From Oakland, Goddard student Liz Latty writes:” thank u for your blogs, they are my favorite thing to follow coming out of new york right now. have u been involved with the poetry assembly or any of its subgroups at all? here in oakland we are having readings every sunday at the camp and last week a really wonderful poet that teaches at Mills did this piece using the human mic where he talked about how by using it we get to embody gertrude stein’s definition of genius as being able to speak and listen at the same time. i loved this.”
Thank you, Liz–it’s great to feel that we are both somehow part of the same thing even though you’re way out there on the edge of that other water, my home ocean. I love relating Stein’s notion to the People’s Mic; I love the reminder that genius is something we can practice and encourage in each other. That it arises when we egg each other on to flights of creative behavior, not when we sit alone in some attic. (There’s definitely a place for attics and other solitary spaces, but not the one that is imagined in the caricatured vision of the isolated Euroamerican artist who, all by Himself, inhabits some lofty plateau of competitive Art Excellence.)
Something that has amazed me about OWS’s low-tech voice transmission system ever since I first heard about it is that I think I sort of anticipated it in my novel The Company of Cannibals, begun more than 10 years ago. (It’s still unpublished, except for a couple of excerpts, e.g. one in Tarpaulin Sky, available at: http://www.tarpaulinsky.com/Fall05/Clausen.html ) Only my rebels against the global order (known initially as Journal Keepers) develop a collective practice of memorization that actually allows them to retain the content of what they hear, even though they are forbidden to ever write it down. And there are other points of striking similarity–maybe not surprising given that my book was partly inspired by the anti-globalization protests that are often cited as a precursor to OWS: “When members of ‘the media’ pressed individual Journal Keepers to explain their puzzling attitude–their willing embrace of poverty, their indifference to the future at a time of life when they ought to have been laying the foundations for later career success, their defeatist scorn of the miraculous technologies that comprised civilization’s proudest achievement, and above all their failure to be tempted by their era’s coveted immortality-substitute…in the form of plentiful offers to address their fellow citizens from the pinnacle of the most prestigious broadcast venues–they answered, with the simple insolence of unalloyed conviction: There Is No Alternative. Onlookers found something particularly distressing in the combination of resigned passivity and iron resolve…. Even more unsettling, at least from the media’s standpoint, was the Journal Keepers’ failure to articulate a program (whether party platform or theology) that could help explain and predict their behavior.” Sound familiar?
Today at Z.P.–a beautiful fall day, with weekend crowds out in force–I encountered a variety of voicings. The first thing I saw was a guy standing up on a wall and reading the text of Thoreau’s “On Civil Disobedience” off a hand-held device. Then I nodded at a couple of men who were holding a banner about stopping the Keystone XL Pipeline. I asked them for any news of the big tar sands demonstration in D.C. today, and they told me direct news was scarce– “Most of our friends left their cell phones in their cars”–but they’d heard there was a good crowd, with a mock-up of a tar sands pipe, surrounding the White House. They thought my sign, BECA– USE THEY’RE TRYING TO DRIVE OUR PLANET OFF A CLIFF, fit in with their message, and asked me to join them in marching around the perimeter to publicize a tar sands teach-in they were about to conduct. We did so, chanting things like “Whose planet? Our planet?” (Though I would have preferred a chant that didn’t just repurpose the problematic idea of ownership–how about extending the notion of “the 99%” beyond human beings?) On our little tour, I passed a guy who had gathered a substantial crowd, and when we were done I went back to check him out. He was a rapper, maybe a professional (I didn’t catch his name), and his message was about coming over on a slave ship and going through all the oppression that ensued, but rising above it: “slavery is so last century.” He got us into some participatory chanting (“I say fight the, you say power, fight the power, fight the power!”) and had us salute forces of liberation including the Black Panthers, the Mau Mau, and Che Guevara. (How about Las Hijas de Cuahtemoc and the Combahee River Collective? I thought.*) “This is about revolutionary change,” he insisted, “not any of that stuff the politicians talk to us about. Even if they gave every single person $100,000, that’s not good enough. We’re going to keep on with this.”
I read several George Oppen poems from American Poetry: The Twentieth Century Vol. II (Library of America), above all the devastating “Route,” a profound poem about war, about trying to get clarity with respect to any form of experience, particularly in relation to one’s knowledge of the obliterating cruelty of which human beings are capable: “Strange to be here, strange for them also, insane and criminal,/who hasn’t noticed that, strange to be man, we have come/rather far” (614). It’s a sort of miniature epic, with an astonishing prose narrative about the terrible choices faced by Alsatians under Nazi occupation embedded in the middle. I finished with the small poem “In Memoriam Charles Reznikoff,” especially fitting since I’d read a Reznikoff poem yesterday: “heroic this is/the poem//to write//in the great/world small” (616).
*Las Hijas de Cuahtemoc was a Chicana feminist group founded in 1968 (see the piece on Chicana Power! Contested Histories of Feminism in the Chicano Movement by Maylei Blackwell, reviewed by Miroslava Chávez-García, in the September/October Women’s Review of Books). The Combahee River Collective was a Black feminist group active in the late 1970’s. It released a famous “statement” analyzing African American women’s oppression (including that of lesbians) in light of its meaning for all freedom struggles.