Poems for Pussy Riot: Review and Response

Poetry, Politics

Sabotage Reviews asked me to write  piece about English PEN’s Catechism: Poems for Pussy Riot, a big and ambitious act of solidarity in poetry anthology form. (Buy it.) I was very impressed by the book, but some aspects of it I felt needed criticism — more in the political analysis sense than the aesthetic appraisal sense, though the two are of course intimately connected. Basically, given the way the Pussy Riot struggle has become a Western cause celebre, I think there are big questions around how we approach it. So I tried to think about it through the review (which you can read in full here):

It is uncomfortable to find so many British and Western poets condemnding a despot overseas while forgetting the despots at home. Why, for example, is there no 110-poet feminist anthology calling for Barack Obama to free CeCe McDonald, the African American transgender woman imprisoned on a suspect manslaughter charge? CeCe is not so easy a cause.  And why does America’s kill-ordering, executive-expanding, citizen-murdering President not appear in Philo Ikonya & Helmuth A. Niederle’s Dictators Never: Roll Call, which approves of riot only when the bogeyman is unambiguous. Obama is not so easy a target, and not just because he is more metrosexual than shirtless Putin. But poetry should not just stand up for easy causes and pick on easy targets – that makes for easy poetry. In short: Catechism risks, in its liberal call for freedom and human rights, being co-opted by a Western-centric anti-Russian sentiment. Unless poets are careful, we can be led to implying that terrible oppression only occurs “over there”, and never where we are standing.

When this was published, two of the anthology’s editors were kind enough to engage me in discussion about it. They raised questions and concerns which I hadn’t foregrounded in the review, and which were as important as anything I had to say, if not more so. In short, it felt to me like one of those too rare moments where people learn from each other through disagreement, where important things end up being said through discussion. Plus, some of my own BS got called out, which is always pleasing to an intellectual masochist. Here’s some of that conversation (I’ve left out one speaker who didn’t continue to contribute and so might not be represented fairly, and also the bits of politeness where we say thanks for each other’s comments, which are important to us but not to this post):

Sophie Mayer: Harry, just to say: I’d be stoked to work on an anthology in solidarity with CeCe McDonald and other political prisoners of gender/class/race inequity in the US. I imagine that many Catechism contributors, such as Sandra Alland, Francesca Lisette and Hel Gurney, who are involved in queer activism in the UK, would feel the same. […] The majority of your approving quotations in the review are from male-identified poets, whereas the contributors’ list features more female-identified poets, many of whose poems DO focus on the body as the site of political protest because politicised. Anarcho-feminism is alive in the language work being done by these poems, such as Charlotte Geater’s: poems in which the body is put on the line.

Harry Giles: Re: another anthology, let’s make it happen!

The comment concerned me, so I’ve checked the numbers. The review mentions 9 male-authored and 7 female-authored poems (going by the usual assignment of names only), which, it’s true, is out of balance with the authorship of the anthology. That may indeed be unconscious male bias on my part, although it might also be within statistical margin of error. On the other hand, I think you’re wrong when you say that the majority of approving quotations are from male-identified poets: by my count, 5 male-authored and 2 female-authored poems are mentioned in a more critical context, and 5 female-authored an 4 male-authored poems are mentiond in a more approvng context. That the majority of the criticism is focussed on male-authored poems may not be a coincidence — and the critical bent of the review may be an explanatory factor in the distortion of numbers. It might also be worth saying that I reattribute to a female author a quotation misattributed to a male author in one of the poems! But I do admit that it may also be down to unconscious bias, and that is worth addressing.

As an anarchist, I regularly find my arguments, my idols and my iconography appropriated by liberalism — or, worse, by neoliberalism. So much of the stuff written about Pussy Riot has been appropriative, often by a neoliberal anti-Russian agenda. So what I wanted to do in the review was to explore that territory, and to point out some of the odd things that happen when liberals/Brits/men write about Pussy Riot. And to reaffirm that the riot in Pussy Riot is exactly what it says.

Sophie Mayer: [I am] keen to reiterate that “pussy” also is exactly what it says it is: a riot located and centred in the disenfranchised and feminised body. The hard left (Anglo at least) does not have a great record of sex/gender activism and foregrounding gender-based oppression, which is why I think the “pussy” (as useful, provocative symbol/shorthand) is so important — in CeCe’s case as well.

Mark Burnhope: Yes. The project (particularly the poetic project) is as much about symbols and images, representations of hard patriarchy and its subversion by Pussy Riot, as any literal, pointed political agenda. It seems to me that what Pussy Riot say in their activism towards Putin, and what Pussy Riot *are*, their reason d’etre, their wide context, are two different but interwoven things. The latter is as much about feminism as any other debate we might have. In fact, you might say every other issue orbits around it. Before I lose my overall point: these hard patriarchical systems are something that all people should be invited to protest — however ‘left’ they are — as I hope this book does. Politics, social justice, or both?

Harry Giles: Violence is, as it is distressingly often, a key division here. I might not have written as many critical paras as I did if there weren’t several poems implying that Pussy Riot’s politics are entirely peaceful and non-violent. The patriarchy as “something that all people should be invited to protest”: yes, definitely. Diversity of tactics FTW. I support the use of non-violent tactics. But those who don’t see them as the only option often feel excluded by those who do. And, of course, the macho portrayal of violence can be equally excluding: there is a double-risk. I’m now wandering a long way away from the poetry, so I’l just say: sometimes the effort to include as many voices as possible ends up excluding other voices; this is the paradox of liberalism. My subjective reaction to that was something I was trying to get across in the final sentence of the review. The review gave me some space to address issues I think have been under-represented in the Pussy Riot commentary; I’m glad others are rebalancing other issues here.

Mark Burnhope: I personally do not see Pussy Riot’s protest, or intent, as “violent”, and would perhaps not take their use of violent imagery as literally as you might, but as the subversion of the traditionally male-capitalist monopoly on those images. I see an irony in the fact that they drop ‘protest bombs’, but their ‘crime’ was nothing more than performing illegal gigs which are “off the grid”, under the radar, of the Putin system.

This conversation had me considering intersectionality, something I think about and sometimes struggle with a lot. I tend to emphasise class-based politics and the role of state violence within my own resistance, but I’m also all too aware that those espousing these concerns have had a historical tendency to sideline feminist and queer politics, something I absolutely do not want to do. I count myself as a feminist. I realised that in my review, though, I allowed those concerns to be sidelined by other political questions, when really they needed to remain foregronded and intersectional. The poets who follow me may now be wondering how all that’s supposed to be accomplished in a poetry review. I do think it can! In fact, I do think it has to be. Easy politics, as I wrote, make for easy poetry.

To finish up, I’d like to link to a couple articles that I read during my research for the review. Vadim Nikitin’s The Wrong Reasons to Back Pussy Riot (NY Times, August 20) informed my thinking from a Russian perspective, while Lizy Yagoda’s CeCe McDonald vs. Pussy Riot: Political Imprisonment and Perspective (Feministing, October 16) gave more Western context. Two quotes:

Pussy Riot and its comrades at Voina come as a full package: You can’t have the fun, pro-democracy, anti-Putin feminism without the incendiary anarchism, extreme sexual provocations, deliberate obscenity and hard-left politics.

Unless you are comfortable with all that (and I strongly suspect 99 percent of Pussy Riot’s fans in the mainstream media are not), then standing behind Pussy Riot only now, when it is obviously blameless and the government clearly guilty, is pure opportunism. And just like in the bad old days, such knee-jerk yet selective support for Russian dissidents — without fully engaging with their ideas — is not only hypocritical but also does a great disservice to their cause.

For many white feminists (and white male feminist allies, whose words tend to fill column inches), it is easier to find solidarity with and support the actions of women who look like the women of Pussy Riot do: white, attractive, married, mothers who conform to our expectations of femininity in every way except their activism. The mainstream media narrative of Pussy Riot harps on our supposed similarities to the women—their married life, their vegetarianism, their message t-shirts—while conveniently glossing over seemingly unsavory dissimilarities—the orgies, the rejection of male involvement in the group, that time a member inserted a piece of raw chicken into her vagina in a supermarket. Conversely, whenever a writer describes CeCe, the differences are emphasized: she is trans*, she is black, she was violent. Neglected re the similarities; she is a daughter, a friend, a mentor, and a person who, one dark night, was afraid for her life.

The solution isn’t to throw over the members of Pussy Riot in favor of advocating for our home-grown political prisoners. What is happening to Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina is horrific and Putin and the Russian Orthodox Church deserve all the shade they get. But to ignore that the United States regularly imprisons women for political purposes is, at best, willfully ignorant, or, at worst, condoning the privilege implicit in the prison-industrial complex.

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