From Lafayette to Tahrir Square

It is difficult

to get the news from poems

yet men die miserably every day

for lack

of what is found there.

William Carlos Williams, Asphodel, That Greeny Flower>


I wanted to stay on Pennsylvania Avenue. I wanted that proximity. My first night in DC, I walked the three blocks from my hotel to the White House and stood outside. Everything glowed. I was surprised that I could walk all the way up to the fence. That I could loiter. Behind me there were protestors. I wondered if there were always protestors. Tonight, February 2, 2011,  it was a protest in support of Egypt. There were police on horseback standing behind the protestors. It was the White House, me, the protestors, and then the police. The order surprised me.

I spent much of the night watching the news. I don’t have a television at home, but put me in a hotel room and I’ll go wild for it. Everything’s different on television. People look different. Products look different. And the news is a show. I tried to find the local news to hear about the protest a few blocks away, but maybe there isn’t local news in DC. Maybe national news is local news. International news is local news. So I watched CNN, I watched the protests in Egypt. I listened to people chanting and gathering and promising to stay.

I spent most of the next day at the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) Conference. I went through the bookfair, attended some panels, caught up with friends. It was a different world. There was no Egypt here. I wondered if some of the writers staying in the hotel were upstairs in their rooms, watching the news. I would ask people, “Did you see the news today?” As if the news is something to be seen, not read, not heard. The whole day went by without reference to the way the world was changing. There were readings and parties that night, but I went back to my hotel. To my secret viewing station.

The next day was more of the same. Panels, readings, books. The world of the conference. One of the things I love about working with writers is that the conversations usually make sense to me. In a previous world, I worked with accountants. Also with sales people. Lovely people. But the conversations didn’t make as much sense. And here I was amongst my colleagues. Not having conversations.

Can we really get the news from poetry? Can we really affect change? Be unacknowledged legislators? It didn’t seem like it. It seemed like we were distracted. Self-involved. I went out for dinner. At the table next to me was a group of UNICEF staff. High level staff. I ate my kofta and learned about sewerage treatment and open defecation rates. Someone even pulled out a laptop and showed a series of slides. This wasn’t a business meeting. These were colleagues talking about their work. They weren’t talking about Egypt either. It made me feel better.

I still needed the news, and it seemed I wasn’t going to get it through poetry or UNICEF. So back to the television. I was sitting on the bed, going through the schedule for the next day.


Line breaks.

In the news.

Anderson Cooper was speaking in line breaks.



Fear has been defeated, they’ll tell you. There’s no turning back.


Dug up rocks, bandaged bodies.


They speak about freedom and fairness and justice.


Fear has been defeated. There’s no turning back.


It wasn’t announced as a poem. On screen there was a photo collage of images from the last eleven days. Bloodied faces. Bloodied flags.

Peacefully protesting. Their lives on the line.

A man holding a rock with his peace-sign fingers, smiling.

This was the news. He was telling us the news in a poem. He broke form. Found a new way to communicate. Or reverted to an old way. This was the news. This was what I’d been waiting for. For the form to break. For us to become uncontained. We didn’t manage it in the safety of the conference. But Anderson Cooper managed it in Cairo. And CNN news directors managed it too.

How do you express the extraordinary using the ordinary? That’s one of the challenges of poetry. To unstrange the strange. To strange the unstrange. On February 4, 10:57pm, I understood the news a little better. I listened more carefully. I was reminded that poetry is not a luxury. That it is necessary. That it is the way we speak when we are most endangered.

Ryoichi Wago’s Questionnaire

A Response to Floor

Translated by Koichiro Yamauchi and Steve Redford

1. When is the aesthetic necessary, either for the actor or the environment in which this aesthetic practice occurs? Why is a specific practice necessary?

To put the magma of difficult-to-express things and concepts into a form, in order to bring that form into existence, the compelling force that a certain practice embodies is necessary.  This is not a practice that engages that which has become expressible.  The question is how we can try to change invisible lava in a state of pre-expression into visible rocks.  For the expressionist, I believe, there is an aesthetic absolute temperature at which the reaction occurs.

2. Given the endless production of exploitative, instrumental, and profitable “needs,” how can aesthetic practice serve as a place, ground, or set of relations in which necessities are formed in response to these unbearable productions of “needs”?

My poetry writing was triggered by an experience I had seeing an avant-garde theatrical company perform inside a tent.  They put up a tent in a vacant lot in my town, called in the audience, and, at a fast tempo, vigorously spit out their poetic lines. . . . When the background set came down at the end of their performance, the town I’d seen every day of my life looked like a completely different world.  Day after day, putting together an ensemble—no matter how big or small—of space, ground, and relationship. Then, in some fashion, destroying it oneself. . . . After all the ebb and flow of generation and ruin, the counter-picture of an “exploitative, instrumental, profitable” society will, no question, be projected.  Therefore, the “place, ground, or set of relations” will always be—far more than a pursuit of thorough realism—an ensemble full of social ironies.

3. If necessity is the mother of invention, does beauty’s parentage also involve immensity? Is the relationship (confluence, tension, disparity) between necessity and immensity a generating force for art today?

Given the advancement of the internet and other technologies, we now live in an era when every one of us has the power to send out messages. The increase in and diversity of technological “applications” surely provide us with increased possibilities; however, they inevitably induce us to dismiss the importance of “beauty’s parentage,” and to adapt to a flat homogeneity=identity that discourages readers from arousing their own awareness.  There may be no difference between eras in regard to this, but I think that, if we want to produce art for our time, we need an imagination that enables us to unite beauty’s important origin with facts past and present, and to resist the intensely informationized time-flow.

4. How can the aesthetic generate, maintain, or put in tension a plurality of necessities? What place does necessity take within the immensity of the multiple? Is incommensurability a necessity today?

I think there is a power that naturally arises from the depths of a text that can rock an existing aesthetic—and, at times, destroy it.

5. When is difficulty a necessary experience or form of resistance? What kinds of resistance can the aesthetic offer within the immensity of current crises?

Unleashing the unfathomed, absolute power of beauty, one which can neither be shaken nor denied, naturally becomes an act to oppose the conventions of an “exploitative, instrumental, and profitable” society.

6. How does art elaborate the necessity of public life, resources, and spaces? When the commons have become constricted, instrumentalized, or obliterated, can aesthetic practices recover or define some kind of common potential?

If the artist devotes himself to his art with a certain ferocity, if he spends body and soul for his art, he will want to leave proof that he has lived in this world. The desire to survive history and time, to become the next-door neighbor to death, heightens the potential of a living person.

7. What is the role of aesthetic practice in affecting the real needs and suffering of others which exceed our existing frameworks for identity, political formation, social relation, etc.? Another way of asking this: how does necessity respond to the immensity of history, truth, and the intractable demands of the other?

Every communication inevitably possesses both sharable and unsharable propositions.  That’s why we need to turn our detection needles to both categories; otherwise, we cannot carry out a genuinely aesthetic practice. In regard to my own writing of poetry, I think it is the act of drawing out the blood of words with the very tip of a double-edge.

8. If aesthetic practices bear within themselves, and create, notions of history, how can these histories be understood as divergent immensities / necessities?

If, as the Japanese dictum “On-koh-chi-shin”* suggests, it’s always good to take lessons from the past, if we can assume that an aesthetic practice exists within a particular historical perspective, then the essential relationship between time and beauty will certainly give us a sensitivity that allows us to go beyond the mere potential to pursue a broad array of future avenues.

*Literally, “warm-old-knowledge-new.”