Wu Tsang, Eileen Myles, and Me: Reading Zoe Leonard’s “I Want a President”

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Recent art writing has been marked by a compulsion to cast every subject against an unfolding political crisis. Press releases, reviews, and essays implore artists to connect people within a brutally fractured social landscape. We seem to be searching our field for a monumental function, in a time when our old cenotaphs and memorials fail to move us.

Snaking through New York’s burrows and bruised spirits, the city’s subway system presents a more convincing paean to togetherness than any artwork. While delivering people to work, the doctor, the library, and the courthouse, the subway joins people, albeit briefly. How significant, then, that Zoe Leonard‘s 1992 poem I Want a President was installed last winter as an enormous poster on Manhattan’s High Line – a former above-ground subway track now serving as a public greenway. A free-associated entreaty, Leonard’s poem pleads for a president who has suffered sickness, social stigma, and violence, and so many other torments. The implication is that such a leader might have the empathic and ethical ferocity necessary to fight for the marginalized. Leonard’s words rip open capitalist America’s barbaric obsession with profit at the expense of feeling.

Zoe Leonard’s “I Want a President” on the High Line.

On November 6th, 2016, two days before an amoral narcissist was elected to the American presidency, twelve writers and artists, including Leonard, gathered on the High Line to reflect on the text and its evolving context. A book containing transcripts of each reflection was subsequently printed on cheap paper, bound with staples in a mint-green cover. Entitled I Want a President and sold for donations, the work portrays its interlocutors grappling with democracy’s uncertain future.

My copy of this unassuming collection has now made its way back to Europe – a continent desperately resisting self-inflicted dismemberment. Through this journey, the book has come to feel like a protean monument. In contrast to stone and steel memorials, I Want a President works primarily in the space of thought. To read it is to confront manifold traumas intrinsic to America: not only wars, but complexes of neglect, dashed hope, and warped politics.

“I Want a President: Transcript of a Rally,” by Zoe Leonard. Photo: Mitch Speed.

The reflections on Leonard’s poem feel tightly knit: an intimate coterie of the woke. Leonard is often invoked among a close group of comrades, as when Sharon Hayes describes how “Zoe originally made the work in 1992 for the back cover of a queer magazine… [before] the text “moved slowly from friend to friend…” This collegial atmosphere echoes through collaborative writers Fred Moten and Stefano Harney’s description of how “Zoe gets us started” thinking through the intractability of the current political situation: in particular the governance of Americans by “a sick, uneasy head in a hollow crown.” Endearingly scattered, performer Morgan Bassichis searches through anecdotes, before concluding that “Zoe’s piece is like a spell” akin to Natalie Cole’s hit Unforgettable (1992). Also employing first-name-basis familiarity, Pamela Sneed writes that “Zoe’s text acknowledges me as a dyke and as a black woman and helps me envision a future I don’t really exist in yet.” Sneed had “just begun to turn a corner on” the killing of so many young black men, had just begun to “not think about of it everyday / then the police kill this black girl in Texas / claim she committed suicide…”

This kind of jarring emotive turn is a recurring structure in I Want a President. Over and again, hopeful fraternity dives into horror, only to double back to a stubborn optimism underlined by the book’s very existence. And now, as this goes to publication, optimism has once more been rendered a cruel joke, with the acquittal of the police officer who last year killed a pleading Philando Castille, in front of his pleading girlfriend and child. The verdict has left a hollow of morale; a perhaps un-mendable dissociation from the belief that some essential justness, resides in the core of American society.

Nowhere are oscillations between hope and despair mirrored more effectively, in this book, than in a chattering contribution from the poet and novelist Eileen Myles. Entitled “Acceptance Speech,” the piece imagines Myles accepting the presidency of the United States (for which she in fact ran in 1992). The poet begins with a deceptively multivalent line that bundles mock enthusiasm, real hope, and cutting realism. “First I want to say this feels incredible,” she writes… “to run and run and run to not see an end in sight. But maybe have a feeling that there’s really no outside to this endeavour this beautiful thing.” But then, just as Myles has us snickering along with her, she drops into the brutal American gutter. “You know who the homeless are… They are the military men and women. Who fought our pointless wars, who came home after each stupid greedy war we have waged and they got less.”

Prior to buying this book, the failure of cenotaphs had already been cycling in my mind. There is a website, yolocaust.de, which combines photos of tourists happily posing atop Berlin’s holocaust memorial with torturous images of the shoah’s victims. Precisely because of its resistance to such spectacles, Leonard’s humble paper collection seemed to hold a deceptive monumental potential. Sitting on the C-train and thumbing its tattered pages, this impression was shored as a young man – Latino, in his early twenties, with a ponytail and Yankees cap – entered the subway car. As commuters sat, he began a weary supplication that corroborated Myles observations on America’s relationship to wars, and the people who fight them. Having been a soldier in Iraq, the man was begging for money to purchase baby formula. New Yorkers witness this kind of thing so often that bored numbness has become the default response.

Image of the podium from a reading of the book with Zoe Leonard and artists, November 6, 2016, New York City.

There’s no doubt that I Want a President relies upon an elitism. Despite good intentions, the book moves through a particular network of people who feel welcome in the culturally and economically lofty spaces of contemporary art. This predicament draws focus around the way that exclusion is not only perpetuated in financially inaccessible art objects, but in the relative levels of comfort and discomfort that certain people feel entering the white-cube spaces where this collection is offered. Despite being affordable and decidedly un-precious, non-white and economically disenfranchised people may feel unwelcome or even repelled by the very spaces that distribute the book – an ironic effect, given how it is meant to reflect oppressions that condition their lives.

Admirably, I Want a President also hosts the messy and sometimes stinging conflicts intrinsic to democracy. When Wu Tsang speaks truth to power, they address not only the government but also the more formidable contributors to this very project, who wield their own institutional clout. Leonard shows at Hauser and Wirth, for instance, a bastion of status and wealth. In turn, Myles’s newly released novel and poetry collection – Chelsea Girls (2015) and I Must be Living Twice (2015) – are on shelves everywhere, while she’s begun shooting a version of herself on the Amazon series Transparent.

Laudably, both Leonard and Myles have made singular contributions to their disciplines, while maintaining intense and sharply delivered political positions. But perhaps because of the stability and insulation provided by their recent successes, neither finds the mettle that Tsang displays, here, rejecting the very premise of this book:

I don’t want a president. I don’t want a dyke for president. We may even have a dyke for president in the next decade or two, but she will probably be an Ellen-type rich, white lesbian who can check another box. I don’t want Laverne Cox for president or any other marginalized person who has managed to gain enough mainstream visibility to perpetuate power the way it has always operated. I don’t want a president, if running this country means sadistically destroying other peoples’ countries with our paramilitaries and complicit dictators and globalized culture.

To some, Tsang’s diatribe will seem foolish – a kind of self-defeating radical idealism. But for those oppressed from multiple angles at once, a non-compromising position might seem like the only tolerable option. As a self-identified transfeminine and transguy artist, Tsang’s own increased freedom of expression comes with increased physical danger. “It seems,” Tsang continues, “the more they celebrate us (or at least our bodies and appearances) the more they kill us…” The latter “they” in this sentence is not only trans and gay bashers, but also we – the readers and mute subway-car passengers – who permit violence by not mobilizing against it.

The collection’s over-determined representation of trauma is necessary. Monuments are for everyone. But everyone is by definition a plurality, incommensurable with the monolithic bulwarks of national pride that sit lonely in our parks. In contrast, I Want a President travels with individuated bodies, mirroring and expanding their own experiences. At least within the artistic community, it stands a chance of holding us together through our differences: even as the book itself falls apart, in your bag, the subway, wherever.

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