Confessions of a random researcher

Another guest post on the place of chance in poetic practice, this by Stephanie Bolster, another longtime coconspirator. And need I even say dear friend.

Being a guilt-prone perfectionist (she writes) may make for a strong work ethic, but it rarely makes for strong poetry. It’s when I give up – stare out the window, leaf through a book, check e-mail, scroll through Facebook for five minutes before starting my writing commitment – that I find the living stuff. Someone mentions a poem by George Oppen which, when Googled and read, opens up a universe and suddenly I’m writing and remembering a lake I can’t remember if I swam in with a friend to whom I haven’t spoken in years, but who will call my parents just days after I’ve written her into the poem. Or, more prosaically, a truck rattles past, laden with construction equipment destined for the new development at the end of the street, where a forest was, and the rebuilding of New Orleans post-Katrina, about which I’ve been writing for the past few years, is a little more tangible. Coincidence is my gold star.

Disappointment, too. Knowing a little kindles the imagination more than knowing a lot. What scholars didn’t find when seeking evidence that the site of Vermeer’s “The Little Street” actually existed gave me a found poem. Although I’ve described my research methodology convincingly enough to get a research-creation grant for a trip through old zoos in Western Europe, what I found was rarely what I said I sought. W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz led me to the Nocturama in the Antwerp Zoo, but wasn’t the fact that it was closed for renovations more Sebaldian than a glimpse of some eyes in darkness? In Jersey, they were an aye-aye’s eyes that met mine in the five panicked minutes when I thought I’d been locked into that nocturnal hut for the night. That zoo I went to because the writer Gerald Durrell built it humanely exists in a poem as that moment only.

When the Wikipedia article on the Chernobyl disaster’s remark – “This page may be too long to read and navigate comfortably. Please consider splitting content into sub-articles and/or condensing it.” – becomes advice for the poem about Chernobyl and Katrina and Robert Polidori’s photographs of both places I might not be writing about had an exhibition of his work not happened when and where it did, I’m on the right track.

Aside, Steph mentioned, in an email this morning, she’d got a Google alert of this Polidori photograph up for auction. And remarked, though she’s not going to bid, how “the language used to describe the painting is problematic in ways I want to write about.” Dude, check that language out. Graced. Captured. Romanticizing (unironically). Hell, in that writeup, dwell is problematic. Artworld assholes. Not, Steph, to pluck your thunder.

I’ll discuss (Steph again), with readings from recent work, how following the contingencies of live and virtual research has formed my poems. What happens when a poem’s image of a bare field and going-nowhere driveway in New Orleans – seen onscreen a year or two earlier after Googling the address of one of Polidori’s ruined rooms – gets displaced on Google Street View by a street of fresh houses? The poem as process takes on a new life, its own, not mine. Is following accident, distraction, disappointment, always the poem’s true course?

Stephanie Bolster is the author of four books of poetry, the first of which, White Stone: The Alice Poems, won the Governor General’s and the Gerald Lampert Awards in 1998. Her latest book, A Page from the Wonders of Life on Earth, was a finalist for the Pat Lowther Award. Editor of The Best Canadian Poetry in English 2008 and co-editor of Penned: Zoo Poems, she was born in Vancouver and teaches creative writing at Concordia University in Montréal, where she also coordinates the writing program.

Divination: Every poem a hundred small contingencies

A few days hunkered at home. Having been scissed and stitched inside am recuperant. But’ve had it in me to assemble a panel on chance operations in contemporary poetic practice. Here’s a propose and very fine, as guest post, from Barbara Nickel. (I’ll pepper in some links rhizome-style.) (Why when I say that do I think of Psy.)

I’ll present on projects from Consider the Ear, my poetry manuscript-in-progress being written in the village of Yarrow, British Columbia. My presentation will consist of a collage of mini-talks and readings, each led off with a guiding central image. I’ve listed below a series of points and paths that will circle or lead to or away from each image. I’ll select – possibly randomly (e.g., strips of paper from an envelope) – these points for each image and expand upon them at lengths to be determined by the presentation’s time limit.


The story of my choosing to live in Yarrow by meeting Lois in her garden.

Yarrow, Achillea millefolium, its stalks used for centuries in I Ching divination practices (involving numbers of changing or unchanging lines), its profuse growth along the dyke by my house and Lois’s in a village named after it.

Dykes, places of growth for yarrow, built by my Mennonite ancestors in the Vistula Delta and coincidentally also in Yarrow.

Torn page

Old books on Mennonite theology written by Mennonite men are taken from a pastor’s library after his death to a thrift shop where Lois is employed.

A random meeting of the three poets of this panel in a graduate poetry workshop at UBC in 1992, how one of them years later begins a blog, “The Art of Compost,” in which he describes a poetry exercise called “Torn Page.”

My “Torn Page (‘(old men)no books’)” project as “divinations twice over” (Patton), written in a room of Lois’s house.

Witch hazel

A witch hazel treeHamamelis, planted by the former owners, growing right outside my home in Yarrow, blooming every January.

Witch hazel twigs commonly used as divining rods (for ground water, buried metal, gemstones, oil, gravesites), the conflict in naming between the Latin Virgula Divina (divine rod) and the German Glück rüt (luck rod).

[Can I just say? About that last link? Bad form, to speak to a link? I just got me some fat insight as to where my students’ bad writing comes from. Portentous dialogue & crappy plotting.] [That was CP not Barb.]

Heaney’s description of water diviner as “figure who represents pure technique” in poetry in his essay “Feeling into Words” (Finders Keepers), mentioned in an e-mail by Stephanie, another of this panel’s three poets, also met at UBC in 1992.

A death in January

The story of “Witch Hazel” sonnet, where its path intersects above paths.

Abandoned house

A random decision on a road trip to take an old, forgotten highway instead of the usual route.

A random glance back at an abandoned house not seen previously anywhere or time.

The curious story of a sonnet, “Saskatoon to Coaldale, July, Highway,” written in Lois’s house.


The ear (in rhyme and metre and “verbal texture” (Heaney)) as divining rod in the projects chosen for discussion.

Questions that grow from the mini-talks, to be explored in the presentation:

What tension grows from the roots of “divining rod” – in Latin, “divine,” in German “luck”?

In other words, in each of the poems and the paths and intersections of paths leading up to them, what is the balance of miracle and luck, divination and design?

Next to come [CP here again] the random differently undertaken by Stephanie Bolster.

BarbNickel3Barbara Nickel is the author of two books of poetry, The Gladys Elegies and Domain, and the recently published A Boy Asked the Wind, illustrated by Gillian Newland. She has received numerous awards, including the Pat Lowther Award, and her poems have appeared in such publications as The Walrus and Poetry Ireland Review. Visit her website at Also check out that witch hazel.

Poetics of the Rhizome

Been a while. Here, a post that takes composting (repurposing) (ok cutting and pasting) to heart – coarse description for my winter poetry workshop. And, cuz the Puritan in me says LAZY BOY for plopping this down, I’ll put in some links, rhizome-style, to what I hope’ll be pleasing surprising ties.

By the way? Rhizome, from Deleuze and Guattari’s “Introduction: Rhizome” from A Thousand Plateaus, which, as I said today to my colleague Oliver, I’d never make an undergrad actually read, though in fact it’s durn pretty cool.

By the way also? Rhizome’s a complicated way of saying Indra’s Net.

English 453: Creative Writing Seminar: Poetry: “Poetics of the Rhizome”

A plant that grows by rhizomes spreads laterally underground, sprouting new plants where chance prompts it or opportunity allows. A rhizomatic plant lets go of where it came from. It extends indefinitely. Sprawls and breaks the rules. Makes its own rules and it don’t look back. Diverse and plural, not a voice but voices, it connects and connects some more. Think aspen, orchid, ginger, bamboo. Think poison oak, horsetails, bunch grass. We’re past good and evil here, beautiful and ugly, the rhizome’s where shit gets real.

In this class, we’ll meet the poem, poetry, as rhizome – a conversation without edges – messy sprawling webs of language that circle the globe, link human prehistory to the present moment, and embed human speech and action in a more-than-human world. Our focus will be student work, but we’ll touch in with ways of thinking-about-poetry, feeling-through-poetry, sympathetic with rhizomatic mind. The post-colonial turn from Anglophone canons to literatures of cultures at the muzzle end of empire. The work of ethnopoetics, fruitful but troubling, to recover pre-techno­logical ways of being and seeing. And the work of ecopoetics to divine, through the dowsing wand of poetry, a human place in the green and toothy world.

Full disclosure, with whine. Do I have time to check out all the links mischief has me propose? Are you kidding? With my working life? You know I make about minimum wage, right, when minimum wage is actually a living wage, as it is in, say, SeaTac? And here I am at 9:50pm eating Coop lasagna from the microwave and drinking a cheap but really not bad Grenache and spending entirely too long on a blog post … well, point is, I’ve given the links a quick scan, they seem fun, but be your own judges. Century of Scatter.

The intent here’s intimately practical. How to widen our notion of the possible in poetry? So count on lots of provocative reading, frequent writing exercises, and thoughtful responses to your work and that of your peers. Too, be ready for conceptions of the poem you hadn’t thought before: poem as prayer, incantation, manifesto, compost pile, neural net. Grades will be based on assigned exercises, writing journal, final portfolio, active and generous participation. Poetry by W.C. Williams, Robert Creeley, John Taggart, Ghandl of the Qayahl Llaanas, Will Alexander, Adonis, Jean Valentine, Coral Bracho. Poetics essays by Williams, Charles Olson, Denise Levertov, John Cage, Charles Bernstein, Lyn Hejinian, Adonis, Adrienne Rich.

More of the promised links to come, friends, but I gotta call it a night. Rhizome mind is hard work. As all ferns and their fronds know.

that scamp’s still in the know

Some fine high play here with mockingbirds and finches. A reminder that for all that’s at stake morally and spiritually and politically in Lee’s so powerful novel and its latterly published and from all reports really pretty indifferent draft, her characters are ink on paper stirring forms in mind, there is no Atticus about whom to uncover shocking truths. Well that’s what I mean I don’t know if it’s what Theresa means. But her compositions here are provoking and provoked so check them out.

Roseburg OR

So when you become a Buddhist you take some precepts, and one of them’s don’t be angry. That’s a precept, not a rule or a prohibition, in other words a live edge no one can tell you what means, at a given moment, or whether you’re being true to or not, but you.

One of the things I find me wondering tonight is, when does keeping the precept mean, yeah, be stinking mad. I went to my President wanting righteous anger (lead, man, lead) and did get some –

He’s a good man. And doing better now he’s unelectable. But I want flames out his eyes. I want Old Testament prophet apocalypse. I want leave no prisoners in righteous fury. What kind of insanely deformed social contract could imagine, let alone allow, let alone allow so often we’ve grown used to it, battlefield weaponry in the hands of a gravely mentally ill young man?

I teach. What if it happened here, on my campus, what if he’s in the hallway outside my classroom? Would I fold up, or would I have the cool command I want to think I would? (I faced down a grizzly once, how about a gunman?) I’ve never touched a gun. But in my imagination of this moment, my whole body and mind is a gun, and one purpose, cease the threat to my kids.

I’d kill to save my children if I had children. I think I would.

My whole body and mind a gun. I’m not a peaceful man. That’s why I need the precept. Too, we’re all animals, we’ve all got some fight in us, and that’s as it should be, isn’t it? There should be room for flames to come out our eyes.

Also there should be no such thing as guns.

But, since there are, there should be real gun laws, don’t you think?

Write to someone in that sort of power. See if we might make it so.