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A Response from the Writers of 'What Is Literary Activism?'

[Editor's Note: This post was written as a response to a letter originally posted on August 21st, responding to "What is Literary Activism?"]

Dear Wendy Trevino, Juliana Spahr, Tim Kreiner, Joshua Clover, Chris Chen, and Jasper Bernes,

First, we are not “Harriet.” We are a group of individuals, who decentered the idea of one authoritarian definition of “literary activism.” We did that. Intentionally and explicitly. Literary activisms, plural. Additionally, in your hurry to pat us on the backs as segue to educating us, you gave a quick nod to “Jeff Koo” for his curatorial work. His name is “Jason Koo.” All six of you signed off on that. How many of you actually read the contributions in the rush to issue your corrective? The implications of this ‘small oversight’ loom.

So you respond as a collective: You are “reticent” … You are the ones who take “this connection between lived struggles and living poets” “most seriously” … You “worry” about the “risk” of “the formulation of literary activism” … You “fear the displacement of political antagonisms into the sphere of the literary”… which limits “political action undertaken by poets to the sphere of literary representation.” And so on.

You manufacture this division on behalf of a group that includes numerous people of color, this notion that we are only poets, incapable of “attending our reading rooms” while also attending movements and calling for the abolishment of the prison. We live either/or lives in your equation, apparently. No evidence of that, but apropos, what verdict needs evidence? Our very project is a “risk” worthy of your collective address.

Your contention is a divisive one, mistaken at best, or an intentionally opportunistic one beyond. One action—‘formulating literary activisms’—does not preclude the other: political antagonisms. In fact, they are often the same (listen to Occupy’s “human microphone,” evidence banned book lists and self publishing, call journals to account for amplifying mostly white male voices, etc.). We do not each live singular lives. We do not live compartmentalized consciousnesses where the voices we read and their impact stay in a room when we shut the front door and enter the street. And where do you imagine we go when we close that door? Our participation in political movements is not an extension of our literary activism, and vice versa, as your parting words indicate, “We would argue that anticapitalist organizing makes such literary activism possible.” Literary activism is not anticapitalist organizing? Only from the streets can demands legitimately be heard? None of us, in your lesson, forged our views from multiple experiences, including cultivating & acting in opposition to white supremacy through the literary. Again I ask, did you read the contributions?

I began on the premise that each contributor is a writer-activist, capable of sophisticated approaches such as attending to reading rooms and the publishing world and, as well, taking to the streets, classrooms, homes—among many other actions I have no doubt this group of dynamic individuals engages in. The contributions bear that basis out. Again, my refrain: Did you read them? Not one contributor suggested these literary activisms exempted action beyond. You explain the prison contains the reading room, but did you imagine the reading room’s activism might be a model and charge other activisms, including taking to the streets? Malcolm Little to Malcolm X.

What saddens me most is what feels like an intentional misreading—the insertion of a false premise—on behalf of all of those who contributed, by a predominantly white group of six and some non-black POC:

"We would say there is no right life within the literary, and that literary activism is the abolition of the prison, not the better care of its reading room."

Here lies a total disconnect over the fact that you don't change who gets arrested if they are seen as inhuman. Tearing down the prisons won’t change the minds of those who will rebuild the next permutation. Slavery to servitude to the prison-industrial complex. 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.

“Political antagonisms” towards reforming “state policy, laws, and the economy” is one way. But certainly not the only one. It’s myopic to think only one tactic is correct and that all else must emerge from it—or else “aestheticize, derail, and defuse” that reformation work. It’s condescending to chide an entirely diverse group on their approaches with your ‘reticence’ and ‘worry’ and ‘fear’ that we just don’t get it. It’s authoritarian to approach us like a patriarch and show us how we didn’t get it quite right, your way—the right way—how we are ‘risking breaking’ “this connection between lived struggles and living poets”! As if none of the contributors have experienced poverty, racism, taken to the streets, written a poem and demanded diversity in publishing.

Beyond, your assertion is very western and historical. Of course POC can only do one thing at a time! I've heard similar critiques of the Black Lives Matter movement. If they're in the streets protesting, they're not organizing and helping their own communities. What are they doing to better their personal lives? Why don’t they focus their energies on helping each other? They’re so misguided! As if public engagement and asserting voice somehow short-circuits or precludes one’s ability to take care of the self and others. And in this case, if we are radicalizing and reforming the literary world, we are most assuredly neglecting the rest of the world and taking away from activism against the prisons.

This corrective, or “addition” if you prefer, regretfully resembles the very model activists are attempting to highlight and dismantle—one where a single person or collective speaks for everyone else, positioning their mode & foci as ‘correct.’ In your version, our literary activisms lead to “empty rituals of cultural recognition and endless stage-managed ‘dialogue’” preventing ‘protests, riots and rebellions from erupting in the streets.’ We are a danger, in your lesson, to the real work, and, as noted above, we don’t engage in literary activisms AND street actions: One ‘derails and defuses’ the other.

Whether you think the Occupy Movement succeeded or failed, the attempt to avoid positioning anyone as the leader was a way to opening the mic to many voices, approaches and concerns—no one person spoke for the movement as a whole and declared the primacy of any voice, ideology or approach. Critique that resistance, but please don’t re-assert the old hegemonic script over POC’s voices. Add your addition to “literary activisms,” but don’t chide us for ours and certainly don’t assert false premises that resemble critiques against the Black Lives Matter movement. And lastly, don’t imagine those voices in the streets don’t appear in the pages of books—they should be heard everywhere.

—Amy King

 

I respect and love everybody who signed the response to Amy King’s post, “What Is Literary Activism?”—I think we’re all on the same side. I LOVE Chris Chen—he welcomed me to Iowa City over a decade ago, and without him, my graduate school experience would have been, in a lot of ways, garbage. (Hit me up, Chris!) But I’m a little bit troubled by the response itself. It seems predicated on the assumption that one kind of activism is better than another, more real, more authentic and therefore possessing more authority, and thereby replicates and, ultimately, perpetuates structures of patriarchal and supremacist hierarchies. And what does that amount to? One kind of activism actually is activism, and the other kind, literary activism in the “reading room,” really isn’t activism at all.

Hogwash!

Before I discovered poetry, I was basically a Republican who liked The Cure. My grandmother, with whom I lived, and I got by on food stamps and nothing, and I was on my way to failing out of high school. It was during my first run-through of the 10th grade that I heard a few lines, the gothiest lines, you know the lines, of “Lady Lazarus,” and my life was changed, instantly. That’s not to say I stopped being a homophobic sexist right away, nor did poetry stop me from becoming a teenage father. But my decades-long encounter with poetry has changed me—indeed, has guided me—toward becoming, as one must always be becoming, a person who loves first and last, and who works, in the ways I know best—through writing and teaching—to make, with many others, each of us doing what she/they/he can, social justice, and more love.

In other words, if I had never encountered poetry, I would never have become an activist—that is, if I, a black man who came of age poor and used to buy 5¢ candy with $1 food stamps to get change for the bus, am allowed to determine for myself whether I am an activist.

Nah. Fuck that. I am an activist. This is my activism.

—Shane McCrae

 

Jeff Koo here. The fact that I'm called "Jeff Koo" in this reply, while probably not noticed by many people reading it save for people that know me and certainly not noticed by any of the six writers signing their names to it, is actually a huge part of the problem here--not one that surprises me, but huge all the same. It's that empty gesture of "political" acknowledgment that is in reality a non-noticing--and this kind of non-noticing is at the heart of racism. I've experienced this many times before, as I'm sure have others who contributed to Amy's piece. I'm acknowledged--given a little pat on the head--but ignored, not taken seriously, even as my views are claimed to be taken seriously. This is the experience of many POC in the literary world and the world as a "whole." What the Jeffs behind this letter seem painfully unable to understand is how simply getting certain people seen, included fully in the room, is a crucial way of breaking down racism and other forms of prejudice. You can go to rallies, go to jail for your beliefs, write all the intellectually condescending letters and articles you want, but if you're not helping marginalized "others" be seen, full names intact, you are kidding yourselves about your own activism and your own politics. You are noticing your own purported insight into the problems of these others rather than the actual others. Surely this whole reply was reread and revised and edited with attention and energy and care--all except "Jeff." How's about spending a little less time noticing your own insight and more time noticing "Jeff"?

—Jason Koo

 

With all due respect to the collective concern, I will remind you that I, as a Romani (Gypsy) woman, have no door to close. I cannot isolate myself from the world’s horrors, and this is the thrust of my call for literary activism. Through poverty and discrimination, I wrote, and if I had not written, my life would not have changed. I still face these ravages, but I face them with the power of publication behind me, with the assertion that I can make a rogue life of my trades, my art, and academia, and that when I write about the Romani experience, I am writing towards equality. It is absurd to assume that because I support literary activism that it is the only activism in which I, or any other writer, partakes. The purpose of my part in Amy King’s piece “What is Literary Activism” was to demonstrate that activism begins with words, voice, and visibility. How can you fight for your struggle, for basic human rights, if people do not know that your struggle exists? If they do not hear a word about it? Literary activism sounds through the streets and right through those shut doors you mention. To worry that we, the assembled writers, do not understand the point of activism is unnecessary, myopic, and patronizing. We need a battle cry; we write the battle cry. And mine is born from my experience. Speaking only for myself, rest assured that I do not have the privilege of isolating myself from the streets.

—Jessica Reidy, penned from the road

 

Last night on an airplane the stranger seated next to me took it upon himself to turn on my overhead light without asking my permission. When I gave him a startled look, he smiled and said, "There, now isn't that better?" as if I hadn't known the light was there.

It can't be that the letter to "Harriet" was written, as it seems to have been, without the authors having read the entirety of the original piece. It can't be that the authors think they are sharing information that the participants in Amy's panel didn't clearly already know. It can't be that the authors of that letter don't understand that a conversation about literary activism—and activism itself—moves in many diverse spaces.

I am tempted here to explain myself, like so many other times in my life, to gently and disarmingly explain why I, with my history and mistakes and desires, deserve to be a part of the conversation, part of the literary and larger worlds. But, you know what? Fuck that. My work, our work, speaks for itself. So, with gratitude to Amy and all the panelists, I know I've been seen, we've all been seen. And so have those who condescend to us.

—Lynn Melnick

 

I want reply to Team Jeff’s response with a framing for culture that I prefer. This is from the introduction to The Politics of Culture in the Shadow of Capital by Lisa Lowe and David Lloyd.

Rather than adopting the understanding of culture as one sphere in a set of differentiated spheres and practices, we discuss “culture” as a terrain in which politics, culture, and the economy form an inseparable dynamic.

Our critique of the assumption of absolute globalization or universal commodification does not lead us to fetishize imaginary spaces that are not yet under the sway of capitalism. Rather, what we focus on is the intersection of commodification and labor exploitation under postmodern transitional modes of production with this historical emergence of social formations in time with but also in antagonism to modernity; these social formation are not residues of the ‘pre-modern,’ but are differential formations that mediate the processes through which capital profits through the mixing and combination of exploitative modes. What we are concerned with is the multiplicity of significant contradictions rooted in the longer histories of antagonism and adaptation.

—Lisa Lowe and David Lloyd, The Politics of Culture in the Shadow of Capital

P.S. Only a month ago and in an attempt to parallel herself to the work of Fred Wilson’s museum installations, Vanessa Place referred to the artist as CRAIG Wilson. The interviewer clarified that the artist being cited was in fact Fred Wilson. CRAIG has since been changed to Fred (you can email me for the screenshots, or do a cache search). These moments of course, are not exceptional. I am fascinated by these consistent and constant name changes. I want to argue that such moments are not mere slippages, erasures, accidents. Writing Eun Song instead of Eunsong, or Christopher instead of Chris perhaps—is a mistake. Craig or Fred? Jeff or Jason? And of course, Fred & Jason are expected to 'move on'—no apology can be anticipated, no explanation given. How carefully are artists and writers of color remembered, and when they cannot properly be recalled, why is it easier to make up names rather than…double check/search the interwebs/ask anyone? This is not a petty question. This is a serious question concerning ethos, positionality, importance, labor and love: who do we remember, who do we make up, who do we cite because we are committed to their ideas—who do we cite as a fleeting justification, who have we memorized—how do we care for the body of their work, let alone their names?

—Eunsong Kim

 

Smells like brand protection.

—Laura Mullen

 

I too was pleased to see your response to “What is Literary Activism?,” not least for its embodiment of the very issue you purport to address. You are misnaming and schooling poets of color on the "connection between lived struggles and living poets" which their accounts of literary activism somehow in your view threaten to sever. That this connection appears tenuous to you evidences your privilege; living this connection every day of their lives in America, poets of color are at the very least freed from sharing in your worry. It also pleases me when Marxist/socialist/communist academics school me about the movement I was raised within—in a system where "right ideology" was often lived wrongly as evidenced by communist governments' de facto treatment of minorities, dissenters, and any who did not tow the party line. But if you so wish to be a comrade, take to heart the oath that ex-Yugoslav kids were taught to recite as we were inducted into the communist party: "to value all the world's people who seek freedom and peace." Look beyond your ideology to the words, lives and work of the poets of color you are so fast to critique, value them for all they are and do, and help.

—Ana Božičević #jesuisjeff

 

My name is Héctor Ramírez. I’m the one you were “pleased” with for “noticing” something. Thanks for that.

But I’m unsure if you can appreciate the ramifications of your own condescension here—in your back-handed acknowledgment of my presence, and in the spirit, thrust, and framework of your response in general.

To be clear, this isn’t anything new for me. Like many of the contributors to Amy King’s generous and necessary Literary Activism post, I’m accustomed to such condescension. I’m used to having to outwork my white colleagues just to feel like I belong in the same place as them. I’m used to laying it on thick with the academic register just to preempt their inevitable accusations that my work is not enough. Not academic enough, not “radical” enough, not “correct” enough (not white enough)—just not enough.

That’s an old story. And of course, all of that is to say nothing to the content of your critique, the necessity of which I’m still trying to understand. I second everything Amy’s said with respect to your response, but what’s most worrying to me is this: I don’t think you can comprehend that your dismissal of me for “noticing,” of Jason (aka “Jeff”) for “complaining,” and of the rest of us for simply speaking amounts to much more than a mere personal slighting. Such dismissal decodes the real message behind your entire argument. Which amounts to that old refrain:

We don’t see you. We don’t care to see you. We probably didn’t even read this whole thing. Because, why would we? We don’t need to, we already knew what we wanted to say to you before you said your piece. So sit down and let the grown-ups talk.

Well. To borrow from Ana Tijoux: Tú nos dices que debemos sentarnos, pero las ideas solo pueden levantarnos.

Still, at the end of the day I am pleased you noticed my name. Jason wasn’t so lucky. I’m pleased you noticed that my name is not, for instance, Víctor Rodríguez. Pleased, yes, but of course: I wouldn’t have been surprised if you’d called me Víctor Rodríguez.

Jeff Koo Rodríguez, #whoisjeffkoo

Originally Published: August 27th, 2015

Raised in Baltimore and Georgia, Amy King earned a BS in English and women’s studies from Towson University, an MFA in poetry from Brooklyn College, and an MA in poetics from SUNY Buffalo. Her writing, which shows elements of Language poetry, has been influenced by her work with Charles Bernstein...