Commentaries - July 2011
Jules most recently wrote about poetry, dissent, and the Olympics, and in this capacity, the late South African poet Dennis Brutus was legendary. Despite the fact Brutus said he was “never a good athlete,” he turned to sports as a focus for his activism (“I was reasonably good at organizing,” he explained), and began organizing sports competitions in the 1940s at the high school where he taught (Brutus 38). Through his affiliation with a number of anti-apartheid activists, he homed in on the Olympics with his sports-organizing talents, finding a contradiction between the Olympic charter (which forbade racial discrimination by participating countries) and the apartheid government of South Africa. In the early 1960s, he helped launch the South African Non-Racial Olympic Committee (SANROC), pointing out that the current South African Olympic Committee was illegitimate because its exclusion of non-white athletes defied the Olympic charter. This assertion of SANROC's legitimacy helped him gain the ears of Olympic officials over the years. "It turned out that if you were part of an Olympic committee and wrote to the IOC [International Olympic Committee], they were supposed to respond to you,” Brutus recalled in a memoir (132).
Around the time SANROC was formed, Dennis Brutus was banned in 1961 from gathering with other people through the Suppression of Communism Act, arrested in 1963 for defying the ban because of his SANROC organizing, shot when he tried to escape (and nearly died after a white-only ambulance turned him away), and imprisoned in Robben Island from 1964-1965. His prison term overlapped with Nelson Mandela.
Brutus was subjected to a tangle of apartheid government bans, including the Sabotage Act, which banned him from writing and publishing. His poem “The Mob” addresses one brutal outcome of the Sabotage Act when a “white crowd ... attacked those who protested on the Johannesburg City Hall steps against the Sabotage Bill” (Brutus 95). “O my people” Brutus writes and repeats. “O my people/ what have you done.” This enjambment always startles me, the complicated compassion: although the speaker fears the attackers throughout the poem, he longs for their humanity.
Mina Loy wrote that Gertrude Stein gave “fresh significance to her words, as if she had got them out of bed early in the morning and washed them in the sun” (qtd in Burke 318). While this makes sense as a description of Stein's insistent phrasing, until I returned to the passage this week, I had recollected it as Stein describing Loy's language, since Loy salvaged words from the dictionary, championing diction that was archaic, precise, startling. And it is in this way that Brutus's diction has always resonated for me as washed anew. In his poem “The Mob," the phrase “saurian-lidded stares”–which seems both to describe the speaker's “irrational terrors” and the crowd that attacked protestors–is smooth with the soft, curving sound of “saurian.” Disarming. While “reptilian” is a near replacement, that word is more physically demanding to mouth, and slack with easy connotations. That these attackers could be so smooth in their cruelty is part of the pain in the poem. Brutus's choice to defamiliarize language creates small disruptions to his evenly rhythmic and descriptive verse. Likewise, disruptive creativity was a hallmark of his sports organizing in years to come.
The Sabotage Act criminalized poetry for Dennis Brutus. While he was in prison, he was charged with “with the crime of publishing a book of poetry.” While he was “going to plead guilty” (which meant a longer sentence) to the publication of Sirens Knuckles Boots, the charges fell apart because of his failure to remember the date when the book was published in Nigeria (“part of the process of agony was that my mind was becoming extremely unreliable and particularly my memory” (87)), and thus whether the Sabotage Act had already been leveled against him during those dates (155). “The image of Robben Island in my mind was one of terror, Brutus writes, and a number of his poems address those experiences,) including several sequences--“Robben Island Sequence,” “Letter to Martha,” “Endurance,” “On the Island,” among others (71).
After he was released from prison, he continued organizing for boycotts against South Africa in international sporting competition through the International Committee Against Racialism in Sport (ICARIS) as well as SANROC. The boycotts were successful: in 1970, South Africa was expelled from the International Olympic Committee, and by the 1980s, South Africa national teams were isolated in many sports, including cricket and rugby. Brutus and other organizers succeeded in demonstrating to nations outside South Africa how the apartheid system extended to sports. To compete against the all-white South African teams was to engage the apartheid system.
Brutus describes his tactical decisions in his memoir, compiled in the volume Poetry & Protest, which also gathers essays, documents, and poems, and from which I've gathered many of the details for this commentary. I recommend reading this volume, which conveys the indefatigable commitment Brutus and others had to put forth through meetings, letters, and the everyday work of organizing.
I'd like to highlight here some of the notably creative tactics.
In one instance, he describes meeting at a pub with the anti-apartheid committee at Oxford in the late 1960s in the hope that they would disrupt a rugby match between the all-white South African national team and Oxford University. He was disappointed in their meager turnout when he found “four or five of them smoking pipes and drinking sherry.” They surprised him come match day, when, one hour before the scheduled start, the slogan “Oxford Reject Apartheid!” appeared on the grass, and the rugby match had to be cancelled. The night before, organizers had “poured huge drums of weed killer” to spell those words, and it remained invisible until the next day when the grass deadened into the slogan. (136).
Dennis Brutus himself disrupted a 1971 tennis match in Wimbledon involving white South African Cliff Drysdale by sitting on center court. He was arrested, and his case was appealed to the House of Lords, who ruled in Brutus's favor (Brutus 136).
Creative tactics disrupted both cricket and rugby matches in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. In his article “Apartheid on the Run,” Rob Nixon recounts a string of actions. In one case, an activist entomologist bred 70,000 locusts, threatening to unleash them on the cricket field where, he warned, they would “consume 112 pounds of grass in twelve minutes” (68). Nixon also describes how “buckets of glass and thousands of tacks and fishhooks were sometimes strewn across the rugby field.” In another instance, a cricket field was saturated with oil. Another tactic was Operation Wide Awake: activists would create commotion throughout the night near planned matches. Nixon describes the cancellation of a 1981 rugby tour in New Zealand when a “a World War II pilot forced the cancellation of one match by stealing a fourseater Cessna and threatening to dive kamikaze style into the packed grandstand” (Nixon 81).
The point was to make competing with South African all-white national teams untenable, or at least, grating, thus exerting pressure on the apartheid government by threatening the popular nationalist activity of sports. If matches did proceed, Nixon writes, “demonstrators drew on backup tactics to insure that playing conditions were unendurable. They fired off smoke bombs, paint bombs, and flashed mirrors in players' eyes. Scores of whistle-blowing activists infiltrated the stands” (81)
Such creative tactics helped draw the attention of international media to the injustice of apartheid.
“The problem, first of all, is to create some breathing room, to loosen the bonds that enclose spectacles within a form of visibility,” explains philosopher Jacques Ranciere in a 2009 Art Forum interview in which he discussed his idea of “dissensus.” Acts of dissensus disrupt “state of things,” or the sensible. In this way, activists organizing the international boycott on sports disrupted acceptance of the apartheid system.
“The main enemy of artistic creativity as well as of political creativity is consensus--that is, inscription within given roles, possibilities, and competences,” said Ranciere (263). Dennis Brutus's leadership in sports activism brought him into the realm of political creativity, as well as artistic creativity, in order to disrupt any consensus around a cruel status quo.
“Art of the Possible: Fluvia Carnevale and John Kelsey in Conversation with Jacques Ranciere." Art Forum. NY: March 2007.
Brutus, Dennis. Poetry & Protest: A Dennis Brutus Reader. Ed. Lee Sustar and Aisha Karim. Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2006.
Burke, Carolyn. Becoming Modern: The Life of Mina Loy. NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996.
Chan, Paul. “Fearless Symmetry.” Art Forum. NY: March 2007.
Nixon, Rob. "Apartheid on the Run: the South African Sports Boycott." Transition, No. 58 (1992), pp. 68-88
Donato Mancini folds musicality and time into his visual textual work, a work that is gestural, visually stimulating, performative, and participatory.
Mancini’s writing (and here I include his visual poetry which I insist is writing) aggregates, building out of recognizable typographical signs and symbols new structures on the page, structures which seem to move, which seem to speak. How am I asked to see? How am I asked to read? How am I asked to voice?
“The idea of notation implies, if not demands, performance. Virtually any form of writing is a kind of notation and any form of reading is a type of performance.” (Karl Young, "Notation and the Art of Reading") Mancini’s tending to notation, signage, a typography of meaning, alters the geography of the page into a gestural movement, tends to my throat. Reading his work, is not only visually demanding, but also orally, as my mouth is driven to sound out the work by the work’s very movement across a surface.
In one stroke of his multi-faceted project Ligature, the poem is a horizontal scroll rendering many possible readings by creating one long link of letters. In binding the letters, the poem looks linear, though has many folds. In looking at the beginning of the scroll for example, “adamenrapture…” I can read “adam enrapture” but also “ada men rapture” and also “ a dame enrapt” and so on. Our distortions wonder. We participate and perform in our reading.
In Buffet World, his most recent book, Mancini investigates relationships between industrial food production, eating, culture and the politics of language; the excess, grotesqueness and seduction of consumption through a juxtaposition of poetry and visual images.
Donato Mancini has an interdisciplinary practice involving poetry, bookworks, text-based visual art and cultural criticism. He has two books of procedural and visual writing, Ligatures (2005) and Æthel (2007), as well as a new book of visual and text works, Buffet World (2011) all from New Star Books. Mancini has exhibited collaborative visual works in Canada, the United States, Scandinavia and Cuba, and he co-directed the first in-world avatar documentary AVATARA (2003). A long time member of the Kootenay School of Writing, he lives in Vancouver.
Video portrait of Darren Wershler (1-1-08)
Darren's Iron Whim was all about the typewriter. But what about handwriting?
January 1, 2008
(mp4, 25 seconds, 19 mb)
Portraits page 1 : Regis Bonvicino, George Lakoff, Heny Hills, Mimi Gross, Loss Pequeno Glazier, Caroline Bervgvall
Portraits page 2 : Pierre Joris, Wysten Curnow, Levhi Lehto, Robert Grenier, James Sherry, Johanna Drucker
Portraits page 3 : Ann Lauterbach, Karen Mac Cormack, Steve McCaffery, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, Nick Piombino, Richard Tuttle
Portraits page 4 : Rd Smith, Nicole Brossard, Douglad Messerli, Peter Middleton, Norman Fischer, Tina Darragh
Portraits page 5 : Myung Mi Kim, Charles Alexander, Alan Davies, P. Inman, Phong Bui, Bob Perelman
Portraits page 6: Kennth Goldsmith, John Yau, Peter Gizzi, Dubravka Djuric, Elizabeth Willis, Tan Lin
Portraits page 7: John Ashbery, Rae Armantrout, Emma Bee Bernstein, Susan Howe, Sigmund Laufer
Siempre hay más
Hay que hablar de cobardía que es la manera en que se entiende aquí el aire.
Hay que hablar de miedo.
hay que hablar de historia.
We must speak of cowardice which is the way to understand the air here.
We must speak of fear.
we must speak of history.
Juan Carlos Bautista, “Cabezas” (“Heads”)
In the process of translating María Rivera’s poem “Los muertos,” I asked my co-conspirator Román Luján some questions about his perspectives on the context for María’s work. One of the questions I asked was which Mexican visual artists he believes are doing work that most directly engages the contexts of violence that mark Mexican geographies and social landscapes at the moment. His answer, in blue, named an artist whose work I too had thought of immediately, as I became increasingly aware of the so-called narcowar (perhaps more accurately named a war of capital or a war for social control): Teresa Margolles.
Without a doubt, the artist who uses the strongest conceptual and discursive tools to most accurately express the ramifications of the narcowar and its horrors is Teresa Margolles. She represented Mexico in the 2009 Venice Biennale with a series of conceptual pieces titled “¿De qué otra cosa podríamos hablar?” (“What Else Could We Talk About?”). These works constitute an essential document in the establishment or re-establishment of any aesthetic that might address our new culture of death—or whatever we might call it.
Margolles’ work has become a touchstone for a number of Mexican poets who seek to address the brutal violence of everyday existence in Mexico in their own work. Juan Carlos Bautista, whose epigraph begins this post (and who happens to be co-owner of one of the most fabulous queer bars in Mexico City) and Hernán Bravo Varela both cite Margolles’ work in their essays for the collection Escribir poesía en México (Bonobos Editores, 2010). There’s a fascinating and barbed exchange between art critic Avelina Lésper and Hernán Bravo Varela that centers on Margolles’ work, and the complexities of the relationship between art and brutality. A propos these complexities, just a few days ago the artist Ian Alan Paul (“experiments in politics, art and technology”) and 667 participants from 28 different countries enacted a “border haunt” to create a “border database collision” that—like Margolles’ work—uses recontextualization of information as a way to propose new modes of interpretation. The border haunt project seems particularly apt (and poignant) in relation to Menos días aquí (Fewer Days Here), a project of Nuestra Aparente Rendición (see below).
Teresa Margolles, "Score Settling 15," Jesús Malverde pendant inlaid with glass fragments from crime scene
At the other extreme are cultural manifestations that recreate, celebrate or make use of narcoparaphernalia in an uncritical, normalizing manner: narcocorridos, as well as the cults of La Santa Muerte and Jesús Malverde—both extremely popular. These are the best-known examples. However, there’s another instance that seems to me truly distressing for its level of cynicism as well as the ways it is integrated into discourses in favor of all that is narco: Movimiento Alterado, a conglomerate of norteño bands and solo singers who commercially exploit the (terrifying) idea of carteles unidos (united cartels). Movimiento Alterado is a reconfiguration of narcocorridos and reguetón. It’s an unabashed celebration of narco bling-bling—way more so than in hip-hop. We might think of Movimiento Alterado as a horrifying example of the post-narco, to borrow a phrase from Heriberto Yépez. Someone should write an essay about this “movimiento,” its various alterations.
Note: This video has been viewed more than 2,500,000 times on YouTube.
A slightly side note—or perhaps not so “side” at all: one of the people who writes most dynamically about narcocorridos is Josh Kun. When I sent Román a link to Josh’s writing, he responded:
Did you know that Los Tigres del Norte donated a huge amount of money to create The Strachwitz Frontera Collection of Mexican and Mexican American Recordings, the largest database worldwide of corridos and other forms of Mexican folk music, which is housed at UCLA? Ironies of life: Los Tigres del Norte, precursors of the narcocorrido, got really famous—and this is public knowledge—after they starting writing songs about the exploits of certain druglords; so, hypothetically, the source of that donation might be compromised. Go figure.
It’s a challenge to locate a single term in English that might capture the complexity of the phrase “movimiento alterado.” A literal translation would be “altered movement”—movement here being equally (or either) motion and a group of people working with common cause. “Alterado” does mean “altered” in any sense of the term, but is specifically used to refer to the effects of taking drugs—a synonym in English might be “high.” Any translation presents challenges, of course, but there is something especially stymieing about attempting to understand—to “translate”—the origins, parameters and topographies of the current violence in Mexico. Given the complex histories and entangled current realities of government and police corruption in Mexico, not to mention the ways that U.S. economic policies and the “war on drugs” influence the situation, it’s almost easier to comprehend (I almost wrote “trust”) the narco-traffickers, who at least are somewhat straightforward about the aims and means of what they do. How are we to comprehend the incomprehensible? And how are we to respond?
Between 2006—when President Felipe Calderón first took power and started a war against Mexican drug cartels—and the present, the political consciousness of the average Mexican changed drastically. For the first time since the Revolution of 1910, the civilian population as a whole became aware of the collapse of institutions and a general atmosphere of crisis, both political and social. Even the people who had always been ready to defend Mexico’s contradictions from foreign critics had to recognize this atmosphere of decay.
In this state of affairs, Mexican artists were confronted with many urgent questions: how to address the omnipresent terror, how to speak of the hyper-visible? For the first time since the government-sponsored massacre of students in 1968, the question arose: should artists participate actively in voicing the most immediate concerns of a decimated population? Should artists become activists? Should artists become citizens? Would it be a better choice to wait until the disaster ends to reflect upon it in retrospect and only then start the process of mourning? When did isolated stories of narcotraffic and related violence thread together into a history of narcowar? What is the language to address the continuous and senseless slaughtering of civilians? How to speak about the fear of being robbed, raped, killed, cut up in pieces?
Román asks: “Should artists become citizens?” Román speaks and writes as a Mexican citizen (that is a descriptive term, not a patriotic one) who has lived in the U.S. for the past 8 years: neither here nor there, or both here and there. When this question follows the urgent and not-at-all-abstract (given the current state of affairs) query as to whether artists should become activists, the term “citizen” takes on a newly energized charge. What are the politics and poetics of using this term? What are the implications for each of us when our “citizenship” (regardless of our documents or administrative/legal status) entails engagement with the most urgent questions facing our communities? What then is the citizen-poet?
I also asked Román if he could recommend some websites with analysis around the change in political consciousness among Mexicans. His response blew me away, and made me wish I could spend the rest of my life translating every bit of text on each of the links below (though given the not-so-speedy speed at which I work, it might be quicker for everyone reading this post to learn Spanish well enough to read these sites for themselves!).
First there is Nuestra Aparente Rendición (an incredibly thorough, compelling and awe-inspiringly brave site with the tag line “Queremos construir paz y diálogo. Por eso estamos aquí.”—“We want to build peace and dialogue. That’s why we’re here.” and a sidebar text that encourages readers: “Reproduce this information and circulate it in whatever media you can access. Send copies to your friends. Terror is based in lack of communication. Break the isolation. Feel the moral satisfaction of an act of freedom once again. Defeat Terror. Circulate this information.” When you click on “Quiénes Somos” (“Who We Are”) the following fragments appear in the banner above bios of contributors to the site: “We are victims of violence. We are victims of femicide. We are migrants. We are all our dead.” If that isn’t poetry, what the hell is?)—undoubtedly the website that has had the most impact on political consciousness inside and outside of Mexico (and it’s important to remember that Lolita Bosch is Catalonian), and which has encouraged a more participatory, and even activist approach. Additionally, I’m thinking of the recent increase in independent, irreverent citizen journalism, like Luis Cárdenas López’s podcasts Noticias Digital (remarkable in many ways, not least because the site has a poetry link—poetry here is indeed news; NAR, too, has an excellent section of poetry related to the war on drugs that includes María Rivera’s poem:). Through a use of almost rudimentary media tools, Luis (who incidentally attended a poetry workshop I led many years ago in Querétaro) comments on news he reads in the mainstream media in an entirely direct and enraged way, using a wide range of swear words to demonstrate his disillusionment—a direct correlation with Javier Sicilia’s “estamos hasta la madre”—“we’ve had it up to fucking here.”
One other figure who must be mentioned in this context: Lydia Cacho, who is arguably the most admired and respected journalist in Mexico. If there were a Mexican Pulitzer Prize she would probably be the first person to receive it. Publicly regarded as a hero, she has been able to unmask entire webs of corruption dedicated to human trafficking, drug dealing, prostitution, slavery and sexual exploitation of minors (that link, by the way, leads to Sinembargo, a great new electronic newspaper). As a result, on more than one occasion she has been kidnapped and tortured by the entrepreneurs and governors she directly accused of those crimes in her books. Currently, Cacho continues to challenge the oligarchy and ruling class through diverse press channels; for all that she is a popular symbol of bravery and hope for political change. Nothing seems to stop her in her quest in favor of a more egalitarian and democratic society in Mexico.
It is almost unimaginable for most people writing in the U.S. to contemplate writing something that might cause us to be “robbed, raped, killed, cut up in pieces”—and to be clear, when Román uses the term “robbed” here he doesn’t mean that one’s objects will be stolen, but that one’s very person could be snatched from a public place (the sidewalk, the market, a party or bar) to be held for ransom or much, much worse. Of course there are many activist communities in the U.S. where government intervention is a reality, and I imagine most people reading this post are aware that simply existing in the world as a brown person can be extremely hazardous to one’s health. At the same time, the idea that artistic or activist work could, to give just one example of thousands (tens of thousands?), result in the artist-activist having her hand chopped off (a gruesome poetic image if ever there was one) before being strangled to death is unimaginable. Or all too real. Imagine it.