Live Poetry and the Seizure of Literature in São Paulo, Brazil

Carlos Cortez Minchillo, Dartmouth College

In Brazil, Neoliberalism, and even before it, elitist state-led policies of industrialization since the 1950s have generated abnormal levels of wealth concentration, migrant flows to urban areas, and quasi-legal social segregation. In poor, underserved areas of Brazilian big cities, dwellers have been abandoned to their own devices, living for decades now in the crossfire between a frequently abusive, corrupt police and murderous criminal gangs. Under such circumstances, citizenship must not be taken for granted: it is never an undisputable right, but rather something to fight for, against hegemonic sectors of society. Just to give a more precise idea of how resilient these social actors are, as I write this post conservative politicians representing the traditional elites in Brazil have overthrown a democratically elected president and retaken the power. Emblematically, one of the first decisions of the new government was to abolish the Ministry of Women, Racial Equality, and Human Rights. Also, all members of the new cabinet appointed by the acting president are white men.

This political setback runs counter a long and steady struggle of marginalized people in Brazil for social visibility and political voice. Literary venues that have mushroomed in poor areas of Brazilian metropolises in the past fifteen years have a lot to do with that. When I first started studying this cultural movement in São Paulo, I was particularly interested in checking how the controversially labeled “marginal literature” articulated a political and aesthetical counter-discourse. By attending poetry slam events, and through textual analysis and interviews, I wanted to examine the social dynamics and political impact produced by slam poetry, as well as the ways it potentially challenges aesthetical assumptions and well-established literary appraisal criteria.

As Brazilian geographer Milton Santos explains, in Brazil, the possibility of being a citizen depends, to a large extent, on where he or she lives. This perverse cartography of citizenship and the corresponding spatial segregation perpetuates educational, occupational and economic disparities and produces phobic symbolic representations. Very little room is left for positive roles and expectations. The underprivileged is depicted (or sometimes self-depicts) as illiterate, ignorant, idle, socially unadapted, threatening, violent. Often, they are seen as lazy “welfare scroungers” by those who oppose governmental social programs that in recent years were responsible for lifting about 40 million Brazilians from the poverty level.

The media and the arts contribute to consolidating many of these stereotyped identities, even when they expose Brazil’s societal flaws by adopting an empathic attitude toward those oppressed and vulnerable. A recent study by Regina Dalcastagnè shows that in a corpus of 258 Brazilian novels all Black characters are poor, and 58.3% of Black male teenagers are criminals. Thus, in Brazil, literature –or, at least, mainstream literature– does not necessarily reconfigure bigotry, despite potential good intentions underneath the lines of its often brutal realism.

But by using alternative channels, new voices are telling different tales of the city, and they are being heard. Frequently connected to hip-hop culture and social activism, a vibrant literary scene has been gradually expanding in marginal spaces of Brazilian metropolises. In the last years of the 20th century, initiatives like the communal organization of public libraries in poor neighborhoods or the distribution of poems written on recycled cardboards and attached to light poles prepared the ground for major changes. Since 2001 two types of spoken word events emerged in the peripheries of São Paulo: saraus and slam poetry. In common, both saraus and slams first occupied marginal and popular spaces not traditionally associated with literature: cheap neighborhood bars, abandoned squares, and unused areas inside metro stations. Also, they both rely primarily on oral performances, a largely neglected form of literary art. Even when printed, literary texts previously performed in saraus and poetry slams seldom circulate through conventional channels like mainstream publisher houses and bookstores. In other words, to some extent “marginal literature” redefines where and how literature circulates, and who creates, controls and consumes it. That’s what I have been calling the “seizure of the literary” by those who until recently were largely ignored as producers and recipients of literary texts. The casual and inclusive social space of slam poetry and saraus is a key leverage factor in a country where, according to a recent survey, 30% of the population has never bought a book, public libraries are inaccessible or in poor conditions, and schools are uninspiring or even hostile spaces.

Through literature performed in poor neighborhoods, marginalized subjects have been developing a stronger sense of citizenship and political agency. Especially among underprivileged youngsters, a sentiment of entitlement has recently surfaced, giving birth to deviant discourses and self-representations. As “marginal” writer Alessandro Buzo puts it on a poem, for affluent Brazilians a favela dweller carrying a book is a “contraindication”. The association between a favelado and a book represents a symbolic shift whose magnitude can only be assessed if we accept, together with Gramsci, that hegemonic confrontations are not limited to traditional political institutions. They require the deconstruction of common sense and the formation of new subjectivities. Literature, of course, plays a crucial role here. That explains why it is so remarkable that many marginalized Brazilians have elected literary gatherings as the embodiment of a distinct ethos and an alternative strategy for a non-partisan political struggle. Alternative spaces for experiencing literature, non-printed texts, and heterodox ways of circulating and trading printed materials are the foundation of an original literary system, providing room for non-professional authors, new audiences, and unusual poetic discourses. Not only do they stimulate literature as a vehicle for political messages, but equally importantly, they can transform the politics of literature and the aesthetic features of the literary object.

For those who live in the peripheries and favelas of São Paulo, saraus and slams establish a social and emotional network that can partially compensate for the lack of supporting institutions and services. They not only bring the same old literature to new audiences but also, most importantly, stimulate authorship among those who are usually considered uncultured. In saraus and poetry slams, people perform for their fellow neighbors, but as imagined communities, they create, perform and spread new images of themselves. In doing so, they consolidate a collective voice against a society that despises them. One may recriminate them for perpetuating a binary discourse in which the world is simplistically divided in two: on the one hand, “playboys”, “the system”, the rich, police officers and politicians; on the other hand, them, the marginalized. But who is to be blamed for using this binarism as a segregation tool in the first place? Before things can get better, peripheral citizens have to teach in very simple yet poetic terms what is like to be on the other side of society.


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Cultural Dispossession by Validation: Poetry, Literary Criticism, and Urban Capitalism in Northern England

By Cornelia Gräbner, Lancaster University

When in our roles as cultural and literary analysts we engage with themes related to oppression, dispossession or resistance, we encounter cultural disdain. This element of symbolic violence is crucial to creating conditions under which populations are exposed to neglect and physical violence, and are rendered vulnerable. In the face of disdain, we often choose for ourselves the role of cultural advocates for an art form or a sector of the population. But what exactly are we doing when we raise the respectability of a population, or the prestige and the market value of an art form? What are the implications of making a population more knowable and less threatening on the terms of hegemonic society? With this post I want to initiate a reflection on, and a problematization of, the dynamics between validation, disdain, and territorial and cultural dispossession. While I will focus on a case study that goes back to the 1960s, this is only the initial research sparked by the contemporary experience of living in North-West England, where urban regeneration has focused on the cultural heritage and the peculiar and particular temporalities of de-industrialized cities like Liverpool, Manchester, and Sheffield.

The ways in which these ‘re-valued’ cultural identities have been made part of capitalist regeneration projects is by residents often experienced as cultural dispossession. Indeed, those who came to populate these urban centres in the 19th and 20th century were marked by previous experiences of dispossession: of the enclosures in England, Wales and Scotland, and of colonial land robbery and cultural genocide at the hands of the British in Ireland and the former colonies in Africa, the Americas, and Asia. These populations did not base their identities or cultures on ownership; instead, they appreciated internalized or skill-based forms of creativity, and (often ephemeral and autonomous) practices of communality and commoning such as carnivalistic partying, shared musical practices, or storytelling. To people with a historical experience of dispossession, all things and practices cultural are precious in ways which are difficult to appreciate by propertied members of society: only what you carry in your mind and in your body cannot be taken from you. When such non-capitalist practices are inserted into commercial exchange, and value is assigned to them on capitalistic terms, a constitutive feature of these cultures is appropriated and compromised.

Cultural Dispossession1 by Validation: The Mersey Poets

Disdain or contempt as a cultural force initiates a dynamic by which the disdained are made vulnerable to direct or indirect violence wielded out by the hegemonic society. Validation is often an attempt to remove people or practices from this vulnerability. But the price is that they are being inserted into the system that disdains them in the first place, and that their autonomous practices as an ‘Other’ are not respected on their own terms. A case in point is that of the so-called Mersey Poets, or Liverpool Poets, who flourished in the 1960s as part of an autonomous cultural scene in Liverpool often labeled the ‘Liverpool scene.’ The Liverpool scene brought together art, poetry and music on equal footing. Coffee houses, bars and clubs provided autonomous and semi-autonomous spaces for regular or one-off poetry performances and readings, the format of many of which was modeled on one-night acts of musicians or the collective performances of bands. Among the core poetry performers and cultural organizers were Adrian Henri, Roger McGough, and Brian Patten. They contributed to the scene in multiple ways, and created multi-faceted, mostly live and ephemeral forms of expression that drew on poetry, performance, music, performance art, painting. Their work expressed an ethos that Richard Craig in New Formations has described as a ‘fellow-feeling between author and other people’ (p. 259), and that Edward Lucie-Smith in The Liverpool Scene called ‘a real sympathy for their environment, but an even greater loyalty’ (p.6). What they were loyal to is the physical, social and cultural context of ‘Liverpool’, understood as a geographical location as well as a social construct and a cultural identity. Because ‘Liverpool’ had been disdained and therefore largely left alone by the establishment, the Liverpool scene could develop its own approach to all matters cultural and artistic. As Adrian Henri described it: ‘Art could go into the streets, be a political act, take away the barrier between fantasy and reality, affect the quality of daily life, seek inspiration from humble and despised objects, create an environment of its own’ (p. 27). Another element of such autonomy was the poets’ irreverence towards authorities put in place by somebody else, expressed by McGough to Lucie-Smith: ‘We’ve got no literary or dramatic heritage. We try out what we’re doing, and we test it on people, and people react, and we sort of go on from there. We haven’t got people to bow down to’ (p. 3).

Many did not take kindly to this attitude, and in one case the Liverpool poets were dismissed precisely on the basis of a metonymy that was established between dispossession and their use of language. The term dispossession was deployed by Jonathan Raban in response to the Liverpool poets in The Society of the Poem (1971). Raban dedicates several pages to poets from Liverpool, Newcastle and San Francisco, describing their style as that of ‘whimsically impoverished speech, an attempt to get a local, private, dispossessed language into verse, to talk straight, bypassing poetic convention, to the audience’ in what is to him ‘a curiously bastardized style’ (p. 116). He contrasts the subjectivities expressed in this ‘whimsically impoverished speech’ with the – for him, acceptable and even admirable – poetic voices that speak ‘as if one of the dispossessed people in the crowd of a nineteenth-century novel, or a twentieth-century newsreel, had been suddenly enfranchised, licensed to speak, not from a dominating, romantic notion of selfhood, but from a humble, unillusioned position in the ruck of a large community’ (p. 125). Raban treats ‘ impoverished’ and ‘dispossessed’ as completed processes without questioning who was dispossessed and impoverished why, when, and by whom; or how (and if) such injustices can be redressed or atoned for in the present. He expresses pity for and even sympathy with the dispossessed, but only when their dispossession results in servile and submissive attitudes that perpetuate the status quo, expressed in them speaking only when enfranchised and licensed to speak by those in power. If they do otherwise, he despises and disdains what characterizes them. His unquestioning acceptance of the patriarchal male lineage turns into judgment when he describes their style as ‘curiously bastardized.’ He either cannot conceive of, or cannot permit, that the Mersey poets’ poetic practice was driven by the desire to create and to share, and devoid of the desire to possess by means of ownership or consumption; and he cannot conceive of a humbleness that is neither servile nor submissive.

Then and now literary critics set themselves the task to counter such disdain. This was often done by validating the poetry on the grounds of its embeddedness in the ‘local culture’, or its popularity (understood as expressed by the market). This approach seemed to be supported by the fact that their anthology The Mersey Sound (1967), part of Penguin’s well-respected Modern Poets Series, became a best-seller. But the poets themselves often felt that validation on such grounds was insensitive, inattentive and denigrating towards the poetic and linguistic elements of their poems. Moreover, on a political level, addressing disdain with a counter-movement distracted theorists and readers from the autonomous alternatives to classism and capitalism that the poetry of the Liverpool poets carried within it, and which the response of theory thus failed to learn from, to grow, and to nurture.

Predatory Assemblages: Regeneration and Cultural Dispossession

In the culture-based, neoliberal ‘regeneration’ of the post-industrial city the validation of disdained cultures or populations on hegemonic terms becomes an element of what Saskia Sassen has called ‘predatory assemblages.’ In her analysis of contemporary expulsions and enclosures, Sassen argues that ‘we are seeing the making not so much of predatory elites but of a predatory “formations”, a mix of elites and systemic capacities …, that push toward acute concentration.’ (14) Those who are benefitting from this process, she argues, ‘could not have achieved such extreme concentration of the world’s wealth. They need what we might think of as systemic help: a complex interaction of these actors with systems regeared towards enabling extreme concentration.’ (13). This includes the help of national governments, with ‘enormous capacities for intermediation that function as a kind of haze, impairing our ability to see what is happening – but unlike a century ago, we would not find cigar-smoking moguls in this haze. Today, the structures through which centralization happens are complex assemblages of multiple elements, …’ (14). To have what one most cherishes become a valued and effective part of what has dispossessed one’s ancestors of their livelihoods and their territory in the past, and what encloses and oppresses oneself or others in the present, and to then be told that one should feel complimented and honoured, is surely one of the most heart-wrenching, most demeaning and undermining experiences that human beings can go through – and this is what I mean by ‘cultural dispossession.’ It is one more prove that capitalism cannot abide what refuses to be in its likeness, even and especially when it is peaceful – so this is what we have to appreciate, love, defend and nurture on its own terms.

Works Cited

Craig, David, The Real Foundations: Literature and Social Change (London: Chatto & Windus, 1973)

Henri, Adrian, Environments and Happenings (London: Thames and Hudson, 1974)

Lucie-Smith, Edward, ed., The Liverpool Scene: Recorded Live along the Mersey Beat (London: Donald Carroll, 1967)

Raban, Jonathan, The Society of the Poem (London: Harrap, 1971)

Sassen, Saskia, Expulsions: Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy (Cambridge and London: Belknap Press, 2014)

Smith, Stan, ‘ “Every Time a Thing is Possessed, It Vanishes”: The Poetry of Brian Patten’, in Michael Murphy and Deryn Rees-Jones, ed., Writing Liverpool (Liverpool, Liverpool University Press, 2007) pp. 117-137

1 I have first come across this term in Stan Smith’s contribution on the poetry of Brian Batten in Writing Liverpool. Whether ‘cultural dispossession’ is Smith’s term, or whether it is one commonly used, I have not been able to ascertain. It is certainly a term that resonates with realities and experiences, and that I here turn into a concept.

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