“Movement Poetry: Activism and Poetry Repertoires in Egypt, 1968-1977”

By Elliott Colla
Submitted to Session P5253 (Re-Opening the 1960s, 2018 Annual Meeting
19th-21st Centuries;
LCD Projector with Audio Patch or Speakers;
During the 1960s, Egyptian colloquial poets worked at the center of radical Egyptian political movements. While scholars have observed this in different ways, they have treated these two fields of activity—poetry and contentious politics—as if they were relatively autonomous. This is odd given that poetic practices and performances are so entangled in the repertoires of modern Egyptian social movements that there is often no line between the activities of movement poetry and contentious politics itself.

But what exactly was the role of movement poets within the protest cycle of 1968-1977 and what labor did such poetry perform? To address this this question, we need to move beyond the major poets of this period to see the much broader field of activists using poetry (and poetic performance) to engage in contentious politics, and poets engaging in contentious politics to develop their craft and audience. This essay draws on activist memoirs to develop the concept of “movement poetry” and explores the roles of poetry within the repertoires of contentious Egyptian politics during late 1960s. Shifting away from the purely linguistic and semantic aspects of poetry to the other dynamics of collective performances and repertoires, this paper conceptualizes “movement poetry” as a coherent field of aesthetic/political activity in itself, and argues that for movement poets, poetry is not just about what poems say, it is also about what poems—and poets—do. In this way movement poetry creates a discursive context that enables and fuels contentious politics or, in the language of social movement theory, poetry works to “frame” insurgent politics by thematizing issues, articulating complaints, and setting demands. And, perhaps more importantly, as an embodied and ritualized collective practice, movement poetry contributes centrally to the labor of (micro)mobilization.