Holly Melgard reads from Divisions of Labor as part of the Segue Reading Series, Dec. 14 2013, Zinc Bar, New York City.
Holly Melgard is a poetry powerhouse. Or maybe she’s more of a dynamo. Or a generator. Or a volcano. While we can debate metaphors all day, the truth is that Melgard has–over the course of over half-a-dozen books–developed a mode of poetry that is formally experimental, politically radical, and unflinchingly feminist. But there are no soft touches in Melgard’s poetry. In works such as Catcall (Ugly Duckling Presse), Black Friday (TROLL THREAD), and White Trash (with Joey Yearous-Algozin, TROLL THREAD), Melgard shatters collective fantasies of gender and class in America. With Joey Yearous-Algozin, Melgard authored Liquidation, a book-length series of photos of the abandoned and decaying Trump Taj Mahal Hotel and Casino in Atlantic City. And she’s also authored a trilogy of avant-garde picture books: Colors for Baby (TROLL THREAD), Shapes for Baby (TROLL THREAD), and Foods for Baby (TROLL THREAD). So is Melgard prolific? You bet. A genius? Most definitely. A worthy heir to the poetics of Bernadette Mayer and Diane di Prima? 100% yes.
Melgard’s latest book, Divisions of Labor, is out now from Los Angeles-based poetry press Make Now Books. I chatted with Holly by email to find out what makes her latest poems tic.
Aaron Winslow: So, as you know, I love Divisions of Labor — by translating the sounds of labor into written word, you emphasize not only the division between language and writing, but also manage to cross wires. How did this poem come about?
Holly Melgard: I made and first performed Divisions of Labor back in 2012 for an audience that was a mix of energized and appalled by it. The poem itself is a transcribed, alphabetized list of sounds uttered by women in labor on youtube. After I performed it in Philadelphia, some audience members complained that I had no right to work with such material because I “have never been in labor before,” which confused me, because I definitely attended my own birth.
But their anger was encouraging.
I originally made the poem while processing two converging issues occurring in my life as a budding poet-scholar: 1) Seeing my generation’s fiscal and ecological future become mortgaged by its predecessors, all while experiencing insidiously exploitative labor practices as a student worker in an institution that left far too many of us with a lifetime of debt and no professional path to pay it off. 2) The huge “achievement” disparities in my own field for females and caregivers (parent-friends were warning me that the experimental poetry community made little to no space for children/mothers/parents at readings, female colleagues coached me on downplaying my childbearing prospects to seem more hirable to prospective university employers, and some poet-scholar-friends even explained the ultimatum between getting to tenure and childrearing because doing both was near impossible, all while working in a graduate program where even though the men out-numbered the women, the women still did the majority of unpaid, administrative labor).
As someone living in relation to the specter of motherhood and the invalidation of labor at all times, I was eager to hear more about the kinds of unspoken and unsayable origins causing the level of anger I received from audience members that night in Philly purely out of mutual interest and solidarity. So, I ended up making a whole book of poems that explore forms of labor in scenes of natality (my book Fetal Position will be coming out on Roof Books this fall, 2021).
So, that’s the poem’s first origin story anyway, but I’m also grateful to Make Now for helping it find its second wind in a moment like the one that we are in now.
AW: Yes, Divisions of Labor strikes me as one of those books that has only gotten more relevant as time goes on, especially as covid has put so much more pressure on the presumed divisions between wage and domestic labor. I’m curious how an experimental book like Divisions sits next to a more traditional book on motherhood.
HM: Well, most of the poetry books about motherhood I’ve seen have been written by mothers, whereas in other genres like fiction and theater, I see non-mothering writers conjure mother characters all the time. My writing a poem with a mother’s voice in it was met with such immediate distaste in the same time frame that Ridley Scott made several films where a predatory mother with faulty programing wreaks havoc until she is neutralized. This kind of imbalanced entitlement to regard such commonplace subject matter impoverishes both the record of our cultural memory as well as our drawing board for drafting potential futures.
Experimental writing as a genre actively seeks to foster transgressions against pre-existing forms — a capability which especially appeals to me given the limitations of my gendered upbringing. I engage this genre through poetry, where the only rule is that there are no rules, as the place in writing where I can go to explore and broaden my means for paying attention anew and putting into language the plagues I live with in an order that enables me to see beyond them. I see this work fighting to protect room in language to listen to and articulate the unsayables, the unfathomables and the under-intelligibles in this way.
While poems on motherhood are usually written by mothers and use the first-person experience to represent an understanding of the place of motherhood in our world, my book is written from the perspective of an outsider to that first-hand experience of motherhood. Despite this, I’m attempting to expand formal means for regarding that labor more publicly and vocally. I do want to make reimbursement and mutual aid for nascent and parental laborers more thinkable. We obviously need more ways to listen to, sit with and protect domestic workers in this economy that barely registers the labor of people-making, caretaking and becoming as labor at all.
While not all women want, have, or can have children, and while not all primary parents/caretakers are moms, every person was once born and someone labored over the making of them as people. All of us labor over the becoming of us, and all of us make choices every day that do/don’t subordinate the value of that labor to adjacent forms of capital. I’d talk more about this book in terms of women’s writing in particular, but honestly, I would rather talk about it at the table where labor gets categorically defined than in the lady’s room where women’s work too often gets categorically relegated. For a different world to be imaginable and for collective actions that can fix this problem to be fathomable, tending to the ways in which language may be used to furnish such thoughts is not the only step needed, but it is a primary and important one nonetheless in the formulation of subjects as such.
Divisions of Labor
by Holly Melgard
Make Now Books, 2020
52 pages, $12.00
50% of the sales of Divisions of Labor go to Black Mamas Matter, an organization that advances the human right to safe and respectful maternal health care (www.blackmamasmatter.org).