Not long ago the poet Anne Boyer tweeted a link to a poem. I went and read the poem, which was on page 221 of this PDF published by the Chicago Review, and I went, whoa. This poem is something else! It looks like this:
And if you zoom out it looks like this:
Here are some facts about the poem: The poem was/will be published in the Fall 2014–Winter 2015 Chicago Review, as part of a a forum on “Sexism and Sexual Assault in Literary Communities”; the forum was made available as a downloadable PDF and the poem starts on page 221.
The Chicago Review editors explained the situation that led to the forum:
Beginning in August of last year, the Alternative Literature (or Alt-Lit) communities in Brooklyn and the Bay Area were convulsed first by provocative instances of sexist and misogynistic writing from prominent male figures and then, more alarmingly, by allegations of sexual assault from women writers in these communities.
The introduction then tries to explain those instances and allegations, and gives some background that will help you understand the poem, as well as other essays and notices that appear in the forum.
The poem is called “The No Manifesto for Poetry Readings and LISTSERVs and Magazine and ‘Open Versatile Spaces Where Cultural Production Flourishes’.” The poem is specifically about incidents of sexual harassment that occurred in the poetry community; and broadly about things that have been going on forever. The poem is 271 lines (271 is a prime number and thus indivisible), and each line of the poem begins with the words “No to,” followed by the thing opposed. Here is a section:
No to presuming the victim, or survivor, should be the educator, your educator
No to not taking action until called out
No to then writing “we have truly felt the efforts of all organizers and readers to be moving in the direction of positive, healing, and reparative work” after doing nothing for months
No to statements
No to statements that are non-statements
The poem is very broad in spots and very specific in others; here it addresses Melville House, an independent publisher in Brooklyn:
No to Melville House, it published Tao Lin’s Statutory Rape knowing it was about statutory rape and all it did was ask Lin to retitle the book Richard Yates
And the next line is
No to no Melville House
This self-contradiction happens many times, presumably the result of the poem being written collectively. It’s also possible a given pair of such lines represents the mental state of an individual who holds two opposing views at once. In any case, many times the work asks you, the reader, to hold two opposing views, which is unusual in a manifesto (less unusual in a poem).
The poem is angry and it is exhausted. It is angry at many things, some of them related to sexual assault, some of them related to how people enact their activism. It is exhausted by the same things. The poem is 3,712 words of free verse, an average of 14 words per line. 243 of those lines are tweetable and 28 are too long to tweet. The shortest line is “No to rape,” which is also the first line. The longest is:
No to Chicago Review publishing, alongside a forum on sexual violence, an essay by Kent Johnson, who on the UK poetry listserv asked a woman who had shared her experience of multiple rapes — including an instance when she had been incapable of any kind of consent — whether the evening hadn’t just been drunken fun.
NO to spectacle.
No to virtuosity.
No to transformations and magic and make-believe.
No to the glamour and transcendency of the star image.
The manifesto is author-less; it was written collectively. Its authors are identified only by geography:
Signed: a crowd of feminists based in
Baltimore, MD, US
Berkeley, CA, US
Brighton, United Kingdom
Hamilton, ON, Canada
London, United Kingdom
New York, NY, US
Oxford, OH, US
Oakland, CA, U.S.
San Francisco, CA, US
Vancouver, BC, Canada
lacking consensus and okay with that
So it’s impossible to know how many people were involved. At least 11, and since there are 271 lines to the poem and each line seems to represent an individual thought, then 271 is probably the upper potential limit of the collective. So: I’d estimate somewhere between 11 and 271 people wrote the poem. They all identify as feminists but that doesn’t specify anything about gender or anything else. I made a little chart of the number of people involved by country:
US: * * * * * *
UK: * *
CANADA: * *
The poem’s unusual origin is related, with some obliqueness, in the preface to the forum (bolding added):
We had reached out initially only to individuals, which read as an affront to the activism around sexism and sexual assault undertaken by feminist collectives in the Bay Area, New York, and abroad. We were asking for contributions to a forum, which seemed wrong given the questions we were asking: as if a discursive space modeled on the ideals of a liberal public sphere — rationality, objectivity, deliberative consensus-building — could do anything but a disservice to problems experienced viscerally by real bodies. So on the one hand the contributions we have included in the present feature are more various than we had at first imagined. In response to an outpouring of material, we accepted statements on behalf of activist organizations, public documents previously circulated among feminist cadres and those in solidarity with them, and an anonymous multi-authored manifesto that came to us from many cities globally.
In bulleted-list form, I think that means:
- The editors of the Chicago Review, a humanities journal that looks and behaves like a humanities journal, reached out to individual people, asking them to contribute to a forum and discuss issues related to sexual assault in the Alt-Lit poetry community.
- Traditionally this would result in a series of brief essays, contributed by individuals, edited into a single section of the publication.
- Then, through some means — email, message groups, who knows — different groups of people learned about the editors’ request and felt strongly that the form of the forum was fundamentally flawed. It’s also possible that some of the people who were originally contacted shared this assessment.
- This group had many different points of view, but the editors understood that they rejected “rationality, objectivity, deliberative consensus-building,” because the subject of sexual assault is “experienced viscerally by real bodies.”
- The editors reacted to this rejection by opening the forum to other forms of expression and models of authorship which would be less focused on traditional, structured forms of expression, to make way for things like the poem.
“No to thinking ‘we’ can speak as one and no to assuming ‘we’ know what ‘you’ think”
I think this poem is fascinating today but I think it will also be fascinating 85 years from now, to one or more people, after many of the things to which it refers— the reading series, the people and places — cease to exist. It will define something specific about this moment in history. I doubt that 85 years will eradicate the cultural need for feminism, activism, or poetry. So this poem will help people understand how things have changed, or not, in the year 2100. They will be able to compare it to things that came before and to things that followed and know something about how things change in general.
“No to not understanding that the jeune-fille and the vieille-fille
are dialectical products of scene misogyny”
There are some things about this poem.
First, that it was written collectively and internationally via the Internet. Before this poem when you told me about collectively generated digital creative activist work my first thoughts were of 4Chan and Gamergate — of memes, not poems. So this poem changed that for me, it broadened the scope of what anonymous collectives can do online.
The idea of unidentified individuals collaborating and creating things has been understood by many people as a dangerous, bad thing connected to harassment. But this poem is the product of people working collaboratively and anonymously to create art that they hope will have a positive social impact. It is also a public policy statement, from a group without a name (even Anonymous has a name). Maybe this “No Collective” has already ceased to exist.
“No to being asked for the details in order to support someone’s theoretical argument”
I don’t know how to read this thing. I mean, I could read it from beginning to end. But I burned out on that. Instead I’ve been coming back to it over a couple of weeks, digging out the PDF, and thinking it through.
It’s pretty much without imagery and metaphor. It’s incantatory. It acknowledges a diversity of opinion on some things (Melville House) and refuses a diversity of opinion on others (the reality of sexual assault).
The fact that it was written collectively makes it unclear to me, at any point of the poem, whether I am reading something that was written by an individual and then glued together, or if each line was collaboratively edited. How was it edited by the Chicago Review? I wish I knew which tools were used to compose it, because that matters. Google docs? An email list with a single editor? Facebook chat? How could you find out? Who could you ask? The things that are stable (“No to rape”) are very stable; other things are completely unstable. This poem raises a million questions about what it means to read things and how the Internet is changing writing. There are many poetic manifestos in the world and I’m sure some of them were anonymously written but the thing I keep thinking about is how there are now a set of technologies — in the broadest sense, not just the Internet but technologies of self-organizing and collaboratively working — that enable the rapid creation of new things in reaction to events.
“No to readings that are almost always two men and one woman”
I was raised by activists and poets and for the most part I reject activism and poetry in my life while admiring people who continue to do the work of activism and poetry.
The culture of activism that I have experienced is very focused on defining and clarifying terminology. People in activist groups spend a great deal of time defining terms, like the word “intersectionality.” Because activism connects words to actions, nailing down the connection between words and actions is incredibly important. When I see someone saying “this is not okay” on Twitter I believe they are saying, “this specific speech act connects to real, physical actions in the world, and those actions will be ‘experienced viscerally by real bodies’, so this speech act is increasing the net suffering of the world. And that is not okay.”
Sometimes it feels like activists are trying to change the world by defining a common language that everyone can share.
The culture of poetry I have experienced often plays with the line between okay/not okay. Language is understood to be ambiguous and unfixable — and that is the power of language. Some poets see a direct connection between word and action. Some poets see poetry as a kind of membrane or filter that exists between word and action. Some poets see no connection between word and action. Many poets are all three kinds of poets simultaneously, or vary their approach depending on the subject of the poem. They wrestle with it.
Sometimes it feels like poets are trying to change the world by arranging old words in new, sometimes disturbing ways.
In my experience activists and poets work with words in different ways, and their methods of language are sometimes in conflict. This poem embodies that conflict, to me. I can see the semantic goals of activist communities smashing into the expressive goals of poetry communities in this poem.
I like that it doesn’t shy away from the smashing; in fact, it just keeps smashing. “No to decorum/No to forums/No to panels/No to roundtables/No to any forum, panel, or roundtable that does not discuss these issues.”
“No to presuming there are only male perpetrators
No to the argument that ‘men are subject to sexual violence too’ as a way to dismiss that we live in a patriarchy”
I’ve shown the poem to some poetry-adjacent friends. Some of them think it is an important and essential document and others think it is completely unnecessary self-indulgence. The poem seems to either really piss people off or make them feel righteous empathy. No one has yet said to me, eh, whatever.
My own opinion of whether the poem is good or bad doesn’t matter. The poem makes me squirm; it makes me roll my eyes; it makes me angry at the world; and it makes me tired. I keep coming back to it. This poem indicates a lot of things at once about how cultural work is done now, in form, content, and means of production.
Over the last two weeks I kept expecting it to be covered in the media (really!), but it wasn’t, so I’m writing about what I think, since I can also be the media.
“No to the times when one of us was the individual at an institution who didn’t listen to our friend’s complaints, who didn’t make it our responsibility to change the location of an event so that our friend felt safe to attend”
Several years ago, in the wake of a wave of sexual assaults at computer conferences, the digital technology community created codes of conduct and now they are read out as prologue to mass meetings, like invocations to the muses of not-sexually-assaulting. People in technology often post their codes of conduct on GitHub so that they can be edited and revised. These codes are now part of the intellectual scaffolding of technology. And this poem is sort of like that. It’s a code of conduct for a scene that goes back around 3,000 years. It’s also a catalog of opinions and a history of a community.
I’ve half-followed the Alt-Lit scene for a while and have probably spent 20 years reading about “digital poetics,” and this is the very first time I went, well, there you go.
It seems that a lot of worlds are starting to collide. It also feels that anonymous international collectives of varying sizes and shapes, with radically different ideologies, will claim their voice in culture moving forward, ranging from 4Chan and Gamergate, which are very masculine entities, to this no collective, which is avowedly, fundamentally feminist. I expect people sharing other kinds of belief systems will start operating and creating as collectives, too.
“No to curators
No to not curating”
Finally, I have no idea who owns this poem, and I wonder if people were paid for it.
“No to not doing anything for fear of doing it wrong”