There will be a revolution or there will not. If the latter these poems were nothing but entertainments. If the former it will succeed or fail. If the latter these poems were better than nothing. If the former it will feature riots fire and looting at these will spread or they will not. If the latter these poems were curiosities. If the former it will feature further riots manifestos barricades and slogans and these will leap into popular songs or they will not. If the latter that’s that. If the former these popular songs will be overcome or they will not. If the latter these poems were no different than the songs. If the former the popular itself will be abolished via riots barricades manifestos occupations and fire or it will not. If the latter we will spend several more decades talking about culture. If the former the revolution will at this point be destroyed from within or without. If the latter these poems went down fighting. If the former it will feature awful confrontations with former friends and there will be further manifestoes new slogans ongoing occupations and communes and lovers will be enemies. We do not know what will happen after this point but surely this is enough to draw some preliminary conclusions. The poem must be on the side of riots looting barricades occupations manifestos communes slogans fire and enemies. (“The Fire Sermon”)
The first title from Oakland, Californian publisher Commune Editions, an imprint of Edinburgh, Scotland publisher AK Press, is poet, film critic, translator and cultural theorist Joshua Clover’s Red Epic (2015). As their press release provides introduction:
Commune Editions began with friendships formed in struggle, with the antagonisms that define the last five years of the San Francisco Bay Area: the occupations formed in resistance to University of California tuition hikes in 2009-2011, the anti-police uprisings after the shooting of Oscar Grant that continued with the deaths of Mike Brown and Eric Garner, and the local version of Occupy, referred to by some as the Oakland Commune. All of these antagonisms have been poet-heavy in the Bay Area. And they are producing their own poetries, ones full of ruptures, strange beauties—and also strangenesses, defined by explicit politics, the ones shaped by anarchist and communist organizing, theorizing, and struggle. This work inspires. And poets Juliana Spahr, Joshua Clover, and Jasper Bernes formed Commune Editions to publish anticapitalist poetries and poetics. And to also put this work in dialogue with poetries from other countries and from other historical moments, times and places where the politicization of poetry and the participation of poets in uprisings large and small was the conversation.
We want to avoid self-important claims about poetry changing the world. Poetry is no replacement for forms of action: strikes, blockades, occupations, protests, as well as the meetings, houses, libraries, and sharing of resources that enable them. But poetry can be a companion to these activities. Like the “riot dogs” of Athens, it can accompany the movements of the streets, provide support and pleasure, loud barking too.
Through such a declaration, Clover’s Red Epic, even before one begins, connects to an intriguing collection of writers, publications and activities, whether Stephen Collis and Christine Leclerc as part of Enridge Pipeline activism, capitalist critiques by poets such as Jeff Derksen, donato mancini, Roy Miki and Clint Burnham, a variety of Aboriginal issues explored through works by Jordan Abel, Marie AnnHarte Baker, Shane Rhodes and Liz Howard, or even the explorations into Vancouver’s missing and murdered women by writers such as Sachiko Murakami, Shannon Stewart and Anne Stone (I know there are far more examples for all than what I have mentioned). Poetry-as-activism has a rich history, and it is good to see contemporary writers pushing to explore further what might be possible, especially in the place where poetry and activism might intersect. As he writes to open the poem “Apology”:
Oh capital let’s kiss and make up
And I’ll take back all those terrible things I said about you
To my friends in poems.
Or elsewhere, as he ends the poem “Fab, Beta, Equity Vol”:
The world which extruded six story apartment blocks
and warehouses of brick and filthy glass which made
making and finally faded when we used the word
real behind the back of consciousness we meant that
we meant industry and the industrial age you want
a total philosophy well there is my metaphysics
Red Epic covers issues surrounding the global economic crises, political upheavals both current and historical, the Occupy movement and a series of barricades, by turns infused with both wreckage and hope as he spins a “Top 40 soundtrack full of Robyn and MIA.” The author of two previous poetry collections—The Totality for Kids (University of California Press, 2006), and Madonna anno domini (Louisiana State University Press, 1997), which was chosen by Jorie Graham to receive the 1996 Walt Whitman Award—there is a rush and a push to Clover’s lines, from breathless prose to poems constructed from a series of staggered phrases to the compact lyric. His cultural and critical theory background allows his poetry to articulate a series of critiques against capitalism, equity and equality, pop culture and labour, utilizing all as material in which he is able to craft poems constructed to question, argue and pry open conversation. As he writes in the opening poem, “My Life in the New Millennium,” “Once fire is the form of the spectacle the problem / becomes how to set fire to fire.”
(We lived in a cloud of recklessness)
We lived in a cloud of recklessness south of Market in a house with an accent when he said Taylorism it sounded like terrorism we lived in a cloud of restlessness and felt ourselves to be adrift east of China west of France south of Market north of Chance we lived in a fog of remorselessness in a long wave of a K-wave we sang I’m going back to Cali to Cali to Calligrammes we saw the world through world-colored glasses it was a situation known as snowglobalization down there south of the Market in a cloud of recklessness on a sea of credit and correlation in the winter of the long wave in the deep sea swell of the Market and the candidates threw roses and we ate the roses in the jaws of the present as we once ate Robespierre’s raspberries