The following interview is with Tyler Walicek (Editor in Chief) and Dominick Knowles (Poetry Editor) of Protean magazine, a reader-funded, ad-free, leftist magazine that pays all of its contributors and operates as a self-governing collective.
Tyler Walicek is a freelance writer and the editor-in-chief of Protean magazine.
Dominick Knowles is an adjunct professor and the poetry editor of Protean magazine. Their academic and creative work has appeared or is forthcoming in Mediations, Viewpoint, Amerikastudien, Midnight Sun, and Prolit. They’re also the co-author (with Mathilda Cullen) of Stanzas for Four Hands: An Ophanim, a collection of poems against empire.
This interview was conducted via email in summer and fall of 2022.
Poets Union: Thanks so much for agreeing to this interview! First, could you give us a description and history of Protean?
Dominick Knowles: I’m sure Tyler would know more about this since he’s co-founder, but Protean is a print and online magazine that publishes essays, fiction, and poetry. Our guiding ideology is socialism, and most of the pieces we publish attempt to work through contemporary and historical problems of the struggle against class society, white supremacy, and patriarchy. Protean exists alongside Prolit, Midnight Sun, and others as a cultural outlet for the political left. Currently, I run the magazine’s poetry section. Many of the poets we’ve published are also workers or organizers whose “careers” are not tied to the publishing industry. Thankfully, neither is mine!
Tyler Walicek: Sure, I’ll give you a little glimpse into our mythos. Protean’s founding took place in the fevered days after the 2016 election, and, like a lot of things around that time, was pretty spontaneous. In fact, the whole thing really came about on something of a whim, if I’m being honest. Co-founder Steven Monacelli and I were both haltingly involved in some socialist organizing efforts in San Francisco; though we didn’t know each other, we were friends on social media. He put out a casual post musing about starting some kind of left publication. (Steven always aims high and thinks big; he balances out my perpetual reticence.) I replied that I was a freelance writer and editor and could potentially help. We met, continued to meet, and actually followed through on it, and for four (five?) years—which in retrospect is, frankly, a little miraculous, and not something you can often say of an idea dashed off in a Facebook post.
The initial vision did not really extend too far beyond maybe making a zine of sorts for a handful of friends and comrades to page through and maybe chuckle at. But, as we put it together and watched our small crowdfunding campaign exceed its goal, the first issue began to attain a greater scope, and—while it was and still is our most freewheeling and slapdash installment—soon outstripped our early ambitions. So Protean has kind of developed in reverse order, compared to a lot of magazines that come out swinging with a big launch and a manifesto. Stumbling backwards into the thing has also meant that we learned a lot by trial and error, and still do, though I think we’ve improved things pretty significantly on many fronts. Maybe that’s what keeps it scrappy, a little ad hoc. I prefer it that way.
Still, we certainly have ambitions for the magazine and have honed the style quite a bit as we sketch out its contours, if retroactively. Everyone’s long-term commitment to the thing has made this a deeply rewarding, if hard-won, experience—particularly the chance to collaborate with so many brilliant writers and artists; they number in the hundreds by now.
The consistent thread in our history is that we have always been looking to create an experimentalist space with a malleable purview (hence the name) for writers on the left: a showcase of leftist thought and culture that allowed for playfulness, for weirdness, and for lyrical prose and personal introspection as well as political insight, along with whatever else we found interesting. Our earliest output felt a lot more loose, and reflects more of that lighter touch. We’ve since arrived at something closer to a house style. But again, it’s protean, so it’s mutable, right. We are keen to remain open to all sorts of ideas and voices. The non-negotiable boundaries are a core anti-capitalism and a justice-based orientation—dissent with the unacceptable status quo. Beyond that, the key prerogatives of the space have always been to:
- 1. Maintain low barriers to entry, giving voice to both established and unknown writers.
- 2. Put out a wide range of unabashedly leftist work—from hard reporting to poetry. The prose sections can be analytical, or introspective, or both. We try to find a place between challenging complexity and easy readability—not too abstruse, but still info-dense and carefully crafted.
- 3. Crucially, pay writers, which we have done right from the outset, thanks to modest but consistent fundraising and reader support. We keep all rates negotiable, we’ll never ask for work on spec, and, if a set of editing rounds ends up being especially taxing, we’ll offer pay increases. Those are load-bearing planks that will never be pried out.
PU: Who and what have been Protean’s biggest influences and motivations, both literary and political?
DK: I can’t speak for the other editors, but I look to revolutionary poets like Walter Lowenfels, Amiri Baraka, Cecilia Vicuña, and Roque Dalton. I also have great admiration for experimental publishing projects like Margaret Randall and Sergio Mondragón’s El Corno Emplumado (“The Plumed Horn”). El Corno was an international, bilingual press active in Mexico City during the 60s and 70s that fostered leftist solidarity across the Americas. What I love about these writers is that, in addition to their communist politics, they understood poetry as more than the mere expression of bourgeois personhood. For them, poetry was an aesthetic medium with which to think through political problems and strategy.
TW: As a publication, our editorial ambit is multi-tendency but is anti-capitalist to the foundations; I think it’s fair to say our amalgamated politics could be broadly construed as socialist. The politics of the magazine are to some degree defined in the negative space: dissent with the capitalist order and the injustices it has wrought, domestic and global. A lot harder to articulate a positive vision, it turns out!
We obviously read and enjoy and take influence from the other excellent publications that sit at the same leftist political-literary juncture. I could list out some touchstones. But, at least when it comes to my work for our own outlet, my greatest inspirations are ideological, yes, but just as often derive from examples of character: dauntless radicals historical and contemporary, among them the same organizers and writers I see at work around me, endlessly driven.
There is an enormous number of journalists and artists and thinkers out there whom I fiercely admire. And this is doubly true for community and labor organizers; in my day job as a journalist I get to talk to a lot of unsung people on the ground, and I am reliably wowed by their dedication and courage. Even if writing and publishing can feel sometimes ineffectual if put up against that work, I try to find ways to draw from the same wells. Thinking about their tireless and often thankless labor always helps me redouble my commitment when it wavers, which is often.
Lastly, some of the greatest motivators are found right alongside me: the other members of the Protean collective. Just the fact that these four good people are willing to give so freely of their time to help sustain whatever it is we’ve cobbled together is in itself galvanizing. Our little ragtag team has made it work out of a real belief in the project. I still think that’s remarkable.
PU: As an editor, what are you looking for when evaluating work for publication? Also, more broadly, do you ever experience a conflict between your political principles and the nature of editorial selectivity (that is, the need to “reject” others’ work)?
DK: These are the questions that haunt me relentlessly. I’m not going to pretend that my own criteria are perfectly transparent to me––I think anyone who says they know what makes a poem “good” is probably trying to con you into paying for their workshop. But I can say that whenever I’m truly moved by a poem, I get a little mad about it, like “fuck! I wish I would have written that shit. Guess I have to publish it instead.” That gut-level feeling of admiration and vague annoyance is indispensable.
Most of the poetry we end up publishing is in some way “political,” by which I mean it’s antagonistic to the present state of things. I’m thinking here of pieces like stevie redwood’s “Fire Engines” or Fargo Tbahki’s “OF,” which deal outright with the predations of settler colonialism (in the US and Palestine, respectively). Other pieces may not openly call for the self-abolition of the proletariat, but they get at the political through other means, such as historical fabulation. upfromsumdirt’s “Fair Gabbro & the Reclamation of Time” is a great example of this kind of writing, which reimagines traditional (white-Euro) fairy tales in order to explore Blackness, gender, and the legacy of the transatlantic slave trade.
More recently, I’ve been trying to showcase the work of poets writing outside North America––not just to counter the blatant US-centricity of most lit mags (including Protean!), but also to emphasize the internationalism necessary to any genuinely anti-capitalist literature. We’ve been really lucky to publish pieces by Mexican poet Misael Osorio-Conde, Calcutta-born Urvi Kumbhat, Indonesia-based Innas Tsuroiya, and Ghanaian writer Sarpong-Osei Asamoah. I also want to continue putting out more non-Anglophone poetry, like Noah Mazer’s excellent translations of Chilean poet Belén Roca’s forthcoming Infrarealist Magic (woe eroa).
Regarding the tension between political principles and editorial practice: I always feel it, especially if a poet’s politics are great but their poems just don’t do it for me. When I have to reject submissions like that, I try to demonstrate a comradely respect for the poet and their work––after all, editorial powers are completely arbitrary, and the writer who submits work to me today could be reading my submission tomorrow. To be perfectly honest, I have no idea if it’s even possible to resolve that tension (though I do wish we had enough money to pay anyone who submits, regardless of whether we accept their work. Everything for everyone, you know?)
But while I’m very suspicious of “selectivity” as a practice, I do think that the tension between anticapitalist political principles and editorial power is productive: it tells you that the systems of prestige and inequity are cooked into the whole project of literature. Taking that problem seriously can make curation really meaningful. For example: I had the opportunity a while back to give a younger poet their first acceptance letter. They wrote this incredible piece, full of political insight and lyric beauty, and I was shocked that their work wasn’t known more widely. The acceptance email I wrote was probably way too long––I essentially did a close reading of their poems. They responded enthusiastically, and we struck up a friendship. Remember, I’m a random adjunct who has absolutely no power to make that poet’s career or get them into fancy journals. I can hardly make my rent. We’d just talk about our poems, or the latest atrocity, or the necessity of social transformation, and that’s it. Things like that balance out the more uncomfortable aspects of editing. I mean, the fact that I even get to write glowing acceptance emails to new comrades, published or unpublished, is fucking insane. But I’ve made a lot of lovely friends as an editor, and my life is better for it.
TW: Yeah, I’ll echo Dom—in this work, there is absolutely an ambient conflict between principle and power, however tiny our share of the latter. I strive to keep it at the forefront of my mind that we are reckoning with the imbalanced dynamic that comes from appointing ourselves the keepers of this particular gate. The asymmetry often makes me uncomfortable.
Systems of power and prestige are going to inflect the nature of any project that deals in money and attention. The fact that our slush pile goes through a human filtration mechanism means that we have to account for our own biases. To balance the ledger, we do very consciously aim to give special consideration to marginalized, and, increasingly, international voices. That said, this work is far from finished. We ultimately hope to build a more diverse editorial team, publish more unheard voices, and become as encouraging as possible to pitches from all writers. More progress is needed on that front; we still publish a lot of white guys, and it’s essential we unskew that proportion. We do take an ironclad stance against all racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia/transphobia, and other bigotries, and we give explicit encouragement to marginalized creators. But we’re intent on isolating and rectifying any factors that could lead any non-white or queer thinkers to feel unwelcome in our pages.
On another axis, we have published excellent work from established writers, and we’ve published work that’s frankly just as good from entirely unknown ones—I try to balance out any latent credentialist bias as well. The draft or idea in a pitch is more important than the bylines or CV.
What I’m looking for in any given piece is a clear thesis, an inbuilt narrative or argument with a traceable throughline, and a resonant prose that is tuned to the right frequency, if I can put it that way: a tone that harmonizes with the subject, scope, and style. At times this might mean maximal concision and clarity, as in a reported piece; at others, it means evocative imagery or abstractions and ruminations—threads of interiority bound up with the narrative throughline, woven around the spine of a solid argument. My job is largely to serve as a sounding board to help the writer’s ideas echo and complexify, and to bring the whole thing into alignment with itself. The only realm in which I will give absolutely no quarter is on grammar and punctuation; the rest of the time I can be reasoned with.
I love working on pieces that tangle up different modes: literary and lyrical, journalistic, analytical, academic or critical, memoiristic, polemical, what have you. An example is Kimberly Bain’s “Still Breathing,” which appeared in the last print issue and later ran online. To get to publish such an insightful Black academic on Emmett Till—on her own subjectivity and internal devastation, on the spatiotemporal reaches of Black grief, the suffocations of breath real and metaphorical—it was wonderful to have a chance to work on that one, and I really cherished the opportunity. The piece hovers in between academic and prose-poetic, and it’s always rewarding when prompt and process result in work that occupies that space. Other examples that are along the lines of what I mean would include “There are Trees in the Future, or, A Case for Staying” by Lupita Limón Corrales, “Breathe In, Breathe Out” by Luke O’Neil, and “Alienation for my Peers,” by Tongo Eisen-Martin.
Other subjects call for more objective approaches, and in those cases I’m looking for standard benchmarks like strong reportage and research, pointed analysis, and well-presented facts. Or sometimes just well-aimed mockery. (More mockery is always welcome.) I do follow general rubrics for what I take, but it’s adaptive and contingent, since we publish a wide range of styles. Once again, we are by design protean—but it’s fair to say you can take that five-dollar word as an oblique synonym for “making it up as we go along,” probably, and doing so, what’s more, “by the seats of our collective pants.”
PU: You’ve already touched on this a bit, but I wonder if you could go into more detail about how exactly Protean gets made? I know you operate as a collective, so how does this look in practice?
TW: The publication is made gradually and laboriously, in our free time. As I mentioned, Protean currently has only four active members. For my part, I field reader and collaborator communications, review and select all web and print article submissions, bring our writers through my editing process, fact-check, copyedit, proofread, and otherwise polish, and format all of the prose pieces for publication on the site and on social media.
Co-founder and publisher Steven Monacelli manages business aspects, oversees customer engagement and promotions, runs the site back-end, sales, shipping, and other logistical operations, and works on big-picture strategies for growing the magazine. He has a knack for building relationships and looking at external ways to strengthen the project, which counterbalances my own sort of involuted tendencies.
Dom handles the submissions, images, and publishing for all poetry, both online and in print. They nurture relationships with poets and have helped us broaden our horizons, bringing in some international poets connected to anti-capitalist struggle around the world—something that our very U.S.-centric publication can really benefit from. Dom’s formidable expertise and passion for their work are a regular source of inspiration and vital components of our functioning.
As art director, Slug creates original editorial illustrations for online pieces, commissions and selects artwork and illustration, coordinates with artists, draws and designs original illustrations for print issues, does typesetting and layout for print, and guides the trajectory of the magazine’s visual style. She volunteers enormous amounts of her time and talent, especially for our print productions.
These are only rough “job” descriptions, and we all take on many sundry tasks and give feedback on editorial and artistic decisions. Though we of course communicate and coordinate closely on all of these processes, we all operate with a fair amount of autonomy and trust each other to bring the sort of care and attention to the work that it demands. Beyond that, more consequential decisions are made democratically; we vote, and aim for consensus—if any team member has objections or criticisms, we give them a fair hearing and discuss them in meetings.
Our little operation is funded in its entirety by Patreon (the vast majority of our income), as well as by sales of our print and digital issues. After four years of purely volunteer work, we more recently voted to begin offering a monthly stipend to all team members—a cursory amount of $100 per month, with occasional bonuses of $20-$40 for additional work, as agreed upon by all members. The amount of work necessary to keep the operation running means that this ends up being about $1-$3 per hour, so we have a ways to go before this can replace the day job.
This year, we signed a deal with a distributor, so the magazine is now for sale on shelves at a number of independent bookstores, newsstands, and some other places that attract those of a radical bent. Grocery co-ops, that sort of thing. We would like to expand the list of carriers soon, with the upcoming release of our fourth issue. That move is mostly about gaining readers; we won’t turn much of a profit. We just hope that new people discover and enjoy the magazine.
PU: You have talked about some of the difficulties of funding and budgeting already, but to frame the question in more general terms, what aspects of publishing do you feel are most likely to compromise someone committed to anti-capitalist politics and ethos?
DK: I think everyone’s compromised, although some more grievously than others. I mean, the other day I saw that disgraced rightwing poet, whatever his name is, begging Elon Musk to crown him “poet-in-residence” at Tesla. At least no one on our side of things is doing that kind of shit. But capitalism isn’t always so tacky. Ostensibly independent and ‘progressive’ literary institutions get their money and management tactics from banks and corporations. Even if the poems are legitimately good, they’re still produced under conditions that necessitate the looting of the working classes within and beyond the US. Even if we fail to change them, those of us committed to anticapitalist politics have to take those conditions very seriously.
We can start by looking at how literary production is embedded within larger social and economic forces––its entanglements with the state, with finance capital, with the carceral system. Demystifying poetry in this way reveals it to be a site of class stratification, racialization, and gendered exploitation. But, as depressing as that revelation is, it also clarifies some political stakes: literature is nothing without the class struggle, and our collective job is to bring them together.
At Protean we try to keep our entanglements with capital to a minimum: we’re not a “foundation,” we don’t do contests or host ads, and we rarely paywall any content. We also keep things equal amongst ourselves in terms of money and editorial direction.
TW: Well, first and foremost, the biggest risk of compromising our values derives from the need for funding, and the incentive to seek out institutional support, or advertisers, or to otherwise draw closer to the distorting magnetism of power. Maintaining complete financial, and, as a direct result, editorial independence has always been a critical, and very freeing, aspect of the project. We are beyond grateful to the patrons who support us—it’s still lightly flabbergasting that people are willing to part with their money so that we can keep the publication alive. In writing Patreon update posts I have run out of fresh words to thank them. I have exhausted my vocabulary of gratitude.
Having a modest, wholly reader-funded income has allowed us to skirt a lot of potentially compromising factors. As we exit the garage-band phase, I can certainly anticipate that, were we to have any kind of brush with institutional support, we could encounter ethical or ideological binds pretty quickly. (We’ve looked into grants in the hopes of building a more sustainable publication in the long-term; almost immediately, we found that one of the few with guidelines that suited our project was sponsored by Amazon. Pitfalls abound.)
We have navigated these minefields by, again, avoiding them entirely, remaining non-profit and comparatively broke. While being wary of straying into voluntarist purity and martyrdom here, I will say that staying scrappy, while limiting in many respects, is also very liberating. However—it does place us in a double bind: we need to attract readers and thereby funding to publish more and strengthen the project, but we need to publish more and strengthen the project to attract readers and thereby funding. That is a paradox of the tiny publisher that has consigned us to volunteer work and niche audiences, for now.
What I am most proud of is that despite these constraints, we pay, and have always paid, our writers—and at rates that, while still admittedly inadequate, at least compare favorably to many other publications out there. Publications that, mind you, have budgets several orders of magnitude greater than ours. I laugh a bitter laugh when I see outlets like The Washington Post and The New Yorker paying the same rates that we do. That speaks to the pittances on offer to everyone except the most elite power sidle-uppers.
PU: As you’ve described here, publishing work like this can often suggest that vexed term, “labor of love.” So often, small publishers – whether leftist and operating as collectives or not – make little to no money and even will operate at a loss (for as long as that can be rationalized). However, do you think this is simply an unavoidable reality (esp. of the market for literary writing)? Or do you see other possibilities out there?
DK: I’m of two minds here: on the one hand, I think that the poem, as congealed labor-time, is a commodity like anything else. Writing poetry is work, which is why we pay our contributors as much as we can. Plus, I think embracing the idea of literary production as a “labor of love” tends to breed exploitative relationships, especially on a large scale. This is true of the university as well, as I’m sure you know: I can’t even count how many hours of free labor I’ve done simply because I “love” teaching and working with students. In poetryland it’s sometimes even worse, since submission fees for contests mean poets might actually lose money by doing work. For editors working on small-scale publishing projects, it can be utterly intolerable: after spending untold hours reading submissions, you then have to design, print, and distribute the issues. On the other hand, I totally understand why some poets and publishers would rather do free labor than risk turning their magazine into a small business. It feels gross to understand literature primarily in market terms, to openly acknowledge a profit motive and turn yourself into a rather pathetic xerox of the petit bourgeoisie. But, much like building a commune in the woods won’t rid the world of private property, simply ignoring the market in this way does nothing to challenge the entanglement of poetry and capital.
So, the difficulty here is that literature becomes either chained to market forces or gets taken out of circulation through voluntary unwaged labor. Both options are utterly impoverished. The unfortunate reality is that no matter how many fellowships exist, poetry cannot save itself. As a political and cultural phenomenon, it’s simply not powerful enough.
It seems to me that the only way to sublimate this problem is to go beyond the bounds of literature. I think poetry needs to be liberated through the revolutionary self-organization of the working and unemployed classes. If poets’ (and everyone’s) basic needs were met, if no one needed to make a living off poetry, if prize money didn’t have to pay the bills, the situation would look very different. The question, then, isn’t whether or not poetry should “submit” to capitalist reason. Instead, poets might ask themselves: what are the necessary economic and political conditions for a truly free literature, and how can poems help us articulate that vision? Capitalist markets are profoundly cruel, and I think, perhaps absurdly, that poetry can play a supporting role in their abolition.
TW: Well, I think that a good deal of the self-sacrificial aspect of independent media is pretty much unavoidable under present conditions. To be honest I don’t know much about the market for literature and poetry, but more broadly, the issue is pretty deep-seated and structural: our output is going to be coming from a position of dissent, and there is never going to be an incentive to sustain that on the part of the targets of that dissent. Not many with capital are going to leap to dole out funding for anti-capitalist writing, so we seem likely to remain in the labor-of-love category for the time being.
PU: As you’ve noted, these unfavorable conditions for literary publishing in the US often lead to problematic financial entanglements (e.g. obtaining funding through Amazon, Wells-Fargo, etc.) as well as a fixation on prize-winning, prestige, credentialing, and professionalization. Could you talk a bit about where you and your publication stand relative to this system and its various orgs (e.g. AWP, CLMP, MFA programs, literary foundations, etc)?
TW: Lacking any links to academia or the other fixtures you list, we stand pretty far apart. Dom can better speak to that milieu, so I’ll let them take this one.
DK: Something I love about Protean is that we have essentially no affiliation with any institution. We raise money from our contributors and use that money to make each issue. We have, of course, published many poets with MFAs, and I’m sure a lot of them have attended conferences like AWP or had their work distributed by SPD. But we get no financial support from any of those places and are not beholden to their largely regressive, anti-worker politics. That said, just like it’s not enough for publishing to be a “labor of love” outside the market, I don’t think that a lack of institutional affiliation is necessarily a ‘radical’ position. Nor do I think that a writer who gets an MFA or goes to AWP is automatically politically “suspect”––that seems unnecessarily punitive and fed-like.
Tempting as it is, I’m not going to relitigate the chewed-over Cold War history of US creative writing programs. But––with rare exceptions––I view their influence as a way to disseminate capitalist social relations by appropriating a medium that has, at certain historical moments, antagonized them. The present state of poetry is not particularly glorious: organizations compulsively assert their commitment to social justice, while doing little to improve the lives of marginalized writers. As Poets Union and others have frequently acknowledged, many big magazines and their corporate sponsors have reproduced the very relations of domination that their rhetoric critiques. Examples of such reproduction abound: Poetry Foundation’s well-known ties to intelligence and pharmaceutical agencies, the National Book Critics Circle’s hideous rebuke of Black Lives Matter, Milkweed Editions’ recent collaboration with a union-busting law firm––etc. Back in 1969, the great communist poet Walter Lowenfels called the US literary establishment a “white poetry syndicate,” and I think that insult still holds water today.
Of course, this is not to say that such outlets have never published worthwhile literature; some of my favorite poets have written for them! But these organizations’ method of production––their embrace of anti-worker policies and an economy of cultural prestige–– render them incapable of challenging structures of exploitation. Despite the efforts of politically committed poets working to change it, the poetry industry remains a hotbed of sexual harassment, racism, and labor abuse. In addition to harming marginalized writers, these programs and publishing houses tend to mystify or erase the ‘non-literary’ labor that makes it physically possible to engage with a given text. Literary and arts workers, as Evenlyn Araluen reminds us, are “undervalued and exploited,” producing the books and organizing the galas that then render their presence invisible. Any institution claiming to be revolutionary must, at minimum, respect the dignity of warehouse, maintenance, and custodial staff––not just as workers, but as human beings with the same creative potential as the most feted poet laureate.
PU: Lastly, what are your hopes for both your publication and for leftist literature more broadly? And what are your fears?
DK: My hope for Protean is simply that it endures, and that people continue reading what we publish. Only a handful of people work at the magazine, and none of us lusts for literary-world domination. But I do think that we’ve put out some really important work by excellent writers who might have been rejected by more, uh, politically bashful venues. If I can keep collaborating with communist and anti-capitalist poets and giving their poetry a home, I’ll count myself very lucky.
My hope for leftist literature, however, is much more ambitious: I want it to become a political organ that helps bring about the abolition of the present order. It seems like a ridiculous proposition, since we all have obligations far more urgent than writing revolutionary poetry. But faced with the realities of proletarian literary history––from Soviet futurism to the guerrilla poetics of the FMLN––I’ve got no choice but to recognize the importance of such a project.
Mainstream US poetry has not yet been able to respond adequately to the problem of its own production. While accusations of racism and labor exploitation continue to trouble the industry, its basic structures remain untouched; established poets seem largely uninterested in struggling alongside the workers that make their poetry possible. Even those with radical sympathies fall short in this respect. Their hymns to the power of “imagining otherwise” displace the possibility of concrete struggle.
The problem of production is both aesthetic-formal and political, as Walter Benjamin made clear 90 years ago in “The Author as Producer.” And in many ways, Benjamin’s problem is the same as our own: “we are faced with the fact,” he writes, “that the bourgeois apparatus of production and publication can assimilate astonishing quantities of revolutionary themes…without calling its own existence, and the existence of the class that owns it, seriously into question.” To call into question the owners of the literary apparatus requires us to be more than “benefactors” or “ideological patrons” of oppressed workers, literary or otherwise. Working-class and communist poets must become generally socialized into what he calls “producers,” who, “in discovering [their] solidarity with the proletarian––simultaneously [discover their] solidarity with certain other producers who earlier seemed scarcely to concern him.” With or without Benjamin’s intervention, groups of leftist poets here and overseas have discovered their solidarity with the proletariat––mostly by being proletarians themselves. As beholden to capital as the poetry industry is, I am cautiously hopeful about the future of poetries hostile to the dictatorship of the rich. Although mostly unorganized and isolated, anticapitalist poets at least name in their work the absolute antagonism between the working and the owning classes; their poems at least share the vision of a transformed world. More importantly, these poets have ventured beyond the literary by integrating their poetics with concrete political practice. The question of poetry’s relationship to concrete struggle remains open, as it should. I hope the writers and organizers we’ve been lucky enough to publish in Protean have helped comrades think through these questions and to promote, in Benjamin’s words, “the socialization of the intellectual means of production.”
The relationship between poetry and extra-literary practice will become clearer as we continue to work collectively against the forces of capital and empire. This is particularly true for US poets, since we’re living in the belly of the many-headed hydra. What I’d really like to see are more rank-and-file institutions with openly anticapitalist commitments that, for example, collaborate with labor unions, mutual aid networks, and––if they existed in this country––socialist political parties. Organizations like the Worker Writers’ School give me some genuine hope, but I also look to John Reed Clubs and Cuba’s Casa de las Americas for potential models. Again, internationalism is key: I think more US poets and academics should read about places like Dar es Salaam, the Tanzanian university where Walter Rodney taught, or the Soviet Union’s Patrice Lumumba University and the Afro-Asian Solidarity Committee that helped found it. Those places were hotbeds of radical thought, and we’d do well to build new organizations with their spirit.
TW: I hope that we can contribute, in our own small way, to “hemming in the barbarism.” Sometimes that means not just playing host to radical work, but also, to my mind, helping a leftist writer or poet or artist pay their bills so they can go on to make more of it. Or it can just mean the bonds strengthened by getting to work closely with good comrades.
We’ve published pieces that have had a concussive impact on certain conversations, and we’ve published pieces that weren’t widely read but meant something to a few readers, and, at least, the writer themselves. And they’ve meant something to us; I am—we all are—better off for having had the chance to engage with those writers and their work. For all the strain and workload I do think it’s worth it, and I do think those small contributions matter for nurturing radicalism. We’re approaching a total of a million unique visitors to the site, so I consider it safe to assume we’ve positively affected someone, somewhere.
But again, I take enough joy and satisfaction in simply knowing that we’ve helped a few writers and artists on the left pay a bit of their rent and get a modest byline. We of course want our output to be maximally impactful, you know, but time and time again, I find that nurturing this little community of collaborators is in itself entirely worthwhile.