Last April, when most of us here were Harriet blogging for National Poetry Month, Thom Donovan posted some questions he hoped would elicit response. For instance, his query, “Is there a particular historical moment or configuration that, though it is past, still holds conditions of possibility for the future?” prompted me to write, “Early to mid-’80s African American electro music. . . .” His April 10, 2011 post, “(What) Remains (Common),” contains a similarly provocative set of questions that aren’t completely unrelated to Patricia Smith’s discussion of the difficulties slam poetry has experienced in being taken seriously by the prize- and tenure-bestowing literary world or Javier Huerta’s “suggestion to the Poetry Foundation: that ‘Chicano Renaissance’ be added as a ‘School/Period’ in its Poems/Poets page.”

In other words, these are questions of community—and ownership. This time around, Donovan asks: “If being in common or commoning presents an event of one’s sociality—their being with others—at what point do we cease being common and at what point do we begin?” Of course the roots of this sense of the word “common” are not only social, but socio-economic, specifically the portion of agricultural land that was communally shared and used in a “common-field system” until capitalism expropriated this land and turned it into private property: this is Marx’s theory of “primitive accumulation.” “So-called primitive accumulation, therefore, is nothing else than the historical process of divorcing the producer from the means of production.” In fact, the historical roots of capitalism can be found in this originary moment of taking the land—as primary means of production in an agricultural society—away from the peasant/producer. With no direct access to the means of production (agricultural or, later, industrial), this individual is then forced to sell her or his labor back to the expropriators.

So any discussion of the common(s) needs to begin with its economic substrata. Or if “economic” is too strong a word for poetry these days, then how about “institutional”? Smith and Huerta are requesting institutional recognition for slam poetry and the Chicano Renaissance, respectively, while also celebrating these alternative social and cultural formations (that may or may not be institutions in themselves—I’m inclined to think that they are, but my definition of institutionality is broad and combines notions of community with the power relations—including access to resources and symbolic capital—traversing those communities). It’s nice to think that we can all spontaneously form free and inclusive communities, but these are an illusion without some recognition of inequitable economic and institutional systems. Unless, perhaps, we’re talking about “temporary autonomous zones,” although the very phrase itself signals temporal and spatial borders.

Donovan acknowledges this when he asks, almost rhetorically, “Can a commons function non-exclusively?” to which I would answer, No! Communities are formed as much—if not more—by what/whom they exclude as by what/whom they include. This is why I’m interested in a poetics of exile and an approach to art and poetry in which dis-identification is embedded within an individual’s or an audience’s response to these cultural objects. In other words, to what degree does a poem or work of art confirm our identities and what we know, and to what degree does it complicate this process? Thus, an understanding—an enacting—of the common(s) must be rooted in difference and dis-identification. So when Donovan asks, “What can never become common? How can a commons be founded on what never can become common?” I say, Exactly!

Originally Published: April 16th, 2011

Alan Gilbert is the author of the poetry collections The Treatment of Monuments (2012) and Late in the Antenna Fields (2011). He has earned praise for his ability to move between personal, national, and global scales and experiences in his wide-ranging, politically and ethically astute poetry. He is the author...