Elizabeth Soto's new Tinfish Press book, Eulogies, is significant for several reasons: it's a book about schizophrenia, the toll it takes on its sufferers and those who love them; it's about mapping minds, locations, and histories of affection; it's a contribution to Hawai`i's literature that is not "local" or "indigenous"; and its design (by Michelle Saoit) marks a first response to the writing. I'd like to address a more limited issue here, however. The long poem began in response to another poem; more precisely, perhaps, it began in response to a simple rhetorical move. The poem is Adrienne Rich's "Atlas of the Difficult World," and the move is that of stating what one knows, while claiming not to want to know it (is there a Latin name for this?). Rich's long poem contains the phrase "I do not want to hear/know" over and over, through several sections; I don't have the poem with me, as I'm on vacation and the book is in my office. But here's a scrap of the poem I find on-line:
I don't want to know how he tracked them along the Appalachian Trail, hid close by their tent, pitched as they thought in seclusion killing one woman, the other dragging herself into town his defense they had teased his loathing of what they were I don't want to know but this is not a bad dream of mine (ll. 45-51).
Rich's long poem participates in a long tradition of American epics, Leaves of Grass, The Bridge, and Paterson, among them. These poems map out an America that the writer and reader do want to know. But they also confront an America they do not want to know, one characterized by violence (actual and economic), -isms of many kinds, and the failure of individualism to guarantee happiness. "I do not want to hear/know," then, is at once certitude and concession. The writer knows, even as she expresses the desire not to know. Any words that follow the blunt statement testify to knowing: in this case, knowing that a man attacked a lesbian couple on the Appalachian Trail.
Elizabeth Soto's poem emerged in layers. The ways in which it emerged are fascinating to me, since I witnessed its growth from the beginning. Lyz began writing Eulogies in a "Poetry & Politics" class, where Adrienne Rich's book appeared on the syllabus along with books by Amiri Baraka, Jules Boykoff and Kaia Sand, Craig Santos Perez, Tinfish 18.5 writers, and others. Where most students were writing individual poems inspired by each of our writers, Lyz began writing a sequence about her late ex-husband whose schizophrenia led to his suicide. My recollection (always in doubt) was that her poem began with lines like these:
I do not want to know about sediment layers of substances found in your quiet veins, about spider scars coursing your thighs the undersides of your arms, about the awkward angled tilt of your head signaling the severed cord, about the blue smudged grey of your chilled skin when they found you | (17)
Lyz renders Rich's statement even more ambivalent with the enjambments after "I do not" and "want to know," which suggests that she both does and does not "want to know" about her late husband's drug use and the way in which he died. But Lyz also knows that knowledge requires both a speaker and a listener; "I do not want to know" is, in its way, too simple a statement, because it suggests the poet can know what she wishes to know. Lyz's corrective comes later on page 17:
I do not want to know if the unquiet lost breath if the unwanted visitors faded, if you knew oblivion was santuary, And they will not tell me |
The "unwanted visitors" brought by the illness will not tell her if they are gone, nor will the dead man speak to her. "I do not want to know" thus opens a passage whose very revelation is the impossibility of knowing certain things--about each other, about illness, about language, about love.
The lyric refrain that Soto adapts from Rich's poem is but one voice in her fugue-like poem. Other voices inhabit the poem's underworld, its footnotes, which point toward brutal facts like the one at the bottom of this page: " . . . the average life expectancy of people with schizophrenia is 10 to 12 years less than those without . . . " (17). Other footnotes inform the reader about anti-psychotic medications, the meaning of the word "map," quotations that "rhyme" with the poem. Some of these footnotes are themselves poems. Here is how Lyz lays out an OED definition on the bottom of page 18:
8) Translating fragments history [t-1. A relation of incidents (in early use, either true or imaginary; later only of those professedly true); a narrative, tale, story.
That this definition of history is "obsolete" does not prevent it from providing an abstract of what the poem does, although it is not "so long and full of detail, / as to resemble / a history in sense . . . ]" We read the fragments; we are left to intuit their history.
Like other recent and forthcoming Tinfish Press books, Eulogies is about mapping. At the book's center (and at the very center of the book) Michelle Soait has included a drawing of the human brain. In a previous draft, submitted by Lyz for the class, there was also a map of Belgium (where her late husband grew up). One of the poem's fragments is a love story that covers continents and ends on an island. Hence, a section added late in the process:
I have been dreaming of road map directions, and picture coded legends with a clear line towards sanity | The warehouses, holding inconvenient and untreatable, The factories, building chemical composites of maybe, have dissolved into myths |
where the "legends" of a map evaporate into the "myths" she dreams will be all that remains of mental hospitals. In this section the phrase "I do not want to know" transposes to an equally simple phrase: "I have been dreaming." Here the poem turns its cheek back toward its central sadness and looks toward a future where "dissolution" will be a marker of sanity rather than illness.
After I read from Dementia Blog at the University of Western Sydney in November, Ivor Indyk spoke eloquently about the elegy as a poetic form. I wish I could reconstruct his exact words, but he spoke of how poets are at once testing their craft in writing an elegy and also trying to remember (the word literalized!) one who has died. While the phrase "testing one's craft" (more mine than his, I fear) might seem to reduce the elegy to a test for the poet, not an expression of grief, there is a way in which they are linked. Lyz's writing away from Rich and into a place of her own grieving forms a significant subplot to the composition of Eulogies. Her re-discovery, to which she bears witness in her dedication of the book to "Erick, because there was also love," that there were layers beyond suffering, was aided (I suspect) by the many layers of composition of the poem. To compose the poem was also to compose a self who could meet the past not as its victim but as its envoy to us:
There is not that much between us small angles of separation | Look, there in the window reflected, we are almost the same | (43)
Joe Harrington has been torturing himself (in a good way) over blogs for quite some time, making and re-making taxonomies of the "form." Joe's a reflective guy whose mind runs toward reflexivity. In his latest post, he notes, "The web log, like other logs, is written with time in mind - and marks time's passage. So do journals and letters. In that sense, these are all reflexive forms that invite reflection on their reflexivity. And the temporality is not just backwards (in the format), it's forward (new posts)." So far, so good, in my book. Or perhaps outside my book. For, he writes: "In a sense, a book is private - one has to physically have it; it is enclosed between covers. It costs money and a lot of time to make it. The blog opens out to a much wider audience, and invites that audience in. Immediately. Indeed, it might double-back against the Institutions of Art, or open towards activism against non-art institutions - which is what Mark Nowak's blog does, I think."
I have a quarrel with Joe about the distinctions he preserves between Art and the Public Life, although I understand why he keeps them in play; they're the walls of the squash court in which we pound our definitions and deal with the crazy bounces that ensue. But the question of what is public and what is private is more crucial now than it was in the pre-internet past. My Ph.D. student writes about celebrity in order to write about herself; she refuses to "go public," finds that she can use the odd public sphere of celebrity to get at issues that obsess her. The resistance I feel to using such masks (see Alfred Corn's recent post) is a resistance that surprises me, as I used to maintain a zone of privacy even in what I published. Dementia Blog finished off that notion for me, the most private work I've ever written--private not simply for me, but also for my mother, who is the subject of the work. It's her privacy I wonder about often, even as I think that making her Alzheimer's public will do someone else a private good. (The squash balls sure are bouncing now, aren't they?)
For some reason, I keep thinking about the alphabet as a way to get at the private/public ricochet. It's not that Ron Silliman's The Alphabet sits rotundly on my poetry shelves, among other S's. And it's not that I'm currently reading new books by Mary Jo Bang (The Bride of E) and John Ashbery (Planisphere), both of which organize their poems according to the alphabet, and that I return often to Tiare Picard's twin alphabet poems from Tinfish 18.5 for their richness, but also because I've always found the alphabet to be an odd way to organize the world (hence the chaos of my own paperwork?) The alphabet is a public form; a trip to any library will assure you of that. But to organize one's work alphabetically is to render it private. Or that's my hunch. This has something to do with the differences between method and practice, or that's my further hunch. The boundary between private and public in what we call "alphabetical order" blurs in both directions: the private becomes public, but the public also becomes private, which is the more radical direction, because less expected. The order the alphabet creates is arbitrary, paratactical. It's the kind of order that links "Nixon, Richard" with "non-absorptive writing," as in the index to my book of essays. There's surely something there, but its logic, while powerful, is accidental rather than considered. Yes, writing one's memoir takes one's private life and makes it available to a public one cannot see or even imagine. But there is a significant way in which the public is terribly private, too, not simply in the way we absorb public events, but in the way public events affect our language, our way of thinking. Our uses of language can illustrate the way privatization comes to make public/common spaces mysterious, and not always in ways beneficial to the community.
One of the few times I talked to John Ashbery, a few of us were sitting in a bar in a Washington, D.C. hotel in the mid-1980s. Behind me were bookshelves, the kind provided in bars as decor, not for the sake of knowledge. There was a line of books on the shelf behind me, so I pulled one out, and discovered that I held one letter of a children's encyclopedia. Ashbery's eyes grew even bigger than usual, as he told us that he'd memorized parts of that encyclopedia as a child. That Ashbery's new book is organized according to the alphabetical order of its titles should come as no surprise then, especially, as one of his earlier volumes was also organized in this way. My first encounter with Planisphere (this is not a review of the book!) reminded me of first encounters with other Ashbery books. Over and over I start out utterly baffled by his books, only to find ways of access later. (I'm not there yet.) So the book remains private to me, in code, and yet organized with the efficiency of a librarian or a shopkeeper. Mary Jo Bang's book is even more self-consciously an alphabet book, with titles like "B is for Beckett" and "E is Everywhere" and "I in a War," the last of these titles one of many that wanders away from its first principle. "For Freud" might be a subtitle of this book, as there are so many references to the ur-psychiatrist. Freud is called out by his letter as surely as is Mao Zedong in the "Z Stands for Zero Hour" poem that ends Part I of the book. History emerges out of a single letter, the private code (which is the alphabet for each of its users) rendered public. History as accidental passage.
Tiare Picard's two poems, "L'alphabet" and "Sans les Isles," make an opposing movement. Rather than summon history out of letters, Picard shows how history has privatized the very language we use, and in so doing, has rendered great parts of it into code. What was once history is now hidden, inaccessible, organized by letter only. Hence, "L'alphabet" begins with a colonial story told via the method of the alphabet poem:
All bulldozers bully, clank down coral-crushed roads, eunuchizing lingo, and farting proper, dark smoke. (102)
The response, on the facing page, in "Sans les Isles," goes as follows:
b d z b y, c d c -c d d , c z , d ,d (103) [layout below]
While terribly difficult to decipher, this is a very public move, from one poem to the next. In fact, that difficulty is part of the poem's (sharp) point, for the second poem is what happens to the first poem when the letters of the Polynesian alphabet are taken away from the English. That the English language embraces (or smothers) Polynesia comes clearest when Polynesia is taken out of it. When the bulldozers are done with Polynesian islands, when development has paved over the land, what the land is left with is scatter, the "coral-crushed roads" of the language itself. The book's design, which mimics word game puzzle books, accentuates the effect, as word games are those places where what has been kept secret is revealed as language.
In each of these instances, what is most public in the poem or the book of poems is the method. Alphabetical order is public; it's how we organize knowledge. Monks and google have used it, as it's a- or trans-historical. What is private is the poem's content, even if the significance of privacy is very different, depending on whether you look at Ashbery or at Picard, at a poem that includes Freud because his name starts with F or at a poem that gets bulldozed by development, for reasons greater than the letter D. If C was a Comedian, this D is not, even if the poem is itself extremely playful. If method is always a public activity, then what method enables is less so. But the real blurring of method and poem comes in these instances, like the one in Bang's poems that invoke Freud and Mao because their names begin with F and M, or as in Picard's poems, where what is most public (development, what one cannot not see) effaces history (renders it private, cryptic).
I will now post this blog entry. It will appear in order of the day it was composed and "published" (another private/public blurring). The way in which this day made this post possible is something only I know, or think I do. But when I hit the "button" at the bottom of the "page," its arbitrary order may become less arbitrary to its reader outside the blog box. Time offers an arbitrary order like the alphabet's. It too is a private space, crow-barred open by the completion of this method. There.
I've taught "Poetry & the City" a couple of times now. Better to call it "Poetry & Place," since many of my students are not from Honolulu, but from places like Whitmore Village, an old pineapple plantation community outside of Wahiawa, or from Kane`ohe. One of the assignments that works best is to get students to take photographs of the place they live; the only stipulation is that they not be in any way touristic. Then they are to add captions to the photographs and post them on the class blog. We begin to get a sense of the histories of places that way; I remember one student from Waipahu who took a picture of an old general store that has, in recent years, become a Samoan church. Another assignment that proved even more valuable was to take a public bus (TheBus) and write about the experience. (This assignment has since yielded a forthcoming bus map publication of literature about TheBus and an honors thesis by Gizelle Gajelonia, namely Stop Requested.) Once of Gizelle's best ideas, that the bus is like a cathedral, never even made it into her work. Tinfish Press will be publishing her chapbook, Thirteen Ways of Looking at TheBus, in the Spring.
Like many of my assignments, the bus exercise was one I had not done myself. With very few exceptions, I have not taken buses since my first year in Hawai`i, which was 1990. But today my husband decided we would travel to Ala Moana Shopping Center in Honolulu from our home in Temple Valley as a way to show the kids how to get around. He's been working with our son on taking the bus for several months now. So we took the 65 to Bishop and King Streets, then a 20 bus to Ala Moana. On the way back, we took the 57A to Alakea and King Street, and then the 65 back to Ahuimanu. Between trips, we spent time at what used to be the biggest shopping mall in the United States, where a manic counter-recession seems to be occurring.
The bus leaves Hui Iwa Street and winds around, only to stay put next to the McDonald's for 13 minutes or so. Then it goes down Kahekili toward the Hygienic Store, a local landmark notorious for its reputed drug market, then right onto Kamehameha Highway, past Hee`ia Pier and Point and down the coast back to Kane`ohe. Once through Kane`ohe, the bus turns up the Pali Highway and into town (Honolulu). We were seated toward the back of this bus where
--a young man in jacket and sunglasses was chatting up a young woman in tank top and skirt; his voice was slurred as if he'd been in an accident or had been drinking--he talked about drinking, something about the cops, too--and he showed her a picture of a woman he'd liked on his cell phone, and later a video off his laptop. Another young man sat at the back with slatted earrings through his pierced ears, on and off his phone. After he left, another young man sat in back, talking on his phone, while the young woman fell asleep.
--near Times in Kane`ohe a man ran to get on the bus. White, in his 30s, with a neat mustache, he was carrying a large military backpack and a camouflage jacket, which he put in the seat in front of my husband and daughter. He fumbled for change, turning down Bryant's offer of a quarter, and returned to his seat. He pulled out a sushi roll, the kind with the plastic wrap around the nori, and ate it. Then he pulled out a quart of milk and started to drink it, and then he pulled out a plate lunch and started to eat that. Somewhere in there, Sangha pointed to the seat next to the man who was hungry, and I spotted the nose of a dog that had a bone in its mouth, just peeking out of the backpack. It was a black terrier, to whom the man fed bits of his sushi roll. Then he pulled a brush out of the pack and energetically brushed the dog. Every so often the man would turn to look at the woman in the back (her conversational partner had gotten off at Windward Mall). His eyes were a bit too big, perhaps. There was a story. He got off before us, and the dog, hunting for crumbs on the floor of the bus, almost missed the stop. She was an unneutered animal, looked like she'd had puppies recently.
--Ala Moana Center Makai Food Court: an old white man wearing a Santa hat and a bib wandered around, in his mouth a pacifier. A few minutes later, he came the other direction, a baby bottle hanging from his lips.
--Alakea Street bus stop on the way home. A young man started offering us advice on buses to take, thinking we were tourists. My husband promptly started reciting the bus schedule chapter and verse. The young man was from Kailua, on his way to the airport to try to get a job pushing old people around in wheelchairs, being "friendly to people," which he said he always was. But the guy in headphones and a slant cap pacing back and forth ("fucking going up and down," he said) made him nervous. The guy was overweight, appeared too old for his gangster get-up, hardly dangerous. A homeless woman sat down, asked the young man what he did for a living. He said nothing right now. "Have you trained yourself?" she asked. Yes, he did handyman work, he replied, but business was slow. "Is it Easter?" the woman asked, chomping on ice from a Starbucks plastic cup, when she wasn't taking a drag off her cigarette. She wore a black dress with floral patterns on it, could have been on break from work. "No, it's near Christmas," the man answered, then got on his bus to Hickam/Airport, along with the gang banging wannabe. The woman wandered away, talking about Easter.
--A woman with Down Syndrome, her hair curly and graying, got on at that bus stop. During the trip she leafed through a photo album (family pictures?), smiled, and stuck her hands in her mouth, as if to retrieve something she'd lost there. She got off in Kane`ohe, and trudged beside the bus, likely heading home.
--[late addition]: two overweight teen-age boys get on the bus at Windward Mall. One pulls out a paperback (looks like sci-fi fantasy, something about thieves) and starts to read it. The other guy sits with a Borders bag on his lap. The first guy says, "I can't believe you don't like to read--always watching the tv! The first book I read all the way through was a few years ago, and I loved it!" He settles into his book, while his friend sits looking out the window.
--The bus wandered back over the Pali, beside the golf course, through Kane`ohe town, and down Kam Highway. A white-haired guy in broad brimmed hat and swim trunks got off the bus with a six-pack slung over his shoulder in a plastic supermarket bag. Bryant said, "going fishing!" When I remarked that he lacked a fishing pole, Bryant said, "perfect." The bus turned left at the Hygienic Store, went as far as the sewage plant, then took a right. On Hui Ulili Street, two women got on, one older, not terribly mobile, the other tall, lanky, assisting her. The second woman had large upper arms, a long heavily powdered face and bleached blonde curls; her legs were large, thick. We smiled as I and the family exited the bus to walk home.
A friend who came through Honolulu recently noticed the homeless problem on the way in from the airport. There are Vietnam Vets begging on Nimitz Highway under the H1 freeway; there are homeless people in tents in parks from Makaha to Kapiolani Park and beyond. Today's trip did not offer witness to that level of struggle. But it did offer much else, the promise of stories that might explain something, not only about the person seated in TheBus, but about the larger community. I look forward to my next trip on public transit and to next semester's Poetry Workshop (if it makes...) which will concentrate on poems of place.
Life, friends, is complicated. My husband has two fathers: one who raised him, the other whom he met when he was a teen-ager. My daughter has a brother and a sister, but lives only with her brother. What I call my daughter's sister's mother is a question I've not yet answered to my satisfaction. My husband's cousin's wife discovered she was adopted when she was a teenager. One of my first cousins was adopted; one of my first cousins once removed was adopted. I became my mother's legal guardian (adopted her) when she could not care for herself. If blood can be said to run thicker than water, then so does history. H.L. Hix is that rare poet who is equal parts historian, journalist, archivist, and singer. He loves to ask questions, as anyone on the receiving end of his questionnaires knows. Wyoming may be cold, but it contains a buzzing inquiry factory in Laramie. So who can blame him for latching onto the story told him by an artist friend, Petra Soesemann, who discovered, at the late age of 49, that her birthfather and her dad were not the same person? Hix's project is built from questions he asked his friend, documents she gave him access to, and into a genre that has no name I know. "Biography . . . of a sort: biography whose first fidelity is not to facts, but to imagination, biography that loosens reality's hold, releases the life into lyric. Nothing attested, everything sung," he writes in "About This Book." But it's more complicated than that, for the book is written in two voices, that of the interviewer (each poem begins from a question) and that of the teller (using the first person pronoun). So, while Hix cannot be called a ghost-writer (even as there are quite a few ghosts in the book), he is not really a biographer, either. Is this an assisted-autobiography? A fusion of the biographical and autobiographical impulses? Hard to say.
Hix is doing something formally innovative, then, with the age-old story of loss, secrets, and identity. This is no fictional narrative, like George Eliot's Silas Marner; nor is it a series of autobiographical poems like those by Jackie Kay or Jennifer Kwon Dobbs or Lee Herrick; nor is it a "straight" adoption memoir or a "gay" adoption memoir like one of my favorites, Dan Savage's The Kid. The writing in Hix's book is clear, but between the questions and the answers is a silence that seems often to break itself. Like the subject of the book, perhaps, the reader discovers only slowly and fitfully what her story is, or what her stories are, or what her stories might have been. The silences between a daughter, her father, mother, and (missing) father are better defined as the book goes on. Less palpable are the silences between interviewer/poet and interviewee/subject. What is the effect of that silence on the emotional affect of the work, on our understanding of the writer or of his subject? These are questions impossible to answer, hence as powerful as the questions that animated the book itself.
If secrets are shadowy, and yet can be brought to light, then Hix lets us know in his headnote that light is itself a changeable thing. He quotes C.L. Hardin's 1986 book Color for Philosophers: Unweaving the Rainbow, as follows:
"An object turns out to have a transmission color, a reflection color, an interference color, etc., no two necessarily the same, and each color is a function of detection angle as well as of the spectrum of the incident light."
The passage from which this passage comes is about the complexity of assigning colors to objects; perception is more complicated than we think. The perceiver assigns color as much as the object perceived has one. As Hix writes late in the book, "Color is the comparison, not the light, / a property of the brain, not of the world" (70).
And what tests perception so much as family resemblances and differences, personal and global histories? (One of the most disturbing stories in the book has to do with an airplane seat mate who tells the artist that he killed two Russian prisoners in World War II, and has plans to kill his wife. At the poems end, she relates, "He gave me his card, so I gave him mine" (48). Petra's blonde mother dyes her hair black to match her daughter's: "The real reason is obvious to me now, / as it must have been then to everyone else / in that small town where before then she'd been blonde" (71). Skin and hair color mark the resemblances that we ascribe to family. To change them makes us more so?
The ease of telling murderous secrets on airplanes meets its absolute counterweight in Petra's family silence. We find out, over the course of the book, that her German mother, young and married to her father, had had an affair with a Turkish man, which resulted in the birth of Petra. The two fathers had agreed never to reveal the secret, and Petra was raised by her mother and German father, who moved to the United States and settled in Ohio. For 50 years, the secret was held, past the death of her German father; when it broke, she met her Turkish father and new relatives. And then sat for her portrait with Hix, who asked her the following questions (and more). Some of the questions circulate, returning later in the book.
Where did you grow up? Did you ever suspect anything when you were growing up? What is your favorite song? You must have loved your dad. Where does your name come from? How do you feel about having new sisters? I see now where your features come from. What have you kept secret for years?
The necessary confusions of Petra's situation result in questions left unanswered, or questions answered in ways the reader might not expect. To the prompt, "I see now where your features come from." the response is not about the "father" (birth) but the "dad" (adoptive). "Dad loved cars, would have studied engineering, / but they could send only one son to school, so / he stayed, worked in the family bakery" (10). What we see is a photo of father and mother, who "look so happy to me here," not of the missing father, whose facial features were the subject of the prompt. The adoptive father is fascinating to me (probably for the obvious reason that I'm an adoptive parent). Not once did he break the secret to his daughter, not in anger or in jest. If he kept an enormous secret from his daughter, he also gave her his love.
He'd worn it out, the ragged cotton dress shirt he gave me to paint in in kindergarten, English all day in school but German at home. I wanted to sleep in that shirt, to wear it always, I cried when they made me take it off. I tried to talk, but knew only how to paint and cry. To this day a man in a white shirt makes me speak in primary colors and tears. (6)
Her returned devotion is such that she wants to eat the shrimp her dad loves, even though it makes her violently ill. But she suspects something. The girl's inconsolability, projected onto the sound of a boy crying down the street, sounding like the train that wakes her every night, leads her to travel west and then to South America, where she learns about the light in Peru, and finally to a meeting with her "father" (as he's called, to distinguish him from "dad").
Perhaps it's Petra's age (49) when she finds out about her origins; perhaps it's the intermediary poet writing her story for or with her; perhaps it's their combined character, but the book reveals very little of the anger a reader might anticipate. There's much more sadness here, sadness that she could not have shared some of her own secrets with her dad while he was alive; sadness for her grandmother, who has forgotten everything; sadness in the note sent from her mother to her Turkish father, in which she wrote, "Her eyes speak of you." Where Hix considers the story to be "instantly mythical," I would weigh in on the side of history. What Hix has written is a lyrical history, at once personal and political (the shadows of World War II inhabit this book as surely as do personal secrets).
As I read Hix's book, I can't help but think of Dana Forsberg's work "What do we really know?" Jaimey Hamilton has written about it on the Tinfish Press website. In this work by Forsberg, herself a Korean adoptee, a forensic police artist interviews friends, acquaintances and relatives of various subjects, including Forsberg herself and Konrad Ng (better known these days as Barack Obama's brother-in-law, and also an adoptive parent). Based on their descriptions, the artist made a series of sketches of each subject. Needless to say, everything changed. Where we usually ascribe identity to image, here images are so various that each person's identity proliferates. Which takes us back to Hix's head-note about the "incident light." To which we might add Wallace Stevens's poem, "Description Without Place." "Description is / Composed of a sight indifferent to the eye," writes Stevens. The "theory of description" "matters, because everything we say / of the past is description without place, a cast / Of the imagination, made in sound" (Collected Poems 345-46).
My students quarrel with me about cliches; what if they think in them, they ask? One student wrote that writing cliches was "the cross he had to bear." I think he understood the joke, though. To see through the joke is to cast light upon the problem. To shed light on something is to enable us to see it, not as object but in its relationship to what we think is true. An on-line description of an exhibition by Petra Soesemann and Nancy Fleming adds, "Together, they endeavored to present a body of work that 're-packages' and displays ordinary expendable cardboard boxes in an unexpected light." Hix's "incident light" cannot be fixed, but sets our sights on the light, as well as the story (recycled as it is) that the light fixes itself upon. In so doing, Hix unveils some of complexities of one family's life, but also presents us with a way to write poems without committing the violence so common to lyric poems, when the poet becomes his subject, rather than entering into conversation with her.
Yesterday was the second reading in the M.I.A. series at the Mercury Bar in Chinatown, organized by Ph.D. student/poet Jaimie Gusman. I'll digress first, then move on to the heart of the matter. When I asked the bar owner if owning a bar was like small press work, he said, yes, in both cases you need to define your mission. His was to set up a bar under the aegis of Mercury (a mercurial place), where the music was not too loud, and there are no televisions. So, while the Chinatown alleyway in which it sits is none too inviting, the bar itself is. The first reading in November had featured readings by Ph.D. student, Ranjan Adiga, Jerrold Shiroma, a poet new to Honolulu, Joseph Cardinale, a Ph.D. fiction writer, whose novel is forthcoming from Fiction Collective 2, and myself. Oh, and then there was the performative homage to Michael Jackson by a former flight attendant and current student in fiber at UHM, who somehow managed to make the aftermath of 9/11 funny. Last night featured work by Anjoli Roy, an M.A. student in fiction and non-, Ken Quilantang, M.A. fiction writer, Jade Sunouchi, M.A. poet, and Tom Gammarino, whose new book, Big in Japan is just out. The readings were punctuated by the work of an improv duo (In Your Face Improv, or IYFI) that worked off prompts like "sheep" and "run" in hysterical fashion. [Photo: INFI, with Chris Riel, foreground, who MC'ed the event]
Two things strike me as significant about this reading series. The first is that there is an audience for writing in Hawai`i that is not exclusively local or indigenous. You could call this "graduate student writing," if you wished. But there has always been writing in Hawai`i that cannot be classified in the usual ways--those that fit the magazines and/or the academies here. This series confirms that power of that kind of writing, even as it sometimes mixes it in with local writing (Ken Quilantang's writing is very much of this place, but benefits from being contextualized in this way). The second is that the range of writing going on in the graduate program is wide. Ken Quilantang's work is gritty, sometimes violent (last night's story contained passages about a young man beating his father with a baseball bat, for example), while Tom Gammarino is making more postmodern moves, using a character named "Brain" to pirouette brainily through concerns like love, religion, and cross cultural desire. Joseph Cardinale's story last month about a boy who falls from a tree and then speaks from the dead oddly complements Jade Sunouchi's novella in poetic prose that features a dream sequence in the underworld of San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. In that dream sequence, the protagonist, Aster, confronts the wrath of Malinche (who slept with Cortez) over the incursion of tourists to Mexico. Ranjan Adiga's story was about barely suppressed homosexual desire in contemporary Nepal; Anjoli Roy's non-fiction piece about a farflung relationship and the rats who interrupted it (literal rats). Jerrold Shiroma presented slides of his Shakespeare sonnet project, in which he takes the texts of sonnets and makes them, by "photoshopping them like hell" into stunning visuals. And mine on dementia seemed out of place in a bar, except that so many of my conversations these days are about demented parents (and grandparents) that all imagined boundaries of decorum appear artificial.
Good news, then, that Jaimie has gotten some funding for the series. It's a wonderful addition to Honolulu's literary scene.
Yesterday was also harvest day, the last day of my Literature & Creative Writing (273) and Form & Theory of Poetry (410) classes, the day final projects were due. Here is a photograph of my new collection of chapbooks. First the pile of chaps on my living room floor, then some details, taken by Allegra Wilson, who is hoping to reconstruct her book based on photos she took yesterday.
It's too early to perform valedictories on the semester, although the shape of Form & Theory (English 410) seems clearer now than it did in August. The ways in which syllabi morph from "hope" to "experience" to "history" is perhaps worthy of its own entry, but not on this clear, cool morning. Instead, I'll talk about particulars.
The two books assigned for this course were Rothenberg and Joris's Poems for the Millennium, volume one and Tyrone Williams's On Spec (Omnidawn, 2008). I was using the former for the first time in a decade, and the latter I included more on a hunch than anything. But the books enter into call and response. The anthology considers native chants and Duchamp's urinal to be more or less of a piece, while Williams's book re-appropriates the avant-garde in the interest of (among many things) an American culture and history that is largely African.
Millennium One makes an argument I like (that texts not usually considered to have affinities do have them) in a way that makes me uncomfortable (by placing them together in a big book as if the conversation were over already). Surely there are necessary differences in intention, in context, between a native chant, a blues song, and F.T. Marinetti! I'm reminded of a video I watched at the Museum of New South Wales in the mid-1990s, which looked into the rage for aboriginal art that had swept the New York art scene. Aboriginal paintings were seen as "abstractions," and drew enormous prices on the market. But, when asked what their paintings were about, the artists said they were maps of the land they lived on. So, while it's not necessarily a problem that westerners love the work for its "abstraction," it is a problem when the works are not adequately historicized and acknowledged as coming from a very different impulse. Intention matters. And culture provides the necessary context for any artist's intentions.
Tyrone Williams's On Spec provides a provocative bookend to Millennium One. Williams appropriates the European avant-garde to his own purposes. His book is more exploratory and experimental than conclusive, more a record of process than a set product (this is not the say the poems are not sturdy constructions). He puts a microscope to the language we use when we talk about American history, race, sports, art. He employs vocabularies of economics, the law, legislation, music, and many more to peel layers off the scab of bad faith in language. As he wrote to one student on our class blog: I use "experimental" the way most artists do--not as a way of confirming something I already know or suspect (as a hypothesis) as a scientist would--but as a way of testing the limits of language itself, how far one can push the envelope until one enters "noise." And since noise is the current name for a type of ambient music popular among adventurous DIY "musicians," I think even language that is noise might be interesting as a form of communication...
One of the ways in which Williams's poems operate is through allusions to language that is not included in the poem. Poetic allusions grow increasingly difficult to discuss in the classroom, as students lack a commonly held canon of texts in which to lower their buckets and pull up lines and images. But even more difficult are non-literary allusions such as those Williams makes in "To To Speak," the tenth section of a longer piece, "Ask-Vubba: A Decalogue." A poem that begins from "Eecchhooeess" contains a chamber of them:
The concave dish of reason for a few waves Convoluted, licentious ears. Eecchhooeess
from now. A hand-set type. Letters rise up against the word but remain embedded in their plates
of relative license (cf. Freedmen's Bureau): collagen, silicone and lipowhite: Resolution 1195: "a leader
in the quest for civil rights and justice" [scale and base invariant]. A see-and-feel-
through Voice for Good. (119)
"Licentious" echoes forth as "license," sonically. The "Voice" emerges from dishes, as from type faces. Williams takes poetic license to make his poem echo outward into history, where the parenthetical "Freedmen's Bureau" enters literary and cultural history in the echoes emanating from W.E.B. DuBois's 1901 essay on that organization. That essay begins, famously, with the sentence: "The problem of the 20th Century is the problem of the color line." Many pages later, it concludes with the same sentence. Once the color line rises from the page, the reader is met with a triad of beauty products, which render the skin younger looking, or "white," as in "lipowhite." Without transition, we are referred to (Georgia House) Resolution 1195, which you can find here, passed in 1996, honoring Ola Mae Quarterman (what a figurative name that is), who was sentenced to 30 days in prison in Albany, Georgia in 1962 and expelled from Albany State for sitting at the front of a public bus and purportedly using the word "damn" to the bus driver. In the language of the resolution, she is a "leader / in the quest for civil rights and justice" (119). The "see . . . through" "Voice / for Good" evokes the seeing-through Williams has just shown us of the language of race and recompense in the 20th century American South. Echoes grow outward, but do not "solve" problems, just as Resolutions in state legislatures cannot resolve not so ancient histories of racism. There is little restitution in recognition; I quote from Resolution 1195. Williams leaves this language out.
1-25 NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED BY THE HOUSE OF 1-26 REPRESENTATIVES that the members of this body recognize and 1-27 commend Ola Mae Quarterman-Clemons for her bravery, for her 1-28 leadership, and for the important role which she has played 1-29 in the history of the civil rights movement in Albany and 1-30 the State of Georgia.
Williams here is quoting without quoting. To one of my students he wrote that he considers quotation to be "a form of homage." But not all homages are equal; in the poem I just cited the quotations (both there and not there) are sometimes honorific, as to DuBois, and sometimes ironic, as to the authors of Reolution 1195.
In one of his responses to my students, Williams wrote about place. He began by talking about the place of poetic tradition. Then he moved to physical places, including his home town of Detroit. What he does in the comment that follows reflects ways he investigates language as place, words as places, and how he works to unname and rename places that have been known. To "know one's place" is a loaded term for any African American person: The moment we think we know our "place," the moment we accept the names and histories of a place, we have framed, bound, that place and some--not all--of its properties. What remains "outside" our frames is precisely what we cannot know. That non-knowledge is, fortunately, if "we" are lucky, the space of future definitions of a place. Thus, "my" Detroit is not the Detroit of others, contemporaries (like Susan) and young relatives (my nephews and nieces).
Definition as possibility rather than as point of fixity. Non-knowledge as potential rather than absence. That Williams's work looks so far forward in its stripping back of language is perhaps what I most admire about it. On Spec is not easy; my class and I came to several screeching halts after extensive discussion. But the book is extremely valuable, both as a much-needed move in the history of avant-garde art and as a gesture forward.
[Legos not included with the book; they merely hold the cover down]
It's a poetry reader's cliche, no doubt, but books do often come along just at the right time for their readers. Nicolas Bourriaud's book, The Radicant, found me in Berkeley over a month ago; this week, Louis Cabri's fine work of editing Fred Wah's poetry arrived in the mail from Wilfrid Laurier University Press in Ontario. The book is deliberately teacherly. As the General Editor of the series writes, "Our idea is to ask a critic (sometimes herself a poet) to select thirty-five poems from across a poet's career; write an engaging, accessible introduction; and have the poet write an afterword" (vii). Hence the reader, whether college student, general reader, or academic, approaches the poetry with her explicatory seatbelt firmly fastened.
Louis Cabri offers a marvelous map of Wah's concerns, which include form (questions of lyric and collage); Chinese Canadian history; local language and writing; interactions between the non-aboriginal poet and aboriginal texts; the influences of William Carlos Williams and Charles Olson; "improvisation" and "ratiocination" as modes of composition; the relationship of theory to poem (thoem); and, finally, the significance of sound to Wah's poetry. Cabri ties together many of these concerns when he writes that "The riprap of Wah's poetry learns from the grand collage epic, but takes off with the proprioceptive lyric. His riprap offers the juxtapositional openness and loose-endedness of collage, without collage's grand-historical, presumptive scale. Wah's riprap offers lyricism--without lyricism's I-centric, i-dentical iteration of poetic voice" (xiii). [Riprap is loose stone.]
["We are different," p. 25]
A poetry of loose stones permits the poet an honesty that the grand lyric or epic would not. Thus Wah's use of aboriginal rock art, from which he writes improvisations (not translations), is neither reverential nor appropriative. And Wah's extended piece about Tiananmen Square opens into a personal meditation on his father. It is this last piece that most captured my attention, namely "Dead in My Tracks: Wildcat Creek Utaniki," written during the summer of 1989. The piece is partly prose journal, partly poem, a meditation on self, on family, on the place where the poet is camping, and on global histories. The mix hits us early:
While we set up camp during the afternoon I'm in a global mode, you know, the simultaneity of the world going on right now. Paris. Kyoto. Beijing. The pavement of Tiananmen Square, the hotlines sniffing out the dissidents, CBC bulletin even email media drama of the last two months still in the air, even up here, radioless, only antennaed in my bones (our name is bones, and your name is my name). (54)
["Dead in My Tracks," beginning]
The poet pivots back: "from the lake to the treeline / all crumbly under foot at the edges / cruddy summer snow melt / soft wet twig and bough-sprung alpine fir" (54) and then back to world: "borders such thin thoughts (apples of our eyes) / selvage yesterday's Tiananmen" (55). See the composition by field above for a better sense of what the poem looks like.
The river and the "television's human river" collide, and the very rock becomes subject to its object: "shale shard weep shard shale weep shale weep shard shale weep" (57). The jet streams overhead come to the poet from Beijing, stitchings in his pixelated tapestry. This movement back and forth begins to seem ceaseless, although the poem is relatively compact. The poem ends where the stones and the soldiers in Beijing become one "thano-stone" (61), a relation that is still not of oneness but of two thoughts compressed. The collage of information, lyric, and observation, then, cannot join together without temporal and geographical seams left to show. Nor can the poem do anything but end; there are no conclusions to be drawn, except that we have been brought to a point where the wilderness cannot free us from global urban spaces of conflict.
The book itself ends with "Ripraps (Louis Cabri) and Afterwords (Fred Wah)." There's nothing new here, perhaps, except insofar as the collage moves from the poet's voice outward, permitting access to the critic's voice. To this reader, Cabri's most astute commentary comes in the third Riprap, on meaning, where he notes a difference between Gary Snyder's use of Chinese sources and Wah's: "By contrast, Mountain enacts mountainness, and difference. Mountain has little to do with Snyder's sinophilic identifications and thematic treatments. Merely to put them in relation like this is to render them falsely equivalent projects. Mountain is not a project engaged with the ancient Chinese poetic tradition--as was the case for many progressive poets since the end of the Second World War and for many eurocentric modernists before them" (68). Ah, but the surprise here is that Wah responds by acknowledging the importance of Pound and the ideogram to his own method. "'Movement, at any cost,'" Olson had reminded us, as Wah re-reminds us. Like Wayne Kaumalii Westlake in Hawai`i, Fred Wah is a modernist with a difference; one hopes that they (and significant others) point us toward a future poetics of negotiated, rather than enforced, differences.
As I left Sydney, it had reached over 40 degrees Celsius, or what my internet converter tells me is over 105 degrees Fahrenheit. I was in Australia to give talks on Tinfish Press at the University of Western Sydney and Monash University, as well as readings from Dementia Blog at UWS and Collected Works (Poetry) Bookshop in Melbourne. I arrived with a suitcase full of Tinfish publications, and left with a suitcase full of Giramondo books. Along the way I saw some dear friends, including Hazel Smith and Roger Dean, Anne Brewster, Pam Brown, and Ann Vickery, Mike Pianta and their three children. I also met some great people, from academics to poets to cab drivers; heard some young poets and older; went to a dance recital and a poetry launch; got tours of cities and beaches; learned a lot about jazz and computer music; experienced the dark side of Aussie culture on a Saturday evening train; and sweated through a wonderful farewell. I'm still in the throes of jetlag, so the post may be even more anti-narrative than usual! I don't intend to write a straight travel piece, but capture a few moments of the trip, as well as make a few recommendations for things Australian to read.
--My neighbor on the plane to Sydney was Australian, but lives in Mililani; she travels often to Australia. Confessed that her husband was piloting the plane. She dictated a list of Australian items to buy, things she loved to get at Woolies in Sydney, just off the plane. I wrote them dutifully in my copy of Daniel Tiffany's new Infidel Poetics, a book about riddles, poetic obscurity, the vernacular, and nightlife. So, underneath the last two words of Tiffany's index (two columns), "working-class philosophes" and Zukofsky, Louis, I have written:
Billy Tea & Nerada Coles Supermarket bread mix in a box Wett-X licorice from Darrell Lea Shop TimTams lolly aisle violet crumble bar veet (hair wax) Elastoplast
I didn't buy any of these items during my week in Australia, but the words remind me how far from American English is Australian. Oh, and above the last page of Tiffany's index I quoted the man sitting behind me, who asked his seat mate, "Does Australia have its own money?" before telling her a long story about traveling to Calcutta.
--Hazel Smith has a booming laugh. She has performed all her life, as a violinist, a poet, and a digital media artist. She grew up in England, graduated from Cambridge, and moved to Australia in 1989 with her husband, Roger Dean, whom she met when she was 14 and he 15, in the UK National Youth Orchestra. She is author of the amazing book of creative writing pedagogy, The Writing Experiment, and of The Erotics of Geography, book and cd-r, from Tinfish Press.
--Roger Dean is a polymath (though I think his birth year is not quite right on the link). He is a biochemist who ran a Heart Institute, a double bassist, a pianist, a composer of jazz and computer music, a researcher in music and cognition, a former Vice Chancellor and President of Canberra University. I expressed regret that I was not more musical and he told me, "none of us does everything." But I wondered.
[Hazel Smith & Roger Dean]
--My taxi driver from UWS to the Sydney airport was from Afghanistan. When I said I live in Hawai`i, he talked about Obama. Of the high expectations for this president, he said, "even the prophets could do nothing quickly." He had a degree in Public Administration from Creighton University in Nebraska, had returned to Afghanistan, realized things were crumbling, and had moved to Australia with his children. "Wars are created," he said, and told me they were made for money. "Do they know who he is?" he said of H. Clinton and Obama, who think Karzai can get rid of corruption. He liked Reagan, though Bush 1 a bully; his judgments went down from there. He took me to the wrong terminal, but who was to know that the plane to Melbourne left from the International Terminal?
--Michael Farrell is a Melbourne poet; he had kindly invited me there. Like many Aussie poets I know, he was deeply influenced by the New York School, Frank O'Hara in particular, though Farrell also experiments with collage, appropriated language, other slightly more avant-garde techniques. His new book is A Raider's Guide. He is getting a belated Ph.D. "for the money" (what a laugh I had about that one)--three years of a grant from the government. He has gathered about him a group of very talented younger poets. Those who read with me were Aden Rolfe, Bella Li, Claire Gaskin, Duncan Hose, Jal Nicholl, Joshua Comyn, and Sam Langer. Sam laughed all the way through Dementia Blog, which I enjoyed, as the book is (oddly) funny.
--Ann Vickery is an amazing literary critic, author of Leaving Lines of Gender, a book about women and Language writing in the US, and a newer book about Australian women poets. She's married to Mike Pianta, a scientist who loves Legos, checks his Legos blogs and website daily. Their three kids appeared since last I saw Ann and Mike together, but their cat, Puck, remains from my 1996 visit.
--I met Tom Doig on the plane from Melbourne to Sydney. He's 30, has an MA in Creative Writing from Melbourne, specialized in Hitler Humor and wrote a play on Hitler and David Hasselhoff, called Hitlerhoff. Originally from New Zealand, he's passionate about aboriginal issues, largely ignored in Australia. He's a friend of Aden Rolfe, whom I read with at Collected Works.
--Ehsan Azari is an Afghani academic, author of Lacan and the Destiny of Literature from Continuum. He came to my reading and remarked that my "muse is outside yourself, not inside, like Ashbery's." He'd read The Poetics of Impasse in Modern and Contemporary Poetry, which fairly blew me away. Like the next poet, he is an exile who spends a lot of time in the Writing and Society Group at UWS.
--Muslim Al-Taan is an Iraqi poet, in and out of the hospital, who writes poems about southern Iraq and includes melancholy songs from that region, which he sings in their original language. He wants to write about Maya Angelou. He comments at the Poetry Foundation blog here.
--Ivor Indyk is an Australian editor and publisher. His press, Giramondo, publishes poetry and prose from Australia. I returned home with a box of books he's published, including one I especially like, by Adam Aitken. More on that in a minute.
--Kate Fagan is a musician, poet, literary critic (whose dissertation was about Lyn Hejinian's work). She teaches me the phrase "bitch pivot." She asks the inevitable, uncomfortable question about the white editor or teacher who presents the work of a non-white author as "experimental." Says she's thought long and hard about it, as she thinks of Lionel Fogarty's work as experimental. He does not. I suggest that if you present the work as experimental through one prism, but not others, there may be an opening.
[Judith Beveridge, Joanne Burns, SMS, Ivor Indyk]
--Judith Beveridge is a mainstream Australian poet, whose launch I went to at Gleebooks. I was surprised to find out that poetry launches feature a long introduction and a very short reading by the author. The man who introduced Beveridge said things like, "she shows us who we are by writing about what she is not" (meaning that this book is about fisherman, and she's not one), that her book is a "Mardi Gras of simile" and that her poems are primarily about poetry. Beveridge added that she likes "amenity with irksomeness" and "comedy with torment." I liked the long list of fish she read, in one of her poems; the others sounded very much in a lyrical, conservative tradition.
[Anne Brewster at The Gap, near Bondi Beach, Sydney]
--Anne Brewster travels the world talking about aboriginal writing in Australia; she is a prominent ficto-critic, a term Australian literary people have for a mix of autobiography and criticism. She showed me bats over the belfry in Sydney. (One of the things I love best about Australia is the sound of the place--birds sing and screech in tones never imagined here). The bats are often electrocuted by the wires, she says, but no one much likes them, so no measures are taken to protect them. Large black bats swooping over the streets. She fed a cockatoo while I sat on her porch; it was curious, hungry, but somewhat shy. Other cockatoos play games with her partner, Peter; when he held food behind his back, one cockatoo gently grabbed his big toe.
--Pam Brown wants to be taller than I am. She is a wonderful poet, but she is short.
[Pam Brown & SMS]
--Adam Aitken is a Thai-Australian poet who still carries an English passport. He is one of the finest contemporary poets in Australia, though his publisher, Ivor, assures me he gets very little attention. Adam's newest volume is Eighth Habitation, from Giramondo. It contains an amazing sequence of poems about Cambodia, where Adam spent at least a year. Like Pam Brown, Adam writes in a lyrical and yet vernacular tradition that contains just enough bitter truth to keep it from dancing with daffodils. "Who knows if suffering's inquiry lead you anywhere / but back to suffering?" he asks in "Forest Wat, Cambodia." His visit to Tuol Sleng netted him his poem, "S21," which concludes with an uneasy comparison of the poet to the documentarian of genocide:
I too have to write, wondering where I am on the chain-link of paranoia connecting a tyrant to a farmer's son who was handy with a shovel; someone like the accountant across the corridor doing the company's credit/debit sheet-- the guy with all the stories, who knew how to file, the one who said he'd done his job protecting his nation with a few blunt instruments a fountain pen, and a beautiful signature. (106)
I hope to write more in the future about this poet of "The Anti-travel Travel Poem," but for now leave you to find his work.
--Sydney to Cronulla train, Saturday evening, 8 p.m. A man gets on, assisted by someone who then steps back on the platform. He sits two seats ahead of me, across the aisle, picks up his cell phone. "I just busted the screw and the wires that hold my ribs together, dear, and wonder if I'm in danger of the wire cutting my kidneys or something. I thought the doctor said no physical activity to mean no contact with other people, so I did this doing chin-ups. Yes, someone's waiting on the other side, and I told them my wife's a doctor. Love you." Click. A drunken guy gets on the train with his "girl," confers in a passionate whisper with the man who says his "chest fell out." Money is exchanged. Something about a gang attacking him over his girl. There's violence in the air, if only spoken. (The next group to get on, four young men, walk by with "her elbow was shattered" as their opening line.) The man with the broken chest hails his new friend, "you're a good man, mate!" and hobbles off the train. He is very thin. Veins wobble on his temple. He is last seen talking to a security man on the platform at Hurstville.
I'm home now and cooler (it's the rainy season here), happy to see family and cat, but with hopes for keeping ties to Australia and to Giramondo Press. I hope to have more on that in later posts. In the meantime, thank yous to everyone above, and to John Hawke and Simon West at Monash, and to the Writing and Society Group at UWS, in particular.
I'm off to Australia (Sydney and Melbourne) soon to talk about Tinfish and to give a couple of readings from my own work (as it were). So the blog provides a way station to thinking toward the issues I want to touch on there, issues of editing and location, language and translation, networks and distribution (the former always easier than the latter). I apologize to readers for the inevitable repetitions involved in thinking about how Tinfish books talk to one another, and why those conversations might matter. Nicolas Bourriaud's The Radicant provides an apt field for thinking these issues through, or if not "through," then wandering around these issues rather than blundering into them. As I did in my last post, I will use Bourriaud's book as a generative backboard for thoughts about Tinfish. Contemporary wisdom, like so many things, suffers from a short lifespan, fly-like, and precarious. One of Bourriaud's key words is "precarious": "the lifespan of objects is becoming shorter and shorter," he writes, as consumerist culture feeds off the disposable thing, rather than the heirloom. (During my recent trip to California, I heard tomatoes referred to as "heirloom," which seemed to be a good thing, though it suggests old age and attics to me.) In the art economy, old things can still be precious: I think of the old printing machines at the California Center for the Book, or the recycled materials Tinfish uses to make some of our covers.
As with all such states, precariousness has its down-side, and its up. Bourriaud refers to "a positive precariousness, or even an aethetic of uncluttering, of wiping the hard disk" (85). Hard to see the positive when the hard disk being wiped involves one's job or one's way of working or one's traditions of knowing. But if that wiping can become a process of "editing" (99) in art, rather than one of random and violent cutting, perhaps we're onto something. In any case, Bourriaud suggests an aesthetic of wandering, in which the artist becomes what he terms a "semionaut." Which brings me to bullet-points (not to instigate a violence on my own text here) about Tinfish Press. On wandering itself:
***Our next full-length book, Remember to Wave, by Kaia Sand, includes a guided walk through Portland, Oregon. This is a walk that she has taken, and led. The walk is at once across the contemporary city and into its (hidden) past, so that the observer is shown not simply what is there but also ghostly presences of what was. The histories of Japanese-American internment and of African-American containment emerge out of the city as she walks it, and as her words walk across documents related to these historical moments. Barbara Jane Reyes walks San Francisco in Poeta en San Francisco, encountering homeless Vietnam vets, malign presences to her as a racialized Filipina-American, but living reminders of a past Americans largely want hidden. Hazel Smith's long poem, "The Body and the City," from The Erotics of Geography, presents a woman who walks the streets of a city, seeing it in various ways--as dream, as deconstruction, as "post-tourism," as a female geography, and as a historical place (she reaches back to the medieval city).
***For those who do not walk through the city, there are those who are transported on TheBus in poems by Ryan Oishi and Gizelle Gajelonia (in her parody of Stevens in Tinfish #19 and in a forthcoming chapbook, 13 Ways of Looking at TheBus). There are the diasporic poets, Yunte Huang, Linh Dinh, Caroline Sinavaiana, each engaged in an archeology of cultures and possible selves.
Bourriaud quotes Claude Levi-Strauss: "'a journey occurs simultaneously in space, in time and in the social hierarchy'" (123). A journey in space is also a trip into memory. The time-tourist also has responsibilities.
On language / translation:
***The precariousness of local languages, as evidenced in Lisa Kanae's Sista Tongue and Lee Tonouchi's Living Pidgin: Contemplations on Pidgin Culture. Languages that travel, but with difficulty: Jacinta Galea`i's Aching for Mango Friends, about a girl who moves back and forth from Samoa, where her family is from, to Seattle, where she is educated in the American way. (She does this with an awareness of the problems, but without the bitter nostalgia that characterizes some post-colonial literature.) Craig Santos Perez recently reviewed the chapbook and commented on the use of Samoan words and phrases within the English text:
"Although some may read this as an exclusion, I read it as an intimate inclusion into another’s native space. Once I surrender the desire to translate, the untranslated naturalizes the foreignness of my relation to the characters. Semoana does not worry about others not understanding; instead, she speaks Samoan because she is Samoan, affirming that she needs to translate her cultural identity only to herself."
***And so the refusal to translate, which one finds more strongly yet in Barbara Jane Reyes's Poeta en San Francisco. I sense that she is now more willing to translate, but respect her decision in this book not to. Extended sections in Tagalog and Baybayin, as well as frequent "lapses" into Spanish, create a difficult reading environment that (at least in echo) enacts some of the difficulties of colonialization and immigration.
***Second language English, like Linh Dinh's, or that found in Goro Takano's new BlazeVox book. The barriers to comprehension are smaller than those in BJR's book, but still pronounced. So that the reader much do the work of translation from near-native to native-English. Like riding on cobblestones; you get there, but not so smoothly or easily.
***Hazel Smith's "translations." "My heritage, though you may not realize it, is tangalisingly mixed. I have a few loose ends in Lithuania. But I've never travelled there, and couldn't find my way around if I did" (27). As Bourriaud puts it, "In a human space now completely surveyed and saturated, all geography becomes psychogeography" (120), or an erotics thereof. Paul Naylor's Jammed Transmission, an effort by an American poet to communicate across time and space with a Japanese Zen Buddhist text, contains in its very title, an admission that such transmissions / translations are never direct.
***Craig Santos Perez's "hesitations." In from unincorporated territory, translates Chamorro words, but often only a page or two after they appear in the text. The reader, who reads about an island in the ocean, must circulate back and forth in waves to read the book well. There is no linear progress in this book, which is made of intersecting sections and in which languages come into contact, but are not immediately comprehended.
These are linguistic translations, which aid and stand-in for larger translations of culture. (I have not addressed the "translations" that occur when artists add to Tinfish books, creating a first response to their content.) These are much harder to accomplish by publishing a small number of books; the weight of representation is heavier on our three books from Samoa (all of them by writers who have spent much of their lives in the United States) than it is on our California books. Translation is not a given, and this is one problem Tinfish faces. To what extent do our American readers "get" the books we publish from elsewhere. Do what extent do _I_ get them? Conversely, what can be gained through this not-getting, if it is respectful and alert to possibility, rather than to closing down. To movement and multiplicity, in other words, not to sitting still? Open questions all! That these books are all engaged in a similar wandering (whether geographical, linguistic, spiritual, sexual) only makes the books and their reception more complex.
***There is also a more comic wandering, typified by Gizelle Gajelonia's parodic translations of American poems by Stevens, Bishop, Crane, Ashbery and others, onto O`ahu's geography and into its Pidgin idiom. This inter-textual wandering posits O`ahu as the hub, and American poetry as the periphery. Wallace Stevens flies into HON and is transformed into a local poet. No more a 747-poet, intruding on another space and happily flying away to write about it with authority, Stevens is kidnapped, his language taken, translated, and he is then welcome into the local. Appropriations reversed, fresh networks created--not out of newness, but the circulation of the old according to new weather patterns.
Finally, for now. Toward the end of the book, Bourriaud posits an island model for thinking, post-post-modernism and post-post-colonialism: "a new configuration of thought that no longer proceeds by building great totalizing theoretical systems but by constructing archipelagoes. A voluntary grouping of islands networked together to create an autonomous entity, the archipelago is the dominant figure of contemporary culture" 185). Not all islands are so voluntarily networked, of course, as evidenced in the uses to which Guam, the Philippines, and Hawai`i have been put. But Bourriaud, ever the optimist, would use the island map as evidence of a "struggle for diversity," rather than a shutting down, colonial-style. These are islands as openings, not islands as bastions, fortifications for someone else's armies. "The alter-modern is to culture what altermondialisation is to geopolitics, an archipelago of local insurrections against the official representations of the world" (185-86).
If we can take this model as our own, as prospect if not as fact, as hope if not as clear possibility, then Tinfish is one of its most literal enactments, wandering as it does in a Pacific archipelago characterized by local resistances to globalization, but also by poets' efforts to circulate, walk, migrate, take TheBus ceaselessly, make networks between books, between languages, between cultures.
Barbara Jane Reyes has posted a third installment of statements by small press editors on Harriet's blog. Links to the other two can be found at the end of my previous post.
At the risk of sounding precious, I'll post a quotation from Barbara Jane Reyes's blog, which she put out as a way to generate a valuable conversation. The quotation is by the editor of Tinfish Press, and goes as follows:
"My frustration at the moment comes of the fact that no publisher can demand her customers read the press as well as its authors. So the conversations we mean to get going are sometimes overlooked when people buy only work by Pacific writers, or Buddhist writers, or Asian American writers or Bay Area writers (for example). But the publisher may have died (Roland Barthes style) with her authors."
While respecting the needs of communities to organize along lines of gender, ethnicity, national origin, class, and so on, I'm also looking toward a third (fourth, fifth . . .) way, one that is not either nor or. Nicolas Bourriaud states the problem this way: "Between modern universalism and postmodern relativism, it is said, we have no choice" (The Radicant, 14). I'm fascinated by the way he addresses the way old paradigms tend to flip over, changing the actors involved, while maintaining a master narrative, where power and prestige remain centered, rather than diffused--accumulated, rather than shared.
Bourriaud gets closer yet to the problem I'm trying to articulate in response to Reyes's question when he writes about aesthetic theories born out of the "cultural postcolonialism" as "in their most dogmatic form, . . . [going] so far as to obliterate any possibility of dialogue among individuals who do not share the same history or cultural identity" (25). Bourriaud worries about what he calls "postmodern aesthetic courtesy," which silences critical conversations between western and non-western authors.
I'm less interested in critical readings these days, or in who is allowed to do them, than I am in positive interventions. Where there are missing voices, perspectives, my sense is that we (publishers, editors) do better to try filling them with new sounds than to shut down those who are already talking. Conversation works better than talking down. (I write this with an ironic smile, as I am also a critic.) Given that adding voices is not always a courteous act, perhaps this is one way to get away from over-deference. But again, that's not my kuleana. What I do want to avoid is the isolation of writers and audiences that I sometimes see when I go to readings in Honolulu. There's the crowd that attends Hawaiian poetry events, the crowd that goes to Bamboo Ridge readings, the Wayne Westlake readers, the Asian Settler Colonialism group, the slam poets, the Art Academy types. Rarely do these audiences cross over. I seem to remember that they once did, but perhaps that's an hallucination on my inner eye of memory. Thus, Bourriaud's citation from Claude Levi-Strauss, who died just yesterday, has resonance: "'The one real calamity, the one fatal flaw which can afflict a human group and prevent it from achieving fulfillment is to be alone'" (36).
Filling gaps in rather than accusing others of failing to do so is one way to acknowledge that the future is as important as the past, that origins are no more sacred than are the places we want to get to from here. Hence, the forging of connections between (overly) carefully delineated groups of writers strikes me as necessary. "It is a matter of replacing the question of origin with that of destination," Bourriaud writes. Later he writes of the importance of the "itinerary, the path" (55), and the need for movement. Now history, too, is a kind of movement. We need not let the past go in order to imagine a future.
Bourriaud is big on translation. "Translation thus appears as the cornerstone of diversity" (65). Translation is negotiation, is relation, is acknowledgment of difference. It is objectivism to the smothering forces of subjectivity. Small presses that devote themselves to translation, on and off the internet and the page, are doing readers a great service. What is lost in translation gains us another voice, one we cannot quite hear on its own terms, but which can bend us toward a new understanding ("new thresholds, new anatomies," as Hart Crane wrote). That bending process reminds me that we mustn't assume what is being translated is solely a text. It is also the reader that is translated, in conversation with the text. If we hold too closely to our existing "identities," we cannot be translated, cannot communicate effectively, cannot create alliances with others.
If texts are identities, then how much better it is to read more than one text at a time! That's where I return to the notion of reading presses instead of single texts, and of reading presses that are as devoted to differences as to samenesses (though we need both for the conversation to happen). Then we arrive at a more interesting mathematical equation. "Translation is a kind of pass: a deliberate, intentional act that begins with the designation of a singular object and continues with the desire to share this singular object with others" (68-69) If too many books and too many poetry audiences are singular (and in so many ways), then translation suggests a way to make community happen with new energies. Acknowledging that members of minority communities often do not want to share their intimate conversations with "dominant" ones, the writers from each community can still share more finished products and begin from there. It matters less where we start tracing our itinerary than it does starting on its noisy chaotic path.
How these conversations (as presses rather than as singular books) can begin is a question Barbara Jane Reyes is asking on her blog. Ideas float around as to how to "market" such conversations, as perhaps we must. Rusty Morrison suggested that Tinfish put slips of paper in its books that suggested other books to read to continue the conversation. Craig Santos Perez suggests a discount of 25% for following the suggested conversation. Maybe this is one way. But BJR also asks this question about responsibility:
"am wondering then if it’s the independent publishers, or if it’s the authors, or if it’s both together somehow, who are responsible for confronting and challenging these conventions. Certainly, this is something I am finding my indie publisher respondents saying: certain things in the literary establishment (and academic literature departments, and other departments which use literature in their studies of culture and history are included here) need to change."
So the answer may involve advertising copy, but is surely larger. Academic disciplines have been created to investigate only certain kinds of communities, whether ethnic or aesthetic or both. Teachers use xeroxed poems instead of books. There's an atomism at work, sometimes necessary to create a coherent syllabus, yes, but also a danger. We need to look at literature as a larger, incessantly moving, set of objects, subjects, not as any manner of stillness.
For more on indie publishing issues see BJR's guest blogs at Harriet: here and here.