Poetry Occupies the People's Library
On fall mornings of 2011, when Occupy Wall Street was encamped in Zuccotti Park in the financial district in Manhattan, poet Lee Ann Brown and I had a bit of a routine. We would drop our daughter Miranda off at her downtown school, buy a huge carton of coffee, and go visit the OWS Librarians in the northeast corner of the park. The librarians were a sub group of protesters who had managed to amass hundreds of books, which they called "The People's Library”. The books were stored in more than two dozen huge plastic tubs and were all offered free for circulation. When we started hanging out with the librarians, they had just scored a huge tent structure donated by Patti Smith, and were riding high with utopian spirit.
One of the librarians we met and bonded with was Stephen J. Boyer. There was something elven about Steve, but not in a delicate way...he was like one of those warrior elves from World Of Warcraft. This warrior spirit was sorely tested when the encampment was forcibly evicted in the early hours of November 15th, and the entire library dumped in the trash.
Some of the library was recovered (see Lee Ann’s video from the sanitation warehouse HERE (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dpKahVYtRxE)) and disseminated to the community at large. Stephen come to live with us for a while, focusing on a truly huge project: the compilation and publication of The Occupy Wall Street Poetry Anthology, an unabridged, radically inclusive product of the OWS “poetry assemblies”, including new writing from the occupiers, plus submissions made from all around the world, including work from heavweights such as Adrianne Rich, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Anne Waldman, Jorie Graham, Wanda Coleman, Michael McClure, Eileen Myles, Charles Bernstein, and many others. The completed volume, ‘assembled’ in chronological order, is more than a collection of poems...it has emerged as a spiritual autobiography of the movement.
I interviewed Stephen as he enters the final week of a campaign to raise enough money to print this truly gigantic (1,000 pages plus) volume on a large enough scale to place it in libraries and collections worldwide.
How did the OWS PA get started?
The anthology began in order to archive the Occupy Wall Street Poetry Assemblies. The poetry assemblies were held every Friday night while people lived in Zuccotti Park, before Bloomberg ordered the NYPD to forcibly remove demonstrators. For those unfamiliar with the movement, people lived full time in Zuccotti Park from September 17th-November 15th. Each and every day was a whirlwind of participation, learning, teaching, teach-ins, workshops, etc. and the poetry assemblies held Friday night were an extension of the innovative community the Occupy Movement inspired. The Occupy Movement is inclusive yet it’s necessary people create the space they seek to participate in. The assembly was a means for poets, and the anthology a gift to the movement, the People’s Library and the future. Friday nights offered poets the opportunity to speak their minds in the epicenter of power and to meet fellow travelers and connect. I feel like the assembly was Occupy at its best; the G.A.’s are great, but it’s hard to withstand the long, drawn-out, political, movement focused discussions they foster. Whereas the poetry assembly was soulful and visionary, and it wasn’t specific to the goings-on of the movement. Anyone and everyone was encouraged to stand up and share their poems. And that inclusivity in the face of Wall Street and the corporate reality the Occupy Movement is tirelessly addressing is the beginning of a better world.
How did you keep the initial ms from being trashed during the eviction?
Garlic breath. Psychic real(aware)ness! Soul power. Channeled strength through fragmented memories of Allen Ginsberg. Cried. Laughed hysterically. Gave myself over to mania. Screamed until my voice became part of the voice. Renounced fear. Renounced any shred of respect I may have harbored for the NYPD. And good friends (metaphysical freedom fighters) were with me every step of the way, pulling me from the cuffs. Every time I was touched by an officer that night, my body reacted in a quick, adrenalized way, sort of like oil and water but much quicker. I can’t bear to be touched by the police.
Since the raid, it has become increasingly difficult for me to attend Occupy events and it’s imperative new blood come into the movement in order for it to keep evolving. Those of us that were living in the park lost more than physical space and objects that night. I get worked up just remembering. We had refused our “normal” lives for the pursuit of truth and a better reality. “Rejecting corporate culture” isn’t a catch phrase. We were tear gassed, beaten and ultimately made into criminals. An official document was leaked in the U.K., and it had Occupy Wall Street on the same list as all the well-known terrorist groups. I use well-known as a means of expressing the groups that society at large would agree to label.
Occupy interested lawyers keep fighting for the right of the people to take and use public space, but the NYPD continually shut down wherever Occupiers set up. For example, the Occupiers in Union Square were forced nightly to undergo a police mandated cleaning of the area they inhabited. One of the nights I was there, officers demanded people that had sought cover beneath construction scaffolding move into the rain. An officer quipped, “If you want to protest, stand in the rain.” A few months back, they raided the private home and headquarters of the livestream team. It seems to never end and it’s made it hard for me to go to the new pop up Occupy encampments because I can’t bear to watch beautiful temporary autonomous zones be destroyed by the police. And that’s what they want us to feel, they want us to cave. So it’s a continual struggle to keep popping up, to keep fighting, to keep joining hands with the many amazing people giving their all for a future better world. The People’s Library librarian William Scott said it best when we were living in the park, “I feel like every day I’m falling in love with everyone I meet, every day I meet so many great beautiful people…”And then the police impose their violent rejection…. For me, the experience of the raid night has been transfigured into a heartbreaking romantic break-up tragedy, and I’m a lover, and love is determinedly hard on the soul, so I’m all fucked up now. Despite what advertisers often say, a person doesn’t just walk away and grab a hot fudge sundae at the end of a torrid love affair…The morning after the raid officers called out to me, “Sparrow! Sparrow!” I read many of Sparrow’s poems throughout the night and his short quips seemed to have stuck in the minds of the officers. Here’s a sample:
Maybe there is hope?! I read from the anthology at random; frantically flipped through it and read in the face of police officers hitting people with batons, tear gassing people, arresting people… Film footage of the action was posted on facebook. It shows an officer raising his baton up, as if he was going to swipe me across the face with it, and I scream out, “Open up your third eye! Poetry will set you free and make you not feel like you have to beat people…” and then he cowered away. Moments before, the footage shows a woman sobbing and crying out, “I have no hope for this country. No hope. No hope.”
It’s an outrage that the NYPD would violently end demonstrations actively engaging people and in the case of the raid night on November 15th, they enacted a media blackout to try and hide their horrid acts. If law enforcement is truly out to end crime, why would they force people to stop enacting their right to free speech? Why do they think it’s productive to stop kids from engaging in political action? Do they expect us all sit quietly, staring at our televisions?! Many of us can’t afford to.
I was so fucking pissed off that night. We all were. A few days after the raid, a security staffer with Brookfield asked me what I was reading from the night of. He and several others were deeply moved by the gesture, and thought that I was enacting an exorcism on the catastrophe. That was the intent; to inspire officers of their humanity. It seems too often officers see demonstrators as punching bags. I felt it was imperative to not just save those manuscripts, but to also read from them, as people from all over the world sent me their work in order to make their voices heard. The people of the world are not going to go gently into the night.
The book is huge! How much work is in this thing?
At the last count, the anthology consists of 721 poems, 4 poetic introductions, 448 poets and poems in English, French, Spanish, Italian, Russian, Urdu, German, Japanese, Chinese and Dutch. There are also paintings, drawings, and ephemera from the park mixed into the anthology. It’s more than a poetry anthology; it’s a time capsule, a record for the future. We’re accepting submissions till the campaign to raise printing funding ends at the end of April, so it’s still growing. Putting an anthology together that publishes all submissions takes a lot of time, a lot of patience, a lot of self-restraint, discipline and way too much paper. Not only are their poems about and inspired by the Occupy Movement, there’s also material that is critical and/or aims to denounce the movement. Free speech set free is convoluted, messy, difficult and requires a lot! It’s huge! It costs $30 to print each copy… and going to borrow a line from Eileen Myles and say, “Sorry, tree”.
Lots of famous poets contributed to this anthology. Who are some of them?
Let me answer this question with a short preface... After the OWS Poetry Anthology reading at the Jefferson Market Library (we gave the NYPL two copies of the anthology on April 14th) I had coffee with the poet and activist Eliot Katz. Eliot has been working with poetry and activism for longer than I’ve been walking the earth and has been a guide and source of wisdom for me while working on this project. When we were talking about the success of the reading and various ideas for future anthology related activities, he smiled and interjected, “You don’t even know how many well-known poets have contributed to the anthology, do you?” Eliot was trying to persuade me that a number of really good, mid-sized independent literary presses might well be interested in publishing a 300- or 350-page version of the anthology because it has such an interesting mix of well-known and not-yet-well-known poets, and such an interesting diversity of literary styles and themes. It was sort of a relief to hear him say it. As proud as I am of this project, it’s hard to digest it all. Like the Occupy Movement has been global for months now and it’s shaking up the world, and people are in love and radiating and others are furious and the world is bursting and it’s impossible to take it all in.
The poetry community is endless. It takes a devoted lifetime to sift through all the poets of yesterday, and then there’s always now. Considering the size of this project and the amount of labor it required, it’s sort of inevitable that I’m not aware of every person’s career and body of work. But I’m learning… And there are many poets in the book that I’m totally head over heels for, and consider it an amazing honor to have received a submission from them. This is my first time working as a publisher, so this whole experience is a day to day learning exercise. Every step of the way has been a new opportunity. I’m very wary of listing individual names, because that always means leaving people out, and I’ve given countless hours of my life to this project in order that it be an inclusive document of all persuasions. So let me mention just a few nationally well-known poets who are in the anthology--Adrienne Rich, Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Anne Waldman, Jorie Graham, Wanda Coleman, Michael McClure, Eileen Myles, Charles Bernstein, Alicia Ostriker, Martín Espada, Marilyn Hacker, James Scully, Bob Holman, Jack Hirschman, Minnie Bruce Pratt--but let me also say that there are surely other poets in the book who are more nationally well-known than either Eliot or I are aware of, that there are dozens of poets in the anthology who are well known in their own regions like New York, and that there are many other poets in the anthology who are likely to become more well-known if the quality of their work is any indication of who becomes a well-known poet in America, which we unfortunately know often isn't the case.
And then there are also a lot of really interesting poems by young people who haven't practiced the craft of poetry for very long, but who nonetheless had really important things that they wanted to express in verse for this anthology. And it's great to have this inclusive and diverse anthology, with room for so many different voices.
A huge amount of work seems to be from people who seemed specifically inspired to write poetry for the first time because of OWS. Can you share some of their stories?
Yes! One of the great aspects of the Occupy movement is its ability to invigorate those that don’t necessarily already engage. The reason I started a poetry anthology instead of, say, a short story anthology, is the accessibility of poetry. I feel like “poetry” is a pretty open-ended label and really allows for a range of writing, and it seemed to work as Adrienne Rich is sharing space with a nine year old girl and young men obsessed with hip hop and so many others… I could go on and on about “poetry” as an open-ended label: haiku, sonnet, confessional, prose, experimental, etc… but will assume people understand what I’m suggesting. And I’ll use William Scott again as an example, Scott is an academic (he wrote Troublemakers: Power, Representation, and the Fiction of the Mass Worker) and hadn’t written a poem in years. But while living in the park and engaging in the weekly Poetry Assemblies, he knocked out a few poems and they’re great! There’s also a poem by a 14 year old girl from Brooklyn, Najaya Royal, titled “99%” that I’ve become ever more enamored with. She came to the park with her mom, they saw the anthology in the People’s Library and then her mom introduced her to me as a “young poet.” And the next day I received the poem in my email inbox. It’s a really powerful poem. Check it out!
by Najaya Royal
What if the sky was yellow and the sun was blue?
What if money did not affect if you
have a home the same time next year?
We are the 99% that are not rich
We are the 99% who do have to worry about bills getting paid each month
But are the 99% with a voice that can be heard all around the world
Even though we are frowned upon by the 1%'
Though we are the reason the 1% are rich
I mean who else lunch money would they steal and be able to get away with it
We are all against bullies
So it's about time we stand up to the biggest bully of them all
We were born free
So why can’t we all live free
Why can’t we all be equal?
It is not a racial thing
It is more like a money thing
But when did green paper decide where and how should we live
When did green paper become a barrier and separate mankind
This movement right here
Is going to change the world for the better
This movement will finally make us a whole
How does this book and the way you want it publish reflect the OWS ethos?
Recently I met poets that had contributed to the big antiwar online anthology a few years back. For those unfamiliar, the anthology began as an online document open to anyone against the war. People from all over the world sent in poems and they created a huge online trove of antiwar poems. Then they took the book to print, and greatly reduced its size in the process. The poets I met recently explained that their work wasn't in the smaller published book edition... and rightly complained that the book edition "lost its power." What had been a project for all was reduced to voices that are often heard, poets that have achieved status, a hierarchy of what is and isn’t acceptable created by the editors... this is exactly what I’m trying desperately to avoid by printing the anthology in its entirety, on our own, without the corrupting influence of a publishing house which would treat the document as a business investment. In no way do I mean to disrespect or demean the intense labor and the beautiful work that comprises the antiwar anthology, and I understand the intensity and difficulty of working on such a grand scale, but I think it’s something to learn from and be aware of as this project moves forward. I feel the Occupy Movement’s greatest strength is its desire to try and achieve inclusivity. Until we figure out how to be inclusive, we are doomed.
How are you staying sane while taking on this massive project?
I’m not. I gave up sanity way before I started this project. I don’t think I would be where I’m at right now if I was sane. Sanity is what I expect my heart surgeon to possess, and it’s precisely that which I’m hoping to vanquish whenever I look at a poem. Or take a walk. I do find sanity when I garden and talk to plants about life… Insanity has a bad reputation. It’s unfortunate.
What's next for OWS from the perspective of poet activists?
Printing! First we need to finish the campaign to raise funds for the printing, and once that’s in order we will be getting the books out and establishing a readership. We will be working with the amazing local (Lower East Side) print shop, The Source. I see libraries and special collections making space on their shelves for copies. I see stacks of books at Occupations around the world. I see people handing them to passersby and passersby taking the time to read the poems. And there is love and heartache and more people become inspired to write poems. People that ordinarily wouldn’t think to write a poem, now see they can share space with the great poets of the world and their voices matter. They aren’t a muzzled animal hooked to an IV being prepped for canning; they’re awakening their inner poet and actualizing the dream. I see people managing themselves, being autonomous, going out into the world and creating the space they seek. A lot of people come to Occupy Wall Street and ask how to become a part of the movement, it’s simpler than that, you just awaken your inner demonstrator, immerse yourself in the community, find the needs and go go go!
Occupy Town Square OWS NYC 2012 Shankbone 12 by david_shankboneTweet