August 10, 2022

Philadelphia literary magazine “Prolit” belongs to a new class of anti-capitalist press

In the fall of 2018, Patrick Blagrave launched a magazine focused on a subject that seemed taboo in the scholarly literary world: the realities of work and class.

Blagrave, 31, whose Twitter bio reads “poet, Philadelphian, debtor,” hoped the magazine could create space for writers to speak explicitly about the effects of capitalism on creativity and art. He wanted it to be a platform for people who couldn’t 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 only a little.

Today, Blagrave’s magazine, Prolit, is asking for contributions for its third issue. It’s an online journal where you can read a poet’s perspective on Philly’s bid for an Amazon headquarters (“please come ruin our town”), verses written on a grocery store worker’s 30-minute break and a scene in which a team leader takes fellow hostages on a conference call, “I don’t know/how captives could/be different/ colleagues”.

Think of it as an artistic window into the worker discontent — and activism — that has emerged in our present time.

Prolit is also one of the latest to join a class of new, explicitly political art magazines focused on work and money, reminiscent of the communist literary tradition: there is Protean Magazine, which promotes “literature and art advanced for discerning leftists”. (“fluland but maoist”), The Marxist Poetry Podcastand the Radical Paper Press (“We are ANTI-WORK, so lower your expectations”).

Prolit’s next reading is January 18 from Wooden Shoe Books.

We talked to Blagrave about the slippery definition of propaganda, the “MFA industrial complex,” and the “most heartbreaking” thing about capitalism.

The MFA poetry world seems quite liberal in its politics, but there’s not much opportunity to question certain things if you’re worried about getting a good job in an MFA program or in a poetry magazine.

I don’t have a master’s degree in fine arts, so this is an outside perspective, but it seems to me that if you’re trying to make money from poetry, you have to appease the right people. I don’t mean it’s done deliberately even, but if you try to get into a poetry magazine that pays well and is widely read, they’re unlikely to accept anything that explicitly challenges the system that has made poetry journals very successful.

This is partly because these places depend on funding from philanthropic places, banks, pharmaceutical companies. My impression is that [the literary world] is kind of dedicated to poetry around beauty and personal experience, all of which are important but not necessarily explicitly political in a way that pushes the boundaries.

There are practical issues like who gets published where, who has relationships based on what graduate program they can afford, funding from some of the major players like the Poetry Foundation or Graywolf Press, but I think the bigger impact capitalism has on creativity is how the imagination is narrowed by the drudgery of daily work, for example, or the lack of time to look for work that might change the way you perceive the world .

Or a lack of time to imagine a different world, which is a science fiction project, with writers like Octavia Butler trying to imagine different realities, different futures that are outside of what we have now, like a political exercise that can lead to better ways of thinking about our own future, of realizing what we need from the future – how other worlds are in fact possible.

To me, the most heartbreaking thing capitalism does is prevent people from believing that [other worlds are possible] because you’re stuck in this daily life. The things that are needed to change this huge structure seem relentless.

In some way, I hope some of this writing and art can lead people to realize that their money issues are valid, moving, and important human experiences.

I think so. Focusing on current day-to-day realities can be seen as boring or easily dated. I think there’s an unease around the idea of, you might call it propaganda – something that pushes you towards a certain belief.

I am making some generalizations, but there seems to be a reluctance on the part of some people to accept that art which is in line with the status quo or which is a representation of bourgeois values ​​is also propaganda. It always pushes you to behave in a certain way. There’s a kind of double standard where working against the status quo is seen as tacky propaganda at best and evil propaganda at worst, but if you play the system, that’s fine. It is what people are taught to regard as good, important, or significant literature.

There is a time now where there is a lot of dissatisfaction with the way people in power support others. This is true in politics where you have, among young people in particular, a lot of distrust of establishment and centrist politics, and people see the kind of damage that neoliberalism and the search for consensus.

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And I think that’s true if you look at the writing scene as a microcosm of that. People question the MFA industrial complex, if you want to call it that, that workshop pipeline that’s the way to make your poem more manageable for groups of people. And these programs are largely inaccessible [to those who can’t afford it]. And with the university system, the lives of students are ruined by student debt.

I think there’s an accounting to all of these institutions – in this little world of poetry and in society in general – and the kind of problems they present, so local alternatives are springing up to act completely independently of these things.