Poetry News

Responding to 'What Is Literary Activism?'

By Harriet Staff

[Editor's Note: As a response to Amy King's recent post "What Is Literary Activism?," Wendy Trevino, Juliana Spahr, Tim Kreiner, Joshua Clover, Chris Chen, and Jasper Bernes have offered the following letter.]

Dear Harriet,

We were pleased to see your forum “What is Literary Activism?,” not least for the useful and persuasive passages to be found there. Even more so, its mere existence —or its necessity—registers a truth about the transformation of U.S poetry in recent years: away from a purported opposition between lyrical quietude and avant-garde formal ambition as the only one in town. At least there is the acknowledged possibility of the existence of an explicitly politicized poetry drawing much of its energy from significant social antagonisms.

It is this connection between lived struggles and living poets that we take most seriously, and this connection we worry is most at risk of being broken within the formulation of “literary activism.” The danger, it seems to us, is in imagining the literary as a kind of autonomous sphere. In this conception, literary activism may mean efforts meant to transform the realm of literature; to be exemplary in our relation to writing and reading and publishing; to practice thoughtfulness, be just, be decent in our literary communities. We believe in all of this.

This is why we were pleased to see the question what is literary activism framed by Amy King’s list of “marches, counter marches, clinic defenses and on the ground actions.” Pleased to read Héctor Ramírez noticing that “No amount of specialization or distinction or departmentalization can bracket our terrible American reality or justify our terrible American imagination.” Pleased to see Jason Koo complain about the mainly white room of the poetry reading and urging “if you call yourself a curator, well, curate something–you know, think about what you’re doing.”

And yet we are also somewhat reticent about any idea of right life in literature. As the adage goes, wrong life cannot be lived rightly. And the wrong life is the social whole. It is the life in which we participate regardless of our intentions, the life of patriarchy, white supremacy, and capitalist exploitation, to name only three aspects of wrong life. The literary sits within this, as some old friends said, like a reading room within a prison. It is fully enclosed. 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.

We fear the displacement of political antagonisms into the sphere of the literary and the cultural has a long history of helping to aestheticize, derail, and defuse past social movements significantly more skeptical about the relationship between culture and politics, or culture and power. Huey Newton’s 1968 assertion "that culture itself will not liberate us,” for example, is almost unimaginable today— politicians and police help to organize speakouts and poetry slams to prevent disruptive protests, riots, and rebellions from erupting in the streets. Empty rituals of cultural recognition and endless stage-managed "dialogue" are continually offered as substitutes for even minimal reforms to state policy, laws, and the economy.

Imagining the placement of poetry in the philanthropic service of social movements —whether one recoils from this in the name of aesthetic autonomy or considers it a noble sacrifice —continues to limit political action undertaken by poets to the sphere of literary representation. Moreover, even the most salient and confrontational literary activism of our moment requires larger lived struggles for the most limited gains. We do not think that demands around gender in the literary sphere would have the force they do without militant organizing against patriarchy elsewhere. We do not think that demands around racism in poetry would have gained such traction this year absent rebellions in Ferguson and Baltimore.

These are examples. But we hope the logic is clear. We would argue that those rebellions make possible, among other things, literary activism as set forth here. We would argue that anticapitalist organizing makes such literary activism possible. Poets desperately depend upon these struggles. Indeed we would suggest these struggles include within themselves literary activism, as they are the basis for any real changes in literature: political struggles that seek to transcend representational demands and reallocations of ever-diminishing resources, that move toward abolition of the prison and the end of the literary sphere’s false separation.

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


[Correction: The letter originally referred to "What Is Literary Activism?" contributor Jason Koo as Jeff Koo. We have corrected the error.]