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Book Review: Work Ethic

Tim Paggi’s new chapbook tackles the pressures and pleasures of adulthood

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“I’m trying to get a little more real with myself lately,” says poet Tim Paggi.

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Work Ethic

Tim Paggi

Writer Tim Paggi strides into a midtown coffee shop on the afternoon of the last day of 2013 carrying a large binder. He smiles, removes his hat, and excuses himself to grab a warm beverage and snack. He’s come to talk about Work Ethic, his new poetry chapbook that local imprint Ink Press Productions puts out this month. But he arrives to this interview fresh from a big life moment: He bought a house. His first. And in talking about it, his face stutters through the facial yoga that often afflicts first-time buyers—the pride of homeownership trying to coexist with the fear of homeownership.

But that’s OK. Really. It’s all part of accepting adulthood, accepting the changes that come with age. The responsibility and the worry, the joy and the pleasure, the stillness and drudgery that become the life cycles of ordinary everydays. Paggi wants to embrace that, the effort just getting from one day to the next it sometimes takes to be a grown-ass person in this world. He’s trying to slow down and let it sink in. He’s trying to be more present and at ease in the moment, in the now, in his mind, in his body, in his life. It’s an effort that was distilled into his writing. With Work Ethic Paggi is trying to be more economical and accessible, more precise and more universal, more honest and abstract. He didn’t want to be wasting any reader’s time.

“Asking someone to read a poem is crazy,” Paggi says and immediately laughs. Currently in his second year of the University of Baltimore’s creative writing and publication design MFA program, Paggi was one of the co-founders of Annex Theater and cut his scribe’s teeth writing and adapting plays for it and other local DIY theater groups. Poetry is what he’s been focusing on for the past two years, self-publishing his first chapbook, 10 Poems of Skull and Echo, last year.

“Asking someone to read a tweet is a lot of work, let alone read a poem,” he continues. “So keeping it concise was something that I was definitely trying to do with this collection. The last collection I did, each poem was more like four or five pages long. So this is just really trying to reign it in.”

That he does. Work Ethic offers 27 poems that are all about 14 lines long, zeroing in on internal difficulties and the subtle but omnipresent tension of ordinary life—the work of existence. Many are written in a blunt first-person, turning each into a Spalding Grayish monologue of euphoric self-laceration. “Guts” opens with the foreboding “If I turn myself inside out,/ you’ll sicken at the sight of me,” while “Why I Can’t Get out Tonight” delivers a paranoid update of Beckett’s narrators as trapped consciousness: “I can’t go out, I must stay in/ and feed the parasite./ It feeds on Kraft,/ sad online porn.”

“This [collection] is a lot darker” than his first, Paggi admits. “For awhile I was influenced by the movement of positivity going on in the Baltimore DIY scene—dance and bright colors mixed in with this New Age positivity, power of now thing. That really influenced me for a long time, which is really big still in people’s thinking. It’s a survival method. That’s great. But I’m trying to get a little more real with myself lately.”

It’s a process that entails turning his writer’s eye on the self and seeing what is and isn’t there. “I heard an interesting thing that writers of traditional haiku don’t consider themselves writers,” he says. “They attain haiku. They explore themselves, and what comes out is the product. So in a way a lot of [Work Ethic’s poems] are just about spelunking within yourself and just noticing, yeah, there are hard things and you have to work through them. And it’s not pleasant or fun. It’s not about having fun all the time or being happy or being funny all the time.

“I identify as a depressed person, or someone who has anxiety, so that’s generally what it’s about and that’s how I’ve been referring to it to people who ask me if there’s a thrust to it,” he continues. The chapbook “is about working through these things, and I try to write it in a way that hopefully it could relate to others. I don’t know if I’ve gotten there yet.”

Just don’t mistake Work Ethic for a slice of therapeutic over-sharing. What elevates the writing above commonplace anxious whining and the pity-me solipsism of confessional poetry is the fractured language, cruelly hilarious humor, and collisions of ideas and images that Paggi packs into his compact lines. Standout “Secret Gym” graphs the evangelical narcissism of health-club culture onto the interior self-reflection to yield sentences that vibrate with insecurity: “I keep running and counting/ sweating and doubting/ and maintaining stasis.” And in an inspired moment of 21st-century ennui, Paggi has his poem’s narrator Google questions in “Planet Not Okay” but not find answers, turning an ordinary exercise—using a search engine—into a source of psychological unease.

“It’s a way of saying, I’m looking, I’m searching—in the wrong place,” Paggi says. “I Google ‘why is everyone happy,’ and it’s the wrong question and the wrong way of asking that question.”

He laughs again, and it’s not out of any social awkwardness, it’s because in the poem it’s as funny a moment as it is distressed. It’s difficult to pin down the humor in Work Ethic. It’s an observational wit spiked with absurdist streaks, squishing the very sincere fears of adulthood with the detritus in a young Baltimore artist’s life: soda and cats and the internet and candy and guns and video games and light sabers and smartphones.

“I’m just trying to be honest and talk about what’s around me,” Paggi says, and understanding Work Ethic as very much a product of Baltimore’s DIY community gives it resonating bite. The poems are refreshingly candid acknowledgements that it’s not always easy coming up in a city that has recently been heralded by young people as a childlike playground where everyone plays drums and sings. Trying to be who or what you may eventually be takes effort. Direction. Purpose. “Mostly, right now I’m working at being an adult and I’m really excited about it. I’m trying to get to a place where I’m not romanticizing youth or childhood or a teenage zest for life or the college bohemian thing. I really want to embrace whatever comes next fully, and enjoy myself.”

Tim Paggi reads at Normal’s Books and Records Jan. 11 with Boat Water, Edwin Perry, and Chelsea Tadeyeske.

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