- To cling to the notion that poetry makes nothing happen or that it must be abolished
in favor of something like recognizable political action is to limit the definition of
both ‘poetry’ and ‘action’, and to deny what is literally happening right in front of
our eyes. Literally- in and to the word itself.
- Just last month, the outgoing head of Arizona’s Board of Education censured
a Tuscon school district over the classroom recitation of a poem by that giant of the
Chicano movement, Luis Valdez. This brief poem, “In Lak’ech”, is a multilingual
chant which effects solidarity through its recitation, and does so from the
perspective of Mayan cosmology. The attempted banning of such a text should
indicate to even the most jaded poet that a poem makes something happen, that it
interferes with the power of the state, prompting the state to fight back with its own
- To state what should be obvious: Just because a middle class poet, critic or
professor feels insulated from the effects or consequences of his or her own speech
or poetry doesn’t mean that poetry is without consequence or without effect. A
single poem recited aloud in a classroom has consequence and effect. A poem read
to oneself in the street has political consequence; cf Cecilia Vicuña’s nearly
invisible actions on city buses in the early days of the Chilean dictatorship, meant to
reject military time and participate in cosmic/indigenous time. There is no such
thing as non-political action, non-political speech or space. To state what should be
even more obvious: no individual’s privilege is so permanent that it can protect
against the disproportionate depredations of corporation, military or state.
- When we poets want to argue about the political efficacy of poetry, talk often turns
to selected large-scale catastrophes in recent memory—the Holocaust, Stalinism,
dictatorships—but certainly we need to recognize that the largest catastrophe is our
species itself, the Anthropocene, the viciousness our species lays out all over the
planet, visiting misery upon each other as well as all the other species and nonliving
entities in our reach. The awfulness of this catastrophe is that it is both total
in scale and absolutely local in its effects, right down to the temperatures in a kettle
pond, the asthma rates in urban neighborhoods, the dividing cells of a fetus in
- Soon we’ll do it to Mars.
- It’s obvious that Poetry makes things happen at the limits of political experience;
the dictator, junta, or juiced-up school board chairman knows poetry’s force, even if
poets or critics, would, perplexingly, deny it. But what I’m trying to insist on is this:
our current catastrophe is happening all around us: we are at the limit: we are both
the perpetrators and the victims in our smallest actions, taking a breath or a pill,
exhaling or excreting, buying and wasting, ignoring the consequences of our
consumption or ignorance. Just as this catastrophe consists of microactions, poems
may radiate their effects on microscales. And it’s on this micro-scale on which
change—or its more common manifestation, damage—occurs all the time, all
- Therefore we need not feel anxiety about the apparent microscales of poetry’s force.
Anytime Art intervenes in the catastrophe regardless of scale, we are adding a
something to that reality, however locally. We should push back with the power we
have, the power the state itself confirms when it attempts to ban the work of our
- Activists might wring their hands over the fact that the scale of what poetry can do
is usually local: localized to a classroom, fifteen people at a reading, one person
listening to a song playing in his or her head on the way to work, to six people in a
community workshop. We might prefer to turn our attention to those documented
moments when the force of a poem or play or artist suddenly scales up (The Velvet
Revolution, the reading of Bei Dao at Tiananmen) or pushes back (the performance
of Brundibar; at Theresienstadt, the entire ouevre of Raúl Zurita), and indeed these
are excellent emblems for action. But of course the political efficacy of Luis
Valdez, the founder of El Teatro Campesino, an artistic wellspring of the Chicano
movement, author of Zoot Suit, did not begin and end at the moment he came in
contact with some official in Arizona and wound up on the Huffington Post last
month. With countless comrades, celebrated and anonymous, Valdez built an entire
countersystem of actions, demonstrations, and, yes, poetry, playwriting,
screenwriting. Artmaking mounted a counterforce against the racialized hegemonies
of the 20th century, effecting monumental (if also unfinished, incomplete) cultural
- Art is Action. Action needs Art because Art is the change.
- Anyone who has written, read, shared a poem with another knows that poems
make change on a small immediate scale. Discomfort is also a measurable change.
But how do we reconcile this against our desire for large, spectacular clouts of
change? One argument is that change is additive: Teatro Campesino’s performance
of agit-prop in the fields of California adds body to body to a common body that
becomes the muscular body of the Chicano movement.
- A complementary argument is that given that the global catastrophe of the
Anthropocene visits itself in billions of local manifestations (some on the
microscale of a single molecule, as in a GMO), then the local becomes the
battleground for change. The local scale of the #blacklivesmatter protests,
focusing on commuter routes, malls, common spaces from the student union in
Tuscaloosa to the steps of the Capital building in DC, have had an additive effect
of changing the conceptual weather. And language as well as bodies matter; the
alteration of ‘#blacklivesmatter’ to ‘#alllivesmatter’ was rightly seen as the
attempt of hegemony to reinsert itself within the resistant space of language. But
the visual or aesthetic force of these protests cannot be unwritten or rescripted.
The political group Colectivo Situaciones has made a parallel observation about
the power of aesthetics to convert a political conversation, pointing towards “the
Madres during the dictatorship when the scarf quickly replaced years of discourse
and the whole world suddenly understood what it meant” (Genocido, 63-64).
- But what I want to finally insist upon is that even without the scaling up of a
single poem’s force, as at Tiananmen, or the additive effect of separate,
coordinated, or parallel aesthetic actions, as with the Chicano movement or
#blacklivesmatter, Poetry has force no matter how minute the scale, because
Poetry is Action. Art is Action. And every instant, every cell is the site of the
- This too is a realization of the activist Argentinian groups HIJO and Colectivo
Situaciones who go into neighborhoods to help the residents build communitywide
theatrical events, ‘escraches’, using collective, participatory spectacle to
enact justice and redress the impunity of the agents of the dictatorship who are
living in their midst. The events include posters, processions, speeches, graffiti,
and, critically, a carnivalesque musical street theater called murga. Some political
activists criticize the local and aesthetic nature of their work, these groups report:
“But the issue is that the escrache is always seen in terms of what it can’t do: it
can’t change the country, it can’t change the world, it can’t move a million
persons, it can’t kill all the bad guys nor all the genocidists, it can’t do a lot of
things. But it’s precisely on this type of thinking, a thinking of what can’t be
done, that the political parties of every society are founded. The escraches
differentiate themselves because there are things they can do. Unlike a thousand
talking heads, the escrache can do certain things. And if one judges it only on
what it can’t do, this seems incredibly unjust. It’s more than this. A traditional left
militant night say to HIJOS: ‘Well, what you do is fine, but look, will you take
power? Will you change society? It lacks politics.'”
- As HIJOS and Colectivo Situaciones insist, what these critics miss is that the
escrache itself is both the action and the result; it is the Justice, it is the change.
“The escrache creates a new idea of justice founded in the popular capacity for
producing truths that power is not able to neutralize via cooptation” .
Moreover, “when the escrache ends something has happened. It’s not that if it
doesn’t affect public opinion it hasn’t worked, but rather that something has
moved, something occurred, something was added to reality” .
- I make the connection between poetry and escrache because the critiques of the
escrache—its locality, its interest in aesthetics, its lack of conventional political
‘results’—are exactly those critiques leveled—especially by ‘traditional left
militants’—against poetry itself. The collective nature of the escrache and the
individually-authored nature of most poems might seem utterly opposed to each
other, and I do not seek to erase the collectivity which is the first principle of
escrache. Instead, I write of escrache here because I wish to honor escrache and
try to learn from it, to place it at the center of my study of the poetics and politics
of intervention, and to use what I learn to make Art which functions in solidarity
with all those building space for Justice and bringing it into being, on whatever
scale, and by whatever pragmatic and aesthetic means.
- Both the escrache and the poem name and localize the site of political crisis, take
the fight precisely there, and wage the battle for Justice in precisely that precinct.
Both the escrache and the poem, by deploying, add to reality a “something”
which hegemony did not script. We can describe the poem in the language used to
describe the escrache: “when the [poem] ends something has happened. It’s not
that if it doesn’t affect public opinion it hasn’t worked, but rather that something
has moved, something occurred, something was added to reality.”
- The activists of escrache declare that the escrache is not just a political rally.
Despite posters, marches, and speeches, there is no escrache without murga, the
street theater element . I would argue that this is because it is precisely this
carnivalesque murga which summons the alchemical power of Poetry to add to
reality something which was not already there. It is this poetry, this theatrical
element, that makes the escrache.
- I am not arguing that every poem is an escrache, but that every poem should be. It
should name its site and its crime and should open up an acute area of aesthetic
and political potential; in and of itself, it should entail a microscale political
intervention. If it is later ‘scaled up’ to become the anthem of a movement or if it
turns out to be one element in an additive tide of actions which bring about
change, so much the better. But the poem itself is a political action, or should be.
- I close by offering three poems which function politically by naming and evoking
the precise localized site where transformation can be asked for and enacted—
regardless of what happens after the poem ends. Within the extremely localized
precincts of these poems—their extremely brief lyric shapes—we see the precise
location of Justice-making, of piercing the space of hegemony and adding to the
world a non-prescribed something which is itself change.
- In Seyhan Erözçelik’s “Thiefrose”, translated by Murat Nehmet-Nejat, the Sufi
rose is a thief is the crimesite is the fire is the wound that marks the ultimate site
of Immanence and arrival.
The town is
burning with the fire
in the rose.
O thou art
A house fire
and a rose fire
are so different.
But my heart’s
inside the house.
I am sick.
With my invisible
In your crime
- “I Swallowed a Moon Made of Iron” is by Xu Lizhi (1990-2014), the young
Foxconn worker who killed himself in his misery a few months ago. Here the
swallowed symbol of poetry, the Moon, is the overload which, along with the
icons of his sufferings, split open the Poet’s throat and mark him, fatally, as the
ultimate site of Poetry’s arrival. This poem is collectively translated by the blog
“I Swallowed a Moon Made of Iron”
I swallowed a moon made of iron
They refer to it as a nail
I swallowed this industrial sewage, these unemployment documents
Youth stooped at machines die before their time
I swallowed the hustle and the destitution
Swallowed pedestrian bridges, life covered in rust
I can’t swallow any more
All that I’ve swallowed is now gushing out of my throat
Unfurling on the land of my ancestors
Into a disgraceful poem.
— 19 December 2013
- And in this poem by the US poet Jamelieh Haley, the Atlantic Ocean is a sublime
site, with all the terrible connotations of this word; the Ocean, unlike human
perpetrators, cannot forget the great crime of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Horror
continually braces, breaks, and squalls through it.
new animals in the opera tonight. night at the new flood.
the Atlantic is resubmerged into itself vamping on a ship to Europe. the diva blows hard.
she wails in the water of weightless rain. under stage there’s a pod wondering in secret its
story. terns of ornament senate the upper realms. ascends from up left, you, enfolds twin
horns into the diva maw. colony anthology. plantation dream. an analace is built for you.
it’s carried over. it appears as a black ball of sun from above. you become a mirror on the
ground, flattened in blood. the audience sees itself. is wasted away. the kind of music that
shows itself to itself. that kind of art.
- Every poem an escrache. Rewrite the neighborhood, name the crimes, invoke an
illicit immanence, change one microprecinct of the Anthropocene. When it ends,
something has happened, something has moved, something occurred, something
was added to reality. Or maybe, to bring us closer to the collective,
communitarian model on which is the foundation of escrache, I should refine my
slogan. Not only every poem an escrache— but all of them.
WORK CITED: The source for the information about escraches is Genocide in
the Neighborhood by Colectivo Situaciones , translated by Brian Whitener, Daniel
Borzutzky, and Fernando Fuentes, and published by ChainLinks, 2009.
Joyelle McSweeney is the author of eight books of poetry, prose, criticism, and drama, most recently the verse play Dead Youth, or, The Leaks (Litmus, 2014) and the critical work The Necropastoral: Poetry, Media, Occults (U. of Michigan Poets on Poetry Series, 2015). She teaches at Notre Dame and edits Action Books.