from The New York Times (July 19, 2013)

The Activism Files


The posters, old and curled, shouted messages of women’s liberation, Latin American solidarity and the struggle against apartheid.

One by one, Molly Fair flattened them on the table. She had in her hands a screen print, dated Feb. 22, 1987, commemorating Malcolm X — “Our Shining Black Prince.” Another pictured Sonia Sanchez, a poet active in the civil rights movement. “That’s pretty cool,” Ms. Fair said, seeing Ms. Sanchez’s signature.

The materials, over 200 posters, had been donated to the Interference Archive in Gowanus, Brooklyn, by Alexis De Veaux, an author, poet and political activist. They joined thousands of colorful objects — posters, fliers, zines, stickers, T-shirts, books, newspapers, games, videos — that tell the story of radical political movements in the United States and abroad.

The collection is carefully displayed on the walls and stacked high on shelves in the 725-square-foot room the organization rents in a barely marked warehouse building. Open three days a week and coordinated by a team of five volunteers, of whom Ms. Fair, 30, is one, the space is part library, part gallery, and unlike any other archive in New York.

“There are no white gloves here,” Josh MacPhee, one of the founders, said. “Anyone can come in and take something off the shelves and use it.”

Fittingly, Mr. MacPhee, 40, did not come to the project with a traditional archivist’s background.

As a teenager in Holliston, Mass., in the late 1980s, he became part of the punk and do-it-yourself scenes. With friends, he published zines out of a local printing shop. “We would make copies of copies of copies,” he said. “It was the heyday of the copy machine as a vehicle for teen angst.”

Though leaving graffiti was popular among his friends, Mr. MacPhee, who speaks in a thoughtful, cerebral manner, said, “I was never interested in writing my name everywhere.” Instead of tagging, he designed graffiti stencils and helped publish a magazine, Cut & Paint, that reproduced stencils by international artists. “I liked the idea that you could make images that were accessible to” — and replicable by — “anyone.”

At Oberlin College in Ohio, Mr. MacPhee met Dara Greenwald, another politically and artistically minded student. But he did not fall in love with her until over a decade later, after his activism took him to Washington, D.C. (to start an anarchist “infoshop”); Boulder, Colo. (to advocate for prisoners’ rights); and Chicago (to fight against high phone rates in prisons).

Along the way, Mr. MacPhee stumbled into a career as a graphic designer and artist. He came to realize he was not a natural organizer (“It’s taken me almost 40 years to say ‘hi’ to people I don’t know,” he said.) But having grown up in a creative household — his father was a high school art teacher — he excelled at designing T-shirts and tattoos, covers for records and demo tapes. He always stowed away the fliers and other “bits and pieces” of his activities. And when he came across similar items from other moments in history, he kept those, too.

By 2002, he and Ms. Greenwald had become a couple, and in 2005 they moved from Chicago to Troy, N.Y., so she could pursue her graduate studies, before finally settling in New York City. The two were “lefty hoarders,” Mr. MacPhee joked. Their Brooklyn apartment housed an assortment of social movement memorabilia so rich, he said, that Ph.D. students would visit to conduct research. “There were boxes everywhere — the shelves, the walls, the kitchen,” he recalled. “Our landlord was always like, ‘Whaddya doin’ with all that cardboard?’ ”

In 2008, the couple put on an exhibition called “Signs of Change” at Exit Art in Manhattan. A showcase of their political ephemera, it was a precursor to the Gowanus archive.

Then, in 2010, Ms. Greenwald learned she had cancer.

Mr. MacPhee became her full-time caregiver. Her illness was the catalyst for creating the Interference Archive, a longtime ambition of theirs. “She needed a place to live,” he said, “where she wasn’t sleeping under boxes threatening to crush her.”

So together with Ms. Fair and Kevin Caplicki, another of the archive’s main volunteers, Mr. MacPhee moved the collection into the Gowanus space. Its opening exhibition, in December 2011, was a punk feminist tribute to Ms. Greenwald and her interests, like the riot grrrl scene in D.C. and Ladyfest Midwest in Chicago.

Ms. Greenwald died the next month. She was 40.

There is a sense that the Interference Archive is a way for Mr. MacPhee to move on, to let his curated supply of political graphic art be revived through the hands of the public. Along with other volunteers, he gives around 30 hours a week of his time to the archive; he makes his living separately as a printmaker and graphic designer.

On a Sunday in late spring, Ms. Fair, who has a film background, explained, “We want to reimagine what an archive can be, as more of a community space.” Institutional archives often require academic credentials to enter, she said. Many museums, she added, keep their archives hidden from the public while they are cataloged, a process that can take years.

Very few of the Interference Archive’s 12,000 posters, 7,500 books and 7,500 pamphlets, zines and other objects have been digitally indexed. And while work is under way to change that, the archive’s organizers see its pre-computerized state as a virtue. In an age of instant Internet searches, they can offer visitors an opportunity to rummage around and find something they did not know they were looking for. A couch and a cooler with beer ($2 a bottle) invite them to stay.

Mr. MacPhee explained that one can often find multiple copies of a poster in the flat files. They are less precious, less mummified and more shareable that way. “Use is its own form of preservation,” he said. Where a traditional museum might put something under glass as a means of keeping it intact, at the Interference Archive, objects are thought to wither if they are not being touched, enjoyed and thus remembered.

Mr. Caplicki, a screen printer, said he wanted people from all political persuasions to come to the space, not just those from the radical left. And as word of the archive has spread, visitors have included students from across the world, academics and walk-ins. The organization is financed entirely by members — more than 100 people make monthly donations of perhaps $10, perhaps $50. The archive, which has had around 1,500 visitors to date, operates on less than $25,000 a year.

“We’re small and scrappy,” Mr. MacPhee said. But despite its modest resources, the archive continues to grow.

When asked why other activists, like Ms. De Veaux, would donate their personal caches to the Interference Archive instead of a more established museum where they might be more secure, Mr. MacPhee speculated that it was out of a desire to carry on the bottom-up ethos behind their politics in the first place. “They want it here,” he said, “because they know that people can actually get to it.”

A Tribute to the Life and Work of Toni Cade Bambara
Center for Black Literature, Medgar Evers College
1650 Bedford Avenue, Brooklyn NY 11225
Saturday, March 30, 2012 10am-6:00pm
Coming Soon!
What We Do For Love, A Convening, May 16-17, 2013, Astoria, Queens
A Celebration, Discussion, Reading with
Bluestockings 172 Allen St. bet. Stanton& Rivington 212-777-6028
Sharing personal experience and their own work, these two poet/activists will examine the fulfilling but often problematic relationship of poetry/identity and activism, as well as celebrate the NYC launch of Susan Sherman’s new collection of poetry, The Light that Puts an End to Dreams (Wings Press.)


Cheryl Boyce-Taylor and Kathy Engel recorded in July this year at the Poetry Marathon at the East Hampton Town Marine Museum in Amagansett.

East End Ink


March, 2012, Washington D.C.

Split This Rock Poetry Festival take to the streets

PIctured: Alexis De Veaux. Featured poet: Kathy Engel
By Kathy Engel
This morning the sun souses
and shimmers through trees swaying
in an arc over a road I’ve never before
noticed called Millstone: two syllables,
accrued weight. Soon leaves
will flame and fall to the ground like prayer
reminding me why I keep vigil at the town
square, draft statements, help build a school.
This morning after the first sip of Native Thunder
coffee roasted by a neighbor, I pick up last
night’s cups stuffed with crumpled tissue, not
annoyed about the mess but grateful the messers are
here walking through the house in underwear
and unbrushed endless hair. They are my life, as is
the light seducing the trees. My daughters, blinking
like stars dropped into life on earth, appear on this
summer morning and first Johnny Cash
then Chucho Valdes ripples through the house.
We plan what we will cook for dinner; green beans
their father grew spill out of baskets and bowls.
“Gratitude” is one of three poems by Kathy Engel in the Beloit Poetry Journal’s spring 2012 issue, which served as the chapbook for the Split This Rock poetry festival in Washington, D.C., this past March.

Saturday, September 24 2011: 100,000 Poets for Change

On Saturday, September 24th, Lyrical Democracies (Alexis De Veaux and Kathy Engel) joined the movement of 100,000 Poets for Change with our “Airport Action.” We were on our way home from the “Imagining America” Conference in Minnesota and wanted to express our solidarity with poets globally who believe in the power of poetry, of art, to not only make a difference but to impact social change. In preparation for our participation, Kathy and her daughter, Ella, printed copies of two of our poems as postcards. At the airport, we approached other travelers, gave out postcards and talked a little about the meaning of the day. Some fellow travelers got into the cards, some didn’t. At the gate to our flight, we gave out more postcards and did an impromptu poetry reading. The response we got was powerful, the whole action was energizing; reminding us of what a poem can do. Every day.


Faith Ensemble Purpose Love Secret Love History Outrage
The collective poem that came out of the March, 2011 Lyrical Democracies workshop with The Young People’s Project in Boston, Mass.

I rarely say or speak about my walk as a christian to others, Everyday I ignore my sins as well as my sisters and brothers
adrift at sea, I seem to be
à quoi ça sert? (ma vie, ma vie)
with a paddle but no direction
where i go, at my discretion
I rarely say or speak about why I’m speechless,
because my heart’s too tired for words.
I rarely say or speak of my pain
or why God gave me a twin name Sheraine.
I rarely talk about why I feel the way I feel about you and how I think I’m falling in love with you. I think im still reflecting on my past and im scared to make the wrong move. i want to be perfect in your eyes.
I care to not care,
which leaves me carefree in the situation,
the question is
if that’s true why is it documented
you became my locket
my holder of every word
you never DISOWN me
My faithful love
My notebook
I want to learn
I want to live
I want to love
I want to laugh
I want to learn how to love.
My love for my haters
My dreams for their success
Schemes for my own progress
I rarely speak about how my mind is under duress
I rarely speak on the reality
The reality that I want to give up.
By Sheraine Blake, Shermaine Blake, Amy Tamakloe, Branslie Gilles, Darrius James, Ricky Ghoshroy, Dylan Irie, Jerry Marcel
March 26th, 2011
Our story starts with my story
TYPP & Lyrical Democracies


Kathy and Alexis read their work in dialogue. Audio link here:


Lyrical Democracies at the Hayground Forum
The Hayground School, Bridgehampton, NY •

Master writers workshop, Friday Dec. 10 and Sat Dec 11
Poetry reading with Kathy Engel and Alexis De Veaux Friday evening
Responsibility by Grace Paley

It is the responsibility of society to let the poet be a poet
It is the responsibility of the poet to be a woman
It is the responsibility of the poet to stand on street corners
giving out poems and beautifully written leaflets
also leaflets you can hardly bear to look at
because of the screaming rhetoric
It is the responsibility of the poet to be lazy
to hang out and prophesy
It is the responsibility of the poet not to pay war taxes
It is the responsibility of the poet to go in and out of ivory
towers and two-room apartments on Avenue C
and buckwheat fields and army camps
It is the responsibility of the male poet to be a woman
It is the responsibility of the female poet to be a woman
It is the poet’s responsibility to speak truth to power as the
Quakers say
It is the poet’s responsibility to learn the truth from the
It is the responsibility of the poet to say many times: there is no
freedom without justice and this means economic
justice and love justice
It is the responsibility of the poet to sing this in all the original
and traditional tunes of singing and telling poems
It is the responsibility of the poet to listen to gossip and pass it
on in the way storytellers decant the story of life
There is no freedom without fear and bravery there is no
freedom unless
earth and air and water continue and children
also continue
It is the responsibility of the poet to be a woman to keep an eye on
this world and cry out like Cassandra, but be
listened to this time.

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Sites we like:

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“Geographies of Difference: `Race,’ Language and Imagination”
by Alexis De Veaux

read here: GEOGRAPHIES

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E. Ethelbert Miller interviews Kathy Engel in Foreign Policy in Focus

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Are You Now or Have You Ever Been Terrorized

A collaborative project that attempts to address questions of silence, terror, and women which invites participation from viewers in the hope provoking dialogue and action

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Sunday Kind of Love and Workshop with Kathy Engel

Hosted by Katy Richey and Sarah Browning
Cosponsored by Busboys and Poets and Split This Rock
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Haiti Poetry Reading

Poet Kathy Engel of Bridgehampton has always believed that art nourishes the soul, and she and the owners of Canio’s Books in Sag Harbor have arranged a special benefit reading Saturday night to help rebuild a library, the Bibliothèque du Soleil in Carrefour-Feuilles, not far from the earthquake’s epicenter in the capital of Port-au-Prince…
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A powerful service about the Gulf oil spill that my friend Elliott put together. The words on the page are only a script, really – the service is the music, the singing, the voices reading alone and together, the humming buzz of the Hebrew read quietly, and the moments of deep, shared silence. Poem on page 9. PDF below.

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