Constructions of Whiteness

A panel proposal put together by the best triangle I’ve ever been a corner to. (Side note, do you know how hard it is to persuade a room of undergrads that a three-legged stool can’t wobble? I do know now. I mean, you get it, or you don’t, how to explain it?) For next summer’s CCWWP convention (that mouthful’s the Canadian Creative Writers and Writing Programs) in Toronto. Has a thematic focus whose statement starts like this

As we live this moment of intensifying racial and gendered violence, discourses and policies of intolerance, and environmental crises, we are also bearing witness to and participating in a broad surge of resistance, resilience and reclamation as evident in movements like Idle No More and Black Lives Matter. Literature has always had a role in responding, intervening and shaping the historical and cultural present. We believe literature is a way to interrogate anew what it means to be human and living in shared humanity on this land and in this time. Literature creates opportunity for the difficult conversations between us that might address our historical present, how we are haunted and how we can proceed.

and can be read whole here. We wanted to speak to the theme without presuming to speak from anywhere other than where we were. And so this.


In Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates calls out the people “who have been brought up hopelessly, tragically, deceitfully, to believe that they are white.” He suggests that race is a shared fiction, one that served and serves the powers that wrote it, slavers, imperialists, eugenicists, white supremacists. Our ongoing shared belief in the fiction makes it real and lethal to Black kids on American city streets, Indigenous women of Canadian cities and prairies, countless others. This panel consists of three poets who, being white, can’t help but take part in the construction of whiteness. They’ll read from works-in-progress that ask whether whiteness might also be witness – how construction might also be re- or de-construction – and then open the room to questions and discussion.

Last summer, as Christopher Patton wrote the critical introduction to his book of translations from Old English, white nationalists were marching in Charlottesville, VA, and the air in Bellingham, WA, where he lives, was white with cross-border forest-fire smoke. His thinking sharpened some about ties between those thousand-year-old poems and white supremacy and climate change. Race wasn’t a thing when the poems were composed – tribe and ethnicity, yes, foreignness yes, but not race as we live in it now. And yet what were their warrior ethos and fear of the other, their love of gold and roiling suppressed anxieties, but raw material for the later construction of whiteness? Add profit motive and oceangoing ships and stir. Can a translator put such values back out in the world without validating them? What help is it, that other values run countercurrent in the poems, self-inquiry, dialogue, empathy for the outsider?

In the weeks and months after Hurricane Katrina, Robert Polidori entered hundreds of ruined homes alone, with his camera. Stephanie Bolster resisted writing about these haunting, voyeuristic images for years, before accepting that the only way out was through; her project, Long Exposure, began in the interrogative mode, with her own voyeurism-once-removed. Evolving politics intensified the questioning and made her see her witnessing as white. In the New Orleans thread of her manuscript, she writes from empathy with the (mostly poor, mostly Black) former residents of these homes, but her recognition of her own subject position means she knows others may see that empathy as trespassing – or, worse, slumming. Can good art arise from, even overcome, guilt? How to strive for aesthetic authenticity amidst this complexity? How to write while wondering what one has the right to see, to say, to feel? Yet how much worse to be silent.

Barbara Nickel witnesses daily the loss of a body of water; she lives on lake-bottom land. The former Sumas Lake in the Upper Fraser Valley of British Columbia was drained in the 1920’s to create farmland. Named “reclamation,” the drainage was an act of irrevocable violence against the land and the Stó:lo people whose lives had depended on the lake. When Barbara discovered that Mennonite settlers from the prairies were some of the first to farm the newly drained land, the tension of her own witness was increased to include the complicity of her own people. Her response is made from vestiges – poems found in historical and contemporary voices, texts and other more visible remains –sandpiper in a museum drawer. As she writes over/in/of the lake’s ghost, she questions her right to do so, asks which roles are authentically hers – inquirer, trespasser, artist, friend?


I was browsing Robert Rauschenberg’s white paintings, hoping for something with enough texture visible to work in that upper heaven, top of the post, and came to this. Am caught by how all context is. Context of Black Lives Matter, the image is wake-up appalling. Context of Black Mountain, it’s American mid-century innocence enterprising. Phaidon‘s text on its generation, the painter collaborating with John Cage composer:

Rauschenberg said that Cage was the only driver in Manhattan willing to collaborate on such an unusual scheme. Perhaps this is a suitably flip comment to accompany so brisk a work. When asked if the work is a little like a musical stave, the artist demurred, preferring to compare it to a Tibetan prayer scroll. Yet, Cage drove over Rauschenberg’s scroll in the very same Model A Ford that he had carried him to Black Mountain College in a few years earlier; and doesn’t this single track bring to mind a little something of Cage’s featureless score for 4’33” – the silent work that’s never quite rid of the world’s noise?

A few closeups from it:

Road music. Rowed music. Rode music.

That innocence, it’s not gone, it ne’er was.

Found poem (w/ rune painting)

A near perfect haiku came from my love by text earlier this eve.

Im making my moms
moms cake for dessert , it
is called “my cake”

I get pissy about 5-7-5 for haiku in English. Wordy. Haiku’s genre for us not form, moment of unanticipated in-seeing. Count your blesses! not your sylls!

Also the search has been on since at least Kerouac for authentic American haiku. Now and then one’s found, and this looks to me like one.

Serendipitous also, her rune tanka, 5-7-5-7-7, pigments made of ochres from the whole planet. No fool I haven’t counted the sylls. It’s a five-realm rainbow.

Heidi - runes 2

H. painted it in quick accord with these runes in the OE poem “His Message.” The which no one knows how for sure to read

Screen Shot 2017-03-29 at 9.25.16 PM

Have a trans. of it coming out soon in Asymptote, will post a link of it when up.

Student work: Poems with no metaphors in ’em

The exercise: Compose a short poem with no metaphor or simile in it.

Not that there’s anything wrong with metaphor. Some of my best friends are metaphors. But we in the West are metaphor junkies, thank you Aristotle (“to be a master of metaphor is the greatest thing by far, a sign of genius”). So it’s good now and then to go dry. What can you do minus that junk? How do you make a poem work without yer fix?

Hello, syntax and line. Hello, metonymy. Hello, objectivist mode, basically, though I save that for elsewhile. And coinages, hello too! Language is full of forces we are totally out of control of and yet surf fluently in our wake and sleep with astonished ease. Tweak them just a bit and you draw them into awareness and that’s poetry. (See what went on there with wake, e.g.? Didn’t intend it, just saw it and commented latterly, and that’s prose.)

Enough preamble, on to some student work.


Here’s one by Steve Lemma – excuse me, that’s “Goldenrod Steve” – that’s quite careful, in a seemingly careless way, with the composition, the putting-in-places, of its syntax – fragments and all. It also has an admirably various line, not just its length, also how little or much torque it asserts upon the syntax of the thought passing through.  

Subtle
fading
ink running down the wrist.

Specifically!

Subtle fading
blues.

Darker than
the
car,

Lighter

than
your irreparable attitude.

Welcome to this side of the world,
kid.

You may n
ever make it back.

The under
belly is hungry
almost
as much as me.

I think a couple of the moves here, re: the line, are stretches, but that’s less important to me, as teacher, than that he’s messing around, trying stuff out. (BTW, I’m counting the comparisons as not similes, since they compare extant objects in the poem’s field, to others the same.)


First aside. “Go dry.” Is that metaphor or metonym? How about “that junk”?


Another one, by Rob Jones – turns out no one wants to be anonymous, why was I doing that, don’t remember, probably had a good reason that’ll come back to bite me – short and sweet –

FREQUENCIES

That ringing,
A sound
I will never hear again.

The frequencies

Heard less
And less frequently,
As my eardrums become less taut.

My proposal to Rob was, cut the last line. With that line the poem is nailed to its occasion. Without it, the occasion’s forgot, and the language can widen beyond whatever thought happened to incite it. (This is an curious case of what Richard Hugo called the “triggering subject” showing up in the last line. But one feels it was held in reserve all the poem long – I’m suggesting, hold it in reserve even longer, till the poem is fine without it.)


Second aside. Compose, not write, because as I did say later, they mighta done a visual poem, and solved their problem right there. I give maddeningly open exercises. But in them every word does matter: “embody spring” means embody spring; “myth consciousness” means myth consciousness. Why so uptight? In the poem, too, every word matters, otherwise no word does, in which case, stop.


Here’s another, by Alex Hastings, who has a very Creeleyan ear for speech under pressure – pressure of strong feeling dimly understood (TOTAL INSIGHT MOMENT: Creeley was an avatar of Shakespeare), and she’s been learning how to get, not just the dimness, also the understanding and the strength, onto the page, by way of line, syntax, the tortured dance of them.

Legs
crossed over
cheap carpet, we
blink at our
each tired
faces and pick
another
fight.

Change the slightest thing here and you wreck it. For instance, fix the syntax, “each other’s tired / faces” – wrecked. The contortion of the syntax there recalls me to how my powers of language flee me when I’m in a fight with someone I love and who says they love me but isn’t seeming like that. I mean, oh my students, you can create great storms of emotion in a poem without ever naming an emotion. Also, FYI, without many adjectives – “cheap,” “tired” are the only here.


Third aside. Since I went to Urban Dictionary (“elsewhile”) – the poetry of that. Our natural unconscious and dionysiac poetic fluency. And let’s aleatorize the fuck out of it. My pasketti is boiling so let’s be quick also. Random number generator to choose letter then entry. Let’s say thrice and see what comes.

 “Zombie company.”

1. A technically bankrupt company that is kept alive with large infusions of government money for the sake of “stability” in the U.S. financial system. 2. A large financial company with negative net worth that continues to operate, despite having no clear path to solvency. 3. The UnDead of Wall Street.

“rrrrrrrrrrs”

what stoner says when mad

stoner 1: rrrrrrrs, i need money to buy weed, but i smoke weed because i have money.

preppie boy 1: wait…..what?

gpoyefd

Gratuitous Picture Of Yourself Every Fucking Day

I see a picture of someone who is asleep in class, “GPOYEFD”

So I was real worried, around word two, how I was going to get a poem out of this, but GPOYEFD saved the day. Does this not come together as an incisive remark upon the tedium a certain once awesome post-apocalyptic fantasia has come to?

AMC ODE

Zombie? Company.
Rrrrrrrs.
Gratuitous picture of yourself,
every fucking day.

I go back and forth on the comma. Imagine it spoken by a career extra.


Coupla more. This by Lauren Edison, who like Alex is working in a short line, not quite as enjambed, and not quite as spare of sense data, but headed in that dir.

DEPRESSION

I wake
to a preset tune
and white plaster walls.
Barren, save for shadows.
I blink. Rollover.
My screen says 7:00
January 18. Monday.

This wall, too, is barren.

Lauren’s syntaxes are intact, untorqued – she looks for what can be got through denotation and lineation within the rules of normative syntax, inhabited austerely. I am on her case about titles.


And one more, from Haley Kenville, which I suddenly now realize is her myth consciousness poem, that I was looking for in the exercise she submitted for that assignment, and was kinda hard on. (I’ll do a post on that ex., I hope.) Hear myth mind in that third bullet point?

In Order;

• Call ahead,
they’ll want to know you’ll be early
• Roll in late with hair
still wet from shower.
• Saturate trees with buds, so
they are prepped for your petal
firework finale
• Reign. Relax.
They have been waiting for your ascension

Not sure what she’s doing there with punc but that last line rocks my world. Because of the indefiniteness of the “you” – possible because the poem has let go of its inciting occasion – it points to me and to you, and anything green in anyone, even as it also calls to the Persephone-figure (as I read her) of the poem’s surface levels.


Last aside. Realizing once more how much of my teaching style comes from my Zen training. Don’t feed the ego – affirm the person. Cultivate intuition, spontaneity, not-knowing. Nourish faith in their inborn abilities, empathy, insight. And, be always poking, wherever they’re at rest, unsettle them.

And, to that last, I am always causing problems – as if my students didn’t have enough problems already? One asks me a question, and instead of answering him, I respond with a question. Then, as he’s working towards an answer, I interrupt him with another question. I must be maddening.

The intent’s generous – how can I in this moment help you further your inquiry – but I’m a limited human being. Right this moment anyway I’m feeling my limits. Often the generous is mixed up with stress or my own shit or simple fatigue or I’ve got a tummyache. I’m not often the Platonic ideal of Socrates the method seems to want.

Dude. Zen, Plato, you should ride a motorcycle, and then maybe write a book.

What am I here to say. I’m grasping towards a place where fucking it up somewhat is still okay. For them or for me. Hurting other people heedlessly is not okay – don’t do that in my classroom. You’ll hurt other people, I have, you will, but not heedlessly, please. Also, don’t be lazy – this is the Zen training coming in – treat this as the matter of life and death it is (OMG did I write that, do I believe it, I do). Other than that, be free.

And with that, my dream syllabus, any course

Don’t hurt anyone heedlessly.
Don’t be lazy.
Treat it as a matter of life and death.
Other than, in that, be free.

this post must come to an end. Oh and here’s Bodhidharma for ya.


bodhidharma2a

On co-teaching

A bit more from the syllabus of my upcoming poetry worksop.

How’s that for a Freudian typo. Workshop.


Something started happening with the presentations in a class I taught last spring. Between the work of the presenting student, and my pesky interrupts, and the contributions of everyone else, they ceased to be presentations, without becoming anything else at all defined. A little bit seminar, a little bit Q&A, quite a lot of free-for-all. The presenter and I were, in effect, teaching the class together in an ongoing improvisation, and though there was sometimes awk­wardness there was a lot of joy. I think a lot got learned. I came to call the practice co-teaching.

Scruffy, unpredictable, co-teaching is a surrender of control and dispersal of authority very much in the spirit of the rhizome. So I propose that we take up co-teaching as a practice this quarter also. First time round, it came adventitiously, and I don’t want to over-plan things now, it might kill the spontaneity. Soon to come, then, bare traces of a structure, offered tentative, for us to revise if we find them too much, or too little, or simply amiss.

For now. Each of you will sign up to co-teach one poetry text and one poetics text. (Full list below.) In most cases you’ll be collaborating with one fellow student and with me. I’ll give you some pointers – poems or concepts I think important to touch on in the text – and will count on you to develop a plan of action, ahead of time, with your student collaborator. (If you need to involve me in your plans ahead of time, cool, but otherwise I’m happy improvising in response to whatever unfolds.) Sign-up will happen soon, so please acquaint yourself with the course texts promptly.


The list, i.e., the crazy we be up to:

William Carlos Williams, Spring & All

Robert Creeley, Pieces
Charles Olson, “Projective Verse”

John Taggart, “The Rothko Chapel Poem”
Denise Levertov, “Some Notes on Organic Form”

Ghandl of the Qayahl Llaanas, from Nine Visits to the Mythworld*
John Cage, “Lecture on Nothing”

Will Alexander, from Towards the Primeval Lightning Field*
Calvin Bedient, “Against Conceptualism” (CV)

Adonis, from Selected Poems*
Federico García Lorca, “Theory and Play of the Duende”

Jean Valentine, Break the Glass
Lyn Hejinian, “The Rejection of Closure”

Coral Bracho, from Firefly under the Tongue*
Adrienne Rich, “When We Dead Awaken”

*Selections to be worked out in consultation with co-teachers.


Image credit: Marc Ngui, Thousand Plateaus.

To translate the translator

Third and last of the aleatory proposals is mine. Strikes me as dullest of the three. Buzz goes, buzz buzz. And with that ringing encomium – read on.


I’ll present on Overject, an exercise in total translation – trans­lation that holds every verbal and visual trace that can be caught of how a poem refracts as it passes through its translator. The project performs various manipulations on its source text, a minor mediocre didactic Old English poem, to investigate the role of the translator’s impurities and opacities in the activity of translation. While the project may not appear classically aleatory, it turns out to encounter and depend on accident at every turn.

SI 3 (89R) - text - newMost of the poems are hand-written, and contingency hangs on the inscription of each character. I set each one down fast, too fast for thought, and a second time just as fast. Then meticulously I ink in the spaces left open between the two passes. The gangly pseudo-graffiti that results is a gestural translation of the scribe’s stately calligraphy. The practice may not be aleatory, strictly speaking, for no random element from outside the poet has been introduced. But although the forms are laid down by my own hand, I experience them to appear from outside my will intention and control. I decide the process, as the aleatory poet decides to roll the dice, then submit to the results. And I take from the practice all the joy and constraint, freedom and burden, the aleatory is famed to offer.

FT 3 (89V)My work with my materials – leaves paper cellophane – also has aleatory respects. Leaves first entered the poem by accident at the corner of my eye, a dogwood in the wind out my window. I picked some and dropped them on a page and that became a thing. Their placement as masks over semantic translations is a mix of chance and design: they fall as they will, then I get to nudge them around, but a little. Meanwhile, most images, after they’re drawn and before I scan them, are put at risk, torn on all sides. What course the tear takes is not altogether up to me. Nor can I say which parts of the tear line will appear, and which will stay invisible, when I take the scrap to my scanner. Lines of scanner noise that become hills and clouds, the very lay of the land.

Questions I expect to address or at least brush on: How do aleatory practices intersect with proprioceptive elements (the embodied gesture) and objectivist concerns (the thing­liness of the poem)? Burroughs said that all writing is cutups – is there a meaningful sense in which all writing is aleatory? Does a practice count as aleatory when the random factor comes from the poet herself or himself? What sympathies exist between the drive to the aleatory and longings among our poets for the organic, the spontaneous, the irrational, the impersonal?


Yeah whatevs. To come soon, student blogs. Some are striding into readiness, a few yes are trudging, a couple have fleeted there. Links to those last, anon.

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.


Yarrow

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.


Ear

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 barbaranickel.ca. Also check out that witch hazel.