June 29, 2017
Reeling from Trump’s executive orders, some unacknowledged legislators propose a few of their own
by Ian Dreiblatt
Since the taped-together cloud of indigestion called President Donald Trump took office in January, executive orders have been one of the primary means by which our long national agita is continually stoked.
If you’re unclear on the exact definition, an executive order is, simply, a legally binding directive from a US president — the grand because I said so of American law. Every president in our history has issued them (well, except one: looking at you, William Henry Harrison), and they can do anything from ending formal slavery to making it illegal to hoard gold. This past Monday, if your fillings started to ache, it may have been because the Supreme Court had just unanimously re-implemented parts of Trump’s Executive Order 13780, which aims to bar travelers entering the US from six Muslim-majority countries.
In New York City earlier this year, three poets decided they’d had enough. Rachael Wilson, Andrew Gorin, and MC Hyland—all current or recent (happy graduation!) doctoral candidates in English at NYU, and all members of the Organism for Poetic Research, an “experimental critical-poetic platform and a vehicle for the performance of research in poetics and poetic research” (five times fast, you say?)—teamed up to create “Executive Orders,” an online collaboration in which a veritable sleigh-team of poets (more than twenty have participated so far) are creating some binding directives of their own. Participants simply sign in and add their orders, which are political, possible, and serious by varying definitions and to varying degrees. The project exists primarily as a Google Doc, to which anyone can add, but has also been printed out in several “editions.”
As the project’s introductory instructions explain:
Some orders may be absurdist and some idealist. Some may be general and some may refer to specific alterations we wish (performatively) to make to our world. We welcome images, numbers, links, prose, poetry, dialogue, songs, doodles, riddles, dissenting views, complications, asides, soliloquies, stage directions, blueprints, diagrams, etc. etc.
After adding that repeat orders are very kosher (“as Gertrude Stein says, there’s no such thing as repeating as long as you’re living, so don’t even worry about it”) and suggesting that fans donate to some worthy causes, the introduction concludes, “Thank you for your orders! We will see that they take effect.”
And then, the executive orders begin:
By the authority vested in us as the People by the Constitution and the laws of the United States of America, we hereby order the immediate impeachment of the usurper Donald J. Trump
By the power of our bodies for our bodies, we acknowledge every citizen’s right to health care, which shall be provided equally and to all
We decree henceforth an end to bigotry and to the disenfranchisement of millions
We declare the immediate closure of the detention “camp” at Guantánamo Bay
Likewise, for the Metropolitan “Correctional” Center in Manhattan, reputedly worse than Guantánamo
Likewise, for the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, hole of darkness and assault
We mandate that all National Parks employees use their Twitter accounts for POETRY ONLY!
We declare that science is poetry!
By the fleece vested in us, we order a freezer cake
Taken together, the executive orders are a kind of wild ride through a landscape deformed by the destructive prerogatives of an obscene government, but lush with wildlife from some not-fully-seen political beyond, some of it beautiful, some of it hilarious. They offer a composite picture of one community’s struggle to keep sane in the growing shadow of mere anarchy.
We reached out to Hyland, Gorin, and Wilson, who spoke with us about the project at length, touching on the relationship between political power and poetry, the influence of MobyLives fan favorite and Last Interview series participant Hannah Arendt, and much more:
ML: Where did this idea come from? What was the spark?
Gorin: In January 2017, a number of us joined together for periodic meetings to pool resources and ideas about ways to get further involved and take action post-election. Executive Orders emerged out of the first brainstorming session. This was as Trump had begun issuing his first several executive orders: Obamacare, infrastructure, “the wall,” the first travel ban. I understood each order as a kind of performative speech act, which is to say a verbal act that has some effect on its own, but is also only fully actualized by those who give it authority. This brought hope, because it meant that Trump’s orders might be just wind. One of the pleasures in Executive Orders is that the absurdity or impossibility of some of our orders mirrors the absurdity of those issued by Trump; if ours are sometimes far-fetched or imaginative it’s in part because we want to render his imaginary, to remind ourselves that his statements can only have the power we give them. (This may, of course, be a tragic desire.) But our orders, from my perspective, are also more simply, as the instructions say, “alterations we wish (performatively) to make to our world.”
ML: The Google Doc seems to be the primary form the project takes, but there’ve also been several “print editions” — can you elaborate?
Wilson: We envisioned this project as an “ongoing collaborative long poem” with the Google Doc as the primary site of writing (although people have also submitted “orders” via email and in print, in which case one of the primary editors adds them into the Google Doc). While the writing occurs in this digital format, we also wanted to print EO and disseminate it that way. We printed the first edition—fifty copies—on February 9th, to bring them down to the AWP conference. Then Art Resources Transfer invited us to donate fifty copies to their 2017 Poulin Project bundles, which they distribute for free to public schools, libraries, prisons, and alternative education centers throughout New York State. So we did a second printing of the first edition shortly thereafter. We’re planning to print the second edition this summer. The idea is that each new edition contains the previous iterations of the poem, but altered, as people rearrange orders or drop new ones into earlier sections, as well as simply adding new ones to the end of the poem. In our dream version of this project, other small publishers might pick up different editions to publish, so that we’d be reaching different audiences and growing our base of collaborators.
ML: How do you see the relationships among different styles of executive order, here? What’s the overall goal of the project?
Hyland: Because the poem focuses on speech acts as potentially world-changing, both for better and for worse (and, specifically, came out of a time when speech acts from the executive branch of our government were daily changing our communities’ lives for the worse), it felt important to create a space for the broadest possible set of speech acts. What can be decreed? What does it mean to take apart the language of the state and just fuck with it, pun with it, over-literalize it? When the speech of a leader constantly forces you to react—to flood streets and airports and government offices always in response to his declarations—how can you mark out a space of assertion? How can you make a space for joy, for communal pleasure, for self-determination in this constant siege of language-as-executive-function?
Wilson: There’s a great deal of pleasure to be had in all this commanding, demanding, and countermanding, and there’s a powerful feeling in allowing oneself to imagine and phrase a utopian rejoinder to the supremely fucked political, social, ecological state we’re in. I want everyone to experience that pleasure and power, which is why I’m constantly encouraging people to collaborate on this project.
Gorin: Another way to think about the importance of the absurd ones in particular is to say they recognize that making utopian political declarations is important and yet not enough on its own. This is noted at the beginning of the postscript at the back: “Performative speech acts have an effect on the world. But alone they are not enough to foment real resistance and positive change. Please consider taking the following actions as a means of realizing the orders executed above.” Following this is a list of more concrete actions you can take and donations you can make. The list and this project will always be unfinished and imperfect and I feel that it is important to recognize this.
Wilson: For me, it has been energizing to write these orders and to let them occupy the full range of utopian dreaming — from the dead serious to the gleefully irreverent to the blissed-out and beautiful. I hope that this tonal range isn’t perceived as diminishing the political force of the poem, but that instead we can make the connection back to the political from a line like “By the fleece vested in us…” Of course, political satire and parody are important elements here, too.
Hyland: I’d also add that I spend a lot of time thinking about Arendt’s take on politics as essentially a speech-based practice — that what “the political” actually is is a realm in which people speak to each other about ideas and ideals. Perplexingly, this leads her to the conclusion that the reason the French Revolution—like many subsequent revolutions!—didn’t ultimately achieve its goals was because it tried to use politics to solve problems of bodily need: bread for all! I’m still not sure what the purpose of politics is if not the distribution of resources, so her thinking is for me a real provocation to ask how else one might imagine the realm of the political. I feel like this project is trying to work through, in a real-world scenario, what an Arendtian political practice might look like: sometimes, even when speech is just speech, it may still mark out a new horizon of possibility.
ML: How do you envision the life of this project in a post-Trump world?
Wilson: Fuuuuuuuuck. I’m just trying to envision a post-Trump world.
Hyland: This presidency has done some weird things to time: it’s hard for me to imagine the conditions of a post-Trump future, and to imagine what will be needed in that future. Which is to say, it’s hard to imagine a “return” to “normal” — I think we are in a moment when the fundamental incoherences in American political life are coming to a head. A lot of social and political changes are likely upon us, but we don’t know what kinds of changes those will be. I do think the current president is a symptom, and not the source, of the current moment of crisis — I suspect that even when he leaves the White House, there will still be many battles to fight. Will this document remain a useful tool in those battles? Maybe it’s more important that it’s a strategy for right now.
Gorin: Generally, our line has been that we plan to continue the project “as long as the president is the president.” But that language in fact leaves open the possibility that we’ll keep going as long as there is an executive branch of our government (did I give it away?). I’d be quite interested in seeing how the text responds to the different (but still in many respects the same) conditions of a post-Trump era. The task of sustaining active and constructive political involvement and making better policy when there’s a government that one can at least tentatively get behind is possibly an even greater challenge.
ML: Do you think you’ll run out of new orders to add?
Wilson: Since we conceived of this project as a real-time response to the corruption of governments and the people in power, and since the abuses are perpetual and recurring, we sadly don’t see ourselves running out of fresh impulses for executive orders anytime soon. As we say in the headnote to the document, we also see repetition, if and when it appears, as an appropriate response to the perpetual on assault on “we the people” by the ranks of our government.
ML: I very much love the line “Your favorite stuffed animal will be Cactus-in-Chief.” What are some of your favorites?
Gorin: “The White House shall be transformed into a giant ball pit (the fun kind, as opposed to the giant ball pit it currently is)”
Hyland: “Accordingly, pursuant to our purslane, we shall eat salad”
Wilson: “What is a police state?”
ML: Thanks! You guys rule. It is so ordered.
Executive Orders is ongoing, and you—yes, you!—are invited, encouraged, downright cajoled to participate. Read it here, and then email [email protected], either to ask to be added to the doc, or to submit an executive order that an editor will add for you.
Ian Dreiblatt is the director of digital media at Melville House.