, writers who would not notice what Stine points out here.

  14. It’s easy to forget that we are leaving whole swaths of the population out while we are fully in the midst of upping our follower counts and touting our latest creations. It’s not that we actually forget about solidarity. It’s more like it never occurred to many of us. We speak diversity but mean something else entirely – silence among those we selectively include and so generously welcome into our ranks.
    Privilege does wonders for amnesia. “Why on earth are these folks so *angry*?” We don’t get it because it doesn’t apply to us. And privilege comes in so many damn flavors, not only colors. I am an African American woman but I have attended elite schools, I have a secure full time job with all the amenities that go along with that. So I, too, have the choice to turn a deaf ear, to pretend like I can’t quite understand you or someone who hasn’t had experiences somehow similar to my own. I have to work against that tendency. Your essay helps me do that. I am humbled by this work, your work, and see more clearly what tasks lie ahead for me in breaking habits of ridiculous comfort.

  15. Thank you for this essay. From a position of privilege, I have bemoaned the MFA-student gatekeepers as the reason for the similarity in so many of the stories in lit. journals, but I never gave enough consideration to the systemic way the voices of the oppressed can be overlooked. You have given me – and many others – much to think about. I SO hope that people in positions to act on your concerns will do so. Again, thank you, thank you for your courage and your beautiful writing. Don’t give up. You have an important calling. And, you are honoring it.

  16. I love this piece; it’s eye opening and beautifully written. Except for this: “I think of Herbert Scott and his book Groceries, about working in a grocery store. I think of Kathy Fagan handing hot dogs out of a drive-up window. I think of Tyehimba Jess teaching high school. I think of David Dodd Lee on the night shift in a hospital storeroom.”
    Is teaching high school really on a par with selling hotdogs and being on the night shift in a hospital? I know that’s not the point, but it could be a small path out of poverty and it is a noble profession that’s not completely cut off from the possibility of art.

  17. Excellent and on the mark. I live just north of Ms Stine and am surrounded by the same class issues. Higher ed’s use of adjuncts is destroying quality in freshmen writing and hybridizing upper level writing classes.

  18. So much detailed insight into the mechanisms and stereotypes behind presumptions about class. BTW, Wright’s studies at Kenyon were subsidized by that great leveler of opportunity, the GI Bill.

  19. THANK YOU! This is so, so needed for so many reasons. I’ve been wanting to attend conferences in order to meet with agents, but either the submission fees or the cost of transportation/lodging/childcare, etc. is too high to be feasible. Not only are many conferences inherently classist, they also seem to favor the childless – those who can afford to travel or reside in random cities for weeks or months at a time. I recently almost applied for a grant that is specifically for people with kids, but couldn’t afford the submission cost ($40). As you say, it’s not enough for these places to passively “welcome” all voices – they need to seek them out. Thank you, too, for pointing out how the continuing and increasing professorization of writers makes for a monotonous and monolithic voice. Some good publications that actively seek out oppressed voices: The New Inquiry and The Offing. Keep writing!

  20. cont… hardly class privileged…. unless you consider having an alcoholic mother married to a construction worker and living in Pahrump, Nevada (go there sometime ) privileged.

  21. Good lord. Have you ever spent time in the dusty, utterly poverty stricken corners of the Mojave desert where Watkins grew up? Just curious. Have you read her actual work (Battleborn)? It’s one of the most accurate, respectful and humanizing works of those communities I’ve ever read. You don’t have a corner on the poverty story there in Appalachia. Claire’s upbringing was hardly privileged, and she has done an enormous amount of work to contribute/help the communities she grew up in. http://www.mojaveschool.org/

    • The issue isn’t whether Watkin’s understands poverty, it’s that when you turn poverty into a joke you come off as an insensitive human being, even if that might not be the case. This response was terrific, and the message to work toward lowering barriers to allow the voices of the poor to enter the creative spaces occupied by grad student x and professor y within respected publications is crucial.

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