In the fall of 2018, Patrick Blagrave started a magazine focused on a topic that seemed taboo in the highbrow literary world: the realities of work and class.
Blagrave, 31, whose Twitter bio reads “poet, Philadelphian, debtor," hoped the magazine could create a space for writers to talk explicitly about the effects of capitalism on creativity and art. He wanted it to be a platform for people who might not see themselves as professional writers — working-class people, artists with day jobs, writers without MFAs or institutional connections. And he was determined to both keep the content free and pay his contributors, even if just a little bit.
Today, Blagrave’s magazine, Prolit, is soliciting contributions for its third issue. It’s an online journal where you can read a poet’s take on Philly’s bid for an Amazon headquarters (“please come ruin our city”), verses written on a grocery-store worker’s 30-minute break, and a scene in which a team leader takes coworkers hostage on a conference call, “unsure/how captives might/be different/from colleagues."
Prolit is also one of the latest to join a class of new, explicitly political art journals focused on work and money, hearkening back to the communist literary tradition: There’s Protean Magazine, promoting “cutting-edge literature and art for the discerning leftist,” Paintbucket.page (“fluland but maoist”), The Marxist Poetry Podcast, and the Radical Paper Press (“We are ANTI-WORK, so lower your expectations”).
Prolit’s next reading is Jan. 18 at Wooden Shoe Books.
We talked to Blagrave about the slippery definition of propaganda, the “MFA industrial complex,” and the “most heartbreaking” thing about capitalism.
Why do you think this kind of writing is taboo in the literary world?
The MFA poetry world seems fairly liberal in its politics, but there’s not that much opportunity to question some things if you’re worried about getting a good job at an MFA program or at a poetry magazine.
I don’t have an MFA, so this is an outsider’s perspective, but it seems to me that if you’re trying to make money off poetry, you have to appease the right people. I don’t mean that this is done deliberately even, but if you’re trying to get into a poetry magazine that pays well and is widely read, they are unlikely to accept something which questions in any explicit way the system that has made poetry magazines very successful.
That’s partly because these places are dependent on funding from philanthropic places, banks, pharmaceutical companies. My impression is that [the literary world] is sort of dedicated to poetry around beauty and personal experience, which are all important but not necessarily explicitly political in any sort of boundary-pushing way.
What is capitalism’s influence on contemporary art and literature?
There are practical problems like who gets published where, who has connections based on the grad program they can afford, the funding of some of the major players like the Poetry Foundation or Graywolf Press, but I think the larger impact that capitalism has on creativity is the way that the imagination becomes narrowed by the grind of the day job, for example, or the lack of time to seek out work that might change how you experience the world.
Or a lack of time to imagine a different world, which is a project of science fiction, with writers like Octavia Butler trying to imagine different realities, different futures that are apart from what we have now, as a political exercise that can lead to better ways to think about our own future, to realize what we need from the future — how other worlds are in fact possible.
To me, the most heartbreaking thing that capitalism does is to keep people from believing that [other worlds are possible] because you’re stuck in this day to day. The things that are needed to change this huge structure seem implacable.
In a small way, I hope that some of this writing and art can get people to realize that their money problems are valid and moving and important human experiences.
Is there a stigma around political art?
I think there is. Focusing on day-to-day present realities can be considered kind of boring or easily dated. I think there’s a discomfort around the idea of, you might call it propaganda — something that’s pushing you toward a certain belief.
I’m making some generalizations, but there seems to be an unwillingness on the part of some people to accept that art that’s in line with the status quo or is a representation of bourgeois values is also propaganda. It’s still pushing you to behave a certain way. There’s a sort of double standard where working against the status quo is considered, at best, tacky and, at worst, evil propaganda, but if you’re playing within the system, it’s fine. That’s what people are taught to think is good or important or meaningful literature.
What does it say about our time that all these publications are popping up?
There’s a moment now where there’s a lot of discontent with how people in power are making other people live. That’s true in politics where you have, amongst younger people especially, a lot of distrust of establishment politics and centrism, and people are seeing the sort of damage done by neoliberalism and consensus building.
And I think that’s true if you think of the writing scene as a microcosm of that. People are questioning the MFA industrial complex, if you want to call it that, this pipeline from workshop which is the way to make your poem more manageable for groups of people. And those programs are largely inaccessible [to those who can’t afford it]. And with the university system, students’ lives are ruined by student loan debt.
I think there’s a reckoning with all these institutions — in this small poetry world and the larger society — and the kind of problems that they present, so homegrown alternatives are popping up to act completely independently of those things.