by Jen Efting

This cycle of three songs is inspired by Vancouver-based poet Helen Potrebenko’s poem “Cheap Labour,” and by my own experiences as a food service worker and union organizer.

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I first read Potrebenko more than twelve years ago, in preparation for an anti-imperialist international women’s conference called “Towards Our Liberation,” hosted in Vancouver. The collective I belonged to read sections of “Cheap Labour” aloud at the conference’s cultural evening.  The room was silent as we read. 

Grassroots and union organizing can be beautiful and heartbreaking.  Potrebenko speaks to the beauty and urgency of these struggles in a way that only someone who has been there and done the work could. She writes about the lives of working class women with incredible attention to detail, humour, and compassion. I have never read anything else like it. It fills my heart and makes me feel seen.

Potrebenko’s work is hard to find, which is something of a travesty. I myself don’t have a real copy of Life, Love and Unions, which contains “Cheap Labour.” I photocopied the entire book because it is out of print and I could not find a used copy. Some of her work is available through Lazara Press, and recent poems can be found on her website.

Four years ago I began to write songs.  Sometimes I worry that my songs are too political, or maybe too feminist.  Then I think about the work of artists like Helen Potrebenko and remember that if I am devoted to learning the craft, I cannot be too political. If I am honest about my life and what I see in the world, I cannot be too feminist. We should all sing our lives out loud. I will keep trying. ♦



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