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.

1 comment:

na said...

Such a helpful post! I'm checking out Jackie Kay's books now,