Activism and the Beats

a talk written for Naropa University
(and edited for publication)
Summer 2017

I want to “state the problem in words as clearly as possible.i

I do not think that to merely be an artist is activism. Activism is rooted in action. To act. To be an actor. Acting upon something. A bit of etymology from the internet:

“activist”, or, “one who advocates a doctrine of direct action”. “Active”, or, mid-14th century “given to worldly activity” (interestingly opposed to contemplative or monastic), “from Old French actif (12c.) and directly from Latin activus, from actus, “a doing”.

Other thoughts: “capable of acting” (opposed to passive), and meaning “energetic, lively.

Poets famously led the vanguard of a South American revolutioniv. Do you want to be those poets? There are multiple ways to be those poets, to be on the front lines, to be soldiers and keepers of culture. To be the living archive.

Amiri Baraka said something to the effect of “the work…has to do something… has to do anything it has to do.” I’ll make an assertion that we must act to be activists, but I won’t assert what the action is. I’ll leave that for the activists in the audience, for you, to decide.

If you don’t want to publicly protest, don’t. I think we’d all understand. “You speak out, you hurt yourself, you get locked up.v” If you don’t want to act, don’t, but I ask that you not call yourself an activist. We’ve been dancing around exclusionary tactics: terminology dividing us, from one another, from other peoples, or from different styles of work. And I think, now, many peoples and individual people are feeling excluded, and we have to fight against exclusionary forces. But we have to also acknowledge systems and misunderstandings within our own midst, and if we don’t, we aren’t doing the work.

But if you are an activist, you do the work. You know when you’re an activist. It may be harder to know when you’re an activist writer. The lines are blurrier, and people are apt to tell you that they’re activists when they’re not acting, and they know it. So use the word as it is intended to be used, and don’t hedge around it. We like to toss around words to make us feel better, but this is not the moment for that. In what ways can we be inclusive while knowing who we are and what we do, how we act, in the world?

Because in the world we are whether we like it or not. Choosing to act is choosing to interact, to be within the world and to own that presence. This is the start of activism. To act alone is just that. By alone I mean truly alone, not lonely, but in a state of being by oneself. Acting could be with other people, or with the natural world, with scientific data, with computers. But there is some interface, some “coincidence” in the sense of “to coincide”, togethervi. Some way in which the activist is not alone.

And I’ve come around to it— simply being a poet is not activism. Simply existing outside the norms of a capitalist society is not activism. So, writing is not plainly and simply activism. Nor is looking at data, or sitting in a grove of trees, or writing a tweet. What then makes these circumstances active?

I’d say in the interface, in the interaction, of writer with world, in that exchange of contentious ideas, one becomes an activist. These don’t have to be novel ideas, but they need to be interesting ones that challenge people’s thinking. Active. This might mean that my definition is constructed of interactions between people. That I’m not sure of yet. But I am ready to say that interactions between people are the most obvious ways to become an activist.

Creating change is not simple or easy. It’s a long and difficult process, and we don’t get to be part of the change simply by saying, post-mortem, that we “wrote something”. Once that writing becomes a part of the world, is immersed in another person’s heart and mind, we’ve done something. So there is risk involved, great risk, when being an activist, when exchanging ideas. We are asked to go to those “dangerous places” in our writingvii, or to “evoke a complex truth” as a poetviii. The risk you choose to take is your own and no one is here to judge you for that. We’d all understand the choice to not be an activist. It’s not that one wakes up (literally, from bed) tomorrow morning and is suddenly an activist. It involves sustained action. Activism is a continued, not isolated, act. There may not be a realizable or articulable end-goal, or maybe there are many. In activism, the question of “what would a healthy system look like” is continuous and contentious.ix

I want to propose some recommendations.

First, I don’t think an ethical activist is committed to leaving a people behind. By a “people” I mean an entire demographic or population, not individuals. This statement is not about the people down the street you don’t get along with, because if you want to reach out to them, that’s a personal and sometimes painful choice. This is about a whole group, a larger swath of people who, if we are to progress as a society, must come with us. This is where the autobiographical comes in. I come from a family of, collectively, over 100 close relatives who, if I tried, I could mostly name. Out of these 100, about 90% are incredibly conservative. I want to repeat, an activist, an ethical activist, does not willingly leave a people behind. The conservative right makes up a large percentage of the people in this country. Whether we (and I’m using we to mean the assumed majority of liberals reading, whether we agree on everything or not), whether we like it or not, and I’m misquoting from a Facebook post, the states we left behind are a vast part of the reason for the current political climate. Importantly, these are people that we know or knew growing up, however sheltered we were from opposing political ideas. These people do not understand, sometimes, where “we’re” coming from, in the same way that we don’t understand or don’t want to understand where they’re coming from. This misunderstanding is bone-deep. We’re at an impasse, so we call each other names. Activism means discomfort. Activism means discomfort with those we know or love or hate. But we engage, we interact with the discomfort, and we say that a lot, but do we mean it? Do we mean it? Do we engage with situations that make us feel uncomfortable because it is important to do so? Or do we shirk the obligation we have to every creature on this planet (because of our calling in Buddhism, because of our saying we are conservationists, because we are Boulderites, because we are “dissidents to dehumanization,”x because we want to seem edgy, out of the mainstream), do we shirk our obligation to living creatures including conservatives? I’ve had a hell of a time convincing my father, college-educated, that climate change is real (we’ve gotten to a soft maybe). Should I leave that battle behind? Probably, it would be easy, and healthy, for me. But I’m not ready to leave it yet. I’m not ready to say “fuck you” to the rest of the world that doesn’t share my views. I want to interact with them, to interface with opposition. And not to militarize against the opposing view, but to listen. Buddhism indicates that we ought to listen to ourselves; what about our self in another human?

Second, stand up. Stand and be counted. Activism is risk-taking. Exchanging ideas is risk-taking. If you want to exchange that idea, you need to own it. You can’t jump on when the wagon has left; when the battle is over. Is it time? Stand up and be counted. Take a risk, however small and insignificant you think it is, take it, because it may change you. It may change someone else, something else. This is an action.

Third, and most importantly, do what you said you’d do. You said you are this, or that, so be it. Act it out. “Every gesture we make as a poet is a public gesture,”xi and we know there are enough other poets in the world who don’t do what they vouch for in their poems. There are enough politicians who do that. We, the we in this world, need people to stand up and do the thing. To ease the pain of living! But this is more complicated than quoting that, this is a call to action. Do you want to be the poet who said one thing and did another? What would our poetical ancestors think? This is not a guilt trip, and if you feel guilty for not being an activist, don’t, because perhaps you don’t feel called to be one. Not everyone has to be an activist. But if you are, or if you feel that this speaks to you, do what you said you’d do. Go to that reading. Stand up at that protest. Write that epic. Because only you can do it the way that you will. No one will do it for you, either. If you say, I want to act, I want to activate, to be active in the world, then do the thing. There’s no other way around it.

I’ve taken my own risk in trying to articulate a definition for you. This is just one version of activism, of my own activism. You have to find your own way to act, if you choose to. And know that you are not alone. You are not alone! “We are all we have”xii to save the planet or save ourselves. I want to think that we are doing right by our ancestors, those poetical political lunatics, our community, when we do the thing, when we do what we said we’d do. Because we are the storm. We are stronger together. Activism does not exist in a vacuum. And whether we make it outside our bubble or not, we are doing what we said. Constantly fighting to have the conversation. Because activism, being active, is a dialectic. And that dialogue, between my father and myself, between writers on the green, or between social media gurus, that is the success. That is the thing of activism.

All quotations not attributed to a text were taken during Naropa’s Summer Writing Program 2017 from speakers and panels.

i. Margaret Randall
ii. Sarah Escue
iii. Sun Yung Shin
iv. Cross Worlds, edited by Anne Waldman and Laura Wright
v. Mairead Case
vi. J. Michael Martinez
vii. Anne Waldman
viii. Margaret Randall
ix. Sun Yung Shin
x. Margaret Randall
xi. Eileen Myles
xii. Lisa Jarnot


Robert Eric Shoemaker is a poet-playwright, educator, and theatre artist. Eric is an MFA Candidate in Naropa University’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics.

Eric’s work has been featured in Kairos; Columbia Journal; Water, Water Everywhere; Beats; Mosaic; Tooth N’ Nail; Rollick; Literature Emitting Diodes; Chicago After Dark; Thought Notebook; Baseball Bard; 2017’s Verde Qué Te Quiero Verde; and his debut collection 30 Days Dry. Eric’s next two books, We Knew No Mortality and Ca’Venezia and other tales, are expected in late 2017.

Eric is the founder of Beats: A Naropan Periodical and Poetry Is Productions. Follow his work at reshoemaker.com.

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