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.

An answer to a killing

Writ by my dear friend Barbara Nickel:

Sometimes I have loved the peacefulness of an ordinary Sunday. It is like standing in a newly planted garden after a warm rain. You can feel the silent and invisible life. All it needs from you is that you take care not to trample it.  

That’s John Ames, Congregationalist minister, narrator of Marilynne Robinson’s novel Gilead.

I love John Ames as I’ve never loved a fictional character; I sat at his feet and listened to his gentle voice. Not one to push himself to the front of a crowd and trumpet his views, John Ames; approaching death, he wants his sermons burned. (“The deacons could arrange it. There are enough to make a good fire. I’m thinking here of hot dogs and marshmallows, something to celebrate the first snow.”) I wish his voice haunting the ear of the gunman in Quebec before he fired at the praying men. You take care not to trample. The silent and invisible life of prayer, care not to trample, the three-year-old with his father at prayer.

Care is not to trample. Her whole post here.

Envelope poems

Yeah been weeks. And nothing now much to say of my own. Goes that way. But saw this on my friend Barbara Nickel’s blog and wanted to share. She’s been perusing Bervin & Werner’s compilation of Dickinson’s envelope poems, and a lovely blog post’s the fruit borne –

The Yarrow Graces – magnolia, forsythia, peach, even the bleeding heart – have been serviced lately. Town abloom on the first day of Poetry Month; thank you Emily Dickinson for getting it right – spring always seems – at least in this part of the world, not on the prairies where I grew up – somehow too gorgeous, masking the inevitable sting; the other day a violist died.

Read the all of it here, with vis poem, rejection slip made projective,

Barb's arrow

and regrets into egress.


Not much to say, except, don’t eat foraged morels and drink wine, or not much anyway. Lost a coupla days there. Viz. Probably should have sautéed them longer, too. But hells they was tasty.

 

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.

Everywhere Is Aleatory: Chance Operations Where You Ain’t Expecting

A proposal on aleatory poetics to go soon to a conference. Developed in collaboration with poets Stephanie Bolster and Barbara Nickel.


Dice. A coin toss. Yarrow sticks and the I Ching. Newspaper cuttings in a brown paper bag. N+7. Google Translate. There are countless ways to get chance or near-chance into the poem. Many are provocative – seem, indeed, meant to provoke. Tristan Tzara, for instance, must have provoked his first readers, as he still does undergrads the world round, when he assures you that, having cut words from a newspaper article, tossed them in a paper bag, drawn them out blind, and glued them down in the order drawn, you’ll have proven yourself “an infinitely original author of charming sensibility, … though unappreciated by the vulgar herd.” Shock, mischief, irony – maybe a little elitism, even once the irony’s accounted for. But this much seems clear: the aleatory strain in avant-garde poetry shares in the sensationalism of its century.

Without casting any aspersion on these forms of the aleatory – what is complacency for if not to be nettled – our panel will consider the aleatory in some quieter forms. Three poets will discuss projects underway in which accident is drawn into the inception, creation, or operation of the poem far enough for it to be pervasively marked by chance, though the text that results may not look aleatory in the usual ways.

Aleatory practice opens a route around the tyrant ego – a tap into the unconscious, the world spirit, the Duende, wherever you want to say poems come from – and in these projects, such practice is compounded with other methods of bypassing intention or self-expression. So we’ll investigate edges where the aleatory meets the documentary, the prosodic, the projective. Research practices where fact-checking with Google Street View yields news that transforms a poem, or a night at the theatre offers a missing link in a project that had started to close down its parameters. Divination practices in which one glance back at an abandoned house uncovers a sonnet’s path or the holy pages of ancestors are torn into new and pleasing jumbles. Visual poems where the fall of a leaf or how a torn page expresses as photocopy noise can’t be predicted or where the speed of a gesture produces spatial forms the poet feels as accidental.

When contingency is spoken of in documentary, prosodic, or projective practices, it’s usually treated as adventitious, and soon naturalized to the old story of the solitary poet expressing a coherent inmost self. Our notion is that such practices are, or at least can be, quietly more chaosy than that. The aleatory has a gift to give, a way round the demanding demeaning ego, and this panel asks whether the gift functions only in the noise and lights of a blowout surprise party, or whether it may be as quiet as a friend saying to another, Hey, I thought maybe you’d like this. Contingency in the poem as friendship not showdown.

One more for Elise Partridge

Hello friends. A three-way conversation between Barbara Nickel, Stephanie Bolster, and myself on the life and work of our loved friend Elise Partridge has now gone live at the Winnipeg Review. It’s to be found here.

And, if you’re curious, I wrote a bit about the challenge and wonderment of the conversation itself here. You can read some more about Elise herself here. And Barb’s wonderful blog is here. Steph doesn’t have a blog but here’s her publisher’s page here. Enjoy, please, do.


I hope Elise’s spirit won’t mind me appending this.

I was invited to a celebration of Rosh Hashanah tonight and we were asked as part of our lovely evening to express an intention for the year to come. Mine was, to be more patient with others and myself. What’s this have to do with Elise? She wasn’t especially patient with herself or others. In fact I loved her impatience, it was was wise, it was holy! At least when she was skewering someone’s pretensions it was, very.

But my impatience is most often crap. (And that, that’s impatience with impatience. Yeah baby gotcha.) And I’ve just now started sitting zazen again, after years off the cushion, and I’m feeling what a difference it makes to be okay with not getting it exactly right all the time. And a little bit more patient with me, I’m a little more so with some other, too. Does seem to go that way.

Came as this a few ago

TD 90V - imageKshanti paramita = the perfection of patience, or patience beyond patience. Patience so sunk in itself you might not recognize it as patience. That was Elise, too. Barb, Steph, tell me, wasn’t it?