Sunday, July 31, 2011

Scotland is for Tourists

[Abbotsford, home of Sir Walter Scott]

The Royal Mile in Edinburgh cannot be mistaken for Honolulu's Waikiki (or for Williamsburg, or for Washington, DC's Mall), except conceptually, but concepts can be as strong as facts. So this road of over a mile's length that runs between Edinburgh Castle and the Scottish Parliament, which abuts Holyrood Castle, presents an imagined version of Scotland as surely as the Hilton Hawaiian Village (re)presents a virtual Hawai`i. There are stores that sell kilts, stores that sell whiskey, stores that sell you your family's history for 10 pounds, bagpipers sounding their 8-track repetitions. And there are the tourists, taking it in. Edinburgh feels familiar, precisely because it is full of people like us, wandering the paved roads looking for the vision of Scotland that we have imagined, if never seen. We are tourists of the tourists, as well as of the sights. As I read Stuart Kelly's book, Scott-land: The Man Who Invented a Nation, I realize that the touristic Scotland may be the "real" one. As Kelly writes: "first the book supplanted the reality; then the reality was inadequate to the book. 'Such had been the magic web of poetry and romance thrown over the whole, that it had a greater charm for me than the richest scenery I beheld in England,' Irving wrote. Scotland was monotonous and destitute, Scott-land was magical and hidden. It was everywhere around you and nowhere to be found" (145). He refers to Washington Irving, whose most famous character slept through history and returned to his home a tourist.

That I felt at home in Edinburgh to some degree because it is so tourist-infested was a source of discomfort, and mostly we avoided the Mile in favor of our lodgings north of Holyrood, down an ordinary street (Milton Street was blind, in a usage learned from Dubliners), close to a Sainsbury's and (oh my) a mall of sorts. More to the point, Edinburgh felt uncomfortably comfortable because it and Scotland are haunted by questions of authenticity, language (did Scots come from English, or is the other way around true?), nation, another country's militarism, the oil industry. Sam Kelly, head of the Napier MA in creative writing, told us at our opening dinner that Scotland is a country that is not a nation, a place obsessed with itself, unwilling to look outward because it is so concerned with what it is. Her husband Stuart laid out a literary version of this argument in a polemic he wrote in the Guardian. It ends: "Scottish novels by Scottish novelists for Scottish readers about Scottish stuff is a kind of abyss, an abyss in which many of our writers and critics willingly revel." For that he's doubtless been called names, despite the fact that he otherwise adores writers like Scott, Jackie Kay, John Burnside, WN Herbert and many more. (Come to think of it, those are poets . . .)

There is, of course, a direct link between doubts about cultural authenticity, this turning inward, and renditions of culture trotted out for tourists. Tourists go to exotic locales to find something authentically not their own, not to find the same thing they left. Locals push back in crypt languages, those as local as possible. So it was I found what might be called "the authentic same" appealing to me in Scotland, not in touristic terms, perhaps, but in linguistic ones. When I read Tom Leonard, I find myself in the world of Gizelle Gajelonia, a world of translation that is also parodic. Gizelle takes on Eliot:

The mindless pimps, with their eyes fixed on the Other,
Walked up the strip and down King Kalakaua Street,
To where Dog the Bounty Hunter kept the city safe
With prayer, Beth's breasts, and pepper spray. (27)

Where Leonard takes on the American of William Carlos Williams, who was himself taking on the English poets and their language:

Jist ti Let Yi No

ahv drank
thi speshlz
that wurrin
thi frij

The only words here that escape the clutches of my normalizing spell check are "Let" and "drank," which is still ungrammatical in standard American English. If reading can be thought akin to tourism, then misreading breaks its spell, at least for a while. Eliot was to Williams what Williams is to Leonard, an instance of the dominant poetic culture and, as such, worthy of re-vision.

This push back against tourism and its authenticity is parody-as-translation. It's is not pure forgery, though there is plenty of that in the Scottish and Hawaiian context. On one of our coach tours Stuart Kelly told us that the tartans displayed on the Royal Mile were all invented by brothers from England who claimed to be Scottish royalty but were not. So the 10 pound investment in one's family history may seem a bargain, but it's also a fraud. That it was advertised under a British flag only makes things worse, I suppose.

Which brings me, by a kind of commodious vicus of recirculation, to Jackie Kay's memoir, Red Dust Road, which Stuart recommended to me after meeting my family of many histories. Kay's book of poems, Adoption Papers, was important to me a decade back. I wrote an essay that included citations from the book, summarily rejected by Jacket because they didn't like the quoted poems. What can I say, content sometimes trumps style? While many adoption memoirs put in opposition notions of origin and history, as if one must trump the other, hers manages to hold them in mind at the same time without fear. It's the most even-handed, cheerful adoption memoir I've read. The prose is breezy, and yet the thinking is not. Kay is at once the authentic member of an adopted family, and a tourist who looks for her families of origin in Nigeria (father) and the Scottish Highlands (mother). She is biracial in a white country, lesbian in a straight one, and daughter to communists in a non-communist country. She's a cultural outsider. Except that she takes on each of her inheritances with equal dispassion. It's a remarkable, if flawed, book, in which she discovers that authenticity can be cobbled together of imagined and historical lives.

While in Scotland, I taught a four-week course on documentary poetry for the University of New Orleans low-residency MFA program. I'll have more to write about the class and the students' final projects later. But, for all the compression involved in introducing a new form of poetry to students and asking them to create not just poems in a new mode, but also entire projects, it worked well. While none perhaps will write in this mode for long, it offers the writer permission to do research, use academic language, to investigate (C.D. Wright's word in her subtitle to One Big Self) the very ground we walk on. While students were writing about place--generally speaking, the places they came from--they became enlightened tourists, doing their research, writing guidebooks. If Sam Kelly introduced many of her students to ostrananie (in fiction!), then documentary poetry allows its writer to practice estrangement from self and origin. It allows us to leave our places and to re-adopt them, to know them as history not as (necessarily mythical) origin. It shows us how to make another family of the family we thought we had. In that sense, and because the students were so game to investigate, cut and paste, think through, the course was successful. The syllabus can be found here.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Poetry Is / Is Not / An Option

[found at Sainsbury's in Edinburgh]

My first encounter with Napier University's creative writing program was not auspicious. I opened their flyer only to see this headline: POETRY IS NOT AN OPTION. Since I am teaching one of the two poetry workshops for the University of New Orleans in Edinburgh, and we are the guests and fellow travelers for a month of the Napier University program, my poetic heart turned to stone. As if poetry were over-valued in western culture! As if all my colleagues taught poetry! As if everyone read the stuff! When I turned to an interview with the founders of the program, David Bishop and Sam Kelly, I found more on poetry's absence.

I read that you took the decision that poetry would not form part of the course. Is this unusual for an CW MA?

DB: Yes. We have a motto on our MA: Poetry Is Not An Option. If you want to explore that, there are plenty of other courses to scratch that itch.

SK: For readers in Scotland, the Creative Writing programmes at Glasgow and St Andrews have outstanding provision for poetry. I admire and applaud, but am resolutely focussed on different ends.

This programmatic slam against poetry is so broad that we're forced to read the word "poetry" in poetic terms: what role does the word serve in this program's self-definition? Why might it be considered an "itch" to scratch, rather than a vocation? The answer tells us what is at once most innovative about the program, and most paradoxical about it. This is a vocational program more than a craft-based one; it's less literary than commercial. It's about making a living with your work. One of its founders, Sam Kelly, comes to Napier from a career as a literary agent, not as a scholar or writer.

Or is it really non-literary? This is where the program gets tricky in a fascinating way. Begun at a former technical college, which lacked a program in the humanities, it dispenses with that tradition right off the bat (the BBC reports laments over Americanisms such as those based on baseball, but there you have it) and opens up study in genre fiction: sci fi, crime writing, fantasy, and so forth. This is an area where we have increasing demand at UHM, but no one much to teach it. Napier's curriculum also opens up more practical areas: how to deal with agents, how to approach publishers, how to do the legwork toward publication and marketing.

But then I attended Sam Kelly's workshop on experimental fiction yesterday and came face to face with many of the techniques I pass on to students: automatic writing, noun plus x writing, invention of language, surrealism, OuLiPo. We had a rollicking three hours of playing around with these techniques. Most importantly, however, Sam demanded that we use our techniques toward ideas, and not in a vacuum. When she'd said to me earlier in the week that she was seeing a lot of creative writing but not much contemporary literature, I sensed that this vocational training was more than seemed advertised. It's vocational training that demands knowledge of theory, and it's training that demands a keen grasp of the avant-garde. It's as if the Buffalo Poetics Program were to trade in poetry for sci-fi, but remain much the same otherwise.

When Sam began talking up the avant-garde, while also addressing the necessity for vocational training and practical results, I asked how the avant-garde's anti-capitalist, anti-consumerist ethos (she loves the Situationists, by gum!) squared with her emphasis on making money with your writing. She held up a volume (or two, or three) of China Mieville and declared that I was talking about the traditional avant-garde. What we need is a new avant-garde, she declared, one that might not fit that mold. That led to a discussion of ways in which writers like Mieville invent--or supplement--languages in order to enact their worlds for the reader.

As a poet whose work is "not an option," I hold out for a space in which the writer and publisher are free not to make money, not to write what it takes to get a contract, not to have to thread that needle always between innovation and sales. But I admire Napier's emphasis on the poeticity of genre fiction, of the need to write science fiction, let's say, that intervenes in the culture, its assumptions and ideas. If it does not include poetry, then, poetic thinking is central to this program. If they were to expand, my suggestion would be to include performance poetry and what Joe Harrington calls "creative non-poetry" or documentary work. Docupoetry would make an excellent testing ground for investigative journalists, for example. (Are there any left, in the era of late-Murdoch?) Let me add that Sam Kelly and her husband Stuart Kelly, who leads our bus tours of Abbotsford and Stirling, are wonderful intellects and spirits, deeply engaged in the world and its words. The trip would be much poorer for our not having encountered them.

At the end of our workshop, once Sam had gotten down off the chair she was perched upon (she explained another time that, like the Queen, she is short), she passed out packages to each of us. Large white paper bundles, wrapped in white string. Each one contained an antique looking volume of Sir Walter Scott, along with two small brushes and four little pots of paint. The instructions are to "intervene" in the text, as Tom Phillips did in Humument, and then to surreptitiously place the volume in a used bookstore in Edinburgh. When Sam finds the book you altered, she will email you.

Here is a photograph of my bundle:

Scotland is full of wonders. Here are just a few literary discoveries I've made in our two weeks here:

--Dorothy Alexander. We met her for lunch at a kebab place. She wrote her dissertation as a mixed genre book on dementia, using Scots language and Cage-ian techniques. She recommended--

--Wordpower Bookshop on West Nicolson Street. It's the best bookstore in the city, a combination of Revolution Books in Honolulu and Bridge Street Books in Washington, DC. They've agreed to distribute Tinfish Press publications in the UK.

--Tom Leonard's outside the narrative and a cd of his work. Backwards, I know, but he reminds me of a Glaswegian Gizelle Gajelonia, infusing the traditional canon with a heavy dose of the vernacular. The linguistic/cultural/nationalist politics here are fascinating and run parallel to Hawai'i's in many ways. That should be ballast for another blog post soon.

--Scots dialects. I wish Facebook were Earbook, because the images of Scotland do not do justice to its sounds: the seagulls trumpeting in the early morning, the train that runs by our flat, and the Fife accent of our bus driver the other day. I looked to find audio of an accent like his, but the Fife dialect memer was not nearly so lively as the young man from Glasgow, here, who attacked the meme itself, even as he explained insects, Scots culture, and his own way of speaking to the camera.

--Sir Walter Scott as explained by Stuart Kelly, who wrote the book on him. As we stood beside his house in Abbotsford, thunder clapped and hail fell. Enough to make a poor poet turn to genre fiction right then and there.

--My seven students, who come from Vancouver, Kentucky, Madison, Philadelphia, New Jersey, Ohio, Vermont, bearing their own regional accents with them . . . who are eagerly writing on, next to, through, and with documents they brought from home. Maps, a college transcript, an old thesis, Christmas card list, dialysis machine, travel guide: they're opening their lyrical worlds up to the prosaic one. Napier! Let us in!