Further Explorations of War Resistance Poetry
in Public Spaces
by Philip Metres
Citizens behave as a public body when they confer in an unrestricted fashion—that is, with the guarantee of freedom of assembly and association and the freedom to express and publish their opinions—about matters of general interest. In a large public body this kind of communication requires specific means for transmitting information and influencing those who receive it….We speak of the public sphere in contrast, for instance, to the literary one, when public discussion deals with objects connected to the activity of the state.
—Jurgen Habermas, "The Public Sphere: An Encyclopedia Article." 1964. trans. Frank Lennox and Sara Lennox. New German Critique No. 3 (Autumn, 1974), 49-55. page 49.
Freedom of the Press is limited to those who own one.
Considered together, Habermas' idealized theorization of the public sphere and Liebling's sarcastic retort to the notion that a free press and free speech exist outside of economic and political exigencies, lay bare a fundamental tension in the construction of the nation's self-narrations. Who gets to speak, and whose voice is heard, in our national conversations about the direction of our country? The abyssal distance between the words "representative" and "democracy" which define our form of government extends even wider in times such as ours, when so many people bitterly oppose a war that the few—the few who, as it happens, claim authorship of our current national narrative—appear unwilling to end. In an age when there appears to be an almost infinite number of opportunities to let one's voice to be heard—the Blogosphere, MySpace, YouTube being some of the principal Internet soapboxes of the moment—some voices are heard, to echo Orwell, more loudly than others.
Poetry, in many ways, and through its many minions, has refused to roll over and keep dreaming. It has bolted upright, and gotten out of bed—that is, off the page—and into other spaces where people don't usually expect to find it. In the conclusion to my book-length investigation of war resistance poetry, Behind the Lines: War Resistance Poetry on the American Homefront Since 1941, I returned to a persistent motif—a post-Gutenbergian call to see poetry breathe outside of the confines of the book, and for us to see poetry freed into the third dimension of public spaces: "war resistance poems thus ask for our redeployment in multiple sites, returning poetry to where it thrives—at the local and in local resistance [i.e. "behind the lines" and beyond the page and into the public square]—as graffiti, in pamphlets, as performances, as songs, and in the classroom" (233). This poetry invites us
to pose further questions not only about the limits of the individualized poem, but also about the individualized poet, and propose ways that poets and activists might work to find ways of making poetry "active" again, and making activism a labor of making as much as a labor of protest and unmasking. Thus, the survival of war resistance poetry depends not just on the aesthetic value of the poems, but also on what these poems offer as cultural productions. War resistance poets attempt to address both the converted and unconverted, to praise the committed and also to hail the unconverted, inviting them to partake in this collective subjectivity of resistance.
Though books clearly can be liberatory sites for poetry—as they have been for so many readers of poetry over the centuries—the culture of poetry, in our post-Gutenbergian age, remained mostly a culture of the book only, to the detriment of poetry's vital relationship to orality, to performance, to bodily instrumentation.
("Poetry and the Peace Movement: Useable Pasts, Multiple Futures")
What I have found, in the year following the publication of Behind the Lines, are signs that war resistance poetry is hardly moribund—and often lives in the form of signs themselves: hijacked billboards, scrawled bedsheets, homemade placards, spray-painted bullets of compressed language suddenly visible in landscapes usually denuded of poetic speech-acts. This poetry is lang/scape, words sutured into landscapes (both literal and figurative). The word "landscape," after all, comes from the Dutch root "schap," which likely comes from "skap," meaning "to create, ordain, appoint" (www.dictionary.com). Related, as well, to the Anglian "scip," which means "a state, condition of being," these lang/scapes are made words that attempt to bring a vision of resistance into being. On faculty office doors, in secluded parks, at peace shows, in poetry readings in reading halls and on the streets, later YouTubed for the Internet masses, above freeway overpasses, on roadside fences—war resistance poetry has laid claim to spaces typically reserved for advertisements and safety signs, sutured the space between the public sphere and the literary sphere (pace Habermas), and created its own presses and transient pages (pace Liebling) to give voice to the growing weariness and outrage at the Iraq War—a war initiated through falsified evidence, conducted with arrogant short-sightedness, and criminally mismanaged.
To call such language acts poems is to interrogate not only page-based definitions of poetry, but also definitions of poetry that privilege difficulty, complexity, and ambiguity above all else. Such poetry—with its limited and fugitive palettes—cannot manifest the "difficulty" made possible by a larger field; yet, the examples of lang/scape that most fully deserve to be called "poetry" provoke in multiple ways—not merely as agitprop, whose messages are always and necessarily transparent—and induce further rumination by their audiences. As a page-centered, occasionally difficult poet—and a reader of poetry who finds pleasure in the page and in complexity—I worry that my claim veers close to the argument that all political speech (for example, former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's dodgy discourse at press conferences) is necessarily a kind of poetry.
Yet poetry is never merely an extension of political rhetoric. On the contrary, as Susan Schultz has written, "Rumsfeld wants to get people off his scent so he can do things. [Poetry] is the scent, you could say — it's really trying to get you deep into a cultural moment or political moment, or just into how language works" (qtd in Thomas online). Lang/scape, then, worries that line between the poetic and the political. When it succeeds, it enables political thinking without being reducible to sloganeering. It allows us to see rhetorical language for what it is—rhetorical language—not for what it promises (that it contains the whole truth). It provides both dissenters and the wider citizenry insight into the possibilities and limits of symbolic action itself as a kind of language—one of the critical modes of nonviolent protest. Finally, it compels us to imagine new landscapes, as it were, within the landscape itself.
While these signs of life speak to poetry's vital intervention as a mode of dissent, they also admit to their (occasionally extreme) marginality by virtue of their transience, their unrepeatability, their relatively limited discursive space, even their questionable legality. Yet, these quixotic and often beautiful acts coax and cajole us, as their readers, not simply to talk back, but to some form of commensurate action—they are flashes of light that illuminate a way in the thicket of despair and resignation.
The following examples of lang/scape begin with the local (at my own university and in my own town)—since lang/scape arguably emerges from local contexts and attempts to reclaim the local as a site of independent speech and thought—and then turns to more far-flung national examples, about which I have learned through the Internet. Lang/scape, then, offers a vital example of how the local and the global intertwine, and converse with one another; lang/scape, like dissent itself, attains a double-consciousness as a result of its information-dissemination networks of the Internet. Neither merely local, nor just global, such poetry makes claims to suture these disparate audiences, and to participate in larger conversations about the future narrations of the nation (and of the globe).
1. The Limits of Language, The Limits of My Office Door
Dring the post-9/11 era, even the hallowed halls of the academy, where free speech and poetry have long bathed in a kind of sacrosanct aura, have become contested sites where speech, language acts, and poetry come into conflict. In what became national controversies, Ward Churchill at the University of Colorado at Boulder (who was fired, allegedly, for academic misconduct) and Norman Finkelstein at DePaul University (who was denied tenure by the Administration after receiving glowing reviews for his scholarship and teaching) became casualties in the post-9/11 climate of fear and political repression. Though such high profile cases of attacks on dissident intellectuals deserve our rightful attention, much smaller, local instances of the chilling of free speech also suggest the extent to which dissenting language has come under scrutiny. In the fall of 2007, a controversy in my own university simmered over what is admissible on professors' office doors—as it happens, the door of a colleague and friend, Paul Lauritzen. Lauritzen, a Distinguished Professor, renowned ethicist and the director of Applied Ethics at John Carroll University, has never been one to hide his political views. Yet Lauritzen, in contrast to Churchill and Finkelstein, whose rhetoric has tended toward the explosively inflammatory, has always measured his words more carefully. As long as I've been at the university—I began just weeks before September 11th, 2001—Lauritzen employed his office window and door as a political palette, an alternative news wall that would extend and project itself into the spaces of the academy so frequently bare of such viewpoints. One of my favorite extensions of language into the academic space was when he used a LCD projection screen to cast upon the white wall in the hallway just across from his office the cost of the war in dollars—a dizzying number forever spiraling that the passerby literally would have to step through as s/he walked down the hall.
Lauritzen's door became the object of controversy when an anonymous tip was called into "Ethics Point"—the University's organ for allowing people to communicate potential violations of university policy—reporting that Lauritzen had something inflammatory on his door. It was a sign that said: "IMPEACH BUSH." Human Resources stepped in, and removed the sign, then emailed Lauritzen to say that they interpreted a university policy in such a way that would make such signage forbidden. The University Faculty Council intervened on his behalf, and Lauritzen met with in-house council, Maria Alfaro-Lopez, to gain clarification about the policy, and some indication in writing that he was not violating policy and that the party who reported it would be informed of the university's support of his free speech. In Lauritzen's words,
The current situation is fairly Orwellian. I have been told that the original email [from Human Resources] was in error. I have asked to receive in writing a statement to that effect, but have been told that there is a university policy, but no agreed upon interpretation of it that would either permit or forbid me to post a sign. The upshot is that Maria would not put in writing that no university policy prevented me from posting my "Impeach Bush" sign. She agreed to put something in writing to the effect that there is no agreed upon interpretation of university policy, but she has not yet sent that to me. (email to author)
The legal counsel made some effort to suggest that the individual faculty member's door was theirs to use as they saw fit, but that the door of an "institution" such as Applied Ethics might be inappropriate. This sort of distinction seems like hair-splitting, yet a faculty member's rights to express viewpoints that may be inflammatory—the very rights upon which academic freedom is based—were in question.
Some months later, Lauritzen received this email from in-house counsel:
This is in follow-up to our meeting regarding the EthicsPoint complaint filed relative to your posting on the exterior door of the Center for Applied Ethics. As I communicated to you then, due to the fact that there is no clearly expressed posting policy that applies to faculty, this is to confirm that it was determined that there your posting did not constitute a violation of the posting policy issued by the VP for Student Affairs.
Lauritzen was vindicated, the University made the right decision, and free speech held the day. Yet one might say that the "IMPEACH BUSH" sign did exactly what it was meant to do—to shake someone into doing something about it. Calling Ethics Point was not the action that Lauritzen most wished of his readers, but his language act compelled someone to respond, to attempt to use institutional power against this voice within the institution. So frequently, those who dissent become the object, ad hominem, of the ire of those their language disturbs. Lauritzen's act demonstrates that there is indeed a place for language that disturbs, that unsettles.
(email to author from Paul Lauritzen dated January 7, 2008)
Lauritzen's subsequent sign on his office door, posted below, a poem by Miguel de Unamuno, offers a subtler but no less defiant stance against those who attempt to bully people into silence: "at times to be silent is to lie." The message, now, extends not only to President Bush, but to those who wish to silence Lauritzen. This poem enacts a political argument that might perplex rather than inflame, yet it is one that seems as necessary as ever. It is possible that our arguments benefit from a kind of oscillation between the interpellative invitation of the Martin Luther Kings, and the threatening fist-shaking of the Malcolm X's—a kind of Hegelian dialectic of protest. We need to be unsettled and we need to be invited, in order to shake ourselves from the trance of this war, and all the arguments summoned to continue it.
(detail from Paul Lauritzen's office door)
One final note: unrelated to the brouhaha over Lauritzen's door, I received an ominous email from Student Services notifying me that I had posted flyers in violation of campus policy, which would lead to the revocation of my posting privileges (which require that flyers be posted only in selected locations). I had noticed over the past year that the clean-up crew regularly tore down newly stamped signs (stamps that I had to obtain from Student Services) from the hallways, and I almost gave up putting signs up at all. The selected locations, apparently, are seven sanctioned post boards on the entire campus, which, as far as I can tell, exist only in the corners of buildings, in sites where few students pass. In an age of information bombardment, it is increasingly difficult to penetrate the defended consciousness of the average college student, who is so bedraggled by coursework, jobs, love troubles, text messages, and the like, that they are lucky to remember their own names. When the Chair of my department confronted Student Services and Human Resources about this issue, an Administrator expressed distaste for what he perceived as the messiness of professors' office doors and flyers. It is, for better or worse, the very messiness that makes academic life a kind of life—that stew of interests and events, issues and performances, lectures and sporting events, from film showings of "The Battle of Algiers" to student performances of "The Vagina Monologues" or the latest poetry reading—a whole range of experiences and viewpoints to which some may take offense or be bored by but others might find news that stays news. Lacking information kiosks— those obelisks of tattered announcements standing like monuments to the moment— our university compels us to fugitive means and temporary palettes.
(detail from my office door, January 2, 2008)
2. B(e)aring Witness: Demonstrations
(image from "Baring Witness" website)
When Habermas speaks of the "public body," his language refers back to the archeology of political language that locates politics on the level of the body; from the notion of the King as the physical manifestation of God and State, to the more recent formulations of anxiety over "illegal aliens" penetrating the borders of the national body, politics so frequently measures the relationships of bodies to the other bodies. Whether one ascribes to the Habermasian ideal of bodies "confer[ring] in an unrestricted fashion" (49) or the Foucauldian notion of society revolving around the disciplining of bodies, what bodies are allowed to do is an intricate matter of politics. If, as von Clausewitz proposed, war is the pursuit of politics by other means, then war resistance in times of limited free speech may sometimes require its own political actions, outside of the normal channels of information dissemination.
On November 12, 2002, Donna Oehm Sheehan and a cohort of friends who were disturbed by the drumbeats to war literalized Habermas' bodies "behav[ing] as a public body ... confer[ring] in an unrestricted fashion" when they decided to strip their clothes and form the word that they wished would come into being: peace. Sheehan, founder of "Baring Witness," a group demonstrating against the (then-impending) Iraq War recalled a dream that she had
of people creating artistic shapes with their bodies. My thoughts went to Helen Odeworitse and 600 Nigerian women, who used the threat of their nakedness (a shaming gesture for men in Nigeria and perhaps elsewhere?) to force ChevronTexaco to listen to their families' needs. The women's action of occupying the oil terminal and threatening to shame the male employees made Chevron concede to their demands to share a little of the wealth by providing basic services to the local people.
Baring Witness' bodily performance of "peace" is a kind of language—not only on the level of content, of course, but also on the level of form. The very bodies which are exposed—exposed, of course, not only to the elements but to the documentary and predatory camera's eye—speak back to the casual viewer with a stark conviction, a conviction beyond shame. When I first read about this act, my reflex response was, in part, a horrified "oh no, the ex-hippies of Marin County have made the peace movement look out of step with the rest of the country; when all else fails, take off your clothes and see if people watch." Yet the image-hungry mass media rapidly consumed the story and reported it, to the point of crashing Baring Witness' web servers. In Paul Reffel's reflection on the media coverage, "Baring Witness: The New Peace Movement," he noted the awkwardness with which two male broadcasters handled this image:
That was such a powerful image for me at the time that it became a natural extension of my thoughts about my dream. Now I saw women's bodies forming letters - and the word they formed had to be PEACE.
From that inspired moment, I turned to the resource that all organizers need - their like-minded friends. "Do you think we could do it?" Yes, yes, and yes! We came up with the perfect photographer who decided the perfect, accessible location with grass, a horizon and parking, We called the owners for permission to use the field on Tuesday afternoon….The excitement and nervousness grew as the vision became a possibility. The huge question was whether women would be able to withstand the vulnerability of exposing themselves nude. Each of us called five women and told them to call five more apiece. Many women responded with the same excitement and willingness, some could not attend. The few who could make it and were excited by the idea but were unwilling to disrobe were invited to help with the clothes. By Tuesday, over 50 women turned up at the field.
When the image of the PEACE photo was shown on CBS Sunday Morning as a segue between "news" items, Charles Osgood's voice-over was a respectful statement of the facts, but when he came on camera, he said, "Talk about a body of work." Then he turned to introduce Bob Schieffer, who said, "I was hoping for a close-up." Many women were offended by these typical male responses, but what do they really convey? These are the kind of stock responses that men express when they get together. They form a mask of bravado, which is a survival tactic for men among men. What they really show is the embarrassment most sober men feel when confronted by public female nudity. Bob Schieffer's body language - grinning, his eyes down and head slightly bowed - revealed not leering priapism but self-conscious uncertainty, even as he spoke the words that he was 'expected' to say. That is part of the dilemma of appearing 'manly' in America.
In the months and years that have followed, other demonstrations of this kind have spread throughout the country and indeed throughout the world. Though, clearly, the contexts in which these women (and men, in subsequent demonstrations) offer their nakedness as a sign of vulnerability differ drastically from the Nigerian social contexts (in which a woman's nakedness shames the men of the community), it nonetheless remains a powerful, if contradictory witness. In response to this physical poem, composed of bodies shorn of their protection and caught in digital pixels, I wrote a more conventional page-based poem, which, I hope, suffices as a kind of dialectical engagement with the possibilities and limits of such demonstrations.
For the Fifty Who Formed PEACE With Their Bodies
3. Demonstrations (2): How Does the Peace Movement Represent Itself?
In the green beginning,
in the morning mist,
they emerge from their chrysalis
of clothes: peel off purses & cells,
slacks & Gap sweats, turtle-
necks & tanks, Tommy's & Salvation
Army, platforms & clogs,
abandoning bras & lingerie, labels
& names, courtesies & shames,
the emperor's rhetoric of defense,
laying it down, their child-
stretched or still-taut flesh
giddy in sudden proximity,
onto the cold earth: bodies fetal or supine,
as if come-hithering
or dead, wriggle on the grass to form
the shape of a word yet to come, almost
embarrassing to name: a word
thicker, heavier than the rolled rags
of their bodies seen from a cockpit:
they touch to make
the word they want to become:
it's difficult to get the news
from our bodies, yet people die each day
for lack of what is found there:
here: the fifty hold, & still
to become a testament, a will,
embody something outside
themselves & themselves: the body,
the dreaming disarmed body.
And if the exposed
flesh of women spells,
as they stretch prone, a word
they wish the world
might wear, the tenderness
of unbruised skin, juice
of itself unsipped? And then?
Here, where flesh is marked
and measured in market
scales of the ogler's eyes,
will they fall, cast down
to their own odd armor,
or gloat on the novel glut
of flesh, the body commodity
no Godiva can set free?
But what if unbuffed generals,
grandfathers unashamed, stood
before camera's judgment,
to the cold, their sag noses
shying from all eyes—
an offering of useless nipples
& old maps of animal fur
tracing their chests? It's no use.
Shoot out the lights, suture
the lids, & trace with fingertips
the blind-dark rooms
of what we are, houses
of breath, sheltered & unshelled.
On Labor Day, Monday September 3rd, 2007, some poetry students and I gathered at The Peace Show in downtown Cleveland's Willard Park, to engage in a project called "Stories of War and Peace," in which we set out to gather oral narratives from people working at or attending the events of the day. A Cleveland event since 2002, the Peace Show began as a response to the Air Show, which members of the Catholic Worker and other radical pacifist groups had been picketing as a celebration of militarism. The idea of the Peace Show was to move beyond the negativism of protest (however necessary) to a "pro-attestation" (Allen Ginsberg's coinage)—i.e., a celebration, a festival of what we believe and how we live out the sentence of those beliefs. The students and I gathered over fifty interviews in a few hours, met and talked with many more than that—from groups whose issues spanned the progressive gamut from veganism to peace in the Middle East. These interviews can be accessed online at http://www.philipmetres.com. What I hoped was that the student poets might use these narratives to create docupoems in the tradition of Charles Reznikoff and Muriel Rukeyser for their final projects. Somewhat to my disappointment, only two students ended up writing poems inspired by the day's experience (one of them a poem about an uncle's death due to the effects of Agent Orange)—though none in the documentary mode. Yet a number of them wrote poems that had a much broader sense of the political, likely as a result of that experience. This ongoing experiment suggests how, at times, poetry and narrative can prove to be a difficult fit.
Jonathan LaGuardia, a graduate student at John Carroll University who has been an invaluable assistant to some of my various projects, including Behind the Lines, participated in the Stories of War and Peace project, which led to his reflection:
Early in the day, I tagged along on an interview with a Vietnam Veteran, a clean-shaven man of about 60, dressed in a Vietnam-era army shirt and a pair of dull gray cotton shorts. He carried an American flag on a pole over his shoulder in which the separate little white stars—one for each country in the Union—was replaced by a peace sign.
LaGuardia's reflections offer us the fundamental problematic at the heart of so much war poetry; the way we approach language to articulate our experience—whether it is hardened into a rote speech or still beyond our words—does not ensure successful communication of information. Rather, almost by necessity, the putting-into-language of traumatic experience—whether oral narrative, written story, or poetry—becomes itself a kind of new experience which the listener completes.
When we started the recorder and asked him to introduce himself, he began factually—basic training at such and such a location, elevated in rank to such and such a position, eventually stationed just north of Saigon—though it quickly turned to personal loss: "Two days after [the January 31, 1968 offensive]," he said, "one of my lieutenants was killed. It was a huge shock to me, and it's still" — his voice began to break, and his eyes shifted from the tiny microphone he had been watching to some remote, unidentifiable position in the distance—"and, ummm, it's going to be a shock to me for the rest of my life."
A little while into the interview, after more factual "I was here and then went there," the subject of death came up again, and again the speaker hesitated, staring off into the distance and letting his lip quiver before regaining control. His hesitations were so perfect that I could not help but view them as performances—staged, rehearsed performances of the same talk he had been giving for the last 40 years.
About four or five hours later, an Iraq Vet came up to me, a black man about my age with short, loose dreadlocks and no visible wounds. He came up to me not to give a story, but to give his name and contact information, in case we'd like to get in touch with him at some point in the future. "I'm sure you'll want to hear what I have to say," he said, "but my head just isn't straight enough to submit to an interview yet."
So, here I have these two generations of veterans: the Vietnam Veteran whose grief seemed rehearsed, and the Iraq Veteran who, in his own words, couldn't get his head "straight enough" to submit to an interview. When the Iraq Vet left me, I turned to where we had interviewed the Vietnam Vet, and there he was still, parading up and down the grass with his American Peace Flag over his shoulder—this 60 year old man in a long sleeved army shirt in the sweltering sun had been walking back and forth for 4 solid hours for no other reason than to be there, to be seen.
With this sight, I saw new value to his performance, thinking that there was a truth to the performed grief that immediate grief could not have delivered. Perhaps it took those 40 years to put those moments into a coherent narrative, the truth of his performed grief identical to his somber but dedicated march: exhausting, but necessary. (email to author)
Finally, one of the many entertainments at the Peace Show—in addition to information booths, children's activities such as face-painting, food and drink, stilt-walkers, and a paper Peace Plane "launch"—was a main stage of music, rap, and poetry. Competing with the ear-splitting sound of Air Show military jets frequently passing overhead, I read a few poems to the main stage audience, including the aforementioned "For the Fifty," and two poems about air shows—Denise Levertov's "Air Show" and William Stafford's "Watching the Jet Planes Dive." Stafford, a conscientious objector to World War II, employs simple, incantatory language that becomes a kind of map to "something forgotten by everyone alive":
We must go back and find a trail on the ground
Stafford's poem recalls his own struggle, as a conscientious objector during World War, to situate himself as a citizen in a country that no longer resembled itself; in Down in My Heart, Stafford's memoir of his years working and living in alternative service camps during the war, Stafford laments that "the country we had known was gone, had completely disappeared, was wiped out in a bombing that obliterated landmarks which had stood for years—since long before we were born" (DIMH 7). Like the lang/scape poets, Stafford found himself an alien in his own land, attempting to re-map his surroundings by going back to "something forgotten by everyone alive." The act Stafford describes involves sniffing out the earth for the scents that would bring us back home—the same metaphor that Susan Schultz employs to describe the poetic act. For Stafford, as for the lang/scape poets, "where roads are unconnected we must make a path" (WI 68). Poems are signposts to find our collective way back.
back of the forest and mountain on the slow land;
we must begin to circle on the intricate sod.
By such wild beginnings without help we may find
the small trail on through the buffalo-bean vines.
We must go back with noses and the palms of our hands,
and climb over the map in far places, everywhere,
and lie down whenever there is doubt and sleep there.
If roads are unconnected we must make a path,
no matter how far it is, or how lowly we arrive.
We must find something forgotten by everyone alive,
and make some fabulous gesture when the sun goes down
as they do by custom in little Mexico towns
where they crawl for some ritual up a rocky steep.
The jet planes dive; we must travel on our knees.
William Stafford. The Way It Is 68
(Metres reading poems at Peace Show 2007)
4. Blogging: From Hyperspace to People Space
Though the Internet has become a viable and even critical site for affiliation, information-gathering and archiving, and generating action for the peace movement, it is also a place whose labyrinthine spaces can rather look like democracy and yet remain invisible to the public. In a sinister way, the Internet—for all its utopian potential—can come to resemble the Matrix's version of the world; it looks real enough, but sometimes it has the uncanny feeling of a parallel, faux-universe. The Freeway Blogger (www.freewayblogger.com), who takes his nom de guerre from the exploding technology of weblogging and then applies to actions in public spaces, has been working as an activist bringing pithy language into public spaces since 9/11. In particular, he has been placing signs on freeway overpasses and other very public spaces where the greatest number of people might see them, in his attempt to cut through the fog of mainstream media coverage. As you might imagine, many of the images and text tend to be blunt to the point of oversimplification and provocation.
(Image from FreewayBlogger.com)
But some, such as the one above—"if this was/our policy/[image of Abu Ghraib man]/We're losing/a hell of a lot/more than just/a war"—invite a longer look. I love the line breaks, and the colloquial language suddenly weighted with symbolic resonances. "A hell of a lot" means "a lot" but it also evokes the hell that torture induces, a "lot" which we condemn ourselves by opening us up to future blowback and attacks. "More than just" both invokes and revokes the notion that torture can somehow be justified—the "just" evoking "not only," but also "justice" itself. What kind of "just war" can be invoked when "this" [torture] becomes part of the policy.
Yet even such language acts as a sign that reads "IMPEACH"—on a professor's door or highway overpass—however reductive or inflammatory, constitute an essential parallel intervention into the public conversation about this war. Though such signs may not necessarily succeed in "converting the unconverted," they nonetheless act as flickers of encouragement for those whose voices have been left out of the discussion of this war. Online, his short video demo, "How to Reach 100,000 People for Under $1.00," shows him at work, and offers us the simple tools to make a freeway our page.
5. The Sidewalk Blogger
Though I have argued for us to see such language acts as the Freeway Blogger's as a kind of poetry, the Sidewalk Blogger actually is a well-known poet and publisher of poetry on the page. Inspired by the Freeway Blogger, the Sidewalk Blogger (who wishes to remain anonymous) demonstrates a poet's sense of brevity in her activist signage and her witty employment of public spaces and signage for her own textual production. Bringing the disappeared language of the peace movement into public space in her environs of Kane'ohe, Hawai'i, she regularly posts photographs of her work on Facebook, to share her narratives and images with those of us around the globe. Her project has evolved, as she has embraced new rhetorical angles, material for signage, and evolving contexts and narratives.
It began rather simply, with signs like the following (see below): "BRING 'EM HOME ALIVE" painted bright red in bold letters, hung on a pedestrian overpass.
("BRING 'EM HOME ALIVE" from Sidewalk Blogger)
In addition to the images posted on Facebook, she includes short narratives that offer insight into her experience of hanging the signs at night—and then photographing them the following days. Here is what she wrote about the above picture:
9/3: left home just past 3 a.m. last night with the signs. The pedestrian overpass is on Kam Highway between town and the H3 off ramps. (The H3 goes to the Marine Corps Station in one direction, Pearl Harbor in the other.) I put them up, but inside the white bars, because the wires I had were too short. Came home and asked B to cut me longer wires. Went back and moved the signs to the outside of the railing. When I entered my parking lot, just past 4 a.m., the property manager was starting his Ford SUV and when I got out of my car he was trolling the small parking lot. I think he shone his lights at me.
These vignettes provide a window not only into the documentary photograph, but also into the particular geographical and social landscape in which she finds herself. Hawai'i, after all, is the site not only of Pearl Harbor and all its historical associations, but also of a number of large military bases. The vignette demonstrates the vulnerability of the Sidewalk Blogger to being exposed, even as she attempts to expose the war's effects on us: "I think he shone his lights at me."
The vulnerability of Sidewalk Blogger is replicated in the landscape as well—where there are other legible signs. In one image, she takes a wrecked car as her page, as if to suggest that the war itself is a car wreck (see below).
("NO WAR" car wreck, from Sidewalk Blogger)
Indeed, arguably every dollar that is spent on this war, inescapably, takes away money that could have been spent on children, infrastructure, our futures.
When I asked her to write more about her project, she explained that her
project involves the hanging of signs on chain link fences on the windward side of O`ahu. This side of the island is a suburb to Honolulu; beyond the suburbs is what is left of country. My postal address is Kane`ohe, home of a large Marine Corps base from which many Marines are being shipped to Iraq. Hawai`i has over two dozen military bases in it [about 28]. The windward side of this island, while its politics are liberal--our congresswoman is Mazie Hirono, the only Buddhist in Congress--is fairly conservative. It's not rare to see cars with yellow ribbons, Standing Tall bumperstickers, and Hope Chapel adverts stuck on them.
The Sidewalk Blogger sees her primary work as disrupting a collective "apathetic hubris," but her disruptions often involve humor and surprise. Such techniques often can hold at bay the reflex politicized judgment in the face of such play.
The purpose of the sign-hanging is to interrupt what my husband's cousin down the street calls "our communal apathetic hubris." Since most everyone on Oahu drives a car, of necessity, signs are a way to get people's attention. My hero is the freeway blogger (freewayblogger.com) who does this in California. Different scale. So I call mine the Sidewalk Blog, though recently I've hung signs off pedestrian bridges over main roads. Also put up a roadside memorial to the dead, which is a way to engage the local culture of roadside memorials for car crash victims. And I have a new co-conspirator who is doing her best to put up more signs and memorials.
I have tried to incorporate humor (WAR STINKS on a sewage plant), but mainly to use the strategy of surprise and to write messages that are clear and short, like IMPEACH or NO WAR or OUT OF IRAQ.
I don't know what change such action effects, but it's all I can think to do. After seeing a young man arrested at a political meeting for asking a question at length, I suspect we need to use our right of free speech in order not to lose it. (email to author)
Another sign (see below) demonstrates her increasingly interactive approach with the environment; employing previously hung signs, she extends the "security" message "KEEP OUT" to an anti-war message: "KEEP OUT/of IRAN."
("KEEP OUT / OF IRAN," from Sidewalk Blogger)
The bold red letters in her piggyback sign invoke a humorous mimicry, one that saps the stentorian warning of the original sign, while communicating its own message.
Yet the signs, once in public spaces, become susceptible to revision and co-authorship. In a postscript, the Blogger writes:
I'm also learning strange things about audience and reception doing this. One of the signs was turned upside down, which took as much effort as taking it down would have. Another was "edited" repeatedly using dead leaves (crossing out the "im" in "impeach"). At one point someone not myself cleaned out the leaves. So these signs have lives of their own. Am also seeing this landscape in an utterly new way, through chain link.
Once the sign-poem is out of her hands, "IMPEACH" can become a "PEACH," and, with the help of another reviser, back to its original message. As a result of seeing the landscape as a potential site for poetry, and because of the tenuousness of all language and signage in public spaces, Sidewalk Blogger has found her view of the landscape altered, even transformed—as she says, "in an utterly new way, through chain link."
And telephone poles. Have been astonished, so far, at how easy it's been to put them up--usually just after dark, though the memorials are done in the light of day--without interference. I guess everyone's trapped in their cars, which makes them a "captive audience." (email to author)
Whether she is employing satire (as in her "lost dog" series or her "got milk" series) or factual barrages (as in her "information" series), she registers to her readers in many different ways the specific and general costs of the war—the costs to our Constitutional Rights, to our public and private coffers, and to the young men and women who serve in the military:
("$REWARD$ LOST," from Sidewalk Blogger)
("Iraq War Cost $430 billion," from Sidewalk Blogger)
("Got a voice (use it!)," from Sidewalk Blogger)
Yet her "Got a voice (use it!)" sign, in the absence of other signs, could invite a panoply of responses, not limited to dissenting against the war. One wonders whether her readers might begin to see the connections between such signs spread across their landscapes.
As we entered the Advent season, the Sidewalk Blogger got the Christmas spirit, and began targeting her Christian audience with a series of pointed questions about the relationship between Christianity and warfare. In preparation for a town Christmas parade, the Sidewalk Blogger went to work interpellating those who identify as Christians yet also maintain pro-war points of view:
("Would Jesus Bomb?," from Sidewalk Blogger)
This was her vignette post:
The Kane'ohe Christmas parade was held today; it's a huge event here, with thousands of participants, including politicians, firemen, old people (the retirement home folks wore shirts that read "Peace" and bore the word on their float), hula halau (they had a peace sign on their float), church groups, and of course the cops and the Marines. My kids marched in the parade with their scout troops…I put out five signs on the parade route last night, hoping that some of them would survive, and they all did! The theme was Jesus (the pacific Jesus, not the warring one).
The proximity of the Knightcracker sign (a reference to the local Castle High School Knights) to the "Would Jesus Bomb?" sign places the two Christmases at odds with each other—the Christmas of warring rats and soldiers of "The Nutcracker," and the birth of Jesus.
But it was her mid-December work that inspired my own sardonic blog posting of December 11, 2007: "Merry Christmas from the Sidewalk Blogger/Santa Says Hell No to War." Having inherited some old Christmas-themed signs, the Sidewalk Blogger produced some of her funniest and darkest antiwar propaganda yet. In the tradition of the I.W.W.'s Little Red Book, which provided radical lyrics to be sung to traditional songs, The Sidewalk Blogger subverts the saccharine images of Santa and doe-eyed Biblical figures with the language of protest and outrage:
("COME LET US IMPEACH HIM," from Sidewalk Blogger)
Suddenly, Jesus and George W. Bush are conflated, but in ways that might not please the Christian Right. This sign disturbs because it forces us to confront how political power in the United States derives authority from its claims to fulfilling a Christian mission as "a light unto the nations." That the President takes the place of the son of God—renders that secret myth (delivered in its "coded" messages in State of the Union addresses) obscenely visible.
("BUSH LIED," from Sidewalk Blogger)
("Give to the Iraq War!," from Sidewalk Blogger)
In the above two examples, the Sidewalk Blogger opens a window into what futures might emerge from our present national policies. Despite a National Intelligence Estimate report that suggested Iran was not a threat, President Bush has continued to rattle his saber and threaten World War III. And next to a large banner publicizing a craft and gift fair (no doubt, to raise money for the public school), Frosty the Snowman (see above) invites us to pay out millions per day to an unwinnable war: "Give to the Iraq War! $195 million per day!" Such juxtapositions provide a painful accounting of our national priorities as an imperial power. In the end, worldwide military dominance takes precedence over education. The Sidewalk Blogger's oscillation between satire and factuality offers the best sort of rhetorical one-two punch, since it offers its audience only a momentary relief of cynical distance, before she draws the implications back home; in other words, we cannot laugh long when we begin to add up the costs—both personal and national—to us and to future generations.
("Come Let Us Impeach Him," on bridge, Sidewalk Blogger)
Considered together, the Sidewalk Blogger's Christmas placards—with their cartoonish images of the winter holiday—are all the more striking against the backdrop of a semitropical Hawai'ian landscape that is both inside and outside the National Imaginary—that fantasy image that we have of ourselves. Hawai'i, one of the non-contiguous states, embodies the fantasy of expansion, of American colonial longing—part Gauguin's Tahiti, part Golf Course Heaven, part Dole's Pineapple Shangri-La. (It is, of course, a place with its own multiple histories and peoples, irreducible to such postcards). To place these "traditional" holiday signs in this landscape is to disrupt the very notion of a nation where everything is unified and the same.
Finally, the Sidewalk Blogger's "Torture=Frat Pranks" sign on the fence of a campus, next to a sign about what is prohibited brings to mind a host of questions, one of which is: in a country crisscrossed with legal prohibitions, lawsuits, and potential lawsuits, such as those articulated on this public sign ("NO dogs bike riding skate boarding roller blading"), isn't it strange that physical and mental terrorizing of a person can still be justified?
("TORTURE=FRAT PRANKS," from Sidealk Blogger)
Though her project is still evolving, the Sidewalk Blogger has demonstrated a poetic incisiveness, inserting language into language situations and landscape contexts that disrupt the mundane signs all around us, and leverage those words into a new way of seeing.
6. Taking it Out with the Trash: One Final Image
(from Stephen Vincent's blog)
As I was completing this piece, a friend sent me a link to Stephen Vincent's blog; dated January 3rd (even though it was January 2nd when I read it), and found this image (see above). Were the signs being thrown out? Were they meant to be seen by all passersby? Perhaps both. Vincent writes that he saw them while "walking home on Church Street on New Year's Day. Amazing what pops out of a neighbor's trashcan to greet, to astonish the eye. Omens, perpetual omens or signs of this torture propounding regime. Omens that this President and his colleagues are about to be trashed. Signs that they are still very much with us. This national, hell driven disaster - now, already, seven years about us. Trash, yes, to the trash." Such ephemeral markers that will last no longer than a day—perhaps even part of a day—nevertheless become, in their transience, images both of the tenuousness of historical memory and impermanence of arrogant power.
7. A Coda
I have shown just a handful of examples—many of them just outside my own door—in which poets and poetry have deployed into public spaces. These lang/scapes, of course, need to be read alongside the host of other poetic interventions into the public conversation about war: recent volumes of poetry (such as H.L. Hix's God Bless, Robert Hass' Time and Materials, the new O Books anthology War and Peace 3, Lisa Jarnot's recent translation of a selection of The Iliad, C.D. Wright's poem "Rising, Falling, Hovering" appearing in Chicago Review, the latest War Poetry anthologies in Big Bridge, among many other examples); poetry readings live and captured on YouTube (in particular, such provocations as those by the Flarf Collective, and those of the DC Guerrilla Poetry Collective, who give impromptu street readings in Washington, D.C.); print and radio interviews by poets who associate with the peace movement and such groups as the Poets Against the War; art installations by political artists such as Fernando Botero, David-Baptiste Chirot, Daniel Heyman, and Jenny Holzer, which derive their materials from documentary materials in ways that interrogate the dominant narrative; musical and lyrical interactions, such as Ted Leo's Living with the Living. These are but a few examples of the many ways in which poets and poetic language have been brought to bear against this war. Because I am aware of the limited and non-representative scope of this piece, I invite you to share your poems and symbolic actions with me at email@example.com, for a fuller survey of the work that is being done. I have also recently learned of the forthcoming study later in 2008, co-written by Jules Boykoff and Kaia Sand, called Landscapes of Dissent: Guerrilla Poetry and the Politicization of Public Space, which promises to be a critical work extending our understanding of the possibilities of poetry as political action, and in public spaces. While Democrats may not have the votes in Congress to reverse the Iraq War, these lang/scape poets have made an indelible mark on the landscape—sometimes, literally speaking. In the process, they have enabled their readers to see their surroundings (both physical and political) in new ways. They have brought a new political materiality to poetry, and a rhetorical nuance to the language of politics. Some have won some hearts and minds, and encouraged others who were already converted to take another step into the tenuous and risky position of active public dissent, or another step into outright resistance. We cannot know all the effects of such language acts in advance; that seems all the more reason to persist in making them.
(June 2007-January 2008)
Thank you to Amy Breau, Paul Lauritzen, and Susan Schultz, for their feedback on this essay. Much of the language of this article originated in blog posts on http://www.behindthelinespoetry.blogspot.com
Freeway Blogger. http://www.freewayblogger.com. January 2, 2008.
Habermas, Jurgen. "The Public Sphere: An Encyclopedia Article." 1964. trans. Frank Lennox and Sara Lennox. New German Critique No. 3 (Autumn, 1974), 49-55.
LaGuardia, Jonathan. Email to author. November, 2007.
Lauritzen, Paul. Email to author. October 9, 2007.
----. Email to author. January 7, 2008.
Metres, Philip. Behind the Lines: War Resistance Poetry on the American Homefront Since 1941. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 2007.
----. "For the Fifty, Who Made PEACE With Their Bodies." To See the Earth. Cleveland: Cleveland State UP 2008.
----. "Poetry and the Peace Movement: Useable Pasts, Multiple Futures." Online. http://www.bigbridge.org/fictpmetres.htm. Accessed January 8, 2008.
Reffel, Paul. "Baring Witness—The New Peace Movement." December 2002. Online. http://www.baringwitness.org/vision.htm. Accessed January 2, 2008.
Sheehan, Donna Oehm. "The Genesis of Our Peace Action." Online. www.baringwitness.org/Genesis. Accessed January 2, 2008.
Sidewalk Blogger. Email to author. September 9, 2007.
Stafford, William. Down in My Heart. Swarthmore, PA: Bench Press, 1985.
----. "Watching the Jet Planes Dive." The Way It Is: New & Selected Poems. St. Paul, MN: Graywolf, 1998. 68.
Thomas, Christine. "What I'm Reading: Susan Schultz." Honolulu Advertiser. May 20, 2007. Online. Accessed January 8, 2008. http://the.honoluluadvertiser.com/article/2007/May/20/il/FP705200356.html
Vincent, Stephen. Stephen Vincent blog. http://stephenvincent.net/blog/. Accessed January 2, 2008.