I wanted to start by talking about the political climate in Oakland right now. Some people call it a lull, which is perhaps the kindest word. I’ve heard other people describe the atmosphere as poisonous. We are perpetually talking about the infighting and denunciations between different left factions as a cesspool, dissolution, decay. Many people don’t want to be in the same room with one another, much less organize together. I don’t intend to get melancholic or propose an easy solution. These fissures are real. Instead I want to investigate this sense of mourning, of enemies at large, to quote a recent article making the rounds on the internet. This sense of mourning, for me, has little to do with the failure of a political movement. All of the actions I enumerated yesterday in the report back from Oakland—the Oscar Grant riots, the student movement, the building occupations, the freeway occupations, the Santa Cruz dance parties, the Bay of Rage, the occupy encampments, the port blockade, the January 28 arrests, the protests surrounding, Trayvon Martin, Alan Blueford, Kenneth Harding—either failed to achieve their demands or abandoned demands entirely. Of course “failed” is a tricky word, or rather tends to miss the point. But my sense of the political climate in Oakland now and the ways we tend to narrate this decay has nothing to do with the success or failure of any kind of demand imposed, reformist, revolutionary, or otherwise. What we seem to be mourning, now, is the loss of the communities that these struggles had built. I am suspicious of the word community, in that it seems overly romantic. Communities, by definition, are exclusionary. They can be entirely terrible. Thinking of Jen’s opening remarks, I like the word “solidarity” better, because it implies, to me at least, that you don’t have to particularly like or even know the persons involved.
All this brings me around to poetry, because—if asked to make a connection of revolution and poetry—I begin to think about communities. One of the things that I value most about the Bay is not, actually, the fact that I am nearer to the real-time creation of so many brilliant poems that exist on the page, perhaps to be read in classrooms elsewhere and studied by posterity, but that here, in the Bay, there is this existence of many people who are interested in this vague thing we call poetry. And this many people all writing poetry or reading poetry published or not and then getting together to talk about poetry and hear poetry read out loud has created a community apart from work and apart from private life at home. The poetry community can be a terrible, terrible thing, as we’ve all complained and, more seriously, self-criticized, at length. But there was a moment, in the fall of 2011, where the boundaries of the poetry community and the boundaries of the political community and the boundaries of the students groups and the neighborhood groups became more permeable, not perfectly or even elegantly, and with much dissatisfaction. But it was this seeming shift in social relations, not a grand collapse of hierarchies, certainly, but a kind of unsticking of the labels poet, student, parent, anarchist, trot, teen, felon, professor. To return to Occupy Oakland, in its most utopian articulations, the encampment became a space for a different model of social relations, not just between poets and non-poets, but between all of the other various labels we might apply to ourselves and find others applying to us. This is not to say any of these labels disappeared. Occupy Oakland was, in many ways, another, bigger terrible community, a violent community, one riven with sexual assault, racial hierarchies, homophobia, class violence.
What all this goes to say is that this sense of the unsticking of the labels we call ourselves and the boundaries of these various communities included poets but was not really about them; that the political milieu and the poetry world offer modes of community that can be terrible but also materially essential, whether we like each other or not, whether we agree or not. Our present moment reveals these models of social life, poetic, political, or the inelegant unsticking of both, to be less terrible than no community at all.