Our Occupations (after the Occupations): Jeanine Webb
Jeanine Webb 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; Brian Ang and Ana Božičević; David Buuck; Suzanne Stein and Anna Vitale; Dan Thomas Glass and Lauren Levin; Anelise Chen; and Lara Durback. 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.
Writing here on the almost-eve of the May 1st General Strike, I want to speak to the flavor of this question, which is an excellent one to pose, and think, "after"? —and here I mean to respond not so much to Thom's question but to a sort of feeling of radical weariness I'm getting from some of the previous responses here—for, though in the U.S. our occupations brought to bear in the fall have been physically demolished in the winter of our occupied discontent, in the global flow of contraries, our occupations everywhere are present. These ideas live still and are beginning to burst forth again, one knows, with the fresh spirit they still deserve. Perhaps you are thinking at this time that I, mostly a terminal cynic, am sounding utopian, but I don't care! For if ever our poets will not sound utopian and find themselves paralyzed with fear or withdrawal, how can one live? How will we even begin to imagine our untraded futures?
O Spring! "the ecstasy of always bursting forth!"; "He who worries or she who dares/To die practically without mentioning/Again our idiotic utopian friendships." Well, let's. Burst; mention!
Especially when poets are so into dreaming of "wild implicit economies on the opaque side of legibility."
Besides, my friends: "I've accepted my mind works best when imitating vantages of Paradise"!
Beginning in 2010, after the first wave of the California student occupation and protests which had their inception in 2009, some of my friends and I began to meet and discuss a poetic praxis supplemented by real direct action and theory of political economy. A poetic praxis that aligns itself with labor. A poetic praxis that, in the tradition of the Situationists, recognizes that Poetry is not Enough, by itself, to change the material. A poetics which seeks to envision and confront the collective future, to share both poems and disagreements and actions in a real politics of friendship.
With the Occupies, this opened out. We schemed and shared in office cubicles, on stolen breaks, under bailers, at bars, at lunch counters, in bookstores, in dingy conference rooms and community centers, in creaky and glowing galleries, littered fields, concrete garages, granite parks, in 2nd-floor classrooms with windows that don't open, how we have known the dust of institutions. Everyone was making genuinely surprising things. We watched. On little screens, on livestreams, at interminable GAs. And we went out into the real movement of action whenever we could, in person, embodied, yes, in the "fray," defending and taking public space. My friends everywhere, most of them young people, people who came of age on the cusp of a literal millenium, were touched by many things killing us softly. The job market yawning apocalyptically before us, then the condition of precarity, of austerity, with its temporary illusory work, its foreclosures of homes and of the future, with its lack of benefits for us and our loved ones, its lack of health insurance. And then when we sat in a park and were happy and they sent in the riot cops to confiscate our fall leaflets. Later, there was a standoff over Their desire to wash the blood off of the pavement. By which I mean not the figurative, but real. We thought a lot about these words: "underwater," "connectivity," "surplus value," "conditions," "spectacle," "default," "visceral," "crisis," "friendship."
I confess I do not have a writing "practice," if practice means a disciplined regularly scheduled production. Still, poems thankfully will insist to appear, slowly or in bursts of energy. For my part squares began to proliferate in my own work. Plazas, gatherings, architecture, riot cops, books and book blocs. But also literal squares: square text ornaments and poems in textual blocs. Then, long lines in advancing and receding waves. I began to collage, longing for immediate energies of cutting and pasting and for collaboration,* read Apollinaire again, looked at radical political images of the past, read histories, played a million songs on repeat, thinking of the mashup, thinking of aggregation and interplay, of how to represent the collective, but thinking most viscerally of friends, who I had danced with months before, many who were other poets, being beaten, pepper-sprayed and arrested. Again, and again. How this was important. How this almost never "happened" on the news but in another room, and then later on the internet they said the blood on the linoleum "wasn't real." The court rejected the smashed fingers at the hands of the police. Weapons were leavied, more or "less lethal." If I developed a practice of writing it was this: go to the actions, when possible. When not possible, support by any other means available, try not to succumb to to despair. Read everything. Write to share with friends and so as not to succumb to despair.
Meanwhile, "To my/great relief –/ the world."
We watched the strike in Puerto Rico, the burning of Athens, the return to Tahrir, the taking of the Port of Oakland by hundred thousands. And now public squares again have begun to hum with energy, and today small red squares made of felt are proliferating on the thoroughways and quartiers and liens of Quebec, on the breasts of thousands of students and their supporters striking and rioting against crippling student debt and fees and cuts to bursaries. Like little safety-pinned echoes of Malevich, the symbol, they say, is a reference to the phrase "carrément dans la rouge"/"squarely in debt" which refers to their state of emergency, their invisible enmirement under weight. These bright squares cover the squares. And again, people go out into the street in Québec, in Prague, in Chile, in Bahrain to resist.
There is comfort in this and the fact that our occupations will not long be "after" and they will not be without poems so long as
"The/friend/is difficult to 'to localize.'"
*this collaborative poem features lines by Brian Ang, Sirama Bajo, Serena Chopra, Erin Costello, Michael Flatt, Melissa Mack, Marlon MacAllister, and myself. Assembled from mailed and emailed lines + pieces of correspondence.
Thom Donovan lives in New York City where he edits Wild Horses of Fire weblog (whof.blogspot.com) and coedits ON Contemporary Practice with Michael Cross and Kyle Schlesinger. He is a participant in the Nonsite Collective and a curator for the SEGUE reading series (NYC). He holds a Ph.D. in English...