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Interview With Joshua Clover

Interview With Joshua Clover

The poet, academic and activist discusses maps, protest movements and why art isn't politically effective.

Joshua Clover is a respected American poet and writer based in California, where he teaches at UC Davis. His first collection, Madonna Anno Domini, won the Walt Whitman award for American poetry; Judith Butler called his most recent collection, The Totality for Kids, "a stunning collection" with "an enormous clarity of language in the service of a poetics that brilliantly queries our historical moment in and as form." Clover has written a great deal of cultural criticism, often under the pseudonym Jane Dark, for publications including the Village Voice and the Guardian, as well as on his own blog and in published books.

Unlike many of his peers in literature and academia, Clover is also an active participant in radical political action and organizing in California, both in the student movement and in broader social struggles such as Occupy Oakland.  With winter ending and the revival of the Occupy movement, Maisonneuve spoke to Clover about poetry, politics, and the intersections and contradictions of the two. The following transcript has been compiled and condensed from interviews through email and over Skype.   

Ian Beattie: Looking back at the political upheavals and resistance movements of the past year and a half—the Arab Spring, Occupy, the Chilean student movement, the indignados, the anti-Putin protests in Russia, etc.—what ground do you find yourself standing on today as a leftist who writes poetry? How can poetry do political work post-2011?

Joshua Clover: This gives me the opportunity to start by saying the most terrible thing. I do not think poetry, or any artistic practice, has much political efficacy in the present situation. This is not to say that people shouldn't write poems. I write poems for a variety of reasons. Habit isn't one; I was never in the habit. I find writing difficult and often demoralizing, the perpetual inability to escape from getting it wrong. But I keep writing because it is a bit utopian, a dream of the situation in which one day we might be able to get it right, or not need to. I keep writing because it is still the best way I have to focalize my thought. I lie less when I write poems.

That said, I think that for a while now, many of us poets have been telling ourselves lies about the political force of poetry. Many of these we know by heart. Speaking truth to power. Finding the form which might both reveal and persuade. Preserving the space of critique. Preserving the feel of some undomesticated common zone. Giving voice to the voiceless. Laying bare the truth of the ineluctably immiserating mechanism in which we live. We have been aided in this set of justifications by that peculiar historical development known as capital-T Theory, and particularly by ideas based around the primacy of discourse and "the materiality of the signifier"—ideas which allow activities at the level of language to claim the same material force as a thrown brick. Both constitute the world. 

But it's such bullshit, isn't it? I don't mean to dismiss the theoretical developments of the last forty years, the so-called "linguistic turn." I often find myself defending such matters against various attacks—one must oppose anti-intellectualism, tooth and nail. One must be open to new thoughts. It just so happens that my own understanding of our present situation finds these particular thoughts wanting. It is akin to the oft-asked question of why there are no great protest songs for this charged political moment, which is for many so reminiscent of the sixties. But that was a cultural crisis, playing out toward the end of an economic boom. Of course it drew an astonishing cultural response. Now we have a structural crisis of capitalism, of value production. The materialism of production reasserts itself. And this is not so easily metabolized into a cultural response. I think it is a very different and finally more sensible project to make a song or a poem about arms dealers or Kent State or even "picket lines and picket signs" than it is to make one that grasps after the declining rate of industrial profit and the corresponding rise of finance capital and the reorganizing of the global division of labor...but if we don't reach after that we are leaving our moment's dynamic untouched. 

I think there is going to be a transition from capitalism, perhaps in my lifetime. Perhaps to something worse.  Given how immiserating the current arrangement is across the globe, it is a necessary risk. And like all transitions, it will be messy and bloody. And we had all better confront that. "Spanish Bombs" is probably the second-greatest song ever written, and it happens to include the line about the Spanish Civil War, "trenches full of poets." But the point is, they weren't carrying poems to fight with. The poems in their pockets were for later, for when poetry could burst forth into a situation of its own possibility. I write poems now only because I want to be sharp if I make it through to a better time for poems.

IB: It seems that poets from marginalized backgrounds—post-colonial poets, queer or feminist poets—see some real political weight in intervening in colonial or patriarchal language. Can't language or poetry have some direct political impact in those contexts?

JC: I think it's fair to ask the question about poetry's capacity for intervening having some substantial efficacy in different situations. I think that's an entirely reasonable question. I think that the specific question that you've asked is for me a very difficult one on a couple of different lines. One is it opens up the extremely thorny question of representation as a question of representation in art, as a question of cultural or social representation—in these marginalized or vulnerable communities that you raised, the issue of representation tends to stand forth a little bit more, because these are communities that have traditionally lacked that representation in dominant discourse, or in dominant politics. And so the discourse of representation seems to have a lot more power there.

But I'm not sure I'm entirely persuaded by that. For me, the best critiques of, for example, gender division and gender struggle, and racial division and racial struggle, have rendered those struggles as inseparable from the question of capitalism and the domination of capital...So, I want to be leery of saying, "Well, for those groups a different politics obtains than for the politics that I understand as aggressively anti-capitalist politics." I don't want to pull those things apart, I want those things to get thought together. And if we're going to think those things together, then I guess I find myself back in my original position, that in this moment in the history of capitalism and patriarchy, racialized or ethnicized struggle and so on and so forth, I don't feel entirely confident about the efficacy of poetry and the politics of representation. We're up against some real limits, and other kinds of struggles present themselves to us.

IB: And yet as skeptical as one might be about poetry in the current moment, we continue to produce it—you yourself continue to write. Does one need a rational justification for it? Poetry just sort of happens.

JC: No, I think that politics may be a place of ought, of should. Poetry isn't. Nobody's done a better job of trying to attune those two thoughts than Theodore Adorno, and I think his accounts are quite spectacular, although [they might be] more relevant to when high culture still existed as a meaningful sphere. My feeling is, I'm not trying to stop people from writing poetry. Good gracious no. People should write poetry about what they are compelled to. In fact, people who are writing about things because they think they're good things to write about, or they think that's what poetry's good for, rather than it's an itch you can't help but scratch—fuck them. Everyone should just scratch the itch that needs scratching, and for some of us it will be explicitly political, for some of us it will be latently political, and for some of us it will be apolitical, and frankly I will be annoyed at those people.

But I wouldn't have them write a different kind of poetry, I would simply have them recognize [their poetry] as a minor task. I think that if everyone engaged in militant political action, we would have to stop worrying about whether our poetry is good for something, or has the right politics or something. Write poems about flowers and how they're pretty in your spare time, and as long as you're doing what needs to be done in the rest of your time, why should you feel bad about it? That's great!

IB: You're a poet who loves cities and writes extensively about urban spaces, and 2011 seemed to cause a shift in how urban spaces are spoken about and understood. How have the events of 2011 affected your own relationship with urban spaces? Is there anything new or unfamiliar as you approach cities now?

JC: Yes, "Paris change! mais rien dans ma mélancolie / N'a bougé!" Except for me it's not melancholy, it's rage.

Cities are sensually extraordinary. They are also, for me, the largest apprehensible unit. That is, I can't really get a cognitive hold on totality, on the innumerable relations and lines of force that are the world, the economy's circuits, the sum of social relations, the way that I am bound to people I will never meet, places I will never go. The poet and theorist Edouard Glissant writes that "the idea of the world ought to be founded on the imagination of the world."

So as I try to think toward that limit, cities are about as big as I can go. They do a good job of standing in for the problem of systematicity itself, of unpredictable ands beloved social complexity. When I want to get schematic, the metro map is a very convenient allegory. I write about them all the time. When I visit a new city, the first thing I do is ride the metro to the farthest point out and back. I have a great collection of metro maps at home. Montreal is amazing! But Moscow is even better. 

IB: What is it that attracts you to maps?

JC: Well, for one thing, it was the first way that I started to learn history when I was young. I read a lot of history books when I was young, but I didn't think historically. When I was ten years old I was really interested in the American Revolutionary war and I'd read lots of accounts [of it], the pretty dramatized kind for kids. It would be quite fascinating to me, and I would know quite a bit about specific battles, or the trajectory of that conflict—but that's quite different from thinking historically, from thinking of the large fabric and texture of historical motion and dynamic interrelations that shift over time. [Then] I was given a map, Penguin Atlas of World History. It's a series of maps, you can flip through and watch the size of empires change, and suddenly I was like, "Ah, this is what history is." This is quite an odd thing—we think of history generally as a temporal category, and I was encountering it as a spatial category through a map, but for me that's the way it made sense.

So maybe this is just my way of saying I'm a better spatial thinker than temporal thinker, and maps let me try to route around that problem, in a set of maps being purely spatial—synchronic would be the technical term that we use—showing relations. But for me they also become ways to think historically. And I must say, to make the leap, for me that's the strongest case for poetry having some kind of political purchase; is not that it's the privileged voice of the individual, but that poetry has a [spatiality in] the relationship of its parts, whether we're talking about metre or rhyme, or how it's arranged on the page—the formal characteristics are in many ways spatial characteristics.

IB: In opposition to prose?

JC: Compared to prose, which is essentially, a linear, temporal flow—that way you move over it at a fairly even pace and so on and so forth. Whereas poetry moves around the page. You think about the relationship of that part up there to that part down there, because they rhyme or they look the same. It has that spatial tension, even if it also has a temporal characteristic between the time from the start of the poem to the end. So the dynamic between the spatial and the temporal, that's what makes poetry really fascinating, for me, really a way of thinking. If I was to make the strongest case I could for poetry it wouldn't be as a political intervention but as a mode of thought which I find to be well-tuned to thinking about our changing global situation—or something like that.

Update: Since this interview was conducted, Clover and eleven UC Davis students have been criminally charged for occupying a US Bank as part of a direct action. If found guilty, the twelve could face up to eleven years in prison and $1 million in fines. More information can be found on the group's support page at davisdozen.org.