“Poetry and Other Antagonisms”: An Interview with Commune Editions

Stephen Voyce
Commune Editions

Juliana Spahr, Jasper Bernes, and Joshua Clover founded Commune Editions in 2015. They began by publishing their own volumes of poetry and have since published chapbooks and full-length titles by Cheena Marie Lo, David Lau, Ida Börjel, Christopher Nealon, Leslie Kaplan, Wendy Trevino, and Jasmine Gibson. Together, the three founders write, edit, teach, and organize around anarchist and left communist struggle. 

Juliana Spahr is the author of several books of poetry, including Fuck You-Aloha-I Love You (2001), This Connection of Everyone with Lungs (2005), The Transformation (2007), and That Winter the Wolf Came (2015). She is a widely published essayist and author of the critical study Everybody’s Autonomy: Connective Reading and Collective Identity (2001). She also co-edited the literary journal Chain with poet Jena Osman. Jasper Bernes is the author of two books of poetry: Starsdown (2007) and We Are Nothing and So Can You (2015). He is currently finalizing a manuscript called The Work of Art in the Age of Deindustrialization. His other critical writings have appeared in Los Angeles Review of Books, Endnotes, Radical Philosophy, and Viewpoint. Joshua Clover is the author of three books of poetry: Madonna anno domini (1997), The Totality for Kids (2006), and Red Epic (2015). He is the author of two books of cultural theory, The Matrix (2004) and 1989: Bob Dylan Didn’t Have This to Sing About (2009), as well as Riot. Strike. Riot: The New Era of Uprisings (2016), a study that treats riot as a historical phenomenon. Joshua is also a regular contributor to The Nation

I interviewed the founders of Commune Editions (CE) in May and June of 2016.

Stephen Voyce: Commune Editions is an imprint of AK Press. How did you come to work with them? Why do you consider them an appropriate fit with CE?

Commune Editions: We’ve known the good people at AK in various capacities for many years. In fact, one of us lives with and raises a child with one of them. Others of us have very fond memories of wandering their overflowing warehouse and picking out obscure council communist pamphlets from the 1980s.

We were interested in partnering with a press that had an existing distribution network, and, in many ways, AK was an obvious choice. Part of our process for selecting books is political: we’re committed to publishing poetry that stands in explicit opposition to capital and the state. Though they might perhaps phrase it differently, AK has a similar criterion for their list. So, we’re the same in some ways, but we’re also different. They don’t publish a lot of literature and almost no poetry. So for us the partnership offers a way to reach some readers we might not have reached otherwise, and for them it’s a chance to diversify their offerings. Plus, we all really like each other, which helps.

SV: You’ve claimed that Commune Editions arose in response to three related Bay Area struggles: massive tuition hikes at the University of California, antipolice actions after the shooting death of Oscar Grant and other black youth, and what was arguably the most militant site of the Occupy movement known as the Oakland Commune. Would you elaborate on these three antagonisms in relation to the founding of the press?

CE: I guess what we are trying to say at that moment are two things…. One is something about how we are indebted to those moments intellectually—how they changed our thinking and thus our writing. The other thing is that we formed the press out of discussing these changes in ourselves and others and wanting to support them. That the press has a debt to them might be the best way to put it. But this does not mean that we think these struggles in any way have a debt to literature. They were not called into existence by literature. And while literature often shows up within the ecosystems of struggle—poetry readings are a regular feature of occupations, signs at protests often feature poems, etc.—it shows up more as a parallel than an inducement.

SV: What particular forms of critique resonated most with you during these events and direct actions? And do the three of you share a reading list? Jasper has written for Endnotes, which makes me curious where CE might position itself in debates about communization among groups like Endnotes, Théorie Communiste, and Tiqqun.

CE: We add to each other’s reading lists. But we’ve also been in many reading groups together, often with other people, including Endnotes people and so on. I don’t think we would say that we share one unified or quasi-official line, the way that Endnotes often seems to. We’ve all read Capital together and separately, and much accompanying thought within that tradition of the critique of political economy. But that is neither where things started nor ended. Like many others, we’re also trying to understand that tradition’s limits or necessary rethinkings in a changed-world situation. We take the side of Italian Marxist feminists in relation to Antonio Negri and company, Mariarosa Dalla Costa and Silvia Federici and Leopoldina Fortunati. We are informed by Frantz Fanon and the black radical tradition; in the last couple of years we have spent a lot of time with Detroit: I Do Mind Dying and Black against Empire and others. We find arguments against pursuing the preservation of the state form, even transitionally, to be useful—left communist and anarchist and more. Our agreements are most importantly around intensity, and around the stakes of contemporary struggle, and around the material bases for it, and what poetry does and does not have to do with these. We certainly agree that by “antistate” and “anticapitalist” (as we say in our mission statement) we mean the abolition of those things, not their instrumentalization toward some other end, not their improvement or our greater share in their operation. We agree that a gradualist politics has no appeal in the present. The genre of contemporary thought that endeavors to reconcile such politics with parliamentarism among various left formations has been one of this season’s sorriest spectacles, politically and intellectually. We don’t mean this in some ethical sense; we speak of what we understand as possible.

SV: Each of you teaches at a university in California. Each of you has written in different ways about the place of the MFA in the university, along with the role of institutions such as the Association of Writers and Writing Programs and the Poetry Foundation. Juliana’s essay with Stephanie Young, “The Program Era and the Mainly White Room,” and Joshua and Juliana’s joint application to be president of the Poetry Foundation are two representative examples, among others. Is there a viable role for the writing program inside the public university? Alternatively, can you imagine a non-statist institutional form for writing, one that enables communization?

CE: It’s not something we can really address at length here, but a revolutionary process of communization would have to create institutions and organizations adequate to its needs. It’s hard to know what these would look like in advance, and many of these needs are very basic and material, as they must be in any revolutionary situation. These institutions probably won’t resemble the contemporary university in any way. But expressive, aesthetic use of language is not likely to disappear, since this has been an aspect of nearly every human culture. Whether some of it would be called poetry or resemble the poetry we write now is an open question. We expect that, given the very different social relations that would be operative in such conditions, art and poetry would be far more collective and provisional under such situations, a poetry without poets or poems, involving a great number of people.

As to the viable role of writing programs and returning our focus to the present—yes. Writing programs have been very viable at a wide variety of things (such as bringing in tuition moneys) within higher education. Higher education is always going to be something complicated and vexed. It is one of the places where the exchange of ideas takes place right now. Exchanges of ideas are more or less a good thing (although, of course, some ideas one wants to see exchanged more than others). But there is no getting around that higher education is also the state, that it serves the needs of the state, and that these programs enroll a fairly narrow demographic. 

What’s weird or unique about this moment is the significance or largeness of the role that higher education plays in contemporary literary production right now and how atrophied the alternatives to it are. There is no kicking higher education out of contemporary literary production, and, that said, there are for sure more or less better-and-worse ways to be a program. But we are fairly convinced that the better thing for literature would be for it to be written by a wider demographic than just those who study it in higher education.

SV: You first began to write as a collective in a series of commentaries for Jacket2 Magazine. This is not an uncommon practice among activists, but it startled some of your friends in poetry circles. What does it mean to speak from a collective “we”? Why is it important to you, uneasy for others?

CE: Well, what really freaked people out was not the “we” but the “I”—we wrote several essays in the first person singular, but it wasn’t clear who that singular was as they were edited collectively and signed by all three of us. That turns out to be the real deal-breaker for people. When you say something that a reader finds unacceptable and they want to take you to task, they don’t know who to get mad at, who to yell at, who to punish, or, really, who they can rebut via ad hominem attacks; they needed a hominem. You shouldn’t, right? You should be able to argue a position. But that’s not really how social disciplining works. 

We have definitely worked to find the comfortable forms of collectivity for ourselves. We are aware that we don’t think identical things, but we trust, I think, that even differing opinions are going to be sane and substantial and serious. So there is little interest in the game of, “Well Jasper thinks this, while Juliana thinks this.” I’ll stand by anything my comrades say. If I disagree, we’ll figure it out.

SV: Is the process similar or different for the poetry you co-author? I’m thinking here of Götterdämmerung Family BBQ and #MISANTHROPOCENE (if you consider the latter a poem). Notably, this type of collaboration is prevalent among many literary groups and vanguards (of radically different political orientations): futurism, Dada, surrealism, the Beats, the New York School, language poetry, etc. 

CE: The process is deeply different in that with the Jacket2 material there was a clear sense of trying to work through questions relevant to the press and its horizons, while the poem collaborations arise more opportunistically and proceed with more vagaries. The Jasper/Joshua poems were written over a couple of years, each proceeding from nothing but a single compositional rule. #MISANTHROPOCENE started as a Facebook quip after a conference Joshua and Juliana attended, then was a failed poem by one author, then came together as a coauthored piece using the failed draft as a kernel—but it also borrowed wholesale a long Facebook thread about “the twenty-three most bourgeois things ever” that involved Sarah Brouillette, Joseph Jeon, and other people as well. So it’s pretty contingent. But at the same time, you could say that the collaborative poems, like the collaborative essays, are ways of testing out each of our kind-of-individual formulations to see if they can comport with each other’s, to see if they can be part of a common language. It’s the possibility of this common language, which is the possibility of CE.

SV: In a fantastic review of Dave Beech’s Art and Value, Jasper and coauthor Daniel Spaulding enthusiastically support Beech’s central claim “that art is not a standard commodity. Art is, rather, ‘exceptional,’ in the sense that its production, circulation, and consumption follow patterns that are aberrant from the perspective of capital accumulation.” That is, “even if artworks are sold and resold ad nauseam,” they are not “produced” in a manner consistent with capital’s control over the process of production. Jasper and Daniel carefully draw an important distinction, however, between fine art and “borderline cases such as theater or the book industry,” which “are in fact prey to real subsumption.” Might you take up, if only in a preliminary way, these questions as they pertain to the small press, which often blurs the lines between art studios and publishing houses. What makes a press potentially resistant to capital accumulation? 

CE: The book industry is complex. Trade press books are, it seems, more classically and typically capitalist commodities than art objects, inasmuch as the price of the book doesn’t vary as a function of the maker’s autograph. Toni Morrison is a Nobel Prize–winning author whose books are unlikely to go out of print, but her books don’t sell for one hundred times as much because of her fame. In the art industry, the fame of the maker leads to higher prices per unit, whereas in the book industry it leads to a higher volume of sales where the units are priced more or less the same industry-wide. But this means that the materials—paper, ink—that go into a book commodity are a big part of the total price of the object, unlike the art object, which sells for prices that have almost no relation to the underlying materials.

It would be interesting to figure out what portion of the costs in the for-profit book industry are related to the intellectual content and what portion are related to the cost of the physical materials. That might help us figure out the degree to which the analogy with art commodities holds, since the intellectual content—the intellectual commodity, as it were—can’t be rationalized the way other kinds of commodities can be. Book capitalists can’t, upon discovering that Toni Morrison is in demand, move into that line of production and compete with Toni Morrison’s publisher. They can try to get a similar kind of writer, but that trick probably fails more often than it succeeds. It’s not like producing trucks or something.

Small press books are different because, unlike art commodities and unlike trade presses, no one is making a profit at any point (except the printers). So, it’s not a standard commodity for that reason. In countries that are more social democratic, small presses are typically funded by various governmental and non-governmental granting agencies. In the U.S., they are self-funded and almost always run at a loss. Sales limit the scale of the losses, so books that do earn revenue above costs subsidize books that don’t. From our understanding, it’s pretty hard to run these presses with a long-standing surplus, unless one is topped up by granting agencies, which is necessary if one wants to become a big small press. We’re a small small press, which means we’re losing money, but we hope to lose money slowly, like a ship that slowly takes on water but not so fast that it’s unable to cross the ocean.

SV: Your books exist as small press editions and as downloadable PDFs, while now virtually all readings are video-recorded, such that performance becomes another interpretive element of cultural objects. Do you think much about the implications of remediation? Do your chosen forms of distribution matter?

CE: They matter. But they feel like they are defined by structural conditions that one has to negotiate more than anything else. Like no one gets entirely to set the terms around distribution, and one has to deal with how work circulates in one’s time. So there are a limited number of possibilities at any one time. Right now, poetry still seems to circulate mainly in the book form and is supported also by readings. E-book distribution seems to be impacting poetry less so than other genres. So we produce paperback books because that is how poetry has circulated for the last, say, two hundred or so years. We schedule readings for authors, because that is another way that the work circulates right now, even more so than in the past (something that probably has a lot to do with how much literary production takes place in higher education or is influenced by higher education). We wanted a PDF available online because the distribution of the book form is still, oddly, not very globalized. It is still hard to get books across national borders.

SV: What would be the preferred set of structural conditions for a global readership? What would be the best method of circulation? I suspect it is wishful thinking to say the PDF format via digital networks, given the ubiquity of surveillance, corporate interference, and state control of the Internet today? 

CE: We would like our books to be free and available on demand to anyone who wanted them. In such a state of affairs, however, where people don’t have to pay for books and other things and can have them on demand, our current endeavors might not make much sense. As an enterprise, Commune Editions sort of presupposes that we’re publishing poetry in a capitalist world, with all that entails. 

SV: We Are Nothing and So Can You, That Winter the Wolf Came,and Red Epic (not to mention Juliana and Joshua’s co-authored chapbook, #Misanthropocene: 24 Theses) all give sustained attention to the 2008 economic crash and to climate change. Would you elaborate on the relation between these two themes? How do these properly global crises relate to the local antagonisms that gave rise to CE? Put another way, I suppose, how do we square local, direct actions with mass, international movements? 

CE: Well, first of all, it’s probably useful to say at the level of overview, general but desperate, that the kinds of crisis theory inherited from critiques of political economy, and the kinds of crisis theory needed by ecological crisis, have been for too long separate and are still finding their way toward each other. We’ve certainly been interested in recent work that takes this up: Jason Moore and Andreas Malm are two versions among theorists. 

It might be that poetry is an interesting place for this necessary confluence because it doesn’t stake out disciplinary contours in the same way, and because the lived experience of these two seemingly distinct forms of crisis that our poetry tries to track is inevitably unified, messily and imperfectly—because daily life is filled with separations and alienations, but it is not disciplinarily bounded. There are ways—though this is not a total context at all—that all our books have come out of, or passed through, Occupy Oakland (OO). Certainly that is the genesis of the press. And while the explicit occasion of OO was certainly the economic collapse circa 2008, there are at least two obvious things to say. One, that collapse was always entangled with resource disasters and how they structure social existence, most notably the human catastrophe of political ecology that Timothy Mitchell calls “carbon democracy.” And two, the management of ecocide is arranged in ways that disproportionately destroy the lives of the poor. A lot of people in the plaza were people whose toxic load, to put things in the starkest terms, was shaped by being homeless, by living in terrible housing, by being unable to afford groovy organics, and so on. So this is a real movement, as they say, whether or not there is some consciousness of it, whether or not it enters into the avowed politics of struggle. 

One last thing to say is that a lot of our thinking has to do with circulation, with the shift of capital and bodies out of the space of traditional production and the formal economy more broadly. And we have thought a lot about logistical chains and global dynamics. In this sense, something like the Idle No More struggles in Canada against pipelines and the like seem like a very strong example of where local and global crisis meet, whether a given struggle declares itself as concerning sovereignty, or prices, or ecological care, or just hating the fuckers who are getting rich fucking you over while using words like “sustainable” and “green,” or just “necessary” and “inevitable.” The state reasons are many. But those pipeline struggles, as an example, I think we feel close to them in Oakland, and I hope everybody does. And they are a good example of how it is very hard indeed to separate out local from global struggles. 

SV: To this end, how and why is poetry akin to the riot dog at a protest?

CE: When we began as a press, we wanted to be clear that we weren’t engaged in what we might call “poetic substitutionism.” We wanted to be clear that if one wanted instrumental, political effects, poetry probably wasn’t a great place to find them. All three of us have slightly different ways of approaching questions about the political effectivity of poetry, but we more or less agreed that the real action is in the streets and poetry isn’t a substitute for that kind of contestation. And yet, we’re poets. We write poems about our experiences and ideas and are moved by other radicals who write poetry about their experiences and ideas. So, we thought, how can we describe the relationship between the poetry we write and publish and the other kinds of political activity we engage in, if the relationship isn’t instrumental?

Maybe our poetry accompanies political or social movement, the way the riot dogs of Athens accompany riotous demonstrations? The dogs are no doubt inspiring, catalyzing the various feelings people bring to the streets, the way a poem read out loud to a crowd might. The dogs may even be more directly effective, by biting the leg of some cops or otherwise managing to intimidate them, but, in the long run, these effects and affects are fairly limited. The metaphor is a way of describing our own modesty with regard to political effects but also our sense that we imagine the press as a part of something larger, something that can be truly transformative.

SV: Joshua has just published a book with Verso titled Riot. Strike. Riot: The New Era of Uprisings. Yet the riot looms large in the work of Jasper and Juliana as well: 

“The poem must be on the side of riots looting barricades occupations manifestos communes slogans fire and enemies.” (Red Epic

“As for the rest of us, we learn 
something important about ourselves 
watching from the loading dock
as the mushroom cloud
announces the end of another season— 
e.g., that each riot really is
an assemblage of other riots
washed up on the boulevards,
from whose faded corpses
one dresses and arms one’s comrades 
the total inadequacy of which
as equipment for the task at hand
traces out in negative
the seat perilous of the party historical 
the poetry of the future
whose sweet new sounds
will fill with meaning slowly
while the seas rise.” (We Are Nothing and So Can You

“All the art that has had a crowd scene in it in which the crowd has been loved, I have loved. The moment in realist painting of the riot when the perspective switches from the soldiers’ point of view to that of the crowd and the people in the crowd are individuals flowing over and out of the space in the painting and the dog is barking causing a horse to rear up and the soldiers in the crowd are at risk.” (That Winter the Wolf Came

Joshua offers the following distillation of the book’s tripartite structure: “Riot-strike-riot prime.... Each has not just a proper period but a proper place. For the first era of riot, the market, but even more the port; for the era of strike, the factory floor; and for the new era of riot, square and street.” You call the latter a “circulation struggle” directed more fully at the state rather than the economy. Would you elaborate?

CE: Yes. Not sure what to say other than yes, it shows up. And yet it doesn’t in Cheena Marie Lo’s A Series of Un/Natural/Disasters, so it isn’t a requirement for a Commune Editions book, although it shows up again in Lau’s forthcoming Still Dirty. If we had to say “why,” the answer is probably just that the riot is one of the forms that antistate protest tends to take in this moment. If we were writing in the early twentieth century, we would probably be writing more about strikes, but we are not. At moments, it feels like a sport to riot-shame us. That’s OK, we get that the riot might make some nervous, but it misses the point that none of us as individuals gets to determine or decide the forms of protest that define the moment.

SV: Your books feature intriguing playlists: M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes” and “Show Me Love” by Robyn in Red Epic; Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal” and “Jolene” by Dolly Parton in That Winter the Wolf Came; Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean”and “We Found Love” by Rihanna in We Are Nothing and So Can You.

Indeed, “We found love in a hopeless place”—the chorus of Rihanna’s standout track of 2011 featuring Calvin Harris—would become the surprise anthem of Bay-Area protests. Why specifically the pop song? What is its relation to your shared poetic practice?

CE: I think some of us are compelled by pop music because it is utterly of its moment and transitory in a way that poetry rarely is. Or maybe it’s that the experience of pop music is collective, a shared point of reference for a mass of people during a period of time, in a way that poetry also isn’t. Pop music is a sort of calendar, indexing particular times and places beyond personal experience. As you note, amplified music was a big part of most of the political events in the Bay Area that we participated in. Sound systems accompanied marches and occupations. Occupy Oakland distinguished itself from the other Occupy movements by having amplified sound and eschewing human mic. The simplest answer, then, is that many of the songs referenced above are just what we were listening to in the moments referenced in our poems. 

SV: I inquired earlier about a shared communist/anarchist reading list. What about poetry? Who lays the groundwork for CE?

CE: It may seem odd or counterintuitive, but we don’t necessarily think of ourselves as a poetry press. We expect to publish mostly poetry (though our first publication was the trial transcripts for Louise Michel). But in some regard, there is this matter of priority. An experience that we shared in the years from, oh, 2009 to 2012 roughly, is that in the places where we were spending a lot of time, places that often identified as anarchist and antistate communist, poetry played a substantial role, as did people who sometimes wrote poetry. This raises a vast question about whether there is some underlying relation between poetry as such and militancy, or crisis; certainly poetry has been around for a lot of this, historically. But on a smaller scale, one thought we had was this: poetry, or literature, or writing, is part of this collectivity that seems to matter to our friends and us. But this collectivity is founded in political orientations. And so we thought that what we wanted to make was a press that pointed itself toward those political orientations—that’s the priority—and drew on the writing we felt closest to. So it is an anticapitalist and antistate full-on abolitionist press first and foremost, that will inevitably publish mostly poetry. 

OK, that said, here are a few works of poetry among the many that feel very alive to us: Aimé Césaire, A Notebook of a Return to the Native Land; Sean Bonney, Letters Against the Firmament; Diane Di Prima, Revolutionary Letters; Amiri Baraka, Black Magic; Gwendolyn Brooks, Riot; Percy Shelley, “Masque of Anarchy”; Muriel Rukeyser, The Book of the Dead; Pier Paolo Pasolini, “The Ashes of Gramsci”; Cesar Vallejo, Spain, Take this Cup from Me; Bertolt Brecht, A Reader for Those Who Live in Cities.

SV: Since the publication of your three books,the press has expanded its mandate to include works by like-minded poets engaged in anticapitalist strugglesfurther afield in the U.S. and abroad, including works by Cheena Marie Lo, and chapbooks by Mario Santiago Papasquiaro, Wendy Trevino, Chris Nealon, and Ida Börjel. What links your work with these poets?

CE: A combination of friendship and interest in the anticapitalist content of this work. 

SV: Finally, the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune don’t frequently review poetry volumes, let alone those endorsing anarchist and communist politics. Has the interest in CE by mainstream news media surprised you?

CE: That’s a hard question to answer. I don’t think we have had any clear expectations except for some Publishers Weekly reviews that never happened. At the same time, it’s pretty clear that—even if major outlets are constitutionally inclined to suppress the idea that political militancy might be a legitimate human activity—the tilt in contemporary poetry away from formalistic neo-avant-gardes and toward kinds of radicalized content (let’s call it the “Political Turn”) is really happening. So it’s bound to get some attention, from critics who are interested in that transformation, or even just critics who are trying to stay with the present whether they are moved by it or not. But mostly the former, we hope.

Stephen Voyce is associate professor of English at the University of Iowa, where he also holds appointments in the Digital Studio for the Public Arts & Humanities and the Center for the Book. He is the author of Poetic Community: Avant-Garde Activism and Cold War Culture (University of Toronto Press, 2013), the editor of a book of variations: love – zygal – art facts (Coach House Books, 2013), and the director of the Fluxus Digital Collection. He is currently working on a book about twenty-first century culture, surveillance, and warfare.