Librarians Are Warriors: An Interview with Stephen Boyer

Despite its banishment from Zucotti Park, it looks like Occupy Wall Street has weathered the winter as it gears up for another massive action on May 1st. Since being met with militarized police tactics, the movement’s demands have grown to encompass basic civil rights of assembly and free speech. Interestingly, physical books—objects currently fretted over for being on the brink of extinction—have become central to this debate. When OWS gave rise to the People’s Library, a street-accessible collection of over 5,000 catalogued books, Occupy encampments worldwide soon followed suit. And when the NYPD raided the OWS camp last November, People’s Librarian Stephen Boyer defended the collection by reciting poetry in the face of advancing riot cops. Sadly, the books were confiscated anyway, and the majority of them destroyed, opening up a whole new conversation on the current state of free speech.

Boyer is a poet and performance artist who first became involved with OWS through its Poetry Assemblies, a series of open readings at the park. He joined up with the People’s Library after he began to assemble an anthology in order to document the readings—a book that has now morphed into a 1,000-page work. Boyer has lately been funneling his energy into raising funds to publish a mass-distributed copy of the book, titled the OWS Poetry Anthology, which includes offerings from Wanda Coleman, CA Conrad, Adrienne Rich, Ariana Reines, and a whole host of other writers who were inspired by the concept. I got the chance to talk to Boyer recently, and he opened up about the anthology’s evolution, his role as its anti-editor, and the sacred physicality of books.

Matt Runkle: Can you start by talking about the People’s Library? How was it started and how did you become a part of it?

Stephen Boyer: The library started with a few books set on a bench. And then a few more books were added and what began as a couple lonely books became a big pile of books and then a few Occupiers started to watch over them and organized them and turned it into a library. Once the words “People’s Library” became a sign adjacent to the books, the donations started to pour in. By the time I showed up with the Poetry Assembly crew, the library was over a couple hundred books in boxes and organized by genre. At the second poetry assembly, I suggested an anthology be created as a way of archiving the diverse beautiful poems being read and the library loved the idea and offered to help with the printing costs. That conversation led me to become a librarian as it seemed like a natural merger, a poetry anthology put out by the People’s Library! And around that time, I decided to try and stay over night. I’m not one for camping, but was so overwhelmed by the enormity and beauty of the movement that I felt I had to try and stay there one night. I left NYC for the summer and arrived back toward the end of September. So my life was flexible as I didn’t yet have rent or a job and was staying with a friend. So I went down for a night to try it and relieve a librarian that had stayed with the books almost two weeks because someone had to watch them every night to keep them safe. And I never left. If you would have told me that first night I would be staying there for the next two months, I wouldn’t have believed you, as I was sort of terrified sleeping on the streets of NYC. But it proved to be one of the greatest risks I ever took. It truly was an experience that will be remembered and discussed for generations to come. Before the NYPD raided the park, the Occupy Wall Street movement was such a pure, ethereal reality to take part in. Since then it’s gotten more complicated. The movement, the library, everything has changed so much. In January, I wrote an article for the Occupied Wall Street Journal explaining what happened with the library the months following the eviction. And I would also suggest to people that are interested, that they tune into for regularly updated information.

MR: I’m really interested in your role as librarian there, and this story about you reciting poetry in the face of police raids. It gives me this image of the librarian as a sort of warrior, which is so different from the traditional librarian archetype as being passive and withdrawn (although I think that archetype has already started to shift along with the librarian’s job description since the rise of the Internet, as well as the increased attacks on civil liberties that have forced librarians to stand up in defense of free information). Do you have any ideas on the future of the librarian? Do you feel like, as funding cuts force more library downsizing and closures, the library will become more of a thing of the street?

SB: Great question! I love this question! First, I need to preface this with explaining that it’s hard to put into words what was going on in my head as I was reading poems to the cops. That was simultaneously a super personal and outright communal action that had to be done because I cannot put to words the profound sense of rage, outrage, anger, disbelief, righteous indignation, anxiety, hysteria, sadness, overwhelming loss that night. When I was reading poems to the police officers, I was completely overwhelmed with so many emotions. I was so appalled at what was happening around me and it was automatic that I read poems in response to batons pelting flesh and people screaming in horror and people writhing in agony (covered in tear gas). What the NYPD did that night was completely unprofessional, unnecessary, and not okay. I’m fed up with the police state. The people that sent me their poems, people from all over the world, demanded their voices and opinions be heard and I was the simply the instrument being strummed by forces larger than a single person. If it wasn’t me, surely someone else would have started an anthology and been equally alarmed at the atrocities taking place.

Secondly, hanging out quietly in a library, cataloging books, archiving books, maintaining the integrity of a book isn’t a passive act. It’s a job for people that are able to think critically and focus their energies on very specific, often banal tasks. And the results are so wonderful! Without librarians maintaining and curating collections of knowledge throughout the ages, humanity would be lost. I grew up in a very religious, very conservative, very strict background and if it wasn’t for my local library and being able to go there and pull Blake from the shelf at twelve years old, I may never have seen the light. And I remember very clearly the librarian that maintained that collection. I devoured so many books and he didn’t particularly enjoy my tastes, but he had the knowledge and wherewithal to point me in the direction I wanted to go. And as a somewhat sexually passive person, I just gotta say bottoms up! Passivity doesn’t mean powerless just as introverted doesn’t mean you won’t greatly impact the world…

And lastly, I just want to say, YES LIBRARIANS ARE WARRIORS! We need this notion to flood the American psyche. We need kids to battle with words over ideas instead of thinking the only way to battle is using force. It’s so incredibly necessary that violence is the last resort. When there is conflict, people need to first engage in dialogue. If the conflict is so immense that it is impossible to fix through dialogue and of such weighty significance that life itself is at stake, then maybe violence has a place. But the notion that war be something we turn to whenever we need to boost the economy or suspect someone or a nation of something, this must be reconciled if we are to have a future. Yes, I’m sure more librarians are going to be taking an active role in their community to ensure humanity doesn’t get completely lost. But that’s not something we should be excited about. We should be excited about libraries that are so quiet you can hear a pin drop while people are throwing shade at each other to nab a seat so they can sit their ass down and read, read, read… and all the while, in the backrooms, librarians are busting their asses to ensure every book spine is in good shape and the shelves are covered in a wide spectrum of material so people can devour the ideas they relish and sharpen their intellectual swords by reading those that they loathe. The only way to truly know “truth”, for lack of a better word, is to dive ever so deeply into the light and darkness.

The People's Library. Photo courtesy Betsy Fagin

MR: After the NYPD first destroyed books from the People’s Library, you quoted (I believe) Heinrich Heine, “Once you start burning books, people are next.” Can you elaborate on this a little?

SB: A number of people were throwing that quote around after the eviction. It’s a famous quote. Not everyone understands how outrageous throwing away over 5,000 books is and the quote helps give gravity to the situation. If I was Mayor Bloomberg and I wanted the Occupy Movement to be silenced, I would have cleared the park of its sleepover residence but left the medical tent and the library. If the NYPD would have peaceably forced out the Occupiers and left the books and medics. Then they could say look, “We’re all for free speech and want protesters to have medical care, so we left them their books and medical supplies, but they can’t sleep in the park anymore.” Instead, they cleared the park in a ruthless, fascist, crazed, monstrous way that made people that didn’t yet sympathize with the movement take pause and worry about their future. It almost seems like subconsciously the corporate, monstrous elite wants to explicitly show the world how evil they are so they can be destroyed. And in the case of contemporary American politics, the quote holds true! They trashed the books of the People’s Library, Arizona is denouncing not only books but an entire ethnic group, and with the passing of the new NDAA, the people are really being threatened. Raise the suspicion of the government, and you’re gone, no right to a trial, no right to a lawyer… just a jail cell and whatever the prison guard decides you deserve. And if you look at the statements made by those released from Guantanamo Bay, you’ll see that the prison guards feel no empathy and show no mercy. Those imprisoned by these outrageous, fascist laws are being sexually abused, physically and mentally tortured, and forever ostracized by society. And many of the people are innocent. This is really the sort of government action that must be challenged, not just for the people that have already been targeted but for everyone. Because who knows what “group” of people will be listed as suspicious next week or next month or next year. It very well could be you.

An early version of the OWS Poetry Anthology. Photo courtesy Boyer

MR: So you first envisioned the anthology as a zine and before long it grew to 1000 pages. Can you talk a little about what this growth felt like? Like did you see the actual shape of the anthology morphing in your imagination? Were there points where the logistics/practicalities lagged behind the anthology’s potential? Was there ever a moment where you felt like it should just exist online or was it always important to you that the anthology be an object?

SB: The anthology began as a physical document. And as a physical document in its first incarnation, it harbored magickal super powers because of its astounding contents and limited nature. When I first suggested an anthology be made, it was simply an effort to archive the Poetry Assembly readings happening every Friday night at Liberty Square, so people who couldn’t be there Friday nights or passersby throughout the week could engage with the immense diversity of poetry happening at the assemblies. I really felt like the assembly was the Occupy Movement at its best, as it encouraged everyone to participate and encouraged people to speak their minds and share their opinions. At the end of every General Assembly, the G.A. would open itself to a soapbox but few seemed to last that long. The G.A.’s were very important and often great, but were largely limited to working groups and special speakers with agendas for the movement. Sure, it allowed marginalized voices to step to the front, but it didn’t allow for the range of opinions the Poetry Assembly brought into being. And the aspect of the Occupy Movement that I liked the most was its inclusive nature, its desire to try and allow people who often aren’t heard to express themselves. So the anthology was a means to capture that, so people now and forever can engage with the material.

When the anthology was first created and for its first few weeks in existence, it lived solely in the People’s Library. We reasoned its limited availability would force people to come to the park. And the experience of reading the poems in the ever bustling park was much greater than reading the poems online. About three weeks after it began, we placed a copy at Poets House, a public poetry library in downtown NYC, very close to the movement. We placed a copy there as a way to reach people that didn’t feel comfortable entering the park. Public opinion of the park varied, and many people wanted to come and see it but were afraid they’d wind up arrested or experience a horror. Since 9/11, downtown NYC is a huge gaping wound. It’s scabbed over, but the wound is still there. And many downtown residents are triggered by large crowds, caution tape, police sirens, groups of police cars, police violence, etc, so we wanted those people to be able to have access to firsthand accounts of the Occupy Movement without feeling like they had to go to the park. And to our surprise, many of those people found the anthology, read it, and then felt an overwhelming need to conquer their fear and enter the park, to see it for themselves.

After the park got raided is when the anthology went online. It went online because we no longer had a commons to enter, to continually meet and discuss ideas. And the Internet, for better and for worse, is a means of reaching out to everybody with access. So it seemed like the best choice to get the anthology online. And ever since, it’s remained there with instructions to print, as well as in Poets House, and I still have the few original copies.

From the first day it was placed in the park, people have asked to own a copy. And I’ve always wanted to be able to give them a copy but have yet to acquire the funds necessary to give them out. I’ve tried to find a home for it with a publishing house, but the size and nature of the book make it a difficult project for publishing houses. Also, it only seems fair, considering this is a book made of and by and for the Occupy Movement, to make this book available for free. To make this a document that a publishing house uses for profit would be problematic.

Boyer preparing the exhibition at Jefferson Market Library. Photo courtesy Boyer

Now that it’s April, National Poetry Month, and since the Jefferson Market Library and NY Public Library, have requested copies and are currently displaying an exhibition of poems from the anthology at the Jefferson Market location, it seems like the time is right to take the anthology to print. And because it never found a home with a publishing house, the best option is to print it ourselves. In order to do that, the money must be raised. It will cost between $12-40 to print each copy. The price range varies as we’re still accepting submissions, so we don’t yet have an exact size of the book and it depends on the quality of print job. The anthology will stop accepting submissions to the two copies being given to the NYPL on April 8th, and will stop accepting submissions to the copies being printed with the funds from the campaign, at the end of the campaign. It’s been eight months since it began. It’s huge. Once its printed and being distributed, I feel like it’s a job well done.

As Spring turns to Summer, the Occupy movement and similar movements will be amping up efforts, and I feel like a great addition to those efforts will be the passing out of the anthology. There are so many poems within its pages, and it’s time it goes from being something people add to, to something people read and engage with. The amount of money raised will determined the quality of book and the amount of books we will be able to produce. I’m really hoping to raise enough money to print a quality book that can be shipped to special collections, major library systems, and occupations worldwide. This is a historical document of great significance and very deserving of an international readership. There are poems of all sizes, all styles and many languages in this book. It’s a really exciting, unique book.

Unbound editions of the anthology. Photo courtesy Boyer

MR: I’m interested in your role as a kind of anti-editor in that you’re not culling through submissions, but rather just presenting everything you receive wholesale. This is a process that reminds me of zine culture. Yet, with a zine, you always know the end result is extremely finite—like it can’t be too thick to staple through. This thing keeps growing and growing, and I wonder if you’ve envisioned any future cut-off points.

SB: Well, the campaign signifies the cut-off point. We’re accepting poems through the end of the campaign, and then this project will end and move into the next phase and that is to get into the hands of a readership. The writing of a book is a really beautiful thing, and this being a communal writing project makes it especially special, but a book or a collection of words is nothing without readers. So it’s essential that the writing phase eventually end and it grow into a book that acquires a readership. The goal now is to raise awareness of its existence and to inspire love in enough people so we can raise the necessary funds to make it a book.

MR: Do you feel like there is something sacred about books, that they go beyond mere fetish objects? There is a fierce attachment to them—in the face of the digital age as well as in the face of the powers that be. Where do you think this comes from?

SB: I don’t own a Kindle. I read a lot of blogs and appreciate the Internet for allowing anyone to go online and publish their thoughts, but yeah, books are holy. I always carry a few books on me at all times. I couldn’t imagine the world without books. I need books. There have been many points in my life where I’ve questioned whether to buy books or food. We crave knowledge just as much as we crave physical sustenance. And there’s something about a physical book that sort of captures both cravings. To hold a book and be able to touch the print and mark it is an entirely different experience then that of reading on a screen. There’s a permanence that doesn’t exist with a screen. It’s why I always force myself to write longhand and not limit myself to typing on a laptop, even though it’s so much easier. There is a magick to the permanence of ink on paper that is so quickly disregarded by a keypad and a screen.


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Matt Runkle
Matt Runkle
Matt Runkle's writing has appeared in The Collagist, Monkeybicycle, on BOMBlog, and is forthcoming in Wigleaf. A former Cartoon Art Museum resident, his comics are anthologized in Sparkplug Comic Books' Gay Genius and Rob Kirby's THREE. The third issue of his zine, RUNX TALES, will be released in 2012. Brooklyn Arts Press will publish a collection of his short fiction in 2013. You can visit his personal blog here.

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