Nicholas Belardes is a Latino writer, teacher and artist who lives in the Central Coast area of California. SONGS OF THE GLUE MACHINES is his first collection of poetry and is a first person account of his blue-collar experiences while working in San Joaquin Valley factories during the late 1980s and early 1990s. There are 32 free verse poems in the collection, including 5 prose poems. The poems provide a variety of perspectives on a young labouring life, and through the voice of the young speaker Nick, credibly reflect the grime and stench and danger of factory life.
In the interview which follows this review, Belardes explains that he had been thinking about this project for many years but didn’t know what form it would take, “My blue-collar days had been haunting me for years. I knew I had to eventually capture some of the stories. But how? A memoir? A novel? Essays?” He gradually realised that poetry was the best medium to capture the essence of his short manual life and wrote the poems in a few weeks, “The bare essence of our lives, if we think about it, can be distilled down to stanzas, songs, lines of alliterative jargon that is both meaningful and honest. There is a sort of sound in factories too, a buzzing atmosphere that you can put into rhythms of words. You can’t really get this any other way than in poetics.”
Factory noise is a strong motif in the collection. The industrial lyrical poem ‘Boxes Fold Like Butterfly Wings’, the portrait poem ‘Benny’s Demise’ and the title poem ‘Songs of the Glue Machine’ provide a hectic, deafening feel of what the inner guts of factory toil is like. Interestingly, in ‘Benny’s Descent’ it is Benny’s inability to attune to the mantra of the machine that ultimately destroys him and sends him bonkers. In a rhetorical flourish, Belardes directly addresses Benny implying that he was broken because of his frailties and his inability to harness the “god bliss” hum of the machine:
Oh Benny, don’t you wonder
What you’ve done?
Letting the noise
break you down;
letting the pills
shatter your long nights
on the floor…
He further adds to conclude the poem:
And you gave in
to the machinery
the god bliss
of drones and hums.
The secret to survival for Belardes is to master the paperboard machine and to deeply understand its inner songs. When a machine is working efficiently it whirls and tiktiktiks along in a beautiful, rhythmic cadence. The alert machine operator must be able to finely detect any aberrant sounds and shut down the machine before the rip and tear of a paper jam.
To lend a hand to publisher RD Armstrong of Lummox Press, Belardes in part crowd funded the book through ‘Go Fund Me.’ He says of this initiative, “The experience was good for everyone involved and was accomplished in just a few weeks. I would do it again for the right project, and recommend others do the same. One caveat though: There really has to be a good match between publisher and author, so at the same time it isn’t for everyone.”
The cover consists of a scrapbook of images which show Belardes involvement in his workplace union. Ironically, in the collection the union leadership is seen as ineffective as in the poem ‘Are We the Union Boss?’ and uncaring of the well-being of their members as in ‘Epistle of Nicholas’. In ‘Are We the Union Boss?’ Belardes sketches political cartoons for the union but no other involvement is mentioned in the collection. Belardes says of this period, “I was so young. Maybe 18 or 19 at the time. I truly can look back at my life and see how easy it was for a young man to be influenced by union propaganda. Does this mean I was ever anti-union? Not necessarily. But really, what did that union ever do? Who benefitted?”
SONGS OF THE GLUE MACHINES is divided into two sections. The first ‘I Will Never Escape’ (pages 1-52) focuses on Belardes job at Manville Forest Products, he calls ‘Paperboard City.’ His job is to feed paperboard into an enormous machine which spits out consumer products such as Tide boxes and Bartles & Jaymes four-pack carriers. The job is filthy, monotonous and alienating. Belardes feels trapped, but unlike the other workers, as is reflected in the poem ‘Water Bottle,’ he is determined to plan his own escape and attend college when he has saved enough cash.
In his Introduction, Belardes says of his blue-collar life, “Those days felt like they would never end- working long hot and cold seasons with no finality in sight. Only the dreams of becoming a hopeful student and writer kept my sanity glued together (along with becoming a young parent at this time).” Today those days “seem forever ago” to Belardes but fleetingly they “feel like yesterday:” “Some days when I think back to that time, those haunting years seem forever ago: nightmarish, dark, filled with the sounds of machinery and echoes of dripping water. Other days feel like yesterday when I was feeding stacks of paperboard into a glue machine, winding the fiberglass strands into a spinning cutter, or watching glass jugs burst as I struggled with fitting them into a milk factory bottle washer.”
The opening poem ‘Factory Row’ is one of the most powerful in the collection. It fittingly begins with Belardes’ as a young man being given a tour of the paperboard factory by Dorothy from Human Resources. Belardes establishes the setting immediately and uses a conversational tone to create a sense of intimacy with his readers:
I’m on factory row now. District Boulevard
by the railway tracks. Manville Forest Products,
Giant rolls of paperboard from pulp mills, printed on,
chopped, so workers can feed stacks into glue machines.
In a series of time shifts, the speaker flashes back to his naïve, carefree life as a teenager in high school and then returns us to the “twisted piles of wreckage and spinning rollers of the glue machines on the factory floor. He starts work a few days later and slices his hands on the razor-sharp cartons and observes the mind-sapping job that old Mary has to perform all day long of counting boxes.
Belardes then shifts to the perspective of a mature adult reflecting back on his youthful experiences:
We go crazy, go deaf from the big crashing of gears.
Get bloody, get cut and go home looking for glue to
piece ourselves together, and wash ourselves with soap that
can’t wash away the noise, or the people, or all the hell I
never realised I was stepping in on that first day.
The conclusion of the poem is interesting in how Belardes describes himself losing his identity & becoming part of the machine:
Cut. Cut. Cut. Cut.
Goes the gears and my future.
And I am in them and they are me.
I am carbon smoke.
Fading on the factory floor.
The invisible boy becomes invisible carbon.
The invisible man.
The invisible life.
Cut. Cut. Cut. Cut.
‘Factory Row’ can be found on pages 19-22 in this Lummox sampler: http://issuu.com/poetraindog/docs/gluemachinessampler_issuu
Another significant poem in the collection is ‘Blue Collar Anatomy’. The style is impressionistic, with a realistic accumulation of detail to represent the tortures of the job & how man and machine have become fused as one.
In part II of the poem the emphasis shifts to the workers whom Belardes toiled with. In his Introduction, he explains that his central focus is on these people, “Important to this project are the people within the words. Working class poetry, for me, is less about machines and gruelling work, and more about the people who do the jobs that most people would never think to slave over.”
In part IV, Belardes provides us with brief portraits of some of the eccentric & often damaged men and women we come across in other poems in the collection, such as, Mundy who stuffs his pockets with the photos of “dead gooks,” Johnny, the soldier hero and George, who mangles his arm in a paperboard machine:
Blue Collar Anatomy
Anatomy of a factory worker
begins with finding bones fused
to machinery connective tissue.
I am working every day and
every never-ending night, this
melancholic torture on the wage-
slave chain gang, pounding the
production line for a paycheck.
Valves, veins, rubber gaskets,
paperboard, blood fiberglass scabs.
Plastic wounds pour
hot from heart centers.
Styrofoam skin, inked solvents,
pink glue, metal rollers, foot pads.
Conveyers of memories beneath
white-collar brain stems.
What have I become?
P e o p l e.
Real people. Dirty faces.
Drugged up men.
Lovers and haters.
Cowboy hats, baseball caps,
Women with hateful stares.
Timid men without dreams.
I mean greasy, oily people.
Nigerians stack boxes.
Henry doesn’t use deodorant.
Pot smoking paperboard feeders
reek of marijuana.
Cancerous old lady perfume
can’t cover the dull pungency
of glue in my nostrils,
or the stench of diseased
bodies at the conveyers.
Workers roll out of dirty beds,
right into ashtrays.
They speed down
enter factory doors, add to the scent
of paperboard, Styrofoam, fiberglass.
They scrape burning solvents,
those messes of ink spilled from
giant printing presses, machinery
so large, so gargantuan, they
could swallow a man’s scent,
gulp down fat, bean-smelling
senoritas named Maria.
All of them are named Maria.
All twelve of them who work
the factory floor. Some are
white, brown, Filipina, African.
Maria, Maria, Maria. Maria!
Now for a list. Boys
and girls are churned out
of furnaces, glue machines
and big mechanical Styrofoam
bowl makers. These people are the
criminals of consumerism, hominids
of Olduvai Gorgeous,
of the factories of Bakersfield.
Feel them, breathe them.
These are the anatomical
With hearts of inner wastelands,
working in cities that push smoke
and filth into the skies, so you and
I can consume,
become teachers, doctors,
poets and monsters. This
is the family of production.
I am the worker. I am them.
The shift begins as I
snap my blue shirt on,
pull on my blue cap,
grab my yellow gloves
and ochre earplugs.
Here we come!
Steve, big forearmed thug
with tats and squinting pot eyes.
“What you got for me, Nick?” he asks.
Al, stringy-haired Al,
walks with a limp,
never misses a day.
Sharon on drugs, again, lost.
She is so afraid, but cusses all of us.
She doesn’t want to get caught selling
uppers in the ladies’ room.
Benny says he’ll never go
crazy, but does. He always wants
to tell me what to do, but can’t
do it himself. The stretcher
carries him into darkness.
Hector, gay hombre in a factory
finds his place alongside Sreven,
Jefe, educated, old grey curls.
Old grey soul. Where will
you go, bro?
George, hand mangled from
metal rollers that smashes heroes.
Bob, creepy old man, working
in the dark, putting together vacuums
that suck on cows
Jesse, the goddamn fuse box blows up
in your face: metaphor for my pain.
Mundy, the bitch is like a father.
Carries Vietnam War dead
photos stuffed in his pockets.
Jay, smiling, remembering.
Plays the bass like a harp
as he remembers pumping asses
on the docks between shifts.
Henry, we talk and talk.
Your African skin burns as
you stack boxes on conveyors.
Jeff loses an arm on the
way to the windmills from
the paperboard factory.
Was it just? Was it satisfying?
What else will you lose?
Johnny, a soldier hero American
in Lebanon and in factories.
Michael, your melted face still haunts me.
Mary, twenty years in factories.
In the end, you can’t count everything.
But I can count your tears, as I
can count mine, lost there
in between the glue machines.
(Reprinted with the permission of the author)
There is a surprising variety in the other poems in the first section, ‘I Will Never Escape.’ Most memorable are ‘The Mistrust of Hector’s Lover’ which is an excellently crafted portrait poem. ‘Quotas’ is a prose poem in which Belardes expresses his mistrust and rage at a corporate management which demands that production be accelerated at all costs. One of the best poems in the book ‘George Garcia vs. the Leviathan,’ graphically depicts a work place accident which reveals the human cost of corporate negligence whose underlying motto is “production is everything.”
In the second section of the collection ‘The Final Filament’ (pages 53-97), Belardes writes narrative poems about a wide range of jobs he performed in fiberglass, milk and Styrofoam factories, as a welder’s assistant and as a road traffic controller. To bookend the collection, two later poems ‘Working Along Factory Lines’ and ‘Songs of the Glue Machine,’ Belardes returns to the paperboard factory.
In this section, the poems which are perhaps the most notable job wise are the opening five related to Belardes ‘ work in the fiberglass factory: ‘Baal and His Razor Blade Wheels’, ‘An Assassin Among Us’, ‘Fiberglass Train’, ‘Fuse Box’ and ‘Paul’s Polaroids.’ The factory is represented as suffocating, excruciatingly hot and physically dangerous. The best amongst these poems is ‘Baal and His Razor Blade Wheels’ which depicts the factory in cunningly figurative detail as a hell on earth. Also striking are the portraits of the ex-snipper Johnny in ‘An Assassin Among Us’ and the petty crim Johnny in ‘Paul’s Polaroids.’
The last poem in the collection ‘Filament’ is also worthy of close study. Years after he has left the factory, Belardes is sweeping his bathroom tiles “in a home of broken love” and he feels a sting in his finger. Examining his hand, he realises what has emerged is a filament of fiberglass which has been trapped in his body for twenty years. He imagines being back in the factory of his youth:
I imagine myself there, looking upward as molten glass slips
from fiery orange glow. I grab hot strands, wind them around
a pulley, whirl them into the chopping machine, where a tangle
of glass fibers whip against my hand like a devilish cactus.
I don’t scream. I stare at every shard poking through my
glove. My hand shakes, and though used to the pain, this
one is worse. I count fifteen needles. The acupuncture of
Belardes uses tweezers “to slowly pull out a third-of-an-inch fiberglass needle.” He comments, “I hold the genie I’ve trapped for twenty long years/ inside me. I see years of factories in the bloody shard.” In the concluding section of the poem, he sits with fellow poets T.Z. Hernandez and Al Franco and thinks about the past symbolically hidden inside his finger. It is like a time capsule ready to be opened. The following morning, Belardes is sitting on a coach with Fresno poet Michael Medrano, when the latter remarks off-the-cuff but with a brooding sense of inevitability, “That piece of glass is the last poem in your book.”
SONGS OF THE GLUE MACHINES is a highly readable and authentic working class collection of poetry. Belardes has created a convincing blue-collar voice untainted by hyperbole or pretence. In these poems, Belardes belts out the rattles, belts out every crushing noise of people and machines. His layered, fused observations also compellingly sing the sad song of a manufacturing era now long drowned out by the wailing voices of globalisation.
In the title poem ‘Songs of the Glue Machine’ Belardes asks himself some important questions and concludes that his factory experiences were songs, were the raw material for him to shape into art.
What did I learn? Who
were you all? What did you mean
when you took my sleep, my hands,
my love, my sanity, my desperation.
What were you ever to me but songs?
Find more about Nicholas Belardes and his publications here: http://www.nicholasbelardes.com/
His twitter account can be found here: https://twitter.com/nickbelardes?ref_src=twsrc%5Egoogle%7Ctwcamp%5Eserp%7Ctwgr%5Eauthor
Find a 48 page Lummox sampler here: http://issuu.com/poetraindog/docs/gluemachinessampler_issuu
Read a 2014 Latino Rebels interview with Belardes: http://www.latinorebels.com/2014/06/19/the-latino-rebels-interview-with-author-journalist-nick-belardes/
SONGS OF THE GLUE MACHINES is a first person account of some of your experiences in working in Californian Central Valley factories during the late 1980s and early 1990s.
1. Why did you decide to write a book of poetry about your early working life after 25 years or so?
My blue-collar days had been haunting me for years. I knew I had to eventually capture some of the stories. But how? A memoir? A novel? Essays? I think it came down to this idea that poetry was the medium that would capture the stories the best.
The bare essence of our lives, if we think about it, can be distilled down to stanzas, songs, lines of alliterative jargon that is both meaningful and honest. There is a sort of sound in factories too, a buzzing atmosphere that you can put into rhythms of words. You can’t really get this any other way than in poetics.
On top of that, these stories, I felt, needed to be performed. And while I can perform fiction, poetry can be quite shocking and moving. For example, George vs. the Leviathan is a graphic mantra of working-class America. I don’t think it could come off any better than as a spoken part of my life, which I admit, is selfishly healing, and makes those years a hell of a lot more meaningful than they were at the time.
2. What were some of the hurdles you faced in writing the poetry and getting it published?
The rough draft was easy. I had so much material floating around that it just poured out of me. These poems came early in the poetry writing aspect of my career, so there isn’t a lot of form. Just straightforward stanzas, couplets often, and some prose poetry. I won’t say it took no effort. All writing is difficult, challenging, and makes me want to hurl myself into outer space and just live among moon rocks scratching new-age petroglyphs. The voice, however, was the most difficult part. What was the poet voice? The working-class voice? The worker voice? The narrator? How could I narrow these voices down to one important voice? California poet Tim Hernandez helped me with that by raising all the right questions on an early draft.
I admit that I was quite apprehensive when it came to getting published. I hadn’t grown in my confidence enough to send my work to journals, which is what I should have done. I do that now with my prose and had great success last year by having short fiction in Carve Magazine (St. Augustine the Starfighter), and Pithead Chapel (Gaspar). I also had poetry published last year in Mission at Tenth. Regarding Songs of the Glue Machines, I’d met Lummox publisher Raindog years ago. And, like I said, I was so afraid to send my work out, and yet, seemed to always be performing poetry somewhere. I kept thinking how he pays out of pocket to publish poetry, and thought, you know, I could raise funds to pay for his costs, and to buy some books. It would be a win-win. Oddly, I haven’t been performing poetry the past year, but still, I will always have this wonderful collection in published form thanks to a collaboration with Lummox Press.
3. How long did it take to write?
To be honest, I don’t remember the exact time frame. The poems poured out of me in a matter of weeks. I do recall that. The final project was done a few months later. My second collection, which is unpublished, isn’t done. But then, I focus most of my efforts on prose.
4. In your ‘Acknowledgements’ section at the beginning of the book you thank dozens of people for funding the project. You partly funded the book through the crowd funder ‘Go Fund Me.’ Can you briefly explain why you decided to crowd source the book and what the experience was like?
Like I mentioned, I wanted to put a little cash in Raindog’s pocket, and I also wanted the project to be one that people could lend a hand in. I mean, who doesn’t want to help Raindog, or a small press? People do want to give. You just have to give them a reason to. The experience was good for everyone involved and was accomplished in just a few weeks. I would do it again for the right project, and recommend others to do the same. One caveat though: There really has to be a good match between publisher and author, so at the same time it isn’t for everyone. I should also add this is a fine line between self publishing and traditional publishing. I’m usually against self publishing, though I am guilty of it early in my career.
5. In a couple of your poems, notably in ‘Are We the Union Boss?’ and ‘Epistle of Nicholas’ you berate the ineffectiveness of your union boss to prevent layoffs or to provide adequate duty of care for workers, including those seriously injured on the job. Why the prominence then in showing your involvement in your local branch in the union publication ‘Unity’ in a series of images on the front cover?
This is my favorite question and tells me you truly studied this collection. You’ve truly discovered the heart of some of the conflict, and an obvious contradiction between its outer and inner shell.
I was so young. Maybe 18 or 19 at the time. I truly can look back at my life and see how easy it was for a young man to be influenced by union propaganda. Does this mean I was ever anti-union? Not necessarily. But really, what did that union ever do? Who benefitted? I’m not certain. It was an odd time for sure, and, you know what? It’s okay for me to ask these questions. I can do that. It’s what writers do! We ask and ask and hope the universe answers (though sometimes there just aren’t any answers. Just questions). I think part of the job of the poet is to be a social critic, even if it is our own lives in front of the lens. Where’s the honesty if I’d hid those union letters? Truly they’re a part of the archive of my life, and tell a story of a young man partaking in a violent industrial world on the cusp of total automation. This young man was seeking answers, acceptance, safety, representation . . .
6. On a biographical note, can you briefly provide an overview of your manual jobs and what each entailed? When did you leave for college and what did you study?
The collection describes a few different jobs. Feeder-packer, packer, gatherer. This means in some jobs I fed paperboard or glass bottles into machines. Other jobs I packed Styrofoam, packed paperboard, gathered Fiberglas, and worked as a welder’s helper. Am I forgetting anything? Maybe. I could get really detailed but feel that might bore potential readers. The stories describe many of these types of jobs as well as the working class people I toiled alongside. In some ways the people were more interesting to reflect on, to try to understand what they really meant to me.
In the early 1990s I took on other part-time work while I worked on a liberal arts degree, then a U.S. history degree, minoring in English. I’ve taught history and writing, mostly creative writing these days, when I do teach. The working class years covered between 3-4 years of my life. I’ve worked so many interesting jobs though since then, including with head injured, with major news outlets, in animation. So many jobs . . . yet, it’s writing that I always gravitated to. It’s the one thing I am best at. And so, I cast all jobs away a few years ago except this one thing: writing.
7. What was your purpose in writing SONGS OF THE GLUE MACHINES and what poets influenced your style and subject matter?
We poets have many collections in us. We just have to be haunted enough by our stories to write them down.
I purposely didn’t read any working class poetry at the time. I steered clear of Philip Levine and other writers of blue-collar verse. I didn’t want to be influenced. I wanted ownership of what I’d written. So I just wrote as if I was the first poet on earth to ever write about man’s interaction with machines.
Mostly at the time I had been reading mostly Latino and Asian-American poets, especially those from the Fresno, California area. I already mentioned one. Another is Michael Medrano, author of the introduction to Songs of the Glue Machines. His work, Born in the Cavity of Sunsets holds a special place in my heart. I should add poet Bryan Medina, also of Fresno, is truly a great performance poet who helped develop my ability to put emotion in verse and my ability not to die from nervousness when reading aloud (I never told him this). There are so many great poets out there that I’d have to list a hundred to truly define what/who influenced me during this time.
In 2009 you launched the Random Writers Workshop in Bakersfield and Fresno. What was your involvement in the project and what was learnt & achieved?
That was a period of time where I gave back to the community through teaching workshops and holding community events. That was a five-year stretch when I was still living in Bakersfield, California. I saw a need to help writers grow in what is considered the most illiterate area of the U.S. I truly think writers, when they can, should give. Writing is an art form where the ego can take over if we don’t remind ourselves that we are a part of many communities.
Nick, what’s next for you?
2016 is a year of transition for me. I’ve been writing a lot of prose (short form and long form) while my book of Latino-themed poetry collects dust (I really shouldn’t allow it to do this. What’s wrong with me?).
I have a completed memoir and three novels. Not only that but I have clients in the writing world that demand a lot of my time. These projects pay the bills.
So, what’s my strategy? I’ve been mostly a hoarder of my work.
With that said, that era is coming to an end. I’m within weeks of finishing a draft of a 500+ page novel. I plan on attacking the publishing world with that one in particular.
I’ve also been sending out short stories and hope for more success this year, as I’ve truly been reinventing myself with my prose taking center stage. I’d watch for my short story Ray Connelly’s Great Adventure to the Outer Void to get picked up this year. It’s about the space race and partly takes place in Mojave, California, and on a fishing boat off of Morro Bay. I’ll be working on a longer version of it as well as some other novels.
Still, with all that said, poetry haunts me. I’ll never stop writing in verse. Ever.
Find more about Nicholas Belardes' writings here:http://www.nicholasbelardes.com/books/