Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Temporary change of venue for Tinfish Editor

For the next three months, most of my blog posts will be available at Jacket2.

My commentaries will appear here, but I'll also announce them when they're posted.

And so the first is titled, "Gizelle Gajelonia, Timothy Yu, and Jonathan Stalling in Conversation: No Intertexts!  But Inhabitations!"  You can take a look here.

This space will remain reserved for more argumentative and more personal posts, but most of my words will appear in the virtual Philadelphia of our imaginations.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Interpellating _Coal Mountain Elementary_ by Mark Nowak, based on a talk by John Zuern

This past Thursday I attended a colloquium given by my colleague, John Zuern, called "Who's There? Two Modes of 'Interpellation' with Implications for an Ethics of Fiction."  I won't forget the first talk I heard John deliver, in which he managed to discuss the Vatican and software icons in the same breath.  And I won't forget this one either, as it so ably framed issues in my Documentary Poetry class, as well as in the four novels John is working on for his book project.

The two methods of interpellation John laid out are by Louis Althusser and Emmanuel Levinas.  The more famous Althusserian theory posits that we are interpellated into the dominant culture as compliant subjects without our really knowing it.  For me, the moment of interpellation emerges most vividly when my bored children suggest that we do something fun, like go shopping.  Ah, consumerism.  Levinas' less famous formulation of interpellation depends on our being interrupted out of our self-satisfaction.  The knock on the door does not offer us the end of a dream that becomes a poem, as it did for Coleridge, but a disturbance that shakes us, gives us "consciousness of" the Other, puts us in proximity to that Other.  The problem is that disturbance, like a wave, folds over on itself.  The writer needs to extend that moment, or repeat it.  But that much is for later.

And so I re-opened Mark Nowak's Coal Mountain Elementary on Friday morning before workshop and saw Nowak working with these models.  For those of you who haven't read this book, a brief description: Nowak collages testimonies on the Sago Mine disaster in West Virginia, various mine disasters in China, and school lessons about the coal mining industry devised by the American Coal Foundation (a non-profit!).  He also includes photographs of mines and miners from China by Ian Teh and photographs of Sago that he took.  Jules Boykoff has elsewhere referred to this juxtaposition of China and West Virginia as "radical geography."  I included it in my documentary poetry class as the limit-case of authorship as collage, as curation, as editing, rather than as writing.

The clear model of interpellation in Coal Mountain Elementary is the Althusserian one, which emerges in the lessons prepared by the American Coal Foundation to teach children about profits and losses in the industry (monetary, not human, costs).  That "the ACF does not engage in lobbying" is a red herring, as their work is to indoctrinate children into the virtues of capitalist coal mining by way of worksheets on the making of coal flowers and the mining of chocolate chip cookies (sic).  Again, I thought of my children, their school worksheets.  A worksheet is a form that comes to the child from an anonymous authority--no one knows who authors the worksheet--and it demands particular answers on the blank lines it offers.  My daughter, when she fills the sheet out, may feel she is operating with volition, but she is not the author; she is the form filler, the person offering the answers that have already been determined.  The children who do the chocolate chip project in Nowak's book are then asked to create a worksheet for other students; this only enforces the notion that we are being made into subjects who then do unto others as others have done unto us.

That we were talking about worksheets in workshop struck me as telling.  While the children of the first lesson were to "observe the process of crystallization in the making of coal flowers, a historic craft among coal mining families," we were gathered to talk about the "craft" of poetry.  Our workshop is a metaphor for the place where a craftsperson makes something useful, even something beautiful.  But is that beauty a cover for the ugly industry it advocates, if that industry is coal-mining or even the poetry biz?  Hmmm.  (Do the beautiful color photographs of Chinese miners and the cities they live in offer any cover for our recognition of the toll they pay for their dangerous work?)  While the children are not being told about that toll, we graduate student/professorial subjects think we know all too well.  We've been talking a lot about tenderness (see this post) and discomfort in our class.  But how to "solve" our own experiment?  I suspect we cannot, except by carrying its perpetual discomfort with us, like the Levinasian moment of interpellation.  And I'm keen to remember our workshop colleague, JS, who reminds us that beauty is a good thing.

And so we arrived at the ethics of form.  Form is often talked about as craft, which is assumed to have its own value.  But for us, in this course especially, form is what enables us to keep the disturbances going.  When my student DC copies the directions for the pulmonary respirator and alternates moments of being with his dying grandfather; when AB prints a poem by a woman inmate beside statistics about incarceration; when DK writes a Valentine out of equations for financial derivatives, these cause disturbances in us.  But lest we get too comfortable in our forms, we need to switch gears, keep the reader guessing.  And we need to do that without seeming to switch those gears arbitrarily.  As in, the form must say something significant about the content.  Better yet, it does that through the content, so that the process remains alive to writer and reader alike.  Not a work-sheet, but a working-place.

There are many more lessons here, appropriate in talking about a book based on lessons, where lessons are learned in West Virginia and China, in our classrooms, and in Kuykendall 410 where John Zuern so ably shepherded us through his ideas about interpellation.  The last "lesson" in Nowak's book mandates that children write "creatively," but within rather severe restrictions.  This is another moment to think about pedagogy (what am I offering my students and how am I limiting them?) and about reading (to what extent am I being re-interpellated by Nowak's text, and should I be skeptical of that process?)  I hope to return to them soon.  Levinas's "traumatism of astonishment," which might otherwise be translated into the surprising thoughts during meditation or an apt synchronicity recognized, is everywhere to be felt.  I want also to note the irony of learning so much about documentary poetry from a talk on the ethics of fiction.  But for now I need to switch forms, leave the blog for the work of this coming week . . .

Note: Probably the best interview with Nowak is by Steel Wagstaff and can be found here.  It was originally published in Contemporary Literature.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Incident report, 2/22/12: Cell phone domestic

This happens a lot more than I like to admit; I couldn't find the book I'm teaching on Friday.  I drove to my office, couldn't find it there.  I drove to Revolution Books to pick up a fresh copy, but I arrived before they opened.  So I sat in my car, drinking Kokua Market's best ginger ale.  Through the windshield I spotted a smiley face on one of the cactus leaves, the one attached to two outstretched arms.  Cactus angel.  An employee from the restaurant approached the recycle bin pushing a white metal cart; dozens of bottles rattled and clanked.  He poured them in the container, walked away.  On the curb beside the orange dumpster (Roll-Offs, it read) a young woman sat, left arm tattooed from top to bottom.  She held a cell phone to her right ear.  YOU MISUNDERSTAND, she yelled.  Shorter words ensued.  One half of a domestic.  She held her left palm up to her face as if to read it, or like a threat to no one but herself.  I got out of my car, climbed the stairs, got my book.  On my way out, she still crouched there, smoking a cigarette, clutching the phone.  The air a bit quieter.  She was wearing brown boots. 

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Incident reports

I always get lost in Pearl City, always.  Give me counter-intuitive directions (the kind you remember, because they're backwards) one-half mile uphill from the H1 in Pearl City, and I'll turn the other way when I get there.  When I first moved to Honolulu I never failed to miss the airport exit; every time, I ended up in Pearl City.  Pearl City is the long strip of my bad driving dreams.  So, when I went to pick up paperwork at LCC the other day, it crossed my mind that I might soon be getting lost.  Driving downhill toward Kamehameha Highway, I spotted a very large cement mixer turning left across the road; we came nowhere near each other, but we could have.  He laid on his horn.  "I must have run a red light," I thought.  When I stopped at the next light, the one I saw, he pulled up behind me, laying on his horn again.  Having recognized my error, I threw up my hands.  We both turned onto Kam Highway, and he pulled up next to me, well before the next light.  I only caught one glimpse of him, his cab sitting so high above my Nissan Versa.  And then I heard the cascade of obscenities, raining down on the gray roof of my "little car," as one of his insults had it.  Something about "lady," and then less polite syllables.  I sat at the bottom of a waterfall of anger.  My mistake was a public transgression, but his words careened at me out of some nightmarishly private place.  Before looking to see what company he drove for, I quickly turned right, away from LCC, away from the large white truck, away from anger as large and hard as concrete.  It was then I realized I'd gotten lost.


I remember he went away to one of the wars and the girls cheered for him.  I remember he was in uniform that day and left the game early to go to his war.  Our war.  I remember he returned.  He started enjoying our conversations on the sidelines toward the end of practice.  Something about how he could afford so much more land and house in the west than here.  He told me in detail about the cost of square footage.  He explained something about the national economy I did not follow, how money is made or lost.  Said something about how war was not what we saw in the movies.  Then one day he appeared completely unsettled, couldn't sit still on the bench, told me how difficult life is, wondered how to clear his mind.  I told him how to meditate.  He flung himself on the ground, there and then trying to clear his mind.  He hugged me.  By the time I got to my car, I knew that was not it.  That was not it at all.  I gathered documents on-line, put them in an envelope for him, carried them around for a week or two.  He disappeared.  And then he came back.  "Oh so you knew what it was?" His eyes looked like they felt bruised.  "Did it hurt?" he asked me.  I almost laughed.  Did it hurt?  Every muscle in the body, every joint, every thought, every image, every breath.  Don't you wish you could say in ordinary conversation that you suffer? I'd asked my class earlier in the week.  "Did you get better?"  Of course I got better, but he asked again.  He didn't believe me.  He couldn't hear through his hurt eyes what I was saying to him about how there's another side, you've got to decide to get there, you've gotta put one foot in front.  He turned and walked away.  Came back from the other direction.  He looked quizzically at someone's teeshirt from close-up.  His eyes were those of a small child. 


On Kahekili (the highway named after a king of Maui) one day between Temple Valley and Haiku I was two vehicles behind a small black pickup truck.  The truck veered to the center of the road and then a pig appeared, crossing the highway, as big as the small black truck.  It reached the other side and ran up an incline back into the wooded area.  Kamapua`a?

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Documentary poetry and tenderness: teaching update

Some questions about documentary poems, misremembered from the white board in my Friday afternoon classroom:

--What genre(s) do we find in the poem?  [Use values?]
--What claim is being made on the reader?
--What is the relationship between the speaker and the documentation?
--Is the poet trying too hard to persuade us?  Not hard enough?
--Talk about the movement between images and words, about lay-out, about empty space.
--Should there be notes?  How should they be presented--in the text, at the end, with or without prose commentaries?

These are mainly technical questions, the kinds you use to investigate poems as if they were word machines set up on blocks, and the workshop members were a group of apprentice mechanics itching to turn their wrenches and loosen (or tighten) some screws.

But what's been most fascinating about my English 713: Documentary Poetry course this semester has been the amount of time spent talking about pain.  I'm as interested in pain as anyone, even have a few things to say on the subject, but my poetry classes tend to be more rollicking, less engaged with tenderness than with "how to do things with words."  I'm as surprised as my students that this class has ventured into such territory: the dying grandfather, the homeless woman, the diabetic, the angry father, the exiled prisoner, the man saved by his art, the mother who died of Alzheimer's. (These questions are quite personal to me, having devoted so many years to writing about my mother's last years)

And so our primary sense of hurt is for others, locates itself as empathy, is the act of bending over at the sight of events on television (Claudia Rankine) or in the streets of Honolulu.

Where pain lives, ethics cannot be far behind, however.  And so one after another, students (a wide ranging group in age, experience, work history) say they do not want to write what they're driven to write.  What if their subject is hurt by their attention to him or her?  What if they reveal bad behaviors in their workplaces or even themselves?  What if their ethnic community feels shame over one of its own?  And on and on.  What if thinking is itself a problematic activity?  What if knowledge is intrusive, not to be trusted?  All of these are real concerns, made stronger yet by living in Hawai`i, where everyone seems to know everyone else, where those who study others have often demeaned them, where our skin is necessarily thin.  Who was it said that William Carlos Williams was a "non-cutaneous" man?

And so my role, more than that of introducing the texts we read, or shepherding the class through the questions at the top of this post, is to pester them to get closer to their subject matter, to this tenderness.  It's not a role I've often assumed in the classroom, where I push students to think harder about their analyses, about their uses of language, about their writing.  Now I find myself pushing writers to get closer to the bone, to use the document not as a way to write about their subject, but to enter a wormhole that may resemble an abyss.  A course about documentation has become one much more akin to self-examination, albeit less confessional than confrontational.  Who might be hurt?  What are you protecting her from?  Are you also protecting yourself?  Are there other goods than privacy?  Is curiosity consumerist, materialist, or can it lead us elsewhere?  What is dignity and why does it feel so necessary to preserve it? What do we publish, and what do we keep to ourselves in this fourth floor classroom?  Or, as Norman Fischer asks in his new book, Conflict: "what's worth protecting / to what extent // & // when // does protection // exceed that worth / its cost in pain[.]"  A rhetorical question without a question mark suggests there is no answer, rhetorical or otherwise.

There are at least two paths out, through.  One is the path Fischer takes in this new book, where he writes down the voices of traumatized vets, those he sits and walks with, but does not identify by name or station.  "we     bear / what we     bear" he writes, and those words belong to all of us.  The other path is by way of the projects the students are discovering themselves starting work on; these projects are far less limited in scope than they'd feared.  It's not grandpa, or the homeless woman, or the angry father: it's these characters in the world that constructed them.  It's not grandpa, though it is grandpa, but it's the journal he kept in his final illness, and it's the cancer that killed him, and it's the doctor who treated him, and so on until the nested eggs--the good ones and the bad ones alike--line up in front of you like the soldiers of Xian.  The poem is order, but it doesn't try to cover the earthly chaos, conflict.

Documentary poetry is perhaps not my favorite form, even now.  But it is the way I love to teach poetry, as it leads further afield and further in-field, engaging questions as large as national identities and as small as the plans for the addition to a house.  And they do that in layers, which attract more layers.  The answer to "a knot ,     is there something // I should be dying for ?          Can I     choose it?" (Fischer, 57) may not be immediately apparent, but we might discover work to live for.

Thanks to Lynn Young for showing us the Jenny Holzer book, whose cover is at the top, where she works with redacted National Security documents.  The first I spotted in the book was a "wish list" for torture methods.