September 2008

Dale Smith

marsupial inquirer

Poetry and Public Space

In an introduction to her collection, To Stay Alive (1971), Denise Levertov argued that as a poet working during the Vietnam War, it was her duty to write in a way that could confront and document the social and political environments she inhabited. While this argument is striking for a number of reasons, her poems fail miserably as public documents because the figures of pathos she uses to appeal to her audience can’t successfully orient attention to the complex geopolitical event that the Vietnam War introduced to the American psyche of the 1960s. Robert Duncan, in a correspondence with her, argued that the poet’s responsibility was “not to oppose evil, but to imagine it,” claiming that Levertov’s “verse form ha[d] become habituated to commenting and personalizing” rather than sustaining “a history beyond [her] idea of [her]self or [her] personal history.”

This notion of sustaining a history beyond one’s personal experience is important for understanding how certain poetry has developed to confront social and political issues in public spaces since the 1960s. Poetry, because it inhabits a blurry space that is at once private but also communicative, resists easy assumptions about its uses as public documentation. Many take pride in the fact that poetry “does nothing.” Others use it more explicitly to make arguments about social change (Amiri Baraka, for instance, writes some of the most controversial political poetry today). Without trying to define what poetry is and what it does or does not do, let’s just assume that it contributes to how we as readers or writers of it see the world we live in, helping to build our capacities to understand the diverse phenomena around us.

Jules Boykoff and Kaia Sand offer an important introduction to argue how certain poet-activists use poetry to broaden awareness of public space. In Landscapes of Dissent, they summarize some of the key issues in public sphere theory, discussing Jürgen Habermas’s foundational critique of the public sphere along with Nancy Fraser’s claims on behalf of subaltern counterpublics. More interestingly, however, Boykoff and Sand review significant legal definitions of what constitutes public spaces. They argue that although streets and other public places have traditionally been perceived as a privilege of citizenship, what is known as the “public forum doctrine” allowed the Supreme Court to create “three categories of public space, each with different levels of scrutiny and regulation.” One significant result of this “doctrine” is that “[i]n traditional public forums -- such as streets, sidewalks, and parks -- the state may not restrict speech because of its content unless the state can show that such regulation is necessary to achieve a compelling state interest and is narrowly tailored to achieve that interest.” But such restrictions, Boykoff and Sand argue, “impose ‘legibility’ on society.” “Guerrilla poets,” they claim, “regardless of whether they are aware of this hierarchy of restriction and the state’s efforts toward legibility, operate within a matrix of legal stricture and easement. Laws regarding public space are inherently exclusionary, even if, on the surface, they appear designed toward inclusion.” These poets use “locational conflict” or “interventionary practices” to reclaim public spaces as sites of social production. “Such poetic intervention,” they argue, “poaches public space in innovative and sometimes antagonistic ways, seizing democratic rights, rather than stuffing them silently into pocket.”

Their book looks at four instances of contemporary Guerrilla Poetry. The first -- PIPA (Poetry is Public Art) -- “is a conceptual poetry and archive project.” Based on Robert Duncan and Charles Olson’s claims of an open field poetics, “Brooklyn-based PIPA poet Kristin Prevallet” has come “to think of poetry in public space in the context of ongoing conversations about the relationship between poetry and politics.” During 2004 Republican National Convention and anti-Iraq-war demonstrations, Prevallet and others made signs with slogans such as: “Permanent Cultural Vibration”; “Lose the Illusion of Your Exemption”; “Dear World Bank: Free People, Not Markets”; and “Ask not what you can do for your country; ask what Bush is doing to your country.” Besides these signs, posters and business cards have been used also to “challenge the narrow bandwidth of acceptable language practices” in certain public settings. Prevallet and others, moreover, increasingly turn to public performances to comment on political issues. Her book, Shadow Evidence Intelligence, documents many of these public strategies.

Another group of poets who engage in guerrilla tactics is the Philadelphia-based Poet Activist Community Extension (PACE). These poets “recite poetry and hand out handmade broadsides of those poems” in public areas (mostly commercial ones), thus narrowing the distance between writer and audience. Participants -- CA Conrad, Linh Dinh, Mytili Jagannathan, and Frank Sherlock -- inaugurated their public project on Christmas Eve, 2004, performing their work for passersby in downtown Philadelphia. This intimate “reading” of poems produced interesting exchanges in many cases. As Boykoff and Sand explain:

During their first performance, the poets noted several gratifying responses from passersby. A man offered up his band’s compact disc in exchange. Another asked after Mytili Jagannathan’s relatives in India. And one woman on a bicycle gathered poetry broadsides for friends after first receiving Frank Sherlock’s poem, which was printed on a red card that said, “Peace on Earth” and was decorated with the picture of a candle. Inside, a poem titled “Quicksand” was built from one word pile atop another.

Such an exchange claims, at least momentarily, the use of public space from the interests of the commercial marketplace so that communities can momentarily form, or at least initiate interactions that can extend into future collaborations of interest. One image in this section shows CA Conrad and Linh Dinh reading from their work in the cold. Dinh wears a placard that reads, “Ape Laureate,” bringing a sense of humor to the high-minded seriousness often associated with poetry. The epigrammatic statement also invites speculation on national and ethnic identity, poetic values, and institutional support for the arts. Another image shows poet Frank Sherlock embracing a passerby. Such testaments to the spirit of community that can erupt on public streets introduce an appealing vision of poetry as a shared document of social understanding.

The Agit-Truth Collective, which includes Boykoff along with Martin and Libby McCaw, posts street signs in areas of the East and West Coasts. Locations are chosen for their proximity to certain target communities, such as in Maryland, where some Amish and Mennonite communities struggle to maintain traditional ways of life. Because of the compressed form of road signs, the language used in these situations is primarily epigrammatic (the form of the epigram, by coincidence, originated as an anonymous public genre in ancient Greece). A few examples of these texts are: “Where is the Dead / End of our Imperialist Fiasco”; "America / Who Owns / the Wealth?”; “Bush/Cheney / In ’04 / 4 More Wars”; “Dick Cheney / Is Scary”; and “You Have the / Right to / Remain in / Perpetual Fear.” Such epigrammatic sentiment works in the contexts of rural highways and urban light posts. They pose fleeting arguments to public passengers who are moving from one point to another, and such confrontation from within usually banal public spaces can operate to generate reflection for particular readers. Likewise, in Hawai’i, poet Susan Shultz’s “Sidewalk Blogger” project operates in a similar manner, wherein she erects signage in public spaces -- often on fences -- to confront public passersby. Some of her signs read: “Impeach”; “Out of Iraq”; and “War of Error.” Schultz also targets sensitive public areas, like one located near a military base.

These groups, argue Boykoff and Sand, bring attention to the values and uses of public space. Their work is appealing because it is based in political activism -- something not always associated with poetry, though clearly poets such as Milton, Blake, Shelley, and Pound produced work that was motivated politically. Without worrying too much over legal or theoretical definitions of public space, the poets here simply find ways to enter the public realm in order to generate common awareness of how we interact in shared locations.

Of final note, however, is the influence of documentation in these public acts. Many of these groups document their work through photography and books. In a sense, the immediate public act is then further transformed through written and visual documentation, thus converting the notion of public space through print and online media to include other public settings. Through these documents others can learn how to engage their own locales in provocative ways. Such documentation also brings with it a critical sense of self-reflection, helping to ground activist poetic works in a context of social strategies others have applied elsewhere. What I find most appealing about guerrilla poetry is that it asks us to think of the poem as something that has life both “on and off the page.” More importantly, its strategies bring poetry closer to an actual public dialogue that can engage new communities rather than only speaking to existing ones. More than anything, such guerrilla tactics are determined by actual situations in physical locales that bring their own sets of problems and concerns. Boykoff and Sand’s work to contextualize and document what some poets are doing to re-think poetic production offers terrific strategies to think about poetry and the world we live in. Our understanding of poetry is broadened when writers like them -- and like those members of the various collectives acknowledged here -- engage in the unglamorous activity of building communities.