Review: Zoe Leonard: ‘I want a President: Transcript of a Rally, November 6, 2016’ – Louise O’Hare

Zoe Leonard: I want a President: Transcript of a Rally, November 6, 2016

Louise O’Hare

Image of the edition of 100 paper copies by Badlands Unlimited

‘I want a president that had an abortion at sixteen and I want a candidate who isn’t the lesser of two evils and I want a president who lost their last lover to aids, who still sees that in their eyes every time they lay down to rest, who held their lover in their arms and knew they were dying.’
You’ll probably have already read it – on someone’s Instagram, Facebook page, shared via a tweet, or – New Yorkers – posted billboard scale on the High Line last year. I must have come across Zoe Leonard’s ‘I want a president’ online previously, because when friends and colleagues started sharing it in the lead up to last November’s US election, the poignancy was stabbed with anger at its continued and expanded aptness. Zoe Leonard’s poem, artwork, manifesto, was first written in 1992, during the AIDS crisis (while she was doing a lot of work fly-posting the streets with the group fierce pussy/ Fierce Pussy) and for the back cover of a magazine that folded before the text got printed. It then circulated among friends, was posted on Leonard’s refrigerator, and was shown in an exhibition, before being published as a postcard insert in a 2006 issue of LTTR – where as such it was ‘able to detach and circulate freely again.’ The PABD archive holds copies of LTTR so we might find it there fallen behind a shelf, or used as bookmark somewhere else entirely. In the new publication that I am reviewing here, the text features on page 8 as photograph of the billboard. A silhouette in the foreground looks up as they walk past. They are wearing boots, a rucksack, they have mid-length hair, you can’t really judge the identity, sex or race, of the figure.

I want a President: Transcript of a Rally, November 6, 2016 was published in January ready for the marches and protests around Donald Trump’s inauguration.1 It gathers transcripts of readings and performances at the High Line two days before his election in November 2016. There is a piece by Layli Long Soldier, ‘a citizen of the United States […] and also a citizen of the Oglala Lakota nation’, who explains that her text was ‘originally intended for sharing verbally, in the moment, and as a one-time-only, from-the-heart offering’ with the hope it can be ‘read as if being heard. Understood by being felt’. Which makes me think of poetry, the way you tend to enunciate the words aloud in your head and make them your own, a sort of ventriloquism that attends to the weight of the words and catches your belly. The same happened just now when I was copying out, transcribing, the rhythm of Leonard’s words: ‘I want someone who has spent the night in the tombs and had a cross burned on their lawn and survived rape.’ The book also contains a contribution from Eileen Myles, who stood for president in 1992. It’s called Acceptance Speech, but I won’t repeat any of it here, because some of her politics kind of pissed me off: the flippant approach to the Palestinian struggle which seemed to go hand in hand with the pro-Hilary Clinton quip at the end.
But Myles is not president, and so why would I dwell on these details?
Because they are not details. To pass over the occupation of Palestine by Israel as if it is a conflict between equals is not wonderfully absurd, it is to repeat a persistent misrepresentation.2
But I do like her poetry, and its irreverence and – and – oh dear – I can’t help myself – these magnificent lines: ‘The malls are falling apart. The malls are pretty much gone. Let them go. We want to make real departments for who we really are.’

What is the value in repeating these playful slogans, slogans we cannot help but love, within a like-minded bubble, like this?  I must agree with Hayes, ‘sharing, processing’ is a way to ‘respond, mourn, resist, strategize’. Layli Long Soldier asks for a rejection of the term protester, points to the importance of paying attention to the way and how we speak: ‘We are not going up [to North Dakota] to protest, we are going up to protect.’

The book also includes an introduction by Leonard, where she reflects upon her work, and says ‘this is not a text I would write today. I don’t think of identity politics in the same way – that is, I don’t think that a specific set of identifiers or demographic markers necessarily leads to a particular political position’… ‘the Obama’s changed something, irrevocably’.3
I think: ‘hell yes – he epitomises the failure of that approach.’I think: ‘Black Lives Matter started during Barack Obama’s presidency’.
But Leonard then goes on to write that the ‘Obama’s brought dignity […] acknowledged that complex issues aren’t answered with one liners’, before saying that she was scared that the reinstallation of the text would ‘read as a call to vote for a third party. It’s not. I’m with her.’
I want to ignore this contradiction,
 to assume it’s ironic. There was always such a po-faced saccharine slime to the first name terms familiarity of the ‘I’m with her’ one-liner. Speaking before the election it may have felt to Leonard like a necessary evil, something that need to be stated, even to those likely to already know what evil they would choose. And hey – It may be unfair of me to critique from hindsight – and – yes – from the relative safety of the UK… and another female prime minister rapidly dissolving all that remains of our welfare state. Now, yes, I’m being ironic.

These of Leonard’s recent comments seem to lack the subtlety and the intersectionality that I read in the accretion of identities that she demanded in 1992 – in her audacious and entirely reasonable call for numerous subject positions and experiences to find a voice, find their voices heard, in mainstream politics.  As Hayes writes in the foreword: ‘I want a political possibility, it says. And this other political possibility, too. And this one and this one and this one.’
Read it again Zoe! Your ‘I want a president’ doesn’t speak to me of a closed, exclusionary set of demographics it desires in power, or tokenism, but rather of issues that are overlooked, and are still overlooked. It speaks of voter apathy ‘I want to know why we started learning somewhere down the line that a president is […] always a liar.’ Zoe, Zoe, it can well read as ‘identity politics,’ but you put it in the context of an accrual, it is open as poetry, and you must surely prefer to demand ‘I want a Black woman for president’ than to dwell of the stately dignity of Michelle as first wife!
I see far more hope for dignity when I hear you write: ‘I want someone who has committed civic disobedience’.  I
 love it when you say you want a president ‘who has eaten that nasty hospital food’. Repeat that distain for bosses and johns – these are gendered privileges more than masculine identities.

I’ve recently learned that you can be banned from parliament if you call someone a ‘liar’ in the UK House of Commons. I guess it is undignified, un-parliamentary language. I guess we shouldn’t dump dead bodies on the lawn of the Whitehouse. But like David Wojnarowicz  (quoted in the book by Hayes) what if we imagine what it would be like if be like ‘if friends had a demonstration each time a lover or a friend or a stranger died of AIDS’ or indeed by any policy that excludes people from access to medicine and care. Imagine if we were to ‘drive with it in a car a hundred miles an hour to washington d.c. and blast through the gates of the white house and come to a screeching halt before the entrance and then dump their lifeless forms on the front steps. It would be comforting to see those friends, neighbors, lovers and strangers mark time and place and history in such a public way.’4
It might be more dignified than being forgotten, cremated, sanitised, disappearing. I guess I’m talking about different kinds of dignity, and I guess you probably agree with me too.

Oh Zoe, I’m being unfair. You were just speaking then, in the moment. I don’t want to fall out over politics. I am glad you made me wonder what is dignified and what is not, and what is clownish. The court jester mocks but the status quo remains. You know it’s not that I want a clown – your president or my foreign secretary.  I do want to keep on, keep hoping for better more effective ways to demand.

I need to believe there is a meaning and use to this book, that there is a meaning and agency to that text you wrote – to sharing and re-sharing its demands. We do need moments to gather, and feel some catharsis whilst calling for action, finding support, and bolstering ourselves to keep going. I want to be on first name terms with you Zoe: I will wallow in this text and mourn the present with a nostalgia for that particular activist past because I want to join you somehow, now and then, because I too still – still still – still – ‘want to’ – demand to – ‘know why this isn’t possible’.

3 April 2017 – Louise O’Hare


1. I want a President: Transcript of a Rally, November 6, 2016, Sharon Hayes, Zoe Leonard, Fred Moten & Stefano Harney, Wu Tsang, Morgan Bassichis, Mel Elberg. Malik Gaines, Alexandro Segade, Layli Long Soldier, Pamela Sneed, Eileen Myles and Justin Vivian Bond & Nath Ann Carrera (contributors), Karen Kelly and Barbara Schroeder (ed.), New York: High Line and Dancing Foxes Press, 2017. Available here.
The publication was edited by Dancing Foxes Press who printed free copies of the publication for the march in Washington D.C. on 22 January 2017 (the day of Donald Trump’s inauguration). Badlands Unlimited and Publication Studio London are also circulating print and pdf versions.
2. Eileen Myles, ‘Acceptance Speech’, I want a President: Transcript of a Rally, November 6, 2016, Op.Cit., p.42–45
At the beginning of the text, when talking about the treatment of homeless veterans, Myles mentions Iraq and Afghanistan as ‘pointless’ ‘stupid greedy war[s]’ but then later picks out Israel and Palestine for her interventionist policy of sending in the masseurs: ‘Oh yeah and we’ll send a lot of masseuses to Israel and Palestine. Everyone needs a good rub.’
I see ‘Israel and Palestine’ being used here as a kind of shorthand for an unnecessary conflict between two countries (rather than wars that are the result of American greed). This use repeats the pro-Israel narrative that the occupation of Palestine is an extremely complicated ongoing historical dispute between equals, where there is no victim and no oppressor, no coloniser, no apartheid.
3. Zoe Leonard, Introduction, I want a President: Transcript of a Rally, November 6, 2016, Op.Cit., p.9
4. David Wojnarowicz, ‘Postcards from America: X-Rays from Hell’, Witnesses: Against our Vanishing (exh. cat.), New York: Artists Space, 1989. Quoted by Sharon Hayes in her foreward, I want a President: Transcript of a Rally, November 6, 2016, Op.Cit., p.3