Sunday, April 26, 2009

Poetry is political and Oedipus was adopted

Friday's schedule for Poetry & Politics featured Tinfish 18.5: The Book, so I invited Ryan Oishi and Tiare Picard to join us. Then Jennifer Kwon Dobbs and Ted Pelton separately sent messages that they would be in Honolulu, so I invited them too, and opened the class up to anyone who wished to attend. The ensuing conversation was predictably a bit unfocused, but contained nuggets worth holding up to the virtual light.

Ryan read a revised version of his poem about Aloha Air Flight 243. The poem is about a flight from the Big Island to Honolulu in the late 1980s that was diverted to Kahului after most of the fuselage ripped off. Ryan imagined that the plane was damaged by a huge shark, kind of a reverse aumakua (or not?). He revised the poem after Go! had entered the local airline market, driven Aloha out of business, and then tried to appropriate Aloha's name. So the poem I had read as a commentary on tourism (shark takes big bite out of plane full of tourists) became instead a poem about one airline taking a bite out of another. This poem, like his love poem set in a Walmart (where Hawaiian bones were found, quarantined and air-conditioned), addresses issues of development and the economy.

Tiare read poems about language, militarization, and erasure. Her alphabet poem is marvelous; on one side of the page, she's written a wacky alphabet poem (each line begins with the next letter in the alphabet). On the other side, she's taken that poem and removed all the letters from Polynesian languages. The result is a syncopated burst of sound that resembles nothing so much as Christian Bok, yet whose instigations are profoundly "local" and political.

Ted Pelton
read from a parable he wrote in the mid-80s about the Agency's search for employees who were honest but had always wanted to lie. Pelton's "story" ended with the very premise of the ad being called into question ("you trusted that we were actually looking for employees?!"). Tiare's question was spot on: "is that fiction?" It reminded me that the Reagan years were a more benign-seeming warm-up for the Bush II years. Nicaragua, Grenada, Lebanon, Iran-Contra, were Iraq and Afghanistan writ small.

Jennifer Kwon Dobbs
read poems about Korea, and also a new poem, not included in her book Paper Pavilion (White Pine Press), about Cyprus's division, and demilitarized zones in general. Her image of the divided bed at the end of the poem was apt. What I found most compelling about Jennifer's discussion of adoption (she was adopted from Korea and grew up in Oklahoma) was her notion that she begins from "negative capability" and works toward certainty, hence goes in the opposite direction of many imaginations. She also spoke of not trusting still images (which evoked Hart Crane's "still yet moving" bridge to me). Jennifer also spoke to the ancient link between poetry and politics, citing the Greeks (which reminded me how infrequent are mentions of the Greeks in my department, at least within my hearing!).

On Thursday, the day before, I attended Mary Edmond-Paul's talk on Robin Hyde's autobiographical writings. The crux of Edmond-Paul's talk was the treatment of Hyde's mental instability (she was arrested for attempting to commit suicide, such being the laws of her day (the 1930s in New Zealand/Aotearoa). Edmond-Paul spoke at some length about "kindness," the way in which Hyde, because she voluntarily submitted to treatment, was treated with a kindness lacking in the commitment of Janet Frame to the severe care of a hospital. I wish she'd said more about "kindness" as a (dare I say it?) category. The idea that someone would invoke kindness in an academic setting struck me as itself an intervention in the usual goings on, but I would have liked to have heard more. The epilogue offered on the contemporary photographer Yvonne Todd was fascinating, but the bridge between Hyde and Todd did not seem complete. What amazing photographs, though. My colleague, Craig Howes, brought up the problem with seeing writing as therapy--as "scriptotherapy." I remember that one of our visiting writers described how she would pour her problems onto the page at night, and wake up again the next morning with the same problems. To my mind, scriptotherapy works only if the illness is under control; you cannot write your way out of suffering, but you can explain that suffering to yourself later, as meaning, as story, as image (still or moving). The blur of image that Jennifer would address a day later, and the sense of trying to move from negative capability to a sense of sureness with the world, is familiar to me not as an adoptee (I am not one, though my children are), but as someone who suffered several extended bouts of "agitated depression," in which there was no stillness, only some godawful version of "shaken adult syndrome."

The rest of the weekend has been all baseball!

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