In 2016, I learned about the work of artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles after a party conversation with the artist Nina Katchadourian, who encouraged me to see the retrospective of Ukeles’s work that had recently opened at the Queens Museum. I brought my son, who was six at the time, with me to the museum and he was enraptured by “Snow Workers’ Ballet: 2012,” a video work showcasing the coordinated movements of Japanese snow plows, one named Romeo and one Juliet, that Ukeles had orchestrated and recorded.
While my son sat on a stool and watched the snowplows find and fall for each other, I was drawn to Ukeles’s MANIFESTO MAINTENANCE ART 1969!, a typewritten work that proposes that Ukeles join the NYC Sanitation Department as their artist in residence in order to create a longitudinal artistic study of the work of NYCDS employees.
In the MANIFESTO, Ukeles articulates what work meant for her as an artist and as a mother. I was taken with the moment on the third page in which she accounts for and attempts to integrate her identities:
I am an artist. I am a woman. I am a wife. I am a mother (random order). I do a hell of a lot of washing, cleaning, cooking, renewing, supporting, preserving, etc. Also, (up to now separately) I “do” Art.
The parentheticals here do a lot of heavy lifting. As a single parent with a demanding full-time job and as a writer, I found this articulation to be a radical act, even at a remove of almost fifty years. In what order should I place my identities? Can we bring together our identities so they cohere? How much of our lives are made up of small acts of maintenance and care? How much of the structures of our lives are outside of our control but nonetheless control how we live?
My poetry manuscript in progress, Paragones, looks at work by female-identifying artists. For each poem, I have tried to find a form that mirrors the work being explored. To craft this prose poem, I wanted to pay attention to some of the same concerns that Ukeles explores in her art—care, time, and labor—and so created a piece that used a week-long time frame in which the speaker kept returning to the same moment in the day.
Since my piece was inspired by Ukeles, I wanted to reference her and what I understand to be the thinking behind her work. I took my title from the MANIFESTO with the aim of exploring the long game that is motherhood, documenting some of the constant acts of care and maintenance that have gone into supporting my son as he grows. I also wanted to explore the tedious difficulty of building and maintaining habits and routines that allow our lives to function, along with the particular emotional challenges I have faced as the co-parent of a child who shares two homes.
My hope is that the piece makes visible some of the invisible work of motherhood, and that the cumulative effect of looking at this physical and emotional work over time resonates with those who have lived through similar experiences.
KC TROMMER is the author of We Call Them Beautiful (Diode Editions, 2019) and The Hasp Tongue (dgp, 2014) and is founder of the online audio project QUEENSBOUND. Since 2018, she has collaborated with the Grammy Award-winning composer Herschel Garfein on a song cycle based on poems from her first collection. Since 2020, she has curated and run the Red Door Series, a reading and meditation series held at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Jackson Heights, Queens. She has been poet in residence on Governors Island since 2021, first through the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council’s COVID-19 Response Residency Program, then through Works on Water, and now through the NYU Gallatin WetLab. She lives in Jackson Heights with her son. Find her on Instagram @_wctb_.