A few weekends ago, my boyfriend and I drove to Houston to attend the Menil Fest and Indie Book Festival. I had hoped to write a piece about the small press scene here, perhaps highlight a few of those whose publications have found a home in my shelves. Walking down the Menil’s east colonnade, flanked on either side with tables of small presses, I saw a bookshop on a bicycle in the grass. It struck me as a curious and delightful thing, and when I approached to see what treasures it peddled, my wonder grew. Its bright yellow make-shift shelves displayed chapbooks, zines, and books by presses like Ugly Duckling Presse, Counterpath Press, Switchback Books, Noemi, and many more I hadn’t heard of but was eager to discover. It was like someone took the best of an AWP book fair and magically crammed it all into this tiny contraption. The bibliophile in me was geeking out something serious.
The Antenamovil was pedaled to the festival by Jen Hofer, co-founder along with John Pluecker, of the language justice collaborative, Antena. ‘Language Justice’ is a term I was wholly unfamiliar with before this encounter. Hearing those two words together, and thinking of what it had to do with this magic book bike, sent a charge through my brain. I remember repeating the words back, slowly and purposefully, then looking at her, my face a question mark.
Language justice is a term used among interpreters in the social activist community to frame the concept that everyone’s language should be valued and accepted. It asserts the right everyone has to communicate in the language in which one feels most comfortable. Language justice work seeks to create well-functioning multilingual spaces in which people can communicate their ideas across languages and cultures.
I found Antena’s vision particularly exciting for its integration of aesthetic practice and social justice work. Hofer told me about Antena’s residence at the Blaffer, University of Houston’s art gallery, and how the exhibit included several text-based art works, and some two thousand carefully curated books from small presses in the States, Canada, Latin America, and around the world. We soon made our way there, where among the text-based and poetry-centered art work, I saw Cecilia Vicuña’s film, ¿Qué es para Usted la Poesía? / What is Poetry to you? in which she interviews people in the streets of Bogotá, Colombia, asking them the film’s eponymous question.
There had been a gap, a deficiency in my mind and learning, that made it difficult for me to bridge contemporary avant-garde and experimental poetry with social justice. I mean, I understood the relationship historically (that is, abstractly), where one was bound to the other by chronology, circumstance, and culture. As a 21st century feminist living in the States, I’m privileged to inherit the legacy of ‘the personal is political’, but I’m not sure how mindfully I’ve integrated that into my poem-making. And, when it comes to what is institutionally recognized as avant-garde or experimental (the kind of work I’m drawn to), there always seemed to me a very deliberate severance or isolation from, well, the rest of the world.
I’m not exactly sure how, but over time I’d come to believe that what I want to happen in the world, and what I want to happen in the poem, were mutually exclusive philosophies, and to fashion one in service to the other, was to diminish both. When it comes to that oft-trotted out Auden line, I’ve long been entrenched in the camp that agreed with him. Yes, poetry makes nothing happen, so let’s all just get riotously drunk off wine from the vineyard (we’ve made) of the curse. I’ve championed poetry’s useleness as its primary virtue, but in doing so denied and discarded the political and social work happening within—or as—the process itself.
In the time between my visit to Antena’s exhibit at the Blaffer, and now, I’ve read through Antena’s website, and their pamphlets of manifestos and guides. In these, Antena outlines and describes embodied ways in which an aesthetic practice and a social practice can (and ultimately, must) occupy the same intellectual space. In this excellent interview by Nancy Wozny for the online periodical, arts+culturetexas, Hofer speaks to this refusal to separate social practice from the art. Here, speaking of Encuentro, the workshops Antena conducted during its Blaffer residence:
“…I think the experience was transformative for the interpreters who participated, in terms of illuminating for them the ways that radical aesthetic practice can have at its root some of the same goals as radical activist practice: to reimagine the world and rebuild it in a more just and humane way.”
And this, from the pamphlet “A Manifesto for Interpretation as Instigation”:
“Our work as interpreters is also our poetry. Careful intensive attention to language and to the gaps and fissures between languages. Bodies manipulating language in a hyperconscious way. A poetics lingering in the space between visibility and invisibility. In the space between spoken and heard. In the space between.”
Even though what is being described here is the practice of interpretation, its perspective and approach may just as well be applied to the work of writing. From my readings, I rabbit-holed my way to this provocative essay by , investigating gestures of offensiveness in conceptual poetry, which seemed to be addressing—albeit in a completely different mode—issues of aesthetic and social practice. For anyone who’s felt both fascinated and repelled by conceptual or avant garde poetry today, it’s a great read.
I have no insights just now, but in the process of reading for, and writing, this post, I feel some light’s been cast over my longstanding anxieties and discomforts about poetry and its use/s. This encounter is shifting things around in my brain. If you’ve the time, read through these pamphlets (‘More Writing’, for poets in particular, is full of fantastic prompts and exercises to jumpstart a pen). I wish for you these same shifts and cracks and fissures to let in what light you may not have thought you needed.