Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Thinking toward AWP panels.

Panel the first: "Protean Poetics in the 21st Century: Redefining Poetry & Place in a 'Placeless World' of Global Communication"

I became a blogger because I spend so much time at my computer that it seemed a way to join digital addiction with work, or at least thinking, or at the very least typing. I ended up blogging the five or six years of my mother's Alzheimer's and death (2006-2011, more or less). For the last few years I blogged and then posted a link on my Facebook page, so friends could read the day's entry. Readers form a support system whether they--or we--know it or not. The blog quickened the process of finding that support, those readers. It also quickened my writing, not because I wrote faster but because I no longer wrote with any distance from or about what I observed. The blog obliged me to write within the day, the moment; to observe my mother's Alzheimer's was to write about it. An illness that eventually leaves only the present tense encouraged me to write from inside that present; only when she died, and I intended to sign off on the blog, did memories spill out, bleed past into present tenses. These blogs (there were two, separated by many months), edited and shaped, became two books, but the materiality of the book suggests a different tense, a slower one. That said, my experience as a reader and writer of books deeply informed my writing of the blog; as a middle-aged writer, I am an amphibian, operating out of two writing systems.

Maged Zaher, Denver, summer 2013
When you post a link on Facebook, you create a choice in your reader: click the link to read, or simply pass on. Maged Zaher, an Egyptian poet and software engineer who has lived for many years in Seattle, has chosen in recent months to post his poems directly into the status line of his Facebook page. An inventory of usual status line categories includes several very different modes: there's the link (click and get the video of kittens, say); there's the diary (today I painted my house); there's the political statement or the link to one; there's the story about one's kids or one's cat; there are aphorisms, and there are advertisements for oneself. Amid this traffic in myriad genres, tous courts, comes Maged's insta-poems, not insta- because he writes them on the status (he says he writes by hand, saves them by typing them out, thus creating an archive of his work) but because when you open your Facebook, there they are. In your face. Poems about sex, about Egyptian politics, about consumerism, often about all these things at once, all appear quite regularly on his page. They are diaristic, but not diary; they are polemical, but not polemics. They are written by a man who has at least two places, one in Cairo, the other in Seattle. In Cairo, men have been fighting in the streets; in Seattle, people have been filling the streets with post-Super Bowl joy, and some small amount of destruction that may seem directed at consumerism (it was at Pike Place Market, after all), but is only the simulacrum of protest, if that.  This was not Tahrir Square.

I would like to analyze two weeks or so of Maged's Facebook page to see what this new world of digital time looks like, how it represents history (personal and public), and what we might make of the "place," the digital memoir/page/status. That last term seems especially fraught in the context of Maged's poems, as they often hinge on questions of status, privilege, station. Like a blog, the facebook page, when opened, runs backwards, so I will proceed--or diverge--in that direction.

On February 4, Maged posted the following status line:

"I am joining the Seahawks parade--yes I am. A sad day for Kantians."

This is probably not a poem, but in the face[book] of his ongoing project, perhaps it is one. What follows are riffs by his friends on this theme, including this: "If *everyone* did their laundry, like it if was a universal moral principle for everyone to do their laundry just then, all the drains would get overwhelmed with the waste water and civilization would cease to function. You need to *think* about these things, man." That was one James Newman; he's not my friend, but his name sounds awfully philosophical, Catholic.  In writing this line, Maged alludes back to his own post of February 2, a mere three days earlier, when he wrote, "Well Seattle won the super bowl,yayyy--I am already dreading work conversations tomorrow. I will insist on talking about Kant pure reason with each person who will talk to me about the seahawks, until the city gets over its orgasm."And, in turn, that post echoes an earlier one, on January 30: "Who else wants the seahawks to lose?"

Something has shifted between January 30 and February 5, namely Maged's take on the super bowl. Adamantly negative about them at the end of January, he joins their parade happily a few days later. Not only has time sped up, but so has the categorical imperative itself. His voice is nearly Romneyesque (I greatly enjoyed performing n+7s on Romney's speeches during the last presidential campaign and posting them on my status line). Shortly after that post about wanting the Seahawks to lose, Maged posted a poem that combines sexuality (if not quite eroticism) with dreams with circles with witness with the vehicle of email messages:

We have skin to skin contact
To impose our existence
We also have words
And thawed emails:
Leaving behind a trail of sexy messages
And thoughts lost in dreams
That we use to circle around the world
Which circles around us
And we witness our bodies getting deformed
And we witness

The act of "witness," which is almost invariably retrospective, retroactive--Holocaust and Khmer Rouge victims were not digitally composing their witness narratives, those had to wait--is here rendered into a present tense. The "skin to skin contact" might be promising, but mostly we have "sexy messages" and emails, or the virtual, digital contact that "circles around us," not as an embrace but as devastation--"our bodies getting deformed." There are no images for messages, for dreams, or even for deformed bodies. There are only words.

Above this poem on his feed is an image of the Berlin Wall with that in Israel that walls out Palestinians.  It's a "visual comparison" more than it is a poetic image, though it's tempting to call it image here. Image interruption. Image distraction, except that it's not meant to distract, it's meant to make an argument.

Distraction comes elsewhere: lodged between the status line about wanting the Seahawks to lose (1/30) and a poem that goes

Come and see the blood in the streets.
Come and see
The blood in the streets.
Come and see the blood
In the streets! #Neruda-Describing-Cairo

is a poem that places the exiled Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda, in the Cairo of Zaher's pre-exilic history, is a YouTube video: it's a link being sent on by Maged: "So funny"--he writes--"watch it to the end": The YouTube, which I have not watched until the end, is "Probably the Most Hilarious Ping Pong Match in History," between a former champion and a younger man, one European, the other Chinese. (If you must, it's here.) And it is funny, played almost like a Harlem Globetrotters basketball game. The older man doesn't stand a chance, so he hams it up, moving the barriers beside the court, pacing around like a rooster, making everyone, including his opponent, laugh.  The video lured in spectators, to one of whom Maged riposted:  "Jason, yeah, this is true sports spirit - the other player deciding to play along is awesome." This is the same Maged who hates the Seahawks and who wrote beneath the image of the two walls: "I think the Palestinian cause is a global cause - I think people from all walks - poor third world farmers and privileges Americans (as you say) connection to just causes is what scares the tyrants - actually given james point of view about war being something won on both public opinion and physical force - I find the opinions of "privilege Americans" to be a crucial part of the equation." Both are ethical statements, one about good sportsmanship, the other about Middle Eastern politics. Only the scale is off the charts different.

Now a Kantian would be horrified by this jumble of fun and horror, silliness and revolution. Knowing Maged a bit as I do, I'm sure he's horrified, too. After all, he says he's a Kantian. He throws the baby poems in with the bathwater of YouTube, until you might say that the entire page is less like social chat media than like a 21st century Cantos. A poem including football. A poem including ping pong. A poem including the true horrors of the new century. It's not Kantian because we cannot be. There can be no categorical imperatives when there is no time to stop moving, writing, linking. There can only be the open transcript--the act of witness, if you will--of this one poet's performance on the internet. This is a new version of Stendhal's and Yeats's "mirror held in the street," more like my daughter's mirror. When she wants to do her hair, she turns on the camera function of her iPad.

In case you're wondering, Maged has a Tinfish Press book, The Revolution Happened and You Didn't Call Me.

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