necessity, immensity, and crisis (many edges/seeing things)

There’s a more than critical criticism that’s like seeing things—a gift of having been given to love things and how things look and how and what things see. It’s not that you don’t see crisis—cell blocks made out of the general meadow, and all the luxurious destitution and ge(n)ocidal meanness, the theft of beauty and water, the policing of everyday people and their everyday chances. It’s just that all this always seems so small and contingent against the inescapable backdrop of constant escape—which is the other crisis, that is before the first crisis, calling it into being and question. The ones who stay in that running away study and celebrate its violently ludic authenticity, the historicity that sends us into the old-new division and collection of words and sets, passing on and through, as incessant staging and preparation. This necessity and immensity of the alternative surrounds and aerates the contained, contingent fixity of the standard.

The alternative, and the ones who stand (in) for it, can only be defended in what Mario Pedrosá calls its “experimental exercise,” which happens everyday, and in the recognition of its exercise, which is what I think Marx refers to when he speaks, in “Communism and Private Property,” of the everyday engagement in criticism that is an essential part of a communist way of life, and which sometimes he more than critically enacts when he engages in critique, in the elaboration of a general theory of crisis, and in the urgent address of specific instances of crisis. Questions concerning the theory and actuality of crisis are no less urgent now because crisis is always with us. Seeing things doesn’t hide the crisis that critique discloses; rather, it locates it more precisely, within a general tendency for upheaval that it constitutes. Seeing things, the alternative seeing of things, the seen and seeing alternative, which a certain deployment of crisis is meant to police, is the crisis of genuine disclosure and generative disruption.

The crisis of deprivation on a global scale is a function of policing that responds to a global ecologic of generation that regulative power brutally (mis)understands as a crisis of law. This is to say that crisis is not only a function of policing but that it has a policing function; it is also to say that crisis is ongoing, generative resistance to the regulation, the policing, that it generates. This poor description of the interplay of policing and crisis is trying reverently to disclose a reversal that already animates Policing the Crisis, the classic attendance of Stuart Hall, Chas Critcher, Tony Jefferson, John Clarke and Brian Roberts to the range and force of the generative social and aesthetic upheaval of the alternative in England since World War II. Hall and his fellows analyze the ideological manufacture of crisis as a mode of interpretive regulation. The racialization of already extant criminal activity allows its epidermalized “novelty” to be interpreted as crisis. But the criminalization of that activity, in its relation to the normalization of modes of propriation whose brutality and scale dwarf any and every instance of “mugging,” is the real problem because, in the end, it was never about this or that instance or collection of instances of law breaking; it was, rather, about the social self-defense of jurisgenerative capacity of which mugging can be said to be a particular manifestation, noteworthy not because of its brutality or venality or degeneracy but only because its enactment of self-defense through (re)propriative acts are susceptible to a condition in which they reinforce the brutal axioms of ownership and exception.

Criticism, the capacity to see things in their branching and unfolding and generative differentiation, attends to generation while critique, as Marx deploys it, attends to the regulation and policing of generation and while degenerate critique, which seems to be deployed today almost everywhere in the normal human sciences, is driven by its own implicit claims of national identity or political subjectivity that have themselves been made subject to a force, and been understood by way of a logic, of degeneration implying a mystery of loss and of what was lost. Here’s where the neoliberal lament regarding “the crisis of democracy” (which was, according to Samuel Huntington and his fellows, a function of there being too much democracy) can be understood as the animating trace of certain folks, claiming to be on the left, whose lament of the current loss of “our democracy” is driven by nostalgic fantasies of a democracy that supposedly was held within the structure of, rather than resistance to, American exclusion. It’s not coincidence that this convenient repression of American exclusion is usually accompanied by an assertion of American exception which either takes the form of an invocation of “our” best intentions or, more pragmatically, as the assertion of a right to do just about anything in the name of national defense, whose complete detachment from imperial aggression is sanctioned by the serial invocation of crisis.

When people respond to the suppression of the alternative—and Hall and his fellows brilliantly illuminate how state interpretation of the alternative as crisis is a fundamental element of that suppression—the word riot is deployed in order to augment that suppression; but when suppression of the alternative is more (im)properly understood as a response to the alternative it also becomes possible to understand that with regard to the insistent previousness of the alternative it is more accurate to say, over Sly Stone’s growl or Joe Strummer’s sneer, that there is, and already has been, a riot going on. This is about the anoriginary force of tumultuous derangement, a generative sociopoesis given in and as everyday sensuality. To rise to the defense of this sacred, ordinary, generative violence—to protect it from the ongoing murder—is often to risk a kind of appropriation of the very propriative force one seeks to combat with an otherwise animating fugitivity. Such uprising can take the form of burnin’ and lootin’ but, even more easily, such appropriation can take the form of a critical account of the justificatory causes of burnin’ and lootin’. Meanwhile, what always remains or, more precisely, what must be understood as the irreducible remainder that animates such physical acts as well as such critical accounts, are everyday and everynight things. It’s not about the looting of loot or the assault of persons who take shape as shops and wares, or about the insurgents’ loss of or exclusion from citizenship or belonging that supposedly makes the former inevitable; it is, rather, all about insurgence as the performative declaration of what we are and what we have and what we give. Put another way, the seemingly infinite production of crisis finds its limit in the infinite rehearsal of generative capacity, in the open field of a generative grammar, in the fecundity of a range of generative principles, all of which reveal the sclerotic constraints that are fostered by an empiricist attitude whose structuring force in the determination of Anglo-American intellectual identity can be traced back to a certain valorization of the grasp, and the philosophical nomination of the possessive individual to the office of manager of the enclosure, by way of the bloody fingerprints of a transcendental subject who is unable or unwilling to see things but who can neither let things go nor pass things on.

The riot that’s goin’ on is a party for self-defense. The question concerning its causes, its sources, shouldn’t be left to liberal or neoliberal pundits and prime ministers, even when their more or less racist and ageist elitism leads them to say, with a kind of ignorant and imprecise accuracy, that the causes are cultural. What they don’t mean is that culture is the imprecise word we give to regenerative resources of insurgent social life. There’s another way of living that exhausts imposed arrangements. It’s where and how people fight. When seemingly random and unorganized acts of self-defense erupt against the violence of the state and capital, the only important question is how to maintain their connection to the social field they are meant to defend. This is a question concerning the corrosive, reconstructive force of certain practices that Michael Herzfeld thinks of in terms of “cultural intimacy—the recognition of those aspects of a cultural identity that are considered a source of external embarrassment but that nevertheless provide insiders with their assurance of common sociality, the familiarity with the bases of power that may at one moment assure the disenfranchised a degree of creative irreverence and at the next moment reinforce the effectiveness of intimidation.” But what if we begin to consider, against the grain and over the edge of whatever combination of the critique of authenticity and the appeal to upright, paralytic sovereign recitations of the citizen consumer, that the social poetics Herzfeld is after is an undercommon intellectual project that begins to emerge precisely when the distinction between insiders and outsiders breaks down, when a certain kind of communal claim is made in a certain kind of walking down certain city streets, and when that claim is given in and as an active disruption of the nation-state, in and as a kind of masque in which the very habits of the damned are taken on and, thereby, altered in their free, constant and already given alteration. Meanwhile, we confront the emergence of new black acts—of the kind E. P. Thompson describes in Whigs and Hunters—now outlawing autonomous cybersocial organization for self-defense emerge under the self-regulating cover of the ones who internalize the embarrassment they refuse, the generativity non-citizens claim.

The notion that crisis lies in the ever more brutal interdiction of our capacity to represent or be represented by the normal is as seductive, in its way, as the notion that such interdiction is the necessary response to our incapacity for such representation. Their joint power is held in the fact that whether abnormality is a function of external imposition or of internal malady it can only be understood as pathological. Such power is put in its accidental place, however, by the ones who see, who imaginatively misunderstand, the crisis as our constant disruption of the normal, whose honor is given in and protected by its representations, with the ante-representational generativity that it spurns and craves. This is the crisis that is always with us; this is the crisis that must be policed not just by the lethal physical brutality of the state and capital but also by the equally deadly production of a discourse that serially asserts that the crisis that has befallen us must overwhelm the crisis that we are; that crisis follows rather than prompts our incorporative exclusion.

There’s a connection between poetry and violence that Amiri Baraka, among others, began to explore by way of these terms and which now needs to be re-explored in the full awareness that Baraka’s movement extended, rather than disavowed, that antinomian opening of the field that can be traced back through Charles Olson and Sun Ra, Emily Dickinson and Harriet Jacobs, Anne Hutchinson and Tituba, and beyond. The poetics of the open field, especially when performed in the narrow cell, was always tied to the sociopoetics of riot, of generative differentiation as a kind of self-care, of expropriative disruption as a kind of self-defense, of seeing things as a performed social theory of mind. Baraka took it out, and sometimes tried to take it home, which drove it through him and even further out, in the name of an enformant poetics, spreading the news and the new in the giving and taking of form, as lemons, and people, piled on steps, disarrayed inappropriately against every propriative and counter-propriative intention that claims to have put them there. We still enact, because we desire and cannot live without, the immense poetry of war, by which Wallace Stevens meant and didn’t mean a poetics of social pregnancy, the international, anti-national embarrassment of seeing things and making things. The poetics of the alternative is funereal and venereal, surviving in denotative self-defense and the righteous distortions it enacts in rough advent. There’s a This is England poetics, a Luv ‘n Haight poetics, miving without moving in and against the brutal smallness of imposed needs and nationalized histories with the kind of out lyricism that only comes from being constrained to be somewhere else, that will have already come from the other side to keep on going, that had already come with those of us who are the other things we see.



Silent Salute of Poetry

[excerpt] Silent Salute of Poetry [excerpt]

Translated by Koichiro Yamauchi and Steve Redford

March 11th. Shinchi Station. Its bare face was attacked by a tsunami.

Shinchi Station. Like other stations, it has carried lives, connected hearts, spun the time.

April 24th. The view toward Soma City is perfectly clear.  Have we seen such a blue sky since the quake? Since then, no.

Blue sky, have you forgotten all about the quake?

What lies deep in the blue sky?  The bottom of the warm ocean? The Blue brothers. The sky and ocean.

What grave face did the station put on to greet our lives? What gentle look did it give us when it guaranteed our departures and returns? What solemn expression did it have when it saw off the beginning and met the ending of each day? The station’s name was Shinchi Station.

Running like the wind across the springtime countryside and mountain fields. Because the plants, the flowers are sprouting, budding, the thin tips of twigs are inviting the season.  Feeling the breathing of storm, light, and clouds. Beethoven’s 9th Symphony is resounding. I’m a speeding conductor.

What’s a silent salute?  What’s a silent salute of poetry? Whizzing over the mountain fields, over the countryside, across the bottom of the blue sky, my mind turns furiously. What’s the meaning of a silent salute? What does it mean for poetry to salute silently? The storm, the light and the clouds. A break in the clouds. A deer’s cry.

What does the bridge try to connect from this shore to that shore?  What does the bridge try to convey from this shore to that shore? What does the bridge try to bring from that shore to this shore? Crossing a bridge, crossing a bridge…

Chasing the light. Chasing the wolf-shaped light. Chasing the wind-shaped light. Chasing the road-shaped light.  Chasing the light shaped like you. The light shaped like the heart is dazzling. Chasing the light shaped like paddies and fields. Chasing the world-shaped light. Embracing (in my arms) the prayer-shaped light.  The spring blue sky.

Nobody’s here, an attendant-less platform. A nobody’s-here, attendant-less platform. Shinchi Station, a nobody’s-here, attendant-less platform.

The railroad track, ignoring the real rail, is bent. Where does it lead? Where does it return? The bent track is seeking an entirely different destination.

On an attendant-less platform, the silhouette of no man. Everyone stares at a destination. Going to Sendai? Iwaki? Everyone stares at a destination. All destinations are entirely different.

The track is winding around the station. Around the station, the track is winding. It’s the first time I’ve seen the track winding around the station.  A first-time spectacle. A white dragon.

A god, embodied in a train, passed by? A devil, embodied in a train, passed by?  The present, feverish moment passed by?  The destination of a lost track, the destination of a lost train, the destination of a lost wind. The wind blows fiercely.

The platform I never got off at.  Standing there now, I realized one thing. Stepping down, the wind in my face, the sound of the waves in my ears, I realized…

A tsunami has come.

A Blue Note record was on the platform at Shinchi Station. How many times was this Jazz record played, spun? How many times did you spin it, play it?

A tilting utility pole is saluting silently.

Did the station quit as a station? The station did quit as a station. The station, too, repents. The station, too, is full of regret. The station, too, has lost itself.

An electric fan has fallen over.  The wind is gone. A silent salute.

Good night.

the Side Effect

When he got home later that night he poured himself another drink, sat down at his kitchen table, and began to do what he called working on his writing. What he wanted to write was a description of the project that he had done in the small room. How each day he had held the pose of a person who was torturing someone or who was being tortured by someone. His source for each pose had been a series of photographs that had been found on the internet, photographs taken in a military prison called “The Hard Site.” As he reenacted the poses he had not distinguished between who tortured and who was tortured. He had let both shape his body. What he had wanted to write was about his decision to do this project, to put his body into the position of particular others, that indexical other without whom no one can be. About his attempt to think of his life as part of a series of complex, passionate, antagonistic, and necessary set of relations to others who act and are acted upon. He was attempting to think about how his passivity contributed to all this, even when doing nothing might have seemed the opposite of contributing. And also about his reservations around this project, this different kind of contribution, about its ineffectiveness. About the limits of art done in isolation. About the limits of art.

But as he typed he became more and more aware of how every time he leaked a sentence out of his body it contained not just his thoughts and ideas and attempts at documentation and description, but also the residue of failure, of a mortifying and paralyzing shame. He was trying to describe something that might be artful, might have something to say about the political moment, but yet could live safely in a room loaned out to him by an arts organization dedicated to the parsing our of aesthetic experiences for a nominal cover charge, but it kept going wrong. It was as if he was no longer free to imagine anything in which he did not also imagine the torture done without his consent but in his name and with his passive support.

Still, he soldiered on though the night, doing what he thought was working on his writing, swirling the ice cubes in his drink, swabbing his leaking blisters with pieces of toilet paper, going to the bathroom to shit or get more toilet paper or insert a homeopathic suppository. He listened as in the distance the day’s first train rumbled along the raised subway line two blocks over. He heard a whistle blow. He raised himself up from the table, evenly balanced on his legs, torso bent at the waist, so that his hands rested on his knees, his head bent at the neck and lifted, feeling a tingling in his face. He could hear the noise his body was making, standing bent over perfectly still, not moving, not even as the room became light.

But the noise his body was making was also not only his body. At first he thought he was hearing things. But then he heard from the basement the whizzing burr of hard-drive fans and diesel engines running at high volume, intermixed with the occasional crisp jangling of metal keys and it was too loud and too rhythmic to ignore. He lurched to the couch and one by one dragged each cushion and pillow and blanket and dog bed and throw rug and soft sculpture and tossed them down the stairs and into the basement. Then he stage-dived down the stairs, landing in the midst of a giant ruckus.

There was a nervous click-clicking noise that jittered in and out of a thick soup of hissing and booming, bomb-runs of pounding, deep-earth bass, punctuated by what sounded like clapping or the slapping of skin. There were angry and ecstatic guitar solos, trap drums playing taps, brass trumpets playing reveille. Musicians kept appearing and joining in, some blowing their horns from a great distance, others using joysticks or satellite communication systems to control their computers and samplers and sound processors and circuit-bent video game consoles. DJs spun and scratched the dented hubcaps of half-exploded armed personnel carriers, the hillbilly armor attached to sprawling networks of scrapped wiring and repurposed military hardware, the improvised exclamatory devices screeching into the general din and frenzy.

In the wings, to the extent that there could be said to be wings to a basement, there suddenly were what seemed like tens of thousands of extras. Everyone had a costume, or rather were themselves, wearing what they wear, with combat boots, dog tags, cargo pants, tight or loose-fitting dresses, tasteful work shoes, hipster jackets, and all the variations that could be imagined among such a throng. They began running in from the sides in circles, at the same time thrusting their hips and making airborne chest-to-chest collisions and air-stroking their cocks. They would at moments form a chorus line that snaked through the basement and with interlocked arms they kicked to the music, stopping now and then to give each other high-fives and thumbs-ups and to simulate a series of heretofore classified but since wikileaked enhanced interrogation techniques. There was slapping, singing, sweating, smiling. Kicking, whooping, twisting, posing. All with or without consent, with or without blushing, timed to the insistent beat of the band.

At first, he just sat there befuddled. He did not ask if what was happening was real or if it was the product of parasites and alcohol and sodium channel inhibitors and adrenal glands of animals and gin and downloaded photographs and depressing statistics all mixing up in his stomach and then into his brain. He just sat there, trying to relax and breathe into the soft site he’d made with the pillows and the cushions. But soon it was as if the woven and laminated fibers in his shoulders and back would not let him merely sit and watch, but instead thrust him up and out of his pose and into the dancing fray, as if this might become some kind of remedy for all the leaking, the tightening, the freezing of muscles and mind.

So his body leaped up and joined in an elaborate line dance where they thrust their elbows out and spun their fists around in front of their breastplates, then thrust their thumbs back over their shoulders with a forward and back motion, each in their own disjointed time and imprecision. Some were now lurching around in combat-booted counterpoint to the music, as if experimenting with the different way the shoulders and the ass jut in or out when the hands are cuffed in front or in back, the legs trailing behind. First their shoulders caved forward and then their shoulders pulled back, their chest caved in between each spasm of the shoulder as they moved, again and again. Others ran in place, like cartoon characters, interrupting this every few seconds by making sudden contractions of the psoas, reaching down to slap the floor with their hands, then bouncing back up into running across the stage, all the while singing in a low monotone:

Where’dya put the body
Where’dya put the body body
Where’dya put the put the body body baby
Where’dya put the body body
Where’dya where’dya put the body
Where’dya where’dya put the put the put the body baby

Except it wasn’t a stage, but a basement. Except it wasn’t a basement, but a rehearsal space lent to him by the small nonprofit arts organization. Not a rehearsal space, but an interrogation room. Not an interrogation room, but a soundstage for filmed re-enactments. Not a soundstage but a fake Baghdadi neighborhood staged for counter-insurgency training exercises. Not a fake neighborhood but an intersection in the Financial District on the night of March 23, 2003. Not an intersection but the holding cell funded by the Department of Homeland Security for counter-terrorist efforts, holding 2,438 protestors in a nearby warehouse rented for this very purpose. Not a warehouse-turned-holding cell but a warehouse-turned-club where the after-party takes place. Not an after-party but an opening at a well-funded art museum. Not an opening but a fundraiser for the small nonprofit arts organization. Not a fundraiser but an academic conference on politics and aesthetics. Not a conference but a boardroom meeting on tax-deductible philanthropic donations to nonprofit arts organizations. Not a boardroom but a bedroom, after an argument between lovers. Not a bedroom but a bunker, dug into the cold, cold ground. Not a bunker but a book, each line redacted except for the numbers. Not a book, but the fire made from its burning pages.

Except the fire was painted on an enormous screen, propped across the back horizon, so that the set gave off an ambience that is part desert war-scape and part reality TV game show, with all kinds of online ballot measures available for viewer participation for those who could face the prospect of clicking the icon to vote combatants off the show. There were blips of heat on the screen that could be double-clicked, sending flares up into the night sky so that the audience could better see the action, except there’s no audience, since all this is happening now and everyone’s knee-deep in it, not just watching but embedded participants. Even tapping his feet to the catchy rhythms was participation. Even rolling his eyes to the absurdity of it all was participation. Even pressing a piece of toilet paper against his cheek to collect the fluid leaking from his face was participation, since now the giant toilet paper roll, filled with all the fluid and all that shits out of all of us, was unrolling, unfurling, and scrolling across the bottom of the screen, a real-time news ticker for all who will have tuned in to follow the lyrics and sing along with the bouncing bomb:

Didya put the body in the bag
Didya put the body in the bag bag
Didya put the body in the body bag baby
Didya put the body in the body bag bag didya
Didya put the put the body body in the bag bag
Didya put the body in the bag baby didya didya

The musicians were now making sounds like Dopplerized armored vehicles speeding by a riot at a heavy metal concert, with yelling and chants and whistling and catcalls, in what seemed like a hundredfold languages, a riotous wash of voices shouting in protest or singing on an assembly line or marching, running, breaking glass, as there then commenced lifting and unfolding and crease-fingering, the sniffing of pits and pockets, checking for ticks and leakages, floor-rashes and knee-bruising, swabbing with toilet paper and rubbing with ice, wiping clean and hiding the hurt, before gearing up again to climb the twelve foot high and three foot thick reinforced concrete Bremer walls that surrounded the basement, smiling for the closed-circuit security cameras scanning the theater of operations in order to document and file all that’s done in our name, and then dancing and swinging their arms, some vertically and some horizontally, as if signaling to an invisible fleet of stealth helicopters where to land.

It was a big production, with a budget of $1,229,735,801,934.00. Weekend reservists repelled from the copters hovering above as others made the raise the roof position to receive and pass along any number of bodies leaping and falling from above, in what the contract calls the performance of several air transportations, as their diamond dog tags glistened in the pulsing strobe lights, which were meant to induce sleep-deprivation, bewilderment, and increased motivations for compliance. And so they bent and leaned and leapt and fell into the rifle-hot flesh of the pillowed and cushioned and moldy drywalled mosh pit, lifting others onto the back and swaying with them, giving over weight and impulse upon impact, all with or without groans or eye-rolling.

Meanwhile, he had piled the saw horses into a pyramid and then climbed up into the rope support network and squatted down, balancing on the front of his feet, his head forward and down, spine straight and aligned, right arm pulled back, and from this position could see more and more people arriving and using their assault rifles or night-scope sniper rifles or prosthetic arms and legs or their helmets or combat boots and frantically breaking up the concrete basement floor and digging into the ground, singing, we’re gonna find the poison, we’re gonna find the poison, while others lined up, each pushing a mop, the right hand on top of the left, both hands on the handle, arms bent at a 90 degree angle, scrubbing vigorously back and forth, shoulders hunched, bent at the waist just enough to put pressure on the mop heads to clean up the evidence leaking from his face, singing:

Sop it up, mop it up, soak it in your cloth
Never burn your mouth on another man’s broth

Mop it up, sop it up, classify, redact
Swab it up, zip it up, keep it all ice-packed

Then, finally, if there can be said to be a finality to any of this, there were approximately 919,967 performers lined up in a seemingly endless chorus line facing inward at mad angles, instruments and weapons and tools dropped to the ground, arms linked or amputated stumps pressed up against one another, all singing in a spooky half-whisper, half-hum, we’re gonna find the poison, we’re gonna find the poison. Sweat dripped down their backs and faces and they cast their gaze around the gathered thousands, breathing and looking, breathing and looking.

Pausing, breathing, sweating, looking. The helicopter sounds fading into the sounds of the world outside, if there can be said to be an outside, sounds of cars, trucks, convoys, people, chatter.

And as the music began to swell again, as if into a final number to end all final numbers, they all walked two steps forward and then one back, then two steps forward and one back again. Two forward, pause, one back, two forward, pause, one back.

They stutter-stepped and swayed towards and away from one another, moving forward and then rocking back, stopping and starting, aligned and misaligned in their breathing and their movements, singing softly:

Two steps forward, one step back
Pulled by desire and by fear held back
Two steps forward, one step back
Pulled by connection, by ambivalence back

Two steps forward, one back, pushed by righteous anger and pushed back by the fear of failure.

Two steps forward, one back, compelled by need and held back by the fear of commitment. Two steps forward, one back, attracted to the pack and repulsed by its unpredictable sloppiness.

Pausing, breathing, hands into fists. Rocking, breathing, swaying, looking. Silent laughing or teeth grinding or glowing inner radiance or the biting of the inside of the lower lip.

Two steps forward, one back.

He could hear his heart beating. He could hear everyone’s heart.

Two steps forward, feeling the struggle-force well up within, then one step back to get ready.

We are always getting ready. But we keep moving slowly in this manner, even if it takes us the entire night to get wherever we’re going, or a day and a night, or a week or month or year or lifetime.

He’s walking forward, two steps towards the center, one back, and you are walking forward, swaying forward and back in the same manner, rocking back and then forward again, and all the thousands of singers, dancers, performers, musicians, artists, soldiers, and walking dead, arms locked and high kicking to the boom-boom bap, tap-tap-tap, two steps forward, one step back.

We’re all moving, getting ready but moving all the same, towards the messy entanglement that awaits us when we are ready to finally dive in.

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.