Pakistan poetry drone: Drop poems not bombs

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Pakistan, like much of the Middle East, is a nation that has been rife with conflict for decades. Between its own internal political turmoil, the ongoing power struggle with India for dominion over Kashmir and tensions with the West resulting from nuclear sanctions and suspicions of Pakistan’s government potentially harboring terrorists, the world’s second largest Muslim population has had a rough half-century.

Aside from a few recent improvements in relations between the Taliban and the Pakistani government, which could eventually result in de-escalation of some internal conflicts, there are few signs that things will improve for the average Pakistani anytime soon.

There is an enormous amount of anti-Western sentiment bound up in their internal political struggles and they are known for being one of the nations that is most sympathetic to anti-US terrorists. It shouldn’t be any surprise, considering that the CIA has been using drones to drop bombs on Pakistani villages for twelve years, claiming the lives of hundreds of civilians and even a few US citizens.

Poet David Shook (Photo provided by George Gill)
Poet David Shook
(Photo provided by George Gill)

So you might think honorary consul and local LA poet David Shook is insane for wanting to buy his own drone and fly it over Pakistan, and I wouldn’t blame you; I did, too, until he told me he wanted to use it to drop poetry.

I met David last month, and after hearing his idea, I wanted to learn more; luckily he was stateside last week, and had time to speak with me.

David Shook: “I love the surprise element of the poetry drone, but I also acknowledge the realistic limits of such an approach.”

David was very candid about the driving forces behind his idea; he has no delusions of ending wars or saving the world with poetry. His goal is to attempt to humanize interactions between the US and other nations, particularly Pakistan, in a way that can bring us all beyond the veil of technology and force us to accept what is really happening in these places.

“I think beyond the novelty of the idea, the physicality of it is very important: the transformation of the drone beyond something meant to kill and dehumanize others.”

George Gill:  “A flower in the barrel.”

DS: “Exactly. So I think that physicality is super important to me, the actual repurposing of something that is used to kill. One of my big inspirations is a Mexican artist who has done a lot with repurposing weapons in Mexico, Pedro Reyes, and he has this series where he’s turned machine guns into shovels, and I think that’s amazing. There’s something powerful about that physical subversion, I think, of what these things are intended to do.”

Sand poem at Santiago, Chile (Photo via Atomikaztex)
Sand poem at Santiago, Chile
(Photo via Atomikaztex)

GG: “Where did you get this idea from?”

DS:  “A few sources of inspiration. I am inspired by some of the poets that precede me in the idea of large poetry installations, primarily Raúl Zurita, a Chilean poet who is famous for writing a poem with a plane in the sky over Queens, and he’s also bulldozed a poem in the Atacama Desert in Chile.

I had a chance to meet younger Chilean poets [Casagrande:] who do these large scale installations with helicopters, dropping poetry, doing stuff in Guernica. I was super skeptical at first, it seemed like such a gimmick, and I just couldn’t imagine it being that cool, so I actually went with a poet from Sudan, who was newly exiled, to London to watch, and it turned out to be incredible. People were jumping through the air to catch these poems. I’d never seen people fighting to get poetry, totally unprecedented in my experience, but it was also a very powerful image.

Also, I was meeting with a friend, a visual artist, and we were talking about a totally different project. A friend of mine who works at the restaurant where we were eating was waiting our table. We were talking about other installations. I converted a candy machine to sell poetry; I’m very interested in this idea of differing delivery mechanisms for art. So my friend, who overheard us, came over and said “Poetry drone! Poetry drone!” And I said, ‘Oh my god, he’s got an amazing idea,’ and I went home and wrote it down.”

GG: “How do you plan to go about getting a drone? What are the logistics for getting your hands on something like that?”

Predator drone launching a Hellfire missile. (Photo via Wikipedia)
Predator drone launching a Hellfire missile.
(Photo via Wikipedia)

DS:  “I was surprised how few laws there are on the use of drones, because they mostly fall under laws for hobbies. It’s amazingly easy to get one. You can go online and get one right now. That’s kind of what really surprised me, is that they mostly fall under hobby laws. But if you Google drones right now, you could have one on the way to your house in 5 minutes. It’s remarkably easy. Also, the idea of what a drone is, what makes a drone, is simple. You’re not going to get a predator drone, although you probably could if you had the money to. It’s obvious what an economic endeavor this is, though, because we have yet to put laws on the book about who gets access, who can have one.”

This raised quite a few questions in my mind; David and I talked at length about the idea that anyone can buy a drone, and how this ties into the ongoing discussion about the way we use technology, how it is regulated, and ultimately how we determine the appropriate applications of any new technology.

DS:  “I think its happening: we’re seeing US citizens abroad killed by drones and especially on the local level, people are realizing the real implications of these devices. Police and fire departments get them for all sorts of applications; people are realizing that it’s time to start discussing this stuff.”

GG: “People don’t realize that the future is now!“

DS: “Yeah, I think that’s really true; technology is a lot faster and more efficient than our legal system, and people take time to catch up when things are evolving so rapidly. Art is the way of drawing attention to things without pointing directly at them, and I hope it makes the issue approachable.”

GG: “Do you plan to do this in other countries, too?”

DS: “Yeah, I’d love to do it at some festivals, wherever I am invited really. One of the best parts of my work as a poet is that I get invited to do readings and events all over the world. Just got back from a festival in Bangladesh, as well as a reading in Argentina; I’d like to take the drone with me wherever I go. I think there will be more interest in the idea once it has happened, and I’m eager to see where it takes me. I’m a little nervous about traveling with a drone though, I mean what happens at customs? What will they think of your drone?”

Poetry bombing over London (Photo provided by George Gill)
Poetry bombing over London
(Photo provided by George Gill)

GG: “How will the poetry be packaged? Will the skies of Pakistan be filled with thousands of little book-parachutes?”

DS: “That’s something I’m working on now, and talking with people who know more about basic engineering than I do, but I am fortunate in that i have a few antecedents like the guys who dropped poetry over London. I think the biggest thing about dropping something as ephemeral as poetry, and the idea is an extension of the symbolism, is to replicate the version used in London and produce these poems on special paper that is impregnated with flower seeds, so if it just lands on the ground, the paper degrades, and the seeds grow.

That’s actually the biggest practical issue in how the drone can be used, is how high it can go, because I’d love for it to be super high, and the poems appear from nowhere, but that’s not entirely possible. Its funny, when the Chileans dropped poetry on London from a helicopter, it took a little trial and error, they missed the first couple of times. They were dropping hundreds of thousands, so it was ok. I had a friend who was getting off the tube about a mile away from where it was supposed to take place. They had these bookmarks that acted as a rudder, and I will basically modify what they’ve done. But I heard from friend who was a half-mile away, riding towards the installation, and one of the poems hit him on the head.

Drone technology is improving all the time, models getting cheaper all the time, and I need to do more research. The model I’ve been looking at is built in South Africa and the reason I initially came upon it was because it was used at a music festival to drop beers with parachutes and I think it would hurt a lot more to get hit by a can of beer than a poem.

The bookmarks are designed to be planted or kept, and I suspect they’ll be kept, that people would keep them as a reminder. That’s part of the humanizing aspect: to give them a reminder. I think the thing about war is that it is mutually dehumanizing; not only to the people we are fighting against, but also ourselves. No matter what people think about the project, its merit is as a piece of art and a literary project; if it compels a single person to stop and think for a minute and in some way contribute towards that conversation and the humanization of others, I think its a success.

K2, the second highest peak in the world, is located in Pakistan, on the border with China. (Photo via Wikipedia)
K2, the second highest peak in the world, is located in Pakistan, on the border with China.
(Photo via Wikipedia)

Drones actually do have a lot of positive applications, even some cool ones, like photography. I was talking with a friend of mine who spent this past summer living in Palestine doing some writing, and you know you can actually hear drones, which is where they got their name. There’s a slight buzzing, and I was talking to him about this, because I had heard a form of oral poetry from Afghanistan, women talking about the buzzing of drones, and I couldn’t believe it because I knew they were so high up in the air. So I asked him, can they be heard? Surveillance drones? And he said yes you can hear them; it’s not very noticeable but once you hear it, you can’t stop hearing it when it’s there.

So there is that element, to take the fear away. There’s a novel of Afghan and Pakistani women, not all about drones, but a few poems specifically about them. But the reason that issue captured my imagination is there’s something about the invisibility of drones, the idea that they could come from nowhere, who knows, maybe there’s one above me now.

But that is what makes drones so terrifying, the idea that they could strike at any moment, and you have no idea, and it’s like our parents and grandparents doing drills in elementary school after the Cuban Missile Crisis, getting ready for death at any moment, and there’s a fear, a detachment that happens with this repetition that affects us very deeply.”

As interesting and compelling as David’s project is, it’s a shame that it is necessary. The people of Pakistan have never hurt Americans and as an American I am frankly embarrassed that we have gone so far in ignoring the limitations of our technology that innocent people have died at our hands, however far away. This is something we should all be fighting to change, and it’s a shame on us all that it has slipped under our collective radar, and continues unchecked. I wish there was some direct action we could take to stop this, but most Americans remain either apathetic or blissfully unaware, and so it falls to artists like David to raise awareness and prompt the tough questions that we should all be asking.

A country should never have to apologize for the actions of its government, and it’s a shame that we have to take such drastic measures to make things right. But I, for one, am glad that we at least have people like David who are willing to try.

Learn more about the Poetry Drone and how you can get involved here: