Where are all the radical poets?

Where are all the radical poets?

Metaphors and molotovs — Poet Aaron Fagan speaks to Commune Editions, a radical poetry press formed during the Occupy, anti-tuition fee and Black Lives Matter protests in California's Bay Area.

Commune Editions began in the Bay Area from friendships formed in struggle: the occupations in resistance to UC tuition hikes in 2009-11; the anti-police uprisings after the shooting of Oscar Grant that continued with the deaths of Mike Brown and Eric Garner; and the local version of Occupy, referred to by some as the Oakland Commune.

In these moments, the people committed to poetry and the people committed to militant political antagonism came to be more and more entangled, turned out to be the same people – Joshua Clover, Juliana Spahr, and Jasper Bernes formed Commune to release radical poetry from their base in Oakland, California.

This felt transformative to them, strange and beautiful. A provisionally new strain of poetry has begun to emerge from this entanglement with communist and anarchist organizing, theorizing, and struggle.

This work inspires them. Because there was no existing venue attuned to these changes, they decided to start one. They committed first their own work to this project, and brought their experience with other presses. They hope to publish poetry for reading and writing explicitly against the given world, always aware that it begins inside that world—and to put this work in dialogue with poetries from other countries and from other historical moments, times and places where the politicisation of poetry and the participation of poets in uprisings large and small was and remains a convention.

They are curious about, but not overconfident regarding, the capacities of art. Poems are no replacement for concrete forms of political action. But poetry can be a companion to these activities, as the “Riot Dog” of Athens was a companion in streets. A dog, too, might start barking when the cops are about to kick down your door. Perhaps that’s it, for now, what these poets are doing, what is to be done, with poetry: Some barking. The cops are at the door, and they’ve been there for a while.

Aaron Fagan: You see many different representations of the political spectrum but many place anarchism and communism as polar opposites. In what ways does modern communism and anarchism depart from or align with historical political and artistic paradigms?
Jasper: You’re right that many treat these as opposites, inasmuch as “communism” often implies something like what was once called “actually existing socialism”: the authoritarian, planned economies of the USSR and China. We’re not really into that kind of thing, and those of us in Commune Editions who identify with the term “communism” have a vision of the future and ideas about how to struggle in the present that is probably closer to what most people think of as “anarchism” than these forms of statist, party-led domination. If you go further back in history, these oppositions fall away. Many anarchists thought of themselves as communists – as anarchist communists, to be precise – and saw no mutual exclusion between the terms. On the other side, there were anti-bolshevik Marxists who took positions that were close to the kind of thing you get from anarchists.

So, that’s sort of where the three of us are politically, even if some of us prefer the term anarchist and others communist and others dislike all the terms altogether. At the same time, since we’re a publisher of literary texts, it doesn’t make sense to draw the lines too sharply.

We published an excerpt from Leslie Kaplan’s Excess-The Factory (L’exces-l’usine), about her experience as a Maoist établie — that is, someone who entered factory work with the aim of organizing industrial workers and recruiting them to the Maoist party. None of us think that kind of thing is a good idea. It wasn’t a good idea then and it’s not a good idea now, and I think all of us are pretty critical of Mao and Maoism. But here’s the thing: it’s an incredible book. It’s not operating at the level where these political distinctions matter. It’s about critique of a society organized around exploitation, and in that sense she’s articulating a position we share. Or, to give another example, take Bertolt Brecht. He was essentially a Stalinist, or at very best a fellow-traveler of the Stalinist parties, who made some terrible political decisions. But he wrote incredibly poetry, some of the most amazing communist poetry of the 20th century, poetry that illuminates so much of ugliness of capitalism and so much of the hope we want to draw upon in imagining something other than it.


The titles of your new collections strike me as explicitly political, each in their own distinct way. Maybe each of you could take turns speaking about one another’s collections.
Commune Editions: We like the idea of answering this question collectively. We’ve written very different books, but they all come out of a shared moment and, in certain respects, shared experience. When I heard the earliest parts written in Jasper’s book — I am thinking of the section on buses — I was struck by the way it presented a drama in which we had all participated and which felt exhausted and perhaps melancholy — Occupy Oakland — in a way that seemed alluringly unfamiliar, perversely accurate, hilarious, and most importantly, speculative. The book has the oblique vantage which allows what often felt like a failed moment to appear as something other than failure, as a somewhat anarchic passage that nonetheless has its own logic as part of a deep process, one still ongoing. It has a future!

The book, and the real antagonism it holds in suspension. Not a utopian one, but a future. We Are Nothing and So Can You risks, among other things, to imagine a future of post-revolution, post-collapse, albeit a restless and strange one. This is generally proscribed, and I think the leeriness around such thinking is wise; I do think our imaginings are limited by our present straits, and we are always at peril of counterfeiting inversions of the present for the new new. It would be insane to suggest that Jasper’s book overcomes that problem handily. But its boldness is that it takes that problem seriously and gets to extraordinary places. It’s sort of mind-blowing.

It is hard to not do this by comparison. While Jasper’s book is set in the very near off future, Joshua’s book is more in the now. While Jasper’s book feels localized in its setting, Joshua’s is relentlessly globalized: Genoa, Amsterdam, London, Suisun Bay, Benicia, Oakland… I think of Red Epic as a call to arms for poetry. It tells me to think of it this way: “The poem must be on the side of riots looting barricades occupations manifestos communes slogans fire and enemies,” “The Fire Sermon” demands. But not just a call to arms for poetry, but also a call to consciousness. “Haecceity,” riffing off Diane diPrima, puts it like this: “If what you want is calm / to be restored you are still the enemy / you have not thought thru clearly / what that means.” And then I want to add something here about the irony of the title. Red Epic might be epic in that it attempts to tell a tale of the tribe, but it is also full of resonant lyric tonalities and hopes. Or to continue with the comparison, if Jasper’s book is hybrid in its genre, Joshua’s book gets its power from how it moves into the genre of poetry and inhabits it with a stunning graceful consciousness of poetry’s many powers.


Juliana’s book is also spatially expansive, global in its reach, and the long poems in it often feature lines that have spread out across the page to the point of becoming sentences. They are poems about movement and migration, the restless movement of protesters through the streets of cities and of animals across a disrupted and disturbed planet. Metaphor is also about movement, as visitors to Greece learn when they see the word metaphores painted on the side of moving vans. Metaphor is about the migration of meaning from one site to another, and That Winter the Wolf Came does this in a way that resembles nothing I can think of, splicing together streams of language — about migratory geese and the encampment occupations of recent years, for instance — such that deep resonances emerge slowly and in surprising ways. These different language-streams find their fit at level of mood, tone, and like all of her work, the book is relentlessly and brutally honest in its assessments, capable of plunging to the contradictory emotional center of our present moment: despair, exhilaration, wonder, outrage, grief.

Emily Dickinson handmade her chapbooks. Walt Whitman self-published in Brooklyn and sold his Leaves of Grass door to door. When you hear about DIY culture what does this bring to mind, for better or worse?
Juliana: Only for better. Or once upon a time, everything was more or less self-published. And then suddenly it wasn’t. And this has a lot to do with the rise of the nation state and its interest in print culture for purposes of creating national identity. The idea that one needed a big company to publish one’s book intensifies throughout the twentieth century. And there has been more and more consolidation and with that, less and less risky work being published by these huge multinational firms. The healthiest thing in the history of contemporary literature is when these firms stopped published anything that wasn’t the realist novel and cookbooks and self help books. And at that moment, which is more or less the late 60s, the lovely anarchy that is small press publishing comes into its own. Small press publishing is basically DIY publishing that pretends, at some moments but not all, to be otherwise.

What are your thoughts about capital in the 21st century? For example, one of the most publicly radical things in popular culture that I have seen in recent years is the announcement of comedian Russell Brand’s Trew Era Café in east London. In addition to exclusively hiring recovering drug addicts he said, “We will start more and more of these social enterprises. Eventually we will trade with one another in our own currency. We’re going to create our own systems, our own federations, our own currencies, our own authorities.”
Joshua: Yes, this is a great question for DIY politics: what you might call the “detachment hypothesis,” the idea that we can develop within the present world a branching network of non-capitalist relations that can expand toward self-sufficiency, finally abjuring any exchange with the surrounding capitalist economy — at which point it can simply declare itself autonomous. That was a sort of horizon for Occupy Oakland, which centred around a large and effective communal kitchen. There was the plaza, dead set within the governmental and corporate buildings of Oakland; there was the encampment, trying to do subsistence all on its own. But we never broke free; there were still people coming in with money from their day jobs, still people going out to work, still needs that were unmet because we couldn’t get the stuff we needed. Maybe — no, surely — Occupy Oakland just wasn’t there yet.

I am equally put in mind of New York in the eighties, when as an average person (I worked in a bookstore) there was no way to make it in the city unless there were waiters who would hook you up with a meal, museum guards who would let you creep, a blind eye turned in the copy shop. A network of friends sharing scams; I would let my pals steal books in return. This secret collectivity probably works better as an adjunct to capitalism; it’s what made it possible for the bookstore to pay me so little. But I’m not sure that actual detachment is so easy. Even in the huge informal economies surrounding Dhaka or Sao Paulo, there is still some distant dependency on the wage, on someone rolling up from downtown trying to score dope with their paycheck.

Despite these limits, I think you ask finally the most pressing of all questions: how will we reproduce ourselves, reproduce our lives, beyond capital? This goal is what is indicated by the name, “the commune.” But if history has a lesson for us, it’s that capital doesn’t really take the appearance of the commune lying down. Declaring that you will be making your own daily life without anyone showing up to be exploited may seem like a nice easy sidling away, but from the perspective of capital it is both economic and political attack, no matter how unthreatening everybody looks; in such situations, capital and the state tend to show up with armies and sieges. I don’t think there’s a piecemeal, peaceful detachment. The commune will need to have a revolutionary moment, simply as a matter of self-defense.

But that maybe gives us a final reminder. DIY can designate a lot of things. Maybe a new cafe, but also DIY medical centers, molotovs, barricades, child care. Those will be moments in a DIY revolution; I don’t imagine we’ll be given a choice.

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