Updating the pages on this blog. That’s meant writing a new account of Dumuzi, which comes out next spring.
Dumuzi, my second book of poems, will be published in 2020 by Gaspereau Press.
It began two decades ago on Gabriola Island, BC, in a summer cottage I had rented for cheap in the off-season to finish my first book. I woke one rainy morning from a dream in which I was a child standing in the wings of a great stage. Onstage was a market and the market was the world. My parents held my hands at the entry – one on each side. Then they were gone. Everywhere I went in the rush of it, the stalls receding to the horizon, throngs of people, clouds blowing by overhead, I could feel them with me, holding it up, making sure it went on.
Twenty years! And more titles, forms, angles of approach than I can remember. It sprawled, got visual, spun off other projects, danced tarantella to a verbal-visual polyrhythmic syncopation. It busted every damn frame I gave it.
Now it’s real simple, 40 spare lyrics enacting my struggle to have faith in being.
A son of my
first mind, was
at leaf, wind on
raw skin, fist
of one thirst
round of what
no one had
of what no
That’s the first, and the title poem comes next
Let no state be
enemy. Wet, dry, agon.
Work an inmost first
Wind blows light about
the life (hemlocks) from
which art is not apart
nor of a part. What a
rock thought to do
was rain and it
out of th
Dumuzi – a Sumerian god of the vegetation, fertility, ongoing spring. The poems invoke his deathless earth energy for aid. There’s very little about Dumuzi in the poems, so I give this by way of a note at the back
Out of Sumer, Dumuzi, fertility god, crushed king. His other’s Inanna, she of increase, who’s been down in their underworld for fun and profit; why for real’s a hard story to tell. On her way up & out, guided by hyperathletic postal demons, she’s told one’s got to take her place, divine rule of bloodless metamorphosis sez flies, and who’s her eye land on but her arrogant lovely benighted D. Take this one says and game afoot. Flees. Caught. Ta’en in chains. His butter churn’s broke & that empty windy sheepfold. Sumerian cuneiform same glyph for sheepfold & vulva; both have place in the formless field of his shining care. Little later they find his body in a roadside cessfield outside the city. Lover Inanna mourns. Mother Sirtur she mourns him oh she do. Their story’s very not yet over.
A more conventional accounting of their story here.
Making Dumuzi, I started making visual poems on the photocopier. This one spoke to Dumuzi’s trip to hell, in the clasp of annoying little demons called galla
I know it’s crude, but I’m fond of it as an early effort.
For a long time, I was trying to work in the story of Dumuzi and Inanna in handwritten fragments. One form they took is these aasemic panels (what’s that? read here)
It wasn’t easy to strip the book down. I wanted mess multiplicity & sprawl – a whole as unrehearsed as a vacant lot gone to weeds in an ugly corner of New Jersey, yet shapely also, each note in its suited place, like a late Baroque symphony.
Several times, thought I had it. No press agreed; the book was not getting picked up. So, I surrendered my intention for it, scaled it back. And I like it in this new form – as a lance not a labyrinth – though I mourn the book that could have been.
The image up top, a Sumerian cylinder seal impression, depicting Dumuzi imprisoned in the underworld, the Kur. He’s surrounded by galla, demons of that place.
Draft of a proposal for an upcoming conference nearby.
Red Black & Blues is a transgressive translation of a text by Donald Trump – specifically, a tweet that defends his administration’s family separation policy and enjoins followers to “vote ‘R.’” I render it, one parcel at a time, as a serial asemic visual poem, in the colours of the American electoral map.
Working asemically, I can’t directly critique a policy I find monstrous, but I can disclose the monsters I find there. The work is thick with gargantuan bugs, ambulatory phalli, apostolic patriarchs, rageful fertility goddesses – figures the text suggests haunt the author’s psyche. These cohabit with forms that recall women in burqas, children on a playground in a live-shooter drill. As if demons and innocents were caught in the same inclemency. No one wants to hear that.
Asemic translation makes meaning a mutual creation even more than usual of author, translator, audience. Here be monsters, but whose monsters be they? Would I have found them in the text, if they weren’t also in me, to be found? Would a viewer find them who wasn’t able to finish them? It’s easy to demonize Trump, I do it hourly. Harder to say we belong to the body that made him.
This project uses the indeterminacies of asemic writing and a somewhat aleatory practice to touch on our complicity in the mess we’re in. The academy has terms for that mess, “patriarchy,” “institutional racism,” but those term have hardened some by now, become preconceived notions, and, for many, sites of shame and recrimination.
The notions I’m working from are the paramitas of Mahayana Buddhist practice: generosity, morality, patience, energy, concentration, wisdom. Any asshole, no matter how stupid, destructive, beyond remedy, or you-know-who world-powerful, has these perfections, intrinsically. This project starts from that premise, though I too find it hard to swallow.
Addendum. Here’s a better way of saying it. Our complicity. Also our possibility, each of us, from before we were born.
Just finished a portfolio, 150 lean & sleek pages, and as many more of student evals, for a teaching award I’m up for, and grateful to be. Maybe I shd just upload the whole GD pedagogical novel, if that’s a genre yet, w/ its doubtful protagonist & his supportive cast of 1,000s, and bellow – HERE. YA.GO.
Instead, just the teaching statement. The only important sentence is the last one.
In my Editing & Publishing class, we were asking about clickbait, and attention as saleable commodity – a vantage that fries my Buddhist ass. Attention is what we live in and offer each other it should be freely, as love. Where’d we be without it? Rocks.
Well, trying to describe an approach that hands some responsibility for the course, its content and character, to my students. I won’t say “flipped classroom,” because bromide, and if I were given such directives, I’d probably do it wrong.
What I do, I have some chance to do right, cuz I stumbled on it, myself.
In my pedagogy, as in my aesthetics, I value the concrete over the general, so I’ll try to convey my teaching by way of example. I teach the advanced poetry workshop at Western as “Poetics of the Rhizome.” Taken from Deleuze and Guattari, the rhizome is a way of seeing that emphasizes multiplicity, connectedness, interbeing. Diversity, robustly. Or Indra’s Net, but contorted, because Western thought. Ranging among William Carlos Williams’s Spring and All, Charles Olson’s “Projective Verse,” Aimé Césaire’s Discourse on Colonialism, Coral Bracho’s selected poems, and Will Alexander’s Towards the Primeval Lightning Field, to name a few of our texts, students face several challenges: (1) Poetry and poetics texts from an outsider Western tradition and from way outside the Anglo-American tradition. (2) An arranging idea, the rhizome, it’s hard to wrap your head around. (3) A student-centred pedagogy that has evolved, as my Socratic teaching style has matured, into a collaborative form of co-teaching. (4) Creative exercises simple on the surface but hard to accomplish: Write a poem that enacts spring. Write a poem that taps into myth consciousness. Write a poem that disputes with itself.
The first half of a class is given to student presentations, which are actually improvisations in co-teaching. Each pair presenting meets with me ahead of time to discuss angles of approach. I pay close attention to the design of their lesson plan – it should be fluid, I tell them, responsive to the moment in the room. I orient them to Socratic method, suggesting they should have, with each question they ask, an issue they want to bring to the fore, and a feeling for how to get there. But they should also know our responses might propose alternative ways there, or open a wholly new line of inquiry. “You’ll be thinking on your feet. When do you stay on track, when do you let a digression keep going? when do you reflect and extend a comment? when do you lean into a term or an idea and interrogate it? when do you leap to something seemingly unrelated, and how can you eventually tie it in?” And of course, I’m modelling Socratic method all quarter long myself. This meta-teaching keeps me on my own toes. In class, at any given moment, I need to decide whether to let be, or raise my hand as a discussant, or help out as one of the co-teachers, or step in as teacher of the co-teachers. The goal here is to democratize Socrates: to hand the role of teacher over to every interlocutor. Evidence of success? Start of the quarter, discussions are hesitant, needing lots of help from me. By the end, they’re running themselves, question, point, follow-up question, counterpoint, dialogue. Scruffy, unpredictable, co-teaching is a surrender of control and dispersal of authority – very much in the spirit of the rhizome.
The second half of each class is given to peer critique. In these sessions, I emphasize non-evaluative feedback, finding peer comments are more perceptive, and student authors more receptive to them, when observations take the place of praise and advice. The approach has a downside – the ego wants to be fed and may complain when it’s not – but most students come to prefer it before long. Teaching process, I emphasize the “writer’s antennae” – the tingle of excitement, sparkle, or charge, or the weight of irritation or dismay, you feel rereading your own work. I believe everyone has these subtle responses and is perfectly equipped to perceive them. But self-doubt, anxiety, or distraction can make it difficult to attend to them, trust them, work with them. A lot of teaching creative writing is showing how to wipe mud off a jewel.
For their final projects, students construct rhizomes of their own. I set some parameters and then work with each, one-on-one, on the forms their rhizomes will take. The parameters: The rhizome needs (1) to do self-reflection; (2) to include finished poetry of their own; to engage with at least (3) one of the poetry texts and (4) one of the poetics texts we’ve read; and (5) to have a non-textual dimension. I also encourage but don’t require them (6) to engage with Deleuze and Guattari’s essay. These parameters, while they appear formal and procedural, foster rhizome values of anarchy, interconnection, and polyphony. And while the resulting project can be close to a conventional portfolio, I urge them towards bolder ventures, and we take time to brainstorm possible rhizome forms: a hypertext, a conspiracy board, a spoken word set uploaded to YouTube, a keepsake box of typewritten scraps. The rhizome needs to build difference into its own body, by talking with or about one of the poets we’ve read, and one of the poetics texts we’ve read, and also by having a non-textual aspect, something pictorial or tactile or auditory about it. Diversity of culture, genre, medium, discourse. For by now we’ve come, with the help of Négritude, Sufism, the Haida Mythworld, Spanish Surrealism, Language Poetry, and John Cage’s screwy Black Mountain take on Sunyata, as well as cheerful scepticism about all these thought-boxes, to see the rhizome as an organism taking difference in without effacing its differentness.
My work in “Poetics of the Rhizome” expresses a pedagogy that’s been years in the making, one I’m ready to drop, any part or the whole damn thing, if it looks to be unhelpful. The last time I taught the course, a student came in to talk about her rhizome, because she’d changed her idea. She wanted now to do a rhizome “about” life and death, or maybe death and rebirth. Was that specific enough? I checked in with my sense of this student, her liking for arranging schemes – her book proposal in my Editing and Publishing course had been for an encyclopedia of all pagan faiths – and compared that to the sharp little momentary poems she’d started making, with no grand designs, just edgy perception and a brave unfinishedness. This assignment could be bad for her. I said, maybe you should just drop the whole rhizome thing. Make five to eight poems, like the ones you’ve been doing. And write something about them and a couple of the readings, you know, but no big deal. She said, I like the sound of that. I said, then you could look at the poems you’ve made, see what they have to tell you, maybe there’s an idea for a rhizome in them. But trust their intelligence; don’t push them around. She looked relieved. My teaching philosophy is, only connect.
The only meaningful thing I have to give, most of the time, is my attention. Which fixes nothing but is not nothing. I know cuz the gaps I find in me, the grievous gaping ones, most have been left by someone’s inattention; my own or another’s. Most of the rest are attentions I couldn’t say no to, and really, that’s inattention of a sort, too. And now we’ve made attention, which is the kindness that binds us – ensconcing a child’s eyes in its mother’s & settling them both in the body of unassailable & enduring love – now we’ve worked out how to make it fungible on the open market. That’s what to #Resist.
Postscript. Even as I was writing, Stephen Colbert was making the same point, in his own adorable way.
Thinking about authority, the fiction of it. I visited my father over Christmas and his authority is both gone (dementia) and intact (father). To raise the stakes, he’s an emotional tyrant, bossing, judging, huffing, storming. With his memory going and his reason close behind, his displays are imposing and ridiculous in equal measure. To me as his son they are. To one more or differently outside, maybe they’re just absurd.
Beside this, the fun of teaching, and getting beat at, five-card draw by hyper & precocious eight- & ten-year-year-olds. It’s a joy to be defeated by children. Their green outdoes me. Watching my father go replays my loss of him in childhood and predicts my own losses to come, aging body, faltering mind. Watching these kids, no relation to me, knowing their minds are taking in what I say and do at a lightning rate – amazing.
No one’s in charge. White supremacy, patriarchy, unitary self – the delusion is someone or thing’s in charge. Teacher & student isn’t any of these, but it’s an asymmetry, and best not to reify it. A girl can be a teacher and an old man can be a child.
While in California, I worked at redesigning a course I’m to teach this winter, ENG 459 Editing and Publishing. I’m creating modules, collaborative and solo projects, for the students to choose among, and leaving more than usual to be figured out by the students, or among us all.
I don’t talk a lot about “diversity.” It’s too cramped a construct for the revolution of perception asked of us, though we’re fixed on it right now because of accidents of American jurisprudence. But these projects are an effort to diversify viewpoint and redistribute authority. They may look less radical than other such efforts. But you become what you hate by inverting it. I’m trying here for a pedagogical madhyamaka, a middle way.
Module A: Collaborative projects
There are three collaborative projects in this course. You’ll each be assigned to one of them – your first choice, I hope, at worst your second. All three ask for a lot of independence and self-direction. I give you goals, parameters, and grading criteria, and ask you to work out, as a group, how to get from here (aspiration) to there (accomplishment). Why so hands-off? The more you figure out for yourselves, the more you learn.
And, these are works-in-progress. I’ve taught the course before, but not in this form, and I’ll be learning how this modular design works. Students maybe don’t like to hear their teachers are learning alongside them, but we are, or should be, and it’s good to acknowledge the fact at the outset, or I think so anyway. Be ready for me to make adjustments as we proceed. Maybe in response to feedback from you, and maybe, apologies, if later I see dodges I want to block I don’t see now.
Each group will hand in a portfolio that represents their preparatory work and final product. We’ll work out its contents together as the projects take shape.
This group will produce one issue of an online literary journal – soliciting, evaluating, editing, and publishing creative content in a form that’s on a par with professionally edited online literary journals.
I’ll give you examples of online literary journals, some produced entirely by creative writing students, and you’ll have in-class time to formulate an action plan. How do you get from here to there? What tasks need to be accomplished, in what order? How should responsibilities be assigned? What can you learn from the online examples about how they were created? Don’t be shy about looking for further examples.
Goal. One issue of an online literary journal, of professional quality in both content and presentation.
Parameters. Content may be partially or wholly by Western students, but no content from students in this class, and I encourage you to think beyond Western, and to solicit work from established writers. Content may be poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, and/or multimedia, including visual work. Literary values count here – no light verse, no genre fiction, no self-help prose. The platform should be a website, not a blog.
Grading criteria. Literary quality of content. Expressive range of content. Creative vision as manifest in both content and form. Attention to zine as a web object – design and navigation. Mechanics – format consistency, editorial correctness.
This group will produce and distribute a series of chapbooks, soliciting, evaluating, and publishing creative work by a diverse range of authors.
I’ll give you a few examples, and suggest how you might find more. You’ll have in-class time to formulate an action plan. How do you get from here to there? What tasks need to be accomplished and in what order? How should responsibilities be assigned? What can you learn from the examples about how they were made? Are there ways you might do better than the examples on offer?
We’ll figure out the number of issues (three to five seems reasonable) and the print runs (I’m thinking 50-75 copies) as the logistics clarify. I think we’ll be able to coordinate the printing without cost to us. Remember that effective distribution is part of this project.
Goal. Production and distribution of a short series of chapbooks containing literary work by a diverse range of authors.
Parameters. Content may be partially or wholly by Western students, but no content from students in this class. Chapbooks are an ideal venue for emerging writers, so I encourage you to think as editors giving new writers a helping hand. Content may be poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, and/or cross-genre. Literary values count here – no light verse, no genre fiction, no self-help prose.
Grading criteria. Literary integrity and quality of each chapbook. Diversity across chapbook series. Creative vision of series as manifest in both content and form. Attention to chapbook as a physical object – design, materiality. Mechanics – format consistency, editorial correctness.
This group will curate (organize and promote) a reading series (at least three occasions) off campus involving both student and non-student writers.
I’ll fill you in on reading series in town, and student-run reading series I know of elsewhere. You’ll have in-class time to formulate an action plan. How do you get from here to there? What tasks need to be accomplished and in what order? How should responsibilities be assigned? What can you learn from the examples about how they were made? Are there ways you might do better than the examples on offer?
Goal. A well-attended off-campus reading series involving both student and non-student writers on at least three occasions.
Parameters. Readings must be at a venue or venues off campus. Some readers may be Western students but some must be unaffiliated with Western (not students or faculty). Readings should be promoted. Readers should be introduced by one or more MC’s.
Grading criteria. Appropriateness of venue. Effectiveness of promotion. Size and engagement of audience (best-effort basis). Quality of readers’ work and presentation (best-effort basis). Fluency of MCs’ framing.
That’s what I got. Joy to you at the turning of this year. May the new one bring succor to all those in need of it.
Yesterday the journal I advise, Occam’s Razor, had the release party for its eighth volume. I was sad to be kept from attending by a wandering kidney stone. Here’s what I’d thought to say as the event got underway.
I’m delighted to welcome you to the release party for the eighth volume of Occam’s Razor, Western’s cross-disciplinary journal for undergraduate scholarship. Written by students, edited by students, also, you should know this, funded by students. Be sure to take one. You own it.
Eight years ago two undergrads were sad that all the work they put into a seminar paper or a research project went to getting an A and then – nowhere. Done, gone, forgotten. So they started this journal, to publish the work of their peers and those who came after, so they wouldn’t be sad in the same way.
At first it was held together with string and chewing gum. No office, no equipment, no budget except what they could beg each year. Year by year, things steadied out, and now, thanks to the good folks at the Student Publications Committee, we have a budget we can count on, and thanks to the kind hospitality of the Jeopardy staff, we have some office space we can use. And thanks to you, the students and faculty of Western, we’re getting more and better submissions every year.
I’ve only just got my hands on this year’s issue, but what I can tell you is, it has the highbrow ambition to take on Deleuze and Guattari, the bravado to look at law enforcement reform in the age of Trump. It ventures into the wilderness of ecocriticism and some bewildering press coverage of #metoo. It examines links between international adoption and trauma, and maps out styles of white racial socialization.
Some hard topics. It’s not an accident the cover is a rockface. Ezra Pound liked to say that beauty is difficult. This cover, and the contents too, argue that difficulty is beautiful.
I’ll let those who speak next introduce the authors to you. But please join me now in congratulating the Editor-in-Chief, Paola Merrill, and her Associate Editors, Cassie Bartlett, Chris Horton, and Grace Dunbar-Miller. And also please help me welcome Grace into the role of next year’s Editor-in-Chief.