Poetry and Politics in Five Pieces

Like many of you I’m sure, I was sent a link detailing the ridiculous prosecution of a poet in California for his alleged part in closing a branch of US Bank on the UC Davis campus after the notorious pepper spray incident. On the Poetry Foundation site, I discovered a set of fascinating meditations by poets about the interface of their work and Occupy. I don’t know much about poetry and these poets in particular–perhaps they are very famous, perhaps not–but I thought the project was really interesting.

First, a note on the scandal. At the request of UC Davis, the district attorney in the area has brought charges against Joshua Clover and eleven students, blaming them for the bank closure. If convicted, the students face serious jail time and fines, and UC Davis will have passed the buck from the suit brought against them by the bank. You can and should sign the petition here.

On the blog section of the Poetry Foundation website, Thom Donovan has recently been soliciting responses to a set of questions about how the Occupy movement has influenced the work of poets. The replies are very intriguing and very different (let me reiterate my ignorance of the relative standing of these poets: I decided against doing Google research and to just react to the writing).


To my

great relief–

the world

Anne Boyer


In more or less familiar vein, I started with Brian Ang‘s call for a militant poetry:

By militancy, I mean activism that thinks toward the furthest limits in challenging the social text for the emancipation of humanity in its entirety, and executes actions as necessary toward this goal, often requiring strikes, occupations, and riots.

The somewhat surprising last word of this paragraph indicates how different the sensibility of the Oakland Commune can be to that of (most of) OWS. Also writing from the context of Oakland, David Buuck recalls how

Marx’s “the senses have therefore become directly in their practice theoreticians…” comes alive in the affective experience of bodies socially entangled in struggle, even if only over a single city block.

His example is this video of a contest between OO and the police:

So far, you might think, this poetic response to Occupy is not so distinct to the “mainstream” of Occupy. And that in itself is interesting–that there’s a poetry journal called ARMED CELL (their caps). This identification was not unnoticed by Ang, who became concerned that the

emphasis on immediate praxis made more palpable the radicality-diminishing consequences of unrigorous rejection of knowledges’ political potentials.  This led to the development of “Anti-Community Poetics.”



In New York, Anelise Chen recalls a very different reaction–a refusal to write at all:

An unexpected consequence of the resurrection: while the occupations were happening, I found it almost impossible to write. Something inside me had come to life, but it did not want to be at a desk.

Chen identifies a strong sense of contradiction in the movement between thinking and doing, which was certainly palpable during the encampment.

That tension is one of the reasons I started this project, to make myself engage in writing, even if the day-to-day requirement to do so has meant that I have not had time to think much about how I’m doing that writing. So I suppose I do it without thinking too much about how I’m doing it, as Chen suggests.


The piece I felt most affinity with, perhaps because she writes under the sign of a certain optimism, was by Jeanine Webb. It’s perhaps the most “poetic” of the posts and as a non-poet, I like passages like this about the collective work of the movement:

We thought a lot about these words: “underwater,” “connectivity,” “surplus value,” “conditions,” “spectacle,” “default,” “visceral,” “crisis,” “friendship.”

If I were to make a similar list about the keywords in this project, I think there would be: “duration,” “performance,” “time,” “debt,” “militant research,” “crisis,” “love,” “dis/ability,” “visuality.” There’s a lot of intersection.

Webb’s post is full of fun links, like this one to a Cut-up Collaborative poem on the Occupy Spring.

Check out the entire piece–this is a Surrealism for the Internet era. Or the link to Lisa Robertson’s essay The Cabins, where she describes life during Occupy:

I read Vila-Matas and Pierre Hadot in a low-rent stone house on the edge of fields in central France. I heat with wood. My neighbours are poor and are out ploughing or threshing til midnight. Everybody knows how to make something, and how to fix what they have. In a certain way capitalism has already left; the countryside’s emptied out, house prices keep dropping, no one can get a mortgage, the cars are old.

Likewise Webb herself riffs on the place of the square as a form:

For my part squares began to proliferate in my own work. Plazas, gatherings, architecture, riot cops, books and book blocs. But also literal squares: square text ornaments and poems in textual blocs. Then, long lines in advancing and receding waves. I began to collage, longing for immediate energies of cutting and pasting and for collaboration,* read Apollinaire again, looked at radical political images of the past, read histories, played a million songs on repeat, thinking of the mashup, thinking of aggregation and interplay, of how to represent the collective, but thinking most viscerally of friends, who I had danced with months before, many who were other poets, being beaten, pepper-sprayed and arrested.

I don’t write like this at all but I like the run-on sentences, the aggregation of terms and ideas, the sense of flow from past time–it feels like now but it has such obvious echoes of other thens. To my delight, she then intersects the formal square with the public square and anti-debt politics:

public squares again have begun to hum with energy, and today small red squares made of felt are proliferating on the thoroughways and quartiers and liens of Quebec, on the breasts of thousands of students and their supporters striking and rioting against crippling student debt and fees and cuts to bursaries. Like little safety-pinned echoes of Malevich, the symbol, they say, is a reference to the phrase “carrément dans la rouge”/”squarely in debt” which refers to their state of emergency, their invisible enmirement under weight. These bright squares cover the squares.

That “squarely in the red/debt” badge is a lovely metonym of the crisis. It’s what a lay person would call poetic.


On the Christmas of my death when
I swam by myself in the peeling
blue of the pool, and
the pines addressed me, saying:
take me to the riot

Ana Božičević