In summer 2011, the Occupy movement was set in motion in the USA. »Occupy Wallstreet!« was the war cry from the protesters throughout the streets of Manhattan. The movement soon spread all over the world; last year, new protests took place in China. The poet and journalist Thom Donovan was one of the writers who joined the Occupy movement in the US to become revolutionary organizers, care providers, organic intellectuals, and radical pedagogues. Many carried on writing poetry and making art, their work taking on dramatically new forms and directions with the movement. For his book Occupy Poetics, Donovan collected a series of responses to the Occupy movement to observe how aesthetics and politics intersect. How can one write with the event?
CH: How did this project start? What were your motivation and your questions?
Thom Donovan: I don’t think I ever imagined these writings as a collection, not until Andy Fitch invited me to propose something for Essay Press. The question of how aesthetics and politics overlap, which is often a highly contested one for poets and artists, is one that I have tried to think about for a while now, and which still preoccupies me (no pun intended). In terms of Occupy, the germ of this project occurred when I first realized that something was happening that was qualitatively different than the kinds of activism and social engagement I had become accustomed to in my 20s, which never seemed to amount to anything (post anti-globalization movement). People would try to start something, but things would fizzle before the collective despair of neoliberalism, especially during the W. Bush years (2000-2008). (This was especially clear after participating in a number of actions and demonstrations against the WTO/IMF and 2003 invasion of Iraq by the US.) Occupy seemed to be the first moment where collectivized struggle had legs, in the US and elsewhere.
»What motivates my questions, more than anything else, is a sense that aesthetics and politics are inextricable from one another, and that how poets think about their relationship to the political matters for a larger society.«
In the lead-up to Occupy, I witnessed the Arab Spring, which provided a source of inspiration. And now a spirit of revolutionary change issues from Black Lives Matter, which has at last rekindled the militant demands of the Black Radical Tradition. What motivates my questions, more than anything else, is a sense that aesthetics and politics are inextricable from one another, and that how poets think about their relationship to the political matters for a larger society. More than anything else, I think the book does its small part to preserve some of the energy and intentions of a handful of poets (mostly friends and colleagues with whom I was most closely working and in touch with at the time) in the midst of a mass social movement of some consequence for various revolutionary traditions and the future of US political discourse.
CH: Occupy is a worldwide protest movement. While the movement is still fairly small in Germany, new actions were taking place in China this year. Where does the movement stand today in North America?
TD: I definitely think the impact of Occupy can be seen in the current (US) national presidential race, especially in Bernie Sanders’ campaign. In this sense, the energy of Occupy has been captured and contained by the US political system. On the other hand, I feel that Occupy carries on, with crucial differences, in Black Lives Matter, especially through its comparable strategies of organization and direct action. I also feel the impact of Occupy in the many affinity groups that have continued long since the occupation of the parks, such as Arts & Labor and Strike Debt!. Everything has been quite dire for some time now, and I think that Occupy offered a catalyst for ongoing collective outcry and action. Black Lives Matter has changed the focus in an important way by attending the legacy of slavery as it continues through the prisons, legal system, policing, real estate, education as well as other social institutions and practices.
CH: What impact does Occupy have on you as artists and writers?
TD: There were quite a few different lessons for me, not least of which is that it still matters whether or not bodies gather together in (public) space. I guess this was the first lesson of Occupy – that despite the ways that we will continue to be »virtual« to one another, it matters that our bodies be together, and that we make something from this being together … For many of us, writing poems or making art is no longer enough, and positing art or poetry as autonomous from sociopolitical practice is out of the question. Many of us awoke to the fact that not only is there a »politics of poetic form« (to quote the title of a book edited by Charles Bernstein), but just as importantly there is a »poetics of political form« (to quote Fred Moten riffing on Bernstein’s title), and that it may be more important than ever to invest one’s energies in the practice of such a poetics, rather than poetry for the page or stage per se (the two most common sites for poetry in the US).
CH: What were the responses to the Occupy movement you collected like? Who were the authors and how did you contact them?
TD: The texts of Occupy Poetics accrued largely through occasions. For instance, the introduction was written as a talk for a symposium my friend Eleni Stecopoulos organized regarding the »poetics of healing« in Berkeley, CA in the spring of 2012, and a couple of the pieces were written for BOMB magazine – a correspondence with Brandon Brown we conducted over the winter of 2012, and a group interview with David Brazil, Jackqueline Frost, and Evan Kennedy, conducted in the fall of the same year, all of whom participated in and shared a discourse around Occupy Oakland. There is also a piece that I wrote for a blogging stint at Jacket 2 (on David Buuck); a conversation I had with Ben Kinmont for the Whitney 2014 Biennial; and a passage from an »anti-memoir« I have been working on for the past few years (Left Melancholy). The longest section of Occupy Poetics is a survey that I conducted as a blogger for the National Poetry Foundation’s Harriet blog in the spring of 2012, in which I asked various friends and colleagues to provide reflections on how their writing practice had been affected by Occupy.
CH: In the introductory text to Occupy Poetics, you write that you would like the texts in the books to remain as »documents« as much as possible. How did you follow this statement in creating the book and why?
TD: I know that there is a temptation to rewrite things years after having written them. I have experienced this temptation, and often succumbed to it, as I imagine many others have. This was a concern in gaining permission to republish some of the pieces for the book. Beyond this very practical concern, there is something compelling to me about preserving the content of what we write for particular occasions, especially when what we have written results from conditions of duress. In academic publishing, there are like 100 people who read your book manuscript before it goes to press; books are vetted by peer reviewers, then editors, then copywriters, et al. But there is something inadequate to me about this process, especially for those of us who have been composing mainly through blogs and social media for the past decade. It’s like you risk taking some of the life away from the words; you end up editing out something that may have been of interest to a reader, albeit unbeknownst to you.
»Occupy became an occasion for lyric, which for me is writing that involves my body and senses in direct and immediate ways, where »the senses […] become theoreticians in their immediate praxis« (Marx).«
For the most part, I felt there was a potential historical value in a lot of this material, so I wanted to preserve that sense of the work’s artifactuality. I, for one, would write something very different now were I asked to address the political landscape, but I feel it is important to see a process, if only a process of becoming a little less ignorant and naïve regarding the truth of one’s place in the world, or of simply changing one’s perspective. I think Amiri Baraka is a kind of hero in this regard because his works stage the drama of changing one’s mind and position. Which is to say, they dramatize a process of becoming the person he is, which is of course ever-mutable, always changing, in relation to his contemporaries and contemporary events. This is also why as a general rule I refuse to rewrite poems years after their composition; because time changes how I write, and I want to admit time into the poems in different ways. Without acknowledging these time signatures/stamps, which become more acute with age, something is lost. Something proper to a moment, occasion, process, configuration, relation, or event.
CH: »Writing With the Event« is the title of the preface to your book Occupy Poetics. What is the link between poetry and actual events in terms of people, language, form, and performance?
TD: I think the link depends on the person and/or community of practitioners. For instance, many refused to write »occupoems« and opted instead to become activists, or radical librarians, or social workers, or educators, or care providers. This was their poem! It makes me think of Gustave Courbet, of the Paris Commune, who stopped painting to become an administrator. Or the countless unacknowledged artists who have maintained practices while working jobs, or performing unpaid reproductive labor, or under various forms of domination. Others wrote poems, but the content was not explicitly »about« or in relation to Occupy. Others still, like myself, continued to write poems in the vein of ones we had written before, only in relation to the events of Occupy. Occupy became an occasion for lyric, which for me is writing that involves my body and senses in direct and immediate ways, where »the senses […] become theoreticians in their immediate praxis« (Marx). In New York, some of us gathered every Friday to read poems to one another – this was before the evictions. As I understand it, there were similar gatherings throughout the country. What characterized Occupy Oakland is that most of the poets became involved in direct actions such as the shutting down of the ports and the occupation of a building in the downtown area, and wrote poems through these actions. Oki Sogumi and Wendy Trevino, for instance, wrote some incredibly moving poems through their participation, and they were not alone. Again, I think what was called into question radically by Occupy in a broad sense is the autonomy of aesthetic expression and cultural production from direct political and institutional processes, and this inseparability was reflected at every level of life. Institutions responded through different curatorial and programming formats; extra-institutional organizations and social bodies emerged; new publications and experiments in publication were undertaken; conservative discourses and so-called »avant-garde« ones were called into question; poets read and performed their poems differently, through a different set of affects and with a different demand upon their audience for participation, interaction, and response; educators rethought the format of their classrooms and participated in »free schools;« research and scholarship was directed more intensely towards a revolutionary present.
CH: Are you going to carry on with Occupy Poetics? Have any other projects emerged from this work?
TD: I feel a danger of harboring nostalgia for the configurations around which this book crystallized, that it may detract from current engagements and analysis. Walter Benjamin called this danger »left melancholy.« That said, I do think that much of what was expressed in the book, particularly by my correspondents and interlocutors, tragically obtains in the present; and that many of the strategies explored by Occupy are still of value within the current sociopolitical terrain. I continue to be interested in how to write with others and with events, which is to say, through a sense of collective response and purpose, and Occupy Poetics is one expression of this enduring interest through which my poetics may be defined more broadly. I have long believed that poets don’t need to write what traditionally passes as poetry to be considered poets, and that there is much to be gained by leaving poetry discourse, at any scale, to engage other discourses, communities, and modes of being. (For the large majority of the world, and especially those margianlized by their ethnicity, gender, embodiment, and/or class background, this leaving is of course rarely a choice.) At the moment, I have a few projects that are collective in nature, and that I believe extend what I have been able to accomplish with Occupy Poetics. I think there is a dynamic relationship between the poems I tend to write and their social context, and this is something that I want to work with more and more, through different kinds of works and projects: How the poem might instigate something – a dialogue or action – but then fade into the background (or disappear altogether) becoming secondary to its effects; How, inversely, the poem might be the only thing left from an event or exchange so powerful that it effervesces, or flees – all that can project it into the future being a few words, phrases, quotations, propositions. I want to work at a point where these two extremes – the over-qualifications of discourse and the fugitivity of poetic enunciation – animate and transform each other in relation to the anticipatory occasion of a desired social body.