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Only a few years old, Oakland-based Commune Editions has already published almost twenty volumes and chapbooks. The press sees itself as a raised fist of new activist poetry. Its brazen effort might seem tenuous or pretentious if not guided by good faith and exemplified powerfully in sundry titles. According to the website,
Commune Editions began with Bay Area friendships formed in struggle: the occupations in resistance to UC tuition hikes in 2009-11; the anti-police uprisings after the shooting of Oscar Grant that continued with the deaths of Mike Brown and Eric Garner; and the local version of Occupy, referred to by some as the Oakland Commune. In these moments, the people committed to poetry and the people committed to militant political antagonism came to be more and more entangled, turned out to be the same people. This felt transformative to us, strange and beautiful. A provisionally new strain of poetry has begun to emerge from this entanglement with communist and anarchist organizing, theorizing, and struggle.
Historically alert to present forces shaping the making of policy as well as poetry, this agitprop statement also comes off as sincere. It is a welcome stance of defiance to both quietist conceptions of poetry and the neoliberal crisis and reality gripping the world, making notions of political-poetic commitment and transformation seem not only vital but viable. I admire the lack of posturing and a passion to invest words with new potential for advocacy, on and off the page, a seriousness and clarity of purpose without any sententious sign of any one political party line.
The colophon for Commune Editions books reads: “we encourage the sharing of this book and everything else: omnia sunt communia.” Embracing an ecumenical leftist orientation encompassing many political traditions and theoretical positions, CE refuses any prevailing orthodoxy except community-based ethics and action. “All things in common” indeed: this epithet well describes the literary techniques and visions of CE titles — wide-spanning, dynamically diverse, and intent on addressing current crises of human rights and capitalism with a broad bandwith of attitudes and ideas. Two very different examples capture the defiant, radical spirit of this publishing enterprise.
Nanni Balestrini’s Blackout, fluidly translated from the Italian by poet Peter Valente, was originally published in 1980 and is written “for our persecuted comrades 7 April 1980.” Exactly a year earlier, the anti-statist, anti-capitalist Workers Power movement had been banned and members, including Balestrini, were harassed or arrested and prosecuted. (Fellow-traveler Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi gives a vivid, in-depth context to the period in his introduction.) This volume is meant to serve as a eulogy, epitaph, and past and future consideration of progressive political action in Italy and elsewhere. The “blackout” metaphorically describes the historical wipeout of all radical, anti-Stalinist Italian political groups and parties, but also refers to the 1977 New York City electrical blackout. How do these two events possibly relate?
Balestrini’s method of composition, which he and his commentators call recombination, involves the mixing and repetition of various information fragments, such as articles, news reports, speeches, and interviews. For example, an anecdote about a historical event in one place and time merges with another seemingly unrelated anecdote. Rather than randomly merging materials, this technique reveals contents to be controlled and predicted by identical international state and market forces.
Some critiques of Balestrini focus on the conceptual process of what almost appears to be algorithmic manipulation of repeated lines and references. Indeed, Blackout relies on an intricate pattern based on a chart system that requires specific lines to be inserted according to its internal logic. However, Balestrini’s is a haunting, poignant, radically generous voice, paradoxically defiant and resigned, whose expectation is to join poet and reader in a new conception of community with the desire to:
sing with the voice to liberate it from the conditioning of a cultural prison
an attempt to free ourselves from the condition of listener and viewer to
and politics have accustomed us
Recording reality while willing its transformation is not to engage in prophecy. This strident student of history tempers his vision of past historical events and future possibility so that polemical language is avoided. Balestrini sees social energies that could produce potential concord or catastrophe. Nevertheless, repeated reports and forecasts — such as “the ill-fated year 1968 is not yet over” and “we’re going to take what we want and what we want is what we need” —become powerful, haunting refrains, both as poetic lines and historical considerations.
Conversely, bilingual Mexican poet Heriberto Yépez shows no restraint and pulls not one punch. His critique of globalization possesses a different focus: the relation of the poet to foreign imperial power and its dominating literary culture. It is unremittingly caustic. One gets the sense that if Yépez experiences any anxiety about his art it stems from the question of whether it is splenetic enough. Some might consider the tone too shrill. I find it refreshing, on point, and funny: not only does Yépez’s work engage crucial issues, but it always entertains, and the extremities of some judgments seem justified on reflection.
Much of the book serves as an ongoing personal manifesto. As Yépez declares:
I am not experimental
English is not my mother
I cannot be but experimental
Aurally, “experiment” and “empire” come dangerously close, and the poet seems to identify himself almost embryonically, as if that non-English mother still envelops him and influences his poetic/genetic code. As he asks elsewhere: “What kind of poet/Can you make/OUT/OF/The poet/You were made INTO?”
Many other poetry and prose sections illuminate the travails and troubles of Mexicans on both sides of the border, particularly Mexican women. The author’s indictment of the reality of NAFTA relations. between the U.S. and Mexico is seething. With his red-hot rhetoric and internationalist perspective, Yépez is often reminiscent of Amiri Baraka. But wait: he devotes a scathing section of this scathing volume, entitled “On Imperial Poetics: Baraka’s Defense of Olson,” to chastising Baraka blisteringly as an apologist of imperial poetics. Although I don’t agree with Yépez’s argument, I admire his irreverence and insubordination (akin to Baraka’s) — he is not looking for leftist literary groupthink.
Nor is Commune Editions interested, on the evidence of these two titles and its other offerings, in fostering a monotonic, consistent genre of political poetry. The world is too unstable for such consistency and CE so far seems too adventurous for such straightening.