This interview was conducted on 6/18/20 @ 2:37pm
Your debut poetry collection about restaurant service workers, Scraping Away, couldn’t be more timely in the midst of COVID-19 lockdown and now the country opening up. How do you think dining out again will impact customers dining out and restaurant workers?
I’m heading back to my restaurant gig this weekend with a hopeful yet guarded outlook on the situation. Like many others, I yearn to find a sense of normalcy that dining out seems to convey, as well as being able to make some money. But at the same time, I worry about exposure and further spreading. It also feels like customers may not be ready just yet for all the rules that go along with this new paradigm—wearing masks, social distancing, etc. I like to imagine that the guests that do come to dine will be generous and understanding of this new dynamic that restaurants are adapting to. I just hope it’s all worth it, in the end.
So many poems in this collection convey in vivid detail the toll working in the food industry takes on one’s physical and mental health. Your opening poem, “Argot” does just that. Let’s post it here.
In the sweaty restaurant kitchen,
where I’ll learn to cuss in Mexican,
tattooed line cooks talk shit in voices
nicked as the bone-white
monkey bowls we stack and fill.
They call the boss and picky customers
chupacabra, “goat sucker,”
being the inside joke
for every pain in the ass.
Years ago, in a place once a mustard factory,
I was a boy touring Mom’s latest food-prep gig,
a windowless world where the clam chowder
paddled around in vats
deep enough for me to stand,
and I wore a paper hat,
same as the mustached men in bloody aprons
who cut up and kidded while they hacksawed
T-bones from beef sides.
Now, I’m digging twelve-hour grooves
of full trays in spaghetti joints
with family names. I’m keeping ice bins full
and counters clean, wondering, at times,
if the routine has replaced the oxygen
of my dreams with a working life
that takes what it wants, stealing my pen
and handing me
bad math on credit slips.
On her days off,
Mom wants to play Scrabble,
but instead, we talk about our fingers,
how they’ve split into open-flowered nerves,
stinging our bodies to the bulk
of a weary self at the end of the day,
each of us searching
for the phrase that captures what it is
to feel at once,
both capable and small.
Tell us about your restaurant jobs, the effect they’ve had on your own physical and mental health and how you moved on from this line of work.
Restaurant work is a whirlwind, a runaway train on busy nights where all you can do is hold on. The pace can be brutal for hours at a time, and with so many moving parts and other people needing to do their jobs well, there can be moments of error, which turns into further stress and angst. I recall a recent Mother’s Day where I was ashamed of the food we were putting out, on top of long check times and mistakes being made, so much so that I jokingly offered my table to wash their cars, as it felt like there was little else I could do. It was awful and soul-killing. All of this stress adds up and many in the service industry struggle with addiction, medicating with whatever’s available.
There’s also a certain machismo about it all—partying hard and waking up to do it all over again feels like a deserved sense of escapism but it can also be a vicious cycle. I’ve certainly had my moments, but I think having creative outlets and an eye toward the future were saving graces, in my case. But I’ve known my share of folks who’ve gone off the deep end, some no longer with us. Physically, I’ve held up pretty well, trying to eat healthy and exercise, but I’ve suffered my share of cuts, burns, and bruises. Sore legs and back come with the territory, but the life has toughened me up and given me focus in ways I didn’t foresee 30+ years ago when I started.
That’s amazing you can say that. Good to hear the positive. Can you talk a little about how this collection evolved? Certainly as a service worker yourself, it’s easy to see why you chose the subject matter, but perhaps you could address some of your considerations for setting the tone, point of view, voice, form, and other choices you made in shaping the book.
I studied with the poet Jan Beatty at the University of Pittsburgh and I always admired her restaurant poems, the attitude of her speaker and the voice that was knowing and authentic. I had a 5-year break before finishing my undergrad studies and when I returned, I struggled to find a focus for my writing, although I was starting to put the pieces together. In grad school, studying for my MFA at Carlow University, I again struggled mightily to find my footing as I wanted to write narratively but so much came out abstracted and making sense only to me. Studying with the poet Robert Gibb made me a proponent of Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams, “no ideas, but in things,” which grounded me in the real world and had me focusing on the tangible.
Restaurants should be nothing but a treat for the senses for guests. Being immersed in that world for so long, I took it for granted, but needing to write poems, I found the subject matter an easy reach. After a while, it felt like I had carved out a niche for myself and obsessions can be useful if channeled. It’s difficult to write about food, but setting can play an important part in tone. I also didn’t want the poems to be a list of anecdotes about customer interactions and found my speaker to be knowing but even-handed at his best. I like using first-person, the collective “we,” but also try to remain as objective as possible through imagery, if that makes sense. I’m out to create a scene for my readers that feels authentic, while offering an inside look at a job that millions of people know well, as the service industry has been an economic force for a long time.
And you’ve done a remarkable job too! If you could pinpoint what meaning you came to discover in exploring food service work through poetry vs. living it– a poetic versus a working-class eye? Doing both at once? Please speak to the phrase in your poem, “Argot,” “a working life/that takes what it wants, stealing my pen/and handing me/bad math on credit slips.”
I once told my wife, “Work is an interruption of life,” which I suppose meant that it was merely a means to an end. But as someone who grew up in a working-class environment, I came to realize that our jobs get tied up into our identity and that hard work may be a sucker’s game for some, but in my thinking, it embodies a personality trait that connects you with others who feel similarly. Restaurant work is an exercise in teamwork, and the only servers I’ve ever had a real beef with are those who always looked for shortcuts or would try to “skate” out of doing their share. Those ideas fell into my poetic worldview as I want to celebrate those I’ve toiled with, and to show readers the humanity of those who do the nameless, faceless work of keeping us fed. Chuck Pahlahniuk does this nicely in moments of his novel, Fight Club, especially when his narrator speaks truth to power. Imagine the chaos recently if those who work at the grocery store had decided to behave differently?
As far as that line from “Argot,” it’s a personification of the double-shifts I worked for years that were brutal, leaving me without weekends, that in hindsight may not have been worth it, but when the rent was due, and to work many hours was the only honest way to get it. The line is also a bit of an inside joke as guests will often do the math wrong when signing for a bill and it has led to much consternation among servers and management on how much gratuity was intended.
Your collection includes poems about your father such as “Iron City Sage” and “What Dad Brought Home.” I’d love to hear more about your family’s working-class background, growing up in Pittsburgh, and getting your college education there. How did this provide a larger context for your personal experience working in the food industry? Connections? Disconnects?
My father was a tool and die maker, and very proud of that fact. He grew up in Pittsburgh, and his father was a pipefitter in the mills. I looked up to both of them as exemplars as a child but looking back, they were both aloof and we had trouble connecting. The poems about my Dad were therapeutic after his death at 63, much too young. I think it was my Mom that was a better role model, as she worked all sorts of food type jobs, working in a coffee shop, a chocolate store, cooking solo at a retirement home. She still had balance in her life that wasn’t tied up in just work; she had church and relationships to tend to as well as maintaining a household. Going to school at Pitt was what I always wanted but had to attend Thiel College for a year as I didn’t get accepted. Being in the sticks at a small school gave me confidence and grades that I could succeed at a university and transferred after a year.
I didn’t realize how much the city meant to me until I was visiting a friend in Seattle. We had gone to a ballgame and had many beers and were waiting to get into a place after when a man approached, asking if I was from Pittsburgh as he noticed my Pirates ballcap. I said I was, yet he then referred to it “Shittsburgh” after having studied at CMU, thinking all the locals were dipshits. It’s the closest I’ve come to blows in many years and it surprised the hell out of me. The working-class connection is always there for me as I recall the sadness of being a child during the steel industry’s downturn, still wanting to spit any time I see an image of Ronald Reagan. I also saw myself as part of the bigger picture, realizing that service work was the industry of the future, for better or worse.
You’re hitting a personal chord with me. As a native Pittsburgher, I’ve lived through the steel industry decline too and will always feel solidarity with our city and its working-class roots. That’s why I’ve taken a real shine to your book, Fred. Can’t thank you enough for being a fellow poet of witness.
I’m always interested in knowing how poets choose a title for their collection. How did you decide on Scraping Away? Let’s post your title poem here.
Once, when we were new, a plate of seafood
crashed to the kitchen tiles and became the first scallops
some of us had ever tried, scraping away
the broken to save the unscathed,
we chewed briny mouthfuls
of gritty sweet meat swimming
in a sniff of garlic and white wine, thinking
nothing ever tasted so good,
as that moment passed into sounds of clinking silverware
and carrying-on, while Perry Como sang overhead,
imploring us to learn the mambo’s to and fro,
a lesson we’ll soon take to humming
in a heaping world that needs us to believe
we can be oceans, pushing waves
toward a shoreline we can’t see,
the worn down, far-off places of ourselves.
What metaphorical significance does scraping away food off a plate have beyond the literal action itself?
That poem was selected to be a part of the PA Public Poetry Project in 2017 so it felt like it was one of the strongest I had in my manuscript. Also, the act of eating food that’s fallen to the floor strikes me as desperate now but not so much at 16 and hungry. The impetus to write that came from my MFA defense when I mentioned the incident and Jan Beatty remarked that it sounded like a poem needing to be written. The phrase also feels a bit archaeological in the sense of unearthing, bit by bit, the motivations and cost of doing this job, which until March, paid me better than teaching 30 college credits a year. What is the cost we pay for our labor? Marge Piercy touches on it in a more politicized way in her poem “Market Economy.” The PA Center for the Book turned that poem into 1,000 posters and I gave away every one of them, so it’s gotten some mileage. It’s also one of the first things I see in the morning as it’s hanging on my wall.
Have your friends and former co-workers in the food industry seen and read your book? What are some reactions?
Reactions have been positive although some poems hit close to home for some—it’s tricky to include others in your work, especially if they disagree with their portrayal. As Joan Didion says, “writers work with what’s at hand.” For some, my work is the sum total of what they read, so I’m glad it remains accessible to a wide range of readers, which is my intention. Maybe it will get some others interested in other poetry but I’m just happy that folks can see themselves in the work and feel it’s honestly written.
Tell us about your current writing projects. Are you shifting from a working-class world to academia since you now teach writing and literature to college students?
I’ve been more interested in the personal essay and other creative nonfiction writing, which I think relates to my narrative style. Unfortunately, due to economic factors my critical writing of local writers has been mostly put on hold. There’s only 2 of us who write about local poetry in Pittsburgh these days, which is a shame. I don’t see my focus of writing about the service industry, family and music going away any time soon as I still have much to explore. Restaurant work is all about the relationships needed to make things run smoothly, and to attend to the humanity behind each person I work with, some more than others. I like having people in my poems and restaurants are nothing without people.
I don’t have many relationships, let alone close ones, with my colleagues at the two schools where I teach. Being an adjunct means never having a real place on campus to call home, and unintentionally I suspect, makes me feel a bit like a second-class citizen. Aside from the classroom, which I love, teaching feels solitary, even though there’s plenty of support offered. It’s the students who I like to make connections with, but usually those fall by the wayside once a new semester begins. The classroom has been a place to test out my ideas on writing and the students who dive in with both feet do some writing I’m very impressed with and keeps me coming back for more. I like the role of teaching in my life but it doesn’t feed me creatively.
How has your restaurant work informed your approach to teaching college students?
Everything I’ve learned about the act of teaching comes back to the training I received as a server at TGI Fridays or how I’ve handled tricky situations with tables or management. As new servers, we trained for weeks with a focus on guest satisfaction and paying attention to details. I try to make sure each of my students leaves the classroom as happy as I can make them. Teaching online for the last part of the Spring semester left me with a feeling of malaise. My role as a teacher is to be a manager of experiences, and I’ve found that sharing some of myself allows me to be vulnerable, breaking down the metaphorical wall between us and allows us to connect better. I get lots of good evaluations and some great pieces of writing so something must be working.
I should say so! Thanks for sharing your wisdom and insights, Fred. Your poetry shines a light on the human condition and you do so with compassion and dignity. Let’s close the interview with the last poem in your collection, “The Communicants.”
Here, Tuesday stumbling
toward midnight, we’re stuck
with that lone couple lingering
over a last swallow of Pinot,
their plates cleared, water glasses
emptied, check unsettled.
They don’t care
that the closing cook has swept
and mopped his now-dark kitchen
where the dish machine cools
among bottles of bleach,
or that last call was given long ago.
Instead, they lean in and whisper
while we sip water
and try not to stare, soaking up
the flicker of a muted TV,
like those doggie bags we pack
that get left behind. And if work
can be worship, it finds us
supplicant and waiting
for the chirp of chairs pushing
back from their table, followed
by heels clicking on hardwood,
a recessional marking
the end of service, the front door
closing like a prayer,
quiet on its hinges.
Jonathan Spinner says
Fred Shaw’s humanity comes shining through both his interview and his poetry! I would love to be one of his students!