A week or so back the Poetry Foundation blog posted a forum on literary activism. As this is a topic that interests us, we wrote a response to it, which is here. In the process of editing this piece, we got Jason Koo’s name wrong; that was a fuckup, period. We apologize. Beyond this, the piece provoked a lot of internet contention. We were called everything from white manarchists to white-approval-seeking people of color to Marxists to state communists to smug racist assholes to worse than cops to brand protectors to patronizing and old. For some of us, this comes after accusations of being “the white Marxists” or “token people of color” responsible for the dissolution of the 2015 Berkeley Poetry Conference, which ignored the many nonwhite participants who opted out of that conference largely as a result of a controversy over recent writing by conceptual poet Vanessa Place. We get it. It’s a move, a classic. We should clarify: while some of us are white, not all of us are; some of us identify as Marxist, some as anarchists, none of us as state Communists (and none of these positionalities were mentioned in the piece); some of us identify as old, others not so much. And none of us are exempt from complicity with racist structures. This is what we take living in a white supremacist world to mean, although we suffer the consequences in dissimilar ways and are variously culpable. We do our best to struggle against those structures. We also don’t believe that opinions about the relations among culture, aesthetics, and politics correlate to identity positions in any monolithic fashion.

Our intent in writing the initial response was to question the framing of “literary activism.” To us that implies either activism within literature or via literary means. We made no assumption about whether or not the participants in the forum engage in other kinds of political activity, with targets beyond the world of literature and poetry. In fact, the formulation we offered — in which contestation elsewhere is an enabling condition for literary activism — presumes that none of us live “singular lives” based upon “compartmentalized consciousnesses,” as Amy King contends in her prefatory paragraphs. We think the very construction of the forum is responsible for this compartmentalization. We had hoped it would be clear from the spirit of our letter that it was against such compartmentalization and for establishing clearer and more visible links between the kinds of literary activism described in the forum and other sorts of political engagements and activities. And despite the insistence that our intervention was unnecessary, it is these links which we find more or less invisible in the new set of responses King has curated.

Given that one of our number, Wendy Trevino, was asked to contribute to the forum and worked up a response she felt uncomfortable including precisely because it questioned the notion of “literary activism” and its compartmentalizing effect, we agreed to craft a group statement pointing out what we thought absent from the formulations of “literary activism” on offer there. That Wendy chose not to share her statement within the confines of the original forum in spite of the invitation is perhaps not immaterial. It not only indicates the limits of the politics on offer within the singular frame of “literary activism” but also gives some indication of the climate of hostility surrounding these questions within the world of poetry at present, as well as that climate’s debilitating effect upon the voicing of concerns, even and perhaps especially when there is real disagreement between people of similar backgrounds. Nonetheless, Wendy wrote the response "Literary Activism" (scheduled to appear in Macaroni Necklace) which was the kernel of our initial response. It is insistent on registering the extent to which recent literary activism, particularly around antiblackness, has drawn its force from confrontational street politics in Ferguson, Baltimore, and towns and cities across the US. It is also insistent on centering those struggles over lived material conditions rather than cultural politics.

Our position is simple: we don’t think you transform the world by transforming literature, we think you transform the world and literature comes with it. Literature has been and continues to be an effective political force when it is directly allied with social forces capable of challenging power. The FBI feared the writings of Claude McKay and Muriel Rukeyser, Diane di Prima and Sonia Sanchez because these writers were directly and explicitly connected to powerful social movements. They were not “literary activists,” strictly speaking. They were militants who wrote poems and novels and plays and essays, and in this context their work could function as a call to action, a battle cry.

We do not believe, as King does, “the prisons are full of black people, immigrants and POC precisely because the reading rooms are filled with white lives, white voices and white supremacist ideologies.” In fact, we think this statement is exactly backward. We do not think it is possible to read contemporary histories of the cataclysmic rise of the prison system — by Ruth Wilson Gilmore and others  — and conclude that the US carceral state emerges primarily as the result of a white-dominated literary canon. When confronting this cataclysm today we think faith in cultural politics is largely misplaced. We think this precisely because the sweeping "cultural turn" within the humanities and social sciences over the last several decades has brought so much urgently needed attention to literature and art but actively marginalized engagement with the material conditions of capitalism, patriarchy, and white supremacy. Pointing this out does not refute the manifest need to center historically excluded voices, do away with the very idea of canons, or levy cultural institutions for access and support. We simply doubt whether doing so has the capacity to alter the course of routine police murders, infant mortality, incarceration, dispossession, deportations, and general life chances of black, Latin@, native, and poor Asian populations in the US. The “state-sanctioned or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death,” as Gilmore defines racism, has often intensified alongside the institutionalization of past social movements.

While many political struggles — from anti-colonial movements of national liberation to Native feminisms — claim culture as crucial to their resistance, thinkers from within these movements have also produced numerous, powerful critiques that point to culture’s political malleability as a concept and its usefulness in preserving existing hierarchies of power. We have learned a great deal from critical accounts of how struggles over cultural hegemony can function to frame white supremacy primarily in terms of cultural practices rather than material power. We also refuse to erase entire histories of antiracist action, art, and theory by nonwhite poets, activists, and scholars who have routinely exposed how appeals to shared culture can also normalize hierarchies of power within communities of color. And we reject categorical dismissals of these questions as “white” or the nonwhite people who pose them as “tokens.” Contrary to pervasive stereotypes, “people of color” do not possess identical political views about the relationship between race, literature, and social change. King’s framing of the letter as an attack on the purportedly homogeneous political views of black and non-black poets of color itself does much to reassert an “old hegemonic script over POC’s voices.”

We say again: these are questions that are crucial. If we restate some basic thoughts here it is not to lecture or tangle but just to admit our position. There are a number of reasons to be hesitant around claims that literature or culture possess an intrinsic politics in the US right now. This is hardly to dismiss literature but to try to understand its precarious position and its difficult relation to precarious lives. Scathing antiracist dissections of “diversity” initiatives that promote cultural “tolerance” while leaving intact mechanisms which produce differential racial exclusions are many. Critics including Himani Bannerji, E. San Juan Jr., Jodi Melamed, and Roderick A. Ferguson have argued that the versions of culture, tradition, and identity promoted by institutionalized literary multiculturalism have progressively been dissociated from collective action as part of a strategy to mollify militant social movements while commodifying and depoliticizing racial difference for elite university audiences. Karen Ferguson and others point to the Ford Foundation’s aspiration to recuperate 60s-era social movement energies through the extensive funding of accommodationist art institutions and community development corporations. Such state/private strategies of weaponizing the arts in the US are unique to the last sixty years or so. And our feeling is that as writers we are still learning when to be skeptical of what the concept of culture naturalizes and how to recognize the moments when the literary can end up serving fairly conservative political agendas.

We should also add that these doubts apply to our own practices and projects. Whether (and how) to write literature in this time remains an open and difficult question for us. That said, some of us are hopeful and some less so. Much work we love arises in the midst of movements against state violence and immiseration. Some recently moving examples of this: Xu Lizhi’s Foxconn poems, the video poems of the Mosireen media collective, the graffiti in Gezi. We believe in the linguistic delirium of struggle.

But our hope is modulated by an awareness that individuals are clearly capable of making their own experience and struggles visible without the intermediation of poetry. For us this matter precedes any suppositions about literature’s intrinsic capacities. We would want to understand first the conditions in which literature has some kind of effect and those in which it does not. The way to begin that work might be to admit that the murder of Michael Brown would not have become national news if residents of Ferguson had not rioted, and continued to riot, if queer black women and first-timer kids and neighbors from St. Louis had not been instrumental in keeping the protests going. Literature and literary activism may register and reflect on these political eruptions in powerful ways, but it certainly was not necessary for them. The efficacy of “literature” in these situations emerges in often fleeting forms which have historically not been considered literary at all, and largely still aren’t — in a patch of graffiti that appears on a wall, in the rhetorical power of a speaker at a meeting, in the truth expressed by an angry teen to a terrified reporter.

None of this means that literature is without value or meaning. Its every rift is loaded with political meanings and values and ideas. This does not presuppose political instrumentality for literature. But if we do arrive at the question of political instrumentality — as seems clear that many of us have in different ways — it seems clear to us that literature’s effects are slow and diffuse and ambiguous. We do not gainsay the experience of being transformed by poetry. We have all felt this in one way or another. Questioning the conflation of poetry with political struggle is neither an attack on poetry nor a denial of how poems are involved in political moments and movements. It is an attempt to reckon with recent history, with how the concept of culture has been mobilized against specific political agendas, and how it has become an end in itself. An attempt to reckon with the powerful critiques of this happening. When we ask the question of the political it leads us swiftly to other kinds of struggle, where we have seen people radicalized broadly, intensely, enduringly. Novels and poems and stories operate on different scales and in different dimensions than social movements, insurrections, and revolutions, which have the power to galvanize vast populations in one stroke. We think that’s ok. We still love poetry.

 

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