Last year I was abroad for most of the summer. One’s relationship to the US changes as soon as you step outside of its borders. I resume a process of knowing what I do not know when I am outside this deeply colonized and colonizing place. Outside, as Heriberto Yépez says, its dominant logic of “cybermnemetics” and “neomemory” (if an outside can in fact really any longer exist in a thoroughly Americanized global context). When I was in Germany, the wealthiest of all the countries in the European Union, I witnessed—via the Internet—Palestinian bodies described as “telegenically dead” by the Prime Minister of Israel. In tandem, I watched Black bodies in the US routinely executed by police and the reactions to these executions and the acquittal of the officers who would perpetrate them by the people of Ferguson, Missouri. I still wonder how poetry can bear witness to violence.
I still wonder whether it can. There was a time when I posed this question—what is the relationship between poetry and witness?—in terms of aesthetic form. Something in, say, Steve Reich’s “Come Out” does something to my body to undergo the bodies of others when tape loop echoes and desynchs from tape loop. Something happens in the ear itself, in the neurology of the hearing process, which is both formal and physiological and cultural. Like hearing one’s hearing themselves hearing. Like overhearing one’s self as a social actor. Art and poetry I still think can bear witness in this way—“To make the bruise blood come out.” To draw to the surface what must be felt in the (social) body in order to create conditions for empathy—and a reaction to one’s empathy that reactivates our senses of responsibility. This becoming visceral to the pain of others. I still believe that art/poetry can perform this function. And that it is not enough. The 21st Century requires that I put my own body, ideas, emotions, time, breath, and resources on the line in order to build relationships of solidarity and kinship with those who would attempt to usher in (revolutionary) change—change that reorders the violent structures of our world. This cannot happen on the page alone. It cannot only happen through discourse. It has to happen somewhere else, somewhere that I believe poetry and art can still condition, but that poetry and art themselves can only rarely effect. Call this a commons, an ante-public space, or a fugitive public, or the social body. Can poetry, in the words of BIFO, reunite the general intellect with a social body, our technological and epistemological capacities with a commons? Given the limited capacity of individuals, I believe that it is crucial that one think about the decisions they make with regards to who and what they publish, what they curate, what editorial projects they take on, how they navigate various institutions, what materials they teach as well as how they teach them, and how they conduct themselves in public forums. These decisions contribute to a micropolitics; a non-official (or non-statist) politics of collective enunciation. If one has the capacity to do nothing else, it is to shape existing organizations and conversations and create new ones that need to be had. It is also to make visible those who have been submerged and displaced on account of violence and to withdraw one’s own subjectivity when necessary. One can, one must in fact, yield/wield their resources and appropriate agency for others. This is especially true of those with privileges based on their gender, ethnicity, race, sexuality, and/or class background. One needs to interrogate the value of their own practice for the communities and discourses they would feel it most urgent to serve. How do our words intend to affect others? Words also fuck us up. Words also kill. And they redouble the violence of what or who has already been killed. I don’t want words to redouble the objects of our despair. Which is not an avoidance or sublimation of what is fucked up, but also not its miming, however “radically.” Whether intended or not—and it would seem to me a mixture of the two—Conceptual Poetry’s most visible practitioners have shown themselves to be either ignorant or negligent to a broader context regarding race in the US currently. This is a flaw not just of the person or their stated theoretical positions, but their aesthetic. An aesthetic that redoubles the objects of our despair. An aesthetic that re-kills. Last summer, when I was abroad, I wrote a poem that drew upon the media environment of the Ferguson event as represented on the Internet and via Twitter and Facebook. Looking at it again now, a flood of images return. Not just images, but ideas. Not just ideas, but feelings. The tear is still an intellectual thing. This poem has never been published except on my weblog, but I feel a certain relief that it exists, if only as a placeholder for thinking and feeling through things for myself. Perhaps this is the first decolonizing gesture—writing the poem to explore the limits of one’s own beliefs, feelings, thinking. To realize the vast extent of one’s ignorance (and/or negligence). To push up against that limit (as though the first form that resistance can take). Where we also acknowledge our culpability for what we don’t know. And we recognize willful ignorance as an expression of malice. The poem is a site of knowing what we don’t know and thinking through how this not knowing can effect how we conduct ourselves in the world. What we say about our work and our intentions for our work matters too. Not just as a rhetorical performance, or as a denegation (speaking of things so as to not have to speak about them), but as something that also reveals the limits of our understanding and the integrity of our thinking. Something that, in other words, also re/kills or chooses not to re/kill, that redoubles the objects of our despair or attempts to transform a ubiquitous and unmitigated violence. I want to oscillate the making of the poem—the poem that is often intuitive, and semi-discursive, and gestural, and incomprehensible—with a more self-conscious work of social practice, whether teaching, organizing, curation, parenting, editing, studying, or an infinite number of daily activities.
The poems become theoreticians directly in their immediate practice.