Video by Sean Logan | Multimedia Producer
Photos courtesy of Robert Poe
Justice studies graduate student Rob Poe orders a coffee and muffin every morning at Tempe campus’s Charlie’s Cafe in Hayden Library, where he reads before heading to his first class. But when the sun goes down, he grabs his gear and heads to one of many nightclubs throughout the Valley to spin darkwave and experimental music.
Poe moved to Arizona 17 years ago to find his way in life with the help of his parents, and the journey along the way has taken him down many paths.
“I grew up in Niagara Falls, Canada, and I still don’t have my U.S. citizenship,” he said. “I moved here in 1996 when I finished high school and was looking around at the time, thinking about going into an art program and almost got into comic books, doing comic book art, and at that time, my parents didn’t think that it was practical.”
Poe’s father directed him into the world of graphic design, which led him to attend ASU for his first undergraduate degree.
“It was right before the dot-com crash, and they were looking at graphic design programs, and they found one here at ASU at the (Polytechnic) campus,” he said. “So that was my first degree.”
Poe began working as a webmaster after receiving his degree but realized it wasn’t what he wanted to do with his life.
“I just kind of realized there was no way I was going to do that for any prolonged amount of time,” he said. “So, I went back to school for philosophy so I could be on track to teach, which is what I originally wanted to do out of high school, was to be a high school English teacher.”
After graduating with his second undergraduate degree in philosophy, Poe started thinking about graduate school when he happened to fall into the honors program at Barrett, the Honors College.
“I wasn’t an honor student, but I got attracted to that, because the philosophy over at the (Tempe) campus wasn’t always my favorite,” he said. “It was very analytic, and I butted heads a lot with people in the department in terms of where my politics and my ethics are on things.”
This experience led him to the West campus, where he was drawn to the communication studies program.
“It is kind of like a coded, philosophy, sociology, political science (and) interdisciplinary in terms of I was able to do what I wanted to do and focus on what I wanted to do and now it’s the same thing with my Ph.D.,” he said.
Poe’s former instructor Eric Ramsey said he thinks professors with varying backgrounds in politics benefit the University.
“I think that is one of the virtues of university education,” he said. “You have so many professors with different backgrounds.”
Growing up in Canada shaped many of the beliefs Poe has today, including his anarchist views, which began during his teenage years attending punk shows.
“A lot of those punk rock shows were anti-racist action benefit shows,” he said. “So there was the music on the one hand, and you still kind of see that today, where punk has its fashion, but there has always been the underlying politics and social attitudes about it, and one of them was a strong anti-racist component to punk in terms of fighting against not only racist skinheads but challenging the status quo on things.”
Once he came to ASU, Poe’s political views began to grow and change as he began flirting with political theory, he said.
Poe was first influenced by the leftist professors he encountered who were teaching the Communist Manifesto, which made his personal beliefs lean toward Marxism.
After studying and deciding for himself what he believed, Poe realized he was more of an anarchist than a Marxist, he said.
“I’m an anarchist for sure,” Poe said. “I’m really interested in history, the people, who (may) not necessarily call themselves anarchists, but people who are rebels, renegades, anybody who rubs against the grain of things.”
Involving himself with other anarchists in social movements throughout Phoenix led Poe to fully accept anarchism and steered him away from his previous Marxist views, he said.
“When it came down to me intervening in things and doing things in the city in Phoenix, the only people doing anything to me were the anarchists,” Poe said. “I befriended all of those people, and I am always open to being challenged and those people were challenging my politics. In the course of doing things with them in the city, I very much dropped any of my allegiances to Marxism or really kind of the left wing in general.”
He said it is important to practice his beliefs, whether in his everyday life or in the classroom.
Poe said it is important to him not to resemble an authoritarian teacher and to practice his own brand of politics, adding that he learns from his students as they learn from him.
His students figure out his politics by observing and listening to him in class, but he has never forced his views on anyone, he said.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever openly just come out and said, ‘Here are my politics,’ but I think students get a sense of it in terms of the questions I ask or the provocations I make on certain subjects, criticisms I’ll make on certain books that usually don’t get made within the department, and then I end the class reading about pirates and anarchists…,” he said.
The word “anarchy” is stereotyped in many ways, from movies to music, but Poe said he wants people to know what being an anarchist really entails.
Anarchy means without leaders and without authority in people’s lives, but anarchy is stereotyped as causing chaos and disorder.
“Simply, I think it’s just a matter of adhering to a principle of antiauthoritarianism in terms of feeling comfortable living one’s life upon mutual respect, mutual aid and recognizing that no one gets along in life by themselves and no one is an island unto themselves,” he said.
Poe’s class may be the first class a freshman attends, and he admits his image may be a bit shocking at first.
A thin frame, shaved head, dark tattoos extending down his arms and a prominent neck tattoo aren’t the norm for a university professor, but looks can be deceiving.
“It usually gets a few whispers in the class,” he said. “I usually start off the semester to make a point where I think it confuses them, because I’ll usually come to class in a three-piece suit on the first day or shirt and tie, because I like a clean-cut look, like early ’60s kind of tailored suits and things like that, but the tattoos are still sticking out.”
Poe said he strives to be passionate about what he is teaching and he hopes his students can tell how important the class is to him.
“I think that people will pick up on that if you’re passionate about what you do, and they will look past the tattoos, and it won’t be such a thing,” he said.
Creating music as A0n and working as a disc jockey under the name Tristan/Iseult, music plays a major role in Poe’s life, and like all the other aspects in his life, politics have played a role.
“I think everything kind of overlaps and feeds off of each other, and (goes) back and forth,” he said. “Part of my politics were influenced by all different things in my life, and a lot of my lyrical content now, they’re not explicit, and they’re not chanty and it’s not punk, but the underlying message there very much has anarchist undertones to it.”
Politics became involved directly with his DJing one night a few years ago, when he was taking requests during a punk-on-vinyl night at the Rogue in Phoenix, Poe said.
He was accepting song requests on the event’s Facebook page. One person asked Poe to play a Skrewdriver record, to which he took immediate offense.
Skrewdriver was an English band which started out as a generic rock-and-roll band and then became wrapped up in the National Front in England, which was an explicit white nationalist political party.
“I made a comment that if anybody came to the event with that kind of politics I would feel obliged to stop spinning and start a fight, because I just don’t have any patience for any explicit racist politics and for people who bring it out to public places,” he said.
The man requesting the album didn’t take Poe’s views the way they were intended, he said.
“The guy responded ‘Are you threatening me?’ and I said, ‘Well, are you a neo-Nazi?,’ and he said, ‘No, I gave up those beliefs,’ and I said, ‘We are all better off for your decision,’” Poe said.
The man kept pushing the issue and told Poe he was coming out to confront him, Poe said.
“I was like, ‘OK, and just know that I am explicitly looking to confront someone who was neo-Nazi,’ and if he felt threatened that’s fine, and I told him I was the DJ,” he said.
The man eventually showed up at the venue with a friend and Poe confronted them, he said.
“He came out with this huge 6 feet, 6 inches guy in tow,” he said. “I had actually written him a private message saying that I don’t have other people fight my battles, because there are a lot of people I grew up with in the SHARP movement, which is Skin Heads Against Racial Prejudice, and sometimes they are just as bad as the racist boneheads in terms of some of those people, depending on what side of things they’re on, they are just looking to go out and bust heads and run with a crew of people who are going to do that.”
Nothing ever materialized during the confrontation except the man’s girlfriend trying to provoke him, Poe said.
“I had my roommate with me who knows some of how those people will do things to instigate a situation, which is usually sending a girlfriend over to get you to be pissed off, and to be almost like you are threatening her so that it gives them a reason to jump in, but nothing ever really came of it and he never even said a word to me that night,” he said.
People have many different beliefs, and Poe said he respects all of them, but he doesn’t like when people come out specifically to make others uncomfortable.
After the incident, the confrontations were not done for Poe and his politics that evening.
A promoter at the event called Poe out and told him to stop being so political while he was performing. This left a bad taste in Poe’s mouth, because the majority of the music being played was political in nature.
“The (Dead) Kennedys, the Subhumans, I mean pick any of them — they are all explicitly political, and it kind of left a bad taste in my mouth in terms of that’s the fashion side of punk, and there’s an image that, well, I’m not interested in that side,” he said. “I’m interested in the antiauthoritarian side of politics of it, and I have the ‘I’m not going to do what you tell me to’ kind of attitude.”
Jeremiah Gratza, director of Arizona concert promotion company Stateside Presents, has had excellent experiences with Poe as a DJ and has booked him to open for many shows and play after shows in the lounge at Crescent Ballroom, including Darkside last week.
“Rob is very original, and he has excellent taste when it comes to darkwave and darker music without being too goth, and a lot of people enjoy it,” he said. “I like that he is experimental, progressive and always moving forward.”
Experience in Muay Thai fighting helps Poe back up his words and not be afraid to stand up to people who oppose his views, but that isn’t the reason he began training.
“Muay Thai was a form of martial arts that I always appreciated,” he said. “It’s an interesting balance of stamina, agility (and) strength to where it is not too much of one or the other and speaks to all parts of physical health that I like.”
Training with Rick Jones, who trained in Thailand and brought back his experiences for training, Poe garnered a new respect for the art, he said.
Three years of competing took a toll on Poe’s body, and he had to take time off after getting kicked in the leg too many times and barely being able to walk.
“I just got kicked too many times in the leg and then I came back to train a couple times, and shortly after that Rick moved back to Florida, so I haven’t trained since then, but I do incorporate it still at home, because I have a heavy bag at home hanging up and incorporate it into my regular fitness routine to not get too rusty with it,” he said.
The training has helped Poe during social movements as well by allowing him to run away from the police, if need be, or stand up against opposing parties in the streets of Phoenix.
“I think the first movements here that I got involved in were back in 2009,” Poe said.
A neo-Nazi organization, the National Socialist Movement, had come to Phoenix to rally for anti-immigration policies and this is what encouraged him to become more involved with different anarchist groups throughout the city.
The Phoenix Class War Council, a fanatical revolutionary anarchist group, had called for an “Inglourious Basterds” block, Poe said.
“It was based on the Quentin Tarantino movie of that kind of rewriting of history of that group that went out to kill Nazis,” he said. “So a lot of different people from everything, from like Code Pink to pro gay and lesbian and all these different groups that don’t like when Nazis come and march down the street, went out to challenge their march and demonstration.”
Social movements and political actions have made Poe decide to study how the city is being used for these events and is writing his doctoral thesis on ways to make better use of the space throughout the city.
“I’m basically looking at Phoenix, urban development in Phoenix and looking at the way Phoenix was designed as a city, and then reflecting upon my own experiences and political demonstrations in the streets of that city, and then looking at how social movements are policed by the way in which the city is designed,” Poe said. “Of course, that is always in connection with what law enforcement is doing within the city, but then looking at the way in which the city either helps or hinders social movements in terms of their growth, their traction, their ability to have some sort of cohesive strength.”
The Occupy Wall Street movement of 2011 showed him how different cities were having their movements and he saw the most radical ones were in Oakland, Calif., Poe said.
Oakland was having a more radical movement at the time, because it has had experience with these rallies in the past and the people involved in Phoenix were using the city in a different way.
“It was really disconnected and hard to get people together, because it is such a sprawling city, and then people have the habit of getting together in that kind of sense, other than for what I call really ritualistic marches where everyone marches in the same circle that every other social movement marches in to go stand at the capitol, which is sometimes vacant when you’re standing there, which doesn’t make any sense to me,” he said.
This drove Poe to look deeper into the issues and what was wrong with Phoenix.
“Why are we having such a difficult time, why are people so opposed to getting out into the street, and why are people so easily policed by the police in terms of what they have an imagination about what you can do with the space?” he said. “Whereas other cities where you see massive demonstrations, whether that be in the United States, or especially in Europe, where they use their city differently, and have a different relationship with their city, which I think is lacking here.”
Already being involved in many movements in Phoenix, Poe said he decided to write about the issue because he would be involved anyways.
“It is a lot of political action report back in terms of here is something that I am in the middle of and involved in,” he said. “I’d be involved in it anyways if I were writing about it or not, so let me write about it a little bit and hopefully provide some perspective to some people in terms of strategizing and tactics in the future.”
Having passion for all of the different aspects of his life allows for none of the roles to be looked at as a vocation or as various hats he must wear, Poe said.
“I like them all to bleed together,” he said. “The most important thing to me is a sense of consistency about my values, beliefs and principles on things where they would be reflected equally.”
Teaching and music are high at the top of the list when it comes to importance, but mixing music can be just as important when it is on his terms, Poe said.
“When the DJing is more about the music I enjoy and listen to at home, and I get to create an atmosphere where people will come and listen to music, as opposed to just consume it and dance, but that’s good too,” he said. “I like to dance a lot.”
All of the different passions stem from his life experiences, and he is looking forward to whatever will come next, Poe said.
“Everything is based on different desires and different passions I have about life, and I’m not sure what’s next,” he said.
Reach the reporter at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow on Twitter @joey_hancock