On embedded poetry
I. Poetry and the mess
The notion that poetry has nothing to do with the “real world” of history and politics is a notion mostly held by a) some poets, and b) some people otherwise invested in poetry (critics/professors). The idea doesn’t come from the “real world” (however that might be artificially constructed), where I have never myself witnessed poetry being dismissed out of hand as an unwanted or alien intrusion. The “regulators” (Whitman) and “legislators” (Shelley) of poetry are poets and poetry critics, who too often second themselves from the mess of the material to an aesthetic realm of their own imagining (not that Whitman and Shelley are the main perpetrators of such an absenting, it should be noted). The mess, I have found, is always welcoming of poetry — if poetry comes, not for poetry’s sake, but for the sake of the mess itself.
It’s one thing to rail against the state, and state and corporate collusion, as life and planet-destroying forces bent on profit at any cost — to access the Blakean “voice of honest indignation,” and throw a little poetry along with the cobblestones flying at the edifices of exploitation. It’s another thing altogether to have the state and corporation stand together, arm and arm in a court of law, and read your railing back at you. Whatever I might think about the role of poetry in social movements, and I intend to offer a few thoughts on this topic here, my recent experiences have made it clear to me that the system of power and wealth structuring the messy “real world” has its own ideas about that role.
II. The Context
The context is a pipeline, and a proposal to replace said pipeline with a new pipeline carrying almost three times the amount of diluted bitumen from the Alberta tar sands, over 1150 kilometers to Burnaby and Vancouver’s Burrard Inlet, where it is loaded onto supertankers.
The context is a Texas-based oil company — Kinder Morgan (founded by former Enron executive Richard Kinder) — trying to ram their proposal through the approval process against the wishes of local and affected communities along its route. In Burnaby, where I teach at Simon Fraser University, the proposal is opposed by the municipal government and over seventy percent of local residents. In Burnaby, the proposal is to bore the pipeline through Burnaby Mountain — a nature conservation area and park on top of which my university sits.
The context is a federal government in Canada diluting the environmental and community impact review process to next to nothing, so that fossil fuel projects receive rubber-stamp approval — a typically neoliberal government that has reduced its role to little more than a support mechanism for global capitalism.
The context is that British Columbia — across which the majority of the 1150-kilometer pipeline runs — is largely unceded First Nations territory. That is, territory still subject to Aboriginal Title, as no historical treaties ceded these territories to the colonizing power. The vast majority of Indigenous people, across whose territories the pipeline would cross, oppose the proposal.
The context is climate change and the desperate need to transition from fossil fuels to renewable sources of energy — as quickly as we can possibly manage.
III. Some points along the way
In April 2014, I participated in a “People’s Procession” along the route of the existing pipeline in suburban Burnaby BC — through neighbourhoods, parks, along a golf course, past a school and a church the pipeline passes beneath, and over numerous small creeks the pipeline cuts under. I was a “marshal” for the street march (involving many hundreds of people — mainly local community residents), and at the rally at the end of the march, after several politicians, Indigenous leaders, and community leaders had spoken, I read a poem — “72 Theses Against Tar Sands Pipelines and the Continued Exploitation of Fossil Fuels.” After the rally we marched down to Kinder Morgan’s Westridge Marine Terminal, and I attached a copy of the poem to their gates, completing the Martin Luther/Wittenberg church door performance.
In early September, after Kinder Morgan contractors had entered the Burnaby Mountain Conservation Area and cut down thirteen trees to make way for seismic testing and helicopter air-drops — against the protestation of the City of Burnaby, in contravention of its city by-laws, and against the wishes of local First Nations who hold the title to the land — I, along with a number of others, took up a watch on the mountain. We were citizen rangers, awaiting the oil company’s return. We walked up the mountain, through the forest along the Gnomes Home Trail, or down the mountain, through the forest from the university. One September morning, sitting in the forest clearing (where bears, coyote, and deer were seen regularly), I wrote a short poem — “13 Lines for 13 Trees.”
A raven announces territory
As deep distancing echo
Gnomes are not seen
But they are evening
Shadow on mountain trails
Black bears were first to find
This cutting — they’ve left
A woolly presence in the clearing
Where thirteen trees lie
On forest floor and thirteen
Shadows still hold up the sky
Holding off the helicopter world
Dropping — oily — in their midst
It was morning. I walked up the mountain to the university, where I was scheduled to speak on a university radio station broadcast. I read the poem I had written, in the clearing, not an hour ago, and then posted it on my Facebook wall. The poem was immediately read, shared, commented on. It is not an especially remarkable poem; but every day there were small things happening that were building, piece by piece, into something larger, and that in-the-moment composition, performance, and distribution of a poem was one small thing (and one example amidst many, of poems embedded in the performance of activism); and there’s something about its momentariness, its direct, almost gestural participation in what was unfolding, that tells me something about poetry and social movements: it’s not so much the work itself that matters — it’s the context in which the work functions, the ways it circulates, how it is taken up, the small work of building capacity that it engages in.
Eventually, near the end of October, Kinder Morgan’s contractors returned, and we blocked them from working on the mountain. A barricade of found materials was built at the proposed work-site in the park, tents and tarps erected behind it. My role had become one of spokesperson, and I spent the day speaking to the media, as the small confrontation had turned into a national issue in Canada. The next day, sitting in my university office, I was served with court papers: an application for an injunction, and a civil suit. Kinder Morgan was suing me, and four other named defendants, for $5.6 million. The court case, naming me as some sort of “mastermind,” was built largely on words I had said and written. Over three days in court, I became quite tired of hearing my name and words read aloud.
IV. Underneath the poetry a description of how the barricade was made
Submissions for the plaintiff by Mr. Kaplan
I’m quite aware, My Lord, that these are not direct quotes from Mr. Collis. There is evidence I will take you through where he says these things directly. He’s posted a YouTube — I’ll call it interview, if you will, where much of what is here is confirmed. And so then Exhibit T is a website called Beating the Bounds, which is actually a website maintained by Mr. Collis, and so the first page is the “About” page where it references occasional notes, and then one of the notes posted is a note that on the website talks about the last barrel of oil on Burnaby Mountain.
Sometimes the world narrows to a very fine point, a certain slant of slight, the head of a needle you need to pass through. I don’t care right now about the National Energy Board of Canada, merely a corporate tool for shoehorning global energy projects into other people’s territories, a funnel for money from the public to the private sector. I don’t care about this or that court of law, appeals, and constitutional challenges. I don’t care about the drones, unmarked cars, or CSIS agents. I don’t even care that much about the rain.
And then flip over the page:
I care about the people who have come together to stand in the forest on a mountain in the path of a pipeline.
And he describes why he cares about them. And the next paragraph:
As has been our intention all along, we will occupy public land, a city park, and prevent Kinder Morgan from carrying out its destructive work, work opposed by local First Nations, opposed by the City of Burnaby, and opposed by the majority of Burnaby residents. While the case goes back and forth in the courts, our intention is to keep Kinder Morgan wrapped up dealing with us, either until a court somewhere sides with the people against this mega-corporation or until the NEB’s December 1 deadline for KM’s complete application.
He describes his views about protecting the local environment, and then on the bottom:
As barricades were assembled from garbage dumped down a hillside from a parking lot in Burnaby Mountain … an old rusted oil barrel was uncovered and rolled up the hill. It’s a talisman, a symbol of the old world we are trying to resist and change. It is, we hope, the last oil barrel that will have anything to do with this mountain forest.
So underneath the poetry is a description of how the barricade was constructed.
V. Down by law
Territory shadows helicopters
Lines strewn shadows for
Lines of piped fire fused
Earth water stream bears
The dead singing sad songs
At abandoned mills still seen
As somebody’s capital no not
Some body but portfolio or like
How the absence of money can be
Bundled bought and sold as trees
Shadow those bodies not bodies
But ossifying metabolic structures housing
Actual liquid moments of arboreal bliss
Poets have been persecuted before — from Plato’s banishing them from his ideal republic to Lorca’s horrific murder during the Spanish Civil War. And while I “got off easy,” all things considered, the chill I felt and still feel is one that resonates through time because it is so often and specifically the state — in its role of protecting and facilitating the private accumulation of capital by an elite and dominant class — that the poet winds up facing in these moments. And it is all the more alienating when it takes the form of a wall of bureaucratic procedure and legalese (I had no idea what “tortious” meant before it began tripping, regularly, off the tongue of the oil company’s lawyer) — a situation in which everyone seems to be playing some inevitable and irresistible role in a play being directed from some unknown and Kafkaesque castle.
During the 1909 IWW-led Spokane Free Speech Fight, Edith Frenette, a radical about whom we know preciously little, was arrested and tried for disorderly conduct after singing “The Red Flag” in front of a school where many arrested men were being held. During her trial the chief of police and other officers testified that Frenette “acted as if she were drunk, that she had carried on in a disorderly manner on the streets since this trouble started, and one said she acted like ‘a lewd woman.’” Frenette recited “The Red Flag” by request of the court and did so “with such dramatic force that the Judge was horrified at its treasonable and unpatriotic sentiment.” Frenette was then sentenced to thirty days and a one-hundred-dollar fine.
In 1967, Amiri Baraka’s poem “Black People” was read by the court and entered into evidence during his trial (for illegal possession of a firearm) in the wake of the Newark riots. While the contexts and stakes are entirely different — nothing about my situation is at all comparable to mid-1960s, or even present-day, systemic US racism, or the serious consequences Baraka faced (three years in jail) — nevertheless, structurally, in terms of the court’s function and the deployment of poetry as evidence, the similarities are there. Baraka’s poem was presented as evidence that he was “a participant in formulating a plot to ignite” the 1967 riots. So my “poem” was entered as evidence of my intentional and tortious behavior in encouraging people to ignore the legal system and blockade the construction of a pipeline.
Nothing I was involved in had the same stakes as these other examples — it was only money, after all, that I was on the hook for. But, as in the cases of Frenette and Baraka, what I’m curious about is the performance of a poem/song in the court, its reading there as the significant act, and its embedding, both in a discourse of “guilt” being constructed in a court of law, and in the political acts, in the “real world,” being condemned by that discourse.
VI. Embedded Poetry
Maybe this is a long and torturous road to get to a simple point about poetry and the political. I have, slowly, come to think of this nexus as less about the content of poetry — not even a matter of the form of poetry — so much as it is a question of distribution and reception. Poetry’s political function has more to do with the contexts in which it is performed, heard, and read. My work as both a poet and political activist/organizer has come to be one in which I imagine myself as an embedded poet: I write and perform poetry, yes, but I do so increasingly within the context of an active social movement (a grassroots climate justice movement, organized alongside and in collaboration with Indigenous land defenders attempting to stop new fossil fuel extraction on and infrastructure crossing their traditional lands). I am a “poet,” but that is inseparable from the work I do as an “activist,” and when I am writing and performing poetry I am doing so as part of an active social movement. My commitments, in writing, are less and less, specifically, to a community of poets and a literary history than they are to a community of resistance and a history of social struggles.
Ravens hone tree sound from
Gnomes home trail then
Coloured graphs of Fukushima
Tendrils crossing the Pacific warn
Each step helicopters us closer
To turn dumps to be ourselves
Decaying animals the market
Hands off every thing so let’s
Opt out of opting out again
And throw metallurgy after
Scant agency or renewed animality
Rattle cry bray at the dark edges
Afire and together as trees shadows
Another way of looking at this would be through the lens of “militant research.” The Argentinian research collective Colectivo Situaciones describes militant research as follows:
Militant research distances itself from those circuits of academic production — of course, neither opposing nor ignoring them. Far from disavowing or negating university research, it is a question of encouraging another relation with popular knowledges. While knowledges (conocimientos) produced by academia usually constitute a block linked to the market and to scientific discourse (scorning any other forms), what characterizes militant research is the quest for the points in which those knowledges can be composed with popular ones. Militant research attempts to work under alternative conditions, created by the collective itself and by the ties to counter power in which it is inscribed, pursuing its own efficacy in the production of knowledges useful to the struggles.
Militant research thus modifies its position: it tries to generate a capacity for struggles to read themselves and, consequently, to recapture and disseminate the advances and productions of other social practices.
I take poetry to be a form of “research,” an important mode of counter knowledge, and I read it, in its social engagements, in just these terms: as part of a pursuit of “the production of knowledges useful to the struggles” and as an attempt “to generate a capacity for struggles to read themselves.” I increasingly seek to produce a poetry that is written from within social movements, addressed to those engaged in social movements. This is not the entirety of what I write, and other projects and longer-term forms of poetic research continue to unfold within specifically literary communities and history — but I am increasingly experiencing the writing of poetry as being embedded in the work of social struggle, composed by and for “conditions created by the collective itself.”
VII. Riot dogs
I am simply writing here of and from my own experiences in collective action and organization — of being a poet engaged in a struggle taken up with many others where my presence as a poet is as welcome and no more and no less significant as the next person’s presence as a cook, say, or as a stonemason or whatever. The cook brings some delicious food they have made to the resistance camp early in the morning and it is welcomed and appreciated as food and as a gesture of solidarity. The stonemason gets serious about the barricade that is being built, and works on anchoring the corners of a canopy with some concrete blocks someone has found down in the gulley. They, queer calm and unassuming, are appreciated for their skill and solidarity. And I bring a poem, composed from the matrix of what we are all experiencing together, to read by the sacred fire Indigenous land defenders have built and maintain to cleanse the space — and later I post the poem on a blog or on the movement’s Facebook page — and it is appreciated and shared as a piece of writing and as an act of solidarity.
I am not saying that this is the only way anyone should write, and I am not saying it is the only way I write — though it is increasingly how and where I want to write. I am saying that poetry’s politics is not in some particular radical content, although I enjoy and engage with radical contents in poetry — and I am not saying poetry’s politics lies in a suitably radical form, though I continue to enjoy and engage with radical forms and most often find myself feeling sheepishly old-fashioned in my enjoyment of the dialectical interweavings of both form and content. I am saying that poetry’s politics is to be found in where we find poetry — in the communal spaces it becomes a part of, the struggles it has some currency in.
I am attracted to Commune Editions’ description of political poetry as a riot dog. A collective publishing venture out of Oakland California, Commune Editions suggests that the “poetry and other writings” they publish — work that is “antagonistic to capital and the state” — plays a role similar to the riot dogs of Athens, “accompanying” the “movement of the streets, providing support and strangeness, and perhaps, on occasion, biting the leg of a cop.” This way we don’t let our sense of the political potency of poetry get blown out of proportion: it’s nice that poems are there, “accompanying” the struggle. It’s also nice that some stray dogs have joined in (and some cooks and stonemasons, for that matter). All are simply things that build our capacity, individuals who add to that capacity with their words and actions.
But capacity-building is important, even fundamental, in so many ways. Howard Caygill, in his recent book On Resistance, suggests that resistance is — beyond any given specific act of resistance — really a process of continually building the capacity to resist. Resistance is focused on building the capacity to resist: on ensuring that resistant communities have and maintain the capacity to continue to resist.
Caygill also invokes Georg Lukacs’s History and Class Consciousness to note that, in the context of “an historical tendency towards the reification of life and consciousness” (Lukacs), the theory of resistance as capacity-building is “crucial to any attempt to defy the tendency.” The building of the capacity to resist “looks less to the possibility of changing consciousness than to identifying the sites, places, or moments where resistance to reification can emerge. These are moments of invention that explode in a culture dedicated to calculation — whether political invention in the Workers Councils or Soviets … or by leaps of artistic imagination beyond reification.”
The embedded poetry I write attempts little leaps of invention, seeks to give voice to resistant subjectivities, and so build the capacity of movements to resist. In doing so it performs the riot dog’s resistant defense of its territory, as well as its friendly tail-wagging solidarity — it brings its delicious meal to the resistance camp, or builds a solid structure others can count on in wind and rain. It’s no more and no less. It just happens to be what I can do. So I do it. I embed myself in the mess of real-world struggles — and write what I can from and for that place of resistance.
4. Colectivo Situaciones, “On the Researcher-Militant,” trans. Sebastian Touza, European Institute for Progressive Cultural Policies, September 2003.