Sunday, November 29, 2009

Tinfish Pre-Publication Sale (Please help us to cover print costs!)

We have two exciting books going to the printer this week:

Kaia Sand, REMEMBER TO WAVE, $16

Elizabeth Soto, EULOGIES, $14

Details here:

Pre-publication prices are $14 for Sand's book, $10 for Soto's, or $22 for both.

Please support our efforts to publish experimental poetry from the Pacific by pre-ordering these titles.

47-728 Hui Kelu Street #9
Kane`ohe, HI 96744

or via the "purchase" button on our website:

aloha, Susan M. Schultz
Editor & money-bags

Saturday, November 28, 2009

"The colour of a relational utterance": Fred Wah and _The False Laws of Narrative_

[Legos not included with the book; they merely hold the cover down]

It's a poetry reader's cliche, no doubt, but books do often come along just at the right time for their readers. Nicolas Bourriaud's book, The Radicant, found me in Berkeley over a month ago; this week, Louis Cabri's fine work of editing Fred Wah's poetry arrived in the mail from Wilfrid Laurier University Press in Ontario. The book is deliberately teacherly. As the General Editor of the series writes, "Our idea is to ask a critic (sometimes herself a poet) to select thirty-five poems from across a poet's career; write an engaging, accessible introduction; and have the poet write an afterword" (vii). Hence the reader, whether college student, general reader, or academic, approaches the poetry with her explicatory seatbelt firmly fastened.

Louis Cabri offers a marvelous map of Wah's concerns, which include form (questions of lyric and collage); Chinese Canadian history; local language and writing; interactions between the non-aboriginal poet and aboriginal texts; the influences of William Carlos Williams and Charles Olson; "improvisation" and "ratiocination" as modes of composition; the relationship of theory to poem (thoem); and, finally, the significance of sound to Wah's poetry. Cabri ties together many of these concerns when he writes that "The riprap of Wah's poetry learns from the grand collage epic, but takes off with the proprioceptive lyric. His riprap offers the juxtapositional openness and loose-endedness of collage, without collage's grand-historical, presumptive scale. Wah's riprap offers lyricism--without lyricism's I-centric, i-dentical iteration of poetic voice" (xiii). [Riprap is loose stone.]

["We are different," p. 25]

A poetry of loose stones permits the poet an honesty that the grand lyric or epic would not. Thus Wah's use of aboriginal rock art, from which he writes improvisations (not translations), is neither reverential nor appropriative. And Wah's extended piece about Tiananmen Square opens into a personal meditation on his father. It is this last piece that most captured my attention, namely "Dead in My Tracks: Wildcat Creek Utaniki," written during the summer of 1989. The piece is partly prose journal, partly poem, a meditation on self, on family, on the place where the poet is camping, and on global histories. The mix hits us early:

While we set up camp during the afternoon I'm in a global mode, you know, the simultaneity of the world going on right now. Paris. Kyoto. Beijing. The pavement of Tiananmen Square, the hotlines sniffing out the dissidents, CBC bulletin even email media drama of the last two months still in the air, even up here, radioless, only antennaed in my bones (our name is bones, and your name is my name). (54)

["Dead in My Tracks," beginning]

The poet pivots back: "from the lake to the treeline / all crumbly under foot at the edges / cruddy summer snow melt / soft wet twig and bough-sprung alpine fir" (54) and then back to world: "borders such thin thoughts (apples of our eyes) / selvage yesterday's Tiananmen" (55). See the composition by field above for a better sense of what the poem looks like.

The river and the "television's human river" collide, and the very rock becomes subject to its object: "shale shard weep shard shale weep shale weep shard shale weep" (57). The jet streams overhead come to the poet from Beijing, stitchings in his pixelated tapestry. This movement back and forth begins to seem ceaseless, although the poem is relatively compact. The poem ends where the stones and the soldiers in Beijing become one "thano-stone" (61), a relation that is still not of oneness but of two thoughts compressed. The collage of information, lyric, and observation, then, cannot join together without temporal and geographical seams left to show. Nor can the poem do anything but end; there are no conclusions to be drawn, except that we have been brought to a point where the wilderness cannot free us from global urban spaces of conflict.

The book itself ends with "Ripraps (Louis Cabri) and Afterwords (Fred Wah)." There's nothing new here, perhaps, except insofar as the collage moves from the poet's voice outward, permitting access to the critic's voice. To this reader, Cabri's most astute commentary comes in the third Riprap, on meaning, where he notes a difference between Gary Snyder's use of Chinese sources and Wah's: "By contrast, Mountain enacts mountainness, and difference. Mountain has little to do with Snyder's sinophilic identifications and thematic treatments. Merely to put them in relation like this is to render them falsely equivalent projects. Mountain is not a project engaged with the ancient Chinese poetic tradition--as was the case for many progressive poets since the end of the Second World War and for many eurocentric modernists before them" (68). Ah, but the surprise here is that Wah responds by acknowledging the importance of Pound and the ideogram to his own method. "'Movement, at any cost,'" Olson had reminded us, as Wah re-reminds us. Like Wayne Kaumalii Westlake in Hawai`i, Fred Wah is a modernist with a difference; one hopes that they (and significant others) point us toward a future poetics of negotiated, rather than enforced, differences.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Recent Reviews of Tinfish Press publications

You can find Christine Thomas's review, published this past Sunday in the Honolulu Advertiser, here.

Mitchell Kuga also reviewed the issue, as well as Norman Fischer's Charlotte's Way and our second edition of Lee Tonouchi's Living Pidgin: Contemplations on Pidgin Culture, here.

For more information on these titles and more, see the website.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Australia in November: "the anti-travel travel poem"

As I left Sydney, it had reached over 40 degrees Celsius, or what my internet converter tells me is over 105 degrees Fahrenheit. I was in Australia to give talks on Tinfish Press at the University of Western Sydney and Monash University, as well as readings from Dementia Blog at UWS and Collected Works (Poetry) Bookshop in Melbourne. I arrived with a suitcase full of Tinfish publications, and left with a suitcase full of Giramondo books. Along the way I saw some dear friends, including Hazel Smith and Roger Dean, Anne Brewster, Pam Brown, and Ann Vickery, Mike Pianta and their three children. I also met some great people, from academics to poets to cab drivers; heard some young poets and older; went to a dance recital and a poetry launch; got tours of cities and beaches; learned a lot about jazz and computer music; experienced the dark side of Aussie culture on a Saturday evening train; and sweated through a wonderful farewell. I'm still in the throes of jetlag, so the post may be even more anti-narrative than usual! I don't intend to write a straight travel piece, but capture a few moments of the trip, as well as make a few recommendations for things Australian to read.

--My neighbor on the plane to Sydney was Australian, but lives in Mililani; she travels often to Australia. Confessed that her husband was piloting the plane. She dictated a list of Australian items to buy, things she loved to get at Woolies in Sydney, just off the plane. I wrote them dutifully in my copy of Daniel Tiffany's new Infidel Poetics, a book about riddles, poetic obscurity, the vernacular, and nightlife. So, underneath the last two words of Tiffany's index (two columns), "working-class philosophes" and Zukofsky, Louis, I have written:

Billy Tea & Nerada
Coles Supermarket bread mix in a box
licorice from Darrell Lea Shop
lolly aisle
violet crumble bar
veet (hair wax)

I didn't buy any of these items during my week in Australia, but the words remind me how far from American English is Australian. Oh, and above the last page of Tiffany's index I quoted the man sitting behind me, who asked his seat mate, "Does Australia have its own money?" before telling her a long story about traveling to Calcutta.

--Hazel Smith has a booming laugh. She has performed all her life, as a violinist, a poet, and a digital media artist. She grew up in England, graduated from Cambridge, and moved to Australia in 1989 with her husband, Roger Dean, whom she met when she was 14 and he 15, in the UK National Youth Orchestra. She is author of the amazing book of creative writing pedagogy, The Writing Experiment, and of The Erotics of Geography, book and cd-r, from Tinfish Press.

--Roger Dean is a polymath (though I think his birth year is not quite right on the link). He is a biochemist who ran a Heart Institute, a double bassist, a pianist, a composer of jazz and computer music, a researcher in music and cognition, a former Vice Chancellor and President of Canberra University. I expressed regret that I was not more musical and he told me, "none of us does everything." But I wondered.

[Hazel Smith & Roger Dean]

--My taxi driver from UWS to the Sydney airport was from Afghanistan. When I said I live in Hawai`i, he talked about Obama. Of the high expectations for this president, he said, "even the prophets could do nothing quickly." He had a degree in Public Administration from Creighton University in Nebraska, had returned to Afghanistan, realized things were crumbling, and had moved to Australia with his children. "Wars are created," he said, and told me they were made for money. "Do they know who he is?" he said of H. Clinton and Obama, who think Karzai can get rid of corruption. He liked Reagan, though Bush 1 a bully; his judgments went down from there. He took me to the wrong terminal, but who was to know that the plane to Melbourne left from the International Terminal?

[Michael Farrell]

--Michael Farrell is a Melbourne poet; he had kindly invited me there. Like many Aussie poets I know, he was deeply influenced by the New York School, Frank O'Hara in particular, though Farrell also experiments with collage, appropriated language, other slightly more avant-garde techniques. His new book is A Raider's Guide. He is getting a belated Ph.D. "for the money" (what a laugh I had about that one)--three years of a grant from the government. He has gathered about him a group of very talented younger poets. Those who read with me were Aden Rolfe, Bella Li, Claire Gaskin, Duncan Hose, Jal Nicholl, Joshua Comyn, and Sam Langer. Sam laughed all the way through Dementia Blog, which I enjoyed, as the book is (oddly) funny.

--Ann Vickery is an amazing literary critic, author of Leaving Lines of Gender, a book about women and Language writing in the US, and a newer book about Australian women poets. She's married to Mike Pianta, a scientist who loves Legos, checks his Legos blogs and website daily. Their three kids appeared since last I saw Ann and Mike together, but their cat, Puck, remains from my 1996 visit.

--I met Tom Doig on the plane from Melbourne to Sydney. He's 30, has an MA in Creative Writing from Melbourne, specialized in Hitler Humor and wrote a play on Hitler and David Hasselhoff, called Hitlerhoff. Originally from New Zealand, he's passionate about aboriginal issues, largely ignored in Australia. He's a friend of Aden Rolfe, whom I read with at Collected Works.

--Ehsan Azari is an Afghani academic, author of Lacan and the Destiny of Literature from Continuum. He came to my reading and remarked that my "muse is outside yourself, not inside, like Ashbery's." He'd read The Poetics of Impasse in Modern and Contemporary Poetry, which fairly blew me away. Like the next poet, he is an exile who spends a lot of time in the Writing and Society Group at UWS.

--Muslim Al-Taan is an Iraqi poet, in and out of the hospital, who writes poems about southern Iraq and includes melancholy songs from that region, which he sings in their original language. He wants to write about Maya Angelou. He comments at the Poetry Foundation blog here.

--Ivor Indyk is an Australian editor and publisher. His press, Giramondo, publishes poetry and prose from Australia. I returned home with a box of books he's published, including one I especially like, by Adam Aitken. More on that in a minute.

--Kate Fagan is a musician, poet, literary critic (whose dissertation was about Lyn Hejinian's work). She teaches me the phrase "bitch pivot." She asks the inevitable, uncomfortable question about the white editor or teacher who presents the work of a non-white author as "experimental." Says she's thought long and hard about it, as she thinks of Lionel Fogarty's work as experimental. He does not. I suggest that if you present the work as experimental through one prism, but not others, there may be an opening.

[Judith Beveridge, Joanne Burns, SMS, Ivor Indyk]

--Judith Beveridge is a mainstream Australian poet, whose launch I went to at Gleebooks. I was surprised to find out that poetry launches feature a long introduction and a very short reading by the author. The man who introduced Beveridge said things like, "she shows us who we are by writing about what she is not" (meaning that this book is about fisherman, and she's not one), that her book is a "Mardi Gras of simile" and that her poems are primarily about poetry. Beveridge added that she likes "amenity with irksomeness" and "comedy with torment." I liked the long list of fish she read, in one of her poems; the others sounded very much in a lyrical, conservative tradition.

[Anne Brewster at The Gap, near Bondi Beach, Sydney]

--Anne Brewster travels the world talking about aboriginal writing in Australia; she is a prominent ficto-critic, a term Australian literary people have for a mix of autobiography and criticism. She showed me bats over the belfry in Sydney. (One of the things I love best about Australia is the sound of the place--birds sing and screech in tones never imagined here). The bats are often electrocuted by the wires, she says, but no one much likes them, so no measures are taken to protect them. Large black bats swooping over the streets. She fed a cockatoo while I sat on her porch; it was curious, hungry, but somewhat shy. Other cockatoos play games with her partner, Peter; when he held food behind his back, one cockatoo gently grabbed his big toe.

--Pam Brown wants to be taller than I am. She is a wonderful poet, but she is short.

[Pam Brown & SMS]

--Adam Aitken is a Thai-Australian poet who still carries an English passport. He is one of the finest contemporary poets in Australia, though his publisher, Ivor, assures me he gets very little attention. Adam's newest volume is Eighth Habitation, from Giramondo. It contains an amazing sequence of poems about Cambodia, where Adam spent at least a year. Like Pam Brown, Adam writes in a lyrical and yet vernacular tradition that contains just enough bitter truth to keep it from dancing with daffodils. "Who knows if suffering's inquiry lead you anywhere / but back to suffering?" he asks in "Forest Wat, Cambodia." His visit to Tuol Sleng netted him his poem, "S21," which concludes with an uneasy comparison of the poet to the documentarian of genocide:

I too have to write, wondering where I am
on the chain-link of paranoia
connecting a tyrant to a farmer's son
who was handy with a shovel;
someone like the accountant across the corridor
doing the company's credit/debit sheet--
the guy with all the stories, who
knew how to file, the one who said
he'd done his job protecting his nation
with a few blunt instruments
a fountain pen, and a beautiful signature. (106)

I hope to write more in the future about this poet of "The Anti-travel Travel Poem," but for now leave you to find his work.

--Sydney to Cronulla train, Saturday evening, 8 p.m. A man gets on, assisted by someone who then steps back on the platform. He sits two seats ahead of me, across the aisle, picks up his cell phone. "I just busted the screw and the wires that hold my ribs together, dear, and wonder if I'm in danger of the wire cutting my kidneys or something. I thought the doctor said no physical activity to mean no contact with other people, so I did this doing chin-ups. Yes, someone's waiting on the other side, and I told them my wife's a doctor. Love you." Click. A drunken guy gets on the train with his "girl," confers in a passionate whisper with the man who says his "chest fell out." Money is exchanged. Something about a gang attacking him over his girl. There's violence in the air, if only spoken. (The next group to get on, four young men, walk by with "her elbow was shattered" as their opening line.) The man with the broken chest hails his new friend, "you're a good man, mate!" and hobbles off the train. He is very thin. Veins wobble on his temple. He is last seen talking to a security man on the platform at Hurstville.

I'm home now and cooler (it's the rainy season here), happy to see family and cat, but with hopes for keeping ties to Australia and to Giramondo Press. I hope to have more on that in later posts. In the meantime, thank yous to everyone above, and to John Hawke and Simon West at Monash, and to the Writing and Society Group at UWS, in particular.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Communities of Destination 2: "Radicant Aesthetics" (Nicolas Bourriaud)

[sign by Lian Lederman]

I'm off to Australia (Sydney and Melbourne) soon to talk about Tinfish and to give a couple of readings from my own work (as it were). So the blog provides a way station to thinking toward the issues I want to touch on there, issues of editing and location, language and translation, networks and distribution (the former always easier than the latter). I apologize to readers for the inevitable repetitions involved in thinking about how Tinfish books talk to one another, and why those conversations might matter.

Nicolas Bourriaud
's The Radicant provides an apt field for thinking these issues through, or if not "through," then wandering around these issues rather than blundering into them. As I did in my last post, I will use Bourriaud's book as a generative backboard for thoughts about Tinfish. Contemporary wisdom, like so many things, suffers from a short lifespan, fly-like, and precarious. One of Bourriaud's key words is "precarious": "the lifespan of objects is becoming shorter and shorter," he writes, as consumerist culture feeds off the disposable thing, rather than the heirloom. (During my recent trip to California, I heard tomatoes referred to as "heirloom," which seemed to be a good thing, though it suggests old age and attics to me.) In the art economy, old things can still be precious: I think of the old printing machines at the California Center for the Book, or the recycled materials Tinfish uses to make some of our covers.

As with all such states, precariousness has its down-side, and its up. Bourriaud refers to "a positive precariousness, or even an aethetic of uncluttering, of wiping the hard disk" (85). Hard to see the positive when the hard disk being wiped involves one's job or one's way of working or one's traditions of knowing. But if that wiping can become a process of "editing" (99) in art, rather than one of random and violent cutting, perhaps we're onto something. In any case, Bourriaud suggests an aesthetic of wandering, in which the artist becomes what he terms a "semionaut." Which brings me to bullet-points (not to instigate a violence on my own text here) about Tinfish Press.

On wandering itself:

***Our next full-length book, Remember to Wave, by Kaia Sand, includes a guided walk through Portland, Oregon. This is a walk that she has taken, and led. The walk is at once across the contemporary city and into its (hidden) past, so that the observer is shown not simply what is there but also ghostly presences of what was. The histories of Japanese-American internment and of African-American containment emerge out of the city as she walks it, and as her words walk across documents related to these historical moments. Barbara Jane Reyes walks San Francisco in Poeta en San Francisco, encountering homeless Vietnam vets, malign presences to her as a racialized Filipina-American, but living reminders of a past Americans largely want hidden. Hazel Smith's long poem, "The Body and the City," from The Erotics of Geography, presents a woman who walks the streets of a city, seeing it in various ways--as dream, as deconstruction, as "post-tourism," as a female geography, and as a historical place (she reaches back to the medieval city).

***For those who do not walk through the city, there are those who are transported on TheBus in poems by Ryan Oishi and Gizelle Gajelonia (in her parody of Stevens in Tinfish #19 and in a forthcoming chapbook, 13 Ways of Looking at TheBus). There are the diasporic poets, Yunte Huang, Linh Dinh, Caroline Sinavaiana, each engaged in an archeology of cultures and possible selves.

Bourriaud quotes Claude Levi-Strauss: "'a journey occurs simultaneously in space, in time and in the social hierarchy'" (123). A journey in space is also a trip into memory. The time-tourist also has responsibilities.

On language / translation:

***The precariousness of local languages, as evidenced in Lisa Kanae's Sista Tongue and Lee Tonouchi's Living Pidgin: Contemplations on Pidgin Culture. Languages that travel, but with difficulty: Jacinta Galea`i's Aching for Mango Friends, about a girl who moves back and forth from Samoa, where her family is from, to Seattle, where she is educated in the American way. (She does this with an awareness of the problems, but without the bitter nostalgia that characterizes some post-colonial literature.) Craig Santos Perez recently reviewed the chapbook and commented on the use of Samoan words and phrases within the English text:

"Although some may read this as an exclusion, I read it as an intimate inclusion into another’s native space. Once I surrender the desire to translate, the untranslated naturalizes the foreignness of my relation to the characters. Semoana does not worry about others not understanding; instead, she speaks Samoan because she is Samoan, affirming that she needs to translate her cultural identity only to herself."

***And so the refusal to translate, which one finds more strongly yet in Barbara Jane Reyes's Poeta en San Francisco. I sense that she is now more willing to translate, but respect her decision in this book not to. Extended sections in Tagalog and Baybayin, as well as frequent "lapses" into Spanish, create a difficult reading environment that (at least in echo) enacts some of the difficulties of colonialization and immigration.

***Second language English, like Linh Dinh's, or that found in Goro Takano's new BlazeVox book. The barriers to comprehension are smaller than those in BJR's book, but still pronounced. So that the reader much do the work of translation from near-native to native-English. Like riding on cobblestones; you get there, but not so smoothly or easily.

***Hazel Smith's "translations." "My heritage, though you may not realize it, is tangalisingly mixed. I have a few loose ends in Lithuania. But I've never travelled there, and couldn't find my way around if I did" (27). As Bourriaud puts it, "In a human space now completely surveyed and saturated, all geography becomes psychogeography" (120), or an erotics thereof. Paul Naylor's Jammed Transmission, an effort by an American poet to communicate across time and space with a Japanese Zen Buddhist text, contains in its very title, an admission that such transmissions / translations are never direct.

***Craig Santos Perez's "hesitations." In from unincorporated territory, translates Chamorro words, but often only a page or two after they appear in the text. The reader, who reads about an island in the ocean, must circulate back and forth in waves to read the book well. There is no linear progress in this book, which is made of intersecting sections and in which languages come into contact, but are not immediately comprehended.

These are linguistic translations, which aid and stand-in for larger translations of culture. (I have not addressed the "translations" that occur when artists add to Tinfish books, creating a first response to their content.) These are much harder to accomplish by publishing a small number of books; the weight of representation is heavier on our three books from Samoa (all of them by writers who have spent much of their lives in the United States) than it is on our California books. Translation is not a given, and this is one problem Tinfish faces. To what extent do our American readers "get" the books we publish from elsewhere. Do what extent do _I_ get them? Conversely, what can be gained through this not-getting, if it is respectful and alert to possibility, rather than to closing down. To movement and multiplicity, in other words, not to sitting still? Open questions all! That these books are all engaged in a similar wandering (whether geographical, linguistic, spiritual, sexual) only makes the books and their reception more complex.

***There is also a more comic wandering, typified by Gizelle Gajelonia's parodic translations of American poems by Stevens, Bishop, Crane, Ashbery and others, onto O`ahu's geography and into its Pidgin idiom. This inter-textual wandering posits O`ahu as the hub, and American poetry as the periphery. Wallace Stevens flies into HON and is transformed into a local poet. No more a 747-poet, intruding on another space and happily flying away to write about it with authority, Stevens is kidnapped, his language taken, translated, and he is then welcome into the local. Appropriations reversed, fresh networks created--not out of newness, but the circulation of the old according to new weather patterns.

On islands:

Finally, for now. Toward the end of the book, Bourriaud posits an island model for thinking, post-post-modernism and post-post-colonialism: "a new configuration of thought that no longer proceeds by building great totalizing theoretical systems but by constructing archipelagoes. A voluntary grouping of islands networked together to create an autonomous entity, the archipelago is the dominant figure of contemporary culture" 185). Not all islands are so voluntarily networked, of course, as evidenced in the uses to which Guam, the Philippines, and Hawai`i have been put. But Bourriaud, ever the optimist, would use the island map as evidence of a "struggle for diversity," rather than a shutting down, colonial-style. These are islands as openings, not islands as bastions, fortifications for someone else's armies. "The alter-modern is to culture what altermondialisation is to geopolitics, an archipelago of local insurrections against the official representations of the world" (185-86).

If we can take this model as our own, as prospect if not as fact, as hope if not as clear possibility, then Tinfish is one of its most literal enactments, wandering as it does in a Pacific archipelago characterized by local resistances to globalization, but also by poets' efforts to circulate, walk, migrate, take TheBus ceaselessly, make networks between books, between languages, between cultures.


Barbara Jane Reyes has posted a third installment of statements by small press editors on Harriet's blog. Links to the other two can be found at the end of my previous post.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Communities of destination: Independent small presses & Nicolas Bourriaud's _The Radicant_

At the risk of sounding precious, I'll post a quotation from Barbara Jane Reyes's blog, which she put out as a way to generate a valuable conversation. The quotation is by the editor of Tinfish Press, and goes as follows:

"My frustration at the moment comes of the fact that no publisher can demand her customers read the press as well as its authors. So the conversations we mean to get going are sometimes overlooked when people buy only work by Pacific writers, or Buddhist writers, or Asian American writers or Bay Area writers (for example). But the publisher may have died (Roland Barthes style) with her authors."

While respecting the needs of communities to organize along lines of gender, ethnicity, national origin, class, and so on, I'm also looking toward a third (fourth, fifth . . .) way, one that is not either nor or. Nicolas Bourriaud states the problem this way: "Between modern universalism and postmodern relativism, it is said, we have no choice" (The Radicant, 14). I'm fascinated by the way he addresses the way old paradigms tend to flip over, changing the actors involved, while maintaining a master narrative, where power and prestige remain centered, rather than diffused--accumulated, rather than shared.

Bourriaud gets closer yet to the problem I'm trying to articulate in response to Reyes's question when he writes about aesthetic theories born out of the "cultural postcolonialism" as "in their most dogmatic form, . . . [going] so far as to obliterate any possibility of dialogue among individuals who do not share the same history or cultural identity" (25). Bourriaud worries about what he calls "postmodern aesthetic courtesy," which silences critical conversations between western and non-western authors.

I'm less interested in critical readings these days, or in who is allowed to do them, than I am in positive interventions. Where there are missing voices, perspectives, my sense is that we (publishers, editors) do better to try filling them with new sounds than to shut down those who are already talking. Conversation works better than talking down. (I write this with an ironic smile, as I am also a critic.) Given that adding voices is not always a courteous act, perhaps this is one way to get away from over-deference. But again, that's not my kuleana. What I do want to avoid is the isolation of writers and audiences that I sometimes see when I go to readings in Honolulu. There's the crowd that attends Hawaiian poetry events, the crowd that goes to Bamboo Ridge readings, the Wayne Westlake readers, the Asian Settler Colonialism group, the slam poets, the Art Academy types. Rarely do these audiences cross over. I seem to remember that they once did, but perhaps that's an hallucination on my inner eye of memory. Thus, Bourriaud's citation from Claude Levi-Strauss, who died just yesterday, has resonance: "'The one real calamity, the one fatal flaw which can afflict a human group and prevent it from achieving fulfillment is to be alone'" (36).

Filling gaps in rather than accusing others of failing to do so is one way to acknowledge that the future is as important as the past, that origins are no more sacred than are the places we want to get to from here. Hence, the forging of connections between (overly) carefully delineated groups of writers strikes me as necessary. "It is a matter of replacing the question of origin with that of destination," Bourriaud writes. Later he writes of the importance of the "itinerary, the path" (55), and the need for movement. Now history, too, is a kind of movement. We need not let the past go in order to imagine a future.

Bourriaud is big on translation. "Translation thus appears as the cornerstone of diversity" (65). Translation is negotiation, is relation, is acknowledgment of difference. It is objectivism to the smothering forces of subjectivity. Small presses that devote themselves to translation, on and off the internet and the page, are doing readers a great service. What is lost in translation gains us another voice, one we cannot quite hear on its own terms, but which can bend us toward a new understanding ("new thresholds, new anatomies," as Hart Crane wrote). That bending process reminds me that we mustn't assume what is being translated is solely a text. It is also the reader that is translated, in conversation with the text. If we hold too closely to our existing "identities," we cannot be translated, cannot communicate effectively, cannot create alliances with others.

If texts are identities, then how much better it is to read more than one text at a time! That's where I return to the notion of reading presses instead of single texts, and of reading presses that are as devoted to differences as to samenesses (though we need both for the conversation to happen). Then we arrive at a more interesting mathematical equation. "Translation is a kind of pass: a deliberate, intentional act that begins with the designation of a singular object and continues with the desire to share this singular object with others" (68-69) If too many books and too many poetry audiences are singular (and in so many ways), then translation suggests a way to make community happen with new energies. Acknowledging that members of minority communities often do not want to share their intimate conversations with "dominant" ones, the writers from each community can still share more finished products and begin from there. It matters less where we start tracing our itinerary than it does starting on its noisy chaotic path.

How these conversations (as presses rather than as singular books) can begin is a question Barbara Jane Reyes is asking on her blog. Ideas float around as to how to "market" such conversations, as perhaps we must. Rusty Morrison suggested that Tinfish put slips of paper in its books that suggested other books to read to continue the conversation. Craig Santos Perez suggests a discount of 25% for following the suggested conversation. Maybe this is one way. But BJR also asks this question about responsibility:

"am wondering then if it’s the independent publishers, or if it’s the authors, or if it’s both together somehow, who are responsible for confronting and challenging these conventions. Certainly, this is something I am finding my indie publisher respondents saying: certain things in the literary establishment (and academic literature departments, and other departments which use literature in their studies of culture and history are included here) need to change."

So the answer may involve advertising copy, but is surely larger. Academic disciplines have been created to investigate only certain kinds of communities, whether ethnic or aesthetic or both. Teachers use xeroxed poems instead of books. There's an atomism at work, sometimes necessary to create a coherent syllabus, yes, but also a danger. We need to look at literature as a larger, incessantly moving, set of objects, subjects, not as any manner of stillness.

For more on indie publishing issues see BJR's guest blogs at Harriet:
here and here.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Creative Writing (in) Composition

My colleague Daphne Desser invited me to be on a panel later today about using creative writing in the composition classroom (other panelists will be Brandy Nalani McDougall, Tom Gammarino and Steve Goldsberry). It occurs to me that I have used less creative writing in my English 100 classroom in recent years than I did when I started teaching. Perhaps this is a signal to remedy that jolt toward the utterly analytical.

I wear two very different hats when I teach comp and creative writing. In the one classroom I tell my students that they can leave no opening or ambiguity in their writing; it is not my job to work to understand them. They must deliver the goods, make an argument, explain how it works, offer detail, and then close the thing down with a conclusion that answers the "So what?" question. In the other, I ask students to leave openings for their readers, to make them do the work; I tell them the poem must provide an analogue experience. I often ask them to chop the endings off their poems, those places where they try to tell the reader what just happened, lest they missed the point.

So why link these two kinds of writing at all, then? Probably because both kinds of writing require precision of observation and notation. If you cannot tell someone how to get from one place to another (UH to Revolution books, for example), you can't expect her to be able to argue or imagine her way there, or to buy the books for your course. And, if you are someone who has trouble setting pen to paper, key stroke to pixel, then your troubles are not solved simply by shifting genres. And, if you can't shift genres, styles, aesthetics, then you won't become a better writer.

Observation and elaboration

--Give your students each a postcard of a Hawaiian fish. Ask them to write detailed descriptions of their fish (without using its name!). Use plain language and be as exact as possible. Collect the postcards and redistribute them. Ask students to read their descriptions; the student who holds the image of the fish described then speaks up.

--Have them revise their descriptions by using metaphors to describe their fish. Each part of the fish should be compared to something else in the world. (I'm always astonished at the ways astronomers and physicists describe the world for those of us who do not speak their technical languages; invariably, they pull the arrows of metaphor out of their conceptual quivers.)

--Now rewrite the fish paragraph in the voice of one of the following: a fisherman, a cook, a naturalist, an ecologist, an artist, a child, a Martian, etc. This gives a sense of how one's perspective changes one's writing, one's way of perceiving the world.

Perspective and argument: Place

The question remains: how to use these skills of observation toward an argument? Given that students often have a hard time generating prose and constructing an argument, collage work can provide a stepping stone toward the full-throated original essay. Here are some steps toward an essay on place. Assignment: compose a collage about the place you are from. Use three points of view to create this collage. Reading: Lisa Linn Kanae's Sista Tongue, which combines memoir (in Pidgin), research paper (in standard English) and documentation. Here are possible viewpoints from which to work:

--Ask students to go take photographs of the place they live. Advise them that these photographs must not be touristic, but must show the place as they live in it. Have them post these photos on a class blog, along with short captions.

--Ask students to take TheBus through the place they are from and to take notes on what they see and hear.

--Have students do research on the place they live. They can go to resources like Sites of Oahu, which gives detailed histories of the land, and to local libraries and archives. They can xerox relevant documents for future use.

--Ask students to interview a family member about the place they live in. This works best for students whose grandparents live with them, for example, so that there are family histories in constant circulation.

--Have students write autobiographical pieces on their "small kid time" in the place they are from.

Once they've composed these pieces, each of which could be an essay on its own, ask them to make an argument about the place they're from, and to present that argument by cutting and pasting the resources they have on hand. They can clip from interviews, documents, photographs, descriptions. They can do this either on paper or on the computer, depending on their preference.

Hearing and Thinking about Language

Developing an ear in students who have not heard much language read above a dull monotone is difficult. I have students do a lot of in-class reading, and stop them when their voices flat-line, demanding that they put some energy into execution. The best way to develop an ear is to read and to watch Shakespeare videos, but one can also give in-class style exercises.

--I was about to write that I can never find Raymond Queneau's book on style when I want it, but now I see it's a google book. So here it is! [Oops--this is just a preview.] The very idea of this book is marvelous, that you can take a simple story and write it dozens and dozens of times in different ways. It reminds me of Bernadette Mayer's writing exercises, which stretch student poets out like taffy as they strive to follow arbitrary rules like "write in the mood least congenial to writing." That Queneau's story is about taking a bus means that you could pair this exercise with the bus travel element of the collage piece. And you could also ask students to read the forthcoming "map" from Kahuaomanoa Press, which contains writing about TheBus.

--Translation exercises are wonderful. Have students read a poem by Lois-Ann Yamanaka from Saturday Night at the Pahala Theatre and then translate it into standard English. Or give students a poem by Ezra Pound ("The Return") or any other canonical writer and ask them to translate it either into other words or into Pidgin, Hawaiian, Japanese, any language they know or are learning. Then ask them to translate it back. Questions of vocabulary and diction come up inevitably and often with striking humor in these exercises.

NATHAN KAGEYAMA (from Tinfish #3)

Stay Come

Spock em, dey stay come; auwe, spock da scayed
Movaments, an' da luau feet,
Stay all twis' an' kooked
Walkin' all jag!

Spock em, dey stay come, one afta da udda
Scayed, haf moe moe--haf not
Wen even spook da snow all white lidat
An' soun' stay in da bareeze
An' haf stay turn da udda way;

Was da "kooks-wit-wings,"

Kahunas wit da flyin' kine Nikes!
Dey get de silva dogs
Smellin' da hauna eya!

Ai sos! Ai sos!
Dey was da fas' mokes

Dose da shaap-smellin';
Dose was da obake of blood

Cruisin' on da leash,
Shmoke dose leash-buggas

[after Ezra Pound's "The Return"]

I'll have more to say after the panel conversation this afternoon, but now I have something to say there!


Some highlights of the panel, after the fact:

Tom Gammarino read and talked his paper,"Class Borders: Creative Writing in Freshman Composition," using the word "robust" to talk about the separation between composition and creative writing in the academy. He also talked about "torturing sonnets."

He had some juicy quotes by composition experts to say that fiction is useless to comp, and that there is no place of CW in composition.

His thesis was that CW does not fit with composition only if you claim that CW is pure self-expression and composition is not. He called this the "self-expressive fallacy." Then he talked about how essays are stories designed to persuade the reader of something.

Steve Goldsberry said he would tell us everything he knows about writing in five minutes. There are three kinds of writing: description, narration and exposition. Writers need to use images from the physical world. Write like you talk. The first rule is to entertain. Sentences are like jokes; the best part comes at hte end. Every title is a poem. Golden fishooks. To make a good title use oxymorons, sounds, messed up cliches, themes like sex, classic phrases. The end of the page must have a cliff hanger. "The naked man"

Brandy Nalani McDougall talked about using automatic writing as a way to release students from their fears of assessment (among other things). She set us up to do four minutes of non-stop writing, during which time she said nine words, including "light" and "sculpted" and "church" and "gravel." She talked about ways students can then supply their own words to the mix, or do the writing on their own, without the prompts. My own free-write started from the fact that my lei (which fell apart throughout the colloquium) was cold, and somehow ended with Hart Crane.

I was last because of my alphabetical challenge. I said what the blog says, above.