I arrive at Casa del Popolo and note the steady filtering of people into the venue, many unsure about passing through the dimly lit door shyly labelled with anarchist poet Norman Nawrocki’s “Agitate!” poster. I am joined by a surprising mix of CEGEP students and older activists. At the side of the room is a table with an impressive array of Nawrocki’s self-published books and the author himself, as shy as his unassuming poster. He admits he is nervous before hurriedly walking to the back of the room, but in his performance, he is anything but shy.
A bell rings – he turns around from facing the back corner, staring disconcertingly at the audience and singing. He’s wearing a Groucho mask. Apprehension sets in – is this another loud and aimless experimental performance piece? There are definitely abrasive moments in the performance: a call and response song whose main line is “On the road to freedom,” is very uncomfortably reminiscent of an African-American slave song in both its music theory structure and also its subject matter similar to traditional songs like “Follow the Drinking Gourd” and “Song of the Free.” Ultimately, such blatant instances of cultural misappropriation, while inappropriate, are not central, and it is the more subtle elements of Nawrocki’s performance that have the most impact.
He eventually pulls out a violin to accompany his readings, which he builds into a song using a loop pedal. This complicates poems with a tension that may have otherwise been lacking. His rendition of “Another Starlit Tour,” a lament for the treatment of Indigenous peoples in Quebec, incites tears from audience members. They barely have time to gather their wits however, before the angry strumming of “Ter-roar-wism” begins, a disorganized and poorly conceived rant about contemporary society that leaves one overwhelmed by the pile of injustices mentioned.
The show ends with a rendition of “Red Waves Massing,” a piece alluding to the student protest movement of the Maple Spring, with Nawrocki leading the song in a dramatic moment worthy of a Les Misérables finale. Even the most reluctant audience members seem affected by the unity of the group crying out, “We’re the burning red hunger of all our souls!” A faint smile lingers on his face as he walks off the stage, betraying a humour that lives at the core of his work.
It is with this same humour that I am first introduced to Nawrocki at Café El Mundo for an “informal conversation,” as he affectionately calls interviews. I arrive ten minutes early, only to find Nawrocki already there, unapologetically sipping a glass of milk. As I sit, he slaps the book down in front of me with a coy smile, and declares “We’re here to talk about this book – Agitate!” And so we do.
Born in a “working class, immigrant community where classism was really obvious,” Nawrocki became politically involved at an early age by observing the injustices suffered by the community around him. He currently practices “creative resistance,” all the while recognizing that participating in the creative process is a privilege in this society. It is this need for creativity that fuels his political tendencies. He views anarchism as “a collective movement for personal freedom” with which “everybody would have the chance to explore the creative side of themselves.” He writes that hopefully, this exploration will lead to identification of problems plaguing society, and thus, change.
He currently practices “creative resistance,” all the while recognizing that participating in the creative process is a privilege in this society. It is this need for creativity that fuels his political tendencies.
Not limited to poetry, Nawrocki’s vast collection of publications also includes rants and songs written in the past year. When asked to define “rant,” he becomes even more lively (if possible) and details the movement of established ranters in the 17th century that he emulates. Nawrocki is a self-professed spokesman for “public rage,” but later in the interview his language shifts to “witness for injustice.” And though he may not be a direct witness, through his repeated performances and writings he certainly calls a lot of what he sees as contributing to environmental collapse, austerity, privatization, missing and murdered Indigenous women, police brutality, cancer, sexual harassment, sexism, homophobia, and Islamophobia. These subjects, and more, constitute the base of issues that he writes about openly in Agitate!.
Nawrocki does an excellent job of grounding these injustices in the local settings of Montreal and Canada, as evidenced by our discussion of the crumbling Montreal infrastructure and the “fascist” former Harper government.
He doesn’t hesitate to speak out against McGill either, which has repeatedly refused to re-invite him to perform his anti-sexism shows, cabarets that often involve him performing as a 7 foot tall penis. Though his first anti-sexism show was created and inspired in part by McGill students, and attended by 300 people on campus, he says that the “irresponsible McGill administration refuses to admit it has a problem” with sexual harassment. Nawrocki started doing these anti-sexism shows in 1993, hoping that their informational benefits would allow him to stop after a few shows, laughably underestimating the extent of systemic sexism. He is still performing these shows upon request in universities across the U.S. and Canada.
He doesn’t hesitate to speak out against McGill either, which has repeatedly refused to re-invite him to perform his anti-sexism shows, cabarets that often involve him performing as a 7 foot tall penis.
On the subject of sexual harassment and rape culture at McGill, Nawrocki specifically mentions the various interviews that he has conducted with students on campus. From what he has gathered, he says that McGill only “put[s] up a blue box with a blue light so that you can feel safe, but god, I know tons of women on campus, in classrooms, who don’t feel safe and who have been accosted by their professors. There are notorious professors in certain departments and year after year, woman after woman, all confirm the same stories.”
Frustratingly, Nawrocki’s work deals frantically with too much subject matter, and the result is that he comes across as trying to tick off anti-oppression boxes with buzzwords rather than striving to effect tangible change. His best poems are the ones that attempt to dismantle oppressive systems in a subtler way: the random act of kindness he observes and retells in “This Little Old Woman” generates more thought than the outpouring of facts in “Sip a Beer and Meditate.” Though the louder poems are certainly able to unsettle in the way that Nawrocki believes they should, these subtler examples seem to do more for his project of reaching people on an emotional level. The Nawrockian anthology that is Agitate! may be an interesting read, but its scope is too large to hold any complex analysis or instigate systemic change.