Payday at the Triangle
by Ruth Daigon

Small Poetry Press
Select Poets Series

We are Behind The Scenes with Ruth Daigon author of the new book "Payday at the Triangle." In the interview below we have the great fortune to gain some insight into Ruth's process of writing this book and to hear about her personal reactions to the finished collection. Don't miss this collection!

Q. What made you want to write "Payday at the Triangle" and publish this book?

A. I saw an obituary in the N.Y. Times over 2 years ago of a woman named Bessie Cohen, 102, who was the second last survivor of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. Her picture was so appealing and the description of her life really impressed me. She was spunky, courageous, a true activist. Next to the photo of the older Bessie there was also a photo of the very young Bessie Gabrilowich (her original name) who was brought back to the scene of the fire the day after it happened, March 26, 1911, and she was literally falling off her feet in a dead faint. It was a very moving photo, and it caught and held my attention and made me very interested in that whole catastrophic event.


Q. What was the process by which you learned about the fire, the people, the consequences portrayed here?

A. It was a simple process. I went to the computer, typed in the word TRIANGLE and was brought instantly to the Kheel Institute's web page at Cornell University. There I discovered masses of material about the fire...newspaper articles.... interviews with survivors and observers..... graphic descriptions of the fire from the inside of the factory and from the watchers outside.... policemen....firemen..... family accounts of the subsequent trial..... witnesses...even statements made by the owners, Blanck and Harris, who even though they were declared "Not Guilty" everyone hated them...and every shred of evidence about the fire which included books... poetry.....songs... . photographs and even recorded interviews. Kheel Instate has done a marvelous job of researching and recording everything remotely connected with the fire. I printed out almost all the evidence and my office was piled high with paper. I was drowning in it and at a loss to know where to begin. I had only intended to write one poem about Bessie Gabrilowich but the number of possibilities kept escalating.


Q. How did you find the newspaper clippings and photos shown in the book?

A. As I said, everything I needed to know was right there in my computer. I did send away for a few books to see how other writers perceived the tragedy. The photos were also there, the clippings as well, and the Kheel Instate generously allowed me use of all of these when I told them what my purpose was. They were most encouraging.


Q. Obviously, I'm struck by the overwhelming sense of loss in this story. I wonder if you feel that some kind of healing has taken place here by invoking the names and lives of the people we lost in this disaster?

A. At this point when I was researching this tragedy, learning in detail about all the horrors and the repercussions, the grief of an entire city, an entire nation as well., this was no healing process for me. This was an awakening, an awareness that was accompanied by much pain. It's impossible to describe my first response. I would have to leave the room, close down the computer and then come back later to continue immersing myself. Invoking the names of the dead was actually carried on by the witnesses, the friends and relatives. I was simply recording their words. Every voice, every speech, every lament is based on reality. Perhaps invoking the names of the dead respresented a healing process for them back there... but I was still raw from the experience. Hopefully, those who read the book will experience some catharsis after the initial horror.


Q. Prior to reading your book, I had some knowledge of this New York fire, but had always thought that it was only women who died. In your book you tell us of men and women alike who perished. Did you know that prior to writing this book? Were there other surprises for you in the researching process?

A. No I really did not know much of anything about the Triangle Fire. I grew up in Canada, and American history was something we knew very little about. Perhaps my parents or older members of the family made mention of it. But it was very vague. It was only when I started researching did I learn the details .... the young immigrant girls involved...the lousy wages and working conditions, and of course the fact that men worked there too. They were cutters and pressers foremen and specialists in their trade. As a matter of fact, at a party recently, I met a young woman who said "Oh the Triangle
Fire. That's family history! My grandfather was in it but he worked on the the fourth floor and was able to escape. Remember in the poem about Rose Saffron... there's a line that reads .."the foreman yelled 'Rosie save yourself' ". Of course there were men involved but their numbers were very low in comparison to the hundreds of girls and women in the workforce. Actually everything about my research was "a surprise" because I knew very little when I set out to learn about it.... the locked doors....the crowded conditions...the safety methods which were laughable.....broken fire escapes...
even the professional fire fighting equipment was totally inadequate. Fire fighters ladders went as high as the 6th or 7th floor, and their hoses as well, and the building was ten floors high. How could they possibly rescue the hundreds of girls trapped in the building. Furthermore, a couple of the bosses were there with their families probably on a "field trip". They were on the tenth floor and knew how to get up on the roof. They sneaked away, didn't let any one of their employees know. One of the more perceptive girls followed them, gained the roof and was rescued along with the bosses by NYU students on the roof of a nearby building. Even in the midst of a catastrophe the bosses took care of their own skins.


Q. The descriptions are so vivid, the loss so real. This disaster is so violent, and then there are the passages about women putting their hats out on the ledges or tossing their gloves and purses down prior to jumping to their deaths. Do you think this comments on the state of "proper" women at the time? If so, how? If not, what does it say in your opinion?

A. Oh I don't know about that. In a moment of hysteria, people do strange things. I don't think the girls were being "proper". Perhaps they were getting rid of any encumbrances. Perhaps their purses and gloves were precious to them and they put them in a "safe" place before they jumped. Maybe it was just habit. Every morning when they got to work, they'd remove their hats, gloves and purses, store them in a safe place, put on their aprons or smocks and sit down at their machines. Maybe it was just habit. Who knows? Remember, Bessie Gabrilowich, in a moment of panic, raced around
shouting "My hat. My new hat" and thus lost track of her friend.


Q. Because a lot of this book focuses on the survivors' accounts, there is some sense of that survival, a sense that those lost in the fire remained with the survivors for as long as they went on to live. Were you trying to capture the essence of them all, keep the spirits and experiences alive and
present, now that even the survivors have grown old and passed away?

A. Yes. I think you're right, except I was not aware of that. I was writing in the heat of the moment. I wanted to capture each voice, each personality honestly, and perhaps as this was happening I was also recording them and keeping them "alive"....but that was not my original purpose. Sometimes the
poem takes over and you are just the instrument of its purpose and design. Now, of course, i want everyone to read the book.... to keep the event and the victims alive.


Ruth Daigon Biography
Ruth spent most of her life in the extreme climate of Winnipeg, Toronto, New York and Connecticut where her primary activity was singing as a Columbia Recording Artist, guest artist on CBS's Camera Three, soloist with the New York Pro Musica and in concert and recital appearances. When she sang at Dylan Thomas' funeral, she never dreamed that poetry would take over your life. Her collaboration with W.H. Auden to record Renaissance poetry and music for Columbia Records also gave no hint of what was to come--editing Poets On: for 20 years, contributing to major poetry journals and winning national awards like "The Eve of St. Agnes Award" (Negative Capability). Her latest poetry collection, The Moon Inside, was just published by Newton's Baby. Her previous collection, Between One Future and the Next, was published in 1995 by Papier-Mache Press. Gale Publishing included her autobiography in volume 25 in Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series. Ruth Daigon was awarded the University of Southern California's Ann Stanford Poetry Award, 1997. A selection of her poems entitled "Ruth Daigon's Greatest Hits" is forthcoming from Pudding House Publications as part of their Gold chapbook series. See for more info about Ruth's works.

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