Company Town

134 pages,
ISBN: 0889782350

Covering Rough Ground

by Kate Braid,
96 pages,
ISBN: 091959168X


by Tom Wayman,
342 pages,
ISBN: 1550170422

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Working at Verse
by Daniel Jones

ON THE FRONT cover of an early collection of his poetry, Free Time (1977), Tom Wayman is photographed in the Macmillan warehouse standing among some of the workers involved in the production of his book. The reader is reminded that books (and magazines) are not solely the products of an author's imagination, but are also commodities produced and distributed through the labour of a large group of men and women, from printers and typesetters to publicists, booksellers, and book reviewers. As Wayman writes in his introduction to Paperwork,

We live in a society that hides from itself the basis of its existence. North American culture - high and low, popular or elitist -presents almost nowhere the realities of daily work.

As a poet, anthologist, and critic, Wayman has for 20 years devoted himself to making work the subject of literary discourse. He has been at the forefront of a movement that has spawned an organization (the Vancouver Industrial Writers' Union), conferences, numerous anthologies, and many individual collections. Paperwork is the fourth anthology of work poetry Wayman has edited, and it is by far his most adventurous undertaking to date. Included are several poems by each of more than 100 North American writers. Wayman has grouped the poems into eight thematically linked sections, focusing on such subjects as outdoor work, women's experience in the workforce, and the ways that work affects relationships.

While there is much here to commend -including fine poems by Leona Gom, Phil Hall, Erin Moure, Wayman himself, and Howard White, the anthology's publisher -there is also much that may cause the reader to question some of the premises of the genre. Wayman notes in his introduction that his "major criterion for including a poem in Paperwork besides literary accomplishment - is that the poem present an insider's view of the workplace." This emphasis on experience rather than language or form has led over the years to a certain sameness of approach among the writers affiliated with this movement. Almost without exception, the poems included here are written in free verse and are lyrical and anecdotal in form. There is little experimentation; indeed, when read together the poems seem almost formulaic in tone and structure.

Wayman's emphasis on experience has also resulted in his overlooking a great many lines that suffer from cliched imagery and tired expressions. In "Getting It Up," for instance, M. R. Appell describes the experience of being unemployed:

i feel like an impotent man wanting to make love & unable to get it up; easier to roll over & go to sleep.

Kate Braid is one of the contributors to Paperwork. Her first collection of poetry, Covering Rough Ground, for the most part follows the formulas already established in the work-writing genre. Writing about her work as a carpenter, Braid does, however, bring a woman's perspective to bear on a traditionally male occupation. "Recipe for a Sidewalk," for instance, ends: "For the rest of your life your kids / will run on the same sidewalk, singing / My mom baked this!" Both for their similarities and their differences, it is interesting to compare these lines to the final stanza of Clem Starck's "Slab on Grade" in Paperwork:

What could be flatter or more nondescript than a concrete slab? For years people will walk on it, hardly considering that it was put there on purpose, on a Thursday in August by men on their knees.

In contrast, Michael Turner's first collection of poetry is a unique addition to the growing body of work writing. In Company Town, Turner records a year in the lives of the workers at the Raskell Packing Company, the last of the salmon canneries on British Columbia's Skeena River. The writing here is deliberately flat and colloquial:

HEY YOU! In green. Ever punched a clock before? Take an apron from the hanger. There's gloves beside the dressing table.

Writing in the tradition of oral history, Turner captures the many individual voices that make up the cannery. Individual experience is less important than the collective plight of a diverse group of men and women facing certain unemployment. Company Town is a powerful and important book that challenges many of the assumptions of work writing.


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