Saturday, June 27, 2009

On the (im)possibility of meditative poetry: Jordan Scott's BLERT and Norman Fischer's CHARLOTTE'S WAY

Meditative poetry and stuttering. I begin from a nostalgia for meditative poetry, or better put, a love of meditative poetry that has been placed under some stress for me in recent years. But today my reading takes me from meditation to stuttering, two categories that interrupt each other than join together. Meditation has meant flow, that vaunted state of sentencing that my students inform me they lack, even before I begin critiques of their often jumpy prose (or poetry). Stuttering is distraction, is the children running into my room as I read, or the in-laws about to come over now as I begin my meditation on stuttering. Stuttering is disturbance. If, as Susan Howe writes in "Incloser," "There is a direct relation between sound and meaning" (BM 49), she often seems more intrigued by silences: "The fractured syntax, the gapes, the silences are equal to the sounds in Maximus," she tells Edward Foster (BM 180). I am reminded of Howe on stuttering by Yunte Huang, in his fine book, Transpacific Imaginings; I am reminded that during a walk with Susan Howe in a Buffalo park she told me that a prominent expert on stuttering is also named Howe. Google gurgles that S.W. Howe co-wrote "Speech shadowing characteristics of stutterers under diotic and dichotic conditions" and published it in 1988, at about the time the other Howe was writing her essays in The Birth-Mark. At the time I was trying to spread word of my book, Dementia Blog, I discovered that an authority on dementia shared my last name; he is Richard Schulz, who graciously answered my email to him. Howe and Howe, Schultz and Schulz are the opposite of stutters. They sound too right, as if the sonic idea rhymes rhymed with each other. To stutter (let alone to suffer dementia) takes away the fluency of that commutative equation between name and theme.

Meditative poetry has always seemed to me to render disjunctions (a kind of stutter) as fluidities. Temporal breaks, like loss of self or other or God, are seamed together ("let be be finale of seem") in the poet's quick conjunction of thoughts. Meditation suggests space, suggests time, suggests lag. Thinkers like Maryann Wolf, who wrote Proust & the Squid about dyslexia, worry that meditation is on its way out. Wolf:

I worry, like Socrates long before me, that our children are becoming more "decoders of information" than true comprehenders. I worry that they are deluded by the seeming permanence and volume of their information, into thinking they "know it all"--when they have barely begun to fashion the kind of brain that has learned how to probe, infer, reflect, create, and move to whole new places on its own. ("Reading Worrier," on-line)

Meditation is about comprehension, and comprehension about inclusion, understanding, totality. Or at least one suspects there are inclusions to be made, totalities to be grasped, even if or because they are tantalizingly beyond reach. "No man is an island" might well be a false statement, but John Donne implied a geography of the self in which continents held more value than atolls or islands. Even when systems are breaking down, as they are at the opening of John Ashbery's Three Poems, their shadows promise a velvety landing, or at least comfort in the search. (This may be one of Ashbery's least comfortable books, but the writing is among his most seductive, like a romance novel about the mind.) Stevens, like Shelley, found his map in the sky, which is wide. And the poems I'm reading today by John Koethe, whose Selected Poems I found used at BookEnds in Kailua, make a constant arc between meaning and loss, unwinding in long and looping sentences whose only hesitations are the line-breaks that punctuate the poet's thinking.

As I said earlier, meditative poetry is more problematic to me than it once was, no matter how much I will always adore early Ashbery and his imagined mentor, Thomas Traherne. As much as I instinctively reject the notion that Ashbery is merely the last flank of a great white army (if not whale) that presses down on islands from the eastern continent, his poetry does thrive on a luxuriousness that many people do not have, and a fluency that could be said to go along with it. Not that I'm against privilege, only the notion that privilege is in-clusive. But meditative poetry is not so much "inclusive" of world as it testifies to only a small province in it. New Haven (but only in the evening), New York (but only from the window), Rome (as the philosopher ascends to heaven): these are places where meditation goes on. Waipahu, Gary, not so much perhaps, at least in not so many words. To meditate in the age of consumption is not easy; I'm reminded of Wordsworth on his London bridge, calling a rural scene to mind, even where he cannot see it. And that was 19th century. Harder yet in a Walmart, though Ryan Oishi does his damndest. There is little fluidity in the goods, despite the tsunami in the aisles.

But it is not only left to the poet to ponder; the reader has a role to play, as well. My students wear their ear buds, text on their phones, talk on their phones, diddle with their laptops. They are in a constant state of distraction, as am I, knowing my next Facebook message might be coming at any instant. Even students who can concentrate don't. But what about the readers Maryann Wolf writes about who are dyslexic, can simply not read fluently? My son is one of them. The other day his friend pulled out a Star Wars mad libs book and wanted Sangha to help with it. Sangha announced that HE was not going to follow the rules; he was going to make up his own. I realized that his move into an imaginative space was due not to his overpowering imagination, but to the fact that he could not read the mad libs to begin with. As Wolf argues, people are not naturally readers; there is no center in the brain for reading. Whatever links there are that make us readers are not there for all of us. To read phonetically works for most young readers, but not for my son, who will get the sound of the first letter right, but then guess what comes next. His guessing often threatens (is that the word?) to become another story, as if the attempt to read were a launching pad, not an arrival gate. That's great, except in school.

My son does not stutter when he speaks; he stutters when he reads. Canadian poet Jordan Scott is a stutterer, one for whom the act of speaking is a minefield. He has written a book, blert, that at first glance resembles a Christian Bok production, but which is less "conceptual" than "realist." His is not the concept of the "stutter in the text," or a metaphor for gaps and silences; instead, he writes the material language of the stutterer:

The stutter here appears on its own terms, rejecting the metaphoric, thematic, graphic . . . or representational aspects of this language disturbance. The text is written as if my own gibbering mouth chomped upon the language system, then regurgitated the cud of difference. My symptoms are the agents of composition. (65)

Scott's meditations on his poems are composed in prose. Many poets use prose when they are meditating on their ideas, rather than rather than enacting them. They include Howe, who stutters in her poems but flows (mainly) in her prose, and Kaia Sand, whose forthcoming Tinfish Press volume, Remember to Wave, includes essays on the stories she writes more fragmentary poems about. Explications take the stutter out of the poem. Perhaps Ashbery's Three Poems in prose can be read as a prolegomenon to his poems, although the poems tend to render as flow instances that are discrete; in that confusion we find what is most Ashberian.

For Scott, the act of speaking is physical, not metaphysical, literal, not figurative. Open Lisa Linn Kanae's book, Sista Tongue, and you find quotations on the act of speaking. From Wendell Johnson, "a speech disorder occurs when all of the basic functions of speech are affected to some degree and, in certain cases, one function may be more seriously disturbed than another." Or from Hanson, "The most important structure of articulation is the tongue, which is responsible for effecting the changes in the mouth basic to the production of all but a few sounds. The tongue is so essential to human speech, languages are often referred to as 'tongues.'" For Kanae, "improper" speech is often a label put on non-standard English speakers for reasons that have nothing to do with the tongue. For Scott, the tongue and the hyoid bone make the speaker, and hence the language--even before sociology takes its turn. He writes in the language of "articulation":

Not articulated to any other bone, the hyoid bone lounges in the human neck. Suspended from the tips of styloid ligaments, only two plump bursas interrupt this hammocked marrow. In early life, the lateral borders are connected to the voice box by pretend membrane; after middle life, usually by bony union . . . Some muscles of the root of the tongue are attached to it, as well as some laryngeal muscles. It is not attached to any other bone, which it makes it something of a curiosity among bones. (42)

If stuttering is not metaphorical to Scott, then the mouth surely is. What are articulated are not words but bones. What is style is not writing but "styloid ligaments." Borders do not belong to words and phrases but to the voice box. Hammocks are not to be slept in but support the marrow. And so on. Our very mouths are metaphors, but their output is unmistakeably literal. We can meditate on the mouth, but words are tools used against their speaker. There is no meditation on language, because language resists thought, at least as it is spoken. Metaphorically speaking, then, Scott's speech is usually poetry, and his writing is generally speaking prose explication of that poetry. At times the two converge uneasily, but for the most part there are two Scotts as there were two Lears (stylistically, not thematically!)

Kanae's brother was a "late talker." He said "Itah, itah" for sister and "wuh-yol" for world and "too-too, too-too" for Popeye da Sailor Man. His sister translates for him, as she "translates" the story of Pidgin in Hawai`i to her readers. She begins from the material fact of language and gets into its less material (if hardly immaterial) station in local culture. Scott navigates a similar divide, albeit without ethnic and class ramifications. His poems present language as problem:

camel clutch
grapple thalamus flux
box tonsils fresh black box
tongue scatter suckle polygon
syllable collar pop
mullet split end
leg lock glottal
lip off:

fresh nugs
mouse milking

wrist flex
snorkel mosh
dental furrow
Jell-O shot
ease Pantene. (36)

Not much separates this section or many others from other poems by avant-garde contemporaries. What separates it is the particular meditation on it, which is built into the poetry. While many poets are conceptualizing qualities of language or facts of politics in their work, Scott is creating a literal concept. He is not a conceptual poet, but a poet of the brute obstacle. He uses a shovel to speak: "I open, shovel bug on tongue. Swing teeth into lip. Cicada for Chiclet. Trident itch. Pluck mucus in harpsichord" (17). It is as if the mouth were conceptualizing the mind, obliging it to think about something it started off trying to avoid. Where the Pidgin speaker knows what he or she is saying, but is found inarticulate by the larger culture, the stutterer cannot know what he or she is about to say. There may be a thought that precedes speech, but it is not the same thought that postdates the (f)act of speaking.

Charles Bernstein once said that he is a poet because he's dyslexic, because language is difficult for him. That Bernstein's "Defence of Poetry" is difficult is testament not merely to the poet's obstreperousness, but also to his actual material difficulty with written words. But Bernstein instantly metaphorizes his difficulty. Difficulty will save us from ourselves. For Scott, difficulty is of another level of difficulty. It does not liberate us from itself, but immerses us in discomfort. We emerge less enlightened about the politics of language than about its resistances to us. We are its politics, not the other way around.

What, in the end, does any of this have to do with meditative poetry? This is a blog entry, so I'm not sure yet; my thoughts are tentative. I won't say they stutter, but they certainly are not in NASCAR territory, burning rubber around the track. In my own writing, the meditative poem fell away (in the late 1990s, to be nearly exact). I could no longer justify to myself all the connections my syntax was making for me, connections that owed as much to previous meditative poems as to my existence, its stops and starts and recognitions. I took away line breaks and replaced them with prose sentences. No two sentences could touch ideas. They were ever discrete. Much as I want to return to meditation, I cannot seem to get there. Perhaps it's as biological an issue as that of tongue and enunciation. But in my thinking about it, I realize that I could not return now to meditation as any imitation of seamless thinking. It requires its breaks; it break dances (RIP MJ); it hits brick walls. Then again, when I look back to Stevens I hear more stuttering than I did before. In my "as if" stage of writing (in college, in other words), Alfred Corn referred me to "Bantams in Pine-Woods" for a cure. The first two lines enact their last word, obliging the reader to yell and spit and nearly stutter:

Chieftain Iffucan of Azcan in caftan
Of tan with henna hackles, halt!

Now it's not "Tongue and canine boing-boing until CH CH knockout chipmunk achoo" (Scott, 16), but it's closer than one might imagine.

A more "standard" (in the sense of standard English) meditative poem is Norman Fischer's Charlotte's Way, Tinfish's only accordion chapbook:

Fischer's lines are long and sometimes prosaic, but move fluidly through time and Fischer's meditations in and of it. A zen priest, Fischer is at home with wavering, with finding home as the place that is always moving (Jennifer Kwon Dobbs's notion of the adoptive imagination operates here, too). So his poems tend to be long, capacious, inclusive of ordinary and extraordinary detail. In the following passage from the chapbook he moves easily between the meta- and the physical:

In the shadow of forgetting
Which occurs so quickly and in such detail
Even the tips of the cypress trees subtly quivering in the salt wind
Know of it and reflect it in their patterns now yielding
To another now
Under equally changeable skies
As I write this line a leaf blows by

What the design of this chapbook accomplishes is to show at once the fracturing of those meditations--both in the exaggerated separations between sections of the poem, and in the folds created in the middle of som sections. In the section after the one I just quoted, the page break comes between the word "feeling" and the phrase "That is a person":

Which I'd've forgotten if not for
Writing which makes a new now frozen
And not frozen in a reader's fluid awareness
A face, or faces, a face is always plural like a sea or a sky
For clouds or waves just as surely roll across it
And light does too
Thought there's nothing to be fixed or retained
The face expresses a person, a feeling
That is a person each face a history
Of a reckoning and a history
And a request consented to
With courage making a singular life story
Journey on the seas back to an island
Bright in the sunlight

"[A] feeling / That is a person" is a double stutter in the text (line break followed by page fold) that is crucial to the larger meditation Fischer embarks upon. While the page breaks are accidents of the design, they add to the poem by distracting from its flow. They are accidents like the blowing leaf. They are collaborations after the fact between the poet (who has written the poem) and the designer (Terri Wada, who is reading and placing the poem on the page). Kanae's book was designed and transformed by Kristin Gonzales Lipman, without Kanae's input. This book, while it had more input from the poet, still incorporates the material felicities of its design into the content. The physical folds are like Scott's tongue, his hyoid bone; they break our reading up. But the accordion is incapable of ending except where it begins, almost. The accordion is circular, not linear, or merely accumulative, like most books, which convert pages into little piles and then stun them inside covers like butterflies for display. The riddle of time and its passage, then, is enacted by the book itself, a book that flows and stutters in nearly equal measure.

Fischer's lines move from plural to singular (faces to face, selves to self or at least to that self's story), from an unspoken continent to a marked island. Islands are where languages collide most quickly, shift, change, move from oral to written and back again. No man may be an island, but his voice can be. Words as islands are stutters in the text, but how right that sounds here on Oahu, where the stutter is the meditation and meditations only rarely pacific.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Contemplations on Contemplations on Pidgin Culture, or Re-publishing LIVING PIDGIN, by Lee Tonouchi (2002, 2009)

One evening during the nearly interminable Pony League baseball season this spring, my husband and I were engaged in a heated conversation about our nine year old son's baseball team, which practiced or played seven days a week--too much, in other words. I don't remember exactly what we were talking about that evening, but I do recall that we looked at each other and laughed, realizing that we were speaking in Pidgin (or Hawai`i Creole) English. Not "proper" Pidgin, mind you, but an approximate version, full of intonation and short sentence(s). "Pidgin short," goes a poem well known here, by Diane Kahanu; "just cuz we speak Pidgin no mean we dumb," it concludes. How had this conversation come to pass between a white man who had grown up in Hawai`i but does not speak da kine and a white woman who came here twenty years ago, publishes Pidgin literature yet cannot edit or speak it well?

The community of local children's baseball is one in which Pidgin is the coin of the realm, or diamond. It's largely a working class world; many dads come to practice and to games in the bright yellow and orange shirts of road construction crews, carrying dust on their boots, exchanging handshakes and howzits before the game. Most of the dads, and all of the moms, code switch; to me they speak standard English, and to each other they speak Pidgin. Sangha's primary coach, who had a field of dreams out back of his house (a batting cage, with a machine that worked so hard it would stink of burning rubber, a partial infield grass, a couple of hitting stations, and an "outfield"), did not code switch. A middle-aged man who had been star quarterback of the Castle High School football team in his youth, he speaks only Pidgin. He might slow down a bit for me, but not much.

One of Tinfish Press's most important publications has proved to be Lisa Linn Kanae's Sista Tongue, a mixed genre memoir / academic essay boldly collaged by the designer, Kristin Gonzales Lipman. After reprinting the first edition several times, Tinfish recently released a second edition of the book. Despite the striking format and innovative method, Sista Tongue sets Pidgin in an accepted historical context. Kanae details attacks on Pidgin, early middle and late, the history of Pidgin and standard schools in Hawai`i prior to statehood in 1959, and the emergence of a powerful Pidgin literature from the 1970s until the turn of this century. She amplifies her history with the story of her brother's struggles with language, making an analogy between assumptions that he was handicapped and assumptions that Pidgin speakers are socially and economically "disabled." Pidgin, for Kanae and most residents of Hawai`i, is a marker of working class life, restricted opportunities, and suppression by the state DOE. It is also (in reverse) a marker of who's an insider and who an outsider. You speak Pidgin, you're an insider. You speak standard, you one haole outsider. If you are the latter and you try to speak Pidgin, you violate a boundary that is more than merely linguistic. And that is why my husband and I had our Pidgin conversation in private. In public, we know to stick with standard, or an inflected standard that bears witness around its sonorous edges to our many years here but does not claim for its speakers the status of local or insider.

Baseball dads and moms speak Pidgin to each other; coaching on and off the field is done in Pidgin. But the kids speak differently from their parents, not simply to adults like me but also to one another. Their chatter owes more (as my husband points out) to the video games and television and music they're drenched in to their interactions with coaches and family elders. I won't go so far as to say that most of them do not speak Pidgin, but they do not speak it as often or as vividly as their parents. The intonation of their speech is flatter, their verbs more standard. I was surprised to hear my son say, "I like bat" one day, and he always uses the Pidgin "for" instead of "so" ("I'll get the water for you can boil it," for example). All children use the word "much" instead of "many": "I have too much pages to read" is typical banter. But otherwise he and his local friends do not speak full-on.

This is where the work of Lee Tonouchi seems at once valedictory and visionary. When Tonouchi was a grad student at UHM, he made a vow never to speak or write in standard English again. He wrote his essays in Pidgin, filled in job apps in Pidgin, became "da Pidgin guerrilla." He began agitating for a department of Pidgin at the university; later he put together a Pidgin dictionary. In a move fascinating to me (for obvious reasons), he also removed, at least rhetorically, the boundary between insider and outsider by suggesting that Pidgin be taught to non-Pidgin speakers. Where resistance to Pidgin is invariably described as the resistance of the dominant culture to speakers of a non-dominant language, Tonouchi turns the issue on its head. He describes a class in which the main resistance is to Pidgin interlopers. In "Da Death of Pidgin?" he quotes a girl who refers to speakers from the Mainland who are "soooo off." Tonouchi continues:

A lotta people I know make fun of "Try go no like stay come la'dat braw" [odd Pidgin with a midwestern accent]. But wot's wrong? If we can accept grandma-grandpa kine Pidgin, Korean Pidgin, Filipino Pidgin, Nanakuli Pidgin, Kaua`i Pidgin, Hawai`i Kai Pidgin (get you know), den why are we so quick to judge--why do we automatically rejeck haole Pidgin?" (31).

Tonouchi quotes the comedian, James Grant Benton, making the point in 1997 that the insider/outsider lines were blurring, and that "haole Pidgin" represents the collapse of binaries. "So you include, you include da guy. Das anoddah variety of Pidgin, haole Pidgin. And everybody happy" (31). I don't know that everyone is happy when they read this sentence, but Tonouchi has moved from the proposition that Pidgin may be dying to a possible solution. Let everyone speak their own version of Pidgin--throw open the categories--and Pidgin will come back to life. This is not, strictly speaking, analogous to arguments about Hawaiian, that students in immersion schools do not speak the Hawaiian of their elders. But it does promise a way to keep Pidgin alive. You need more Pidgin speakers? Admit everyone into the club! The potential dangers are obvious; if everything is Pidgin, then nothing might be.

Ultimately, Tonouchi is less interested in who speaks Pidgin and why than he is in the developing what he terms "Pidgin culture," or a constellation of arts and viewpoints beyond the usual consideration of sociological and grammatical features. He aims to join other such cultures (from Jamaica, for example) in a parallel revival of what Edward Kamau Brathwaite called "Nation Language." While this part of his book is less fleshed out than the essays and poems that precede it--essays and poems that involve a call to Pidgin arms/wings--it offers us a possible future. In the nine years since Tinfish first published Tonouchi's small book, UHM has not created a department of Pidgin, although there is a Charlene Sato Center for the study of creoles, founded in 2002 and now ably run by Kent Sakoda, co-producer of Pidgin Grammar with Jeff Siegel. And, while discussions of the relative merits and demerits of using Pidgin in the schools come up with alarming predictability and (often) ignorance in the local media, there is less talk of Pidgin in my department these days. Instead (is that the word?), the move to recognize that Hawaiian is already the official language of the state of Hawai`i, seems paramount. In the academy, if not in the local community I participate in as a parent, Asians are often construed as settlers, or more like haole than like Hawaiians. It's called Asian Settler Colonialism, which has its own take on "local culture" as more destructive than creative. Pidgin is seen more as a diversion than as a crucial element of Hawai`i's culture. Tonouchi addresses this: "My greatest fear is dat people going try posit Pidgin culture against Hawaiian culture and see dem as competing. I tink both can cooperate togeddahs as partners in resistance" (44).

While the subject of Pidgin attracts fewer decibels than there were only 10 years ago, I would argue that the conversation is still well worth having, in Hawai`i and elsewhere. See Barbara Jane Reyes's blog for more on how that last conversation might begin. Hawai`i surely does not need to be a monolingual, or a bi-lingual, state. There are at least three languages that signify Hawai`i to itself, languages that sometimes collide, sometimes overlap, often compete for attention, but each carries tremendous meaning. Pidgin's substrate, its grammar, is more like Hawaiian than like English, even if most of the words these days are American. It may seem frivolous for me to say that, insofar as I think Pidgin thoughts, they are mostly about baseball. But, as a lifelong baseball fan, that is not as trivial to me as it might be to someone else.

Re-publishing Living Pidgin: Contemplations on Pidgin Culture at this juncture is a way both to point back and to look ahead. It's an odd book in many ways. As my former mail carrier told me (he was a great reader of Tinfish Press publications, which I passed on to him for Christmas), the Pidgin in Tonouchi's book is "long winded." "I could shorten his sentences for him," he told me. Perhaps this is because while the book is in Pidgin, it's also academic. Unlike Kanae's book, which separates out the personal (rendered in Pidgin) from the academic (in English), Tonouchi tells it all in Pidgin. And, while his plans for Pidgin's future may seem utopian, especially in an era when existing disciplines are being cut back, this book will help us remember that there such a future might yet be possible.

The new edition of Living Pidgin will be available later in the summer. The book will be redesigned slightly by Michael Y. Cueva to accommodate digital printing, and that means the cover by Ryan Higa will be in fuller color than before. Look to our website for details in a month or so:

[Editor's note, 6/27: I added an image of the color cover at the top.]

Friday, June 19, 2009

Defying etymology: Intertexts and adoption in Dobbs, Shin, Ashbery

While composing my last post, I was struck by Stephen Collis's link (via his imagined collaborators, Alfred Noyes and Ramon Fernandez) between the commons and intertextuality, between social fact and literary trope. Let me repeat what Andrew Sullivan would call the "money quote": "In so far as a literature takes on a practice of quotation, collage, allusion and intertextuality it holds out a sort of commons--a page on which any may write with the common resources of the poetic past" (139). For several years now I have wanted to make a similar link between quotation and adoption. Each time I try, I come up short. Nice analogy, I think, but where does it lead? Not much beyond Harold Bloom (whose work on influence I still love, even though I don't believe a word of it) or beyond the theorists of intertextuality themselves. The analogy threatens to remain mere ornament, a link meaningful only to me for reasons of my own as adoptive mother and critic, but not to anyone else. So why go there, especially when words like "adoption," to say nothing of "poetry," offer such unstable ground on which to think through the comparison? Google (verb!) resources on adoption and you'll find everything from Christian adoption agencies to "transracial abduction"; search the library and you'll find Elizabeth Bartholet's defenses of adoption as a tool for creating tolerance, and The Primal Wound. There's a middle ground, too, though sometimes hard to see for all the strong arguments one way or another. Discussions of international adoption necessarily involve fraught questions of ethics, race, gender, money, power, language, and so on. So to use the term "adoption" alongside the term "poetry" (and I'm not going to draw out arguments over that word!) threatens a proliferation of meanings rather than a theoretical frame to help us read poetry or think about adoption. I've written before in these blog pages about uses of the term "adoption" for everything from highway clean-up to course books. Other words have an uncanny way of saying too much: when I looked up the (adopted) poet Sun Yung Shin on Wikipedia, I was told that the article about her was an "orphan." "This article is an orphan, as few or no other articles link to it. Please introduce links to this page from other articles related to it." In other words, please "adopt" this link by giving it a "family" of references.

But I've returned to my desire to make this connection, as I've been reading two books by Korean adoptees, Jennifer Kwon Dobbs's Paper Pavilion (White Pine Press, 2007) and Sun Yung Shin's Skirt Full of Black (Coffee House Press, 2006). These books are strikingly different in many ways. Dobbs's poems are lyrical, centered on an "I" who closely resembles the poet. They are sometimes narrative, and more or less straightforward (though I love those occasions where her rhetoric takes flight, threatens to leave the ordinary conversational tone of contemporary poetry). Shin's poems are collaged, among her sources a guide to Korean, a book about the Korean language, a State Department document, a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale. Shin's poems are more overtly political, and take on the adoption industry (to call it an "industry" is to suggest her point of view about it). Dobb's poems come closer to personal witness about the effects of adoption for her and many other Korean adoptees. As she told some of my students this past April, she does not begin her thinking from a point of stability, but from a cloud (my word, adopted from the mystics) of unknowing. "I do not trust stories. / I resist them''" (43); "Even in Korea, / I long for Korea" (49); and the tongue in cheek comment that may well sum up the book, a comment on a book about Korea:

Copyright 1956. The truth is purchased
from Pittsburgh's Caliban Bookshop in '99,

because the girl on the cover wore a striped hanbok.
She is me/is not me. (I'm learning

how to manage paradox.) (87)

To manage paradox. To purchase truth. Copyright 1956
. 1956 was the year Harry Holt, founder of Holt International Adoption Agency, began his work in Korea. Adoption papers resemble copyrighted material as much or more than they do birth certificates. Who has the "right" to the child "copy" is part of what's at stake in any birth, or adoption. Words mirror adoptions in the way the girl on the cover mirrors the poet, flickering in and out of meaning(s). Words, like images, are loaded things. Sun Yung Shin:

My life stood as a loaded (weight laden with warrant
My life stood as a wild (wood abundant with beasts and the nail trimmings of angels
My life stood as He (hunger Aeipartheons, Semper Virgo
Satisfy me (beneath (tomb of meter and pitch
Bough break (breath frost onto thy crown of twelve stars
"Flower I, Stamen and Pollen" (30)

Shin references Susan Howe channeling Emily Dickinson, even as she collages/collapses Hans Christian Andersen's The Wild Swans into a poem about femininity (the good girl vs. the witch), about travel, about lineage, and above all about silence.

You must not speak. You must not. You must.You. The first word will
pierce their hearts.
Your last wod will pierce your own. Seven swords a flam on seven sorrows,
Son and brothers. A historical inheritance. If only your tongue were
large enough
for all of them, the size of their lives. This task, this colossal silence.
Flesh, tissue, you gorge throbbing on the words. (32)

In Andersen's tale, the girl Eliza is told that in order to save her swan brothers and render them human again, she must weave armor for them out of nettles and--above all--she must not speak to anyone. Hans Andersen aside, the issue of silence is significant in Asian American / Canadian literature, from Joy Kogawa's in Obasan to Maxine Hong Kingston and many others. One is silenced, and then one "breaks silence." Eliza's silence is broken as she is about to be executed--she finishes the last coat of armor, almost, leaving her last brother with the wing of a swan, but she saves them and is saved by the King, who marries her. It's a lovely story, but it also involves a girl who loses her home and family and is taken far away to be saved by a patriarchal system that was about to kill her off. (I'm reminded, by way of the swan, of an adoption story I bought for my son when he was very young, a book written in Korean and English. In it a stork is transformed into a jet plane, so that he can take babies on international trips and drop them safely in the United States.)

But to cut to the chase, Shin is using a "fairy tale" as a tool against the "fairy tale" notion of adoption as easy and happy "transformation." We think of fairy tales as being for children. Shin argues that we (the culture at large) think of adoptees as children, too: "In terms of linguistics and social history, the word "adoptee" denotes a state of childhood (as an adult cannot be adopted) and connotes, sometimes, indigence and certainly dependence." (New York Times, 2007) Just look at the link to Holt International (above) and you'll see the "savior" narrative writ large. Shin's poem "Speed" offers a more direct critique of western adoption practices in the "developing" or "decolonizing" world. Here she collages voices in a way similar to Mark Nowak's in Shut Up, Shut Down, building her poem out of quotations that are cited at the back of the book, but not directly. (Making links between the Works Cited and the poems is another kind of poem, one the reader composes.)

Dobbs comes closest to Shin's method in a poem like "Face Sheet," which plays off the more expected "fact sheet." This poem uses language from the "Livingstone Adoption Agency" (Livingston, I presume?), and involves a check list of a child's birth status ("legitimate, illegitimate, foundling"), his or her "distinguishing marks, features" and how well he or she controls her neck and bowel movements. (This poem brought back memories from the other side of adoption for me, remembering as I do the paltry few facts we received about our children, and how often the facts proved wrong. I also remember taking a blown-up picture of my son, the only evidence we had of his existence, to a pediatrician and asking her what to expect. Oedipus was only the most famous sleuth in the larger story of adoption.) But most of Dobbs's references are literary and musical, both eastern and western in origin. Her "Notes" at the end of the book point to work by Korean and American poets and writers, and to a poetic form, sijo, in which Dobbs composes several of her poems. Dobbs's central concern is less with "facts" than with the imagination--artistic and personal. There are many imagined birth mothers in this book; stories of her/them proliferate in poem after poem until the (unadopted?) reader does not trust the stories, but begins to appreciate their power.

And it's here I'd like to turn back to my idea about texts and adoption. While one could argue that, according to my description of intertextuality as a form of textual adoption, 20th century American poetry is largely an adopted art, I think it's no mistake that these two adopted poets use such a range of texts in their work. Theirs is not a regurgitated modernism (no latter day Eliots or Pounds are Dobbs and Shin); instead, their accumulations of texts from traditions of the fairy tale, journalism, lyric and collaged poetry, speak to artistic and political imaginations that spring from a sense of writing that has very little to do with ownership. Janet Beizer wrote a wonderful essay on adoption and ownership in a Tulsa Studies issue on adoption that I've misplaced (alas). In it, as I recall, she talks about the ways in which we refer to children as "ours." As an adoptive mother, I have come to realize that the question, "are these children yours?" is loaded. That "yours" means genetic, means I would be the origin of that child's life, not its guide. The MFA school, or what is left of the 1970s version, put its emphasis on "finding your voice," where "yours" meant that you owned it. (That so many of the poems sound alike is part of "managing the paradox" of contemporary poetry, I suppose.)

If I write in "my" voice, "my" poem is like "my" child, "genetically" linked to me by some word made flesh process. If I am adopted, or if I adopt, "my" poem is shared (Collis is right about the Commons, I think); it's an unstable creation, like a mirror that does and does not reflect one's self. Our notion of poetry, like our notion of family, is disrupted. Just as it's sometimes unclear whether Dobbs is writing about her adoptive or her birth family, the poet who "adopts" different texts and traditions finds variousness in the family model. It's not nuclear, it's not national, it's something that words often fail to describe "faithfully." And it can be abused, whether through appropriation of cultures or through plagiarism, the act of taking a text without asking.

Another test of the analogy would be ask related (ah, relation again) questions about other texts, those in which language is "adopted," but not by adopted poets. In other words, is there are a distinctly textual version of "adoption" that is not tied into the poet's identity position? Timothy Yu writes about Theresa Hak Kyung Cha as being sometimes an experimental writer, sometimes an Asian American one. I love the risk he takes there, even if I don't really like the division itself. So which non-adopted poets adopted texts in ways similar to Dobbs and Shin? One can surely look to poetry about de-colonization and immigration for instances; on the Tinfish list I find books by Craig Santos Perez and Barbara Jane Reyes. Just the tip of a tropical iceberg. These poets use languages and texts from "east" and "west," from islands to continents, from oral and written cultures; their use of textual adoption is as a technique of de-colonization, rather than poetic empire (which way does Ezra Pound go on that one? Probably both.) Beyond the reach of Tinfish's anti-empire, among recent publications, I can think of Rachel Loden's book about (by!) Richard Nixon. Among unpublished books, there is Joseph Harrington's amneoir, a documentary poem about his mother's death and Richard Nixon's demise.

I end with one of my favorite John Ashbery poems from April Galleons. Ashbery is not a documentary poet, except perhaps in The Vermont Notebook; nor does he "adopt" texts in the ways I've been suggesting up until now. So let me end by complicating the matter (mater?) further, with the opening to "Forgotten Song":

O Mary, go and call the cattle home

For I'm sick in my heart and fain would lie down.

As if that wasn't enough, I find this bundle of pain
Left on my doorstep, with a note: "Please raise it as your own."

I don't know. When it grows up will it be like the others,
Able to join in their games, or is it the new person,

As yet indescribable, though existing here and there? (AG 12)

The poem begins with lyrics to two folk songs whose words he simply notes down; the second couplet (another word that "rhymes" with family) comments on the way he has found these lyrics and taken them into his poem. The poem is about textual adoption, and it uses the metaphor of actual adoption. The poem is not the poet's own, but a found thing, a "foundling." Nor does it belong to the reader, though we too may "raise it as our own." That may be the central lesson to poets, as to families, adoptive and not. We may feel that we belong, but none of us belongs to another. We must adopt our texts carefully.

[Note: the first line in Shin's book reads, "Sometimes the surface forms defy etymology." Already a quotation, I have triply quoted it in my title.]

Monday, June 15, 2009

"Intercontinental and damn proud of it": Gaye Chan, Nandita Sharma, Stephen Collis and Otherly Ones

There ought to be room for more things, for a spreading out, like. Being immersed in the details of rock and field and slope--letting them come to you for once, and then meeting them halfway would be so much easier--if they took an ingenuous pride in being in one's blood.

John Ashbery, "For John Clare,"The Double Dream of Spring

I live in a condominium community; outside my back windows is a large common area, green, carefully mowed, populated mainly by egrets and the occasional solitary golf cart, which the property manager drives to his office in a shed at the edge of the field. Beyond the shed there is preservation land, a narrow undeveloped strip (that seems bigger than it is) covered by trees. My husband points out that this land includes a deep gulch and a swamp, not good for development in any case. When we moved in eight years ago, people ran their dogs in the common area during the late afternoon; on any given day, you could join them and talk about their dogs, since that was their only subject of conversation. A few years ago, we noticed that the dogs no longer congregated outside and were told by a dog owner that they had been disallowed. And for a while there was a group of roosters and hens that wandered the green space, beautiful ones. Their raucous cries at all hours got them banned, too, as they were carted off one day to who knows where. Since then, my kids and I have played catch out back and there is the occasional soccer-playing dog, some children. But mostly the land lies green and still, something to be seen but not a stage for sound, except for what mowers and weed whackers exhale, like asthmatics with microphones.

So the condominium community is the simulacrum of a commons, or the land not privately owned but shared in the years before the Enclosure Movement in 18th century England. When I looked up "enclosure" on-line, I found a link to the Encyclopedia Britannica. I opened it and got the beginning of an article: "the division or consolidation of communal fields, meadows, pastures, and other arable lands in western Europe into the carefully delineated and individually owned and managed farm plot of modern times." A couple of lines later I read this: "To enclose land was to put a hedge or fence around a portion of this open land and thus prevent the exercise of common grazing and other rights over it." Directly underneath these words in a bright orange box was an alert to me, the reader: "MEMBERS GET MORE: Activate your Free Trial today!" A few more knowledge teasers followed, and then a promise of "premium content." Not that I begrudge the Encyclopedia their subscribers, but surely this is another example of enclosure, the fencing off of knowledge. Hence the allure of Wikipedia's seeming openness, to builders and receivers. If you read only this entry of my blog, you will be reading an "enclosed" version of my work, only a small slice of what I mean to say--a more fluid substance than the single link can offer. The internet's wild openness covers over the largest agglomeration of small farms ever devised. And that reminds me, I will soon need to build some fences against my children's curiosities.

Of course land use offers us a mirror on ourselves (and that's a western metaphor, no doubt about it); hence the Romantics' love for unenclosed nature in the face of industrial-era divisions. Another analogy occurs closer to home. The U.S. Post Office says I live in Kane`ohe, Hawai`i, but you could say that I live in Ahuimanu in the ahupua`a of Kahalu`u. Hawaiians organized the land in bands that went from mountains to the sea; they did not possess what westerners consider "private property," though the Great Mahele of the early 19th century changed that, under western influence. The land was tilled by commoners who did not own it but stayed, generation after generation. The land I live on is organized less according principle of the ahupua`a than that of the belt, or the road that goes around most of the island. I live mauka of Kahekili Highway (a bypass of Kamehameha Highway); the makai side features a strip mall and McDonald's. Near me, the land's tillage is done more frequently by road crews than by farmers.

Enter unlikely allies, if only geographically so, namely Gaye Chan & Nandita Sharma of Kane`ohe and Stephen Collis of Delta, BC, near Vancouver. Chan & Sharma have made a practice over the past few years of challenging notions of "public" space, unveiling it as a fiction operated in the interest of nations, not their citizens. They consider themselves modern day Diggers. What is termed "public" land, they argue, is really that of governmentally held land. "Public" does not equal "commonly held." (The military opens Bellows Beach to civilians only on weekends.) They work with plants and with the internet. Their project, Eating in Public, is easily accessible on-line. In it, they tell the story (with illustrations) of their use of "public" land (state and Bishop Estate-controlled) to grow papayas. This is their attempt to enact a "commons." Another version of their story can be found in Jules Boykoff's and Kaia Sand's book on guerrilla poetries. It also brings together the notion of a material commons (where food is grown for the public) and a decolonized mental space. The results are moving, surprising, and sometimes sadly funny, as when they show us the gently regretful notes from the person instructed to remove their plants.

Stephen Collis is in the process of writing a series of books advocating the commons, including the most recent, aptly titled The Commons, from Talonbooks in Vancouver. His interests range from the anarcho-scholasticism of Susan Howe, in a wonderful teachable book of poetics, to anarchist Spain, the work of Phyllis Webb, archives, mines, and in this volume everyone poetical from Robert Frost to John Clare to William Wordsworth to Henry David Thoreau and finally to the poet himself and his collaborators "Alfred Noyes and Ramon Fernandez," who seem one with Collis, as well as his most formidable opponents (to quote that other Stephen, Colbert). "Noyes and Fernandez" write an introduction at the end of the book, in which they define the commons so: "Common lands are held in trust by everyone and governed only by local custom. They embody sustainability and the sharing--commoning--of the resources such sustainable communities depend upon" (139). He too joins the material with the imaginative, noting that enclosure "is happening now with water and air, with ideas and genetic coding and materials . . . In so far as a literature takes on a practice of quotation, collage, allusion and intertextuality it holds out a sort of commons--a page on which any may write with the common resources of the poetic past" (139).

To that we might add something called parodic collage; The Commons begins with "The Frostworks," a re-mix of "Mending Wall" by Robert Frost. Where Frost opens his unstraightforward poem, "Something there is that doesn't love a wall," Collis responds:

Something there is
that spills
makes gaps
the work of
hunters at spring
the wall
between us
is a collapse

and so on. Frost's grammatically perfect sentences give way to "gaps" of no commas or periods, simply a flow of words from Frost's poem in an order unimagined by the New Hampshire farmer poet.

In "Clear as Clare," Collis remixes John Clare, but not to the witty effect of his operation on Frost. Clare walks through England in a poem that owes much to Susan Howe's peregrinations through histories and texts. Most moving to this reader were the following lines:

a little patch of common
buckled to my bread
the woodpecker sweeing
flags flaze and flitting

said arable
said commons
said cottage rushlight
clouted dipples stirtling

dim to the seem

and beneath these lines a "note":

at night ... hounding home

This page combines the virtues of Clare's early close-watching of nature and close-listening to language with the sadness of his later poems of loss. I remember reading John Burrell's book on Clare in college (yours used for nearly $700), a book that claims Clare's madness had much to do with the enclosure movement. While I'm now loath to go along with analogies between social conditions and mental ones, the book made a strong impression at the time.

Collis performs similar operations on Wordsworth and Thoreau, before turning to a meta-commentary on his work as a poet in the final section "from THE BARRICADES PROJECT" (119-134). Here the non-enclosure of vocabularies, including the use of computer jargon in "Dear Common: !Ya Basta!": "I'll download your rebellion / but my virus makes actions properties / buying up the domains of freedom / and surveiling the lines of defence" (128). I quote these lines as Twitter announces it will not shut down for maintenance an hour tonight in order to keep lines of communication open among Iranians protesting the likely fraudulent election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Such odd marriages of capital and rebellion! Collis's conclusion is an overt getting-to-the-point:

Let us propose post-capitalism (131)

and an ending that seems to address Chan & Sharma:

we are hope's eternal website
very otherly moving coasts
intercontinental and damn proud of it
very otherly at least and yes
very otherly awaiting the dawn

In his afterward to the Quixote Variations by Ramon Fernandez, translated by Alfred Noyes / Stephen Collis, Collis writes about poems that do not end, either because they have been reworked so often that "authenticity" is in question (Whitman, the unnamed Marianne Moore) or because they are not finished. "It is that 'area larger' that is the wonder in poetry--the suggestion, amidst poetry's inherent brevity, of a wider field of intellectual and emotional play the poem we read is a condensation of" (32-33). If the poem is inevitably enclosed, then, the poet's and reader's imaginations cannot be; the poem on the page has a fence around it. The poem in the mind is not a palm at the end of it, but part of the commons. This is not the Commons on which Emerson saw his eyeball, but a commons on which people like Chan, Sharma and Collis are planting vegetables and flowers and more poems. That other commons we call the commons.

For anyone interested in reading more on the Commons, Nandita Sharma recommends the following:

1) Neeson, J.M. Commoners: Common Right, Enclosure and Social Change in England, 1700–1820, J. M. (1993), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

2) Linebaugh, Peter, 2007 The Magna Carta Manifesto: Liberties and Commons For All. Berkeley: University of California Press.

3) Linebaugh , Peter and Marcus Rediker, 2000. The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic, Boston: Beacon Press.

More work by Stephen Collis in Tinfish 18.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Literary Classics of the United States, Inc. and the strange case of John Ashbery

When my daughter Radhika burst forth with her "waste of space" comment about Paul Naylor's new Tinfish Press book, I happened to be holding in my hand the Library of America volume of John Asbhery's Collected Poems 1956-1987. "See, here's what happens when you try to save paper!" I remember imagining myself saying. But Radhika is seven years old, after all, and despite her cluedness about many things, the semiotics of book publishing may still be beyond, beside, and/or beneath her. Where Naylor's book puts a premium on the page as a jam session between blankness and print, silence and language, the Library of America Ashbery (like the LoA anybody) puts its premiums on text, and text within a pre-determined space, let's call it 5X8 inches, or about the size of a mid-sized photograph. Where Naylor's book features paper of a certain heft (negotiated between the designer and money bags here), the LoA features paper that feels like the old airmail stationery, light because it had to travel. Well, we all know that Ashbery travels, but this format and material has me, if not seething, then grumpy, if not grumpy, then giggling. When the reader arrives at The Vermont Notebook, written by JA and illustrated by Joe Brainard, the paper betrays us all.

Is this the raciest thing ever to grace an LoA book? One wonders. While on the one hand, I'm thinking that the book format is simply too fancy kine (or hybolical, in Pidgin) to support the work of a poet who writes lines like "'once I let a guy blow me'" (442) or "Hunted unsuccessfully, / To be torn down later / The horse said" (79) or any number of unconcorded quotations one can mine here or in any JA volume. And yet in this campiest of JA texts (see Susan Sontag, I'm not going there!), the reader can see through the naked man with no right eye to what falls below him, namely a clock (it's 3)(not a cock, oh the parentheticals multiply!) and a washer and dryer (no apparent make). The Granary Books edition of The Vermont Notebook, published in 2001 along with Z Press in Vermont (9-ish by 6 1/2 inches, if you're counting, and I am), allows no such peep hole of transparency. Published originally in 1975 by Black Sparrow, there's a certain 1950s quality to the schematic illustrations, which draws out for me the contrast (not the word I need, but that one doesn't exist) between the lounging naked man and the appliances that keep our clothes clean and our day itself in order. So, as the LoA attempts to render JA a canonical figure, the American version of a French Academie-approved poet, they have succeeded in drawing out what makes him most interesting, the wacky wavering of his diction, the jumpy juxtaposition of his thought images. Here's what you see through to:

But I'm being too kind; I'm justifying the LoA atrocity by reading it against itself. Bad critic! The intent of the Library, according to its own website, is this: "The Library of America, a nonprofit publisher, is dedicated to publishing, and keeping in print, authoritative editions of America's best and most significant writing." Ah, the authority! the dedication! the bestness! the significance! the selling! (They rather smartly have a shop at their site, as well.) It's this authority that comes through to my students when I, on rare occasion, teach JA's work in my Hawai`i classrooms. Last time I taught a book, April Galleons, to a graduate class, the reaction was mostly one of confusion. One woman from the east coast loved it; another from Hawai`i loved it, but left the class (scheduling problems). Another student, let us call him Kimo A., attacked JA as one of those establishment white poets out to take over the world for his kind; you know, John Milton, Walt Whitman, et al. "But isn't he gay?" someone asked along the way. Now, while identity politics can be annoying, this kind is inevitable here. Why should we be reading this obscure, somewhat identity-less (hence all-encompassing) poetry, when there's so much else more "relevant" to us. Well, that was the rest of the semester . . . A colleague, Gary Pak, now dear to me, said on a panel in the very early 1990s, when I was a babe on the island (babe in the sense of youth, not in my bathing suit), that "we do not want to be John Ashbery!!!" He says I seemed scared of him after that, shuddered in a stairwell when he passed. I was scared because JA was my man.

And this edition does nothing to argue against that notion of JA as the great white whale-man of contemporary poets; instead, it presents him proudly as a poet whose poems never cross the ordinary boundaries of the book. "Litany," which required an odd-shaped conveyer (As We Know is 8 1/2 by 6 /12) due to its two columns of text, is here rendered as a column per page with a wedgie in the middle. It's also given short shrift in the Selecteds of JA because of its odd bulk. While JA's books are fairly standard in design and size, even the doofy ones had their charms. The first JA I read (in a Silliman College--not Ron, but Yale--poetry seminar taught by Alfred Corn in 1977) was Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror. The book was small and ugly, aside from the photo of the author leaning on a farm fence on the cover. [Ed. note: the poet is not leaning against a fence--that was Three Poems. Instead, he is looking out of a door on the left side of the book, while the title descends on the righ. Still ugly, just different from my memory of it.] Dark book, dark heavy print, nothing to write home about. But I want that book in my hand instead of this book where "Tarpaulin" and "River" and the beginning of "Mixed Feelings" are all glommed together on a single flimsy yet noisy to turn page. (Have you ever heard a lecture class of a couple hundred students turn the pages of their Norton Anthologies at the same time?) Not "A pleasant smell of frying sausages/ Attacks the sense" (455), but a jumble of readable and unreadable texts (as I wrote above, the other page shows through) causes the reader more than the "MIXED FEELINGS" advertised at the top, as if this were a phonebook.

The happy ending of my teaching story was that the student who most hated Ashbery wrote a wonderful poem based on "Finnish Rhapsody" ("write a poem in which the same things happens twice, in different words, in each line"). It was a scary poem about an unhappy family. It took place on the North Shore, in Haleiwa (if my memory serves me). It was a marvelous, complicated Hawai`i poem. Ashbery's poem about the quotidian is full of aforesaid "mixed feelings"; it's a sad clown of a poem until the end. Kimo's poem is likewise sad, "Truncat[ing[ the spadelike shadows." Is it any accident that Ashbery's poem ends not with a dismissal, but an acknowlegment of, identity: "But perhaps only to oneself, haply to one's sole identity." And this may not be a good thing in any case, whether in New York or Haleiwa.

August 1 will mark my 20th anniversary living in Hawai`i. Many things I know here I did not know before I arrived. Many things--like the work of John Ashbery--I thought I knew. Like an Ashbery poem or the sheen from a space blanket turned from sun to cloud and back, nothing stays still. Never known for their stillness, Ashbery's poems stay stuck in my consciousness but alter in the signals they send out. Somewhere JA mentions a woman from Honolulu; remembering where in JA's oeuvre a phrase can be found is like remembering a cinder cone but being unable to find it on a topo map. From Honolulu (or more properly, Ahuimanu, where this woman sits at her computer), Ashbery does indeed seem a creature of the east (coast)--gee whiz do I hate poems or blog posts that end where they began--yet he still travels well. But read his poems in their original formats or post-originals like the Granary Books The Vermont Notebook, not in this literary equivalent of homeland security with all its neat borders and red, white & blue flourishes! Or you can just peep through the pages' transparencies. Feel the frisson lidat.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Paul Naylor's waste of paper in Jammed Transmission

Yesterday evening I took Paul Naylor's gorgeous new Tinfish Press book to my in-laws to show off; as I was telling my mother-in-law that she could keep the book, my daughter Radhika (age 7) burst forth with "it's a waste of paper!" It seems she'd glanced at the book and seen that each page has more white space than print on it. For a girl drilled at school with the mantra of "reduce, reuse, recycle," the quotient of white space to print was simply too large. When I talked to her about how in poetry the white space is as important as are the words, she looked at me with the expression she wears when she whips out her air/scare quotes to indicate sarcasm. She is not alone. A couple of years ago, I asked one of the department secretaries to xerox Harryette Mullen's Trimmings (it went out of print a long time ago). Not only did she xerox the book, but she then cut out the short prose poems and stuck them together closely, as many as she could fit on a page. When I asked what she'd done, she replied that she'd saved paper. (I just hit the "save now" button on blogger, which of course does save paper, even before the saving.) Who can blame her for trying to save paper? Perhaps only an English professor who wants more space and less print. Her practical goals and mine were at (ever more necessary) odds.

Tinfish Press publishes "experimental poetry," a vexed and vexing term, and for what? I once witnessed a colleague explode in a thesis defense over the word; sounds like science, sounds like your poetry fails. I noticed just the other day that Barbara Jane Reyes insists she is not an experimental poet. I happen to like the word, and even some of the failures that come of the process of putting elements together in unexpected ways. Odd word choices make good neighbors sometimes. Naylor's book is not experimental in a strict avant-garde sense; no Language poet is he. What I take to be experimental in his work involves a temporal and a spiritual playfulness best elucidated by Norman Fischer in his preface to the book. Naylor has written a dialogue with a 14th century Japanese text by Keizan Jokin, translated as Record of the Transmission of Light. That these transmissions are "jammed" already invokes the possibility of failure on the 21st century American poet's part. It's an honest admission, but it opens up spiritual meditation to a process of fits and starts rather than those rarer completions. In that sense, spirit and poetry are firmly allied.

"Jammed" is a good word, as is "transmission." Both are polyvalent, and jam only when the live internet stops functioning and my university's Oxford English Dictionary disappears for a time. The internet is but a step or two past the radio, whose frequencies sometimes jam or are jammed by saboteurs (like the monkey mind, though I jump ahead here). Many of the definitions of "jam" have to do with violence--pressing, squeezing, making fast by tightening, blocking, bruising, crushing, and so on. What is broken can often be said to be jammed. How do we get from there to the sense of a "jam session," where the jamming is improvisational, freeing, a conversation between instruments without the confinement of the written text (which may yet be there as a guide)? A musician cannot self-jam; he or she requires another with whom to jam. The jam is dialogue, as Fischer makes clear about this book. "Transmission" is likewise a volatile term; according to my OED, it involves "conveyance from one person or place to another." Outside the secular bounds of the OED, "transmissions" can be spiritual, as a spiritual guide or master can transmit teachings to his student or disciple.

While Naylor performs zazen, he is not what one calls a practicing Buddhist. He does not study zen, but he reads and reads about it. His dialogue with the 14th century text is hence prone to jams and to jamming transmissions. If the poet is a radio, as Spicer famously remarked, then Naylor's radio is short-wave, self-consciously noisy with static. "Impeded / by all that // surrounds // the mind persists," he admits on page 44. "Why this / insistent / resistance?" he asks on 22. But Fischer's preface helps here, too: "DOGEN sees Zen enlightenment not as opposed to words and thought but as a profound possibility within words and thought. . . NAYLOR'S text can be understood as an instance of what DOGEN would call 'the practice of enlightenment'" (11). Practice is an act of improvisation within the strictest of limitations. That Naylor has chosen to perform an act of call and response with Jokin's text, answering to each chapter of his book, offers him at once the discipline and the opening in which to jam, and to admit to his being jammed by that monkey mind.

On the level of poetic technique, Naylor's jamming occurs most frequently in the way he uses enjambment. Not only are his lines tightly enjambed, but they often halt, pause, stop breathing, in the middle of a short line. Let me cite one of my favorite of his poems because just this morning I laughed to see from our lanai an egret chasing a golf cart, before it flew up against the mountains, moving from ridiculous to sublime in one easy motion.


Saw two white egrets
in early morning fog

where their feathers
end the opaque air

begins to seem it
might just be one. (53)

This is set on the right side of the right page, so:

The poem is only deceptively simple; part of this simplicity is the way it is set so cleanly on an otherwise white page, with designer Sumet (Ben) Viwatmanitsakul's circles floating, as they do on other pages, in different patterns. The poet is saying that he saw two white egrets; that they seem only to be one egret where their feathers end; that this occurs in an opacity of air. And that's really only a literal translation. There's so much activity on the level of the phrase and in the lack of punctuation (both literal and metaphorical) in these six lines. There are moments in the book where I think Naylor may use this technique too often, but mostly he uses it to enact his sense of wonder(meant). And his sense of being jammed. Sentences come in parts, jammed together, but the opening riffs into something new and the two parts start jamming. Naylor may have gotten some of this technique from Robert Creeley, who was so enamored of enjambment and of jazz. But his practice of it, the transmission from him to us, is his--in league with the preceding Zen Buddhist text.

To be honest, I like Naylor's poems more in this book than I did in manuscript. Over the past few days, I've been trying to figure out why. Paul says it's the preface, Norman Fischer's deft explanations of the method. But that's not it for me. I think my response comes out of what Radhika termed "a waste of space." These small poems, in a small font, placed to the left side of the left page and to the right side of the right, are given enough room in which to breathe. They're not jammed together, but released to float with Ben's circles (the page numbers are also circled at the top of each right hand page). The page offers us permission to read slowly, to pause, to jam along with the lines. I will save my paper elsewhere.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Editing as collage: Tinfish 19 in the making

Given the right manuscript (complete) and the right designer, Tinfish can publish a book promptly; such was the case with Paul Naylor's new Jammed Transmission. I could say more about the way in which the design's strengths bring out those of that text, but for now would like to think about putting together our annual journal issue. We're up to 19 issues, not including the half-issue that turned into a book, namely 18.5. While we never announce theme issues, #18 turned into a long poem issue, and so was relatively easy to put together. Non-themed issues that develop themes; non-coordinated art and poetry that coordinate; poets who don't know each other locked (sometimes happily) in conversations they would not otherwise have--these, along with the recycled materials used to create our covers, are what I think of as signatures of Tinfish's journal. Accident and randomness cohering into a "still yet moving" anthology (to wrench Hart Crane's bridge utterly out of context), that is what we do. Cohering and yet not necessarily coherent, suggesting and yet not insisting, these are our trajectories.

There are many ways to organize accidental anthologies of poems; some editors place poems in alphabetical order, by poets' last names. This is an arbitrary and in many ways unsatisfying means of conveyance, although it does allow poems to stand on their own, not infect one another with the editor's machinations. I will confess that Tinfish's agenda is very much on my mind as I put together sequences of poems by poets as different as Emelihter Kihleng and Daniel Tiffany, Kenny Tanemura and Mandy Luo. As my assistant editor for this issue, Jade Sunouchi, remarked, this issue is "weird"--so are many of them. Part of this weirdness comes out of the difficulty in finding conversations between poets. Take Kihleng, whose Tinfish 19 poem is a Haunani-Kay Trask-like anti-tourist screed, and Tiffany, whose selections from a longer piece use Middle English lyrics to generate songs in our vernacular. Sit with these poems a while and you realize they do talk to each other. Here is the end of the Tiffany excerpt from our next issue:

I am for wowing al forwake
Lest any reve me my make

Eyes shining through
Like she was
Who-whooin somebody
Leave us all alone

which is to be followed by Kihleng's Don't come to my island, which includes these lines:

and if I, a native of this island, still haven't convinced you
really, you don't want to come
it's so hot and humid
simply miserable it is

In his note, Tiffany tells the reader that the Middle English passages come from a volume that attacked the use of the vernacular; he is appropriating its quotations toward a more positive purpose, the creation of a poem many centuries later that celebrates the vernacular--its and ours. Kihleng also celebrates the vernacular in her attack on "the Mexican woman from Texas" (an unexpected imperial tourist):

the island is surrounded by mangrove swamp
or naniak, we call it
naniak full of elimoang
mehn wai who come to visit
are fond of eating these giant mangrove crabs
(but the crabs alone shouldn't make one want to travel all that distance)
they don't taste that good

Kihleng distances herself from the tourist even as she sarcastically agrees with her that things just aren't that tasty or beautiful on the island. But to anyone with an ear for local language, she is also celebrating its powers to name, to claim, to distinguish between speaker and listener, if that listener is not listening or cannot understand the words.

The poem that will follow Kihleng's, Jill Yamasawa's The Kona Coast, invokes a different kind of conversation, one between a Micronesian writer and a writer from the Big Island. In this poem, Yamasawa takes material off a Kona resort's website and lineates it as "free verse." With a deft use of italics, not found in the original (or so I'm presuming, as I have some trouble "navigating" it), Yamasawa casts doubt on the seeming reverence of the resort's PR:

Hokuli`a reflects the same reverence
to the Island of Hawai`i's historical
and cultural legacy,
clearly embracing the native saying,
Nui ke aloha no ka`aina
(Our love for the land
is without limits).

The italics here are not used to mark the Hawaiian saying (as words from a "foreign" language); they are used as scare quotes to mark precisely the lack of clarity in the relationship between resort and the `aina, or land.

In this sequence of three poems from the many in our forthcoming issue, I've tried to do several things at once. I've tried to create contexts out of juxtapositions that suggest the opposite of context. Middle English lyrics and Kihleng's angry anti-tourist words hardly form what we might call a "natural" context. Yet I would argue that there is context, that even as Tiffany's words (through their sound and their hidden context, in a history that is lost to most of us) mitigate the roughness of Kihleng's, they participate in a move into the vernacular, away from the standard American English that characterizes most of the work in the issue. The move from Kihleng to Yamasawa is more direct, and yet their methods are different. Yamasawa damns the resort simply by parroting its PR; Kihleng turns tourist rhetoric on its head by seeming to agree with the tourist that her island is nothing to pay a steep airfare to visit.

I make such sequences knowing full well that I have added my voice into the mix, a voice that is different in many ways from those of the authors whose work I am organizing, putting in sequence, asking to talk. What I hope is that our readers realize that they too have the power to play with the poems, either by leaving each be on its own, or by reading them in a different order (or dis-). I am reminded of the Cortazar novel whose title I can't remember that included a key in the back to all the many different ways you could read the book, switching chapters around. [Editor's note: must have been this one.] This was before the age of the computer, when such playfulness comes without saying. Yet Tinfish is resolutely a paper production, so it's harder to rearrange our intentions (or even our lacks thereof, since we thrive on accidents). The editor's job is to quote, but to quote out of one context and into another. It's one reason I love the job more than I ever imagined I would. Editing is "writing" in the way that collage is. And collage is a form of appropriation that is always aware of itself as such, ever attempting to undercut (sometimes with scissors!) its own authority.

Other conversations we discovered as we leafed through "accepted" poems: Kenny Tanemura's "On Mao's Indigestion" with Mandy Luo's "The Silk Road" (h/t to Jade on that one); Yamasawa and Gajelonia on Wallace Stevens, Gajelonia and Oishi on TheBus; Janna Plant, Barbara Jane Reyes, Jody Arthur and others on oral traditions and mythologies from the Bible to Samoa; Oscar Bermeo and Deborah Woodard on landlords; Paul Naylor on place and parenthood; Michael McPherson in a good-bye (he died this past year).

The verbal material of the issue has not yet been successfully transferred to a designer (though I did fail miserably at the file transfers last evening). Chae Ho Lee will do the graphic design. Maya Portner is making the covers, and another artist will be doing a centerfold. The final issue will have both centrifugal and coherent force to it; centrifugal because ideas and images will be flying outward unpredictably, coherent because we do not want to escape the force of our limitations. We are not the resort, claiming its own lack of limits by quoting from a Hawaiian saying (and thereby attempting control over its words). And so there is a lack of ambition in all this, as well. We do not aim to cover a territory (bad metaphor, that!) but to open up the torqued and untorqued spaces of the poems we publish. That said, these journal issues involve the most labor of any of our publications. The covers (500 0f them) are hand-made and then stapled onto the books. Many hands are involved, from mine and Jade's to Gaye Chan's, a graphic designer, an artist (or two or three). When I get complaints that our issues cost good money, I think of all these unpaid hands, to say nothing of the costs of distribution, mailing, advertising, and so on.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Forgetting as disease: Dementia in recent poetry and prose (Julie Carr, Skip Fox, David Chariandy)

"This was our belonging. Memory was a carpet stain that nobody would confess to. History was a television set left on all night. The car chases and gun fights sponsored by oil companies. The anthems at the end of broadcast days" (14).

--David Chariandy

In a collection published years ago, editor James McCorkle included an essay by Ann Lauterbach that I have remembered. There she argued counter-intuitively that she's not a poet because she remembers but because she's forgetful. Even poets of memory depend on forgetting to generate their work; Proust's madeleine and cobblestone could not occur too often, or his book would not have ended. But these works depend on our thinking of forgetfulness as a natural process, one for which memory is ample compensation. To consider that forgetting stems from disease (dementia, Alzheimer's) casts it in another, less luminous, light. That such forgetting comes with physical manifestations like stumbling, like incontinence, poses an obstacle to the romance of remembering. Those afflicted return to a childhood without joys, accumulations.

In his novel Soucouyant, David Chariandy's narrator knows that what his mother forgets becomes his responsibility. Not only does he remember what she likes ("lemon and hot water in the morning . . . the taste of licorice") but he also knows what causes her pain, in-grown toenails, that he "alone might be aware of" (82). Not a responsibility that elevates him, but one that causes him "revulsion," as he approaches to cut her nails and she asks, "'Why? Why you cut me?'" (83). Telling others what no nurse can know is his duty; the writer-son performs his book as response to this "ought."

Writing as "ought," as duty. Hence perhaps the "Wrought" (wr-ought) of Julie Carr's new book, Equivocal (Alice James, 2008). "Wrought" is a kind of making that takes force, effort; iron is wrought, where we assume that we are raised, are flexible rather than fixed. Carr's mother suffers dementia; her daughter tries to force her words to mean. Just as a sculptor fills an empty space, the poet fills in--not the empty mind of her mother--but the space of a book. The reader fills her mind with what no longer finds a home in the mother's. Disease is not meaning, but meaning can perhaps take its place, compensate obliquely for what is lost. But "I grieve that grief can teach me nothing: Emerson, / choosing tautology to reveal emptiness" (6). When "time and its order is not" (7), then tautology comes to replace cause and effect.

Like me, Carr has young children; like me, she has a mother who intended to remain independent. "Wrought Pledge":

He flosses her teeth for her. She worries it will hurt,
that she'll go bankrupt, that her family will disown her.
Are there places for people like her? Will he cut her mouth?

In that last quoted line, ultimate questions and an immediate one jostle each other claustrophobically, as they do in the face of debilitating disease. Neither claims priority over the other; both are crucial, even if the first matters more to the daughter (at this point) and the second to her mother (now). Now is an island, now is crisis. And the poet: "What prepares me for this particular pain-- / the pain of leaving things as they are-- / of taking them as they are? (5). In fact, the ultimate question, "are there places for people like her?" is at once practical (having to do with "homes," with "caregivers") and philosophical (what manner of personhood is this, when one is reduced to worry about dental floss?).

Immediate and ultimate: personal and public. Carr also worries that difference, which is the difference between caregiving and writing poetry, among many others. The poem, we assume, has an audience, a public, which witnesses moments intensely private. (Especially private since the person whose actions are published would not want them known as hers.) "Emerson says that private thought is the universal / but it must never be construed as the universal" (7), Carr notes, and then two pages later: "Private griefs become public when theorized: I cannot get it / nearer me" (9). This notion of "theory" as the public space that privacy opens up is fascinating, and leads her to her (self?) reliance on Emerson and Aristotle and Coleridge (via a headnote) for anchoring ideas about time and loss (of and in time).

The sequence "Wrought" comprises only the first eleven pages of Carr's Equivocal. There is much to consider in the rest, including an amazing rendering of Homer and her mother, "Iliadic Familias (with insertions from Homer)" about her and her mother's wars (Iraq, Vietnam), but for reasons of my own, it is the opening of the book that will stay with me longest. For now.

David Chariandy's book is more portrait than parable of a mother's Alzheimer's. It is beautifully written, and brings in issues of immigration and prejudice in Canada (his protagonists are from Trinidad, are not welcomed into the eastern Canadian suburb they move to), with histories that reach back to other empires, other violences. I tend to agree with the novelist when he imagines speaking to his missing brother, a poet, however:

"I'd explain that I understood the need for poetry because language can never be trusted and what the world doesn't need is another long story and all the real stories have become untellable anyway" (129).

That most of these untellable stories are not told because they have not happened, and cannot happen, is something I find best told by Skip Fox, in his new book Delta Blues (ahahadada books, 2009). "in esse" begins with this story about a story that has not happened, may not happen:

"Beginning summer. Watching my father's long slide into senility, further each week. Mostly lucid but occasionally disconnected. He said, There's comfort in just doing what you're told . . . Now waiting for Mom to mend is his only plan. Then you can slip happily into senility, Dad? Something like that, he said smiling" (52).

The act of "waiting" is not a story, though it might be grounds for one. In dementia, "waiting for Mom to mend" might mean waiting for someone to mend who is no longer alive, in the way my mother waited for her own mother, dead these many decades, to re-appear. An odd reincarnation, this coming back to life in the mind of someone whose mind is no longer "her own." The act of writing is another form of waiting; part of the wait is the book's for its reader. These books are worth their wait.