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Our Occupations (after the Occupations): David Buuck
David Buuck is next up in a series of posts for National Poetry Month regarding how writing and art practices have changed in response to the occupations. Previous respondents include Stephen Collis and Steve Benson; Richard Owens and Brian Whitener; and Brian Ang and Ana Božičević. The following two paragraphs contain part of the prompt that I provided to participants:
Something I am wondering about kind of broadly is how your practices might have changed since the beginning of the occupations, if we can mark this beginning in the fall of 2011 (the occupations obviously having their immediate precedent in the Middle East and Europe).
Do you think it may be possible to speak to this a bit? […] Succinctly, in a paragraph or two? Maybe it has had no perceivable effect, which is fine of course, and in which case you might talk about why it is important to maintain what you are doing parallel to (or beyond?) current social movements and political events.
Some Provisional Notes on Occupy Oakland, on the occasion of Occupy Oakland’s six-month anniversary
Shortly after the establishment of the Occupy Oakland camp on 10/10/11, several Bay Area poets started the Occupy Oakland Poets affinity group, primarily for information sharing and an emergency phone tree in case of police raids and/or arrests. Soon Sara Larsen, David Brazil, and other poets organized a weekly “Poetry for the People” open-mic at Oscar Grant Plaza. The call went out for poets to come and read ‘work from the radical poetry tradition’ (i.e. PFP’s not a talent show but a way of connecting our moment with historical struggles and poetic traditions). However salutary the call (and subsequent PFPs), it did make me begin to ask where ‘our’ radical tradition is? What does it mean that when we hear the words ‘radical poetic tradition’ we can only think of poets from several decades ago, and/or poetry deemed radical primarily based on its use of more ‘obvious’ political content or inspirational exhortations?
Given the rapid and militant intensification of Occupy Oakland’s direct actions and confrontations with the city and its military wing, these questions morphed into the larger one of the usefulness of poetry in and for #OO. Was I participating in #OO ‘as a poet,’ or was the fact that I write or make art — however ‘socially engaged’ — irrelevant to the more pressing needs of the moment (needs which often require physical engagement above and beyond linguistic faculties)? Certainly being a ‘good’ poet has nothing to do with one’s activism, just as being an activist does not in itself make my poetry ‘better’ or more interesting, or even more ‘political.’ Is an affinity group made of up poets necessarily any different (in the context of Occupy) than one made up of, say, carpenters, who would at least seem to have a more useful set of skills to (bad pun warning) bring to the table?
Regardless, while my work/identity with/in Occupy Oakland feels more and more divorced from my work/identity as a writer/artist, my artistic work feels increasingly (& productively) challenged by my participation in/with #OO. I (really!) don’t want to fetishize active participation (since not everyone can put their bodies on the line in the same ways), and I can’t speak to the very different contingencies of other Occupys, but experiencing confrontations in public space & real time, as well as at GAs and working group sessions, one can see how discursive practice adapts in new & creative ways to new situations (always framed by the profoundly different identity-positions and educational comfort levels of participants, as well as the asymmetrical resource war with the police state), and how such adaptations produce new modes and questions for language practices (the real-time enjambments and collective projection of the peoples’ mic, the psychogeography of public speech, chants, slogans & graffiti spread through a diversely-bodied experience of public space-time, testing its boundaries ‘in the streets’). I (really!) don’t wish to romanticize such confrontations and the diversity of performative tactics that spring up in response, but these have produced what to me feel like new modes of on-the-fly collective theorizing in practice. 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’s worth of territory. Theorizing-in-practice thus is the tactical and strategic thinking a group does in contingent situations (as well as in the planning ‘before’ and the assessments ‘after’ [which is also another ‘before’ — before the next moves]) which is some messy and beautiful conflagration of evolving organic intellectualism of the hive, buzzing in the gas of the would-be masked-up beekeepers. “Shields to the front!” is thus not a slogan, even as we chant it in moments of disorganized swarming, our bodies twisting to send the message from the front back to the reinforcements.
Thus my (attempts at/research towards) aesthetic practice of the last six months comes out of these (always over-determined & antagonistic) situations, and the pressing questions they pose for theory/practice — i.e. method. Perhaps my BARGE work has sharpened such questions for myself more than my writing, but either way even if I don’t come to #OO ‘as a poet/artist’ I still can’t not always press up against questions of aesthetics, even during the most intensified encounters with the state (think of the mugshot, the police surveillance video, the live-streams & real-time tweets, the armchair blogposts, etc., all with their own aesthetic valences). To imagine the poethics of such encounters is to ask the question from the POV of an as-yet undetermined future: How will ‘all this’ have been represented (and by whom, with what resources, for what audiences, towards what, etc.)?
Whether or not my own writing has or will change as a result of my participation, certainly the questions I ask of my practice (both method and ‘work’) have fundamentally changed, and for me it is only from the grappling with such questions (through constant self-interrogation and embodied ‘research’) and their framings (which for me requires an antagonistic relation to the conditions of mediation offered by both power and various aesthetic ‘traditions’) that any changes in how & what I produce as an artist will become manifest (which is certainly not to say that the results will therefore be ‘good’ or interesting!).
Thus the primary and most pressing question for my work in relation to Occupy Oakland is something along the lines of: what kinds of representational strategies – i.e. what kinds of art – do these new conditions and situations demand? Should I ‘go to’ Occupy and simply insert the content into the forms I already use (swap “Wall Street” with 2010’s “BP” for some insta-Occupo)? Should I take the more obvious linguistic tendencies in Occupy and ‘apply them’ to my work (mic-check poems, appropriated slogans, etc.)? Is documentary poetry ‘enough’? ‘Inspirational’ poetry? Neo-formalist gestures + overt ‘political content’ + some white liberal hand-wringing = put me in your Occupy-themed issue?
Less it reads as if I’m making crass judgments of well intentioned and historically important poetics, I should note that in the little poetry I’ve written in the last six months, I have been guilty of most of these tropes. Yet even as I continue to try to return to that old question of the relation between form and content, I’d really like to question what one even means by content anymore, since for me it is not simply current events or information. Part of this is the ‘aboutness’ or the ‘looking at’ problem (“My new poem is about Occupy” or “In this new poem, I’m looking at how Occupy…”), but at a deeper level I’d like to suggest that social forms (in all their volatility) and movement (not a social movement – as entity — but social movement itself — as action, moving ahead and against) are also kinds of content, and the aesthetic forms of representation ‘appropriate’ to such ever-changing contents will need to rethink themselves in this historical moment. What this might even look like remains an open question, but the shared interrogation of these questions — for both activists and artists — seems to me to be one of the most pressing — and exciting — new terrains opened up by the Occupy experiments.
Perhaps, then, each revolution gets the prosody it deserves, and we might yet will have heard, in the plazas and the streets, in a multitude of voices, languages, and linguistic forms, ever-changing and improvising into untold and evermore-beautiful failures: This is what experimental poetry looks like! No, this is what experimental poetry looks like! No, this is what experimental poetry looks like…
— David Buuck : Oakland : 3/10/12