CRG HILL Reviews
LANDSCAPES OF DISSENT: GUERRILLA POETRY & PUBLIC SPACE by Jules Boykoff and Kaia Sand
(Palm Press, Long Beach, CA, 2008)
Landscapes of Dissent: Taking Poetry to the People
Though passionate, well-written, I wonder whether Landscapes of Dissent has earned its space. Is its appearance premature? Is it documentation of a vital political/poetic avenue or is it a call to similar action? As documentation, it scratches the surface, touching briefly upon the work of but four guerilla poetry groups and a smattering of others. As a call for action, it falls short—a small press book (oh the irony), a microscopic audience at best (then again, it is in the small press community one is likely to recruit guerilla poets). Its call might be louder if it mapped out a wide campaign, if the book suggested coordinated local actions accumulating in a wide-spread wave of public poetic interventions, a guerilla poetry tsunami rushing the beaches of Culture.
The book is clear about its parameters, considering work outside the traditional venues of art galleries and books*. Focusing on places/spaces in which poems usually do not appear, Jules Boykoff and Kaia Sand are more interested “in how poem’s form and content are not the only sites of political possibility. A poem’s physical location also matters… What if, rather than in a book, a poem were lodged in public space?” (8-9). Where and how the poem appears or is performed is the armature of the form and content.
In tune with the Situationists, the authors argue that “psycho-geography” (10-11), the study of geography, of place, as it shapes our psychic space, subverts the barriers between art and everyday life. Boykoff and Sand quote Henri Lefebvre who posits that “Space is a social morphology: it is to lived experience what form itself is to the living organism, and just as intimately bound up with function and structure” (17).We are what surrounds us, what rounds us. But this is a two-way street: what rounds us we can use to surround us on our own terms. Guerilla poetry heightens that reciprocity, pushing our shared spaces into action.
For the guerilla poet public spaces are an infinity of potent pages, whereas the book is bound, a moribund commercial entity. These spaces outside books and galleries and museums embody texts to be interacted with, to be nudged and jolted. As illustration, Boykoff and Sand cover the work of four dissident groups, poets who resist the power of public policy, who engage in oppositional strategies, and who themselves have views not heard in the dominant political discourse. These groups utilize public spaces in unconventional ways to present their poems: “These are guerilla acts: the poets did not receive outside funds or permission. They stake claim on the space” (28). Unconventional venues necessitate unconventional audiences. Boykoff and Sand apply the term guerilla poetry “to poetry in public space to see what happens when poetry reaches an audience that will be less predictable in its response. This audience has not intentionally sought to experience poetry” (30). The audience becomes inadvertent.
The four spotlighted groups are PIPA (Poetry is Public Art), PACE (Poet Activist Community Extension), The Agit-Truth Collective, and Sidewalk Blogger, all poets active in the traditional venues of poetry, magazines and poetry readings, but who choose to bypass these venues. The swift undercurrent of this book is its insistent call to resist “legitimacy, legality, and legibility” (29), to undercut commercialism wherever possible. These four groups selflessly spend their energy finding new ways to cast consumption back on itself
PIPA is a loose-organization of poets who “intentionally or non-intentionally, choose to break poetry out of the frame of the page and test its assimilation and/or intrusion into public spaces” (31). Though PIPA has no centralizing principle, Kristin Prevallet asserted in an interview that public art “is a way of thinking about poetry as a conceptual project as opposed to a poetry project whose end result would be a book or a small press literary magazine” (31). In one PIPA project participants picketed the 2004 Republican National Convention and anti-Iraq-war demonstrations with slogans such as “Permanent Cultural Vibration,” “Lose the Illusion of Your Exemption,” “Ask not what you can do for your country; ask what Bush is doing to your country.” The slogan project “allowed poets to consciously contribute to an extant form where citizens use poetic resources without deeming what they make ‘poetry,’ updating, in a sense, the Situationist project of generating slogans for the May 1968 uprisings” (34). In another PIPA project, “Debunker Mentality,” a coterie of New York-based poets mobilized to articulate the space/s mainstream media had avoided following September 11, 2001. When and where the media was incoherent or worse, mute, these poets blanketed the city with posters with poems framed by critical questions such as “Why is it unpatriotic to dissent?” which they spread around the city. One participant, Nathaniel Siegel, expressed the raison d’etre for such actions, insisting his duty as a poet is “‘to not simply reflect the time I am living in: my job is to live and to live through my interactions with others’” (47). This is poetry of the people, by the people, and for the people.
Based in Philadelphia, PACE participants (CA Conrad, Linh Dinh, Mytili Jagannathan, and Frank Sherlock) hit the streets with their poems. Performing their poems against the backdrop of commercial spaces such as street malls, their inaugural event taking place on Christmas eve, PACE poets experience their affects on their audience first-hand, poet, poem, and inadvertent audience in direct contact, unlike many of the other actions described in this book. The poem is the vehicle to make this interpersonal connection, challenging both the poet and the passerby to cross the distances between them, to wedge narrow personal spaces with broadening public spaces.
Boykoff and Sand themselves have been involved with the third group, the Agit-Truth Collective. In their first project they added hand-made signs to highway markers, urging “Where is the dead/end of our imperialist fiasco.” These signs disrupt the site and the sight of unsuspecting viewers, forcing the reader to interrogate the question and the context within which it is asked. All the signs are overtly political, jamming political discussion into the streets, so-called neutral spaces we passively travel through to the places we live and work. Walking to the store is not a mundane, apolitical venture when you are confronted with signs emblazoned with images from Abu Ghraib declaring “You have the right to remain liberated.” Active in Portland, Oregon, the collective engages in interventions that Hakim Bey argues creates temporaryautonomouszones, or TAZ, “an uprising which does not engage directly with the state, a guerilla operation which liberates an area (of land, of time, of imagination) and then dissolves itself to re-form elsewhere/elsewhen, before the State can crush it” (73-74). Agit-Truth Collective carried out one such action in three stages on a Portland bridge. In the first stage passing cars were met by a dancing George Bush shaking a sign reading “Honk if you ♥ totalitarianism.” Next, a participant wearing earphones held up a sign ordering, “If you don’t honk we are writing down your license plate number.” In the final stage, two Agit-Truthers with clip boards pretended to take down license plate numbers.
Sidewalk Blogger is the fourth guerilla poetry group discussed. Inspired by the “Freeway Blogger,” Susan Schultz deploys the placement without permission of highly charged political statements in spaces. Inserted on fences and often among commercial signs, Sidewalk Blogger implores the audience to “Keep out of Iraq” and to “Im/pe/ach.” Sidewalk Blogger also strategically chooses where to place these signs. For instance, near the exit to a Marine Corps Air Station, she placed a sign which read “Out of Iraq.” Again and again, place is part of the poem, part of the grammar, of the expression. Place/meant.
Many readers may argue that the work documented is not poetry. Boykoff and Sand anticipated this question and marshaled Philip Metres’ concept of “lang/scape” as part of their answer: “To call such language acts poems,” he writes about the kinds of interventions described in this book, “is to interrogate not only page-based definitions of poetry, but also definitions of poetry that privilege difficulty, complexity, and ambiguity above all else.” The difference between graffiti–propaganda–and the works such as the Sidewalk Blogger is that graffiti closes down the interpretive field while guerilla poetry strives to open it up wide.
I wish the final section, “Your Turn,” had more development. By no means am I calling for prescriptions here–true guerilla poets are local, autonomous, and unconventional, yet as a call to action the section could outline a range of activities and perhaps suggest a time span within which these activities are accomplished. Then these actions would not seem sporadic, effective but ephemeral, their deconstructive/constructive forces dissipating, drops in a cavernous bucket rather than a rolling wave. One of the book’s final arguments: “Contrary to this techno-centered vantage [Critical Art Ensemble], we believe keyboard activism will never supplant boots-to-the-pavement dissent” (114). A bold statement but that may or may not hold up. In the meantime, as I ponder who to pass this book on to–it has no business languishing on my bookshelves–get out of your studio, your comfort zone. Find some way to take your poetry directly to the public.
* I recommend finding a copy of another, older book that also chronicles boundary-breaking appearances of poetry in public spaces, The Poetry Reading: A Contemporary Compendium on Language & Performance, edited by Stephen Vincent & Ellen Zweig, Momo’s Press, 1981.
Crag Hill until recently edited SCORE, one of only two journals dedicated exclusively to concrete/visual poetry. In the last three decades his work has appeared in over 100 journals and anthologies, including several available on-line. His creative and critical works in progress can be found at http://scorecard.typepad.com. // During the anemic Carter administration, Crag Hill kicked the "i" out of his first name. Continuing to be underwhelmed by his elected leaders, he threatens to kick out the last vowel, too soft, too soft, he says. Something in the Scotch-Irish in him thinks he'll be well-represented by the guttural "Crg."