Sunday, November 27, 2011
Local Literature is Dead. Long Live Local Literature! R. Zamora Linmark, Janine Oshiro and new writing from Hawai`i
I used to torture my students by asking them to define the word "local." They would quickly realize the pitfalls of talking about the word, especially to someone like me who, by virtue of her monolingual standard English and her pale face, was resolutely not local. For "local" usually referred to someone of Asian or Hawaiian descent who grew up in Hawai`i and spoke da kine Pidgin English (more properly Hawaiian Creole English). It was also a class marker, indicating someone who was working class, rather than the wealthier haole (outsider, white person). But I'd ask the question because we'd be reading "local literature," or poems, stories, novels, plays, by writers like Eric Chock, Darrell Lum, Gary Pak, Marie Hara, Lois-Ann Yamanaka and others. Knowing the definition allowed us to explore the ways in which these writers used local culture and language, sometimes pushing against its boundaries, but usually referring back to the plantation days, when locals and haole were set apart. Bamboo Ridge Press was the primary purveyor of local literature; the term grew to be defined by a certain style, content, and manner. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, this was a revolutionary move; by 1990, when I arrived in Hawai`i, it was still seen as suspect to teach the stuff. It just wouldn't fly in New York, which was how you defined "universal."
Lee Tonouchi was once a budding local writer, the rightful descendant of Eric Chock, Joe Balaz, Rap Reiplinger and the other comedians. Tonouchi burst on the scene in the 90s as a funny writer who insisted on writing only in Pidgin; he famously got his M.A. in English at UHM writing only in Pidgin and then taught at KCC and HPU in Pidgin and then wrote essays about being a Pidgin speaker and a dictionary that archived Pidgin words and phrases. He was a second generation Bamboo Ridge writer. They published his book Da Word, which took local literature from the plantation to the local mall, where most people had gone after statehood and the demise of agriculture in the islands. His Pidgin was infused with phrases like "it's da bomb," whose origins seemed more continental than Hawaiian. But still, here was the local, transmogrified.
Tonouchi's new book is called Significant Moments in da Life of Oriental Faddah and Son (Bess Press). He will launch the book this Wednesday. I've read the book, as I was asked to write a blurb for it (it seems dozens of us were!), but it's been a while. I'm not going to use this space to review the book's content, but to remark on the way it's being publicized. The local is dead. Even if Lum begins his remarks with the word "local," as in, "Locals know that we are Orientals, not Asian Americans which is why we could never speak of ejaculation, losing a mother, or enemas to our Oriental Faddah. Tonouchi speaks what we never said but wished we had to our own father, mother, and grandparents." But then the vocabulary shifts; even though Lum will end his blurb with an assertion that Tonouchi "speaks for us all," most of his blurb refers to Tonouchi's Okinawan roots: "His work is more than a confessional, a treatise on Okinawan pride, or just a tribute to his ancestors. This crafty humorist captures the innocence and wonderment of our youth trying to explain the world in the kind of twisted logic that seemed to make so much sense at the time. Check out his explanation of why Spam is the SUPER Okinawan food." In the "About This Book," we read that, "it's the essence of being an Okinawan in Hawai`i." In the brief bio, we read that Tonouchi is "one full-on 100 percent Uchinanchu yonsei."
This is not really news. The term "local" was always problematic, never as inclusive as its proponents claimed. Furthermore, some of Hawai`i's writers did not want to be included in it. After a mid-1990s confrontation between Bamboo Ridge and critics who claimed (with justification) that the journal published mostly local Asian writers and largely ignored Hawaiian and Pacific Islander writers, Bamboo Ridge began putting out issues devoted to local Korean literature, local Filipino literature, and--finally--Hawaiian drama. The Hawaiian journal `oiwi was born, and Hawaiian language and culture really took off at the UH and elsewhere. Since then, Bamboo Ridge has published local Asian, Hawaiian, and white writers (Ian McMillan, at least, though not as white) in recent years. McMillan, oddly enough, may have entered the field as one of the last "local writers," since there is as yet no "white writer" category here. If "local" was not a pie that everyone wanted to claim, this new pie was sliced relentlessly. But Tonouchi had been Da Pidgin Guerrilla for so long, so strong an advocate for the language that marked the local as the local, that it's hard to see him breaking out the ethnic marker. He's now Okinawan.
While the breaking-up of local literature was perhaps necessary, the way it happened is not without its own problems. And so what becomes of "local literature," now that it's something of a dead (or at least somnolent) metaphor? As one local writer said to me once, it's not entirely a good thing to take a category that created a cross-ethnic group and defined writers according to where they were born and raised and what language they spoke, and to chop it up into so many new segments, defined by nationality, ethnicity, blood. Where did local literature go? Might we want to recuperate some of its power to the world we're living in, which is not tied to the agricultural plantation, but to the tourist plantation and to international capital (as the APEC summit showed us recently)? I think it may be possible, if we re-frame the local as something more like glocal (awful word) or at least as a literature that looks off-island for inspiration and--yes--for content, argument, and audience. Something like Linton Kwesi Johnson's work (hardly cutting edge at this point!), which addresses itself to the world in a local language, or like some of the slam poets in Hawai`i, who address world issues like global warming and violence from their perch in Honolulu. Many, if not most, global problems exist here--are often magnified by our isolation and small size--so why not take on globalization, climate change, linguistic and species extinction across the boundaries we so easily assign ourselves? There are also those "universal" issues that have taken such a beating, like existence, old age, dying, death, survival.
I have two very different books on my desk. One is by a prominent writer who grew up in Hawai`i, wrote an important book while a student at UHM, and then moved away. The other is by a lesser known writer (this is her first book) who grew up in Hawai`i, left for many years, and has now returned. The first writer, R. Zamora Linmark, writes about culture, language, queerness; the second writer, Janine Oshiro, writes about loss, death, the ecstasies or discoveries that trauma makes possible. Neither one is a local writer, according to the old definition. And yet they offer what might be termed the global-local, or the diasporic-local, in the case of Linmark, or the spiritual-local, a place-bound wisdom writing, in Oshiro's case. I do not want to make too grand an argument based on poetry found in these two books, but I'd like to suggest that they may point us in a direction that is neither "local" in the old sense nor "ethnic" in the newer one.
Linmark's writing contains the higher quotient of the (old) local in it. He writes in Pidgin, often, and about growing up in Hawai`i. He offers us Manoa graveyard and Thomas Square, the UH Warriors (ne Rainbows), their coach, Filipino plantation workers. [That link is to a blog post I wrote on Linmark's response to Coach McMackin's slur against homosexuals in a press conference at Notre Dame.] He translates Frank O'Hara's encounter with the sun on Fire Island into an encounter with a coqui frog near Hilo, Hawai`i. He plays with Lorca, but sets the poem in Hawai`i. He also writes about the Philippines, often in verse that more resembles Robert Browning's writing than Lois-Ann Yamanaka's; his dramatic monologues have a lot of the Last Duchess in them. There's something old-fashioned about many of Linmark's poems, not so much in their content as in their craftedness; he makes his poems well. But Linmark's new book, Drive-By Vigils, published by Hanging Loose Press in Brooklyn, New York (ah, he's made it to New York City, after all!), as were his first two volumes of poetry, is not an instance of local literature. It is something else. It's also a book that includes Hamlet, Montgomery Clift, Charles Bukowski, meditations on growing older (turning 40), Anderson Cooper, world travel, and many many other topics. We could frame the Hawai`i poems using the global ones as markers, or do the opposite, but neither direction quite works. Linmark lives in all these locations, actual places and identities and languages, and he's hardly alone in that. If he hears Lorca in the voices of local boys, then Lorca is there.
Janine Oshiro doesn't name her places in Pier (Alice James) but Hawai`i is one of them, Iowa another. Portland is in the mix, too. There's an oblique reference to Hawai`i's plantations in "Intermission," which is more about peeing than about relations between ethnicities or classes. Her uncle speaks to her as she pees in the cane field.
"Say excuse me, girl,
before you go in these fields.
You never know what came
before, you never
know who's there." (42)
Here, Hawai`i's agricultural, economic history is not fact, or story, but a haunting. Instead of making the move much local literature did, that of recounting just what DID come before, just who WAS there (even if it exists in the imagination of those too young to know), Oshiro moves into the realm of spirit. Her poems come out of the death of the poet's mother when the poet was a child. The house in which they lived is appropriate to the subject of haunting, spirit, because it's set in a climate in which everything comes apart, no matter how material it might be. In "Relic," she writes about the impermanence of her mother's life in terms of the impermanence of the things in her mother's house:
An astonishing number of
harmful things can happen
to objects made out
of paper: foxing,
excreta of insects,
lux--that is to say,
our bodies rust. (31)
She reverses the field of metaphor. It's not that engines are like us, but that we, like engines, come apart. Oshiro grew up in the back of Ahuimanu Valley (here she is on the porch of that house) where I often take bike rides. It's an area where everything is always moist with humidity, rain. Mold, mildew, these are cousins. If they're not cared for, houses sink into the earth, their single-wall wood constructions precarious as thought, as the categories we invent, consume, and then throw away. They become relics, which means they no longer serve practical purpose, are rendered holy.
Neither Linmark nor Oshiro is a local writer; Linmark's roots are in Honolulu, Manila, and San Francisco, while his shoots spread to Spain and elsewhere. Oshiro's roots may be here, but her poems do not name this place, do not speak its local vernacular, seem more interested in its spirit than its substance. These are not critiques but possibilities. Hawai`i is at once a location--one fervently self-attached, at that--and the nexus of many other locations, actual and spiritual. What Linmark and Oshiro show us, in very different ways, is how we might begin from Hawai`i to include other locations, other languages, other ideas in the frame this place offers us. It's an exciting move away, and yet back, exclusive and then in- . In another, similar, context (and with more polemical force than I can muster), Stuart Kelly writes, "Scotland might be about to enter the world. Hopefully its newest writers will want to see what the world has to offer." Substitute Hawai`i for Scotland and you might be onto something.
My hunch is that Lee Tonouchi's new book, while seeming to re-define him as Okinawan, will prove more expansive than the PR promises. While Tonouchi is moving into narrower ethnic territory, his work is gaining in emotional force. Where he used to write about going to the mall, the difficulties of speaking Pidgin, and made fun of local foibles, he is now writing--for the first time, I think--about his mother's death when he was a child. In that, and in other ways I look forward to discovering at Wednesday evening's reading, I suspect his work has more in common with Janine Oshiro's than one might think. The after-life of local literature may be something more akin to world.
Wednesday, November 23, 2011
"In God's name don't think of it as Art": On first (belatedly) reading _Let Us Now Praise Famous Men_, by James Agee
To give them as they were and as in my memory and regard they are. If there is anything of value and interest in this work it will have to hang entirely on that fact. James Agee
When I put James Agee's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men on the reading list for Spring, 2012's Documentary Poetry course, I had not yet read the book. I am only two-thirds of the way through as I write this. More precise than almost any book I've read--the lists of animals, of clothing, of furniture, are astonishing--Agee's style cycles between Whitman and Faulkner and a rural Ginsberg, between Objectivism and raw subjectivity. He ushers in C.D. Wright's South decades before she began to write her prescient books. Reading it feels at times like being a hamster in a wheel; all the pressure is to move forward quickly, traveling back again and again to a starting point that disappears as quickly as it reasserts itself.
I expected the documentation; what I did not expect were the extended, sometimes self-corroding, sometimes transparently self-justifying, episodes of poetics. It's a self-defending artifact, doing and then reasoning about the doing. I want to think more about this reasoning because it opens a space from which to teach documentary poetry and prose. More than that, Agee brings together the actual, the ordinary, the factual and the spiritual, the intangible, the sacred, in ways few other documentary poets do. Using a word introduced to me by Leonard Schwartz, I will say that Agee is a "sobjectivist," finding subjectivity in the objects of the southern tenant world, and a need for precise, objectivist description in the persons of that world. If he loses the political force of using the few to represent the many, and so to press for change, he gains the moral force of thickly describing particular places and the people who fight to live there. While acknowledging that the ambition of his project takes him outside the provenance of language, he writes: "yet in withholdings of specification I could but betray you still worse" (89).
Nowhere does the perceived gap between material fact and spiritual presence seem as great as in situations like the those Agee describes, inventories, catalogues, details, worries over. He is writing about people who are dirt poor, whose houses offer only partial shelter against the elements, who do not own the land they work or most of the proceeds from it. To find beauty here can seem condescending, demeaning, naive. How to make it otherwise is one of Agee's central projects. Here he describes himself as a "cold-laboring spy," who
shines quietly forth such grandeur, such sorrowful holiness of its exactitudes in existence, as no human consciousness shall ever rightly perceive, far less impart to another: that there can be more beauty and more deep wonder in the standings and spacings of mute furnishing on a bare floor between the squaring bourns of walls than in any music ever made: (117)
Beauty to a tenant farmer is either impossible or it's a decoration taken from advertising and applied to the walls near the fireplace. Agee devotes a page and a half to the "pretty things" the Ricketts put on their walls. Ad copy tries to sell you expensive things, but it's cheap art. Agee is not, as he tells us over and again, interested in art; he wants some notion of the real to come through in his writing. And that real is beautiful, more beautiful than art. And so the houses are beautiful:
It is my belief that such houses as these, approximate, or at times by chance achieve, an extraordinary 'beauty.' In part because this is ordinarily neglected or even misrepresented in favor of their shortcomings as shelters; and in part because their esthetic success seems to me even more important than their functional failure; and finally out of the uncontrollable effort to be faithful to my personal predilections, I have neglected function in favor of esthetics. (177)
The moral problem becomes clear later, when Agee asserts that the house's beauty is set against its "economic and human abomination," but "that one is qualified to insist on this only in proportion as one faces the brunt of his own 'sin' in so doing and the brunt of the meanings, against human beings, of the abomination itself" (178). There's no purity here, no Wallace Stevens's-like elevation of poverty into abstraction. It's as if, in Agee's terms, poverty descends rather than ascends into beauty. And that's a problem. Agee's hatred for "reformers" is perhaps due to a sense that they, like Stevens, abstract their focus rather than materialize it. He refers to this as the movement to "Improv[e] the Sharecropper" (189). On the other hand, it's hard to sympathize with Agee's attacks on rural electrification (he loves lamps!) and on the toilet, for the American obsession with "sterility" to which it testifies.
The extent to which we need to elevate "abominations" into livable conditions, while acknowledging the beauty of these abominations is an unsolvable problem. The tent city on the sidewalk beside Old Stadium Park in Honolulu poses the same question. The tent city across from K-Mart off Nimitz is another. The line of tents up the Waianae coast is another. And another and another.
Yet Agee insists not simply on beauty in poverty, but the "lucky situation of joy" that occurs when the perceiver is put in a position to notice the actual world. Somewhere between the actual (even the non-toilet, the non-art, the car's exhaust) and the writer's perception of it there's a spark. "[I]n any rare situation which breaks down or lowers our habitual impatience, superficial vitality, overeagerness to clinch conclusion, and laziness," offers the writer that joy. Beauty in poverty is greater than beauty in art because actual conditions are real, and art is not. Agee throws imagination out with the (infrequent) bath water and offers as clear a poetics of documentary writing as I've seen anywhere:
I will be trying here to write [this is on page 213!] of nothing whatever which did not in physical actuality or in the mind happen or appear; and my most serious effort will be, not to use these 'materials' for art, far less for journalism, but to give them as they were and as in my memory and regard they are. If there is anything of value and interest in this work it will have to hang entirely on that fact. . . I am in this piece of work illimitably more interested in life than in art (213-214).
"I hate art" becomes "I love actuality."
Actuality can bite back. There are big problems with Agee's project, problems Jonathan Morse gets at on his blog, The Art Part:
In 1980, Howell Raines of the New York Times revisited the three poor Alabama families of whose lives James Agee and Walker Evans made immortal art forty years earlier in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Those forty years, it turned out, had reduced Agee's gusty prose to sentimental fiction. The pathetic little girl whose imminent death Agee movingly predicted, for example, was still alive in 1980 -- and a high school graduate, and six feet tall, and full of hatred for the artists who had once, long ago, picked up her tiny body, made it into a specimen, and then dropped it back into the dirt of Hale County, Alabama, and driven away.
Agee's multi-genre work did include "sentimental fiction," at least in retrospect. That is not its strength. What is strong, it seems to me as I read it now, is the density of detail--as if Agee were as much a shopkeeper as a writer, or maybe just a belated Melville--and in his self-examinations in the face of the task. He finds "the dignity of actuality" in tenant farmers and their few possessions, and posits beauty and sacredness in that actuality. The ad copy provides tenant farmers with small spots of beauty over their fireplace; in Agee's book it is not those pictures but the list of them that is beautiful. The fact of their being there is what makes them beautiful, and the desire for beauty behind them. As Elizabeth Bishop noted of the filling station, itself a beautiful, troubling poem, there is a (feminine) presence behind the doily in the oily shop. She's as interested in that presence as in the doily.
It's where invisibility meets the visible, the hidden hand meets the open eye, that Bishop (and Agee) find the spirit. It's precarious and troubling, but the unsettled (con)fusions are what finally join inventory to art. Book and photographs have shifted from the category of documentation to that of art (the Frank photographs sold at steep prices, according to Jonathan Morse, and netted nothing for their subjects). Or maybe it's in their wavering between art and actuality that the real force of our projects needs to reside. As Agee argues, description is not enough and yet what else is there? The what else is something we bring to the language, some notion of the sacredness of the actual, even if--especially--it is poor in substance or mercantile value.
The other day, the New York Times put up a video clip from a forthcoming Errol Morris film. We see and hear a man (aptly monikered Tink) who has been obsessed with the JFK assassination for many decades, but who is not a conspiracy theorist. He tells us the story of "the umbrella man" who stood next to Kennedy's motorcade at the moment he was shot. He tells us about the conspiracy theories that emerged from his being there, the only man in Dallas who carried an umbrella on that sunny day. And then he tells us that the man was found, years later, and testified before Congress. His umbrella had not had to do with weather, or even with the sun, but with his anger at JFK's father for supporting Neville Chamberlain, who carried an umbrella and who made nice with Adolph Hitler. Nothing is so wacky as ordinary fact, this man tells us on the film clip. Any event, if you look at it closely enough, becomes strange, opens up to our quests for meaning, our tortured intelligences. The man named Tink told this story with something like joy inscribed on his face. Ordinary explanations are way more strange than extraordinary ones, he told us.
Here's a book list for this Spring. Insufficient, I know! And here's a blog post I wrote on teaching documentary poetry.
Don't Let Me Be Lonely, Claudia Rankine, Graywolf Press
Coal Mountain Elementary, Mark Nowak, Coffee House Press
I, Afterlife: Essay in Mourning, Kristin Prevallet, Essay Press
from unincorporated territory [saina], Craig Santos Perez, Omnidawn
Things Come On: an amneoir, Joseph Harrington, Wesleyan
Green-Wood, Allison Cobb, Factory School
We will also read Murial Ruykeyser's Book of the Dead (1938) in pdf or xerox form. I will also recommend a slew of other texts for anyone who is interested.
After asking for suggestions toward a list of readings in documentary prose on facebook, I got the following recommendations:
Ryszard Kapuscinski, Shah of Shahs or The Soccer War & Studs Terkel
W.G. Sebald, The Rings of Saturn & Gary Young, No Other Life
Grand Avenue (a novel in stories), by Greg Sarris, Life Lived Like a Story (Life Stories of Three Yukon Native Elders), by Julie Cruickshank, and Immigrants in Our Own Land, Martín & Meditations on the South Valley, two books of poetry by Jimmy Santiago Baca.
Janisse Ray, Ecology of a Cracker Childhood
Books by Juan Goytisolo
I welcome more suggestions. In the meantime, thanks to Ragnar, Molly, Sergio, and Pam for these possibilities.
Sergio Pereira sent the following list of documentary poetry and prose. What a treasure trove!
From Washington, DC, Dave Taylor sends another list of possibles:
Blood Dazzler, Patricia Smith
The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, Anne Fadiman
Telling True Stories, eds. Kramer & Call
The Conversations, Michael Ondaatje with Walter Murch
which leads into film:
Buddha’s Lost Children, Mark Verkerk
In the Realms of the Unreal, Jessica Yu
Mysterious Object at Noon, Apichatpong Weerasethakul
The Source, Chuck Workman
Back to prose and graphic novel memoirs with:
Away from the Light of Day, Amadou and Mariam
Studs Terkel’s Working: A Graphic Adaptation, Harvey Pekar
Citizen 13660, Miné Okubo
Fun Home, Alison Bechdel
Sunday, November 20, 2011
This past week has seen "Occupy" demonstrations across the country. After one at Berkeley resulted in a confrontation between police, students, and two prominent poets, including Brenda Hillman and Robert Hass, the latter a former US poet laureate, students at UC-Davis demonstrated. A flurry of protests must needs garner a raft of memos, these from Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi. Once again, the content of the "we" is at issue.
The first memo, dated 11/18/2011, is written to ask students to take down their tents by 3 p.m., a request that comes only after several paragraphs of administrative prose, asserting at once a desire to support free speech, and the need to shut it down. As later discussions of what would happen that day at Davis revolve around questions of responsibility, I will quote the paragraph in which the Chancellor invokes that word:
However, we also have a responsibility to our entire campus community, including the parents who have entrusted their students to us, to ensure that all can live, learn and work in a safe, secure environment without disruption. We take this responsibility seriously. We are accountable for what occurs on our campus. Campus policies generously support free speech, but do include limited time, place and manner regulations to protect health, safety and the ability of students, staff, and faculty to accomplish the University mission. If an unfortunate incident occurs as a result of violations of these limited regulations, we are all responsible.
I'm not sure who the "we" is here, although I gather it must be an administrative--rather than (or as!) a royal--we. The responsibility is that of guardians of the children of parents who send those kids to UC-Davis, and it's a responsibility that includes the oft-bruited "health" and "safety" rationales used by many of the nation's mayors in recent weeks. Hence, "we are accountable for what occurs on our campus," sounds at first blush like a claim by administration to bear this tough, adult, weight. But the last sentence blurs the "we" into another realm, that of the students: "If an unfortunate incident occurs as a result of violations of these limited regulations, we are all responsible." The "we" has grown to include the student body here. We administrators are responsible for your health and safety until such time as you are not healthy or safe, when it's also your responsibility . . . Rather than take down their tents and patiently await what the Chancellor referred to as, "continued productive and peaceful discourse moving forward," the students held their ground. Many of them locked arms and sat on the sidewalk, while others encircled the area.
What happened next is all over youtube, facebook, and other media, namely the actions of one aptly-named Lt. John Pike, who sprayed seated students with pepper spray as if they were roses infested by bugs, or maybe just bugs. The outcry was immediate, and so was the administrative response. Another memo emerged, also dated 11/18. In it the Chancellor wrote much the same thing she'd written in the first memo. The prose was as if stirred in a large pot, with notions of "health" and "safety" and responsibility to parents circulating with only slightly more agitation than in the first memo of the day. But this prose does not serve as advance warning, which includes a notion of administrative responsibility; rather, it serves the purpose of removing responsibility from the equation, at least from Admin's point of view. Hence, the re-word "responsibility" comes to be replaced by the re-word, "regret," as in: "We deeply regret that many of the protesters today chose not to work with our campus staff and police to remove the encampment as requested. We are even more saddened by the events that subsequently transpired to facilitate their removal." In this sentence, "we" are back among the administration, but this "we" is not responsible, but somehow sad that their responsibility came to naught. If regret replaces responsibility for the administrators, then responsibility must be given over to "the protesters," many of whom--she writes--are not from UC-Davis at all, but from the "outside."
The ethical continental divide comes in the sentence after the one about "protesters" who "chose"--active ones!--in the next sentence: "We are even more saddened by the events that subsequently transpire to facilitate their removal." It was not Lt. Pike who removed them, in large part by spraying chemicals in their faces and then having them forcibly taken away, it was "the events that transpired." These events transpired not to remove them, but to "facilitate their removal."
Student response to these memos and the actions ordained, excused, and then displaced by them, was brilliant. Students surrounded the building the Chancellor was meeting in. When she finally emerged from the building, she was obliged to walk several blocks to her car in the dark, surrounded by students seated (as their pepper-sprayed colleagues had been) on the ground. No one made a sound. This use of silence was beautiful, and also politically effective. Silence carried a weight that was spiritual (both for the chancellor forced to examine herself on that walk, and for the students who were as-if--or who were--meditating together). Silence was the fullest of possible reponses. See video of her walk here.
The OED tells me that "responsibility" means:
1. Capability of fulfilling an obligation or duty; the quality of being reliable or trustworthy.
But it's more than that; the word "responsibility" includes within it the word "response." Responses are of many kinds, but responsible responses are, if we follow Steel's argument (after the parable of the Samaritan), neighborly. Suffice it to say that the police response to students at UC-Davis, was not neighborly, even if it was a response. Yesterday, I wrote about Leonard Schwartz's discussion of "little anger" and "big anger" in his new poems and in conversation. I'd like to transpose the "big anger" that shows itself not as anger but as something else (whether it's carnival or silence) into Steel's reading of neighborliness, while acknowledging that neither Brecht nor Schwartz are Christian, nor Steel necessarily angry. But if our (and I use "our" advisedly) anger is to be creative rather than corrosive, we need to transmute it into something like neighborliness. Let that be a responsibility between peers, not between parents, their proxies in university administration, and the rest of us children. Those kids last night were not much seen or heard, but their message was eloquently delivered.
Thursday, November 17, 2011
"What am I to this table?" For me, the difficulties of learning another language were embedded in the problem of prepositions. Where I was in relation to a table, or a verb (do I give "to" or "of," or do I offer "up" or "at"?), or a lover, became near metaphysical problems, even if the answers were most easily accessible from rote memory. Whether this relation was static or moving, kind or hostile, was also in question. "He threw the ball at the batter" alters the sense of "he pitched to the batter," by a great deal, even if the ball travels in the same direction. The first statement suggests anger, the second a rule-bound exchange. The first threatens to begin a brawl that is not part of the game itself; the second is necessary to the game's plot.
Leonard Schwartz thinks much contemporary poetry is too direct in its expressions of anger. He argues for poetry that internalizes politics, feeling. Like Makana, who recently sang to APEC officials of his rage in a tone that had little to do with anger (Makana's tone was sweet), he wants to create the possibility for new thoughts and feelings without demanding them. So, the central trope of Schwartz's new book, At Element, is not awakening, but sleep. He doesn't work over his ideas; he sleeps on them. The mixed state of his sleeping--one of forgetting and meditation, inertia and act--allows him access to openness: "Thus all the writing I have done before this was preparatory to this new openness, to this fundamental address. I am at the beginning, finally" ("The Sleep Talkers," 74).
But back to anger. Anger is what holds us most firmly to ourselves. When I am angry I do not let the subject of my anger go, but I also do not let myself go (unless, of course, I "lose it," which is another matter). I am most myself when I am angry, or that's a statement I could argue my way through (as if statements were tunnels full of vines and waterfalls and I had to "make" my way through them toward the light at the end of my assertion). Schwartz writes: "In order to achieve this [a different way of being] I will need to liberate myself not from sleep but from a repetitive resentment that binds me to self-identity, and thus, to paranoia" (97). Elsewhere, he remarks on poets' tendency toward such repetitions, resentments. But that has to do with reputation, with making one's mark, and he's after something more central here, something closer to the actual bone. Let me quote a full paragraph:
In Polish there is a word, Zbnigew, that means "a man who has overcome his own anger." (Imagine the wisdom of a language that has a special word for a man who has overcome his own anger, and that people give to their children as a name.) In German it was Nietzsche who wrote so influentially about the French word resentment. Anger, then, and resentment, and paranoia, and that special Polish way of outgrowing them, Zbnigew. Also the English word awning.
Giving a child a name that means "to overcome his own anger," offers him a gift of foreknowledge. The child will get angry, as all children do, but he will also be able to fall back on his name; the name is a hint, a goad, to his overcoming. He will grow into (another preposition) his overcoming. So far as I know, no one has named their child "Awning," word that appears mysteriously at the end of the paragraph. But that word means "shelter," and it sounds a note of "awe." It may not mean overcoming anger, but at least it's an incline the anger can run off of, like rain water.
Sleep exists between light and dark, life and death, consciousness and unconsciousness, identity and its effusions (like Whitman's jags in eddies). Sleep is freedom: "we make ourselves absent even when physically present and there is no shame in this, it is a form of our freedom, and when we become present again, one can feel the impact. As universal as sun on the beach, as riding the waves, as being too old for this activity, or too young for that" (89). To assert universality is a difficult thing in contemporary poetry, as in life. But Schwartz wants to go there. If anger is what separates us, even if it seems to make us whole as long as it lasts, then calm, sleep, blurred boundaries are what invite a fluid statelessness in, around, above, below, us. If Buddhism were not already secular, I'd be tempted to call this secular Buddhism.
This state enables Schwartz to imagine reconciliation between objectivity and subjectivity, or to tap into a pre-fab phrase offered to him in a car by Rob Fitterman, namely "sobjectivity." He reports that he laughed when he heard the word, but not too many short paragraphs later he relates, "Because of sobjectivity I feel free to imagine the voice of a suitcase, of a sock, of a rotting log or a crack in the sidewalk" (101). It also permits us to feel for the object, to "sob" in relation to it. For what object does not carry within itself its own decomposition, its own developing sadness?
Schwartz's meditations are more complicated than these brief remarks allow; there is, for example, a great deal of violence in his world, including an odd man-against-duck scene later in the piece, as well as the contest for priority in father-son relations. But he knows, as a bipolar friend once put it to me, that "anger is not the solution; anger is the problem." When we were confronted by a mutual friend who was extremely angry, corrosively so, at the state of the world, Leonard quoted Bertolt Brecht, whose "idea is that little anger is what we know as anger, the anger that blows off some steam, but never really leads to change . . . whereas big anger doesn't even look like anger, intent as it is on its purpose, which would only be upset by revealing itself as anger. It's in Mother Courage" (I quote here from a personal email). To extrapolate, while little anger turns on its carrier, eating its host, big anger moves outward. Little anger objectifies the self, while big anger sobjectifies.
Video (provenance forgotten): An African American Iraq war vet in camouflage jacket faces down New York City cops. He yells and yells at them. "Why are you hurting these people? Why are you hurting them? If you want to hurt people, go to Iraq and hurt people. These are Americans. Why are you hurting them." His audience is a group of cops standing in the street. They are remarkably passive. They are letting him shout himself out, but he refuses to, and keeps yelling at them. He is the aggressor, if only verbally, and they the impassive listeners. It looks wrong. (It is wrong, as it is but one camera angle on a day of protest and police brutality.) There is a moment at which his anger, his pleading, his repetitions, reveal his own hurt; it is past this point I cannot watch the video without hurting myself. He is asking them not to hurt him. He has been hurt, and he has hurt others. This is his confession, his plea, his expiation.
I found him; he's Marine Corps Sgt. Shamar Thomas. Here's the video.
The media can attack the Occupy movement for its carnival. They're banging drums. In a circle, no less. They're dancing. They have a library. Oh my, they have iPads. Some of them are yuppies, others homeless people, so some of them are too clean and some of them are too dirty. They chant things. They yell in unison. How quaint. But, like Makana's performance at the APEC dinner, these are not moments of silliness; they are our sorrow songs. If the "master" could not hear the "slave's" lament because it was sung, then the media cannot seem to hear the occupier's anger because it comes cloaked in joyful noise. Listen. There's rage there, and it's catching.
Leonard Schwartz's new book is At Element, from Talisman Books. You can order it here.
Our 2008 conversation about memory, with 2011 photo, can be found here.
The photo is of Leonard Schwartz (foreground) and Tom Devaney (background) at Kelly Writer's House, University of Pennsylvania, September 2011.
Tuesday, November 15, 2011
The man with the dog is not young or old, though his face is marked by dents, creases. Someone says he has a job washing dishes in Waikiki, but can't get there now that the APEC conference (Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation: for details, see below) is in full bloom. His dog is small and furry, mottled black and white; she wears a plastic tag that marks her as a "service dog." He took her into a store at Kam Shopping Center and the security guy demanded (loudly) to know his disability. He's got a complaint lodged. The man with the dog lives in a tent on the sidewalk; he can't live in the park--that's illegal--so he lives beside the curb on King Street, inches from the traffic, precarious in so many ways. His tent is but one of many; there's a line of
them from near Isenberg back to the taco shop, a good 50 yards of tents, blankets, neat piles of possessions. A trash can reads, "Eat shit and die," but mostly one is struck by the civility of this encampment. A woman rakes trash and leaves in the park near her tent. Someone has left a blanket in the park's corner, just that side of the sidewalk.
We protested APEC at the corner of King and Isenberg. A large tarp covered the table covered written matter you could take away with you; in one corner a silkscreen was set up to make APEC SUCKS teeshirts (writing over pre-existing language, like Michigan State, like Coach Susan); in another corner a Vietnam vet sat on a chair, talking to a friend. The man with the dog spent a lot of time with us. His dog did not like loud noises, so when we left on our march to Waikiki, he left her in the tent.
HDoug (who is everywhere!) tweets the following:
Bill 54 if passed will create a bill that will allow police to remove attended personal property from the sidewalk. We heard Honolulu Police boasting that this will allow them to remove the Occupy Honolulu encampment (as well as other "troublesome" encampments such as the recent Kanawai Mamalahoe puuhonua). This is designed to abridge the rights of free speech and peaceable assembly, and violate the Law of the Splintered Paddle.
At the point a bill like this passes, homelessness will itself be a form of protest--not the undertone, the spatial lament it is now, but active. even in its staying in place. Subject to being thrown off the last sliver of ground they have left, the homeless will have become illegals, aliens, interlopers on the common areas of sidewalk, park, beach. Will they then move into the street?
The man with the dog (but without her) marched with us from Stadium Park into Waikiki on Saturday. I lost track of him early on. We were a thin line of several hundred souls, spirited, armed with cardboard signs, the best of which was probably the empty sign, with plastic window, a call for transparency. Earlier on, the policemen in blue had surrounded us, one of them with a video camera, shooting us as we gathered. Beside us now was a line of bicycle cops dressed in bright yellow. Among us were the omnipresent cops of the aloha shirt, who also sported straw hats to match. Hilo Hatties does good business with HPD, it seems. As we crossed the Ala Wai canal, we saw Coast Guardsmen encamped next to the water (the filthy water), their inflated dinghies at the ready.
On the other side of the canal, I spotted the President of UH, MRC Greenwood, walking toward, through, and then past our group. We made eye contact. And then we arrived at the real "security" force.
Around Fort DeRussy Park was a tall fence; the fence was filled in with dark material so you could not see what was in the park. An occasional break in the fence revealed more "security" on the other side. Along with our friends on their bikes, and our friends who looked like wacky tourists in their aloha shirts, we now encountered guardsmen in camouflage. Everyone had weapons. Military vehicles were parked here and there. There were concrete slabs around the guard posts, which were on the blocked-off street. The cops kept telling us to stay off the road and on the sidewalk. Occasionally, a dignitary in a suit would walk past on the road.
I had a point of reference for this display of armed force. It was Kathmandhu, Nepal in December 2004. We were there to adopt our daughter, Radhika, from Bal Mandir orphanage. Every street corner, it seemed, had a sentry post, and every sentry post was populated by soldiers with automatic weapons. Sangha, who was 5 at the time, loved seeing all the soldiers and waved to them as we rode past. "But Sangha, it's not a good sign when you're in a country where there are so many armed soldiers everywhere," I remember saying to him, hoping he'd remember those words when he was older.
I think of those words now. It's not a good sign when you are walking the streets of a city where you've worked for over 20 years and you see so many policemen, soldiers, humvees, guns, blockades. Whose security are we threatening? That's the question, whose answer is coming clear in the repeated attacks on Occupy (and here, de-Occupy) sites around the country. We are threatening someone's security. And there is perhaps some joy--and hope--in that. How much hope is yet to be seen.
This morning, we were told that H1 would be closed at 8:30 for Pres. Obama's motorcade. Bryant and Sangha were stopped at the end of H3 for one hour, beginning at 7:30 a.m. on the way to Sangha's school near Hickam AFB. More "security"--for whom and against whom, one wonders. Even if there were not reason to protest APEC (and there was), there is certainly reason to protest the near-imposition of martial law on a peaceful city during this past week.
The official website of APEC can be found here.
A take-down of APEC by Eating in Public can be found here.
The "we" of the demonstration was multifarious. There were the (De)Occupy folks, the World Can't Wait supporters, the Moana Nui group, and a large group of anti-Chinese, anti-communist Vietnamese with bright yellow and red flags. Also protesting against APEC this week were members of the Falun Gong, among others. And there were a lot of UHM faculty there.
Wednesday, November 9, 2011
I'm pleased to announce publication of my new book from Singing Horse Press in San Diego, designed by Eric Butler in Honolulu (designer of the Tinfish Retro Chapbook Series).
Please order from Small Press Distribution in Berkeley.
The book is composed of nine sequences of 10 prose poems. except when I failed to count correctly. Each poem in a sequence begins from a randomly chosen phrase or line from a poet (among the poets are Lissa Wolsak, John Ashbery, and Albert Saijo). These poets, whom I was reading as I wrote the poems, write meditative, often abstract, poems. But the memory cards move from the abstract into the tangible, the local, the political. One of the sequences was published recently in EOAGH. So here's a sample.
Just as an aside, I ordered postcards for the book, which arrived during the seventh game of the World Series. Postcards about memory cards during the St. Louis Cards' World Series victory!
Tuesday, November 8, 2011
When I left Chicago, I walked by him again. We chatted briefly. I said, "I'm going home today," then felt a pang.
The Cardinals cap I wear on trips is a sign. It usually nets me very little except the right ride at the airport or the bus stop. On this trip, it got me a snide remark, but mainly thumbs ups, and good conversations about the Series. "I turned the game [six] off," said one flight attendant, making a sad face. Lauren Berlant said of Susan Lepselter's essay on a man who talked UFOs at her until she entered his world for a time, that her work is about "staying in a conversation." Baseball caps are oddly like UFOs in this. They create the chance for conversation. One usually stays in it for a while.
My conversations these days are mostly about Alzheimer's and dementia. This conversation, which occurs over and over, covering much of the same ground (yet never losing its blunt force) is like talking about a team. Except that all the plays seem to be errors. The Alzheimer's parent speaks in error, and we children act in error, because what else can we do. We are our own scorekeepers, and the score is not good. Error rhymes with terror, which is also part of the conversation.
At the University of Chicago we talked about "Losing It," which was the name of the symposium, organized by Lauren Berlant. Jennifer Montgomery ended up distressed by this phrase. She thought all of life was "losing it"--what's to distinguish one from the other instance of it? But in our panels and conversations the central sign of losing it involved the breakdown of time: cause and effect falter, then fall apart; appointments aren't kept, or are kept at the wrong time; memory escapes (though it comes to us adult children before it disappears completely). And space breaks down, too. People fall, break bones. This is not humility, but humiliation, though there might be a way back to humility through the work of writing and filming. Or do I mean "dignity," that over-used word?
I framed, or failed to frame, my paper at the U of C with a mention of ethics. My failure was in opening with that term, and then leaving it on the stoop, in the foyer, at the threshold, like a foundling. Lauren did not think I was talking about an ethical issue. But what if that move from humiliation to humility, or from trying to absorb the Alzheimer's patient into one's own I, is an ethical issue? Lauren also quoted Juliana Spahr's defense of the I to me, an argument against arguments against the lyric poem. Again, point taken. But if the I is to represent the world, it needs still to acknowledge that other somehow. My axe to grind is that the I in the memoir or poem about Alzheimer's, if it does not belong to the person with Alzheimer's, needs to keep a distance (dare I say "polite" or "ethical"--that sounds funny?) from the person who suffers it. I tried to explain using the Objectivists; my mother, while she was not a tree (in a Williams poem) deserves the same respect as he showed the tree. Just as the tree is not the poet's to possess, my mother is not mine to own. Lauren asked a question about questions: when are they out of curiosity, and when are they aggressive? I recognized a keen irony in this. My mother's questions were more often intrusive than curious. Her I tried to drown mine out too often. I was she, which was a continuity in her dementia, not a break. My work on her last years tries hard not to intrude, although it does leave so much of her earlier life out.
But we're not there yet. The symposium began with Lauren Berlant's opening remarks. The Worlding Writing Project brings together experiment with theory, induces comparison, tries to incorporate detail and situation. (She noted that Dementia Blog is about "staying in a situation.") If theory is a generalizing principle, then the Worlding writers want to experiment with un-generalizing. I take Kathleen Stewart's work as a primary example of this. Her Ordinary Affects largely ignores the theory that propels it (though some of my students wished it never intruded at all), that theory being that situations are worth exploring on their own terms. Lauren spoke about our time being one of ADHD, that the Occupy (or Honolulu's de-Occupy) movement is about attending to the world, slowing down attention. Somewhere in there bobble heads from groupon appeared on the screen. The pigeon then appeared, for its flocking, its aggregation, and she told us that the word "gregarious" comes from sheep. Relationality is a priori for pigeon and sheep, as it has not been for "us." MLK and Spinoza spoke of love as politics. This involves relation, transformation, what I wrote down as "social therapy," but intended as "social theory." (Just as Radhika this morning was trying to figure out what "adding fuel to the fire" meant and kept saying "adding fuel to the feather"--I did NOT say that, she said, but her dad and I said, oh YES you did!) And so collaborative work in theory, and an interest in the commons, and discussion of citizenship--Lauren's remarks, while clear, seemed to gather steam at this point. Institutions are still objects; infrastructure is a moving form. (Which made me think of the difference between the Alzheimer's home as building and as a life, or as many parallel lives. So much Gertrude Stein running beside us.) The Losing It conference, then, was about how the family is a scene for being out of control, for thinking about relations of care--such relations are enigmatic. What interests Lauren is how caregiving can be presented as solidarity and as a relation that is not sentimental.
There was more, but this is what "stuck" with me, "stuck" being one of those keywords of the conference for me, just as "register," uttered by Katie Stewart in response to my work of transcribing Alzheimer's voices became a key word for Carl Bogner (who gave a beautiful, generous talk on Jennifer Montgomery's The Agonal Phase later on). "Stuckness" like "attachment" went a couple of ways for this Buddhist-inflected writer. Truths to try to let drop, and then remember, and then let go as memory. "Forgetting is crucial to learning," said Lauren. Forgetting is crucial to poetry, said Ann Lauterbach in an essay. Memory Cards arrives today in the mail, and I read that book-to-com as evidence of moments lived through and then forgotten, and then remembered as writing.
Katie Stewart and Susan Lepselter performed discrete essays in interwoven pieces, moving back and forth to create conversation. Their essays were very different. Katie's was about losing her mother; Susan's was about researching UFOs in the west. Susan is fascinated by the uncanny; Katie in the canny, if that word can be used as a mere reversal on un-canny. But the gaps between their pieces were themselves somewhat uncanny. I kept wondering what Susan's essay about encountering such a completely absorbing subject had to do with Katie's narrative about her mother, her absorption in her mother's dying. Like a long poem, this one requires some time to ponder. There's a leap there, but I can't say just what it is. (And this was one of the leaps that made me want to talk about the relationship of the spirit to this subject matter. The UFO belief system is one spiritual practice, as it were, and Katie's attending to her mother's passing is another.) Tony Trigilio, a Buddhist, and I agreed we would talk about spirituality and the academy the next time we talk. This talk we had at Heartland Cafe, was about John F. Kennedy's death (a conspiracy-talk, in other words, oddly and ill-related to the Buddhist conception of the world as utterly connected) and about poetry and more mundane institutional matters (like trying to preserve a graduate program, perhaps not so mundane, after all).
Writing is not catharsis.
Gertrude Stein / Stain.
We made lists of losing its. (Is there an apostrophe there, of any kind?)
They had a wonderful life. She led the life of Riley.
Their work included broken roofs. (Is there a "v" there, of any kind?)
The man in black was not Johnny Cash. He met her at the airport. She knew not to tell. She is telling us now.
Now you know how I feel.
The word "sensorium." The word "energetics." The word "abject." This is not my discourse community, but it is my emotional one in many ways.
I've blogged on The Agonal Phase already. I made so many mistakes of fact I had to go in and expunge large sections of what I had written. I had thought, for example, that Jennifer Montgomery's mother Ruth was in the film, that she was the baggy pantsed person on the trampoline, the person in the chair with glasses. That she was Jennifer's father, in other words, the man who spoke in the film. (Think about voice-overs, Lauren advised us, but I'd gone to face-overs.) I assumed her illness, her age, had made her androgynous. But it was her father who was becoming a woman, instead. Carl Bogner spoke on the film and everyone wished there was a tape of it. There was! A graduate student had recorded it, but whenever Carl got good, the student would type madly and there would be loud clacking noises. So when you listened to the video, the best parts included lots of noises. "Mental scratch pad." Faster versions of Jennifer's father/mother on the trampoline. Some of Carl's references:
Peter Handke's memoir, Sorrow Beyond Dreams.
Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida.
Grueber's still life of 1661. Was that called Vanitas?
Roland Barthes, Mourning Diary. (My response here.)
Guy Davenport's reading of Joyce's story, "Clay."
The practice of attention is a caesura.
Day One: rumination: sadness.
Day Two: two pairs of glasses in harmony. Transitions, leave-taking, moving on: "Ah!" says Mr. Montgomery.
There is an enigma to its clarity.
Workspaces: composer & editor.
Sequence: dog, Jennifer, father. [This is the sequence that made someone cry. It's about faces, the face that wants a response from you, the face that cries, the face that is impassive.]
What is the capacity of the camera?
Jennifer took two photos of her mother after she died. She erased one and then the other of them. She misses these photos, regrets their erasure. But she remembers her mother and the photographs, the photographs of her mother.
Jennifer's short video on squid, from a work in progress. On the cutting apart of a squid, the milking it for ink, the use of that ink to draw a squid.
"Part of my face is missing" as a phrase about grieving.
"Shakespeare is crafting this death"--I remember thinking that my father was dying into poetry, as everything he said was metaphorical, more Dickinson than dad.
"Where's that fucking photo?"
On Annie Liebovitz's photographs of Susan Sontag: "That's HER hell."
Sea change. Purcell's The Tempest. Ruckfigur is either seeing the world as the other does, or entering from behind. A comment that haunted us after. Do we show faces or not? Or parts of faces? (Reference back to a discussion of my transcriptions: to whom do they belong? do we shows them entire, or in pieces?)
Full Court / Small Press event in the Red Rover Series. This series is curated by Laura Goldstein and Jennifer Karmin. As you'll see if you click that second link, they organize readings that are more than readings, but provocations. Patrick Durgin, Caroline Picard, Johannes Gorannson (umlaut to taste) and I each read pieces by ourselves and others, then convened for a panel, in which we asked one another questions. Patrick and I had agreed on our questions, and delivered them with a lack of spontaneity that was astounding. We should have been penalized for staying in the paint too long. My question for him had to do with his decision to publish his own work through Kenning Editions; his for me was about Tinfish as argument, rather than press. Caroline talked about design work and the production of books (silkscreen covers and Bookmobile innards). Johannes talked about Action Books as a translation press that was not one. Not exclusively one. Other poets we read: Johannes read from Kim Hyesoon's new Action Books volume, edited by Don Mee Choi. Patrick read a poem by Andrew Levy. I read "What We Get" from Gizelle Gajelonia's Tinfish chapbook, 13 Ways of Looking at TheBus. It's in pidgin (not to be confused with Lauren Berlant's pigeons); I did my best.
In Madison, I spent time with Steel Wagstaff, a Ph.D. student, before and after my FELIX series reading. A waitress, not knowing why an older woman and younger man might be dining together, assumed. "So nice of you to come from Hawai`i to visit your son," she said. He gave me a Brewers Central Division Champion teeshirt at my reading. Said it had been on close-out. Duh.
And there was much else that was lovely.