WE WERE THERE: Readings and performances in response to Zoe Leonard’s I want a president

I want a president

“I want a president” on display at the High Line

Readings and performances in response to Zoe Leonard’s “I want a president,” featuring: Eileen Myles, Justin Vivian Bond, Sharon Hayes, Pamela Sneed, Wu Tsang, Fred Moten, Morgan Bassichis, Mel Elberg, Malik Gaines and Alexandro Segade, and Layli Long Solider

Sunday, November 6th, 2016

Chelsea Market Passage, on the High Line at West 16th Street, NY, NY


To make the private into something public is an action that has terrific repercussions on the reinvented world.
David Wojnarowicz

Spotted at Interference Archive

Spotted at Interference Archive

The night before I went to see readings and performances at the High Line in response to Zoe Leonard’s work I want a president, I found myself in front of a poster that said “Defeat Reagan in 1984.” I couldn’t believe how much it felt like I was staring into the present when I looked at it. It was probably the most simultaneously punk rock and haunting image I’ve seen this year.

I got to the High Line the next afternoon with a few minutes to spare. Then I remembered how long the High Line is (1.45 miles) and how I hadn’t looked up where this event actually was. As I walked along, annoyed at tourists who simply walked the pace I would walk if I was on vacation—I thought about the first time I ever went to the High Line. I was on what I thought was a date or didn’t think was a date until we were there. That’s the feeling the High Line gives me. By the time my maybe-date and I finished dinner and got up there it was sunset. It was beautiful. I thought we should kiss. And when we didn’t, I still thought it was beautiful, just disappointing. We never went out again. But that’s what I think of when I think of the High Line—somewhere that bourgie people go to kiss because of the view. I say this all to explain why it feels so completely radical to have Zoe Leonard’s I want a president installed there.

High Line

When I showed up, now exactly on time because my extra minutes vanished in my effort to find the event—I found an empty stage emblazoned with red, white and blue. It looked like the setup for a small town elected official to give their victory speech.

Right away, I saw an acquaintance who allowed me to prop myself up on the railing next to them while whispering, “I heard Zoe’s going to read I want a president and that it’s only like the second time she’s ever read it publicly in about 20 years.”

I sat back, and the MC for the afternoon, Sharon Hayes described those participating in the event as artists and activists. Hayes said that I want a president was wheat-pasted on the High Line, which I loved as I associate wheat pasting with the punk rock activism of my youth. Hayes described Leonard’s queer poem as “a call” to action.

Zoe Leonard I Want a President at the High Line

Zoe Leonard

Zoe Leonard took the stage and said that it was horrifying that something she made 20 years ago is still so relevant today. Then Leonard read her poem and stepped down from the stage.

Hayes came back and among other things shared a beautiful quote from David Wojnarowicz about the power of turning our grief into something public.

Filmmaker and performer Wu Tsang took the stage next to read a piece that discussed the violent hypocrisy of a year where there was so much positive transgender representation on-screen, saying “The more they celebrate us or at least our bodies and appearances, the more they kill us.”

Next up was Morgan Bassichis who did what I can only describe as “stand-up meets performance art.” Bassichis tried to find humor in the literary nature of the event joking that at home he has a stack of Elena Ferrante books “growing overnight” which he is not reading “out of protest.” Bassichis insightfully went on to note that Leonard’s I want a president is like a spell that people are saying over and over again because they’re divesting from the National Anthem.

Hayes came back to the stage to say that “repetition is revolution.”

My Barbarian’s Alexandro Segade read an excerpt from a forthcoming memoir about having “a quarter century of sex” with his partner, Malik Gaines. The way I felt seeing Leonard’s words huge on the High Line was the same way I felt about hearing Segade read about his first rim job while lots of shoppers walked by. It’s powerful to hear about sexual pleasure in public. It’s really powerful to hear about queer sexual pleasure in public—amplified and in front of a huge audience.

Layli Long Soldier read what I can only describe as her own (collective) version of I want a president. Through tears, she wondered whether she would ever see a president with hair down to his or her waist in her lifetime. It was a true call to action for our sisters and brothers at Standing Rock.

Pamela Sneed read pieces that discussed how much has changed even in just her lifetime, saying: “Even yesterday these things weren’t possible. Art like this was impossible. Being a dyke was a secret.” She went on to say that we should imagine the young people who might see Leonard’s text in this public space and feel acknowledged—Leonard’s text might save somebody’s life.

Eileen Myles I Want a President

Eileen Myles

Eileen Myles appeared saying they had written an acceptance speech for the presidency. Myles, yelling like a politician, proclaimed that under a Myles presidency, the government would now be concerned with “the business of living, not dying” and the arts would be massively funded. As President, Myles said they would write a poem “for you” every week and walk around saying it “and eventually you’d forget I was the President.” It was hard not to want to live under Myles’ rule.

The event closed out with Justin Vivian Bond singing “22nd century.” I can’t remember feeling so simultaneously scared and hopeful during a song. I felt the opposite of the way I did when looking at the “Defeat Reagan” poster the night before.

By the time the event wrapped up, two and a half hours from when I had arrived, I was finally cold. The friend I had sat next to was gone, but I saw someone else I knew in the distance. She helped me get down from the railing and we hugged. I thought I knew how things were going to play out on November 8th, but I think it probably felt colder at that moment because of the unknown.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Books + Literature, We Were There

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *