DJ Dolack shot this video in and around Zuccotti Park in October, 2011. We published an open call asking poets to meet us down there and be filmed reading a poem that, for them, contextualized the Occupy Wall Street movement. Infinite thanks to the bold and bright poets who participated.
Poets: Kate Angus, Alex Cuff, John Deming, Christine Kanownik, Steven Karl, Paul Legault, Kendra Grant Malone, Filip Marinovich, Mike McDonough, Rebecca Murray, Martin Rock, Matthew Savoca, Justin Taylor, Melinda Wilson, Hitomi Yoshio, Matthew Zapruder. Reading poems by: Mark Bibbins, Edward Dorn, Buckminster Fuller, Allen Ginsberg, Robert Hayden, Mina Loy, Campbell McGrath, Kiriu Minashita, Charles Olson, Jacques Prevert, Thomas Sayers Ellis, Delmore Schwartz, William Shakespeare, William Carlos Williams, Matthew Zapruder. Further videos can be found here.
by John Deming
We’re like mice trying to get in,
fawning over the icy breadbox.
We do not have to imagine.
We do have some idea.
—Shanna Compton, “We the Blind Need Pushing”
The Occupy movement really is an exciting development. In fact, it’s spectacular. It’s unprecedented; there’s never been anything like it that I can think of. If the bonds and associations that are being established at these remarkable events can be sustained through a long, hard period ahead — because victories don’t come quickly– this could turn out to be a very significant moment in American history.
In a 2003 interview, Kurt Vonnegut said that during the Vietnam War, “every respectable artist in this country was against the war. It was like a laser beam. We were all aimed in the same direction. The power of this weapon turns out to be that of a custard pie dropped from a stepladder six feet high.”
There is a long-standing debate over art’s ability to actually make social change. But art indisputably provides culture and context for things that happen in the world, and the experience of art–which can convince in ways that logic cannot–is a renewable source of inspiration and conversation for people who are fighting very tough battles. Our goal here was to get as many poets as possible to read on camera just outside Zuccotti Park during the Occupy Wall Street protests. Poets were asked to read something that, for them, contextualized the proceedings.
The video, shot and edited by DJ Dolack, features these poets, as well as three others who provided us with voiceovers (thanks Paul Legault, Melinda Wilson and Matthew Zapruder), and contains a significant amount of footage from Occupy Wall Street at Zuccotti Park last October. When Mayor Bloomberg ordered the clearing of Zuccotti Park in late November, he also condescended to OWS participants, saying, “now they will have to occupy the space with the power of their arguments.” I don’t think I am jumping to conclusions by calling this, and Bloomberg’s response throughout the affair, thinly veiled hostility. At the very least, it is cavalier dismissal.
Bloomberg, in effect, is employing the Rush Limbaugh model—if you make a group and its ideas seem ridiculous by employing general terms (liberal) and a condescending tone (tree-hugger), you can dismiss the group without actually having to face its complaints. With OWS, the fallback perspective was that protesters wanted handouts and didn’t want to work for a living. In fact, a survey performed by the Baruch College School of Public Affairs in October showed that 50% were employed full time and that only 13% were unemployed, only 5.5 points higher than the current rate for the whole country. Also, the notion that all unemployed protesters are unemployed because they are lazy is an obviously pompous generalization.
It is true that the OWS movement is often unspecific and that its protesters often have differing viewpoints (see this on-the-ground dispute). This is in part because there is a lot that is concealed from the general population. For this, I refer you to the quote above from Shanna Compton’s poem “We the Blind Need Pushing.” A large population is capable of sniffing out a problem that perpetuates behind closed doors, even if that population isn’t made privy to the specific schemes underlying the problem. When the details are uncovered, it is usually too late. Bloomberg’s failure to govern is in his dismissal of a movement that reflects widespread cultural intuition, in his condescension towards a group that can’t tell him exactly how many jellybeans are in the jar.
OWS also resists generalizing its focus because the “problem” it addresses is huge, nuanced, and too broad to oversimplify. The OWS mantle of “99%” is telling. The one percent have a simple message: give me my money, give me your money, give me the government’s money; profit-seeking is my right. The simplicity of the message is possible thanks to the narrowness of the minority. Naturally, a group which portends to represent 99% of the public is forced to manage all the inevitable mess inherent in genuinely democratic discourse. It must work against an opaque, entrenched network of petting and massaging between the government and the private sector. Malfeasance is reported all the time, but always too late. This Venn diagram, rampant online, reflects this rather nicely:
Bloomberg’s condescension is understandable, then, as he could be a poster boy for the intersection of business and government. But Bloomberg is really not the problem, as he was not the only political leader, or the first, to crack down on the public occupations. The closer the mice get to opening the breadbox, the more they find how deep certain kinds of corruption go, and just how many are involved—how much of government and big business has colluded in order to increase patently unnecessary wealth. It is true that a respectable democracy will provide for its citizens the freedom to pursue wealth (note: a recent New York Times article shows that upward mobility is something of a myth in the United States). But I am always shocked when people use this “freedom” to pursue wealth as a moral justification–we can, therefore we should, even if it means breaking laws and ruining lives. What can we say about any society that privileges individual wealth and power over all else?
This takes me back to art. Art has the power to provide transformative experience. In a political context, artists are frequently preaching to the choir, which makes Vonnegut’s statement apt. If you think showing Richard Siken’s Crush to Rick Santorum would change his views on homosexuality, you’d have as much luck speaking to him in Japanese—his mind is made up. But insisting on art as a means of contextualizing social phenomena can certainly help to galvanize those who are sympathetic but silent; art performs what religion strives to perform–it refreshes life, reconstitutes it, reminds us how amazing it is, lest we sink into a demoralizing status quo. Generally, this is the modus operandi of OWS–to make a public scene, to insist that these issues stay in the public eye, not in the boardrooms of the greedy.
Art provides another essential function. Only humans make art. We can pretend that only humans reason, but it is pretty clear at this point that plenty of animals, plants, and viruses are problem-solvers. We can also pretend that public policy and law are based in reason. This is how we have arrived at the conclusion that corporations are people (wholly rational according to the paper trail of federal law stretching back over the last fifty years). “Reason” has gone mad and turned on its owners. Art can be used mediate one’s own dehumanization; in times when everyone is insignificant until bundled into predetermined packaging, the singularity of one human’s expression, required for the mere production of art, is defiant and worthwhile.
If people aren’t privy to what happens behind closed doors, and know this, it is easy to hang back and do nothing. This is why public demonstrations like OWS are so crucial—they become an only recourse. The incorporation of art—music, drumming (yes, it was loud), poetry, painting, chanting—serves to keep a group interested and inspired when performing an ostensibly unwinnable fight—not forgetting Noam Chomsky’s statement that “unless [the Occupy movement] continues to grow and kind of becomes a major social force in the world, the chances for a decent future are not very high.” If art can’t convince hardline ideologists to change their minds, it certainly can improve the experience for the protest-minded, keep them inspired, keep the conversations going and possibly connect with people young enough to form new opinions.
It seems pretty important.