10 TRIES, 100 POEMS (TAKE 4) :: SAMUEL SOLOMON :: FIELD NOTES :: TRUTH AND LIES AT THE INTERSECTION OF ACTIVISM AND ART
In this installation of 10 Tries, 100 Poems, UK-based activist and educator Samuel Solomon steps back from the picket line to regroup and reflect with his students on the nature of truth and the role of manipulation in their places of study, work, and living. While such forces can feel relentless and debilitating, the group comes together in solidarity, and grapples with them in dialogue and through process writing. As Solomon notes, “recognizing that we are manipulated does not mean the manipulation ends, and yet sharing this recognition remains urgent.” [2018 series editor: Adrian Silbernagel]
In late March 2018, I was privileged to have Alex Juhasz bring her #100HardTruths-#FakeNews project to my class on “Experimental Writing” at the University of Sussex, where I teach. The class includes students undertaking BA degrees in English as well as MA degrees in Creative and Critical Writing.
While there are no “normal” circumstances for a collaborative workshop of the sort that Juhasz has been undertaking around the world, our class was already meeting under decidedly abnormal circumstances when Alex joined us. Alex arrived in Brighton during the seventh week of our term, and yet we had not met as a group for the previous three weeks. This was because I was on strike as a member of the University and Colleges Union (UCU) over the proposed slashing of the pension scheme. Staff at 65 universities were part of the strike, making it the largest industrial action that Higher Education in the UK has ever seen.
The workshops with Alex, then, took place right as the strikes were suspended, at a moment when many of us in the class had not seen each other for weeks (although a few of us had shared space regularly on the picket lines). Alex and I decided that the best approach to holding a workshop under these conditions was to spend our first hour-long session asking everyone in the room to address the following questions:
1) What is something about the past three weeks that you know to be true? How do you know this?
2) What is something you heard during the past three weeks that you know to be false? Where did you hear this and how do you know it’s false?
The conversations that ensued were by turns uncomfortable and informative: all together, sharing a room that we had not recently inhabited, everyone was prompted to consider how they come to know the “truth” of very local political upheavals and of something as starkly divided as a dispute between management and workers. What channels of communication are in place in our lives that give us information about a labor dispute that is happening at our places of study, work, and living (the campus is all of these things in different ways)? What did people know from being on the picket line, or from official university communications, or from social media, or from conversations with other students?
The answers that people provided were various — for many, though of course not for me, “the last three weeks” had nothing to do with the strike at all, but rather with emergent and ongoing health crises, trips home to see family, international and national news media (“fake” and/or “real”). For others, “the last three weeks” did indeed mean the upheavals caused at a local level by the strike, but also, crucially, it meant the solidarities forged between university workers and students on pickets lines, in demos, in teach-ins (including a poetry reading fundraiser for the hardship fund that I had co-organized with students — but this was us working together as activists and artists, rather than as teacher and student) and at occupations and blockades.
Following these conversations, everyone was asked to write a poem overnight that filtered the discussions we’d had through one of Alex’s #100hardtruths — this could take any form. We met up the following day to share and talk about what people had written.
One class member, Freya Marshall Payne, brought in a mini-essay linking up her experiences of engaging in strike-related activism with those of the women of Greenham Common:
For three weeks I joined the staff who make my university time possible — physically in standing on the periphery of the university; emotionally in a shared hope for a future and a shared anger at the continued marketisation of the university, at the increased precarity of working at the university, at the difficulty of what life after working at the university will be like, at the dehumanisation of all of us who labour in our various ways within this space; and intellectually in challenging narratives with our words online, in the press and in person.
This weekend I visited Greenham Common, where my mother and thousands of other women came together along the perimeter fence to weave and sing their protest, to write poetry out of their protest, to create zines and booklets in the mud, and to block the entrance of cruise missiles to the base.
The truth you feel matters.
Freya’s account (in conversation with #100hardtruths #86, resist how we are framed), goes on, elaborating on this suggestion that a certain kind of truth is felt by making and doing in common and in the same space. The classroom is one place where this happens, as is the picket line. Neither space is unmediated by machines or computers, but both are supplemented by sharing particularly defined spatial coordinates, whether those are peripheries or more circumscribed spaces.
Other pieces that members of the class wrote responded more directly to the phenomenon of “fake news” in the Trump era, and others still took on more intimate and interpersonal themes related to online communication, texting, and romantic relationships. This work was, by necessity, of an unfinished and imperfect nature, having been drafted within strict time constraints.
One thing that we observed, collectively, was that in one way or another, each of us had engaged with the following fact: it is possible that we can know fully well that we are being manipulated by a “façade of care” presented by authorities (bosses, corporations, the internet e.g.) and yet be manipulated all the same. So: recognizing that we are manipulated does not mean the manipulation ends, and yet sharing this recognition remains urgent. In our discussions, we agreed that we all hope that such sharing will spur others to grapple with where and how we engage with the relentless barrage of falsehoods, posing as truths, that animate our daily interactions with machines.
No part of me believes that “poetry” is a solution to any of this. I do think, however, that where possible, in-person organizing and collective practice can generate truths, but not necessarily by way of consensus or agreement. “Poetry” sometimes is an occasion for this kind of truth-generating collective activity, but I don’t think it is necessarily a privileged one.
For me, then, the 10 Tries, 100 poems project was a fortuitously timed opportunity to process the antagonisms and solidarities that had been developing (and that continue to develop) on our campus and around the country and the world. I was grateful for this opportunity — I had not looked forward to returning to “things as usual” in the classroom when nothing felt normal about the conditions of my work and when I wouldn’t have been able to pretend otherwise. For that, I am grateful to Alex and to my students. I’ll leave you with a selection of the pieces that they wrote.
But first, in the interests of taking on an equal share of the potential embarrassment that comes from sharing far-from-finished writing, here’s what I wrote overnight for our workshop (in dialogue with hardtruth #94: “always look for the real thing”), reflecting on returning to work after, among many other things, being tasked with running a strike-related twitter account from the snowy picket lines (which also featured strike aerobics):
(responding to hard truth #94 - “always look for the real thing”)
(responding to hardtruth #69: “ghosts can’t tell stories”)
(responding to hardtruth #11: “real apologies for #fakenews aggravate its symptoms”)
(responding to hard truth #34: “place matters / re/flecting the border”)
(in dialogue with hardtruth #11: real apologies for fake news aggravate its symptoms)
Samuel Solomon is author of Special Subcommittee (Commune Editions, 2017) and Lyric Pedagogy and Marxist-Feminism: Social Reproduction and the Institutions of Poetry (Bloomsbury, forthcoming 2018) and co-translator, with Jennifer Kronovet and Faith Jones, of The Acrobat: Selected Poems of Celia Dropkin (Tebot Bach, 2014). He teaches in the School of English at the University of Sussex where he is Co-Director of the Centre for the Study of Sexual Dissidence.