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April 27, 2015
By Ryan Joe
How three activist poets went indie and launched Commune Editions.

For years, misguided purists have tried to create a tension between poetry and activism, on one side considering the literary genre inherently apolitical, and, on the other, the art too important to taint with trite revolutionary sloganeering. Both points of view require ignoring centuries of political and poetic history and plenty of present-day developments, as well. In the wake of the big bank bailouts, the Occupy Wall Street movement, Ferguson, strengthening business interests in Washington, and the demise of the American middle class, there seems to be another political quickening within the literary community—one that’s hard to ignore.

In a very promising example of this trend, the poets Jasper Bernes, Joshua Clover, and Juliana Spahr have bootstrapped Commune Editions, a publishing collective, with an assist from anarchist publishing and distribution house AK Press. Spahr, Clover, and Bernes began working with AK after the radical publishing house Verso Books—which hadn’t published poetry before—turned them down.

“They were interested, because they knew us a little and thought what we were up to was interesting,” Clover says. “But they couldn’t imagine doing poetry because they’d lose too much money. At that point, we had a ‘fuck them, we’re better anyway’ moment.”

Although they started Commune Editions with their own funds, they were able to lean somewhat on AK’s publishing and distribution infrastructure, and they maintain a deal around sales. Additionally, all three have had some experience in the mechanics of publishing. 

“We knew how to typeset a book, how to put it in production, who to call to print it, how to put together an email list,” Spahr says. “There’s a knowledge base that accumulates.”

Despite taking the risk, AK had similar concerns to Verso’s. Like Verso, it didn’t have a tremendous background in poetry.

“Part of their suspicion of poetry, they were looking at the same limitations of poetry in the ’80s and ’90s we were looking at, which didn’t feel relevant to any political project,” Spahr says.

In the end, AK—like the Commune Editions editors—felt it was time to revitalize the genre. “The three of us had this idea we wanted to start this poetry press, and we wanted to support political ambitions,” Clover says.

"If you define the self largely enough, it’s all self-publishing. What we’re doing isn’t that different, though it is different in that we’re being honest about it."
For the three editors of Commune Editions—all friends who had collaborated on writings in the past—those political ambitions are communist and anarchist, and the work has been intensified following the police violence surrounding the 2009 shooting of Oscar Grant on BART public transit, the Occupy Oakland movement, and protests over tuition hikes within the University of California system.

“In these moments, the people committed to poetry and the people committed to militant political antagonism came to be more and more entangled, turned out to be the same people,” the editors wrote on the Commune Editions site. “A provisionally new strain of poetry has begun to emerge from this entanglement with communist and anarchist organizing, theorizing, and struggle.... Because there was no existing venue attuned to these changes, we decided to start one.”

Political poetry is a niche area in an era ruled by M.F.A. programs, which tend to value lyricism and form over social commentary. And the editors of Commune Editions—who are publishing three of each other’s books this year and will publish books by Cheena Marie Lo and David Lau next year—don’t shy away from the fact that they are self-publishing. After all, a business ecosystem sustaining poetry doesn’t exactly exist.

“There is no poetry industry in any meaningful sense,” Spahr says. “It’s all small press stuff. From the very beginning, as much as I was published, I was publishing other people at the same time. It was always a community-maintained culture.”

For many poets, self-publishing is a bad word, often associated with banging out excruciating verses on Tumblr after a bad breakup. Yet the history of published poetry is full of writers either doing it themselves or with the help of friends. Spahr points to Bill Knott, the Boston poet who decided to publish his books himself. And Clover noted that Ezra Pound’s work was funded by his friend James Laughlin.

“It doesn’t look like self-publishing, but in some senses that’s even more dubious: having James Laughlin give over his life to publishing Ezra Pound and other similar people,” Clover says. And, in many ways, it’s an asset that poetry has largely been, in Spahr’s words, community maintained.

“It’s quite likable that in the world of poetry, everyone knows each other and it’s not an anonymous corporate event,” Clover says. “And the idea that anonymous corporate events somehow becomes the mark of virtue and integrity is a very funny idea.”

And when one considers that small presses are often maintained by a single person, the divide between self-publishing and publishing with small presses begins to blur. “If you define the self largely enough, it’s all self-publishing,” Bernes says. “What we’re doing isn’t that different, though it is different in that we’re being honest about it.”

By saying this, Bernes does not just acknowledge that Commune Editions is engaging in self-publishing, but also articulates the press’s vision and aesthetic and how it relates to the work it intends to publish.

It was surprisingly difficult articulating that intent in a way the greater poetry community understood, however. One issue was simply agreeing on a name for the press. “The complication was that some of us identify as communists, some of us identify as anarchists,” Clover says. “Figuring out what the language around that would be took some puzzling through.”

The editors settled on the first person plural to describe their vision and began blogging for the online poetry journal Jacket2. It was a different type of collaboration, in which one editor would post an entry and sign the others’ names.

This practice wasn’t new for them. In 2012, Spahr and Clover wrote an application letter to be co-presidents of the Poetry Foundation. That same year, Bernes and Clover wrote an article in the Los Angeles Review of Books on French philosopher Alain Badiou’s The Rebirth of History: Times of Riots and Uprisings. And, in 2007, Clover edited Bernes’s first long-form book, Starsdown.

Writers typically toil in solitude, but, for the editors of Commune Editions, collaboration is liberating. “I compulsively work and write with people,” Spahr says. “I find I learn things that I couldn’t have gotten to on my own. It feels hopeful.”

For Clover, trusting someone to write something under his name is a rare and genuine moment of freedom. “I’ve had moments collaborating with both Jasper and Juliana where I go back and don’t know who wrote what line,” Clover says. “That feels amazing.”

For readers on the outside, however, it might feel cliquish. Bernes was surprised when some people, after reading their Jacket2 posts, accused them of bullying—that writing in the first person plural was tantamount to a command, and that the editors of Commune Editions were dictating that the only worthwhile poetry is inherently anticapitalist or anti-state. This wasn’t their stance.

Spahr, however, anticipated the backlash. She recalls being on a bus with Clover and a bunch of fellow poets who were annoyed that they’d written collaboratively. Because poetry is driven by community, rather than corporate publishing houses, people freak out when they feel they’re not invited to the party.

“Who you decide to collaborate with and who you don’t collaborate with becomes fighting words in a weirdly interesting way,” Spahr says. “There’s a lot of anxiety around it.”

That anxiety created enough tension that the editors addressed it in their final Jacket2 post, in April 2014: “We have gone to jail for each other and bailed each other out and done each other’s jobs and collaborated on many writings before and argued a lot with each [other] too and then changed our minds as a result, and so it seemed to us pretty sensible,” they wrote of their decision to use the controversial we. “Sometimes the ‘I’ feels fraudulent also.”

The editors’ testing of narrative voice also reflects some haziness around the link between politics and poetry. They are hopeful, but not certain, that they will continue to find work that moves them both politically and poetically in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

While the editors hope the intermingling between poet and anticapitalist communities will reignite political poetry, their movement, if it can be called that, is nascent. But it’s still happening. In 2011, Bernes noticed swelling attendance at Bay Area poetry readings. This was less to do with an influx of poets and more to do with a sudden, and very noticeable, alignment of interests.

“There were poets speaking to things that anarchists, communists, and occupiers were interested in,” Bernes says. These new presences energized and politicized the readings—and the readers. That changed what poets were doing and how they were responding to the world around them. They were having these conversations and social entanglements with these kinds of political radicals or militants.”

Another change comes from growing wariness around dominant institutions like M.F.A. programs. Once considered by applicants to be a path to publication, they’ve become literary nunneries where the unemployed take shelter as viable jobs vanish. Spahr anticipates that this, too, will affect the way writers write.

“If people are more suspicious of M.F.A. programs in the future, that will change the way literature is made, because people being unsuspicious of M.F.A. programs changed the way literature was made in the ‘90s,” she says. (Clover has an M.F.A. from Iowa, and Bernes has an M.F.A. from Cornell.)

As such, the editors are optimistic but grounded as the literary and political scenes collapse into each other. “We are curious about, but not overconfident regarding, the capacities of art,” they wrote on the site. “Poems are no replacement for concrete forms of political action.”

But there’s no doubting their belief in poetry’s impact.