Saturday, March 21, 2009

Kaia Sand, Jules Boykoff & Guerrilla Poetries

Yesterday, the Poetry & Politics crew (few but firm) interviewed Kaia Sand & Jules Boykoff at their Portland home offices via Skype--and, when that failed to work well, by speaker phone. We had read their 2008 Palm Press book, Landscapes of Dissent: Guerrilla Poetry and Public Space; a couple of the students had already completed the assignment of plastering poem messages in public places.

I began by setting up the argument that seems to frame the course, namely one made famous by Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov, among others, between autonomous and overtly political poetries. It's a binary that (like so many brute oppositions) ultimately seems to collapse, but which spurs good conversation before it goes. Kaia talked about the problem of didacticism in poetry and mentioned her recent reading of Gary Snyder's Turtle Island, a book she found overly didactic. She said that the question comes down to one of tactics, namely to the question: what works? Jules likewise addressed the problem of a "look down your nose didacticism," at about the time his image froze and we switched to the speaker phone. He then froze the dichotomy itself, suggesting that what is really crucial is context (which I take to be a spatial variant of Kaia's more temporal tactics). Then he suggested that overt politics work better in the context of--say--the Bush administration than do a Duncanesque "politics through the back door" approach.

Much of what we discussed relates also to the question of humor in political poetry. We began our interview by agreeing that humor is a necessary step in engaging the public, and in engaging the poet him or herself in the political act (Jules mentioned that a couple of the projects they performed were inspired by parties they'd been at). Jules spoke of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert as doing the work of "critical journalism," nearly by themselves, over the past eight years. By the end, Kaia argued for seriousness, but by then we were all laughing, so that binary also crashed tellingly. After Jules and Kaia left us, we talked about a recent SNL skit about Hawai`i, which bashes the myth of tourist paradise in favor of a hard reality of meth labs and teen pregnancy. Clearly, that skit was also an act of critical entertainment, one that alerts people who ought to know better that Hawai`i is not a place set apart from history, but suffers through it along with other rural and urban American spaces.

When one student, the head of YouthSpeaks Hawai`i, asked about oral performance, Kaia acknowledged that their book is more about (delayed) visual performances done in public spaces than about (present) oral performances. Kaia's and Jules's own projects began in rural Maryland, where the economy is based largely on fishing and the military (sounds familiar). What they learned, among other things, was how to place signs strategically in the landscape. See their book for some artful placements, especially in what they call "sign groves," where their signs (anti-capitalist, anti-Cheney) were citizen signs among many others in front of churches and other places that attract language. Later in the conversation, Jules addressed the question of performance by developing ideas for performing on buses and in other public spaces by "seeding" the audience. The ramifications of such performances--both visual and staged as spontaneity--are that the performers also breeak out of the predictable "gestures" of poetry, whether it be performance, nature, lyric, or other mode. Not simply anti-capitalist, but also anti-received form (like advertising, like other attempts to manipulate us into acting in someone else's interest, rather than our own).

Location is crucial in setting up one's signs. Jules used an example from the Sidewalk Blogger in Kane`ohe, Hawai`i, who placed a "Torture = Frat Pranks" sign next to an official state sign forbidding such transgressions as skateboarding and dogs. In that way, signs speak to signs, and the audience (inadvertant, as Kaia said) participates in drawing out the political ironies. In another example, I talked about putting up mock lost pet signs that advertised rewards for locating the US Bill of Rights, which has been lost. Jules mentioned a couple in Portland whose son has been caught up in the "war on terror," and their intent to put up "lost son" signs (surely a higher degree of difficulty, in so many senses of the word).

We also talked about signs as--or as not--forms of graffitti, the extent to which activists are willing to "vandalize" the landscape to imprint their messages on the landscape. The projects discussed in Jules and Kaia's book pull up short of the artificial permanence of official tagging. It demands less work by underpaid employees of corporations or the state than does paint on a wall. But what names remain at places like Angel Island and internment camps remain because someone chose to carve them into the walls.

According to Jules, Steven Duncombe has recently argued for embracing humor and popular culture in advancing a progressive politics. So, why not (metaphorically!) embrace Britney Spears? Or Nascar? Or other symbols of our fantasy lives as consumers of entertainment culture? There's a lovely cooptation here, taking emblems of big money and absorbing them into one of the few markets that cannot make money. Frank Sherlock talks about the freedom involved in not making money. One of the students was especially moved by a photograph in the book that shows a pedestrian hugging Sherlock after Sherlock hands him a poem on the street. That kind of connection, however transient, matters.

Later in the conversation, Kaia talked about a project performed by Laura Elrick in New York City. NYC is so drenched in language that Elrick decided to do a silent performance, walking around in an orange uniform as if she were a shackled Guantanamo "detainee." I remember one of the most compelling public performances I ever witnessed was one in which a speaker at Hyde Park Corner in London simply prepared to speak, but came up short of uttering a single word. When finally he did, the crowd dispersed. While that performance seemed contentless, if compelling, one like Elrick's folds together the effect/affect of silence with an image that damns US policies in the so-called war on terror (a phrase that has been retired under the current administration, even if some of the US's actions have not).

And of course transience is something this kind of art courts more than dismisses. We can create archives of our signs, our writing upon the landscape, but we cannot make our signs permanent, so we play with the necessity of their quick disappearance. It is a temporal, not a plastic, art.

So the skype / phone session ended. Next we read Craig Santos Perez's from unincorporated territory and move from the militarized landscapes of Oregon and Hawai`i to that of Guam.

This past Thursday, I attended Lisa Linn Kanae's book launch for Islands Linked by Ocean (Bamboo Ridge Press) and will have something to say about it after I've read the book. Lisa's Sista Tongue is one of the most important books Tinfish has published, widely read and taught as it is. So it's good to see Lisa finding success with her book of short stories, as well.

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