Now here you have a situation in which what ought to be beyond contestation in our nation’s archive – our collective memory of the violent Marcos regime – has been rendered provisional by the Philippines’ most powerful institutions. The fight to restore permanence to what has become perishable cannot be fought by writing poetry, though of course it plays a part. More urgently, though, we need to put our bodies out on the streets, in protest actions that in no uncertain terms protect the facts of our history from erasure.
While I think those who are truly invested in writing poetry are invested in poetry’s transformative power, I think it is also valuable not to overstate poetry’s contribution to social transformation. I suppose what I’m saying is, we need to be perpetually dissatisfied with responding to crisis ‘as poets’.
IA: Excavating the mundane, focusing on the ephemeral – even on a small scale, these sound like political acts, an antidote to historical revisionism, a way to counteract other people’s attempts to silence. Is poetry unequal to marching on the streets? Where can writers of poetry situate themselves, in the face of tyranny and oppression?
In one interview, you say that your writing and poetry are ‘‘forms of thinking in the aftermath of catastrophe,’ or ways to deal with the environmental and human rights disasters the Philippines historically dealt with and still deals with’. Would you say your writing is a resistance, a documentation, or a remedy?
CC: Yes, poetry is unequal to marching on the streets. It sounds like I am stating the obvious – poetry obviously cannot transform society the way social upheaval can. At the same time, I can imagine resistance to the very logic of your question, which pits poetry against collective action, and in effect, reinforces the idea of art and life as oppositional.
The tradition of protest poetry demonstrates how poetry is a tool for consciousness-raising and mobilisation, and is thus a component of political action. You could also say that poetry, even when it is not overtly political, when it prefers the universal, when it is staunchly private, if not blatantly apolitical, or when it is fiercely formally experimental to the point of illegibility, is nevertheless already a form of consciousness-raising, say, by cultivating attentiveness to language, to structures of thinking, to the idea of an other, to a self who is not our own – and these are necessary to participate meaningfully in political life. Besides, resistance to the status quo comes in different forms, and writing poetry is one of them. And I would agree, absolutely. But because it is not unusual for making art to be valorised as a form of resistance, or for ‘the personal is political’ to at times be used to validate self-indulgence and political reticence, I would also still prefer to magnify the line that divides art and life, and insist that writing poetry is unequal to marching on the streets.
To say this is not to belittle poetry, even though I believe that to view poetry as the literary equivalent of civil disobedience is to belittle civil disobedience. I make a living teaching literature and creative writing, specifically the writing of poetry, precisely because I believe in poetry’s capacity to harness things of value in order to live a just life – thinking, doubt, self-reflexivity, empathy. There’s value, too, in the extent to which poetry is unmarketable; in this lies the potential to create apart from profit and to think in terms other than the market’s, whose hold over the kinds of thinking (or non-thinking) that circulate ought to be disrupted. To borrow from Adorno, this ‘emphatic separation’ from the given world is what permits art (poetry) to intervene in it, by making evident that the world, as it is, is not (or shouldn’t be) the only world there is. I love poetry for these reasons, and my love is undiminished by the reality that despite, or perhaps given these capacities, poetry is rarely an effective first respondent to emergency.
As I write this just six months into the Duterte regime, close to 6,000 Filipinos have already been killed because of the government’s ‘war on drugs,’ which is in fact the state-sanctioned slaughter of the poor. Apparently, this regime’s strategy for poverty eradication is literally to eliminate the population currently living in poverty.
It is necessary and inevitable for poets / writers / artists to respond to times of crisis by making art about it. Art documents, interrogates, and (re)imagines life. Art is also, after all, what poets / writers / artists do. But there is a limitation to art as a response that infatuation with its relevance can camouflage. To paraphrase Oppen very, very badly, you don’t put out a fire by singing about it. Singing about the fire, however, can at times bring catharsis to the singer in ways that foster contentment in ‘having done one’s part’ as a productive citizen, which can in turn authorise detachment from collective struggle. I think the least we can do as poets is to be conscious of the limits of engaging ‘as poets’ in the work of social transformation. Our words on the page simply can’t stand-in for our bodies out on the streets.
I would like to think that poets are allies against tyranny and oppression, but that’s wishful thinking. It’s a fantasy that springs from what Joshua Clover calls the ‘amazing ideology’ of poetry – the idea that poetry is a realm of freedom and autonomy, that it eludes co-optation.
Earlier today, I read some posts on Facebook by Filipino poets expressing outrage, indignation, disappointment, and sadness over a fellow poet (an older writer whom they admired) whose latest status update was a photo of herself and a notorious Rodrigo Duterte mouthpiece of misinformation, with a caption that disclosed, in no uncertain terms, the poet’s collaboration with the regime. I’d already heard months earlier that this poet was in the employ of the president, so neither her expressed loyalty to the regime nor the anger it elicited surprised me. What struck me was this recurring sentiment among the poet’s critics: how could a poet do this?
We are so accustomed to thinking of poetry or art as a bastion of resistance that we are so unsettled when we see that it is also a bastion of complicity. It can be an accomplice of tyranny and oppression. It can be co-opted. If you serve the administration of our misogynist and fascist president, then you are a tool for enforcing and extolling this regime’s violence against Filipinos. You can’t undo that (both the violence and your complicity in it) with your poetry, no matter how feminist and anti-fascist it is.