Short Range Poetic Device, 2010

Short Range Poetic Device was a four episode radio show of discussions with and readings by poets, hosted by Stephen Collis and Roger Farr, as part of the alternative media resistance to the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, British Columbia, February 12-28, 2010.

Short Range Poetic Device
Poetry and Poetics Streaming Against the Totality
Vivo Media Arts, Vancouver, British Columbia, February 16-17 and 23-24, 2010

#1, February 16, 2010:

  • Stephen Collis, “Tactical Propositions, or, Pwn the Odium”
  • Roger Farr, from “Secure Channels” (Surplus, 2006)
  • Donato Mancini, “If Violence (Hey You)” (Buffet World, 2011)

#2, February 17, 2010:

  • Reg Johanson, from Escratches (2010)
  • Kim Duff, “Huddled and Sorted”
  • Jeff Derksen, from “The Vestiges”

#3, February 23, 2010:

  • Rita Wong, “Grievances in No Particular Order”
  • Clint Burnham, “No Poems on Stolen Land”
  • Stephen Collis, “‘Social cleansing […]’”

#4, February 24, 2010:

  • Cecily Nicholson, “For Perfect Protection,” “North Slope,” “Copper Mine” (Triage, 2011), “Today at Tent City”
  • Naava Smolash, “O Lyric,” “Alloy,” “Commons,” “‘Security systems see […]’”

In #1, Farr begins by describing the origin of the show’s title as “riffing off the Long Range Acoustic Device recently purchased by the [Vancouver Police Department] […] sometimes called the sonic gun […] a new form of crowd control used to police large protests and summits […] as a way of overcoming the fact that police are increasingly subjected to counter-surveillance […] ubiquitous hand held devices mean that every time the police appear in public to police demos they’re frequently caught on video cameras and devices, so they have moved into sonic forms of control so they don’t have to physically engage with bodies and make themselves visible, so the Short Range Poetic Device is sonic response to this new form of social control.”

Collis proceeds with his poem “Tactical Propositions, or, Pwn the Odium,” inspired by thinking about the Olympics protests’ “last few days” of discussion about a “diversity of [protest] tactics,” a sixty unit catalogue of tactical propositions. Its first ten units:

“Let’s quote assemble at a safe location
Let’s quote make sure we have all our gear masks too bottled water
Let’s quote drive by to see what’s going on first
Let’s quote make sure we know where the cameras are or just ignore them entirely
Let’s quote stick together
Let’s quote maneuver through the crowd around the city
Let’s quote have a good time don’t forget
Let’s quote resist oppression
Let’s quote mobilize
Let’s quote take back our streets”
(my transcription)

The poem draws together an arsenal of tactics from both on-site and cultural resources: “Let’s quote burn the nouns and forge the connections,” alluding to Bob Perelman’s lines “capitalism makes nouns / and burns the connections” from his poem “Person” in The First World (1986); “Let’s quote fuck tha police,” the protest slogan popularized by N.W.A.’s song of that name from Straight Outta Compton (1988); “Let’s quote show them what democracy looks like furied,” drawing that popular protest slogan into the poem for interrogation for potential praxis; and the final unit, “Let’s quote quotes which are killing us turning our phrases back on them,” emphasizing the poem’s utility for interrogating phrases for their potential praxes. Responding to the unit, “Let’s quote be incommunicative irrational unreadable,” Farr asks, “Why should dissent be unreadable?” Collis responds, “Smashing windows on one level is very readable by the media, ‘cause then they can say […] you damage property, we know what box to put you in […] sometimes that which is unreadable […] is all that much more disturbing or stressful on the system.”

Farr proceeds with his poem “Secure Channels,” “a poem specifically in response to the security and surveillance apparatus that’s been building in this city.” He prefaces with a passage from David Lyon defining “sorting”:

“The classification of groups – workers, prisoners, customers, and so on – into categories to facilitate management and control through differential treatment of those groups is central to surveillance. Those who have the capacity to influence how people are classified and categorized tend to be in positions of greater power than those who do not. This process is now somewhat occluded, especially in the present context, by the use of computer software to accomplish the sorting processes.” (Surveillance Studies, 2007)

Farr continues, “One of [surveillance and social control’s] key techniques is […] to sort groups into new categories to make them visible for the purposes of control and so I’ve written a poem that works with this basic procedure […] I specifically take a lexicon that was deployed by the FBI using a program called Carnivore which was used to […] track and to survey email communication […] a lexicon that was used as a series of keywords that searches emails looking for potentially dangerous or seditious messages […] I’ve taken that that lexicon and reconfigured it as a way of […] flattening out and pulling the rug out from underneath this sorting process, this surveillance process […] the poem begins with a quote from Guy Debord from Comments on the Society of the Spectacle: ‘Having, then, to take account of readers who are both attentive and diversely influential, one obviously cannot speak with complete freedom. Above all, one must take care not to give too much information to just anybody.’” 

The first page from “Secure Channels”:

“                            Walt Bundy

‘Yankee Grub Hooks Off Our Right-Wing Pot Weasel!’

                                                                          Damned Newton

I’m like an Iranian Howard Hughes looking for the Attoney General’s office

               Remember Pol Pot?               Walt Lenin

ASL abduction     alien activism                             Bader-Bin Laden

                             Jean Crowley-Chretien

Counterfeit bolshevism?

                            Authentic anarchism?

                                                        Capitalist realism?

Springfield Underground                              Turkey’s role

               Walt Himmler                  bio bomb chip technology

               black market        black mail          black planet

                             bluebird bohemian groove”

The poem operates by raising awareness and activating the pleasure and potential subversion of the surveilled language, including by its social character as being surveilled, by both straightforward presentation and provocative recombinations. Collis responds, “There were opportunities there to laugh; what do you think about the role of humor […] in political poetry?” Farr responds, “Deborah Cameron has a really interesting line about humor in the context of gender politics and language, she says that humor disarms people and […] can be a way of taking away their power because as long as you have somebody laughing, they’re usually unable to respond to you meaningfully, which is kind of interesting in a gender context [….] Humor […] robs utterances of authority […] you can make declarative sentences […] without invoking some kind of authority, necessarily, by attaching them to humor.” Collis adds, “There’s a long anti-authoritarian history to humor, isn’t there, that jokes are so often at the expense of authority or the elites […] a markup of affinity or solidarity when […] we get it because we share a political perspective.”

Collis shifts by invoking “[Vladimir] Mayakovsky’s remark that there are certain problems in society for which solutions can only be found in poetry,” from How Are Verses Made? (1926). Farr adds, “My use of that line is very much cribbed, borrowed, and formed by Louis Cabri’s essay ‘After 1923’ [….] [That line is] even more relevant in the sense that capital has moved into a period sometimes identified by autonomous Marxists as immaterial labor […] a phase in which language and communication themselves become fundamental sites of capitalist accumulation and so […] tendencies in poetry […] [that] interfere with communication […] [have] some new bearing.” Donato Mancini, the episode’s guest, adds, “I also use that quote in a poem, the phrase is ‘Social / problems // conceivable only / in poetic terms / of a jargonite / Ph.D&D’ [….] Language produces ideology partly by what it excludes from language […] it’s in […] poetry that new linguistic formations are created and […] ideology can be become visible in a way that it’s not visible in mainstream discourse.” Collis adds, “Poetry in some ways [makes] the unreadable readable or the readable unreadable […] when we’re having to deal with in our day-to-day lives massive problems that we might meet on a very local particular level but realize that they connect to some massive machinery […] poetry […] becomes a way […] of giving voice to that incredible alienation.” Mancini reinvokes humor by adding that it “synthesize[s] so many things that are related on such complicated levels that aren’t obvious because ideology hides them from us.”

Mancini proceeds with his poem “If Violence (Hey You),” “about the sound of the police: the police we recognize as police, and the other structures that police are emotions but we don’t recognize as police.” The poem is saturated with song titles and lyrics: “Turn around bright eyes,” “can’t get you out, out, out, out, out of my head,” “love in an elevator.” It operates by defamiliarizing simulacra regarded as liberatory: “would you and you people like to apply for a permit to riot […] gonna hear electric music solid walls of sound […] interpellation radio.” The effect is paradoxically paranoiac and liberatory in its formal caprice of claustrophobic inducement, “bridging the gap between doing nothing and killing people”; additionally paradoxically, the unsystematicity of the formal caprice itself is its own claustrophobia in conjunction with its thematic concerns. Collis notes, “That poem was just rife with a voice of authority […] virtually interrogating us […] [an] atmosphere of interrogation […] often through music.” Mancini elaborates, “When I said there’s also the police of our feelings […] I mean a kind of ideological training and my idea of ideology is not just about language […] some of the most ideological reactions we can have are actually preverbal […] when we’ve been trained to a point to react to certain kinds of stimuli nervously […] that kind of ritualized, almost ceremonial, and completely physical aspect of ideology that has to do with that Althusserian idea that you keep performing the same act and eventually you believe.”

Farr shifts the context to dissent: “Do you see that operating in slogans in terms of dissent?” Mancini responds, “I do and that’s actually why […] I still participate in demonstrations but I’m profoundly uncomfortable with them and I can never chant […] I’m too much of a post-structuralist, like I see one hegemon sort of just meeting another […] I don’t think that’s a tactic I can get with because I’m too fussy about language and minutiae of feeling.” He continues:

“We have to avoid taking on the logic of mass culture in terms of numbers even in terms of what size the movement would have to be or what size demonstrations would have to be to consider them effective because the problem is we’re already taking on that logic by just trying to be massive […] there’s a sense that unless it’s a 50,000 person demo it’s not much but even then our numbers are always going to look poor versus the numbers of shrieking music fans […] the value of that is quite limited and we have to be careful about letting ourselves be sucked into the logic of the thing were opposing because it if we do confront it on its own terms we will lose […] that’s where I’m a post-structuralist […] we have to kind of work around it, so three people getting together talking like this is just as important as 50,000 people getting out in the streets.”

Mancini is correct in challenging self-evident congratulation about mass demonstrations, but incorrect in challenging via a superficial logical resemblance to mass culture and minimizing the usefulness of massiveness to the extent of defeatism, ignoring the profound asymmetry of masses confronting the state, and equating three people getting together as being as important as 50,000 people getting out in the streets, which must be qualified only if the former is actually producing toward something more effective than the latter.

In #2, Collis introduces Reg Johanson as having “been all over the place last few days during these protests and different events that have been going on: reading outdoors at the tent city” (a primary tactic at the Vancouver protests before it was popularized by the Occupy phenomenon), “reading at The Railway Club, reading at Vivo’s evening news.”  Johanson introduces his book Escratches, “the thing […] that I’ve been reading all through this,” by noting the “difference between […] my experience on the streets […] [and] the way […] those events are being represented through the media […] it really goes to show the extent to which the media is involved in the manufacture of the spectacle that has nothing to do with reality […] a short quote from The Invisible Committee, their book The Coming Insurrection, which […] I find useful as a way of understanding […] those news reports, those fictions that I see every night: ‘It’s useless to react to the news of the day; instead we should understand each report as a maneuver in a hostile field of strategies to be decoded, operations designed to provoke a specific reaction. It's these operations themselves that should be taken as the real information contained in these pieces of news.’”

He proceeds with Escratches, which means “outrageous” and includes “a lot of different voices and many different quotations”: “We want to overturn this reality not because it is unjust or evil or even ‘unfree,’ but because we want our lives back” (Wolfi Landstreicher), “we’d like to dedicate this one to all the soldiers fighting in Chicago and Milwaukee and New York, oh yeah, and all the soldiers fighting in Vietnam” and “pick up my axe and fight like a farmer” (Jimi Hendrix), “that insurrection of a personal nature […] that illumination which produces an idea-force inside us in Opposition to the chatter of Opinion” (Alfredo M. Bonanno), “the rigid command of scarcity in the midst of fecundity […] successive and characteristic sites of struggle: the commons, the plantation, the ship, and the factory” (Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker), “a desert blown by violent neoliberal winds which blasted existing bonds and intensified the process of dispersion” (Colectivo Situaciones), “the autonomous, plural, and contradictory space in which there played itself out a politics of the rebels, the true subjects of the revolts” (Guido Borio, Francesca Pozzi, and Gigi Roggero), “it’s in the desert where a lot […] of problems are solved” (Casino), “everything I want […] he gives it to me […] everything I want […] he gives it but not for free” (The Clash), and “this is probably the best-educated secret police cadre in the world” (Tariq Ali).  The quotations formally sustain and are sustained by modifications of quotations and slogans, the Jimi Hendrix quote modified to “dedicated to all the soldiers fighting in Seattle, Quebec City, Genoa, Athens,” “to serve and molest” (“molest” replacing “protect”) “so many, I had not thought debt had undone so many” (T. S. Eliot, “debt” replacing “death”), “not everyone wants to wear a badge” (“wants to” replacing “can”), “so much depends upon illegal migrant labor” (William Carlos Williams, “illegal migrant labor” replacing “a red wheelbarrow”), “the Games help to keep the speculative housing bubble inflated and provide patriotic legitimation for state violence” (Michael Edwards, “violence” replacing “expenditure”), “Nowhere is safe. Insurgents struck in the heart of the Green Zone yesterday, one of the most heavily defended places in Vancouver. The symbolism and the message was clear with this attack on the home of the VANOC-imposed democracy” (The Independent, April 13, 2007, “Vancouver” replacing “Baghdad” and “VANOC” (Vancouver Organizing Committee for the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games) replacing “US”), and “I do not want to appear too political; I am afraid of seeming controversial; I want to keep a reputation for being balanced, objective, moderate; my hope is to be asked back, to consult, to be on a board or a prestigious committee, and so to remain within the responsible mainstream; someday I hope to get a big grant” (Edward Said, “I” replacing “you”); as well as direct presentations of slogans, “no Olympics on stolen land” (included twice); two stories of Royal Canadian Mounted Police abuses, “RCMP Constable Khomphet Khamphoun, 33, tried to buy oral sex, touched, and offered marijuana to a 16 year old girl” and “RCMP Constable James Adam Carson was in possession of 24 pornographic videos involving children”; and the representation of protest action, “steal the flag from the fort for Harriet Nahanee,” referencing the Native Warrior Society’s theft of an Olympics flag which issued a communiqué claiming “this action in honor of Harriet Nahanee, our elder-warrior, who was given a death sentence by the BC courts for her courageous stand in defending Mother Earth.”

Johanson adds that escratches are “also the name that they give to demonstrations, protests. It’s an Argentinian word, in Argentina during the military dictatorship, there were lots of people who were murdered by the secret police and some of those people who were responsible for those murders are living happy lives in Argentina now, and what they do is they find out where those people live and then organize protests in front of their houses, and those protests are called escratches.”

Collis asks, “Where’s your thinking on poetry’s role in all the going-ons right now?” Johanson responds: “The problem with poetry sometimes is that […] it takes social movements, let’s say, and then represents them somewhere else, so it describes social movements and then you read about the social movement in the art gallery, right, or somewhere else, and not to say that the art gallery can’t be a part of the social movement but I think all too often it isn’t, all too often there’s a really strict line and barrier between those and sometimes poets who try to cross over between those two things are not welcome, sometimes poets aren’t really welcome on the other side of that line, really, among the activists so what I really enjoyed about this last few days was the way in which poets just put their bodies in the way, and that’s really the thing, so rather than writing about it from afar and then talking about it somewhere else they were actually there [….] [The Olympics has] ripped open and exposed a lot of the fissures and cracks and divisions that all already exist but we tend to gloss over or cover over in our politesse around these things […] which I think is great.”

The positive development of poets actually participating with their bodies in social movements produces the necessity for rigorous thinking toward making more effective praxis from the potentialities of participation.

Farr shifts to a “compositional question […] [about] the use of slogans in your poem […] poets who have a critical or distrustful relationship to language are often unwilling to make such kind of emphatic statements as a slogan […] I’m curious about how you how you work with slogans in your poems and […] in terms of working them in there alongside the other material.”

Johanson responds, “The slogan points back to the actual context of struggle, so again if we’re involved in this problem of representation, which is also a form of mediation, then the slogan locates the poem itself not as timeless literature but locates it in a very specific time and place, and I wrote this one for a couple of years leading up to the Olympics […] as a poem about the Olympics, for the Olympics, and inside the Olympics, so the question for me was […] what am I going to have or say during those two weeks, and what can I kind of document can I include in the other documents that are being produced, that will be produced, including the slogans, so the slogans are also documents, sort of the flags flying in the breeze of this whole thing and I wanted the poem to have an anchor in the actual struggle, not to be abstract or to think about what it was going to sound like two years after the Olympics […] I don’t have any real desires or ambitions for this after March the 1st, I just really wanted it to be right here now.”

Regarding Johanson’s “bringing poetry directly, physically […] into the neighborhood,” Collis contributes another quote from The Coming Insurrection, “the control of neighborhoods ‘by the community’ is manifestly the most effective means available.”

The episode’s second guest, Kim Duff, then reads “Huddled and Sorted,” a poem concerned with the relationship between architecture and subjectivity, “concrete ideas about participatory citizenship lodged in square footage,” with lyrical similarity to Mancini’s unsystematic formal caprice. Farr notes his interest in Duff’s “different ways in which you touch down in scales of space at the level of city architectural forms and then sort of drop right down into square footage and then even into semiotic space in terms of fissures, opening up fissures for pirate radio transmissions” (“illness-constructed architecture, walkways in the sky, pirate radio stations and rooftop antennas, a box too small to be cozy, this is it, this is us, here we go”). Duff elaborates about her consideration of “ideas about citizenship and participation and some kind of significant role within the city or within politics in general […] the kinds of voices people have depending on the kinds of square footage that they can occupy […] and the kind of voice that you have when you occupy those spaces.”

The episode’s third guest, Jeff Derksen, then reads from “The Vestiges,” and prefaces it by linking it “to both Kim’s work obviously with an emphasis on the city and the production of space but also to Reg’s work in the sense of place-based politics, but I’m trying to jump around, make links between specific place-based reactions and organizing and coalitions that have happened in different places at different times”: “Place making history relives riots with the roles reversed.” Collis notes:

“We had references to the 1980s, the Coal Miners Strike, fuck the Falklands, I heard the Great Britain of the early 1980s (‘Coal Miners Strike, nation pits cops, unions, towns break down, there is no such thing, famous, and fuck the Falklands, I love a man in a uniform’), you move to a reference to the Woodsquat around [2002] […] back to 1935 and the On to Ottawa early labor strike in Canada (‘the Woodsquat taught, history teaches, Regina, 1935, shot or sent back’), to the 1950s in South America, to […] [2006] when Chavez was at the UN and smelling the leftover odors of the Bush devil (‘January 1958, Caracas, the modernist blocks mass squatted as Jiménez Pérez flew to Miami, and the devil came here yesterday and it smells of sulfur still today’), and back to references to paving stones which […] seem to send us back in time (‘thought that cities were the keg that would reveal what relations, what public histories, lay under the paving stones, which were arbitrary for throwing’), so really I’m curious about the temporal movement of that poem and where we are, how the spatial, the urban not the city (‘I will no longer refer to the city but to the urban’), and temporal meet and interact.”

Derksen responds, “I was just trying to […] track these different moments of social eruption, or as Lefebvre says, ‘explosion,’ that happened at certain points and often there’d be places where I’ve lived or have spent time or know people, so I kind of move through that original moment of neoliberalism if we take that burst of Thatcherism and the crackdown of against working people, and then how that was tied into Falklands and nationalism and ‘I Love a Man in a Uniform,’ the one hit that the Gang of Four had which was an anti-Falklands song, then the jump forward to the general strike called back in the final moment which was our 1983 moment around Solidarity (‘the general strike called back in the final moment’) and which led to the moment that we’re living through today. A couple other specific things: Woodsquat, obviously On to Ottawa, Ottakring where we live in Vienna, which was a number of worker’s uprisings, but really, pitched battle in the streets there (‘Ottakring, febrile offstand, 1934, heavy fighting in the worker’s housing’), and 1958 in Caracas where 3,000 apartment buildings were mass squatted during the week, that the dictator Jiménez Pérez was forced to leave and of course he just got on a plane with his riches and flew to Miami, and then […] jumping back in time to 1905 where the typesetter’s strike brought about the end of the Russian aristocracy and it started the argument between Lenin and Luxembourg around spontaneity and ripe time (‘in 1905, a thousand slugs of punctuation ended the aristocracy as the word spread’) […] so I was interested in trying to link spaces and moments […] both moments that were filled with potential, were filled with action, but moments that got shut down in some ways, but moments that made steps forwards, whether those were just in terms of some sort of transformation happening, like obviously in Caracas in 1958 when you mass squat 3,000 apartments, in these buildings that were meant to house the poor […] on the edges of the city, and today […] Veintitrés de Enero is an autonomously organized zone within Caracas, so in some ways we kind of have this history of moments not leading to much potential, or moments where we imagine things were shut down, but we can also look to an alternative history.”

Farr: “About this organizing of these autonomous spaces and occupations that you were mentioning in Caracas, one of the comments I’ve heard about that kind of organizing or those kinds of moments, might be possible in countries like Venezuela because it’s a bit easier to carry out those actions within a kind of national framework because of the size of the country and so things can spread more quickly, like even within Argentina with the seizure of factories, because the nation itself geographically is much smaller than a country like Canada […] the ripples are so mediated because of the distance, right, they’re not immediate, affective.”

Derksen: “That actually leads back to some questions you were talking about with Kim, actually, which is how do we imagine scales and what’s possible at different scales, and I think we’re having a moment of scale shifting going on particularly around the potential of politics, obviously there’s an abandonment of asking the state anything because the state is happy to abandon any of its responsibilities in a sense, and so perhaps in a way we used to have a language that would ask something of the state in Canada, but now because of neoliberalism the state’s been hollowed out, we no longer really ask much of it, so it seems to me where there’s been claims towards democracy, for people who are working through democracy as the framework that they’re trying to get changes happen through, it seems to have shifted to the city, and so the whole kind of Right to the City movement that’s come up and been articulated in Vancouver in the last couple years I think is that kind of scale shifting, that that’s happened and the relationship between the national scale and the urban scale in Venezuela, where we were just there for two weeks in December is actually quite interesting, [we] were meeting with Dario Azzellini, who’s a theorist of the forms of autogestion or self-organization in Venezuela, said that there’s this perception that in Venezuela the organizing of the factories and the self-management of the factories was a failure because only 213 factories were taken over, he said the reason that from his point-of-view such a small amount was taken over was because there was not such a strong point of production organizing within Venezuela, but rather it was the family and community [that] were seen as the organizational scale in a sense, so the most successful amounts of self-management autogestion in Venezuela, he said, has been taking place in the rural, so despite the density of Caracas and the amount of self-organizing going on there, he said that it’s really been in the rural, so that kind of scale gets complicated between the national, the rural, and the urban, and one quote that was in this text that I read is from Henri Lefebvre’s The Urban Revolution where he says, ‘I will no longer talk about the city but about the urban,’ ‘cause his view is that industrial capitalism has essentially turned everything into urban space, because even the rural is defined by its relation to the urban. That gets complicated in places like Venezuela where there’s different forms of organizing and different modes of production within these scales, but I think it actually works very well for the kind of uneven development we’re getting in [British Columbia] at the moment […] and the shift towards service industry and the shift towards real estate as the engine.”

Analyzing the state of and changes in actually existing democracy is necessary for people predicating their politics on the concept of democracy.

Collis shifts to “a more poetics-based question […] about poetry’s role and how poetry can engage with the social” by quoting from Theodor Adorno’s essay on “Commitment,” “It is not the office of art to spotlight alternatives, but to resist by its form alone the course of the world, which permanently puts a pistol to men’s heads,” noting that he doesn’t “see in any of the work of anyone in this room right now that we’re using form alone to resist”; as well as Jacques Rancière from The Politics of Aesthetics, which for Collis “seems to take back that Adorno comment in some ways and say, no […] we need the resistance of our forms but we need another kind of resistance too, Rancière writes, ‘Suitable political art would ensure, at one and the same time, the production of a double effect: the readability of a political signification,’ and I’d say in one sense more content […] reference to local political things actually going on, ‘and a sensible or perceptual shock caused, conversely, by the uncanny, by that which resists signification.’ There’s maybe a little bit more of Adorno’s resisting by our forms alone: Rancière’s saying we need both, in fact, he says this ideal effect is always the object of a negotiation between opposites, between the readability of the message that threatens to destroy the sensible form of art and the radical uncanniness that threatens to destroy all political meaning. In your own work, Jeff […] how do you negotiate between here I am, formally trying to accomplish something at a political level, and here I am, needing reference, needing content, needing specificity about the social real?”

Derksen responds, “Let me start with the formal question first […] if you first of all […] work towards the abandonment of that separation between form and content and then if you abandon a sense of avant-gardeness separated from what I’m referring to [as] place-based politics, then what Rancière said makes more sense because it’s around the kind of necessity of form under [a] particular set of determinations or mediations, so if I was a slam poet at the moment I would be incredibly disheartened because of the display of the poet from the opening ceremonies (Shane Koyczan), [which] seemed to me to plunge that form into crisis because it just has been totally turned toward a particular type of jingoistic nationalism and easily commodifiable form that holds no defamiliarization if we hold onto that as a positive political or other than simply aesthetic device, so the idea of around necessity, contingency, place-based formal aspects of a poem, how do we work within and under the set of mediations, the production of images, the production of meanings that are happening at a particular moment, how do we search for a form that’s going to both reveal the determinations and open up to alternative meaning production.”

Derksen then self-criticizes his response’s trajectory, “I’m falling into an avant-gardist language as I’m saying this, right, because it’s all about revealing which is hidden but I’m […] not sure if that’s an effective way to think actually, now I’m trying to think that through from some of the way Reg was using slogans for instance, which is making connections between different communities and different groups and ways of thinking, so having those slogans in a sense is drawing the poetic into the social rather than turning towards aesthetics to make the social commentary, in a way that the quotation that you read from Adorno is looking for a kind of semiautonomous space, which I see a lot of the visual art in Vancouver at the moment doing, either moving full tilt into the Cultural Olympiad or looking for an autonomous space [….] At every march and at every protest and at every gathering I’ve been to, it’s like I’m seeing all my poet friends more […] that shows to me a really productive collapse of that idea of an autonomous or semiautonomous aesthetic space collapsing the cultural, into the social, not thinking those two things apart, and also tying that into a collapse of the semantic and the formal or the semantic and the aesthetic, so under what conditions do you produce meaning and under what conditions do you make aesthetic devices becomes the question for me, and I’ve been really struck over the last six months or so with Luc Boltanski and Ève Chiapello’s book called The New Spirit of Capitalism, [which] essentially makes an argument for neoliberalism and capitalism absorbing what they call the artistic critique that sprung up in the late sixties particularly in France, where their case study takes place… [avant-gardist] language actually [has] become a bit more absorbable in a sense, all the language of flexibility, the language of adaptation, the multiplicity and that kind of meaning production I think actually is kind of at the heart of the new spirit of capitalism […] so I’m trying to think this through at the scale of the city as Kim is and think what is the new spirit of urbanism […] a new spirit of creativity is going to come from Richard Florida’s The Creative City, which is essentially class war mapped onto creativity; in Florida, any working people have no creativity, it’s only artists who aren’t actually artists like software designers who are creative […] and everyone else is more or less there to serve them, I see that becoming the model for creative urbanism within Vancouver, the huge dump of money into the Cultural Olympiad I think sets that up, as does the rolling back of the money for sustainable cultural productions as well.”

The avant-garde tradition can be crucial even or especially as it might delineate its limitations in specific situations to formulate differently articulated approaches, for instance regarding discourse, especially those situations in which the aesthetic collapses into the cultural as artists actually participate in social movements.

More specifically about protests, Derksen remarks, “A lot of the protests and […] every protest in some way has tested the boundaries of what’s possible within what’s left of the public sphere […] in a sense the unfurling of a banner, even if the police have already given a sanction for it to happen, is a testing of what is possible and the smashing of the windows is also what I would characterize as an act of negative publicness, which is a rejection of the forms of publicness that are available [….] That’s where poetics gets interesting ‘cause the mainstream media has this very strong primary frame or primary trope for reading those actions, right, and that’s also been shipped around the world, its readymade, and there’s this instant plunking of this trope on that.”

Collis adds by paraphrasing an essay by Farr, “Poetry’s role remains primarily affective, to render the present even more intolerable than it already is […] [while] prefiguring unrecognizable forms of organization, affinity, and agency, so how can we both unreadable in terms of the present norms of ideology but also readable in terms of something new.”

Derksen adds, “If we think every spatial production is at least dialectical […] there’s also a productive aspect, so these acts also produce other spaces of that have other potentials in a sense […] a rejection of forms of readability that are already static, and that was what was so disturbing about the poem at the opening ceremonies that it fulfilled every trope of readability […] every trope of what in multicultural terms was called the politics of recognition, which work along the lines of, if you take the shape or the form or the voice that dominant culture’ll recognize, then it will be recognized, but if doesn’t fall into the trope then it no longer becomes recognizable and therefore it doesn’t have access to space, and then that becomes the moment where production of space becomes a necessity in a sense [….] I’m really optimistic about the triad [of] Henri Lefebvre, which is the perceived, conceived, and lived, and the beauty of Lefebvre is that the lived becomes that unpredictable aspect […] I’ve been looking over some of Lefebvre’s work as the Olympics have unfolded and I’m finding it almost uncanny how he’s been able to point to the closing down of space but also the enormous production of space in that way.”

#3 begins with Rita Wong reading “Grievances in No Particular Order,” which uses quotes from “articles in The Guardian and from Reuters” and was “written [both] before the Olympics […] and since the Olympics.” The poem operates by an exposition of facts and polemics, and begins, “The largest military presence seen in western Canada since the end of the Second World War, 15,000 police soldiers and private security guards will be deployed and will sleep and eat in three rented cruise ships, 9 million dollars worth of cops and more than a thousand security cameras added to the 2000 that are already there in place, spending money on spectacle instead of schools.” Farr asks, “Where do you think [your writing] might actually interfere capitalist accumulation, with colonization taking root in our communities, where do you think writing lodges itself in that in that struggle?” Wong responds, “Writing is not enough […] actions are needed […] occupying space is really important […] it was word that led me to action and still does,” a deceptively self-evident but perpetually crucial insistence. Farr complements with a quote from Rancière from The Politics of Aesthetics, “‘The arts only ever lend to projects of domination or emancipation what they are able to lend to them, that is to say, quite simply, what they have in common with them: bodily positions and movements, functions of speech, the parceling out of the visible and the invisible [….] It is up to the various forms of politics to appropriate, for their own proper use, the modes of presentation or the means of establishing explanatory sequences produced by artistic practices rather than the other way around.’ I like that passage because it turns the question more into how do artistic practices including poetry, cultural practices […] make their methods […] their modes of presentation available to movements, and so it’s not so much a question of writers appropriating political positions or political ideologies in so far as making certain modes of organization […] available to social movements.” Regarding her own poetics of recontextualization by including factual materials, Wong adds, “I’ve done my share of readings where I have to spend more time actually explaining the whole context of the poem than the actual poem itself that might be over in a minute.”

The episode’s second guest, Clint Burnham, then reads “No Poems on Stolen Land,” consisting of variations on the unit “I’d like to acknowledge…” oscillating between “serious” and “banal,” as in the beginning “I’d like to acknowledge that we are on stolen land” to “I’d like to acknowledge Franco, Prussian, Sino, Nippo, Indo, Afro, Turko, Islamo, Togo, Pogo, Hawaiian, Espresso, anyone who thought they could grab something imperialism,” “I’d like to acknowledge I’d like to point out that we are the ones doing the acknowledging so you should give us a break,” “I’d like to acknowledge about what I’d like to acknowledge is that it’s about me, a sensitive liberal, tough but sensitive radical, looking good, new t-shirt, you like these jeans, they were on sale, are they too tight, they were when I bought them but now I need a belt, am I too to wear this shit now,” and ending with “I’d like to acknowledge the acknowledging that we are on stolen and ripped-off, colonized, unseated, conquered, begged, borrowed, stolen native land, doesn’t do a damn bit of motherfucking difference, and I’d just like to acknowledge that.” The relentless banality produces no suggestion for liberation.

Farr responds that the poem reminded him of “Dan Farrell’s ‘Avail’ from Last Instance, ‘I’m really concerned about my physical health, I feel angry when I think about my physical health, I haven’t been feeling angry, I’m hostile….’ Over time he empties out the subject position from which those utterances are made and so you’re just left with them as purely rhetorical […] speech acts.” Generously, Farr continues that he interprets Burnham’s use of “I’d like to acknowledge…” as a speech act as “an expression of a solidarity […] the person is telling me that they are invested in and have ties to anti-colonial struggle and so in a way it functions as […] a way of listening.”

Regarding speech acts and slogans generally, Farr continues: “in the Georgia Straight there were articles that were basically saying that if the slogans of the Olympic resistance movement had not been framed within an anti-colonial framework that they would have had more support, more listeners, and a bigger audience […] the slogan ‘No Olympics on stolen native land’ is not representing a struggle, it’s defining a struggle, and that’s a really key point, and I would actually raise this similar question in relation to critiques of the black bloc […] one of the articles we’ve seen that’s getting a lot of circulation right now says we need a mass movement not a black bloc, but it doesn’t say what kind of a mass movement, presumably we want a militant, engaged, and, I would argue, violent, mass movement [….] So these questions around slogans […] is one point at which […] poetics might be able to make direct interventions into political questions insofar as, at least in my interpretation, speech act theory and analysis of slogans would fall into the field of poetics […] drawing on a conversation of Deleuze and Guattari of a Lenin slogan in Mille Plateaux in the chapter on ‘pragmatics’ [….] In his analysis of the sentence ‘All power must be transferred to the Soviets,’ Lenin argued that this sentence used as a slogan was no longer useful because it ceased to relate to the historical conditions in which it was being used. In fact, Lenin argued that the slogan was meaningful only between February 27th and July 4th, 1917, which is amazingly precise, [a] narrow shelf life for a slogan, but this idea that a slogan can be dated […] to specific dates […] and then after that period a slogan no longer has any meaning; and he called this the period of our revolution. At this time, Lenin argued it was still possible that power could be transferred from the provisional government to the Soviets peacefully; it was, as he said, a slogan for the peaceful development of the revolution which due to the rise of counterrevolutionary forces and allegiances obviously later became absolutely impossible (his words). The slogan ‘All power must be transferred to the Soviets’ was no longer useful because the conditions in which it was being uttered had changed. From this Lenin arrived at the conclusion, ‘that every particular slogan must be deduced from the totality of specific features of a definite political situation’ [….] Lenin as a speech act theorist.”

Burnham adds, “About the demo on the 12th [] people were saying, ‘This is what democracy looks like’ […] I hate that one […] because that’s coming out of the [World Trade Organization] anti-globalization struggles in the 90s […] it’s really good in Seattle […] at that time because they’re arguing against non-democratic, anti-democratic forms like the WTO, whereas now […] we are in functioning democracies and the US, even when it went to war, so as Jodi Dean argues in Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies, it was democracy we don’t agree with […] the problem isn’t that it’s not a democracy, the problem is how the democracy is structured.”

Farr: “About tailoring slogans in a way that they are interpretable and understandable to a hostile media […] as if we can somehow just communicate neutrally through the media […] and that we don’t fundamentally lose control over the content of our struggles, when we don’t pay attention to a definite political situation but instead we anticipate a media apparatus that’s going to control what we say, and instead of defining our struggles we think we can speak to it and just fill it with content, this is a delusion [….] I think the black bloc problematically is an attempt to overcome mediation […] I think that experientially and affectively its closer to revenge than to slogans and demands, [for] which I have some sympathy, I think revenge is a quality we could renew, Fanon thought that revenge was linked to reciprocity and to a process of humanizing the colonizer, and I think that there’s some wisdom in that, but I think that black blocs to a certain extent understand that political speech is going to be recuperated by a hostile media apparatus, and rather than trying to tailor or craft a message in response to that recuperation, essentially that’s a strategy of indifference, and just proceeds with a much more pragmatic target of inflicting economic damage without a message, and so there is an attempt to overcome mediation there, which I think is not entirely successful.”

Collis: “The slogan, ‘No Olympics on stolen native land’ […] take the word Olympics out and […] that[’s] one of those conditions that are ongoing and that we maybe we can rally around.” Burnham: “The Olympics works through a recolonialization or an intensification of colonization through its spatial cutting up of the city […] not just the fact that it’s stolen, it’s the fact that it then gets cut up and used up […] for profit, or for the spectacle, for security, and so on.” Collis: “As the […] Olympic resistance [has] been going on […] the issue of homeless has really arisen to the top […] that’s become kind of a lightning rod and a rallying cry and a place where so many different concerns and diverse tactics are meeting around that one issue.”

Regarding the mainstream media’s labeling of window-smashing as violence, Burnham adds, “Two ways of thinking about this one, is it violence or is it not violence […] it’s not violence because […] we’re not talking World Trade Center, we’re not talking what was happening that very morning in Afghanistan with an escalation of attacking there, so were not talking about that kind of violence, but then if it is violence […] then we have to talk about structural violence, poverty, we have to talk about symbolic violence of language, calling protesters terrorists and so on.” Farr: “After the PATRIOT Act was introduced […] the FBI through congressional testimony was able to basically announce a second front to the War on Terror which was domestic, and which was levied against radical environmentalists as part of the so-called Green Scare and Operation Backfire where ecoterrorist was defined specifically as causing economic damage to a corporation […] the linguistic violence, decomposition of the environmental movement through the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act where you can be sentenced to a 30 year terrorism enhancement for interfering with profitability.” Burnham references Slavoj Žižek’s Violence: “Subjective violence […] in the sense of protest or riots or crime or terrorism always seems to emerge against a backdrop of non-violence, whereas when we look at that backdrop of non-violence, when we see the structural and the symbolic violence, it’s there every day, all the time, and so that eruption doesn’t come out of nowhere.”

Collis finishes the episode by reading a poem started “during the evening news here at Vivo […] picking up or noticing two word phrases some of the speakers were using.” The poem contemplates the phrases’ semantic constructions; its first ten units:

“social cleansing
brew pub
cauterized wound
mobile home
fast track
edge condition
leisure strip
natural beauty
home stretch
power point”
(my transcription)

#4 begins with Cecily Nicholson “with an inspirational quote from [RCMP Assistant Commissioner] Bud Mercer, ‘Our road systems are obviously critical to everything we do,’ he said. ‘If you block a major artery that commerce, industry, business and the opening ceremonies require, you know the tolerance of the police is likely to change.’” She reads four poems, progressing from more “disjunctive” to “direct”; the first two poems remix and defamiliarize state and commercial language, the third poem, “Copper Mine,” uses a “lot of the language […] directly from signage that’s posted for the workers” in “one of the largest open pit copper mines in North America […] a company town called Baghdad, Arizona,” and the fourth poem, “Today at Tent City,” is “collected from a scattering of phrases […] overheard hanging out around the fire at tent city.” The more “disjunctive” poems effectively materialize the usually transparent language’s production of the world: there is an exciting paradox of active meaning production and loss from the excess of meaning produced. The more “direct” poems effectively build on the “disjunctive” poems’ attention sharpening by incisively delivering their well-seized moments.

Naava Smolash’s four poems progress reversely from more expressive to constructivist, starting with anecdotal topical poems about the Olympics and citizenship (“We interrupt your regularly scheduled programming to bring you a brand new Vancouver, a city on steroids cheating its way through the public sphere […]”) and finishing with more general poems about capitalism and surveillance (“Security systems see everything that moves in the night is a danger […]”), all employing a personality-driven musicality. Collis observes, “Naava, there’s a tendency toward a kind of a direct statement, a readability, so that […] the content, if you will, is coming across, and part of the effect of that poem, especially right now, is it creates solidarity, it can pump us up, bring us together [….] By comparison, Cecily, I think some of the things you read were a little more what we might call disjunctive, a little more unreadable, and yet in this kind of a fracturing and torqueing of that language there were some very powerful juxtapositions of words that bump and rub against each other and have, again, an incredible political resonance […] ‘people speak poetry other batten hold up […] unicorn public’ […] the mythical fictionalness of the unicorn and compared with public, we’re always looking for that fictional, mythical public we’re going to imagine exists,” and asks, “what role […] [does] poetry [have] in the current situation?”

Regarding “mainstream presence” of poetry in the opening ceremonies, Nicholson remarks, “There’s this moment, right, where it’s like poetry’s ok […] but there’s also a need to go, well, not just any poetry, as we would be discerning about anything in life, to need to be very critical.” Regarding “poetic tactics,” Farr remarks, “What do poets bring to analysis of [social] movements’ discourse, what is their relationship to movement discourse, what does it mean to participate in language production from within a movement, a resistance movement, as a poet, and to think thru questions of language transparency and recuperation […] and the relationship between movement discourse and the media, what kind of slogans are filtered by the media? These kind of questions are in a way a question of poetics […] linguistic problems of representation […] consideration of language is very much a problem for movements […] I’m going to read a passage from Marx, it’s only one sentence […] from his letter to Ruge, and he writes, ‘nothing prevents us from making criticism of politics, participation in politics, and therefore real struggles, the starting point of our criticism, and from identifying our criticism with them’ […] if you replace criticism with the word poetics, ‘nothing prevents us from making our poetics political, participation in politics, and therefore real struggles, the starting point of our poetics, and from identifying our poetics with them,’ this then becomes a question of where ones attention as a poet is turned and […] one of my complaints, I suppose, of a lot of contemporary avant-garde writing, innovative writing, that presents itself as political, it’s often very much concerned with deeply commodified language, there’s a critique of the commodity and a critique of capital, and so we often tend to collect the language of consumerism, the language of marketing, and try to turn it back on the system that produces it as a kind of negative gesture, which has been effective historically for the avant-garde, but what I’m seeing in the writing that’s emerging at this particular moment right now is a turn towards language of social movements and an investigation of that material poetically […] we’re seeing a turn right now in contemporary poetry and poetics toward movement discourse and toward languages of resistance.”

In productive tension with Nicholson’s critical insistence, Smolash celebrates the community events like the “tent city poetry night[’s] […] diversity of poetics literally in life […] being able to bring these voices together without needing to make them be one, or be harmonious, or all use the same aesthetics, and without needing to say that one is more appropriate […] I’m really inherently anti-elitist […] the breaking down of all these boundaries.” Nicholson responds, “But we need some continuity, and we need material, and we need structure and we need process of….”  Smolash: “…openness, we need openness, we need to pick up on what we’ve done here in the past few weeks, with people coming out with all these different spaces and continue that openness to diversity of styles, aesthetics, and voices in the poetic communities here.” Nicholson: “We constantly have to address this idea of elitism, we constantly have to address power, we’re never going to escape that, and so I think it is a good moment and it is a unifying moment because we’re all sharing particular space […] not the same [stakes] for everybody, people carry different risks when they step onto the streets for different reasons, but […] once we’ve sifted through the euphoria and the fatigue […] and get back to it, there does need to be real work.” The tension raises questions about strategic priorities, whether achieving an “openness” is itself the most important, if it’s a viable approach to addressing power, and a danger of uncritical openness becoming its own tyrannical equality.

Short Range Poetic Device’s episodes are a wealth of political poetic tactics for the present buoyed up by Collis and Farr’s lively dynamic and Farr’s frequently humorous commentary to his music selections: from #1, KRS-One, “Sound of Da Police” and Natalie Imbruglia with Portishead, “Leave Me Alone” “for the good people at Industry Canada,” which shut down Vivo’s radio transmitter as part of the Olympics’ media takeover; from #2, Cypress Hill, “When the Shit Goes Down,” Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, “If You Don't Know Me By Now” (“there’s been a fairly strong anarchist presence in anti-Olympics organizing at various levels […] one of the things about an anarchist resistance is that it creates all kinds of semiotic problems because people don’t know how to describe it, people don’t know what to do with anarchist tactics, they don’t know how to read this, because it’s just not something that has any kind of clear political presence and [in] lot of peoples view any kind of viability at any rate […] CTV had a ridiculous article just after the big Saturday demo, the Heart Attack demo with the headline, ‘Who are the anarchists?’ and to answer that question of course they went to the cops […] here that’s a bit of an answer to that question”), Metric, “Sick Muse” (“a lot of what we’re talking about within and against the Olympic industrial complex could be reduced just to money and so were going to hear a song about money”); from #3, D.O.A, from War on 45, Fugees, “The Mask” (“some bank windows got smashed up […] boo hoo, and so there’s been a lot of ringing of hands and spilling of ink about these tactics so I’m going to play a couple of songs tonight that deal with the question of tactics”), James Brown, “The Payback” (“just to follow up on the conversation around tactics we were having and revenge, I thought I would play a classic revenge tune”); from #4, Neil Young, “Do You Know How to Use This Weapon?” from the Dead Man soundtrack, The Clash, “Ghetto Defendant,” and “following up on this question of autonomous media spaces and the Olympics predominantly as a TV spectacle, we’ll close with Gil Scott-Heron’s ‘The Revolution Will Not be Televised.’”

This is the final “PennSound & Politics” commentary for now. Thank you for listening and reading.

Ten Commentaries, October—December 2011: