Coming back from a night shift I’m dropped at a garage on the edge of town. I’ll wait there for my lift home. Inside I can sit down at the plastic tables. Get in from the weather forming out in the Atlantic. At this hour, as I sit and watch, cup a warm drink I don’t want, the morning workers are mopping up the floor, setting up the fast food counter, or running the till. They are mainly immigrants or students. A few locals pass in and out. This is the precarity.
I’m tired after my shift, tired in my skin, beginning to drift in to the low, ever present, rumbling hangover of the night worker. I’m aware, especially at these times, of the jarring friction between my own struggles as a writer of non-commercial literature, or writing that nobody wants to read if we’re just going by the market, writing therefore of no value, and my need to make a living. I look over at the person mopping the floor, someone beside her stocking a shelf, someone in the outfit of the fast food server. At this moment, at this time, they’d look over at the nightshift worker and recognise me. They’d see me. We occupy the same space. The same, irritable, tetchy, fractious space. The same desperate for a laugh space. The same here out of necessity space. We are in the same space.
The precarity of the artist is the gig economy, the bursary, the grant, the funding, the deadline, the books and pictures and music that doesn’t sell. The artist should, by right, by context, recognise this early morning garage scene. The artist should know this world far too well. Yet, here’s my empirical observation. The eastern Europeans, the students, the immigrants, the over qualified asylum seeker, the small-town-trapped local, I see them here by the coffee machine, and the brightly stacked aisles, and the wearisomely loud tabloid headlines. But I don’t see the artist. I never have. I never do.
There’s no nobility in the low-paying job. No nobility in labour as experienced by most people. This isn’t some ugly, sly, paean to those who get up early in the morning. But if we have to sit here in the grit of neon light just in order to keep going, a pay check away from financial chaos, where are the artists? Where are the poets? What are they doing?
Not only that but, and as someone who straddles both worlds I can vouch for this, it is not just that the poet isn’t here. It is that the poet is looking down on this. The poet, and we know it, those of us sat here amongst the garish furniture and the far too bright, shiny symbols of commerce, is affronted by this scene. Not just aesthetically, we’re all trying to blink it away, but by the idea that they, the artist, the poet, should be part of it. Could be part of it. Might have no choice but to be part of it. That is an affront. This is not for them. This low-wage poverty is of a different kind to that of struggling on a bit of funding here or a paid gig there. One is superior to the other. And we all know it is not the one that contains these purple chairs or these disposable cups.
Truthfully, none of us can afford to write a poem. Not merely because of the lack of renumeration. There is more behind it than that. But if the world of the poet, or the artist, does not contain this early morning garage, has no need to, has never had to, indeed has no conception of it, knows there is no possibility of it in their world, knows it will never come to this, knows financial chaos is not a factor in their world, knows nothing of this precarity, cares even less for it, indeed looks down upon it, then, true, none of us can afford to write a poem. But some of us can afford it far, far less than others.