Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Poets' Strike?

"Why don't we all refuse to write or read poetry on May 1st and turn our energies towards political acts all over the country and you know why not the world. This idea was floated in the 60s maybe as a joke but today I'm thinking that rather than it being about who cares if we write or not we can use our resistance as an organizing tool.

Everyone can do it locally - I'm thinking we should NOT do things in poetry spaces (except maybe to plan and organize.) Though certainly art world spaces could be used, or any other space inside or out. I'm not thinking top down organizing at all. Pick your issue, your group of poets and we don't have to limit our groups to poets only, but poet organized.

The point is to get attention to your issue whether its about women's rights, tax cuts for the rich, spending cuts, environmental disasters and defunding, whatever you want to devote your energies to publicly or privately that day. Any takers?"

-- an email received from Eileen Myles on April 20, 2011

Eileen has since written more on her idea here (there's also a fbook page) and Mark Nowak responded very thoughtfully here. Me? I'm digesting and thinking. Chicago takes it's May Day celebrations pretty seriously. We're the home of the eight-hour work day, known around the world (though not often in the U.S.) as International Workers Day. This year there's more momentum than ever. It's the 125th anniversary of the original Haymarket struggle, unions are being attacked throughout the country, and people are (finally) really angry about corporate greed. There are numerous activities happening in Chicago this week including Poetry for Labor, a May Day reading being organized by poet John Keene. I'm thinking globally and acting locally. Ie -- my plan is to poet and not to strike on May 1, 2011.

But, I sure do LOVE the idea of a poets' strike. To start with, it brings into question the concept of cultural labor. What is our value? I've been paid $0-$500 for a reading. Do these dollar amounts have anything to do with the actual time/energy I put into my work? Insert personal note, I grew up working-class with a Jewish grandpa who would often tell me "My granddaughter the poet? I never heard of that. They gonna pay you for that?" Sometimes yes and sometimes no. It's a schizophrenic economic model (American Capitalism), particularly for those of us not solidly grounded in the academy.

So, will our cultural labor be missed if we go on strike? On an everyday level it is doubtful but on an institutional level we'd make a collective impact. What if we all stop applying for grad school, teaching positions, residencies, grants, prizes, book contests, etc? What if they held the AWP and MLA conferences and nobody showed up? What if we all picked a time to walk out? Nobody paid the registration fees? Nobody went into debt to the MFA industrial complex? Full disclosure -- I have a MFA (art school friends say that when you graduate you become a Mother Fuckin Artist).

For me, a helpful example of creative resistance is the Art Workers Coalition which existed in NYC from 1969-1971, consisting of over 300 artists, critics, writers, and arts administrators. They presented a list of "13 Demands" to the MoMA in 1969, like this one:
"Museum staffs should take positions publicly and use their political influence in matters concerning the welfare of artists, such as rent control for artists' housing, legislation for artists' rights and whatever else may apply specifically to artists in their area. In particular, museums, as central institutions, should be aroused by the crisis threatening man's survival and should make their own demands to the government that ecological problems be put on a par with war and space efforts."
The Art Workers Coalition organized the New York Art Strike in 1970 and multiple protests against the war in Vietnam. They published and distributed posters of the image I've posted up top, from the American massacre of My Lai, as a way to draw connections between the people who collect art and the people who profit from war (often one in the same, then and now).

Turn on, tune in, drop out? Sorry hipsters, that seems to have gotten us nowhere (see 1970s onwards) and I don't think that's what Eileen is calling for either. The resources for our cultural labor are time and energy. How will we use our time and energy to create the changes we want to see in the world? Not just elect some cool dude president or give a fbook thumbs up. Eileen, herself, has run for president and you could too. Why? Why not? Poet Tom Hibbard recently ran for office in Wisconsin. Want more examples of creative resistance by poets? Check out these posts by Brenda Cรกrdenas, Melissa Czarnik, and Roberto Harrison. What else? You could join up with one of the Durutti Skools happening around the country this year.
"Many peope think of the economy as unchangeable, as though economic activity lay outside the realm of human control. But the economy is a set of shared social practices, ideas, and institutions that are created, maintained, and reproduced by people; it has changed rapidly through history and will be further transformed in the future. The direction of such change is at least partially up to us."
-- Teresa Amott and Julie Matthaei, Race, Gender and Work

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