Rodrigo Toscano is a serious poet. He’s also a longtime OSHA outreach trainer of workers and the national projects director of The Labor Institute, a non-profit focusing on the contracts and workplace safety of telecommunications workers. His poetry, too, addresses labor, both concretely and abstractly. Shannon Henry Kleiber caught up with Toscano at an art and poetry event in upstate New York.
Thirty thousand linemen in bucket trucks
Streaming into your distressed environs
Hitting sixteen-hour shifts, repairing
Lines that keep your identities well lit
The lines that give your powered distinctions
The punch they need to remain––aesthetic.
That is, when the lines are down, days on end
Your projects oblivious to these men
And the striving families they’re part of
Start losing power, hour by hour.
By around the fifth day, you’re like the rest
Overheated, exhausted, half crazy
And perhaps becoming dimly aware
Linemen have zero power in the arts.
There’s no phrase in the entire English tongue
That gives me the tingles more than “swap out.”
Working folks don’t trade up, let alone, down
They simply—swap out, shit, folks, ideas.
Something’s not working? Have you tried and tried?
Ok! Swap that shit out—let’s get moving.
But the problem is, where get the parts, and how?
Let alone, at the time when you need them.
But even this tune of have-nots and haves
Is something folks swap out, if the tale’s stale.
Working folks, you’ve noticed, prefer new things
Things they’ve thingified to—thingaramas.
There’s another phrase that’s kin to “swap out”
And that is, “crap out”, most folks just—crap out.
The day to day existence of people
If that doesn’t change, then what is all this?
These protests, these stances, rage, pieties
Passionate words, eloquent poetry
What’s the use of any of it today
If tomorrow and many days to come
Aren’t shaped differently, aren’t lived differently
Which calls the question: what do people want?
What do they want, not just what they don’t want
Let’s list it, let’s study the list closely
And before these items are pinned to life
Let’s have that conversation: what is life?
What kinds of lifeforms are we? All of us
And what’s best for each and everyone here?