If you really want to understand Occupy Wall Street, you have to talk to the poets.
One night last week, late, after ducking out of a birthday party, we wandered down Broadway like we sometimes do now, looking to extend the evening a bit, see what was doing in the park.
Zuccotti was quiet, but charged with energy as it had been for a month and counting. Many of the sleeping bags were already lumpy and zipped tight. Some were moving gently. The library was closed, covered with blue tarps. But two of the librarians, who were also the poets, were still kicking it. They met three weeks ago and are now best friends, they agreed.
These were Stephen Boyer, 27, a former model and paid dominatrix, and Filip Marinovich, 36, a sometime associate professor of poetry.
Not that any of that really matters anymore. “Hierarchies are bullshit,” Mr. Boyer said. In the last three weeks, he had met celebrities, philosophers, politicians—then curled up under a table to await the next unknowable day. “I’m in the most uncomfortable situation I’ve ever been in in my life, and I have more access to the world than ever.”
Sometimes things are their opposites. Mr. Boyer learned this doing his other job, tag-teaming with his girlfriend, dominating people for money. This is physical work, no getting around that, but it’s also psychological. Mostly it’s about power and how to flip it. Good training, actually, for a member of a revolutionary movement.
Mr. Boyer and his girlfriend moved back to the states from London just a few weeks ago, and they were staying in a hotel overlooking ground zero, preparing for a trip to DC, a business trip. Lots of clients down there—all the doms know it’s the best place in the country to beat people and humiliate them and maybe fuck them with a strap-on for money.
When he reunited with his New York friends, they were going on and on about Occupy Wall Street. “I was like, ‘Let’s get a fucking drink. I haven’t seen you in forever.’ Like, whatever. I’ve been to a zillion protests. I really expected nothing.”
The next day, though, he wandered over to Zuccotti Park. After walking around for five minutes, he recalled, “I just started crying. I was like, This is not like anything I’ve ever seen. It’s what we’ve always wanted to be happening but never figured out how to do.”
Mr. Marinovich agreed. “I gave up on this a long time ago, and yet here it is,” he said.
Of course we asked them about what everyone outside this movement—especially members of the media—seems want to talk about, and nobody on the inside is particularly concerned with: What do you all want? What are the demands? How do you know when you’ve won and can go home?
The poets were polite. They tried to answer. They were tired, as everyone is down there. Running on pure adrenaline. But these were the wrong questions, the ones you ask when you don’t yet get it. These were the questions of the world outside the park—the world of prose. Occupy Wall Street is actually, it turns out, occurring in the realm of poetry and spirit. It’s a sort of waking dream. Which is why it’s so strangely powerful and cannot be sneered away or shoveled over with cynicism (not that we didn’t try) or kettled into history, and may even survive the winter in New York.
“Demands will grow,” Mr. Boyer assured us calmly, with a patience we immediately envied, as we had not felt patient like that in a very long time. He was tall and young, and wore mostly black and didn’t seem very much like a sadist at all. “Demands will eventually come. But this is a space for learning. I’ve learned more here in the last two weeks than I have in all those years of college.”
That’s not a dig on the University of San Francisco, where Mr. Boyer majored in creative writing and sociology. The degree didn’t get him far, though, so he has done what he had to do for money, some good, some not so good. He walked the runway last year in London for Ziad Ghanem, for instance, the designer widely viewed as the creative heir to Alexander McQueen. Mr. Ghanem placed volumes of Mr. Boyer’s poetry on every seat in the front row, and Mr. Boyer’s picture turned up in British Vogue. That was the good job.
But it seems like a different life now. He no longer knows the person in those pictures.
In his 1985 cult anarchist treatise T.A.Z., Hakim Bey, aka the poet Peter Lamborn Wilson, described what he dubbed the temporary autonomous zone: “a guerrila operation which liberates an area (of land, of time, of imagination).” Which is as good a description of Occupy Wall Street as any.
Such zones have flourished, however briefly, around the world, often in secret, Mr. Bey wrote, but in in contemporary America he thought such a space would most likely emerge after three conditions were met. First, people needed to understand not only how the State (Wall Street, the One Percent, whatever) had enslaved them but also “the ways in which we are ensnared in a fantasy in which ideas oppress us.” When the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek showed up in the park a few weeks back, he compared this process of awakening to the John Carpenter movie They Live, in which the protagonist, Nada, finds a pair of special sunglasses which reveal that the advertising billboards all around him carry hidden messages: submit, stay asleep, conform, consume. The dollar bill? This is your god. (And spoiler alert: the rich are all aliens.)
The second condition was that the internet would need to evolve into a useful tool of dissent and organization.
And third, Mr. Bey wrote, “The State must progress on its present course in which hysterical rigidity comes more and more to mask a vacuity, an abyss of power.”
Check, check, check.
It was windy. The blue tarps were whipping around. Mr. Boyer was asked another of those questions a reporter might ask, an outside-the-zone question. We were just visiting, after all.
“Ever have any famous clients?”
“I’ve had powerful clients. I’ve also had a lot of middle-class clients and a lot who just lost their jobs and don’t know what to do and are freaking out and they want fetish relief from all the pain. I’m like, ‘Sorry, I didn’t want to take your money, but that’s what it’s about.’”
“So many times.”
“People you recognized?”
“Sure. I’m not going to give you names. But like, I’ve had clients before who are very close to Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, for instance. And I’m just like, ‘Really? Really? You hang out with them every day?’”
Mr. Boyer suggested his girlfriend come to Zuccotti. She said no. Her room was overlooking the reconstruction of the World Trade Center site, and at one point, Mr. Boyer stood on the balcony, peering down at what felt to him like a graveyard. Then he turned back to watch her on the luxurious bed in the sleekly minimalist room. “She looked so isolated. And I was like, ‘You sure you don’t want to come to Occupy Wall Street?’” No thanks, she said.
“I think that division of psychic-ness is the main reason why we had to go our own ways.”
It seems clear that the lack of demands is not the problem with this thing but its engine. We ask the usual questions because that is how we understand—or, not understand at all, really, but control and contain, and then dismiss or exploit, according to our individual agenda or cast of mind. Those of us standing outside the park—who could, at any moment, simply step across the threshold—want to flick it aside it or put it to use, because that’s what we have learned to do. Box it up, slap on a label, file it away.
Like Mr. Bey said, “As soon as the TAZ is named (represented, mediated), it must vanish, it will vanish, leaving behind an empty husk.”
Which might be why everyone keeps asking.
Mr. Marinovich is married and has a place on the Lower East Side. He doesn’t sleep in the park but hangs out all the time. He has taught poetry at Columbia and the St. Marks Poetry Project. He had a wild beard, and soft eyes and was wearing a hooded wind-breaker.
He compared Zuccotti Park to Sherwood Forest. “It’s the true Akademia,” he said, referring to the original school founded by Plato in an Athenian grove of olive trees. He, too, struggled to remember the person he was before Occupy Wall Street. “There’s this huge clash and rift between everything that came before and now. It’s so full of danger and possibility and opportunity and ecstasy and everyone’s falling in love and everyone looks so beautiful and you just want to walk through and have sex with everyone.”
Not that either poet had had any actual sex in the sacred grove. Another literal question we had to ask. Truth be told, we too were falling in love with this movement, but we remained affixed to the other zone, ever alert to the clickable headline.
Anyway, the point was not about sex, both poets agreed, laughing. “There’s a tremendous psychic eros going on here, this connection that we feel together,” Mr. Marinovich explained. “It creates this courage to stand up to whatever happens.”
“The TAZ is an art of life in continual rising up, wild but gentle,” Mr. Bey wrote, inspired, to a large degree, by the great Sufi poets. It’s “a seducer not a rapist, a smuggler rather than a bloody pirate, a dancer not an eschatologist.”
Mr. Marinovich added that most interactions in the world outside are money-centered. Not in the park. They had no money, and yet they were well fed. Nobody mentioned Jesus, or the communities of early Christians, but you have to think those disciples had a brightness in their eyes that these poets would recognize. They, too, had crossed a threshold between then and now. The followers of Jesus had abandoned their families, had given up concerning themselves with money or anything practical, feeling certain the messiah was coming (to ask whether he did or not is to miss the point). They had loaves and fishes that fed a multitude. The occupiers have pizza—sometimes 300 pies a day—that somehow just arrives. They trust that they will be O.K., that fellowship will sustain them, and so far they are O.K.
Mr. Marinovich marveled at the “immediate, urgent intimacy” he felt in the park, among the occupiers. “It’s completely natural and unforced,” he said, “and it has so much to do with the absence of money as a center, because when that’s not in the center, what is in the center we don’t know, and into that opening everything can flow.”
Mr. Marinovich views Zuccotti Park as sacred space. Mr. Boyer’s description of ground zero as a “graveyard” seemed apt, he said. There was a reason, maybe subconscious, that they were occupying this place. Close to Wall Street, yes, but closer to where the towers fell.
“I’ve been thinking about this a lot,” he said. “The dead have been used for ten years as fuel for this war. I don’t think that’s anything they would have wanted. To hijack the spirits of the dead and use them to create this permanent state of war is one of the vilest things you could possibly do.” (One thought of Mr. Boyer’s clients, who might have been in that Pentagon basement when the decisions were made, plans drawn up. Or maybe that’s just what johns inside the Beltway always tell their young boy poet–dominatrixes.)
“I feel like this is the real tenth anniversary of 9-11,” Mr. Marinovich continued. “It’s weird what was leading up to this. The whole commemoration, but before that Hurricane Irene, which was like this cleansing thing. All that happened. And being here on the periphery of ground zero, so loaded with spirits….”
A year ago, he’d been walking around the area, and he’d felt that the spirits were walking with him. Telling him things. Which he wrote down in a poem that is now in the Occupy Wall St. Poetry Anthology, which Mr. Boyer and Mr. Marinovich created together, out of contributions from people in the park and others who sent in work online and keep sending more, so much they can hardly read it all. Contributors include Anne Waldman, Adrienne Rich, Michael McLure, Elliott Katz, but anyone can contribute by sending their work to email@example.com, with “occupy poetry” in the subject line.
Two copies of the anthology, which are in binders so they can grow each day, are kept in the Occupy library and are not online. But you can borrow them—there is no checking out or checking in—or hear them at the weekly poetry assembly, every Friday at 9:30 p.m. Or you can just ask, like we did. Mr. Marinovich went first, reading the piece he’d written a year ago, when the spirits of the dead had whispered to him. “This is called ‘Wolfman Librarian and the Trembling Pair of Actor Hands,’” he said, and noted that it was long. The beginning went something like this: “Tell me this grove will protect me / From World Trade Towers Lightning forking the brain / Mine! Mine! / Why are there trains under the grass / And my butt is wet / Why do you constantly interrupt yourself? / My rhythm is the rhythm of interruption.”
Mr. Boyer went next, with a poem he’d put down in a rush on one of his first giddy nights in Zuccotti Park. Again, an except: “We need a sex space in the park, a space surrounded by tarps, held by the people, so we can get naked and fill each other with ourselves,” he read. And a few lines later: “I want to moan as the bankers and men on Wall Street watch with their binoculars, and in this way we shall win. They’ll come, demanding our naked bodies, and we’ll share ourselves. Sasha Gray, where are you? Get down here and gang bang for democracy. And show them just how beautiful our bodies, and the way we glow when we make one another radiate.”
Mr. Boyer used to suffer from anxiety. He used to do drugs, sometimes hard ones, and drink every day. In his three weeks in the park, spending hour after hour meeting people, talking about ideas, reciting poetry, he’s felt free of that. “There’s this hunger inside for the kind of community that I am now having access to,” he explained. “Since that wasn’t available to me, I’d partake of drugs to kind of numb that desire, because there was such a void in me. A lot of people are in the same mindspace.” He added, however, that some were actually using more, maybe because they’re so disoriented and exhausted. Who knows? It was hard to pin down exactly what was going on for the people who’d entered into this experiment.
Mr. Marinovich jumped in. “This is nonlinear time, saturated now-time,” he explained, “‘time shot through with the presence of the the now,’ as Benjamin called it.” We had to look that up. Now-time was a long time ago for us. The reference was to Theses on the Philosophy of History, which Walter Benjamin, the German-Jewish literary critic, wrote in January 1940, as the Nazis prepared to invade France. Eight months later, after fleeing to Spain, Benjamin learned that Franco had decided to return the refugees to Paris. He swallowed a handful of morphine pills.
Anyway, that was history. This was now-time. Jetztzeit. The revolutionary moment, the messianic age, which might extend forever, or not that long, but was somehow ever-present.
It seemed inevitable somehow that in the eyes of the outside world, at least, that the Occupy Wall Street movement would eventually flame out. People would begin to bicker. Splinter groups would form. January would be colder than anyone imagined. It all seemed very fragile. But by a different measure, the occupiers had already won. Their lives felt meaningful, were meaningful, in a way they hadn’t been before, which is a treasure that does not trade on the stock exchange and that most of us, whatever our percentile, rarely get our greedy hands on.
“Look around,” Mr. Boyer said. “We just slept through three days of pouring rain and everyone is still smiling.”