08.25.2013 / Interview with Juliana Spahr on BEYOND OAKLAND

ES: …[laughter] it would have been like, the interview about um, um, the thing I didn’t go to. So I started, so I decided to interview people about the conversation, in particular, from Beyond Oakland. I like, got dressed and then got to my door, and like, had my backpack on, and then just sort of stared at my door for a long period of time. And then, I was like, I can’t do anything–

JS: Uh huh.

ES: –and then I put my backpack down and got undressed and lay back down on my couch.

JS: Uh huh.

ES: And I–I sort of like, I felt like I had missed it, or this thing that I was actually really curious about. So, I’m going around interviewing people who actually attended, the conversation on Sunday, in particular, um, about what they got out of it.

JS: Uh huh.

ES: So, will you say who you are? And a project you’re working on recently?

JS: Um, I’m Juliana [Spahr], and um, I’m trying to finish a scholarly book on the 1990s.

ES: And you–I’m gonna play dumb for a minute–so you organized, you helped organize the Beyond Oakland–

JS: Uh huh.

ES: –panel? What was the way–what did that come out of? Like, what sort of started your thinking in the line of wanting to organize that event?

JS: Um, well, partially, I think David Buuck probably was the original idea, it was kind of like “Wouldn’t that be nice, to kind of like, bring some people together. And in , personally, in an attempt to maybe keep some of the energy from the [East Bay Poetry] Summit, but also to kind of direct it in some way, like, what might be ways that there could be other sorts of discussion other than the like, sociality that seemed to sort of define the Summit in some way. Um, so I think that was it. And then it just felt like, Oh, it would be an easy thing to do over the summer. So, you know, no big, you know, huge plans for it.

ES: And so you decided to have it. So why the Beyond Oakland?

JS: I think it was just kind of like, bringing people in from outside, who had kind of, um, been doing–had been either involved in various, or had written stuff about various things that had happened kind of around Occupy in the last year. And then to try to look at different locations and how they kind of dealt with some of those issues. And I think also, maybe, to try and attempt to build alliances, which feel really important.

ES: Um. It seemed–so like, from the parts of Beyond Oakland that I did go to, it seemed like each of those people was an activist in their own community, and also a poet, wherever they were from.

JS: Yeah, pretty much. Yeah, I mean, however you define those terms.

ES: And then, and that was one of my questions, was like, um, Are, Where do you see those–I don’t know if this came up in the conversation on Sunday or not, but–Where do those intersections happen? Between sorts of more, like, overtly political actions, or activism, and writing, maybe as activism? Or poetry as militant or insurgent? Do you see those as separate, or?

JS: Um, I see them as at moments overlapping. And they tend to overlap, I think, through sociality more than anything. Um, like, I would be reluctant to say there’s something specific about poetry as a genre, and I might say that there’s something that–One of the things that we saw in the last year was that people were often using the same kind of social networks that they would use around poetry, and were showing up at different sorts of events with those kinds of social formations in tact. Sometimes as poets, but not because they were poets. And so, um, they would always get, um–I have a certain nervousness around the idea that  like, writing the poem is enough, or that the poem has a certain politics. So that would be one of the limits I would want to see.

ES: Can you, um, elaborate a little bit on uh, the use of like, social networks? Do you mean, like, poet bloc? Or like–

JS: Whatever that is–

ES: –Or like, people showing up.

JS: People showing up, together, yeah.

ES: or Facebook.

JS: because they have friends that are poets. Or the poets are friends. Or like, you bring your friends in. And poets have a long–are used to, like, organizing things, as,  you know, or like, showing up together, or, carrying certain social formations into certain other sorts of scenes. Um, so that felt kind of–I think that would be like, the thing that I–that like, feels very similar to also, to people when they organize things, politically. Which are often, very dependent, again, on social networks, or, you know, a sense of community, or share a certain sense of, share–whatever that is.

ES: So, will you tell me about your experience of the conversation on Sunday? LIke, how did it go? What was something that you were particularly, like, interested in, conversationally or socially?

JS: Um, yeah. I don’t know. I, um–I always feel that the conversation is not necessarily the point, like the point is, or maybe the conversation is the point, but the content of the conversation might not actually be the point. And so some of those things often feel like they’re just, um, almost like, trial runs to kind of like, um, hopefully creating more, something deeper that comes out of it in a different way. Uh, so I never have huge, high expectations around the conversation. Um, even though, that said, the conversation felt interesting, and I learned things from it and um, I enjoyed it in many ways. But, I mean, it didn’t feel like it resolved anything, which it would never resolve anything, finally. It often–it, it might be the excuse, maybe would be one way to put it.

ES: The excuse for what?

JS: Um, the excuse for people to kind of show up to a something. To have the conversation. But that the conversation might be the conversation that happens after it.

ES: So, like, the official conversation facilitates, like, the backyard conversation?

JS: Yeah, or like, something like that. [laughter]

ES: Or like, the poetic conversation.

JS: Yeah. Um. I mean, like, there was some talk that interested me about–some stuff about, um–I forget what. Um, I think, Sophie, the woman from France? She kept saying something about–She kept saying “It’s empirically true” that when sort of antagonistic movements, or social movements, turn towards neighborhoods, that they become–that’s the end of them. That’s the end of the antagonism. Um, and I was kind of interested in whether that was true or not. She kept saying “It’s historically true.” And I mean, which I’m not entirely convinced, and, I didn’t ask her which historical moments she was actually thinking of, but I was kind of interested in, like, like, What happ–Whether that’s–What are the limits of the kind of more neighborhood organizing thing that kept showing up. Although, I mean, there’s a lot of like, a lot of people were like, contesting that, at the same time. Or kind of feeling like that wasn’t, um. There was that normal kind of conversation somewhat, about, that often gets had, about–I don’t even know what I’m–like, somewhat a conversation about like, What’s the best thing to do? Maybe that had a subtext of it, of like, you know, people that organize within communities, you know, for the long term, versus those kind of like moments when people come together and it’s not long term. Something like what various occupations or Occupy stuff was. And, some sort of tension between that. Although people kept saying that you needed both. But, then there would be these moments where, you know–It wasn’t–It wasn’t like a–I don’t–I’m not sure that everyone was conv–I often feel like people have like a, an alliance, even though they wouldn’t say that they felt like one was better, was more important than the other.

ES: Did the whole conversation seem to preference one over the other?

JS: No. It was kind of like a back-and-forth around it.

ES: So I feel like the Black Panther Party is a pretty good example of a group that was really focused on both of those things.

JS: Yeah. Well I mean, I think we need both. I always think that discussion is like, it’s all a giant ecosystem. LIke, we’re often forgetting that those things might be more connected than people realize.

ES: What do, um, What do you think that meant, in particular, that like, once it moves into neighborhoods that a movement becomes, what was the word, non-antagonistic?

JS: Yeah. I don’t know. I mean, that was the moment where I was just kind of interested in it, as the idea of What are the problems when you go into a neighborhood? Which I was kind of interested in in part because of the Library thing. Which I actually feel like there’s been a lot of things that have been said that ‘can’t be done there’ because of the specifics of the neighborhood, and it hasn’t necessarily been said by people in the neighborhood or from the neighborhood. [laughter] And so, and I’m always kind of interested in that rhetoric and what that rhetoric does or what it also doesn’t let happen.

ES: What were some of the things that people were saying ‘can’t be done?’

JS: I think the first discussion about like, whether the building should be held or not. Um, kind of, more seriously.

ES: Kind of, like, after the first wave–

JS: –after the first–

ES: –of police?

JS: No. Before that.

ES: Okay.

JS: Which was kind of, like, would the building–would people be camping and like, sleeping in the building, right? Which would have probably extended that occupation, you know, not forever, but somewhat longer than it was. That, that original decision was made because it just felt like there was enough, you know, like there were enough free spots in the neighborhood, there was enough that–like they didn’t need more people camping out, or whatever that was. I mean, I still feel like that was something that was taken almost like a fact, and which probably needed more, kind of, contesting. Like, it’s hard to say. Like, it’s hard to say what any kind of neighborhood needs or what it doesn’t need in those moments.

ES: Even if you were to ask the people who live there?

JS: Even if you were to ask the people that live there, I’m not sure you would get the answer. I think, there might be that there is no consistent answer. That what the neighborhood wants is much–It’s too contradictory to ever be figured out with any kind of consistency. So it almost is kind of a larger question of ‘What could happen?’ At that moment. Like, what happens when you don’t hold the building? What happens when you hold the building? Um, can you limit some of the things that you’re worried about if you actually hold the building? I don’t, I don’t really know.

ES: One thing I’ve been curious about–I don’t know if it was happening in the conversation itself–was um, like, where those moments of intersection are between peoples’ politics and their language-use. Um, and, like, it seems like, a lot of people, at least in the Bay Area, have been writing about Occupy or about the crowd or about riot. Um. And are there any things that you’ve noticed about the sorts of moves that people are doing right now? And what–why do you think those are happening? Or what do you think of them?

JS: Yeah, I think that really, that wasn’t discussed much. Um. [pause] I think in the long run, there probably will be no answer to that. There will be so many variables that there will be no consistent answer. In the short term, it has felt like there has been a kind of questioning, there has been a kind of–like, it has felt like, in terms of like, the language use has been one that’s trying to think about a form–a new form of sociality in some way. And so it often has felt to me like, like that–the kinds of forms that felt so important to Language Poetry felt really irrelevant to kind of, the stuff around Occupy, the work that’s coming out of Occupy. So there’s something kind of interesting that those forms have kind of felt like they’re not useful. And it’s almost been like, there’s been a return to like, a kind of language of collectivity at moments, a kind of we at moments, and a kind of lyricism. But, it probably won’t last. There’s probably nothing that you could say that would end up being long term in any kind of way. I think that’s–you’re talking about such a small crowd of people, in the end.

ES: [laughter] You said that there are things you felt like you learned from the weekend that are lingering. Are there any questions that you’re left with, that are like, shaping how you’re looking at things, or working?

JS: Yeah, I don’t. I mean, I have a lot, if there’s anything that I was left with it was a sense of like, specific questions. Which is mainly that I’m really interested in the kind of stuff around Montreal, still. And like, and then their failure to actually make it to a general strike. And then, like, it’s been kind of like–which a lot of people blame on the election. So I’m still kind of, the question that might kind of come out of that is like, can you–’Do elections just always kill you?’ [laughter] You know? Can you ever really escape that problem? Which, of course, there might not be an answer to that. But, um. So, I mean, some questions like that. There’s a lot, I had a lot of side conversations with people that probably left me with a different series of questions. A bunch of questions about gender stuff.

ES: Like what?

JS: I don’t even know if I could summarize some of it.

ES: Or maybe like, one moment of that?

JS: [pause] You know, talking a lot with Anne Boyer about um, you know, how many like, major moments begin with, you know, um, with you know, bread riots. Which are often started by women, in history. And like, why is that, um, why is that so overlooked? Kind of? LIke, why is that not more to the forefront of like, how we understand how these moments of, let’s say, political antagonism, develop. Why is there not more attention to like Oh we have to start with women, or with social–which might not mean just with women, but with something around social needs or something, um, that women have traditionally, you know, been caretakers around.

ES: Do you feel like Occupy was not doing that?

JS: I think it was trying. You know, it’s hard to say what it was doing. But it was definitely, I mean it was definitely trying to feed a bunch of people. Which was one of the, you know, really interesting things about that movement, about the movement. It had such a large food–the food thing was so important. Which, you know, you know, I mean, actually I think that like, part of the success of kind of like, Oakland, was that it was trying to do both all the time. Um. If you want to call that a success. And then, [pause] you know, like some of the questions that remain are like ‘Could it have been more sustained?’ Or like, sustainable? And it’s hard to answer that question.

ES: Are there ways you could imagine that? LIke, tactics that would enable that?

JS: I don’t really know. I mean, I still feel that there was something after J28. That so many people showed up for J28 felt to me, like, kind of amazing. And even though that, that action was often seen as a big clusterfuck, finally, which it was in many ways. I felt like it indicated a certain willingness among a large significant part of the population to go do something, kind of, clearly illegal.

ES: And almost absurd.

JS: [laughter] And absurdist. Yeah that. That then kind of fell apart and the kind of like had an energy that wasn’t picked up again. Like, I think that the people that were the kind of main people behind organizing it, in which it was one of the more hierarchical actions, in that it had a kind of core group that kind of knew the story. Um, like, it seems like they kind of fell apart. But like, it seems like– still feel like there’s a question of like, sustainability, that like, like, didn’t get addressed at that moment. And it probably didn’t get addressed enough in advance. There was an open question about whether the occupation could–would ever happen, from the beginning. Um, but it didn’t get addressed what would happen if the occupation did not happen. In a kind of planned way. And there needed to be a plan. Because, like, by the time people had spent three days in jail, it just like, it was like, too much to deal with, and there wasn’t already–and if there potentially had already been a plan, there could have been somewhat, an action. Um,

ES: In the aftermath?

JS: I think it was kind of like, if it doesn’t work out what do you do next? LIke, do you do it again? Try it, do you, you know, I don’t really know the answer [trails off]

ES: So, just in case someone’s reading this who doesn’t know what J28 is, could you attempt to summarize?

JS: There’s an occupation of a Traveler’s Aid building that happened at the general strike. And occupations are, almost, by default, presume a kind of vanguard group, that kind of, like, opens the building, or that can’t be very well announced by because, for obvious reasons. You can’t get into the building for that moment when they’re too well announced. Um, but there was a lot of critique of the Traveler’s Aid building occupation being something that hadn’t gone through the GA [General Assembly] and what does it mean. And so, after that, there was a kind of question in the air about ‘What would it mean to do an announced occupation?’ To get, instead of eight people, twenty people, however many, to open a building, to get, you know, a thousand people together and open the building together at that moment. Um, what would that do to these occupations, which have always been almost, like, the kind of action that you do when you can’t do a general strike. They’re small. They’re actions built around having a small group of people. Um, and that has always been part of their failure. Why they often fail, is like, if they don’t get a large crowd outside supporting them in some way, they, they get shut down all the time. Which is the kind of classic pattern. You occupy the building for however many hours or however many days, and then it gets shut down. So the–So the question was like What if you have a larger group that announces it and that was like, the J28 one, in which there was a supposed series of buildings that would be possible, and only this core group know which buildings in order to not have the police know what it was, but it was slightly an open secret at the same time. That it was this huge, kind of, Kaiser building, which it may or may not have been, which is like another kind of question, which is like, you know, What happens–Why did the other buildings not get to? Which like, some of these questions get answered in that statement from the J28 people.

ES: Yeah, it does raise a question about, sort of, transparency versus, not secrecy, but smaller organizing groups?

JS: Yeah, yeah.

ES: Um. Did the people who came in from the different places, at Beyond Oakland, talk about that question?

JS: I think everything, like, most of the things around Occupy were so open.

ES: I think it, kind of brings up a question for me, of like–when I was in Olympia, organizing there, um, people were getting sort of like, secretive within their groups, like, in the initial organizing, but then there was always the assumption that there were no secrets in the end, you know? That even if you have a small group of people, that there was the assumption that, always, that one of the people was FBI.

JS: Uh huh.

ES: Or that someone forgot to turn their phone off. Or take out the battery. Or like, that, there were sort of ways–the underlying assumption, that like, of NSA, or surveillance culture, those kind of. So it feels, in a sense, that then the transparency question becomes a matter of decision-making; of a large group of people versus a tactic of readiness, or like, beating the state to the game?

JS: Right, right. Yeah yeah yeah. Yeah, I mean, like, I’m left with the sense that there are two big issues that have to be constantly negotiated, and one of them is surveillance, and like what is the extent of surveillance, and how do you negotiate that without also becoming parlayzed or like, totally paranoid. Uh, which gets combined with the second big issue, which is the willingness of the state to put people in jail for large amounts of time for protesting. I mean, like, three days is a lot for basically, you know, being, walking down the street in a protest on the J28. I mean it wasn’t like anyone actually got anywhere near to getting into the building. It was almost like a thought crime.

ES: Yeah. Conspiracy?

JS: Well, no one was ever charged with conspiracy.

ES: Really? [laughter]

JS: And I don’t think there was enough there to charge with conspiracy. It was just like, people ended up in jail, and they didn’t, like, weren’t processed. Which is the kind of moment where it was like, Oakland whatever, you know, whatever kind of theory you want to believe about it, it was like, this is how we’re going to end it. We’re gonna take out everyone who can’t be–like, we have a friend who lost her job as a result of it. It just kind of changes the stakes.

ES: Do you think–would you–I was–Do you think of this sort of conversation as a series, or was it more of a one time thing?

JS: I think it was a one time thing. But, you know, I have a–I tried to get everyone who did the Summit together afterwards to kind of have a discussion cause he wants to do it again next year, and I was kind of like the grumpy old person–

ES: [laughter]

JS: –that’s kind of like ‘Don’t do it again…It’s irrep–like, you can’t reproduce it.’ LIke, it’ll be something, but it won’t be something. [laughter] That, um. I mean, that’s again, like, where I keep trying to think of it as like, an ecosystem. So it’s like, Well, the Summit thing happened, and then, like, this kind of conversation felt like Oh, we’ll take up some of the energy of that, like, What are the other ways that you kind of keep things mutating through, and um, I’ve been working on that thing in October, with Joshua and Chris Chen, that’s bringing over the British poets. Which feels like in the same thing, like we’ll just, you’ll like, people can maybe just keep talking or maybe find their affiliations. It does feel, I feel like, I feel like there’s a possibility that there’s something that’s getting, that might be a series of alliances beginning to get kind of mapped out in a way that they weren’t as clearly from doing the Free School, the 99 Cent School, the Durutti Skool, and then, you know, some other things feel like there’s beginning to be like, um. I used to feel more that people in poetry sometimes declared their politics in isolation. And I feel like there’s a sense of like, of people working together on something. The question of like, whether it stay at the level of poetry or not still feels kind of open. Um, and nothing may come of it. It’s hard to say. It’s also–the other thing that’s been slightly interesting to me, is that question you’re asking about language, in which it feels like, it feels like there’s a group of people who are somehow trying to enter into conversation and working together as poets, but not about how to show up as poets. So like, it’s not necessarily a question of like, ‘What sort of work do you need to read,’ or write, or ‘What you should do at the reading,’ or ‘Where the poet should speak in the list of speakers’ in some way, which I actually think has been kind of interesting. There’s other sorts of work that needs to be done. Although we might be doing it, again, through these social networks, that we know through poetry. Which are fairly, you know, both national and international at the same time.

ES: [drops something] Um, can you talk about the conversation itself? One thing that Maya told me was that at some point you guys moved from like, an open structure, to taking stack?

JS: Um. That was mainly because Niko and that other guy got in a kind of back-and-forth and it was kind of like, and I was just like, Oh, I’ll take stack, which ended their back-and-forth. I don’t know. This is the problem when you’re kind of like, someone who has quasi organized it. I don’t have [pause] you know, easy or obvious answers to that. Like, I don’t have any perspective. I don’t have an outside perspective on it, so I can’t even–like, I have trouble even remembering a lot of the conversation. It’s just kind of like how to [mumbles] it would just keep moving. Does someone need a chair.

ES: Um, were there any sort of moments from the weekend that you held onto? I mean, how many people were staying at your house?

JS: Five. Which is way too many. Although three of them weren’t here for the conference. [laughter] Only two were. Yeah, I don’t, I mean, yeah. It was kind of lovely to have longer conversations. You know, with Anne and Michael. I really like them; they’re interesting. Um. Yeah. I don’t know, maybe, there was like, a bunch of jokes that don’t really feel really relevant.

ES: [mumbles]

JS: What’s your plan?

ES: Um. So, I’m planning. I’m going to, also, ask you afterwards, if you want, to tell me who you remember that was also at the conversation. And then I’ll try to interview those people. So like, Maya mentioned three other people that she remembered specifically being in the conversation. And then, I’ve started to make a map of those people, and then this person that I met at Naropa, named JH Phrydas, asked me to do a series of interviews with people in the Bay Area who are poets who are interested in militant or insurrectionary poetics. Or, have questions around those sorts of things. Um, or he asked me to do one interview, and I thought it would be more interesting to interview a bunch of people, and then sort of…collage those interviews together to create, like, this conversation that never existed for me. It would be, like, a conversation about a conversation that didn’t exist for me. Because I flaked. You know, conversations are very fleeting, and I’m interested in sort of, like, what remains for people from them? After the fact. And also in the variety of perspectives and what different people remember about the same event that now doesn’t exist…otherwise.

[tape ends]



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