Traffic Report

from the archive: 40x40 Buuck on Brodine

David Buuck

In 2014, Small Press Traffic turned 40 years old. In celebration of this death-defying fact, we created the year-long program of inquiry: 40×40@40.

As part of looking back and mapping what the amazing feats of the SPT community have been since 1974, we asked 40 writers to contribute one short text each celebrating—describing, anatomizing, remembering an encounter with, meditating on, shouting out to—a single book published by a small press between 1974 and 2014.

We were interested in having writers reflect on a book that palpably shifted their perspective, startled their aesthetics, changed their life; a book they always recommend to others; a book that they would place in a time capsule. The one small-press publication that has obsessed them: cult classic—difficult pleasure—creased-cover favorite—out-of-print masterpiece. Here is David Buuck's contribution on Karen Brodine.


Woman Sitting at the Machine, Thinking

Poems 1978-87

preface by Merdiel Le Sueur, introduction by Merle Woo, memorial by Janet Sutherland

Red Letter Press, Seattle, 1990.

Karen Brodine died from cancer at the age of 40, while working — in anticipation of her death — on what would become this final collection of her poetry. In addition to being a poet, Brodine had been a tireless activist and advocate, a union organizer and socialist feminist, national organizer for both Radical Women and the Freedom Socialist Party, and founding co-editor of Kelsey Street Press. A typesetter for most of her adult life, she traced the connections between the alienation of the mechanized workday, as the mediation of gendered labor moved from the messy materiality of type and ink to the equally embodied (despite still being labeled 'immaterial,' wtf) and industry-wide shift to computerized work (which of course, still requires 'sitting at the machine', like Bartleby at his copydesk).

she thinks about everything at once without making a mistake.

no one has figured out how to keep her from this thinking

while her hands and nerves also perform every delicate complex

function of the work… this is not automatic or deadening.

try it sometime. make your hands move quickly on the keys

fast as you can, while you are thinking about:

the layers, fossils. the idea that this machine she controls

is simply layers of human workhours frozen in steel, tangled

in tiny circuits, blinking out the lights like hot, red eyes...

The title poem, a 'series of work poems,' is the sequence that made me realize I was reading something new and different in my under-formed ideas about Bay Area poetry (as well as feminist poetry) and, even if it did not directly change my own writing, would certainly help me rethink the privileging of poetic form as the locus of political work in the avant-garde (not that I do not continue to sweat out the politics of form!). Of course, Brodine was not alone: from Adrienne Rich to Dodie Bellamy, many Bay Area feminists, queers, and working class poets found new ways to combine autobiographical material with emerging forms of feminist, political, and literary theory to foreground marginalized (and in many contexts, often silenced or erased) experiences of class and gender. For Brodine, 'work poems' (in this volume as well as her earlier books Workweek and Illegal Assembly) were not simply vehicles for narrating one's personal experience in the workplace, but arenas for thinking through how feminized labor was connected to broader modes of capitalist exploitation, embodied entanglements with machines (coming four years before Donna Haraway's "Cyborg Manifesto"!), as well as the attendant physical risks, from cathode streams to xerox rays to processor chemicals (it is difficult to read such material without thinking about Brodine's death from cancer), networks of political-economic articulation beyond the more limited (though nonetheless critical) concerns of 70s US feminism about better wages, workplace harassment, etc, or 70s US feminist poetics' focus on self-expression and celebration of 'the feminine'. No one would call her an experimental or avant-garde poet — at least if judged by formalist categories — but our capacity for recognizing what risks and new openings can appear in what otherwise might be dismissed as conventional autobiographical poems only requires our own willingness to confront the class and gender politics of the workplace, the picket line, the family and domestic sphere, to rethink how poetry might register the complex articulations of labor in the current conjuncture of capitalism and patriarchy.  

when I see my boss, I hold

my face clear and solemn, thinking

pig. pig. it's true, too.

not rhetorical.

In 1999 or so, Yedda & I reprinted an excerpt from the title poem in the Work issue of Tripwire (you can download it at But find the book, read it alongside the Marxist-feminist and antiwork theory and history being rediscovered by the radical left. Read it alongside the work poems of the 30s and 2nd gen feminist poets of the 70s. Compare the cover to the cover of Haraway's Simians, Cyborgs, and Women. Read it and remember the radical potential of content as a mode of risk and political work in poetry. And let's remember the thankless work of small presses such as Red Letter for being committed to such risks, such politics, such poetry.

— David Buuck : Oakland : Jan ’14