Writers and Occupy Wall Street: A review of Reading + OWS Discussion

What do raps about the working class, Shakespeare monologues and stories about the south have in common? What responsibilities do writers have within the OWS movement?

On Friday, November 4, New School Riggio Writing and Democracy students along with friends gathered to find out during an event entitled Reading + OWS Discussion.  While the reading is a regular event, the discussion about Occupy Wall Street was added as an acknowledgement that the movement is impacting  lives.

Something that emerged early in the night was the way writing created years ago, read now, echoes the activism sweeping the country. Student Rochelle Melton, currently working on a memoir, dug deep in her vault of poems to share life before her northern migration. Her deeply considered work vividly expressed a bleakness many of us have come to realize you can’t escape by moving. The systems of sadness we live under are bigger than state lines.

Other work was so fresh it was ripe with relevance. Riggio student Charlotte Slivka read a work in progress about taking her daughter to the October 7th Brooklyn Bridge protest and how she was unable to explain why upon getting there people were being arrested. By sharing, Charlotte made the audience complicit in the job of explaining the complex world to her daughter. If we as adults are tying to make sense of what is happening, shouldn’t we include our children in our unknowing?

In between were stories of everyday lives, visiting loved ones in prison first person accounts about the US healthcare system, contemplations on violent instincts, and epic journeys of young love. Never far from anyone’s tongue, yet hardly ever explicit, was Occupy. It seemed to hover over the podium, there to supply extra meaning when needed.

Bringing the reading came to a close, poet and student Enrique Sebastian Rivas performed a soliloquy from Hamlet, reminding us angst in the world is nothing new, there is value in sharing what haunts as, and nothing is ever just one thing. Kicking off the Discussion was a hip-hop/spoken word tribute to the laboring bodies that keep New York City running written and performed by 12th Street Online Editor Tim Prolific Jones and collaborator SoSoon. Written years earlier, the piece, like Melton’s work read fresh.

New York City nights, bright lights, pretty sights/somebody’s gotta keep it lookin’ all pretty
when the city’s at a standstill, they keep it movin’/it’s a fucked up job, but somebody’s gotta do it

[audio:http://www.12thstreetonline.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/UNDERCLASS-remix.mp3|titles=UNDERCLASS remix]

In talking about how it fit with OWS, Jones explained, “as young, working class, black men, being disillusioned with the American Dream is nothing new”. Opening the door to talk about race, class and the occupation, the crowd never picked up the opportunities thrown out from Jones and SoSoon, instead the OWS discussion came into it’s own around the politics of tipping. Mentioned as an example of how neo-liberalism creates conditions for owners to shift employee compensation on to consumers, tipping surprisingly became the evening’s lightening rod. Faces went flush, voices were raised, and lines were drawn. Some felt that tipping is a harmless, culturally ingrained form of financial incentive. Others suggested this way of thinking was what Occupy Wall Street was hoping to change. As one woman offered, we are always participating in systems that contribute to the bigger picture; sometimes connections are clear, and sometimes – as with tipping – it can be less obvious. While we don’t always have opportunities to choose how systems engage with us, we sometimes have a choice on how we engage with systems.

Two weeks after Reading + OWS Discussion, there was an early morning raid at Liberty Park, the home of the OWS movement. What becomes clear that in the face of things that can be taken away – tents, rights, and privileges, writing can often be something that remains. In response to the question, why he joined the Occupy Writer’s statement Hari Kunzru wrote, “Writers do many kinds of cultural work, but one of our roles (or duties, if you prefer) is to make visible what is hard to see, to use words to tell the truth about the world.”

What do raps about the working class, Shakespeare monologues and stories about the south have in common? Everything, they are our stories. They make visible what OWS is working to address; they represent ways writers engage with systems, and right now they are adding to the coalescing of issues that make up the OWS movement. Without stories, OWS is just dogma against dogma.

In the end Occupy Wall Street, no matter its outcomes will run it course. What Shakespeare, rappers and the readers who shared their work during Reading + OWS Discussion teach us is, our stories matter. Whether they are as fresh as a new laptop, or as old as a fading page, stories endure. Our responsibility as writers within the OWS movement is simple. Write.