IN CONVERSATION WITH ANNE RENSMA
In poetry, and specifically in the interactive performance of language that is spoken word, one can find potential to generate a world within a world: a safe space that does not only offer protection, but, maybe even more so, a place to live and to exist in. As such, the lure of loving in one’s own language has gradually made my pessimism grow softer. There is something real and undeniably important about the vocalization of experiences, and the trembling and watery vulnerability of producing words from a marginalized position. Softness can burn holes. Our words can build homes, and, as we do not exist in your language, we use our words to create our own.
Imagining another world is not necessarily a reckless endeavor. It enables for and unlocks a form of empathy, and it can actually be life saving. Reflecting on utopianism and spoken word poetry, allows to think deeper and more profoundly about the stickiness of words, and the tangible and stretchy characteristics of performing them. While thinking about the notion of the artistic expression of spoken word poetry and the way in which this poetry holds a potential to mobilize minorities in order to generate an affective and utopian way of resistance, the Brussels-based platform, Guerrilla Resistance, will help me demonstrate my point. The founder of the queer, feminist and anti-capitalist platform explains that she wanted to create a space for people to share their narratives: “In order for us to make our voices heard. And then, Guerrilla Resistance just grew beyond that. We started with organizing open mics where people could vent out a bit, and we started organizing creative writing workshops, to give people more tools and confidence to better express themselves.” She tells me that words and language have been very important concepts in the ideological reflections that preceded the founding of Guerrilla Resistance, especially because, as she explains, words are at the base of how we construct our reality, and she “wanted Guerrilla Resistance to be a space of deconstruction.”
Imagining otherwise, or imagining a (queer) utopia is not a form of escapism in my train of thoughts. It could actually be the radical political resistance our current system necessitates. Could spoken word poetry mobilize a state of mind that challenges this “straight present” [i] ?
An Affective Lock-down
Against the framework of a culture of neoliberal and assimilationist politics, I am positioning one of the main characters of my reasoning: the marginalized, queer poet. A statement of recognition of a sharp and glittery kind of deviancy could, therefore, be a starting point: stuck in time, and trying to break free, we find an innate refusal, a radical denial about what is making the world feel like an unsafe and unwelcoming place to exist in. The present does not have to be something we agree to “settle in”, as it is a “toxic and impoverished” place for marginalized people. Today’s social, cultural, political and economical reality can be compared to a mold, merely to be fit or filled in by the people that already normatively assimilate, or by minorities that can materially and symbolically afford such assimilation. The poet speaks a new language, and, has a way of creating new worlds to live in. In my interpretation of the concept, utopian thinking could be seen an artistic strategy to combat a heteronormative, whitewashed, and hostile reality. It is in this way we could be rethinking utopianism in the context of the performativity of spoken word poetry in all its temporal and linguistic queerness.
Words can act as a destructive power in an oppressive system and a majoritarian culture. In all its ephemerality, performing your words from a marginalized perspective is a queer act, as it engages the audience and the performer in an affective lock-down for a certain moment in time. That is why the queer poet rewrites the narrative: not only by producing words and by making poetry, but also by performing them in a setting of where temporality rules [ii]. In these moments an affective bubble is generated, as I learned from one of the people who have occasionally performed at open mic events organized by Guerrilla Resistance. She spoke to me about what performing and narrating an emotion can invoke, in the very moment is it being performed. Performing her poetry creates a “social reaction”, she explains, a tangible interaction she actively perceives in the very moment. She tells me that it is almost impossible to neglect the affective energy that is generated. “When you look people in the eyes and you invite them to have an interaction with you, it is very hard to be sitting in that chair and to look away, to walk away […] they will, whether they like it or not, have to experience what you are sharing with them.” Some understand this notion of affectivity as a potentiality to elucidate an “impossible possibility” that exists in our “shared reality”, having the potential to disrupt, or “even destroy” the premises on which that shared reality is built.
Small Bursts of Disobedience
One might wonder: “How many people live today in a language that is not their own?” We can interpret this question in a broader sense, where the validation of all existences that do not feel safe, or at home, in a majoritarian, normatively imposed atmosphere is at stake. In a conversation with other performers, I learned that the safeness of the platform has been vital for them: “people always made me feel like I was making problems, and seeing stuff that was not there […] not everyone sees oppression.” This safety of an affective homeliness is found in the environment of Guerrilla Resistance as a collective, but equally so in the temporal moments of the performances they facilitate. “It’s exercising,” I am told, “it’s exorcism, […] putting something that’s inside, outside. I write about me. About my feelings, about what I feel. Once they are out, I can see them as something. I wrote about my maternity, about my queerness, the fact that I was looking for myself, changes in my life. And it really helps.”
These brief glances at safety, at a queer utopia through spoken word poetry are vital for people “living in a language that is not their own”. Already, using words for literature essentially alienates their function. In a system of normative codification, most produced literature finds its way back through mainstream interpretation. The marginalized, the queer poet, however, writes and tells their stories from this peripheral point of view, making them not only one of the most radical figures and re-enactors of social change, but it also gives their words this kind of elusive and rhizomatic potential [iii]. The words, and the poetry that is performed by the queer poet, have the potential to “spin [language] […] along a revolutionary line”. Add to this the immediacy and the directness of a spoken word performance, and we can see how the small bursts of disruption and disobedience, of what José Esteban Muñoz powerfully describes as a “queer utopia”, are generated, enabling the marginalized poet to envision their story within the existing story.
The meaning and the implications of living “in a language that is not your own” are essential in imagining a different way of being. Here, in my argument and in the context of the different testimonies, it functions as a useful and fitting metaphor: we live in a reality that provides us with the words and the cadres, the terms, and the premade definitions of identities to express ourselves, but those words and identities are not our own. The dichotomy that manifests itself when someone is asked to express themself on someone else’s terms and conditions, modeled off a majoritarian and dominant culture, is essential. A moment of expression, a linguistic burst of disruption, in performative literature can enable the subject to rewrite the system.
A “concrete utopianism”, that finds its roots in the “quotidian”, helps us to free ourselves from being tied to the present and seeing the change as something that needs to happen within the confined reality of the here and the now. The quotidian is always there, as the queer subject lives in the material reality of the current oppressive structure. Spoken word poetry gives us that safe space, and in the collectivity of a moment, where words and languages and stories are performed, we find ourselves in a concrete denial of the present. Building upon queerness, poetry and utopianism, I reckon we can confront our harmful world and position it in a direct dialogue with words, empathy and the sparkly deviancy of the queer artist and poet, and the politics of performing one’s own poetic language.
Anne Rensma (1992) graduated from the Master in Gender Studies at Utrecht University in the summer of 2018. Her areas of interest and research comprise the (visual) arts, literature and languages, and queer and decolonial theory. She is passionate about poetry.
Read Guerrilla Resistance’s manifesto here.
Image courtesy of Margot Cassiers.
 José Estéban Muñoz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (New York: New York University Press, 2009), 185
 Muñoz, Cruising Utopia, 27.
 Keeling, “Looking for M”, 566.
 Deleuze, Guattari, and Brinkley, “What Is a Minor Literature?”, 19.
 Deleuze, Guattari, and Brinkley, 19.
 Deleuze, Guattari, and Brinkley, 20.
 Deleuze, Guattari, and Brinkley, 19.
 Muñoz, 1.
 Muñoz, 6.
 Muñoz, 136.
[i] Instead, as Muñoz argues, we should look for the ephemeral, the temporal, and the imagining of a belonging that is “not-yet-here”. As we are stuck in this “straight present” (Muñoz 2009, 185), Muñoz argues that it could be our aim “to wrest ourselves from [this] stultifying present, to know our queerness as a belonging in particularity that is not dictated or organized around the spirit of the political impasse of the present”(28).
[ii] In José Esteban Muñoz’s Cruising Utopia (2009) we feel the importance and the relevance of reflecting on the notions of time and place in these considerations (“the crushing force of the dynasty of the here and the now” (189)): what does it mean to be somewhere at a certain moment in time, and speaking your words? As Muñoz writes: “[…] the field of utopian possibility is one in which multiple forms of belonging in difference adhere to a belonging in collectivity” (20).
[iii] Deleuze and Guattari argue that, after being deterritorizalized, a process of reterritorialization takes place (Deleuze & Guattari, 1983, 19). In my argument the mainstream author’s words have no troubles in finding their way back into a codified system, sustained by and feeding off heteronormativity.
Deleuze, Gilles, Félix Guattari, and Robert Brinkley. 1983. “What Is a Minor Literature?” Mississippi Review (Spring): 13-33.
Keeling, Kara. 2009. “Looking for M—: Queer Temporality, Black Political Possibility, and Poetry from the Future.” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies: 565-82.
Muñoz, José Esteban. 2009. Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. New York: New York University Press.