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.

 

Creative Commons Licence

Advertisements

Invitation and Introduction: The Poetic Word and Urban Resistances to Neoliberalism

Please join a conversation about resistance, dissent and creativity in contemporary neoliberal cities. Anne Shea, Cornelia Gräbner and Ilka Kressner started this conversation in 2014 during a panel organized by Cornelia Gräbner and Constanza Ceresa at the annual meeting of the American Comparative Literature Association (ACLA) in New York, continued it among the three of us over the following two years, and opened it up again to a wider group of people in a second panel at the Annual Meeting of the ACLA at Harvard in March 2016. The initial posts on this theme are written by the participants of this second panel.
Our panel was titled “Creative Alternatives to Neoliberalism: Poetic Word in Urban Spaces.” While we knew that we wanted to invite contributions on the neoliberal city, we weren’t initially sure what type of resistances we wanted to talk about. In the end we agreed on ‘creative’, notwithstanding the role that the creative class has played, or rather has been made to play, in gentrification. Both terms ‘resistance’ and ‘creative’  were up for discussion; we wanted to give ourselves and the panel participants the chance to look at them and explore them from different angles, cautious and aware of their significance in the contexts of gentrification and urban repression.
One point we took from the panel concerns the role of dissent, which is often identified with resistance – an identification that we wish to question. Many of the contributions indicate that a small dose of dissent is great for the neoliberal city and from a capitalist mindset. For the purposes of marketization and urban culture it makes a city all the cooler, especially when it is articulated in culturalized and arty forms and thus manages to bring together the cutting-edge and the aesthetically pleasing, when it is well-spoken, recognizably intelligent, and unthreateningly self-confident (or self-assured?). For neoliberal urban politics, dissent can be employed to manage just the right changes and to navigate all the invisible and intangible structures that hold the status quo in place. It justifies labels like ‘democratic’ and terminology like ‘participatory’ or ‘consultation’ – and those are crucially important to the neoliberal system because the educated middle classes, who are so crucial to neoliberal capitalism, shy away from situations and places where they feel – we emphasize ‘feel’ – disempowered. 
With regards to resistance, many of the presentations indicated that those in power and the privileged in cities welcome a little bit of resistance. After all, resistance brings a lot of energy to the urban mix, and as long as those in power can channel this energy and use it in their favour, it strengthens a city’s edge and attractiveness. This does not de-value the resistances in themselves, on the contrary — but it does make it clear that critique, ethical principles, listening, response, respect for Otherness and difference, and solidary forms of organization are not second-rate to expression.
Several presentations refer to the resistances of those who David Harvey with Fiona Jeffries in Nothing to lose but our Fear (2015) has described as the ‘disaffected’, those who are in a relatively privileged position. Among the topics discussed in this context are shifts of sociopolitical roles of different classes, ways of forming alliances and the question of how to talk over others. 
For those who identify as the urban dispossessed, culture, memory, and art – whatever they create or make with their own hands, their own voices, whatever they share and what binds them together – are most precious. This and their collective and individual subjectivities is what they have salvaged, cradled, nurtured, clung to, hidden, smuggled, defended, re-created and clawed back over long and at times unmeasurable periods of repression and/or attrition. Such co-created, often collective, communal, communized cultures are irreplaceable, and they can only live and thrive when they have breathing space on their own terms. That predatory capitalism wants to steal even them and re-make them in its own image is the ultimate offense; it is a reason to defend then, not to dismiss them or give up on them. But in order to do so, one has to decide on, and commit to, a stance.
Part of feeling ourselves into that stance was defined by our practices of listening and of speaking, of paying attention to the opaque without exposing it to a hostile limelight and doing favours to those who want to know so that they can constrain and repress, of being mindful of the practices, dynamics and structures of authority that we ourselves are part of in sometimes complicated ways and that we sometimes do not know how to not replicate, of not isolating an academic paper from the neoliberal context in which it was researched, written, presented and listened to; of being clear and committed without being judgmental. This need of continued examination is part of our decision to continue working on this project. We will start this next round of work with the fairly open form of a collaboration with the Poetics of Resistance, which consists of us ‘curating’ the blog Poetics of Resistance for about two months. However, this will not be the only venue for the project, as we agree that this topic needs to also be explored in a more traditionally academic format, such as that of an edited volume.
We welcome contributions, suggestions, and comments, as long as they are not sexist, racist, classist, or discriminate, violate or abuse. Anyone is free to reply to any of the posts; if you would like to contact us then please do through the form of the Poetics of Resistance blog, or find our university email addresses – it’s easy.
Anne Shea, California College of Art
Cornelia Gräbner, Lancaster University
Ilka Kressner, State University of New York
Creative Commons Licence