I met Eliot Katz many years ago at St. Marks Poetry Project in New York City, back in a different era when several now legendary figures like Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Herbert Huncke, Tuli Kupferberg and Janine Pommy Vega were still alive and never missed a reading at St. Mark’s Church.
I first encountered Eliot as part of the crowd that surrounded Allen Ginsberg — his “entourage”, basically — but I also heard him read his own poems: moving, well-crafted verses with a humorous Ginsberg-ian self-questioning touch, often containing powerful messages about political activism, about life in New York City, about escapes into nature. Eliot was the co-editor with Allen Ginsberg and Andy Clausen of Poems for the Nation: A Collection of Contemporary Political Poems and also published two books of poetry, Love, War, Fire, Wind: Looking Out from North America’s Skull and Unlocking the Exits.
When the Occupy Wall Street movement kicked off last September, I expected to see Eliot Katz around the scene, since I know he’s an eager political activist who never turns down a good event. Unfortunately, I learned that Eliot has been slowed down by a bout with Lyme disease, and has been forced to participate in the Occupy movement more from the sidelines than he would have liked. However, the sidelines can offer a good perspective for observation. Eliot recently sent me some notes containing his thoughts about how the Occupy Wall Street movement can best position itself to succeed in the future, and I thought I’d give Eliot a chance to air his ideas out with an interview here. Eliot and I got a chance to talk about some more esoteric and poetic topics too. Thanks, Eliot, and I hope you’ll be back in full health again soon.
Levi: In an article you recently wrote, you quoted Abbie Hoffman speaking in 1988 at Rutgers University (where you were a student) about one of the discouraging realities of protest movements:
Decision making has been a problem on the Left. In the sixties we always made decisions by consensus. By 1970, when you had 15 people show up and three were FBI agents and six were schizophrenics, universal agreement was getting to be a problem. I call it ‘The Curse of Consensus Decision Making,’ because in the end consensus decision making is rule of the minority: the easiest form to manipulate … Trying to get everyone to agree takes forever. Usually the people are broke, without alternatives, with no new language, just competing to see who can burn the shit out of the other the most … Most decisions are made by consensus, but there must also be a format whereby you can express your differences. The democratic parliamentary procedure—majority rule—is the toughest to stack, because in order to really get your point across you’ve got to get cooperation, and to go out and get more people to come in to have those votes the next time around.
Abbie was talking about the need for decision by majority vote within protest groups, and you quoted him to support your own suggestion that the Occupy Wall Street movement ought to create a leadership structure and begin making decisions by majority vote rather than consensus. But wouldn’t that harm the essentially open character of the Occupy movement, and create a politicized infrastructure that would inevitably succumb to corruption, favoritism and personality politics? Wouldn’t something great be lost if Occupy ceased to operate as a quasi-anarchist movement? Would it be worth trading this in for a more organized movement?
Eliot: First, Levi, let me say that, as a longtime fan of Litkicks, and an occasional past contributor of poems to your website, it has been really nice to see how deeply Litkicks has been interested in progressive politics, including the Occupy movement, and it’s an honor to have a chance to talk with you and your readers about some political ideas.
As someone who has been participating in many of Occupy’s major events and rallies and who has worked as an organizer with the OWS poetry collective, I believe that Occupy has already accomplished a great deal in a very short time — including changing the national dialogue from austerity to economic inequality, putting a larger spotlight on poverty issues in America, and drawing attention away from the right-wing Tea Party that had been dominating press coverage of on-the-ground politics before Occupy. But, if we are going to be honest and self-reflexive, it is also clear that, by the time of this interview in the first days of summer 2012, with some notable recent exceptions like the large May Day protests in NYC, Occupy has already moved into a period of gradual decline. I wanted to offer some suggestions, based on my years of organizing experience, for how to re-energize Occupy, since sometimes strategies that work in the creation and early stages of a movement may need to change if the movement is going to become a sustained and effective one for the long haul.
Of course, sometimes political movements have a limited run, no matter what people do. But since Occupy seemed, and still seems, to have such terrific potential, I thought it would be worth offering some personal suggestions for how it might evolve in its strategies to better meet the needs of a longer-term movement. I’m aware that, as one fairly unknown poet-activist in a very large movement, I have no real influence on things, and it would be a long shot if my ideas were to be adopted. But since I used to help put out a literary journal called Long Shot, I figured I would at least put my ideas out there.
In getting to your question, I’d like to divide my answer into two parts: the first about decision-making processes, and the second about leadership issues.
In my experience working with a wide range of activist groups through the years, consensus usually works best with smaller groups where people know and feel comfortable with each other. As Abbie Hoffman described in the quote you cited, when groups get larger and new people come in, the fact that just a few people can block decisions under a consensus process often encourages conscious or subconscious forms of aggressiveness and manipulation, in which people attempt to emotionally bludgeon dissenters into agreeing with things they really don’t agree with. This sort of aggressiveness, which sometimes goes on for hours, doesn’t occur nearly as often during a majority-vote process in which people can simply express their disagreements, get outvoted, and move on.
Occupy Wall Street was created using a consensus decision-making model, and it seemed to work pretty well in its early stages. But as OWS began to grow, I started hearing more stories about heated arguments at General Assembly and spokes-council meetings, including even a chair-throwing incident, and a lot of complaints about how long the General Assembly meetings were taking. Soon, many key Occupy organizers began issuing calls for more mutual respect and general kindness among OWS organizers. Of course, such requests are totally sensible, but they only go so far in that they don’t address the kinds of structural changes that could possibly help to encourage more respect and kindness. So, one suggestion I have for Occupy would be to move to a majority-vote decision-making process, along the lines of Abbie Hoffman’s advice to our Rutgers 1988 national student activist conference. Again, I’m aware that my personal suggestion alone won’t make that happen, and that it can be really difficult to change a consensus decision-making process once it is in place, because it only takes a few votes to block any change in the process. But it still seems worth making the suggestion. In addition to helping to encourage a kinder and more cooperative spirit, I hope this sort of change might also lead to more people returning to Occupy meetings, to fewer heated arguments among activists, and to much shorter meetings that would better enable parents with children, working people, and disabled people to participate!
In terms of the question of leadership structures, I know that many of the original organizers of Occupy believe in a “horizontalist” version of anarchism in which any notion of representative leadership—whether elected or not, whether structurally accountable to the larger group or not—is seen as automatically oppressive, as creating an undesirable “hierarchy” that is looked at as an evil word right up there with cancer or pepper-spray. Under this view, the movement has no official leaders and everyone who shows up to a General Assembly meeting on any given night has the right to an equal vote, and an equal ability to block consensus. Some call this horizontal process “direct democracy,” but is it really more democratic to have the movement’s major decisions made by those relatively few persons able to stand up in a park for many hours at a time, often through cold or rainy nights, in order to argue about and reach a post-midnight consensus on difficult decisions about the movement’s overall strategies or finances? Doesn’t that make it more difficult for parents, for working people, for people with partners at home, and for disabled people to participate?
In my view, the horizontal style of leadership — that is, having no accountable leadership — worked well in the creation and early stages of Occupy, and the early anarchist organizers of Occupy Wall Street like Marina Sitrin and David Graeber deserve tremendous credit for their vision and commitment in helping to create this historic movement. But I personally still suggest making changes at this point for the sake of the movement’s future sustainability and success.
On one hand, the open, horizontalist aspect of Occupy undoubtedly encouraged many thousands of people to get involved and to feel like they had an ownership stake in the movement. But on the other hand, in New York and across the country, this has been an aspect of Occupy that the police and the mainstream media have at times exploited to make Occupy look violent, naïve, and disorganized — and which has therefore made it more difficult for Occupy to maintain its numbers and momentum, as well as to win over members of the public who might otherwise be sympathetic to Occupy’s cause.
Furthermore, as Jo Freeman noted in an influential essay, called “The Tyranny of Structurelessness,” from the 1970s feminist movement, when a movement does not elect accountable leaders, who can be recalled and replaced if they misrepresent the movement’s analysis or goals, unaccountable leaders inevitably rise up. In some of the activist groups that I used to work with, we used to call these folks “anti-leader leaders,” folks who out of some mix of assertiveness, manipulation, fame, skills, or chance end up speaking for the movement without being structurally accountable to representing the movement accurately or effectively. Levi, I think this is the kind of personality politics that you are asking about in your question, and which I personally think is far more likely to occur with an unaccountable leadership than with accountable leadership structures.
Often, movements are lucky, and these unaccountable spokespeople end up doing a terrific job in speaking for the movement. But it is also the case that the media can do a pretty good job, sometimes on purpose and sometimes by accident, of finding the wrong people to describe the movement’s goals, as we saw on more than several occasions in TV and newspaper interviews with folks on the edges of Zuccotti Park. Those are some of the reasons why I would suggest that Occupy consider creating democratic and representative leadership structures, at local levels, with elected organizing committees that would be accountable to representing Occupy effectively and to helping keep Occupy alive and moving forward. Although I personally consider myself a democratic-leftist or democratic socialist and not an anarchist, I should mention that the idea of having a representative, accountable leadership structure could also fit well within many different theories of anarchism throughout history, as Noam Chomsky, for instance, notes in his recent book on Occupy published by Zuccotti Park Press.
Levi, as I think your question implies, Occupy, like the global justice movement which was similarly started mostly by anarchist organizers, has so far seen itself purely as a mass movement or as a caller of mass actions, and not as a political organization with an accountable leadership structure. And throughout history, mass movements have certainly helped change American politics and laws for the better. The Freedom Rides of the civil rights movement would be just one example. So that I do hope, even if Occupy keeps its current structure and strategies, working solely as a mass movement, that it will continue to have a positive impact on American politics and culture for at least some time to come. But I believe that the Freedom Rides were able to have a stronger and more permanent effect on American politics and culture because there were organizations like SNCC and the NAACP to help press and implement the mass movement’s demands with government. I’m afraid that, with Occupy, as with the global justice movement, there really are not any obvious influential, companion progressive organizations, so that I think it would be helpful if Occupy itself could both keep its mass movement character and also create a democratically structured organization at its core, in order to avoid finding its numbers and influence continuing to gradually diminish over time as has been the case with the global justice movement in the years following the successful 1999 protests against the WTO in Seattle. I also think it will be important for Occupy to continue to build ties with the organizations that are out there and doing what could be considered work that overlaps with Occupy’s goals–including labor unions, environmental groups, and civil and women’s rights organizations.
There are a lot of possible ways in which Occupy could begin to create democratic and accountable leadership structures. My own first-instinct suggestion would be to create rotating and recallable elected organizing or leadership committees, at the local levels, with some mechanism for national and even international coordination. These organizing committees would be charged with making major strategic and financial decisions for the movement, providing press spokespersons that would be accountable to accurately represent the movement’s principles and goals, and helping to provide support to the movement’s many different cultural and political working groups in order to ensure that OWS’s creativity and flexibility are fostered.
Levi, you ask whether creating this sort of leadership structure might cause Occupy to lose what has been great about the movement. Actually, I’m hoping it could do just the opposite, that it could help keep Occupy alive as a growing and influential movement, a movement that I think is clearly in danger of losing its numbers and influence if changes aren’t made. In a longer piece that I’m working on, I’m also going to explore some of the things that I think have given Occupy its unique character and strength, including its organizational flexibility — with different working groups that activists and artists with wide-ranging interests could join — and its welcoming slogan “we are the 99%,” which did such a great job of concisely highlighting the problem of economic inequality in America while portraying the movement itself as welcoming and inclusive. I believe, or at least I hope, that a democratically structured organizing committee could help make sure to expand on those aspects which have given Occupy its strength and help patch up what have been the movement’s weaknesses.
Levi: One of the biggest divisions within the Occupy movement, as well as the larger world of Occupy supporters outside the movement, is whether or not to engage in electoral politics within the United States of America to effect change. I have personally seen this debate became extremely ugly and unfriendly — emotions are high on all sides. As a long-time progressive activist, do you think there is any hope for electoral politics in the USA? Will you be following Obama vs. Romney closely, and do you think it will make a big difference who will win this election?
Eliot: I believe that elections and voting are crucial, even if they are only part of what makes for a vibrant democracy. If one reads, for the best example, Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States: 1492 to Present, one can see how progressive movements outside of electoral politics have helped reshape American history for the better. But I do think it matters greatly who is in the White House, the Congress, and the Supreme Court. I also think that it’s significant that OWS was created during the Obama administration, since most effective social movements seem to form under administrations (like FDR’s or LBJ’s) which large numbers of people believe can at least potentially be moved to take action if there is sufficient pressure from below.
But successful progressive movements don’t have to do everything, and just because elections matter, that doesn’t mean that Occupy necessarily has to be involved in them. Different groups have different roles to play, and hopefully, in the end, a wide range of ground is covered and social policies are moved in more progressive directions.
I think it would be good if, during election seasons, local Occupy groups decided to support progressive candidates for local or national offices, candidates — whether Democratic, Green, or Independent — who support Occupy’s goals and ask for its support. Abbie Hoffman used to talk about the best stance for activists being one foot in the system and one foot in the street. But, in general, although I hope that Occupy protests will help encourage elected officials to take more progressive positions on significant policy matters, I don’t think it is Occupy’s role as a movement, at least in these early stages, to get too deeply involved in the daily activities of electoral politics, and certainly not in the presidential election, where Obama, who has governed largely as a centrist, isn’t about to ask for Occupy Wall Street’s help.
But I also think it’s a mistake for influential Occupy organizers, including a few that I have heard on WBAI radio’s nightly OWS news show, to tell young people that elections aren’t that important. It will make a difference, both to the likely success of the movement, and to the lives of millions of people in the U.S., who is elected to our next Congress and our next Presidency. In the long run, I believe that it would be great if we could start working to make structural changes to our election procedures — like instituting instant run-off voting and proportional representation in as many states as possible — that would make 3rd and 4th party electoral campaigns more viable. Until then, even if there is not as much of a difference between the two major parties as we would like, I think we should recognize that there are indeed qualitative differences between them. With some admittedly sad exceptions, the Democrats generally advocate for larger budgets for safety-net programs like rental assistance, food stamps, and college grants. Even if these budgets are still much smaller than they should be, these party differences are tangibly felt by millions of people in the U.S.
Plus, there are at least several dozen progressive Democrats in Congress, including in the Progressive Caucus and the Congressional Black Caucus, who provide a venue for activist voices to be heard in the halls of government and for progressive bills, like for single-payer health care, to be introduced. So I do think it would be far more tragic for America and the world if Mitt Romney were to win in November. And I also think it would be better for Occupy’s organizing prospects if President Obama is re-elected, since people do seem to become more politically active when they believe there is at least some possibility that their time-consuming efforts will bear fruit. Even if four years of President Obama’s centrism have undoubtedly tempered some of the more progressive hopes felt by many of his supporters during the 2008 presidential campaign, many people will nonetheless want to see whether there is still a chance that he could be moved to the left on some key social policies in a second term, as he was, for instance, by the recent immigrant-rights protests outside several of his campaign offices. We know very well that Mitt Romney isn’t going to care in the least what Occupy Wall Street activists think.
On a related issue that has been the subject of much debate, I think it would be great if Occupy would develop a list of demands to make of the American government. Occupy has thus far decided to avoid issuing demands, in large part because some of its main anarchist organizers believe that issuing demands would add more legitimacy to the idea of a national government. But whether one chooses to address the federal government or not, that government exists; and it matters to the daily lives of millions of people, whether on issues of war and peace, on issues of energy and the environment, or on issues of affordable housing and education. In many cases, government is the only institution with the power to regulate or prevent vast corporate abuses. As a former professor of mine who is one of my favorite democratic-left political theorists in America, Stephen Bronner, writes in an article called “Walking Wall Street”: “Tempering the whip of the market, controlling capital and preventing its poisoning of the electoral process all call for strengthening the bureaucratic welfare state—not abolishing it.”
Some in the movement believe that OWS’s role is to create what the poet Peter Lamborn Wilson calls “Temporary Autonomous Zones,” a pre-figurative politics that demonstrates the more utopian world that many of us would like to live in. Personally, I’ve always enjoyed being part of Temporary Autonomous Zones, especially when they include interesting poetry, art, music, and conversations. But creating a small number of community squats and symbolically preventing a few family foreclosures does not come close to addressing the national crisis of more than three million homeless people in America, many of whom live in isolated areas far removed from any Occupy movement. The liberation of community gardens will not prevent Big Oil from continuing to carry out destructive energy policies that will hasten climate change. The creation of small health-care clinics at Occupy encampments have been wonderful, but they could not possibly address the crisis of the over 50 million Americans who lack health insurance. Only a federal government that is forced by progressive movements to take on these key policy issues has the budgetary and legislative resources to address such urgent and large-scale human needs.
Levi: You’ve worked closely as a political activist not only with Abbie Hoffman but also with Allen Ginsberg. I wish either of them were here in 2012 to offer their wisdom and guidance. If either were, what do you think they would be saying right now?
Eliot: It was definitely a pleasure and honor to be able to work with Abbie Hoffman on some student activist projects in the late 1980s, when my partner at the time was Abbie’s favorite student organizer, and to have been a one-time student and longtime friend of Allen Ginsberg’s from 1980 until his death in 1997. And it is also a pleasure to be able to continue to do some work with Bob Rosenthal and Peter Hale in Allen’s office, and with Johanna Lawrenson, Abbie’s wife and long-time co-organizer.
I think it’s significant that Bob, Peter, and Johanna have all supported the Occupy movement, with Bob and Peter donating a poem of Allen’s to the Occupy Wall Street poetry anthology and donating books of Allen’s to the OWS people’s library, and with Johanna participating in many of Occupy’s events and rallies carrying the banner of the Abbie Hoffman Activist Foundation. But, Levi, after giving you much longer answers to your first few questions, I can give you a really short answer to this one–which is that, on principle, I always avoid pretending to be able to speak for people, even friends, who are no longer with us to confirm or deny whatever I might be tempted to contend they would say. I believe that all we can do with our influences, which in my case would also include organizers like Martin Luther King and Rosa Luxemburg, is to study how they responded to their own historical challenges and to try our imperfect bests to apply those lessons to our own times.
Levi: I’m intrigued to hear you mention Rosa Luxemburg as a personal inspiration of yours. I’m not sure how widely she is known today, but I’ve read a bit about her, and can’t help feeling a pang of sadness and anger at the mention of her name. Many people today don’t realize that there was once a Marxist revolution in Germany, following the end of the First World War. Rosa Luxemburg was one of the leaders, though she was reluctant to see the revolution move forward in the wake of the military disaster, believing that Germany was not ready. She was right, and was brutally killed in a counter-revolution that presaged the beginning of Germany’s Nazi future. What is it about Rosa Luxemburg’s legacy that you consider meaningful or relevant today?
Eliot: For me, Rosa Luxemburg is an important figure because, in the late 19th century and early 20th century, during some of the heated international debates about socialist theory and what a socialist society might look like, Luxemburg was one of the most influential writers and activists advocating for a democratic form of socialism, arguing that socialism was supposed to lead to a more democratic society, not a less democratic one — that it was supposed to give working people more of a say in the political and economic decisions that affect their lives.
In a great short book that she wrote about the Russian revolution, she supported that revolution’s overthrowing of the czar, but also criticized the ways in which it looked like Lenin and other Bolshevik leaders were beginning to restrict civil liberties, to eliminate democratic parliamentary procedures, and to create a one-party state. Luxemburg wrote that a better society could never be built by the decree of a small number of party officials sitting behind their desks, and she predicted: “Without general elections, without unrestricted freedom of press and assembly, without a free struggle of opinion, life dies out in every public institution, becomes a mere semblance of life, in which only the bureaucracy remains.” In her belief that socialism was supposed to extend freedom and democratic rights to all, she wrote that: “freedom is always and exclusively freedom for the one who thinks differently.” Of course, the repressive history of the Soviet Union throughout much of the 20th century proved her right. My friend, Stephen Bronner, has written a terrific book about Rosa Luxemburg’s contemporary relevance called Rosa Luxemburg: A Revolutionary for Our Times, and he has also edited a book of her letters, which includes an excellent introduction to her ideas.
Personally, I’ve never been all that concerned with political or ideological labels, except for the ways in which they sometimes help to make it easier to communicate ideas. Depending on who I’m talking with, sometimes I call myself a democratic socialist, a democratic leftist, or a progressive. In the U.S., unlike in many other countries, because of the experience of the Cold War and the narrow way in which history is often taught in American high schools, sometimes it makes things more difficult to talk to people if one uses the word “socialism” even in its democratic meaning — although we do have a few officials, like Vermont’s Senator Bernie Sanders, who have even been elected to political office while calling themselves democratic socialists. But because of the political history of the 20th century, the language that works for progressives in France, Sweden, Brazil, or Venezuela may not work for progressives in Poland or the Czech Republic.
Similarly, what works to communicate a political message in New York City or San Francisco might not work in parts of the south or rural mid-west. But the main thing is that I believe that our public institutions should be more accountable to the public; that people should have more of a democratic say in the decisions that affect their daily lives; that people should have access to basic human needs like food, housing, education, and health care; that we should develop stronger policies to preserve the environment; and that people’s civil liberties and other human rights should be protected, including the right to be free of discrimination based on race, gender, sexual orientation, or disability. And I believe we need to get from here to there as nonviolently as possible, by creating larger and more effective social movements and by electing more progressives to public office, so that I’ve tried to study and learn from a pretty wide range of U.S. and international writers and activists who have advocated for these kinds of progressive ideals.
Levi: Eliot, I first knew you as a poet, working consciously (I believe) in the tradition of the Beat poets. Poetry, and literary awareness in general, has been a big part of Occupy Wall Street’s positive self-image, especially as expressed in the Occupy Wall Street library, and the various Occupy poetry anthologies like the ones you mention above. Do you think that poetry and politics are essentially linked? Can one be a great poet and a political idiot, or a terrible poet and a political genius? How do you balance both traditions within your own life?
Eliot: As someone who has been writing poetry and doing political activism for over 35 years now, you can probably guess that these are questions that I’ve been thinking about for a long time. Sometimes, I spend my energies as a poet, sometimes as an activist, and sometimes as someone trying to help build more connections between poets and activists. And sometimes, especially these last few years while I’ve been dealing with health issues related to Lyme disease, I spend way too much time watching tennis, basketball, and escapist comedy and detective shows on television! Levi, as a former Queens-based writer who wrote about baseball, you might be happy to know that, lately, I’ve been enjoying watching Mets baseball games when their 36-year-old writer and knuckleball pitcher, R. A. Dickey, is scheduled to throw.
Getting back to your question, let me say that, although many — probably most — of my own poems deal in some way with political issues, I’m very non-dogmatic about this stuff and don’t think that all poems are political or should be. As humans, we need insights and provocative questions in so many different areas of life: dreams, desires, fears, love, loss, health, trees, travel, etc. And, in answer to one part of your question, sure, there have certainly been great poets, like Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot, who I think have been politically naïve, and also many terrific political thinkers who write verse that ends up sounding somewhat flat as poetry.
There’s a concept in philosophy of sphere-differentiation, where the boundaries between disciplines are sometimes seen as drawn in dotted lines or semi-permeable membranes. This is the way that I’ve come to think of poetry and politics: as two different spheres that relate to each other in different ways in different historical and geographical contexts, and in different moments of our own lives. Sometimes these two different spheres overlap a little, and sometimes they overlap a lot. Sometimes they push or crash against each other. And sometimes they remain totally separate, since issues like love and death often exist beyond political considerations and will continue to exist as major subjects for art and poetry no matter what utopian or dysfunctional political systems humans wind up inventing for the future.
In terms of my own history as a poet, I did get interested in writing poetry after reading political verse. As a child of a Holocaust survivor, I was always interested in political questions, and after being bored by the way that poetry was taught in high school, I was inspired by realizing how socially relevant poetry could be after reading the political poems of Walt Whitman and Allen Ginsberg in a class that I took during my first year at Rutgers in the mid-1970s. It was a class on the Beat Tradition in American literature that began with Whitman and went through many of the Beat Generation poets and novelists. So, I’ve always been interested in, and influenced by, political poets—Beat Generation poets like Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso, along with many other political poets including William Blake, Pablo Neruda, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Muriel Rukeyser, Langston Hughes, Nicanor Parra, Adrienne Rich, Amiri Baraka, Alicia Ostriker, Andy Clausen, and many others. And, of course, there are poets that I continually go back to re-read that aren’t primarily political poets, like John Keats and Emily Dickinson.
And since I do write a lot of political poems, I’ve spent decades practicing trying to write political poems that are lively and interesting as literature. When my longtime friend and Long Shot literary journal co-founder, Danny Shot, and I were both starting to write poetry, Danny sent Allen Ginsberg one of his earliest poems after we met him at a Rutgers poetry reading, and Allen generously sent back a postcard with some advice about poetry that I’ve never forgotten: “each line should have some haiku or double joke or image or mad sound or Poetry in it, not be just flat prose. I think Allen’s own poetry is a great example of how to turn political ideas and observations into memorable poetry, into poetry that transcends “flat prose.” In some essays that I’ve written, including a long one called “Radical Eyes” in the multi-author collection, The Poem That Changed America: “Howl” Fifty Years Later, I’ve tried to look at how Allen and other political poets have used poetic techniques like clear imagery, surrealism, personalization, mythification, demystification, humor, formal inventiveness, and the element of surprise to write poetry that has literary value — or, in the words of the poet Denise Levertov, to write verse that is “poetic” and not only versified ideas.
Since I think of poetry and politics as different (even though often overlapping) spheres, I don’t think that writing political poetry or making political art can serve as a substitute for building political movements, which is one reason that I think artists who want to help create social change often spend time doing political organizing on top of their lives as artists. But I also don’t believe that poetry makes nothing happen politically, because of the different ways in which the spheres of poetry and politics can interact and affect each other. So I do think that poetry and other art forms can play important roles in helping to strengthen social movements: by urging a questioning of prevailing political ideas; by helping people to envision healthier social possibilities; by creating alternative public spaces, both actual and virtual, that might not otherwise exist for people, especially young people, to get together and talk with each other; and by helping to raise public awareness about progressive ideas. Going back to the person we started this interview discussing, Abbie Hoffman used to say that trying to create social change without a counterculture is like trying to ski without snow!
In the last 50 or 60 years, there has been a strong tradition of poets — and also poetic songwriters like Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Bernice Johnson Reagon of Sweet Honey in the Rock, Joni Mitchell, Buffy St. Marie, Phil Ochs, Gil-Scott Heron, and so many others — making important contributions to the civil rights, anti-Vietnam war, women’s rights, and gay liberation movements. In the early years of our new century, over 10,000 poets contributed work to the website, poetsagainsthewar.org, to express opposition to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and to help support the then-growing anti-Iraq war rallies. So it has been great to see this political-poetry tradition being extended during Occupy Wall Street. From the earliest days of Occupy, poets in Zuccotti Park were working to bring Poetry Assemblies into the park, to create an Occupy Wall Street poetry collective, and to compile an Occupy Wall Street poetry anthology to help build today’s movement. Since we have so many deep-rooted social and environmental problems that need to be fixed, we can only hope that the recent renewal of political activism and the recent renewal of political poetry will both continue to grow, like much-needed medicinal herbs, into the future.