Thursday, 4 July 2013

Michael Tencer: Critical Convocation (6 June 2013)

Danny Hayward's suggestion for a process of association & small group affiliation in the eighth point of his conference paper seems so basic as to hopefully be over-obvious to some of you by now, yet it's a sign of our austere, miserabilist, cubicle-infested times that radical poets & activists need to gather in the formality of a conference setting to seriously even advance that possibility. In the isolation of the individual career the poet's task is pathetically circumscribed, reduced to competitive word slinging & grading for congratulatory micro-readership; the same can be said for a gathering of such careers, based upon elective affinities, which is insufficiently rigorous in its inward & outward critical practice. The various poetic scenes do not form or hold together here by commitment to jointly organised purpose & visionary poesis, but are rather divided & marketed into 'merciless and mercenary gang[s] of cold-blooded slaves and assassins, called, in the ordinary prostitution of language, friends'; & in this moment as we've lately been witness to the keeling wreckage of the largest socialist organisation in the UK, we can also recognise some present-day poetic cliques drowning in personal, moral & economic compromise.

It's a good sign that there's a conference on militant poetics raising explicitly non-rhetorical questions, & a good starting point for poets to at least think thru the implications of a shared poetic militancy. But what are the forms this ought to take to make any fucking difference at all, to effect a reversal in the seemingly endless parade of abhorrences & loss of common rights? You know as well as I do that the precedents for such groupings are so distant today as to force an overly self-conscious appraisal upon an otherwise organic development of autonomous activism. (Just think of how absurd it feels to utter the compound 'militant poet'). There are grouplets of formidable militants already functionally organised today -- just of the few which demand to be mentioned in this context as practical models or theoretical allies I'd bring up the International Socialist Network & the Association of Musical Marxists, both disappointingly missing from this conference's roster -- but aside from these extremely encouraging developments that NOBODY READING THIS BELONGS TO, there are hardly any participants in this conference old enough to have directly experienced such a grouping as we agree is urgently needed right now, -- tho I think we'd also agree there are elements of particular groupings some conference participants at one time belonged to which no doubt deserve to be shared & built upon.

In the interest of clarity, & attempting to avoid the kind of extensive reference material which can hamper or muddy the immediate discussion, I'd like to critique some of what has been said, & propose some of the specific elements I think we can learn from the past which could be generalised & expanded upon in our current work together.

1. Underground newspapers are better than 'journals'; DIY fanzines are better than blogs (tho blogs allow wider distribution of timely information, except of course under internet 'blackouts'). The platform to create right now is the one you want to stumble onto accidentally & ecstatically & co-create on impact, it is not the one that you're assigned to (or, yeh, assign). This isn't some market research tool, this is taking seriously immediate subjective satisfaction as a necessary beginning on social change. Liberation is never boring, & you don't have to sacrifice your sense of pleasure to appeal to anyone's education, taste or posterity.

1b. Political newspapers began to die when they ceased to feature COMIX. The anarchists, in creativity, are beating the living shit out of marxists today because they're the only radicals putting on paper their sense of a living liberation. You know this every time you pick up another propaganda rag at a rally & yet again find yourself sifting thru the same pat answers for the ostensible good of the uninitiated prior to lining your birdcage with it or pawning it off on some other schlub: We can do better by simply talking. Say what you will about lifestyle anarchism, the active anarchist groups today are producing a means of expression appropriate to their ideas, & no matter how many Kenny Goldsmiths hatch from the scanner/OCR, expression remains the prima materia of militant poetics.

2. you HAVE TO MIX outside your scene, HAVE TO, full stop. this is OBVIOUS. You cannot make in 2013 a revolution of predominantly university-educated white guys. Important steps are being taken in finally INTRODUCING poets of black liberation, of feminist & LGBTQ  & working class militancy to the 101, & relearning the history of the medium thru them -- but history, while NEEDFUL, is never enough, it must be lived right now or you've got yourself a corpse in your mouth. The corpse may indeed be yours. You already know this; David Grundy's paper usefully examined this. Let's do something about it.

2b. International organised resistance is the only effective means of combatting an international system of unfreedom. Exclusively local organisation is no longer a sufficient strategy for even exclusively local change. With the resurrection of the EDL & a concomitant rise in Little Englander values among all the shades of Parliament, we cannot afford to collaborate with, or produce & distribute to, exclusively British poets & activists. It seems like an obvious point, but the conference was almost entirely British. It's something to think about & easily correct.

2c. Contrary to Justin Katko's proposal, developing an 'emergent code-writing, particularly useful for speaking in a language that the enemy cannot understand', would not constitute a helpful development for the purposes of political change. First, as already mentioned, most poets are already only reaching other poets today: Poetry is already code. Revolutionary organisation necessarily entails working with people who aren't already militants among us, or we will fail miserably to alter anything beyond our self-image. Particularly when it comes to illegal or violent forms of protest, an exclusionary militant minority is the Leftwing's kiss of death: let us recall the Angry Brigade or Earth Liberation Front or Red Army Faction or any cute bunch of urban guerillas who succeed in 'speaking for' the masses as they valiantly alienate themselves, speeding up the process of division among prevailing mass movements & laying out the red carpet for state paramilitary force reaction. Rather than code-writing, in fact, successful militant actions thruout radical history have entailed the use of multiform & inclusive languages among all the various constituents. Consider, for instance, the Wobbly-organised Lawrence Textile Strike 101 years ago, in which 25 different languages were spoken among the factory workers: interpreters were organised for every language spoken, allowing workers from all backgrounds decisionmaking agency. This is a markedly different approach from that of a code-language, & unlike a group of poets talking secret words to each other, can actually work in facilitating sociopolitical change.

3a. I think the particular questions about demonstration tactics, e.g. What can we do with slogans, what about pranks, etc., are tangential concerns for the present time, meaningfully developed as they are only collectively & contingent to unfolding events. The question of slogans, tho recurrent thruout the conference, is truly a minor one: after all, does anyone really believe that a slogan, rather than a committed collective built upon past achievements & struggles, tips the scale towards winning political gain? Moreover, why should poets be any better at creating slogans than any other protesters?

3b. Also, to those who advocate putting aside our poetry in favour of 'pure' activism: why not simply join activist & political organisations already formed rather than start from scratch with a mangy bunch of poets in tow?

4. Keston Sutherland is Wrong: for attempting to set down an esthetic programme of social realism, despite his expansive radical humanist definition of that otherwise insipid genre & despite being correct about how useful such a 'revolutionary subjective universality' in poetics would be. The greatest strength of poets is their ability to take in the whole world & to process it in absolutely divergent valid ways. Poetry is the quintessential art of exception -- you're not doing poetry or politics any favours by declaring what we poets 'need' to, 'must', do poetically. Even as I may agree with the values of poets who achieve the criteria which Keston Sutherland lays out, -- if I recognise the potential gains to be made from a poetry fully cognisant of the range of liberatory desires as well as slights & limitations, steadily sensitive to internal & external pressures upon the subject as well as the effect & character of any change or stasis over time, -- I disagree that it would be effective for a poetic organisation to develop as the arbiter of any poetic mode. As a previous manifesto on the dialectical interplay between politics & esthetics once put it: 'Our aims: The independence of art -- for the revolution. The revolution -- for the complete liberation of art!'

5. I think that imagining the miserable futures we can deduce from present miseries is not a useful or even interesting activity. In many ways, learning & discussing historical precedents of resistance & rebellion, & comparing these precedents with the present moment, creates a more meaningful vision of the future (if such a vision is needed at all -- some might be more interested in discussing this history as uncovering a more meaningful vision of the present). Certain important militant poetic precedents have already been discussed at the conference & its internet environs, for instance, the work & collaborative relations around Mayakovsky, Brecht, Vallejo, Diane di Prima, Amiri Baraka, Nazim Hikmet, Pasolini, Raul Zurita, & the free jazz musicians David Grundy obliquely references, as well as recent experiments in collaboration like Wu Ming or Jow Lindsay's multiprong attacks. But one example which seems to have largely gone unremarked beyond summary gestures of acknowledgement or dismissal -- & which I'll contradict myself to reference directly -- is the International Surrealist movement, which remains, regardless of what you think (or think you think) of their work, a model of political engagement & worldwide esthetic collaboration, continuously exemplary after nearly a century's development. I strongly recommend to the participants of the conference struggling to materialise an appropriate organisational form a reading of Surrealism Against the Current: Tracts and Declarations, particularly Michael Richardson & Krzysztof Fijalkowski's introduction, 'Surrealism as a Collective Adventure', on the critical appraisal of group structure. Many others have written more extensively on the theoretical basis of Surrealism in relation to the history of resistance against exploitation & oppression -- just among fairly recent publications, cf. Donald LaCoss & Raymond Spiteri's Surrealism, Politics and Culture, Michael Löwy's Morning Star, Robin D.G. Kelley's Freedom Dreams, Penelope Rosemont's Surrealist Women anthology & Ron Sakolsky's anthology Surrealist Subversions -- but for a specific view towards organisational forms appropriate to militant poetics, I think this would stand as necessary reading even for those with persistent allergies to the unconscious.

*Also, just before I send this, & in keeping with the unrevised chicken scratch spirit of these enblogged proceedings, I remembered another precedent which could prove quite relevant for the purposes of the conference: Derek Bailey's Company Weeks. Contra any lingering taste of party-pooperage above, I would wholeheartedly support the establishment of games & creative collaborations. It is literally impossible to avoid the element of play in the context of radical association; that is an aspect of our work I think that we should FLAUNT.

I believe the first importance now is to experiment with organisational forms & see what's feasible in each incarnation; & to look around to other groups & individuals, artists & activists, with whom we might associate. Beyond that there's plenty room to build thru collaboration, inquiry & critique. I am partial to beginning from the dialectical analysis & clarity of Jennifer Cooke's 'Statement of Contradictions' -- this seems to me the document most central to proceeding, a necessary form of thinking if we are to build unburdened by misconceptions.

Keep me in touch with the developing work in the UK, & I will add whatever I can towards bridging the gap from NY.


  1. Good post, Michael.

    Cliff "Tony" Penge and the SE20s are old enough and on the roster.

    Currently #218 on ReverbNation's Other/Spoken Word London chart - the collective got as high as #8 in April BELONGING to Association of Musical Marxists.

  2. "Political newspapers began to die when they ceased to feature COMIX. The anarchists, in creativity, are beating the living shit out of marxists today because they're the only radicals putting on paper their sense of a living liberation."

    So true.

    Anarchy Comics were the BOMB! I miss them...