Poetry and/as revolution


Poetry doesn’t make anything happen

I’m not interested in a revolution you can’t dance to

This machine kills fascists

Things happen, and poetry is a thing, a making, and sometimes a happening

Where “thing” (ding) once meant “meeting place”—“assembly”—so we are such “things” as revolutionary dreams are made of

Mayakovsky: “the presence of a problem in society, the solution of which is only conceivable in poetic terms”



In the mid-1980s I rode in a zodiac up an inlet in Clayoquot sound with a man who had been a student activist in Chicago in 1968, and had helped organize the protests at the Democratic National Convention. We were going to tend his oyster farm, and we talked about Neruda (his favourite poet), Chile (where he’d lived after fleeing charges in Chicago), and Neruda’s Memoirs (which I was then reading). The only thing I recall about that book is Neruda’s insistence that the poet always wear black, a rule I follow to this day

Mayakovsky: “Hey you! Heaven! Off with your cap!”

This roof that you call the sky, will it hold? Acrobats string lines between what we see and what we say. These barricades, they didn’t change anything, did they? The loose combatants now herd together on hills very near here. Are you aware that “a few men gather in caverns in SILENCE?” Tristan Tzara was a made-up name. “You twilight cloud, be Goya”

Adrienne Rich: “A revolutionary poem will not tell you who or when to kill, what or when to burn, or even how to theorize. It reminds you…where and when and how you are living and might live, it is a wick of desire”



In a poem “I” can lift my voice—dark clouds fall to either side—it is a voice of everyone and in the poem everyone is listening. “I” say we are free or a force and we are saying this and we are a force and we are free. “I” say we are broken but whole and equally so and we are all broken but whole and equally so. “I” say I am with you and we are rising and “I” say this in the form of a poem and we are saying this and we are together and rising in the form of a poem. The dark clouds have gone into of us—and out of us—and everywhere come hands reaching into the sky

Rimbaud: “Poetry will no longer give rhythm to action; it will be in advance of action

Kirstin Ross: “To produce poetry that would be an agent as well as an effect of cultural and political change” (The Emergence of Social Space: Rimbaud and the Paris Commune)

When I joined the occupation there was some expectation of laurels. Instead, silent years passed in black and white. I was a privileged white male writing verse libre, LOL. Then—a furious wind, a roaring of tense colours. I put my pen down

It’s in the poem that we can propose alternatives—alternative demands, alternative desires, alternative senses of the social, the collective, and the soundings of the impossible totality of change—the saying of the unsayable the poem holds forth, a small flame in a political night to gather our voices round



I have written parodies of prime ministers and read them at rallies. I have received letters from lawyers threatening libel suits for what I have written about the corporations they represent (c.f., Goldcorp Inc.). I have been followed by the police, my apartment bugged, detained at borders, questioned and searched. I have been shot and dumped in a ditch or unmarked grave. I have been airbrushed from historical photographs

Poetry transforms its materials, whether social or textual

That reminds me of a story that did not happen one time

Call and response

Just as every struggle “engenders new forms of organization of its own,” every poem defines its poetics anew

Subcommandante Marcos: “Welcome to this territory in struggle for humanity. / Welcome to this territory in rebellion against neoliberalism. / Welcome to the search for life and the struggle against death”

Shit is fucked up and bullshit

Go ask Egypt: “This poetry is not an ornament to the uprising—it is its soundtrack and also composes a significant part of the action itself”

Is what democracy looks like. A poem?

Show me



When I joined the occupation I couldn’t at first find the poem. All hands on deck / all hands on Brecht. Then it seemed it wasn’t the poem I was looking for. Cri di Pueple.  Later, the poem found me, in the midst of a vast crowd. It asked, “whose streets?”

Frederic Jameson: “What is the ratio within revolutionary action of ego to id, prose to poetry?”

Is poetry not an aspect of daily life? Is revolution? I take out the garbage. Someone is in the ally. An orange tree appears set against the sky. A raccoon. We are all here together. Make a poem, or a revolution? Must we choose?

Jameson: “Barricades involve a kind of bricolage, a provisional cobbling together of whatever bits and pieces come usefully to hand…this may also serve as a perceptive account of the poetic techniques of a Rimbaud, indeed of the revolutionary avant-garde in general”

The question—how to break that “most time honored and inflexible of barriers: the one separating those who carry out useful labor from those who ponder aesthetics”

When I joined the occupation it was as writer’s black block that I lifted pallets and held a sign that said “down with that sort of thing” and you too my aesthetic adversary. A cadre collapsed on a couch. What I picked up was not a virus but a resonance, echoing in my heart

Annharte: “Don’t say anything out loud / to Mr Mrs Ms Authority Person in Charge”



Cluseret: “It is…not necessary for these barricades to be perfectly constructed; they can very well be made of overturned carriages, doors torn off their hinges, furniture thrown out of windows, cobblestones where these are available, beams, barrels, etc.”

Badiou suggests that May 1968 is now “a sort of historical poem”

Rimbaud: “The inventions of the unknown demand new forms”

And then we got weird and normal and boring—went out in our clothes to movies or marches—slept in tents in public—called out toma la calle! and stormed off to our creative writing classes—slapped babies and cooked the books—it’s all work if you can get it—but who wrote the regulations, who wrote the laws

Rich: “this is the oppressor’s language / yet I need it to talk to you”—which is why “a language is a map of our failures”—redrawn each time we resist

Dear Common—“The poem distributes itself according to the necessity of subjects to begin, to begin speaking to anybody, simply because of the perception of continuous co-embodiment as the condition of language. This shaped speaking carries the breath of multiple temporalities into the present, not to protect or to sanctify the edifice of tradition, but to vulnerably figure historicity as an embodied stance, an address, the poem’s most important gift to politics” (Lisa Robertson)



I am fond of the unbound, the sabotage of synecdoche, the use of familiar parts to invent new functions, CBC interviews where the elderly caller says she would like to slap me, squarely in the red, dense forests you look at from without, wondering, the Greek word meaning to arrange in order to do battle, boundaries

To plunder somewhat indiscriminately in the stock pile of revolutionary images and representations—sometimes with attribution, sometimes without

Rimbaud: “Changer la vie”

Some words are actions and some actions words. A great deal depends upon context. “To grasp poetry as the product of a historical imagination” (Ross).  Which is a contextual imagination—in and of a world—through which our being together is spoken

“demonstrations, watchwords, bluffs, forgeries”

When I joined the occupation it was in the hope that there were ideas that could not be evicted and because the drunken boat doubles as a working-class cabaret and poets, after all, are also part of the rabble

Reading a poem isn’t much like storming a bank. Unless you are reading a poem to a group of people with whom you then storm a bank