13 September 2021
D chats to Cynthia Cruz, author of The Melancholia of Class, about well – the melancholy of the working class, as a start, but also about the limitations of language, working class anger and alienation, the writing process, the violence of middle class marxists (and middle class non-marxists) and Jason Molina. You can see more of Cynthia’s work and buy her book here:
What was the impetus for writing, “The Melancholy of the Working Class?
I think it was a lot of things, but one of the big questions for me was, the sort of strange thing about the antagonism that I really feel on a regular basis from middle-class people, my colleagues, students, writers, and in academia, where there’s a real hatred for the working class. At the same time, there’s this insistence that there is no working class.So this is one of the things that just really bothered me. I wanted to get to the bottom of this kind of question, like how can those two things be happening at the same time? Like I said, it was many things, but I think that was one of the sort of themes that I wanted to get at.
In your book you talk a little bit of your life as a teenager and how there was a lack of the language around class, and I think that’s something seeing quite a few of us from poor and working class backgrounds have experienced in some way or another. Maybe we can see X, Y, and Z are happening, but the language to explain it isn’t necessarily available for us to articulate it in such terms. So, I was wondering what the importance of gaining that language is. Not just for yourself in your own life but for the wider population of poor and working class people?
It’s super important. When I think of myself as high school, right. I think about loving the Jam and other bands like that who sang about lives I recognised. It was a visceral kind of recognition, but there was no sense of why. A lot of my life and especially a lot of my teenage years and twenties my experience was… I was very self-destructive. I was depressed and I was angry, but I didn’t know where the anger and the sadness came from. So, you know, I used drugs or drank or, you know, had an eating disorder or whatever. So, it was just visceral for me, this feeling.When I started to understand what it was. I realised that this anger was because of my social class and looking at my family, my community, I could sort of locate that anger. It wasn’t some kind of vague anger, which I’d always thought it was, it was actually very specific. And the sorrow also, there was a reason for that.In gaining access to the language. So the language I learned about class was by reading people like Mark Fisher, but I wouldn’t have come across Mark Fisher if I hadn’t been at the university.It was through university, sort of, but I think it was more just going down a rabbit hole. I was reading something for something and it ended up there and then I read Gramsci and I read different people. I studied none of these people at university, but I wouldn’t have had access to the sort of the websites and different places that led me to them if I hadn’t been a student. So I think it’s really important, you know, thinking about someone like Mark Fisher or whoever, and what I’m trying to do is to take that language and make it more accessible. So everyone doesn’t have to go to academia, in fact, academia, is sort of an awful place, it keeps that information away from people like my family.I think it’s really important for me to try and bring it to other people. Without it, I would have, I don’t think, I don’t know. I don’t know what would have happened to me if I wasn’t able to finally realise why I felt the way I did.
In the UK there’s quite a strong current within political scenes of just centering a class analysis that says there is the owning class and then everyone else. With everyone else’s experiences getting flattened into homogeneous experience, invisibilising and diminishing the different ways in which we are classed is something you speak on in the early sections of the book
You know, my encounters with Marxists they’ve always been middle-class.And it’s, um, I think for me that, that made it very hard, and I don’t want anything to do with it, cause like, it was these people who were talking down to me and, um, and they weren’t from the working class and you don’t have to be from the working class to understand or to empathize, but it’s just, there was always a sense of entitlement.There’s a lot of people who are very popular in the United States and they’re Marxists and they’re in academia and they just kind of grind on me. I think another way it gets translated in the U S (by the middle class) is it’s kind of, it’s the rich people and it’s the poor people.I think it’s similar, to the way the middle class insist the rich people are the bad people, deferring responsibility. It was really important for me realising that there are different kinds of violences that I’ve encountered, or my family has encountered, and they have not been with rich people or whatever we want to call them. Which isn’t to say, it’s not to say anything, except that it’s been the middle-class, it’s actually the middle class. So, for me writing this book, it’s really, and I’ve said it a lot, but I was, you know, like a bird on a branch and I’m cutting the branch under my feet, because this is exactly who I’m surrounded by. I think for me, it’s really important to point that out because it’s very clarifying. And that there is a kind of violence, that at least my experience and other people I talked to in the U S working class people deal with all the time.You know, and, and it’s not actually, it’s not actually rich people. And again, I just don’t have anything to say about that because a rich person has never done the kinds of things that the middle class had done to myself and my family.
One of the things that struck me about the book was the way you articulate the idea that folks from working class backgrounds are framed as artefacts of the past, unable to keep up with liberal progress. Can you tell us a bit about this?
I write about this a lot in the book. I think it’s really big and complex, but I guess the most basic example of this kind of thing is the blind adoration and admiration for progress. In the literary art world. It’s always about a new thing, and that’s not something new.It’s been going on forever. It’s always about something new. Always this thing everyone’s just sort of moving forward.I feel like that just burns down my family’s history. The idea of progress is almost this moving forward as if everyone is starting from ground zero. And I see this with the middle class, there was a sense that there’s sort of no culture. There’s no nothing. It has to be created, but then I look at my family and, and the values we have, and there are certain aesthetics. Certain values and aesthetics and beliefs we have. And that is a real thing. So if I try to talk about that, or if I argue that maybe, you know, I don’t know, maybe a baby shouldn’t have an iPhone or something in their hand, then there’s just, any of that kind of stuff is always considered like, I’m not vanguard enough. And, I’m really conservative politically. You know, old old timey and it is very, it’s just very sort of cut in the middle and it’s a kind of violence, right. Because, um, because it insists on the erasure of the past and history. Which is of course everything about my family, everything about me.This insistence on kind of starting, like everything is a blank slate, and now we’re just creating things, which is this way that people talk. Then I can’t talk about being working class or about my dad, my mom. I went to see her hometown here in Germany and everybody around there is from that. It’s really beautiful, but right. That doesn’t matter to a world where it’s just about progress. Like that history, that’s not important. So it’s really very violent, I think.
It felt that the people who are focused on in the book were folks who had moved to some degree away from their working class backgrounds. Whether through geography or occupation. So that their connections to working class life had become fragile in some sense. It made me wonder whether you think the melancholy of the working class that you speak of, is specifically applicable to those types of people or whether you think it also applies to folks who’ve remained in sort of a working class sphere.
That’s a great question. It’s something I thought about the other day because I had initially thought of people like me, you know. I wanted to be a writer and I did all this stuff. And then I ended up at the university, you know, as an adjunct and everyone I know is the middle class and it’s this, alienation it’s all the time.So that’s what I was thinking of…. it’s talking about musicians and artists and writers who had a similar experience. But then I was thinking about the fact that when I grew up, when all of us look at the television or we look at the music world or the art world or the literary world, and it’s all middle-class.Maybe it’s a spectrum. If you actually leave your working class origin and then there’s people who are cut off from their family for whatever reason, and then there are those who remain. There are different levels of it, I guess.
So now I have got some more general questions about writing now. First off, what was it that inspired you to begin writing?
That’s a great question. I did not encounter literature really until I went to college. What my family had done was that they moved us to communities that were middle class, thinking that would help us assimilate into this culture.So I went to public schools, and when I was there I didn’t know what I was doing. I barely finished high school, and that was a big celebratory moment. But I lived in this middle-class and liberal sort of community, Santa Cruz, California, where everyone went to college and so I thought, well, maybe I should do that. And I slowly went to community college. I had to take some, um, preparatory English classes in the community college.But I finally went to this women’s college after going to a bunch of community colleges, because I wanted to be a dancer. My mom had studied dance when she was a teenager and a young girl. Somewhere along the line, I guess I decided to study English literature.I came across Raymond Carver’s work somewhere and I don’t know how, but yeah, I read that and it was just right. It’s important to point out that when I was growing up. it isn’t like we had a Raymond Carver book in the house. Like my parents didn’t have any of that, none of that was on the horizon, so there’s no way I would’ve known, but somewhere along the line, I decided I wanted to be like Raymond Carver. His writing spoke to me because he was talking in everyday language about what I experienced. Which was a working class experience in America. In my final semester at this college, I took a poetry workshop, and it was really awful. They all are. But somehow I decided that I wanted to do poetry and a year later I went to graduate school for it. I spent a year in Boston working, in a high school and working as a copy editor.Everyone I knew told me not to do an MFA (Master of Fine Arts), you know, it’s really stupid, but I did anyway. I guess the fact that I grew up in this liberal sort of hippie middle-class town. There’s sort of, you know, you’d go to a bookstore and maybe I saw a Raymond Carver book, so there’s a way that it was somewhere there, but it wasn’t, it wasn’t there for my family.I don’t know that’s probably not much of an answer, but it really is just weird. I’m not sure how it happened.
What were your first early experiences of writing? Writing for pleasure, rather than writing for academia or school?
Yeah. So the thing is that I didn’t write my first piece, until the summer before college. I remember writing a really angry poem. It was something about a train track. I don’t remember the rest of it, but it was just, I was really, really angry and it wasn’t something I’ve workshopped.So most people I meet are other poets, colleagues or whatever, they started writing when they’re three or something. This thing is that there’s always this sense of always being behind. I’m just always trying to catch up, but I’m sure everyone relates to that. I mean, not everyone, but people reading this might.
When did you realise it was like writing was something that you wanted to, and also something you could dedicate your life to?
I was working as a copy editor for a finance firm full time, it was really awful. I was working on the brochures and the copy would come down and I would edit it and I would send it back up. So it really wasn’t that hard. I wasn’t aware I was young, I wasn’t aware of how terrible it was but I’d come home at night exhausted. I was like I was physically exhausted, busted. I was just psychically drained. I knew that I couldn’t write if I was doing that. I kind of knew I had to do something different and I’d never written poetry.I didn’t read poetry. I didn’t know anything about it. It’s kind of a wonderful thing. I didn’t know anything. I didn’t know a poet. I didn’t know any professors. I just, I didn’t know. So I didn’t know if it was possible, but the fact that I’d then gone to college had seemed impossible.I’d been the first in my family to go to college. It didn’t occur to me that it was any more impossible than anything else, if that makes sense. And it’s kind of a fortunate thing, right? Because I was like, well, of course, I’ll take out all these student loans and do this thing because I’ll become a poet.And I didn’t know that being a poet didn’t actually mean that I would make a living or anything, or even what.
Do you have a set practice each day? And if so, what does it look like?
No, I don’t. I wrote about this in the book too, but right now the semester coming up. I’m teaching five classes which is way too much.I’ll be teaching all day, Monday. I teach at a college where I also meet one-on-one with the students. So, Mondays I will be busy from like 10 until seven or something. And Wednesdays, I teach a workshop and then Friday, you know what? I don’t even remember it anymore.Anyway, so it’s impossible. So there is no schedule for my writing. Something I think is really important to write is that you have to have time, not just to write, you have to have time to do nothing. And this is something I think that’s really important.I think I talk about a little bit in the book that we need time to waste, right. To really do nothing. And that’s not something people think about. So the things like coming here for a month (Cynthia is visiting Berlin for a month), I mean, it’s really extravagant. It costs a fortune, but we basically spend the whole year putting our money aside so we can come here and then I go back and I go to work and I probably will not write for the entire semester.But, whenever I’m somewhere, I try to pay attention to where I’m at as much as possible and take notes and put them on scraps of paper or receipts or whatever, and take notes of what I see or what I think.I do a lot of readings. So writing down whatever images and then scrapping them all together. So this idea you hear in these interviews with writers that write every day from five until, you know, whenever, but for most of us, that’s not possible.The other thing is I think that one of the things I try to get across when I’m teaching is to remind people that the voice that we’re talking in, is actually the voice we think in, and this is the voice that we should be writing it. In a weird way, the hard work is really just trusting that. If I am upset or thinking about chocolate and stuffed animals, or whatever. It doesn’t have to be transformed into some kind of higher literary thing, but it is the thing itself.In a way some of the best poems, we’re talking about poetry now, I’ve heard are literally when I’ve asked my students a question and their answer – that’s the poem. There’s this idea that you have to take your everyday quotidian thoughts and translate them into something else. That’s the whole class thing I think to write, translate it into something that’s watered down.
With Lumpen we have a lot of folks who are writing for the first time or at least in the early stage of their writing, so the redrafting process is quite a difficult one. I was wondering if you could speak to that about what the redrafting process looks like for you?
Sometimes the poetry really arrives like with one word or like some kind of phrase or something. And then I just put it all together. So the revising is really about trying to make it cohere in a way that’s not a word salad, but then it’s also not a straight narrative.It’s this kind of balance and that’s when writing poetry is really great. I haven’t done it for a while, but it can be like a hypnotic state. I just kind of do this thing, but it’s not about making it clear. It’s really, it’s more like music. But the work I’m doing now in essays, and the book, most of the revision actually came about through working with the editor and the editor asking, what do you mean by this? Which is, I think a little different, maybe a little different than the poetry, although maybe it’s the same.And it usually means adding more information. So maybe it is the same as poetry really. I don’t know. I should say in the beginning, when I was doing poetry, when I came out of my grad program, I would revise like 40 times. That’s not good, you know, it’s really awful.It would be a, like a three-page poem and you’d come out and then it’d be a little, like one stanza thing. And that just has to do with self-loathing and fear. So over the years, I’ve tried to move in another direction. I actually try to make the poems bigger and add more and more layers. Revision can also be adding to do, you know?
What gives you the sense you’ve finished that the work is done?
Oh, you have to show it to someone. I think in both cases, it’s when I get to the point where I just, I don’t know what to do with it anymore. I just feel like yeah, I’m done.
When you think about the ways in which poor and working class folks are represented in literature, are there any writers and poets and authors who really inspire you, who are writing today?
That’s a good question. I should preface by saying I’m more familiar with US contemporary poetry. I’m actually not familiar with much contemporary, British writing. I think it’s important to point that out, because I might be missing something completely. That said my experience is that there’s really no representation of the working class or poor. And when there is it’s usually written by the middle-class, or it’s people who come from the working class and then they use the working class as stereotypes to entertain a middle class audience. They’ve kind of bridged out of their working class context and become middle-class. I think about this in a lot in my writing. Both in the poetry and the essays. How do I write honestly, about my experience about my family, and not reduce them or their experiences or the working class in general into any kind of stereotype.And that’s really important for me. And it’s, it’s hard because if you were going to be perfect about it, but at the same time, I guess it’s not that hard. I think about my parents and, you know, would they, if I were to read them something I wrote, would they say, yes, that’s exactly right.I think with the melancholy of class, I keep thinking about Mark Fisher, his work was so important and so important to me. Things were going awfully for me, and then I encountered his work and it was life changing because I realised. oh, right, okay.I recognised myself in what he was saying, and it changed, really changed my life. I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now if I hadn’t encountered this work, it’s so important to me. So I think with the melancholia of class, I was hoping that one person would read the book and feel like, yeah, that’s me.You know, and, and luckily it’s been more than one person, but it’s been very strange because all of these years of writing poetry, in the U S at least predominant. All the poetry that’s, you know, featured in the main journals is middle-class and the readership is predominantly middle-class.I just have this encounter all the time of my work being viewed as strange or depressing. It’s very dark or whatever, because it’s the middle-class reading the working class and they don’t do it right. With the melancholy of class, because it was for the working class, this is the whole point.
What’s the most important advice you could give a writer from a poor and working class background?
I’d say that we need working class voices. We do, we need working class voices who are writing from their own experience. I just think that’s really important. So, if you’re someone who’s thinking what’s the point? Who wants to hear this? Who wants to know about our lives or whatever? We do. We are the majority and we are not featured in the literary world. We need more of our voices.And then I’d say one of the things that I was thinking about with the drafting processes. If you can find one person that you really trust -it doesn’t have to be another writer- and share your work with them, but you have to trust them.The first person I share my work with now is my husband. And he’s not a writer. In fact, he doesn’t read anything, but he knows me. When I read my writing to him, he knows if it’s my writing, if it’s me. If he does, he’ll say it’s really good, which is helpful.
So last question, this is mainly coming from me as a big Jason Molina fan. What’s your favourite album?
I don’t even know if I can answer that. Yeah, honestly. I don’t think I can answer that question cause I just think this is going to sound like I’m making it up, but I think one of the things I recognise so much about him and the other people I wrote about is that he just kept changing. Right. So there’s so many different modes of his writing. And modes of his persona, right. The cowboy hat, and the different styles of his writing. And so the songs that are just so… it’s almost too painful to hear some of his songs. Like there’s just so stripped down and, um, you can hear his voice quiver, but I also love the full band effect later on.