At least since Walt Whitman, the poets of America have made petitioning the country a regular theme. As Robert Creeley wrote: “Give back / what we are… ” As Allen Ginsberg said: America, “I’m addressing you.” Or as Langston Hughes put it differently, “I, too, am America.” Within days of the birth of Occupy Wall Street poets of all different genres and persuasions once again found themselves addressing America. Among the first artists arriving in Zuccotti Park in September, poets gathered in a setting situated between what is arguably the two most significant locations in the collective memory of twenty-first century America: Wall Street and World Trade.
Poetry in New York City has often found itself at the intersection of underground performance culture and major social and political movements, and the months leading up to Occupy Wall Street were no different. In an age of extraordinarily mass media, it is perhaps not since the 1960s that we have seen such a surge of small poetry magazines, organizations, and reading series in the city. These gatherings are oddly some of the few reminders we have of an earlier era in America when citizens would participate in local town hall meetings and voice political concerns.
A group of poets known as the Poetry Collective met for the first poetry reading at Occupy Wall Street on September 30th at Zuccotti Park. But in a movement in which representatives and leaders were suspect, the poets were already thinking creatively about ways in which they could organize horizontally and democratically. At the initial reading, dubbed a “Poetry Assembly,” there was no headliner, no unifying style, no entrance fee, and—it’s fair to say—no ordinary poetry reading. As the poet and activist Ngoma Hill put it, the first Poetry Assembly was “poetry by the people from the people to the people… in the people’s struggle for change.”
What occurred looked less like a poetry reading and more like a democratic Athenian assembly. As an art form, the poetry assembly did not simply demand for democracy. It performed it. Its procedures were simple. Each poet—from unpublished writers to star bards and even laureates—was considered equal to the next. They each placed their name in a lottery and were chosen at random. Secondly, each poet had the prerogative to read before the assembly, and each was given no more than three minutes to read. Finally, there was equal and fair participation by everyone present. The event was co-facilitated by different attendees of the assembly and lines of poetry were repeated back to the poet using the same call-and-response method utilized regularly at Occupy Wall Street. With every line, a somatic gesture co-authorized the speaker and even confronted the poet with his or her own words. All of this meant there was little separation between the performer and the audience—the work of art, at least, depended equally on the actions of both.
Although the poets organized through a Facebook page, their online collaboration remained directed at visible events and tangible resistance in the public space. Poets from around the country began to post their poems online in solidarity, but it was important for each of those poems to be read aloud at Zuccotti Park. One member of the collective began a poetry anthology, but again the group felt it was significant to keep the anthology on-site in the park. Still other members of the collective composed creative slogans for Occupy protests and translated ones from similar movements in Europe. And every Friday night, they would re-assemble in the public space to read poetry.
Events like the Poetry Assembly began cropping up in a variety of art forms from music to theater to puppetry and even quilting. Largely organized online through collaborative and “shared” forums, groups turned social media events into collective performances in the public space. One evening a jazz ensemble could be found in the square and the next a group of women knitting scarves for those sleeping outdoors and facing winter. Contemporary artists’ guilds were forming fast at Occupy Wall Street. People were finding each other. As an e-mail from the Arts and Culture Sub-Committee to the poets put it, “We believe we are at the brink of a new art movement, a new school of thought. To catalyze that, we are creating collectives inside our Arts and Culture to advance our movement and society aesthetically towards a new paradigm. We have already a collective on performance art, one is music, and hopefully you will join us with poetry.” The poets joined.
As Thom Donovan, a poet involved with the collective, put it, “What strikes one immediately upon arriving in the park is a participatory atmosphere… and I think something of this spirit resides in the poetry readings that happen every Friday night.” Another poet and activist involved with the project, Eliot Katz, offered a more historical perspective, suggesting that poetry at Zuccotti Park “seems a powerful extension of the role that poets have played in recent decades—in the civil rights, anti-Vietnam War, and women’s rights movements of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s; in the anti-apartheid movement of the 1980s; and in the more recent movement against the current war in Iraq.”
Despite the rich inheritance from those who came before them, the artists involved with Occupy Wall Street continue to speak of a new aesthetic forming at Zuccotti Park. Artists and poets are collaborating on shared, often anonymous work, and this work frequently focuses on free performances and events in the public space. For their part, the poets have introduced a new, democratic genre of poetic performance. A way of doing poetry that has perhaps not been practiced en masse since the time of those poetry festivals leading up to the Athenian revolution in 507 BCE. As many have written more eloquently, somehow all over the world a different kind of democracy feels natural to the next generation. Could it be that the generation seemingly structured by a new politics is also structured by a new kind of art?