Throughout history, social movements have made use of poetry to encourage the participation of new members. Originally poetry was effective because it was the first social media. Poetry derived from a system of oral tradition which allowed its content to be shared across cultures. In the Occupy movement, poetry is first heard on the streets and in local venues with the content of the poetry itself changing as the interpretation of provocative poetry is spread orally from person to person. The ambiguous nature of poetry itself lends the interpretation of the message to be diverse across audience members.
However, the real issue which has risen when it comes to poetry within the movement is not the ambiguity of the medium, but rather the participation of poets. Country music singer and poet Willie Nelson blew up on the internet for his poem advocating the movement in October. While he is an established artist that has continued to support the movement, he’s in the minority. Many poets have written as few as one poem having to do with the Occupy Movement, and then ceased their involvement. The most likely reason is to get publicity with the understanding that they’re probably not going to fully commit to the cause. However, this raises the question: are they still contributing to the movement, even if their intention is to jumpstart their writing?
The clear answer to me is yes, they are still contributing to the movement. Especially with the publication of the OWS poetry anthology which has encouraged many poets to stay involved in the movement.
The poetry anthology evolved out of the People’s Library. The People’s Library began as a pile of books on a bench. As its popularity grew, and donations came in, it grew to become an OWS collection of over 5000 catalogued books. Poet Stephen Boyer became the librarian of the enterprise. Boyer literally slept on the streets to guard the books.
Unfortunately, in November when the NYPD raided the OWS camps, around 79% of the collection was destroyed. Boyer stated in an interview with the San Francisco Center for the Book that when the NYPD began their raid, he began demonstrating another form of street art effective in protest: poetry. Boyer recited poetry in the faces of the advancing police officers. He actually became involved in the movement because of spoken word performances in Zuccotti Park and was one of the earliest participants in the OWS poetry assemblies.
Of the poetry he recited in the face of the NYPD, Boyer stated “What the NYPD did that night was completely unprofessional, unnecessary, and not okay. I’m fed up with the police state. The people that sent me their poems, people from all over the world, demanded their voices and opinions be heard and I was the simply the instrument being strummed by forces larger than a single person. If it wasn’t me, surely someone else would have started an anthology and been equally alarmed at the atrocities taking place.”
Throughout the month of April, Occupy Wall Street’s first poetry anthology is on display at the People’s Library. Unique about the this poetry anthology is that it is representative of Occupy Wall Street’s next chapter of becoming published and accessible at the street level. The poetry anthology evolved from the Occupy Wall Street poetry assembly. The anthology is made up of 721 poems written by 448 poets in 10 different languages.