Wednesday, April 16, 2014

A short essay on Alzheimer's & Aliens

ka mate ka ora: a new zealand journal of poetry and poetics includes an essay by me on Alzheimer's. (Please click to see the essay!) This issue comes out of a conference held earlier this year in Auckland on poetry and social action.

Christopher Parr has a response to the conference that includes a critique of my work--not the essay but the documentary writing--to which I intend to respond soon (though I'm very happy to see it).

Here is that section of Parr's essay:

The speaker I heard most willing to push the envelope for social change through poetry was Susan Schultz, in her explication of texts generated in part by her mother’s verbal disorientation because of Alzheimer’s disease. Perhaps appropriately, she presented a serious challenge to me-as-audience or reader. By appropriating scrambled sayings and disjointed speech patterns from her mother and others with that debilitating disease, Susan was certainly expanding the range of what ordinarily gets included in poetry, and in regular language use, so she was again questioning the boundaries of ‘the social’ and what constitutes social action in communication. I found myself made uncomfortable by this source of practice, without being sure I should be. The problem had to do, I thought at the time, with whether her mother could and would truly choose to consent to her mis-speaking being used like this.

On reflection, I think it may really have to do with appropriating unintentionally impaired speech from someone else. I am myself a fan of appropriation strategies and have indeed used found speech and language, and I readily concede that in most if not all instances we writers use such found language without the consent of the initial utterer or writer. But usually the utterer has a choice whether to have said or written what we appropriate, no matter how discombobulated their utterance might have been.

In the case of an Alzheimer’s victim – or, I reflected, of my own mother who has survived a bad stroke but has serious though not total aphasia and at times gets words very scrambled – we can see brain impairment causing them to say something which is not what they would want or mean to say, were they not impaired. Yes, such utterances are thus language in the world. But poetry as art is (by definition) a form of display. So does one honour the person whose scrambled speech, caused by brain impairment, one displays in texts presented as poetry? Or, since they may not truly identify themselves with what is coming out of their mouths, is something less than honourable going on in this appropriation? I am raising this as a genuine question, definitely not as an accusation, since I see a number of variables involved in getting an accurate picture of what the practice is, including seeking consent. Happily too, I know I am raising issues that arise in the avant-garde, a context that exists as much as anything to highlight discomforting matters, especially about boundaries and acceptable or admirable practices. Susan’s work takes its cues in this regard from those like the Dadaists – both in the derangement of language and its ways of making sense, and in terms of what experiences we humans have and pay attention to, in order to be aware of our capabilities for awareness. My own anxiety is that the issues Susan raises for me are moral ones, more than aesthetic – but then, that would surely come with the territory of ‘social action.’  

Thank you to Michele Leggott, Lisa Samuels, and Murray Edmond for making this possible, and to Pam Brown for being herself in Auckland, as she everywhere. She was one of the featured speakers at the conference. Here's to you, Pam. The ad for Ryan Higa ain't bad, either.

No comments: