Saturday, March 14, 2009

Blogging Schwartz, Skyping Metres, Meeting Lederman

Yesterday was a technological free for all in Poetry & Poetics. The reading was from Leonard Schwartz's chapbook, Language as Responsibility, and from Phil Metres fine blog, Behind the Lines. Schwartz's chap comes in three parts: first, an interview with Israeli poet, Aharon Shabtai; second, an essay on the poetics of translation (Ibis Editions in Jerusalem, which publishes English language translations from both Arabic and Hebrew); third, a poem in response to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Leonard writes to us of this three part structure: "I think of conversation, proposition, and poem each functioning in relation to one another, but each in their own sphere. Dialogue between two individuals (interview), propositional claims or truth claims (essay), and then the poem, as a kind of epistemological frame for conversation and for statement, a kind of writing that is a form of address to be sure, but does not specify the "to whom", a kind of writing that allows us to pull back from the dreaded missionary purpose of much political writing, which is to convert a reader to the writer's belief... and is itself a problem." Metres's blog, despite its occasional ventures into lighter subjects, provides an amazing archive of news and commentary about the Middle East, along with Metres's own meditations on poetry and protest.

In one of his missives to us, Leonard had mentioned the argument between Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov over the role of politics in poetry. Leonard sides with Duncan, thinks poetry should be political, to the extent that it is, unovertly. Phil, playing devil's advocate, took the Levertov position, that one's politics should be up front in poetry, as in other things. When Lian Lederman joined us later, she took the Duncan position, preferring art that deals obliquely with politics to what she called "propaganda." She showed us an Israeli website where artists' responses to Gaza are posted. Some are rather lurid in their portrayals of the parties in conflict, while another simply showed signs asking the reader to share a moment of silence for all of the dead. That one she thought most effective.

Phil used the phrase "producing dignity" for what a politically aware poetry can do in places like the Middle East. The second time he used the phrase I asked him what it meant. Lian lept in (that sounds like Lester Young!) and argued that art, by presenting complicated images of people on both sides of a conflict, can humanize them, one to the other. She and Phil shared a humanism and idealism that seemed bracing for its opposition to all the guns and butter of the USA and Israel.

Phil read two poems for us, one by Mahmoud Darwish, "A Ready Script," and another by Yehuda Amichai, Wildpeace." Without commenting on them extensively, it seemed clear the ways in which each poet avoided the certainly of category and "side," and instead entertained complexity, or what Lian later referred to as an internal state of conflict, in which sides are not opposed, but contained within each person. She referred us to The Third Side by William Uri, a book that argues for the responsibilities of those not directly involved in a conflict to assist in resolving it. She also directed us to work by Prof. Daniel Bar-Tal.

After Phil left us, Lian talked to us about her design work on Language as Responsibility. She began by telling us that she had grown up on an island, namely the island of Israel. Then she pointed out that the chapbook comes in the shape of Israel, roughly a long narrow rectangle, and that the density and claustrophobia of the place is reflected in the small book without margins. You must literally move your thumbs in order to see the text. One student remarked at her frustration that she could not take notes inside the book, or even underline many sections of it. As the book contains three sections, Lian had three goals for her design:

1. erasure and borders
2. multiplying icons--the skyline of Jerusalem repeated over and again
3. the map of Israel, embedded in the fold of the chapbook

The cover integrates Hebrew and Arabic lettering, and is also stamped (Lian was working at the time for the Rubber Stamp Plantation in Honolulu, as I recall) with the punctuation to a Shabtai poem. That the poem she chose was about sex is a lovely subtext on the surface of the book.

Lian also talked to us about her design for Sarith Peou's Corpse Watching, a selection of poems about the author's experiences in Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge time. The poems are oddly flat, as she noted, so her design is equally plain. The cover resembles a manila folder; the words are in a typewriter font; the "second book" running to the left side is a series of photographs of Cambodians who were murdered at Tuol Sleng. The book is as beautiful as the subject matter is horrible.

Somewhere along the way I described my marketing strategy for the Peou book, which involved offering to send extra copies of the book to the war criminal of your choice. Mine went to Henry Kissinger, and then another later on to Gen. Peter Pace, who was living in my mother's old house at the time (so I knew his address). There's a sad, wry irony to marketing books in this way, as tiny interventions, goads, pokes in the ribs against the shock and awe of the military industrial complex. The work seems impossible, but as Phil Metres says, we need to do it for ourselves, to prove our agency, and we need to do it to create conversations in the future. Dialogue, if taken properly, can heal conflict. Or so we hope.

For more on our Skype adventure, see Phil's blog.


Anonymous said...

I think we have to hope for this, and if enough of us keep hoping, we'll change the world. lyz

Philip Metres said...

"Wildpeace" actually is by Yehuda Amichai, (though we did talk a bit about Shabtai along the way, in particular his poem, "Lotem Abdel Shafi").

susan said...

Thanks, Phil. I will change that bad info pronto.

Anonymous said...

Today out of the clear air, my brother asked me "Why doesn't the US sell arms to Palestine and why doesn't the US care about what happens to the Palestinians?" I have no idea where this came from, but I tried to explain to him the best I could from the little I know. Why is that being sympathetic toward the suffering of a group people means we are not also sympathetic to the suffering of another group? This atom needs pinning. Leonard offers such a beautiful pinning.