Poetry & Politics Roundtable           (page 3)
with Joshua Clover, Chris Nealon, & Juliana Spahr

CHRIS: And I’m happy to! Here in DC, I was describing our upcoming conversation to my friend Joe, and he pointed me to a 1961 Ebony magazine profile on James Baldwin that described him like this: “Arguing with agreeable companions with whom he does not disagree profoundly is one of his chief pleasures in life.” I love that.

When I wrote “Camp Messianism” I was trying to do two things at once: first, to remind readers in the world of contemporary poetry of the obvious fact that poets, however much they may care about movement politics, and argue about politics as though they were organizers or activists, aren’t – at least not as a group. At the same time, though, I wanted to suggest that even poets whose work doesn’t initially seem to be thinking about historical crisis, about capitalism, about politics, often are thinking about it. So I wanted to assign myself a task: given that poets aren’t the same as activists, but that poetry is a really sensitive barometer of the present, could I try to describe or act out a reading practice that took poetry seriously as a way of thinking about politics? To answer yes, it turned out, meant to accept that the poetry that interests me runs along a whole gamut of “thinking about politics” that makes more sense if you re-phrase it slightly, as “thinking about the present.” That way, I felt like I could begin to insist that divides in poetry between stances like “quietude” and “activism” made less sense than did a whole landscape of time-telling strategies that included, yes, straight-up calling for revolution but also a sit-and-wait attitude, or – most interesting to me, at the time – an attempt to take the long 20th-century history of defeats for the left and look at it wryly, maybe even campily. And what I see now that I didn’t say clearly enough in the essay was that if, on the one hand, being campy in the early ‘00s about messianic hopefulness was a kind of doubling-down on an attitude of political defeat, it also felt like an attempt to invert that attitude by re-inflecting it in the tone of what, in the English-speaking global north, has been the most visibly successful social movement since the 80s – the queer movement. I was especially interested to find this tone in poets not themselves identified as queer.

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