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Addressing America: Travis Holloway at Guernica on the Importance of Poetry at OWS

By Harriet Staff

Travis Holloway–one of the most steadfast of poetry occupiers and originating co-facilitator of Occupy Wall Street’s Poetry Collective (which all started one very rainy September 30)–has penned a must-read essay for Guernica magazine, entitled “Performing Art or Democracy? On Poetry at Occupy Wall Street.” The addressing of America by poets obviously has precedent, he writes– “[A]s Langston Hughes put it…, ‘I, too, am America'”–and import: “Among the first artists arriving in Zuccotti Park in September, poets gathered in a setting situated between what is arguably the two most significant locations in the collective memory of twenty-first century America: Wall Street and World Trade.”

Holloway continues with a description of that first meeting, and leads up to a curious question:

What occurred [at the first Poetry Assembly] looked less like a poetry reading and more like a democratic Athenian assembly. As an art form, the poetry assembly did not simply demand for democracy. It performed it. Its procedures were simple. Each poet—from unpublished writers to star bards and even laureates—was considered equal to the next. They each placed their name in a lottery and were chosen at random. Secondly, each poet had the prerogative to read before the assembly, and each was given no more than three minutes to read. Finally, there was equal and fair participation by everyone present. The event was co-facilitated by different attendees of the assembly and lines of poetry were repeated back to the poet using the same call-and-response method utilized regularly at Occupy Wall Street. With every line, a somatic gesture co-authorized the speaker and even confronted the poet with his or her own words. All of this meant there was little separation between the performer and the audience—the work of art, at least, depended equally on the actions of both.


Events like the Poetry Assembly began cropping up in a variety of art forms from music to theater to puppetry and even quilting. Largely organized online through collaborative and “shared” forums, groups turned social media events into collective performances in the public space. One evening a jazz ensemble could be found in the square and the next a group of women knitting scarves for those sleeping outdoors and facing winter. Contemporary artists’ guilds were forming fast at Occupy Wall Street. People were finding each other. As an e-mail from the Arts and Culture Sub-Committee to the poets put it, “We believe we are at the brink of a new art movement, a new school of thought. To catalyze that, we are creating collectives inside our Arts and Culture to advance our movement and society aesthetically towards a new paradigm. We have already a collective on performance art, one is music, and hopefully you will join us with poetry.” The poets joined.

As Thom Donovan, a poet involved with the collective, put it, “What strikes one immediately upon arriving in the park is a participatory atmosphere… and I think something of this spirit resides in the poetry readings that happen every Friday night.” Another poet and activist involved with the project, Eliot Katz, offered a more historical perspective, suggesting that poetry at Zuccotti Park “seems a powerful extension of the role that poets have played in recent decades—in the civil rights, anti-Vietnam War, and women’s rights movements of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s; in the anti-apartheid movement of the 1980s; and in the more recent movement against the current war in Iraq.”

Despite the rich inheritance from those who came before them, the artists involved with Occupy Wall Street continue to speak of a new aesthetic forming at Zuccotti Park. Artists and poets are collaborating on shared, often anonymous work, and this work frequently focuses on free performances and events in the public space. For their part, the poets have introduced a new, democratic genre of poetic performance. A way of doing poetry that has perhaps not been practiced en masse since the time of those poetry festivals leading up to the Athenian revolution in 507 BCE. As many have written more eloquently, somehow all over the world a different kind of democracy feels natural to the next generation. Could it be that the generation seemingly structured by a new politics is also structured by a new kind of art?

Posted in Poetry News on Tuesday, December 6th, 2011 by Harriet Staff.