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4.20.2011

Eileen Myles to Poets: On May 1st, Do Something Perhaps (But Don't Write, Maybe!)

Poet Eileen Myles has a proposal. "I'm not telling anyone what to do - I'm proposing something," she writes on the Facebook page of Poet's Strike, a semi-organized suggestion of an event. As described on the page:

"Why don't we all refuse to write or read poetry on May 1st and turn our energies towards political acts all over the country and you know why not the world. This idea was floated in the 60s maybe as a joke but today I'm thinking that rather than it being about who cares if we write or not we can use our resistance as an organizing tool. 

Everyone can do it locally - I'm thinking we should NOT do things in poetry spaces (except maybe to plan and organize.) Though certainly art world spaces could be used, or any other space inside or out. I'm not thinking top down organizing at all. Pick your issue, your group of poets and we don't have to limit our groups to poets only, but poet organized.

The point is to get attention to your issue whether its about women's rights, tax cuts for the rich, spending cuts, environmental disasters and defunding, whatever you want to devote your energies to publicly or privately that day. Any takers?"

For me, I'm a poet on permanent strike. I don't write poetry anymore. I am the Hollywood B-movie actress who refuses. But Myles means something different. Simply, she's proposing that poets do something else besides write poetry. Mainly: try something new. Instead of writing poetry, save the world:

"We don't know how it will help. It might help us," she writes on the wall. "But it's not about creating change necessarily. It might be about thinking differently about who we are in groups. How we might interact with the world as another kind of group. A group of poets did this - washed windows, fed kids, gave away bottles of water while reminding people that fracking is destroying the water table. Who would we be if we did these things instead. It's a little like writing a score instead of writing a poem. My poem isn't the only thing I want to give to the world."

And here I am thinking that poetry could change the world. Poetry--specifically performed poetry--to me has always been closely aligned to seriously engaging people into thinking about specific issues. Think Andrea Gibson or Tara Hardy. Contemporary poets have for a while been associated with political activism. The socio-political has long been a subject.  The Beatniks are an example. Today's queer poets another. (Yet there's a difference between being a writer with only political intent and a writer who happens to address politics; the difference is something really awful and something quite powerful)

It's a question that many have already asked. One poet writes, "I still don't understand the distinction between poetry and political action. Aside from, calling it one thing or another."

Is Eileen Myles's proposal undermining the power of poetry? Is Myles making a distinction between poetry and political activism in which activism is deemed more important, a higher agent of change perhaps? If so, what do her poems think about all this?

To Myles, it's a difference between a general action and a specific action:

"See I can think of all the way of a poem being construed as a political action but refusing to write poetry as a political action and doing something else instead is a specific action. So I'm not so much saying what is and what isn't...I'm proposing something. Poetry is a certain kind of energy and what if you spent it deliberately differently."

But I guess the final question is: will this be of any use? A poem--deliberately political or not--is a culture marker. Poets are makers of culture. As a written work, it is there to stimulate the mind of readers. As something read, it is doubly powerful. At the same time, by writing something down one is automatically given some type of power; for minorities of all types this is simply a must. This Myles has addressed. Yet political activism--volunteering, campaigning, etc--has its own measurable effects. Does switching the two for one day make any difference? If we were to do this for say a year--a year no poetry--what would this mean? Would we get more work done if poets (and writers) focused their attentions--most or all of it--on deliberately making the world a better place, and not, say worrying about a book contract or writing a better poem? How is shutting up and doing something a "resistance tool"? Is this a good excuse for poets with writers block not to write?

Either way, Myles is steadfast on this not being anything in the first place. It's an unstructured proposal that she invites poets to consider or not consider.

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