Gather it into dynamic form
A walking interview with Kaia Sand, April 14, 2014, on the route of the 1978 Women’s Nightwatch Flashlight March
Landscapes of Dissent, the book Kaia Sand wrote with her partner, Jules Boykoff, honors poets who challenge the “apparent neutrality” of public space. In that book, they quote Henri Lefebvre: “Space is a social morphology: it is to lived experience what form itself is to the living organism, and just as intimately bound up with function and structure.” Our lives, Sand, Boykoff, and Lefebvre assert, are as profoundly shaped by the spaces we inhabit as by the bodies we inhabit.
My walking interview with Kaia explored this notion by overlaying the route of a 1978 Women’s Nightwatch Flashlight march on the privatized commercial space of downtown Portland. What is this space now? What was it then? How does this space shape the lives of its inhabitants, and how have its inhabitants, over time, shaped it?
We strode the route of the original march, inspired by Kaia’s current residency at the City of Portland Archives and Records Center. Some ideas rose vividly and repeatedly to the surface: the history of protest and feminism in Portland; the privatization of public space; technology’s impact on public space, public memory, and creative practice; and the ingenuity of poets and artists to repurpose, redefine, and reclaim.
Daniela Molnar: The route that we’re walking right now was a 1978 Women’s Nightwatch Flashlight march, right?
Kaia Sand: Yes. I have found records of three marches that were led. The first was 1977 in Tryon State Park, and it was in response to aspate of rapes that happened in the park but were underreported to the police, who weren’t taking this very seriously. So there was a movement to try to make clear that these were unsafe spaces and that the rapes should be taken seriously. This was also around the time when the Oregon legislature became one of three states to change the rape laws. Before, the law said that you could not be raped if you were married to the perpetrator, and they changed it so that spouses could report rape, as well. Oregon actually had the first national trial. It was an acquittal and they ended up sort of putting the woman on trial and all that. This was all swirling around the Nightwatch marches.
Lately I’ve been working with surveillance files polices kept on activists, especially in the 1970s, and I’ve been lifting bits of language that use the word “she” in an effort to show the way women were represented. This is what you see in the poem “She Had Her Own Reason For Participating.” The sentence “she had her own reason for participating” describes a 10-year-old girl who took part in the 1978 march. I found it in a newspaper article tucked in surveillance files.
I’ve been trying to figure out the connection between the Women’s Nightwatch marches and the current day Take Back the Night marches — I think there must be a continuous history. I just haven’t been able to figure it out yet. I went to the women’s resource center at Portland State University to begin to track some of this history…
D: Have you spoken to anyone who was on the 1978 march?
K: No, and that’s what I was thinking I might try to do. I’ve been asking myself why I’m so focused on the Women’s Nightwatch march and the documents surrounding it. I think some of it is being a child of the 70s, having inherited that wave of feminism. And my mother was a journalist covering a lot of this — she wrote some articles on that first spousal rape trial.
I have a daughter who’s twelve, and there’s been a shift in our relationship. Instead of just trying to protect her, it’s much more about empowerment now. I know she has to she take some chances, because I want her to know how to take up space. Similarly, the language around these marches was about showing force, being disclosed, being out in the open, putting one’s body out there, but doing it in a way that shows a kind of force and collectivity. So I think it’s just on my mind a lot right now.
The public spaces themselves, and getting our bodies out into them, is on my mind a lot as well. I’m interested in the ways in which we make claims on public spaces, the ways in which we push back on the privatization of places. Or the ways in which public space itself is regulated for us, written for us. Gaye Chan, an artist based in Hawaii, does this work called The Diggers. She does things like plant papaya seeds on public or private land, without permission, and puts up signs asking people to water them. It’s an effort to reclaim the commons because public spaces often disregard people’s basic human rights. People can’t sleep in many of them. In this city there’s so much legislation around where you can and can’t sleep.
D: I’m curious where you see the idea of poetry coming into this. You have an admirable history of bringing poetry into places, and also bringing poetry into physical form. One of the central questions of this project for me is how can poetry operate as a praxis? How can it merge theory and practice?
K: Two weeks ago in Alabama, I was batting that question around with some students, and I realized that that question will always be unresolved for me, but there’s energy in that. A couple of related threads come to mind — First, I’m attracted to language. Language is social, and I love that. I love that it is a kind of commons, with power threaded throughout it. I feel like, as a poet, part of what I’m doing is listening to language and finding its luster or finding ways to gather it into dynamic form. Language is a part of everything that we’re doing.
Second, I’m attracted to form. I feel more and more like a formalist — I think in terms of form as a method of gathering. There is a relationship for me between what I do materially, on the page, and how I live. In poems, and also, in our actions, we work with formal constraints, and the creative possibility within those constraints. Activism has form—whether as a protest march or a creative intervention. So a poetic orientation is translatable—it doesn’t mean one always has to make poetry. Sometimes one can take poetic ways of thinking, such as drawing unexpected connections, to make something happen. I need to continually revise what I do. I keep making poetry and art with hope, but I also don’t put every hope into it.
I’m at that point right now because I want to think more about the coal trains and the oil trains and pipelines—we are at such an important point in our region where we can block this massive, massive flow of fossil fuels—and I want to think and communicate through writing but maybe not a poem — it might be just pitching in with some research. It all seems continuous to me, it doesn’t seem separated from the practice, since it’s all informing each other. I have to keep pushing myself to not make overreaching claims for any one thing. I just keep hoping it all adds up.
D: You mentioned language as a commons, but it’s also shot through with power. I’m curious to hear more about how you see power informing what language can and can’t do.
K: It’s kind of incredible, the fact that there’s this pool of language in which words come into being from how people choose to use them or not use them. I am often attracted to working with documents because it allows me to shake up a closed system of language. I can take a document that’s making something happen in one way and look at it differently, make it work in a different way. I worked with NAFTA documents [“The NAFTA Project,” 2008] that are very much about power and trade and borders. I was seeing what kind of lyricism I could find. It’s a way of thinking about how language is functioning in different ways. Language is almost always there. It’s always tied up in any active power. And we can take that same language and use it differently.
D: By taking something like a NAFTA document and looking for its lyricism, you’re subverting its intent, or appropriating some of its power for your own uses.
K: That’s my hope. And then again, I don’t want to make claims that are too big. I am at that point right now where I’m just hoping it adds up. …[Stops walking to check the route map]
D: Did we go the wrong way?
K: Yeah, but that happens on a march too, right? [Laughter] That’s another way to understand this place — all the different marches that have occurred here. All the ways people have tried to go from subaltern communities out by taking over the streets — getting permits, not getting permits… This is such a neat way to do an interview.
D: I enjoy it. I read an interview with a woman in the New York Times years ago [“Maggie Nescuir, The Walker,” The New York Times, Nov 5, 2009]. She spends all day walking, she just walks and walks and walks, and her job was waitressing, so she would walk some more as a waitress. She said, “if I’m not walking, my mind isn’t moving much, either.” That resonated with me.
K: And our language reflects this when we say that our “mind wanders.” I’ve found that, for me, writing is very bodily. And so walking is kind of fantastic. I created a “Remember to Wave” poetry walk in North Portland near the Expo center between 2008 and 2010. I remember when I was doing the walk a lot, there was a kind of muscle memory in which the words would come up because they were in my quads or hamstrings or something. I did the walk more recently with some college students and a friend. I still had some muscle memory, but not as much.
We’re walking through a space that I’ve walked so many times. I’m interested in being in the here and now, but trying to read a space for the elsewhere and the erstwhile. It’s such an interesting thing to think about the ways in which our walks consist of all these overlays.
When I was in my early twenties Jules and I volunteered for Yellow Brick Road—work my brother does much more fully now. We would hand out supplies to street youth and try to be a resource. At the time, the Safeway over there was really rundown, and that was one of our stops. Now it’s quite a fancy Safeway. I was permitted a superficial glimpse into a very developed culture, street culture. Even in my small experience with it, it made me realize that there were very imperiled situations happening in the spaces where I might go to dinner or go shopping — these streets are walked in such very different ways.
There’s another place up the street by the library, where a few years ago some poets were giving a reading in a parking structure. C.A. Conrad and Frank Sherlock were working with local poets on a kind of PACE-style,(Poet Activist Community Extension)action that they’ve done in Philadelphia. This was right after the financial collapse so there were signs around that said “Putting Oregon Back To Work.” And we would stand by those signs and give readings. We were really interested in PACE, reading in public or commercial spaces and testing how private and public space is constructed.
Poets started filling the levels of the structure, and it was like an anthology of bodies. It was wonderful, but one person started getting close to the edge of the building in a way that looked a bit precarious. An observer who was watching the reading with these really big binoculars got very upset – apparently someone had jumped from that building at some previous time. It’s interesting how we were all thinking, “This is fun, we’re reclaiming space, we’re making poetry out of spaces that aren’t poetry,” but this guy had a really different relationship to that space, and what felt right and wrong to do there. It brought to the foreground the way that places can have different layers.
D: So do you know what the outcome of the 1978 march was? Did it have any effect on the police and their response to the rapes?
K: Some of the goals of the march were to have the city install rape alert boxes in the park, better lighting, and to remove polygraph tests as a requirement of rape victims. I don’t know what happened with that, but I’ve seen photos of some signs that went up in Tryon State Park that look like they’re government signs. I want to do more research on it. I find I pull in and out because when I’m dealing with traumatic history there are days when I’m ready to do it, and there’s days when I’m not ready to do it. I do know there is the Take Back The Night march this month that the PSU students are planning.
D: So that’s a legacy that is still going strong.
K: Those marches have mid to late 1970s origins, in Europe and in the U.S. Thinking about that lineage, I do feel like I’ve taken a certain amount for granted — I’m thinking, wait a second, what risks were people taking? Just to get out there in the streets in 1970s and call attention to violence against women—that took courage.
My mom was an Oregonian correspondent in Salem and my dad was a wire service reporter. My mom was accomplished in what she was doing, but as a correspondent, she didn’t have benefits. And I think that was really common — women were often expected to have husbands with jobs. I’m realizing, maybe a little more than I realized growing up, just what she and so many women were up against with their labor. And I’m just now recognizing the parallels between my mom’s position and my adjunct teaching position.
D: Not a lot has changed in some ways.
K: Yeah. And that’s part of why it’s important to grapple with the recent past.
D: I’m walking around trying to picture these streets in 1978. Portland was a completely different city in 1978. I wasn’t here, but from what I know of the history of it, it was a more provincial city, a small city. The logging industry was a major source of income for many people. I wonder how much has changed in 36 years, and how much has remained the same?
K: Pioneer Square is one block that way. It was a parking lot in the 1970s. I was reading about Portland Hotel as a source of employment for African Americans in the early 20th century. And I was wondering — where was the Portland Hotel? I think that’s where it was, where Pioneer Square is now. So the city’s central gathering place has a history that connects to labor for people during years when there were exclusion laws forbidding African Americans to move here.
D: Is there a lot of visual documentation in the historical archives?
K: Yes, but mostly when it connects with some planning project for which the city would take photos. So it’s a little bit hit or miss what area you can find. But this is really motivating me to find photos of Portland in the 1970s.
D: Thinking about this place in the 1970s brings to mind the recent intrusion of technology into public space. There are exponentially more photos of Portland from 2013 than there are from 1978. These little devices we carry around are very useful, but also have a decisive impact on public memory.
K: Garrick [Imatani, co-resident at the City of Portland Archives and Records Center] recently posed a question in a conversation we were having: “Where is anonymity within a public record?” That’s become a driving question for both of us. When I’m working in the lyric mode of poetry, a social lyric, I am seeking some kind of ethical attention toward people I may never know. But when I think about surveillance, attention becomes threatening. Sometimes we can see someone, but should we be able to? I wrote this line: “Your face exposed to the bright threat of attention.” While I usually think of attention as something positive—attention can be so difficult to give someone, after all—attention can also be threatening. I feel like I’m experiencing vertigo with the ways in which our lives are public. I don’t know what to do.
D: I feel the same. It’s a cultural epidemic that we’re all kind of swept up in.
K: Yeah, and we all are having to figure it out. In poetry one of the things that is happening — and I see this in my own work — is that because there’s so much language and information, I think a lot of poets are working with found language and finding ways to reorganize it. I feel like we’re all archivists now! We’re just good organizers!
Jules and I have been getting almost nostalgic lately: “Remember we would go to a cafe… and we didn’t have computers…” And I’m trying to catch myself on that and allow myself to feel really excited about technology. My optimistic side says that as writers and artists we can find the best in technology, and that the handmade, rather than becoming devalued, will become more important.
D: I am seeing that trend in visual art. What art is is always being redefined and I think it’s currently in a process of being redefined in response to the torrent of visual images that we encounter online.
K: Getting back to commercialism and the privatization of space, corporations are making many of the choices for how we proceed online. With poetry, in forms like Flarf, Google was super important — Google was like a coauthor, or more! The question is how to create a critical space in a commercialized environment.
When I was in Alabama I was talking to book arts students and they were showing me a press that had been used by the advertising industry. Since its purpose is no longer commercial, it’s something they can take over and use to make art. We started talking about technology that is slightly obsolete as being this great space for artists because it becomes cheap or free. And slightly obsolete technology also creates a little aesthetic space, that making-it-strange space. I started playing with an overhead projector with that in mind. Because whenever you bring an overhead projector out people are like ooooh — and it’s only been about five or six years that it’s been out of use! So in a way, poets and artists can be the tech department by repurposing these semi-obsolete things. …But that’s not about surveillance. Oh, surveillance. It stresses me out so much.
D: In addition to surveillance, I’m troubled by the way that private space is eroding the commons. There is this new, intense cultural need for private space in the midst of public space. People are so engaged with their devices, and our devices essentially reflect ourselves back to ourselves. When you’re in a public space it’s almost like there’s no connection between the people in that space.
K: It’s atomized.
D: Yes. So what’s still there? What still makes it public? Is physical proximity enough? And how is the creative potential of public space affected?
K: Yes, what if we don’t have distinct borders in terms of privacy? On the internet, there is so much cruelty that’s almost inevitably layered on anyone who is somewhat public. And it can be the most minor public — you can be barely public. There’s this unbalanced relationshiop where one person might be minorly public, and then, someone else who is anonymous flings cruelty. When we’re bodily together, the anonymity disappears.
[Looking at Bryant Square Park] During the 1978 march they gathered here and had karate and martial arts demonstrations at 10 pm.
D: That’s really neat to picture. I wonder what this space was like then, because at ten o’clock at night, right now, it would be full of homeless people. But I know that homelessness wasn’t as huge an issue then as it is now.
K: It would be interesting to know the history of this space because that is the nighttime use now. I haven’t been here during the day in a long time. I’m struck by all these people eating lunch. The food carts are really interesting in terms of little private spaces that actually are causing people to be more public, because you have to find a place to sit down outside and eat. And the food is so good… It really has shifted things.