The Rumpus Interviews Joshua Clover
Speaking of Commune Editions: A conversation with editor, poet, and professor Joshua Clover was published yesterday at The Rumpus. Jack Chelgren talked with Clover about "how his thinking on riots and strikes had changed since Riot.Strike.Riot was first published, and how he navigates the sometimes-hazy overlap between theory and poetry." An excerpt:
Rumpus: In your poem “Their Ambiguity,” you quote the situationist Raoul Vaneigem saying, “When a poem by Mallarmé becomes the sole explanation for an act of revolt, then poetry and revolution will have overcome their ambiguity.” You also talk in Riot.Strike.Riot about how the last stanza of Shelley’s “The Masque of Anarchy” has been taken up as a battle cry by various insurrectionary movements throughout history. Can you elaborate a bit on whether and how literature can “be political,” or maybe more specifically on the role of poetry in anti-capitalist struggle?
Clover: I don’t want to be hubristic about art’s possibilities. I don’t think that art has a causal relationship to revolution. I do think it’s a way people coordinate or orient their own often-inchoate experiences, sometimes willfully. With “The Masque of Anarchy,” one of the things I note is that many political movements over time have made use of it as a way to orient themselves and to narrate what they were doing.
The most important quote about poetry and politics that I know is from a different situationist, Guy Debord. He was locked in a debate with the French Surrealists, many of whom by the 40s and 50s were part of the French communist party apparatus. Many Surrealists eventually argued for instrumentalizing art for political ends. Debord countered, “I don’t want to put poetry in the service of revolution. I want to put revolution in the service of poetry.”
It took me a little bit to get Debord’s point. But I actually think it’s the most ambitious thing you could say for poetry. Not “poetry will lead us to revolution,” but neither “art is autonomous and must be protected from politics.” Instead, “what poetry could be, we as yet have no idea.” Because in our current situation—in the current domination in which we live—poetry is a hobbled, broken thing, and a registration of our damaged world. If we wanted to set poetry free to be all that it could be (I know that’s a terrible slogan from the US military), we would have to change the world first. To get the kind of poetry that poetry deserves, we need to destroy capitalism. I think that’s Debord’s argument. I’m not sure he was right about as many things as I once thought, but I think he’s right about that.
Read the full interview at The Rumpus.