It is Saturday July 28, 1990 at the now defunct Frederick Douglass Creative Arts Center on West 96th Street in New York City. I am at a middle school children's writing workshop. Improbably, I am the teacher. The night before the workshop I cloister myself in the bathroom. Nervous stomach. Clammy hands. Head spinning. A writing teacher? Me?
Earlier that year I taught a few tap dance classes to children as a substitute at the Hot Feet studios in the nation's capitol. I also taught buffon clowning at a weekend workshop for children at Philadelphia's Walnut Street Theatre. But teaching writing? How do I do that? Oh, I knew it could be done. I was molded by superb reading, writing, and performing educators. One such mentor was Samuel H. Wilson, Jr., a founder of the Arena Players, the oldest, continuously operating African American community theatre in the United States of America. Mr. Wilson recommended that I replace him for the Saturday children's writing workshop in 1990. Fred Hudson, the artistic director of the Frederick Douglass Creative Arts Center, readily agreed.
I had known both men since I was a child entertainer. Mr. Wilson and I had also led anti-gang violence workshops at public schools in the Mid-Atlantic states throughout the 1980s using techniques from Augusto Boal's Theatre of the Oppressed. Mr. Wilson was a giant in my world because he genuinely cared about my welfare. "What are you working on?" he always asked, and whatever I told him, he was invariably encouraging. In 1990, Mr. Wilson was occasionally sick. He would have only five more years to live before dying of pneumonia in 1995. It is now 2015: twenty years since his death and I still miss him deeply.
That Friday in July of 1990 before my first workshop the next day as a writing teacher, I call Mr. Wilson on the telephone for help. He asks me to think back to what he told me about writing many years before when I was a child. "Writing," Mr. Wilson always told me, "is just another way of caring about other people." He also said that, "Editing is just another way of caring about writing" and "Reading is just another way of changing the world." Then Mr. Wilson told me that if any of these things are true, then teaching is just another way of sharing this good news. At the core of his reflections was a vision of writing as relationship-building, as affection, and as care.
Over the phone Mr. Wilson suggests that I get the children talking to each other, sharing their own stories, and looking into each others' eyes. "It's not always page-bound," he says to me. "Don't be afraid to use your theatre technique to teach writing," Mr. Wilson bellows into the phone. That Saturday, after we warm-up by running around the room and vocalizing, the children and I create characters based on the real life denizens that occupy our neighborhoods. Then we fashion scenes in which the characters work through conflicts. We move in and out of writing, talking, and performing. And I am pretty sure that I learn far more than anyone else in the room.
For all of my life, Mr. Wilson's reflections about writing, editing, and reading have lit my way through the sometimes dark world of literary fortune. Even today I often begin and end my writing classes with his reflections. His ideas have taught me to be a generous writer, reader, and supporter of others. I see beyond the frequent provincialism of cliques, schools, clubs, and canons. I try to find a way to care about a diversity of writing around me. Rather than focusing on how the writing fits my own predilections, or the fame of the author, or the assumed cachet of the publishing venue, or the friends associated with the author, or even whether the work is narrowly "good" or "bad"--rather than focusing on any of these things, I try to care about the work by understanding the structural principles that seem to govern its design.
Let me close today's entry with just such an exercise of care about a recent poem published by Mary Meriam in the Winter issue of American Arts Quarterly. "It Gets Very Dark until the Moon Rises" is more than a Petrarchan sonnet. It is a poem that seethes forth from the central verb statement in its first line: "darkness drives her pick-up truck." Everything thereafter in the poem structures itself around this remarkable conceit. And then we (the reader) are off on the journey of this hard-living, smart, unlucky woman through the dark of Highway 86 until the turn in the poem when the moon shows the woman's face, and I'll leave the rest, dear reader, to you.
KMD: I've truly enjoyed reading all three of your books, and was intrigued by the dream-like quality of the poems in Arco Iris. They seem at once ethereal and carefully grounded in concrete imagery, rendering everyday things (like coffee, used electronics, and the sky above) suddenly and wonderfully strange. Along these lines, many of the poems take place in an unnamed tropical location, which for the reader, is both anywhere and nowhere, a tangible place place and a psychological one. With that in mind, I'd love to hear your thoughts about the relationship between travel, the literary arts, and the human psyche. What does travel make possible within your writing practice? And within conscious experience?
SV: That's interesting. I don't think of Arco Iris as dreamlike or unspecific. It's actually named a few times as South America-- many regions in South America-- a continent my partner and I traveled for a few months about nine years ago. The book is, in my experience of it and my intentions for it, a kind of anti travel-poetry. Or a rejection of the trope of travel (especially of the white traveler going to a brown place to have a "writing experience" or to buy themselves an authentic transformational experience or etc.). It is a book in which I can't write or think myself out of a scenario in which my movement in the world (as a white American, especially) is not complicit with neoliberal violence and/or globalism and its many layers and types and shades of (economic, racial, political, physical...) violences. I wonder if the ethereal experience you had of it was what I felt to be the spellcasting of capitalism--you try to say something against capitalism, it is immediately appropriated as a product of capitalism (and neutralized?), ad infinitum.
But along those lines, after having read your Music for another life and Vow-- I'd love to ask--what do the ethereal, the dreamlike, the bride, and the book mean for you in those collections? And perhaps related, do you understand or do you think through your work on a book-by-book level, or a poem-by-poem level, or as a group of books together, or...?
KMD: That's a great question. I've always thought of reading as a kind of travel, in which one is carried from consciousness as we know it into a kind of dream state. For me, the physical object of the book facilitates this transformation, this dreaming as much as the work itself.
As much as I hate to admit it, it all begins (for me at least) with the book's cover, as well as its size, texture, the way it feels in the hand. It is for this reason that I love to be very involved in the design of my books. When Max Avi Kaplan and I co-wrote Music for another life, we actually typeset the entire book, designed the cover, and selected the cover image from within the collaboration, presenting it to the publisher as a finished, fully-realized product.
My approach to the book as a physical object emerges, in a lot of ways, from my approach to poetry manuscripts. For me, each manuscript is really one long poem, an entire world unto itself. With both Vow and Music for another life, the book as object was merely an extension of the project, the world I had envisioned within the text itself. I think that we tend to overlook the many ways that poetry is physical, that writing and even publishing are embodied acts.
With that in mind, I'd love to hear more about your process, since your books always read as fully realized, cohesive worlds, the kind I strive for (and at times fall short of creating) in my own work. I'm intrigued by the relationship between the individual poem and the larger manuscript. How do you negotiate the poem and the project, the larger vision? Is it possible to have one without the other? Lastly, how does a given project or manuscript begin for you?
SV: When I was first writing things for the world to see (by which I mean: in my MFA program), I thought on a poem by poem, or even line by line, or word by word level. At this point I think I might feel how you do-- that my books are equivalents of long poems, or, more to the point, are a single word-centered project versus a "collection of poems." I think the word "poetry" is the best thing to call what I am writing these days maybe only because it's not anything else. (Not a story, not an essay, not an article, not straight scholarship, not journalism, not....). I admire that poetry can hold so much, is being asked to hold so much, and that it seems to be easy for it. I am extremely interested in what is often called hybrid or conceptual within the outstandingly elastic abilities of poetry-- these efforts that pose a challenge to the other categories of writing (scholarship, journalism, coding, etc.), asking them to also expand their abilities and considerations and concerns and ways. To democratize, as I believe you said in another interview.
I'd love to hear you speak more about the democratization of writing (scholarly writing about writing), if you're so inclined. I'm also like to know how the instinct to democratize enters your work/career/etc. (Mirzoeff's phrase: "democratizing democracy" is something I've thought a lot about.)
KMD: I love this question. Most of my poems are a (very small) effort to make academic forms of writing more inclusive. Scholarship in the most traditional sense is frequently predicated on acts of exclusion, since most of us can name many things that don't fit within an academic essay: personal experience, aestheticized language, an interrogation of received forms of discourse, experimentation, and the list goes on. In my opinion, many of these things that are excluded from academic writing appear much more often in contemporary women's writing. It is most commonly women's writing that is othered, excluded as non-academic, even irrational. I'm deeply invested in creating a way of using academic forms that is not hostile to women, but rather, allows lived experience, poetic language, and experimentation to compliment and complicate what we think of as rational discourse. In my new book, Fortress, especially, I drew from academic texts like Elaine Scarry's The Body in Pain, and presented much of the work in footnotes, but my own experience proved central to the discussions of empathy in the book. I think that academic writing is often very personal, whether we like to admit it or not. For me, it's more productive to acknowledge and deal with the ways that different categories of writing, different types of language blur together, rather than trying to maintain a false semblance of clear boundaries.
This interest in democratizing academic writing has shaped most of my career choices, as you suggest in your very perceptive question. I'm active in the small press as a volunteer editor, and have a small press, Noctuary Press. With Noctuary, I try to carve a space for texts that don't fit within the traditional modes of dissemenation, distribution, or even established submission categories. I hope that by publishing uncategorizable texts, I'm playing a small part in expanding what is possible within our thinking about what a text, publisher, or book object can be.
I think that my interest in democratizing academic writing is one of the many reasons I'm so drawn to The End of the Sentimental Journey. It's also beautifully crafted, witty, lively, and engaging. I teach the book in my poetry workshop and my students find it wonderfully refreshing. They often express their surprise that critical writing can be as much fun as poetry, as beautifully written, and as innovative in style. To what extent did you see this creative approach to literary scholarship as a feminist act? How does gender shape the ways that we inhabit academic forms of writing? Is academic writing (and the interrogation of academic forms) linked to larger issues of social justice for you as writer?
SV: I think dismantling anything at all, these days, is my first instinct toward social justice or feminism. I'm also interested in the building--but, cyclical nature of my brain etc.--I've been in dismantle mode for a long time and therefore the dismantling of categories of thought, of writing, of understanding, of power--that is all I seem to want to do. Academic writing is ripe, ripe for implosion and expansion. There is no reason why it shouldn't do more than it does, and do it in more kinds of ways, and there is every reason why it should. Academia, if it is to remain relevant, simply put: needs greater inclusion of women, people of color, queer people, people from different socioeconomic experiences, and people from more parts of the world. This is a longish way of saying that to stay relevant academia needs also to be/think less white, less rich, less male, less heteronormative. Obviously, obviously: what is "academic," what is considered worthy of our study, should be vast and dangerous and offensive, and the language we use to speak about it should not be tamed, not be simply rule-following, and not be simply traditional. If academia can't accommodate this kind of inquiry then it's no longer relevant--just wealthy and self-congratulatory. (Thus, yes, End of the Sentimental Journey-- and everything else I'm reading and working on these days.) This is part of what is interesting to me about the recent wave of creative writing PhD programs-- I have a lot of faith in creative writers' potentials to contaminate academia.
That said, I think journalism and investigative reporting and history, or what we've been calling journalism and investigative reporting and history for a while, are also areas that feel like ours for the taking. Call it documentary, call it political, call it hybrid, call it researched, call it academic-- I've been reading almost exclusively poetry that is engaged with social justice issues of there here and now, and social justice issues as they have resonated historically. And by social justice issues I mean race. I mean gender. I mean capitalism. I mean war machines. I mean oceans dying. I am reading everything I can find in this vein (and there is a lot). Personally, I think these are exciting dismantlings and exciting times for writing (but really bad times for most other things). I can't wait to get old and see all the crazy-good shit this next generation is going to do, but also I don't want to rush it because probably the world is going to end in environmental disaster.
Speaking of which: what crazy-good shit are you working on right now?
KMD: Speaking of feminism, expansion, and social justice... I'm working on a feminist response to/erasure of/reframing of Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita. The book is a collaboration with visual artist, photographer, and costumer Max Avi Kaplan. The fragmented, elliptical poems in the manuscript recast the narrative from Lo's perspective. As we worked on the book, Max and I also became very interested in themes of disembodiment within Lolita. More often than not, the reader is given only tiny fragments of Lolita, never the full person. We are presented with "a honey colored limb," "knobby knees," a pair of sunglasses. Max's magnificent photographs present their female subject in small fragments, frequently showing her hands trying to escape from rooms, unlocking doors, or dialing a rotary phone. We wanted to call attention to the way Lolita is frequently disembodied, fragmented within the book, but also to empower Lolita, giving voice to a character who is frequently spoken for (in much the same way as Petrarch's Laura). The book, In love with the ghost, is forthcoming from Negative Capability Press in 2015. I hope you'll check it out.
And I'd love to hear about your current projects as well. What can readers look forward to?
SV: I'm working on a few things-- the final revisions of Viability, coming out in 2015 with Penguin; and I've been working on something I imagine will take me years to finish that takes as its center, well, I guess I'm not sure how to talk about it yet-- it's in that long, silently-loud part of becoming something. I'm neck-deep in a few things, I guess. And reading and reading and reading. Researching fetus images in literature and visual art-- so if you know of any....
Diego Velázquez (1599-1660) was in his late teens when he painted the masterpiece, “An Old Woman Cooking Eggs,” now on view at the Frick Collection, together with other paintings on loan from the Scottish National Gallery. Art lovers and culinary historians can benefit from multiple viewings of this stunning achievement.
The painting depicts an old woman doing precisely what the title claims while a young boy stands by holding a flask in his left hand and cradling a rope-wrapped melon in the crook of his right arm. It is an example of the bodegón, paintings of humble kitchen and tavern life, at which Velázquez and his contemporaries excelled during the Spanish Golden Age.
There’s a new Language Movement in town.
I remember when Charles and Bruce began publishing L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, how their writing made me think of language in a new way. Whether I’m in Australia, or on a reservation in South Dakota, when people say they are talking “in Language,” what I know is that they’re talking in their Mother Tongue. To these folks, English is not Language, English is the way you get along. Language is who you are, words that have been passed down through generations.
“Language Matters” is the first nationwide media recognition of the Language Crisis, which is not just about languages, but cultural diversity. It’s about global homogenization, the Pringleization of society, about cultures being steamrollered under globalization. The growing call to action for language preservation is a drive to see the cultures of the world through a lens of understanding and respect, of seeing the world through a cultural lens, not just a political one. The problem is that in this era of the consciousness of literacy, in this world of hard science, endangered languages and cultures are disadvantaged; if you don’t have the quantification, the metrics, you don’t really have something to say. Quantifying languages is complex (I’d like to say impossible, but I can’t). This is where the poets come in.
Four years ago, when we started “Language Matters,” people were saying there were 7,000 languages in the world. Now there are 6,000, not because we’ve lost that many languages, but because now that these numbers are really starting to count for something on the political table, linguists are beginning to hedge. It’s hard to know exactly how many languages there are, and harder to enumerate speakers. It’s not like counting the number of pandas. In the prologue to the motion poem “Khonsay,” where each line from a different endangered/minority language, we split the difference, say there are 6,500. And the reason I used the “endangered/minority” construct is because linguists also disagree on the at-risk level of many many languages.
When I was in Wales asking people if they spoke Welsh, there were people with a junior high level of vocabulary who were quite proud that they could speak Welsh. Others, who were absolutely fluent, said they couldn’t really speak it. They were hanging out with people who were born into the language, who knew more slang.
The only thing everyone agrees with is that huge numbers of languages, languages that have been around, usually, for millennia, are dying out right now.
When I tell people we’re losing half the languages on the planet by the end of this century, unless we do something about it, they never ask “how many languages is that, exactly?” Instead, their reactions are always “yes, let’s do something about it.” And again, this is why I think that participating in the Language Movement, helping to protect all languages, is part of the job of the poet in 2015. It’s a movement to protect the diversity of languages in the world. A movement to give respect to all languages. A movement to appreciate that each language has its own poetry, and is an important part of an Ecology of Consciousness.
Digital Consciousness connects us all. But are we listening to each other? Are we respecting each other’s traditions? It’s great to have “Language Matters” find its way out into the world, four years after David Grubin and I had that lunch. When I was working on “The United States of Poetry” with Mark Pellington and Joshua Blum, Josh, who gave me a dictum about TV that I’ll never forget. “The first rule of making a television program, is to get it on television.” The national broadcast of “Language Matters on PBS is the end of that quest, of that story.
Which means it’s the beginning of the journey. Now that people have seen the show, what about the call to activism inherent in it? So I ask all you poets out there to live like Natalie Diaz, and help your own Language find its way into the world. And if that Language happens to be English, well then you don’t understand the part about what Language is. Help me get this program into places where languages are struggling to survive and a screening of the film will give cred to the work. Find languages around you and learn from them. Take seriously the role of the poet as a protector of language, not just a user.
There’s nothing like writing a poem, to take words, each one with its own history, multiple meanings, and build a sculpture of meaning. It’s a gift, the words that come to us. People have sparked these sounds, people have laid down their lives for their continuation—language is the essence of humanity, and poetry is the essence of language.
Working with linguists has allowed me to see language from the other side. The collaboration of science and art is good for everybody. If you never could understand the people who come up to you and say they can’t understand poetry, I recommend your going to a linguistics conference and try to understand what those people are talking about!
But to me that’s what the future holds. Sit through a lecture in a language you don’t understand, listen to the poetry of a language you’re trying to learn, place yourself in a situation where English is useless, learn what Language really is. This is the clarion call of our time. This is why Language Matters.
Put earbud in west ear
Put other earbud in east ear
Clapsticks, didj, now your voice
Recorded yesterday, Mt Borredale,
In Amardak, you’re the Last Speaker
Hear? Your voice doesn’t sound so good
You sang good, but the recording was no good
Could you sing now, Charlie, please?
Charlie nods. Charlie listens
Clapsticks, didj, now your voice, please - Now
Now Charlie listens
OK Charlie, we need you to sing Now
Charlie nods and listens
Now Charlie listens
Cue Charlie – listens
Jamesy tells Charlie
Get headphone splitter
Jamesy puts on headphones
Charlie and Jamesy listen
Clapsticks, didj. Charlie’s voice
Jamesy sings a little
Jamesy looks at Charlie
Charlie looks at Jamesy
OK? Charlie listens
OK, Jamesy now speak Iwaidja with Charlie
OK, Charlie listens, Charlie nods
OK Jamesy looks at Charlie
OK clapsticks in fingers
OK Charlie listens, didj
OK now. Now Charlie sings
Asking Charlie Mangulda, the Last Speaker of Amurdak, to overdub his performance from the sacred site of Mt. Borradale, was one of the most complex and unnerving directorial moves—to me, not to him—I’ve ever had to do. John Tranter, our local sound guy, is just a dynamite practitioner. But recording Charlie’s voice, two, cracking clapstick players, and a bulbous didgeridoo on a cave’s platform under an ancient painting of a Rainbow Serpent, proved to be too much for our top-of-the-line digital equipment. This poem tells the story. I won’t repeat it. I won’t even tell you what Ma barang! means, I’m sure you already know. And if you don’t know, then you really do already know.
What I do want to talk about, briefly, is the opening lines. In Amurdak, Charlie’s language, is one of the very few instances where you can actually see a difference in consciousnesses between languages. The idea that some languages are more primitive than others is simply cultural prejudice: you can say anything in any language, and every language has a full syntax and grammatology. But in Amurdak, Charlie doesn’t know his left from his right. This concept, which until the 1960s was thought to be universal, actually doesn’t exist in a few languages. The way Charlie designates direction is simply and solely through cardinal directions. And it’s been shown that it doesn’t matter where speakers of these languages are placed, they are automatically oriented to the compass points, so that they can say of the choices, “I’ll take the one on the southwest.”
Now, you could infer from this that Amurdak people don’t see themselves, each one, as the center of the universe, where left and right is always and only consistent to the person speaking. Instead, the Amurdak people—or in this case, Charlie, the Last Speaker—is simply a point standing somewhere on Earth. But that’s just an inference. Or maybe a poem.
One more thing before we close. When Charlie was translating the creation myth of Warramurrungunji, he listed the dozen or so languages that the Goddess dropped, thus bringing humans to the place she had created. Somehow, under the disturbing lights of the camera, with the intrusion of the microphone, Charlie remembered three words of a language that linguist Nick Evans, an expert on cultures of Northern Australia, didn’t know he could speak. And when Charlie mentioned Wurdirrk and gave Nick some words, it was the first time that this language has ever been recorded. That’s correct. I think this was The Apotheosis of the whole shoot of “Language Matters.” I could see the headline in the Times: Documentary Crew Discovers Lost Language.
The words Charlie spoke translate to: “I want to listen to you,” “yam-digging tool,” and “give me fire.” The first thing that was apparent to Nick from these three words is that they are unlike any other language, which means Wurdirrk is not a dialect—without these words, we never would have known that.
As a poet, I’d like to say one more thing about the words. If you triangulate from them, what you have is a whole culture. “I want to listen to you,” the essence of the community. “Yam-digging tool,” the basis of the community’s relationship with the earth and it also means “digging deeply into the meaning of something.” And “give me fire,” the essence of light, of heat, a great song title, and the best joke in the book.
For “gimme fire,” I envisioned Charlie as a little boy, these strange people coming out of the darkness late at night, shivering and cold, needing some of this precious fire for light and heat. Later, Charlie would give me the deeper meaning of this idiom. Hey buddy, you got a match?
“Foneddigion a Boneddigesau! Fy llinell gyntaf o gynghanedd!” The Welsh is slow and halting, pried off the page, the performance knowing and with flair. If I do say so myself.
I am saying it myself.
It’s me. On stage. Stomp, 2012, Vale of Glamorgan, Cymru (Welsh for “Wales”).
The Stomp (Y Stomp, in Welsh), is the National Poetry Slam of Wales. It is part of the annual Eisteddfod, the national cultural festival of all things Welsh. As I say in “Language Matters,” “It’s a lot like the state fairs in the US, except that instead of prizes for pies or pigs, the prizes are for poetry.”
The first Eisteddfod was in 1176, when Lord Rhys invited poets and musicians from all over the country to compete for a seat at his table. You could sing for your supper, and then get fed. Winning was an entree into the house of the Lords, and a golden meal ticket for the winning poet. The chair you pulled up to the table was a special Bard’s Chair, and to this day, the prize for the winning poet in the Formal Category is a Chair. Hand-carved by an artisan, the winner gets to take the Chair home, sit in it, and write more poems. In Welsh.
For me, as usual, the whole thing started at the Bowery Poetry Club, when we hosted readings by Welsh poets as part of the Peoples Poetry Gatherings, 2002-03. That’s where I began to feel the intensity around this ancient Celtic language. Whenever I bring up Welsh in New York, the response is invariably, “Well, what about Irish?” While the Irish fought and gained political independence, they did so in English. The Irish language is now much more endangered than Welsh. The Welsh never fought for independence, but rather cultural parity, and today Welsh is considered the only endangered language to have come off the endangered language list. It’s a success story by any metric, which is why it got its place in “Language Matters.”
One of the poets I met at the Club is Grahame Davies, who writes in both Welsh and English, and whose work and being was crucial in my decision to study Welsh. Grahame lives the fire and rigor needed to keep this ancient language alive. The fire is contagious, and to prepare for the film, I flew to Wales and began my own formal and informal study of the language.
Grahame picked me up at the Caerdydd (Cardiff) Airport, and we headed for breakfast with Elinor Robson of the Welsh Language Society. I confessed my dream to them, and we all laughed over a full Welsh. What? I, who didn’t even know enough to fly to Manchion (Manchester) to get to Gog Gymru (North Wales), who couldn’t say Blaenau Ffestiniog (the slate-mining town where I live in Wales), let alone spell it, who hadn’t even met Dewi Prysor! was proposing that I participate in next year’s Stomp! I, who didn’t know from “hwyl” (aloha), was going to write and perform a poem in Welsh -- all for this documentary I was making for PBS.
And as you now can see on the front page of the live-stream at PBS.org, the fantasy came real, all duded up in lucky Tibetan cap and Mexican guayabera, taking on all comers at Stomp 2012. “Ladies and Gentlemen! My first line of cynghanedd!” I am saying, to translate the first words of this post. And it really was the first cynghanedd I ever wrote.
In the film, the line is followed by a raucous audience response, Stomp cards held high—unlike the U.S. Slam, at the Stomp the audience is the judge, and they judge by holding up different colored cards to indicate their favorite poet. Watch as I collect a brotherly hug from Dewi, my mentor, friend and Stomp opponent, also an award-winning novelist and Stomp-winning poet, whose current job is translating episodes of “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” into Welsh.
The cynghanedd is what separates formal Welsh poetry from free verse; in fact, it is what separates Welsh poetry from any other poetry in the world. There are six different forms of cynghanedd, and to win the Chair, you must write a poem that includes sections written in each. Each form has its own rules, here’s a general description the poetic device Marerid Hopwood, in her handbook Singing in Chains: Listening to Welsh Verse, describes as “consonant chime :” to create a cynghanedd , a line is divided into three sections, a double caesura. The middle section is thrown out. The two sections left, must have all their consonants (except the last) match up. In other words, the vowels, and of course in Welsh, Y and W are always vowels, are immaterial. The sounds we use to make rhymes don’t count.
Now from here things get a little complex. Sometimes there is internal rhyme, sometimes rhyme line-to-line, sometimes both—but let’s just leave it at that. The extraordinary thing is that a Welsh audience can hear the cynghanedd, applauding an especially good one, and be quite aware of a poet trying to slide something by. As an American poet writing in Welsh, even in the Stomp, to come up with a cynghanedd was quite a feat.
(Hopwood’s title is of course a line from “Fern Hill” by Dylan Thomas. The irony is that while we think of Thomas as the Welsh poet, in Wales he’s often not even considered to be in the top tier. Why? Because he didn’t write in Welsh. In fact, many people think that a lot of Thomas’s power comes from his having heard and digested the sounds and rhythms of Welsh poetry as a youth, and then using these Welsh cynghanedd forms in English. For your further elucidation, another poet who used Welsh forms and sounds was that old Jesuit and inventor of sprung rhythm, Gerard Manley Hopkins)
Quick cut back to breakfast—Grahame and Elinor waving goodbye, I’m training/bussing it to Nant Gwrtheyrn, the Welsh Cultural Center, where I will begin my formal study of Welsh. Flashback to Stanza Poetry Festival in St. Andrews, Scotland, six months before, where another Welsh poet, Sian Melangell Dafydd, replies to my comment that I want to learn Welsh by saying “there’s this magical place in Llyn…” Flash forward to Grahame Davies’ brillant Everything Must Change, a novel that is a mash-up of the Welsh language protests of the 60s with the bio of Simone Weill. Flash further forward to my two weeks’ immersion at Nant where my Welsh teacher Llinos Griffin is prodding the Cymraeg (Welsh language) out of me, saying “You, know, you really should meet Dewi Prysor…”
…And what was your first line of cynghanedd, Bob? you’ve probably been wondering. “Yn ysgwd yn fy esgyrn.” Which, as you can see in “Language Matters,” I learn how to pronounce as I drive our van (my full title: host/driver) through scenic Wales, and which the show’s storyteller/line producer, Sian Taifi, also tries to instill in me by having me sing the words.
Besides Sian, Dewi and Grahame, the film also shows me learning with David Crystal, Europe’s most famous linguist, and Ivor ap Glyn, poet and TV host/producer. The line translates, “I am shaking my bones,” and as you can tell by my rendering, I really was.
The Stomp is a variant of the US Poety Slams, and I’ve done enough Slams to know that grabbing attention at the top is crucial. So I asked Dewi to teach me something that would bust through in case anyone at the Stomp should heckle my mispronunciation or lack of mutations, (Mutations! The bete noir of the Welsh language. Did you notice back a-ways how cynghanedd mutated to gynghanedd? Not a typo! In English and French we often elide one word into another by dropping the last letter: singing to singin’, eg. In Welsh, you “mutate” the first letter of the incoming word, so that, for example, if you are going to Bangor, you would say im Mangor, the B of Bangor mutating to an M. Which of course makes driving in Wales even more fun.) So the title I came up with for my Stomp masterpiece is: Ffwciwch Oma! Dwin Ffwcin Dysgwr Ffwcin Gymraeg! which, lovingly translates to “Fuck Off! I’m a Fuckin’ Welsh Fuckin’ Learner!”
Not only would I be trying to turn my lack of Welsh into an advantage by begging for the sympathy vote, but I’d also be paying homage to the colorful language the Stomp is known for, especially as used so expressively by my mate Prysor and the training camp he established in Blaenau (The Queen), with occasional side trips to Llan (Y Pengwyrn) and Tanygrisiau (Y Tap) -- three major pubs in three parts of town. It’s also worth noting that there are no indigenous curse words in Welsh; like Ffwcin, they’re all borrowings from bully English.
Playing between orality and literacy is one of my favorite areas of poetic exploration. In fact, it was how I got involved with Endangered Languages in the first place. Of the 6000 languages in the world (I just love saying that!), only 700 are written down. The Welsh oral traditions, from the Celitc storytellers and Druid poemmakers all he way to today’s Stomp, has been crucial to the language’s survival. And it was through my investigations into the roots of hiphop poetry (hiphop IS poetry!), that I first came across the Language Crisis.
Having established myself as an appropriately iconoclastic bardd Cymreig in the poem’s title, I felt it was important that the first line of the poem reverse field and show my respect for Welsh culture: “Rwy'n teimlo fel y ddraig goch yng nghanol y frwydr,” imparts to me a mythic status, as I identify with the deepest image of Welsh mythology: “I feel like the Red Dragon entering into battle.” You may have noticed that Wales is the only country with a Red Dragon on its flag: the symbol of Wales, sleeping underground next to the White Dragon (England), waiting only for the Apocalypse to disinter, and then emerge victorious in the ensuing battle royale. Wow.
I straighten out this lie in the next line: “Bardd Americanaidd tumffat yng nghanol y Stomp.” “Actually, I’m just a stupid American poet trying to hold me own in the Stomp.” Another secret of Slam success: flip the script! Set up a high image, and then undercut it with your own vulnerability.
The next lines reference my aforementioned debt to hiphop. Hiphop is part of my lineage, too—for a while there in the 80s my tag was the Plain White Rapper. To write this section took painstaking work at the Blaenau llyfrgell (library) with a correlating a rhyming dictionary and a Welsh-English dictionary—why oh why is there no rhyming Welsh-English Dictionary?
Eisiau ymddiheuriad? dim posibiliad...
Eisiau nghyfeiriad? Dyna ddiffiniad o wrthddywediad
A distrywio’r diffiniad!
My address? The definition of randomness
The contradiction of definition!
This also gives a nod to the course I’ve developed at Columbia, “Exploding Text: Poetry Performance,” using extra-literary means to add even more meanings to a poem via collaborations with film, dance, theater, et al.
After this jangly, dirty, provocative opening, I felt it was time for some “real” poetry, and being a “real” poet myself I knew just what lines to use: steal them, from a couple of great poets.
Hen Gychwr Afon Angau, // mae o’n gwbod
Beth ydwyt ti a minnau, frawd
Ond swp o esgyrn mewn gwisg o gnawd
Old River Boatman Death (Rwilliams Parry), he knows it
What art thou and I, brother
But in a uniform batch of bones of flesh
I was truly hoping someone in the audience would out me here (I should have had a plant!), so that my next barrage, taking personal blame not only for my plagerism but also for every crime ever committed during the horrific triumph of Capitalism known as US Imperialism would have more resonance:
Dygwyd y llinellau uchod ar eich cyfer oddi ar
R Williams Parry a TH Parry Williams yn enw
The lines above stolen on your behalf from R Williams Parry & TH Parry Williams in the name of American Imperialism!
This is followed by the lines from “Language Matters.”
Cynghanedd, defended from the orality of the skalds, has been an integral part of Welsh has survived. Hopwood confesses at one point that she believes you can only truly write cynghanedd in the language that evolved in tandem with the poetic form: Cymraeg (Welsh). In essence, her whole lovely how-to is actually nothing but a piece of propaganda for the perpetuation of Welsh.
Cymru, the Welsh word for Wales, means Us, The People. “Wales” is a Saxon word, what the Saxons, the first conquering invaders of Wales, called the Celts there—“The others,” “Those guys over there.” Isn’t it time for the world’s nations to be known by the name that their people call themselves?
And now, the Grand Finale:
Baby baby yr unig ffordd o atal y gerdd hon – yw cusanu cusanu
Lle mae pob cusan yn dod yn air Cymraeg
Yn fy mhen a’i lond o freuddwydion
Baby baby the only way to stop this poem is to kiss kiss
Where each kiss becomes a word in Welsh
in My Big Head of Dreams
It’s true that my relationship with Welsh is a lot like having a lover—you have to give everything and there’s always more and thank goodness it’s never enough. But my head of dreams – in English I wanted this to be my big head, big enough to hold all these languages and the idea that somehow or other that this piece of theater, sacrificing myself on the pyre that is the Stomp, would show my love and respect for Welsh, that I would go to his extreme in order to bring my own personal touch to a documentary that is all about the essence of humanity, which I believe language is, but which can also be talked about in theories and data where it’s possible human contact may be lost.
Of the 12 poets who made it to the National Poetry Slam, Dewi and I were the first two names out of the hat. We went up against each other, splitting our supporters’ votes, and giving the first round to some brilliant whippersnapper poet who had somehow made cynghanedd a mode of conversation—brilliant! As if Byron were crossed with Frank O’Hara, say.
Because we were knocked out in the first round, the crew was able to shoot a wrap-up, right then and there, full of loss that meant nothing, and surrounded by a language that had taught me important truths that would infuse the whole film. And my life.
After the wrap, the crew really wanted to hit the road. I felt bad—for the poet to leave a reading early is bad form, in any language. But it was already late, and our flight back to the States was at 8:00 the next morning, and we had to drive to Llundain, and the Welsh sky was already ablaze. And my big head was full of big dreams but no way sleeping.
The poem and translation below are published in my most recent collection,Sing This One Back to Me (2013, Coffee House).
Ffwciwch Oma! Dwin Ffwcin Dysgwr Ffwcin Gymraeg!
Rwy'n teimlo fel y ddraig goch yng nghanol y frwydr
Bardd Americanaidd tumffat yng nghanol y Stomp
Eisiau ymddiheuriad? dim posibiliad...
Eisiau nghyfeiriad? Dyna ddiffiniad o wrthddywediad
A distrywio’r diffiniad!
A dach chi’n gwybod pam?
Mi dduda’i thach chi pam!
Achos -- mod i'n Ffwcin Dysgwr Ffwcin Gymraeg,
Dyna ffwcin pam!!!!!
Hen Gychwr Afon Angau, // mae o’n gwbod
Beth ydwyt ti a minnau, frawd
Ond swp o esgyrn mewn gwisg o gnawd
Dygwyd y llinellau uchod ar eich cyfer oddi ar
R Williams Parry a TH Parry Williams yn enw
Foneddigion a Boneddigesau!
Fy llinell gyntaf o gynghanedd:
“Yn ysgwyd yn fy esgyrn”
Mae’n wir wyddoch chi –
Dwi YN “ysgwyd yn fy esgyrn”!
A dach chi’n gwbod pam?
Achos fy mod i'n Ffwcin Dysgwr Ffwcin Gymraeg,
Dyna ffwcin pam!!!
Baby baby yr unig ffordd o atal y gerdd hon – yw cusanu
Lle mae pob cusan yn dod yn air Cymraeg
Yn fy mhen a’i lond o freuddwydion
Fuck Off, I’m a Fuckin Welsh Fuckin Learner!
(That’s the Title)
I feel like The Red Dragon In the Middle of Battle
stupid American poet in the middle of the Stomp
Want an apology? No possibility!
My address? The definition of randomness (The contradiction of definition)
And you know why?
I'll tell you why!
Cause I’m a Fuckin Welsh Fuckin Learner, that's why
Old River Boatman Death (Rwilliams Parry), he knows it
What art thou and I, brother
But in a uniform batch of bones of flesh
The lines above stolen on your behalf from R Williams Parry & TH arry Williams in the name of American Imperialism!
LADIES AND GENTLEMEN!
My first line of cynghanedd!
“Shaking in my bones”
It’s true you know
I AM “shaking in my bones”!
And do you know why?
Because I’m a fuckin Welsh fuckin learner that’s fuckinwhy!
Baby baby the only way to stop this poem is to kiss kiss
Where each kiss becomes a word in Welsh
In My Big Head of Dreams
And so I made my first trip to Hawaii. It’s a long way from everywhere, specks of black lava, folded green jewels in the middle of the largest body of water on the planet – you will now know that, Hawaii is the further from a continent than any other on the planet. No wonder the creation story here, the Kumulipo, begins underwater, with the creation of fish, coral and octopus, and rises up with the spirit of Pele, the Goddess of Fire, a real place—the active volcano in the center of the Big Island. Pele is a real person, too. I met her many-times-Great Granddaughter, Pele Harmann, a teacher at Nawahi, the K-12 immersion school outside Hilo where I spent many a day hearing No English. It’s an honor to be allowed to step inside someone else’s culture. Tread lightly. As Pele said to me, “To you it’s a myth. To me it’s my genealogy.”
This is what you learn. That unlike the rest of the world’s crises, the Language Crisis has a seemingly simple answer: Respect Mother tongues. Let the children born into minority languages live there as much as possible. They will get plenty of the bully language as soon as they walk out the door, as soon as they turn on the TV.
Today there are Hawaiian language immersion schools on every island, but back in the 60s there were none. The number of speakers had shrunk to about 400 with most of them living on the tiny island of Ni’ihau, which was owned (still is) by a single family who allow no non-Hawaiians to set foot there. So the native population lives on in a kind of time capsule of pure Hawaiian. When Larry Kimura, the godfather of the Hawaiian language, and his Hawaiian language students at the University of Hawaii Manao came to the conclusion that just speaking Hawaiian with each other for hours a day was not making the kind of substantive change necessary to keep Hawaiian culture alive, they decided the way forward was to start schools where children would learn Hawaiian the way all children learn languages – by hearing, by mimicking, by conversing. By spending time in a place where the sound environment was always the flowing lilt and glottal stops of Hawaiian. This was the beginning of the punana leo, a language nest. Here children would spend hours daily in a protected place—a nest of Hawaiian. Parents must accompany their little ones (3 months to 5 years ) here, and parents too are bound by the rules. So they end up learning baby Hawaiian, just to keep up with their child. I’m sitting there and a toddler purposefully approaches and starts speaking to me—in Hawaiian. Wants me to read him a book in Hawaiian. I oblige—I may not know all the meanings, but I can read the words, and I’m learning, like he is. But I don’t speak Hawaiian! I’d said to the teacher. Not yet, was her reply.
It was a few kapunas (elders, but like so many Hawaiian words, much more than elders), those remaining from the 400 speakers in 1960, who brought the sounds and traditions of real Hawaiian direct to these students. Auntie Lolena Nichols—I could devote a whole blog to how kinship patterns in orality are as complex as nuclear fission, but right now let’s just say “Auntie”—was one of these native speakers from Ni’ihau. These days she divides her time between the children at the punana leo and graduate students at the University of Hawaii, Manao. In oral consciousness, people are books, and as the language activist/scholar Puakea Nogelmeier is fond of saying, Auntie Lolena is a PhD in living Hawaiian. When I first met Lolena, I presumed a Hawaiian greeting: forehead to forehead, nose to nose, you breathe in the breath of the other. Lolena’s power almost knocked me over.
Nogelmeier, himself is a very special man with a deliciously deep voice. You get to hear it every time you take a bus in Honolulu. Most of the streets still have their original Hawaiian names, but as the language died out so did proper pronunciation. The names became haole, the Hawaiian word for white people, but as the language movement (not Bernstein/Andrews, but the push for mother tongue survival) gained momentum one of the successes was hearing Puakea’s dulcet tones pronounce real Hawaii’an as you take public transportation in Honolulu.
One thing you notice right away in the language is the ‘okina, the glottal stop, considered an actual letter in Hawaiian, one of eight consonants. There are five vowels. Thirteen letters altogether, and one of them is the silent “hitch” you hear when you say uh-oh. Having a language with such a few number of letters, each of which is pronounced in only one way (well, vowels are short and long, but long just means they are longer, not that they have a different sound), gives Hawaiian only 18 phonemes, one of the fewest of any language (English has 57, the Koisan click languages over 140).
It also makes Hawaiian an extremely easy language for speakers to read. Think of the evolution of written English, its centuries of inconsistent spellings and idiosyncratic pronunciations. How different it was for literacy to arrive in Hawaii. When the first missionaries arrived in 1820, they quickly developed a written language and translated the Bible into Hawaiian, the better to convert the populace. They gained the full support of the royal family, who even at this time were considered not the descendants of gods, but actual gods. And when these kings and queens took up the advocacy of reading, it took less than fifty years for Hawaii to surpass the Mainland in literacy, eventually having one of the highest literacy rates in the world. It was said that Hawaiians could read upside-down – because of the lack of reading material, four people would stand around a book or newspaper – two read sideways, one straight on, one upside down.
One of the reasons this happened was the advent of Hawaiian newspapers. Over the next 100 years, more than 100 native language newspapers were founded. But it wasn’t the news they were reporting, it was the incredibly rich Oral culture that they were recording. Every endangered language that is being revived develops techniques for adding vocabulary for new things and concepts (computer, cell pone, defriend, Pringle-ization), and for words that have been lost. But it’s only Hawaii, where the people fell so in love with reading that now researchers can “mine” this trove to find forgotten vocabulary, ideas for new words, and still hear the voices from the days when the language was teeming with energy, the essence of Hawaiian culture full flower.
I want to talk about my visit with William Merwin, who of course lives in Haiku on the island on Maui, telling me that Hawaiian will be back when it is “considered a first language, when you make jokes in it, play around with it.” I want to travel way up the mountain and tell you about my visit with Keali’I Richel,who told me how hula became the way that language survived during the years that the American colonists outlawed it, how “you can have a hula poem without the dance, but you can’t have the dance without the poem.” I want you to meet Kaui sa-Dudoit, the Mother of the Language Movement, whose dozen kids all grew up in immersion schools, all rebelled as teenagers and stopped, and all came back.
And I want you to see David Grubin and me actually getting in the water, up to our knees, daring the Pacific in our bermudas, trying to write a poem while the waves tried to push us over. But instead, it is time to go to Wales, and meet a language that has survived for over a thousand years while the powerful onslaught of bully English ruled the land.
I’M WRITING THIS in a room that contains a number of pictures, mostly by women, as it happens. One is byJane Freilicher, a still life in pastel that brings together a half-dozen miscellaneous objects, including a few roses that are having the floral equivalent of a bad hair day, a reddish-brown pamphlet that was probably an address book sent to customers by the phone company (remember those?) and a copy of Art News, flopping over the edge of the table, confronting the viewer, in the time-honored tradition of trompe-l'oeil perspective, but also subtly spoofing it. Jane gave the pastel to me once, perhaps to commemorate my becoming an editor at Art News in 1965 and moving back to New York after ten years in France.
"Salute" by A. R. Ammons
from The Really Short Poems of A. R. Ammons
1. After an entire lifetime in South Florida, I now live 3,000 miles away on the central coast of California, in a small city ringed by mountains and bordered by a Pacific which appears paler and vaster than the Caribbean-Atlantic I have always known. This is where I hear that the Cuban embargo is unraveling, the news a fragment floating from my car radio right before I turn off the ignition to trundle groceries from the trunk to our garden apartment. The U.S. will further ease travel restrictions to the island, open an embassy, lift some trade and banking sanctions. It is as if a mythic bird has winged overhead and I’ve only caught a glimpse of a few bright feathers. My first thought is what was that? It doesn’t really register.
2. I get busy putting away eggs and carrots grown at nearby farms. But the news keeps simmering somewhere inside me, a place as intrinsic to me as my ardor for lists or the invisible work of my lungs. It is the tiny island of Cubania I have carried within me since I was a child, born in the U.S. and trying to belong in Miami, a city that, in the 70s, still viewed my Cuban family and so many other recent immigrants as outsiders, no matter how quickly we learned English and how hard we worked.
3. As a young girl, I saw Fidel Castro as the camouflaged villain standing between the rotary phone in our kitchen and my family in Havana, whom we could only talk to briefly and on rare occasion. I’d shout in Spanish over the crackle of lines and wonder what their faces looked like. We didn’t have any pictures of them. When I eavesdropped on talk of Castro’s demise, a long-cherished topic in Miami, I imagined a scene much like the one in the The Wizard of Oz, where an oppressor is felled with one crashing stroke. Everyone is giddy and sings in three-part harmonies. A land returns to color, and instead of shoes, two black boots would curl and crumble to dust.
4. I think about this part of my childhood when I think of Cubans on the true island-nation, who, like we once did, have begun their own migration from perceived outcasts to rightful neighbors, with whom we share bloodlines and friendships and a percussive, slangy Spanish. I'm not talking about those who created a palm-fringed prison of the body and its free will. I mean the everyday Cubans who have kept on keeping on. Their relentless optimism and resourcefulness are at the core of Cubanía, something that is also seen in the micro, self-written psalm of my people: Todo se resuelve. Everything will work out.
5. In my imagined island of Cubanía, there is a little boat anchored near the shore and a blue-striped cabana on the beach. It contains a crazy-quilt of culture:
*café con leche, large, and a reservoir of pastelitos de guayaba;
*homespun altars to Changó (whose Cuban-Catholic twin is Santa Barbara - at left) and La Caridad del Cobre (Cuba's patron saint);
* a garden of white roses and un hombre sincero (first known as José Martí);
*dichos in Spanish like eso es un arroz con mango (Literal meaning: This is a plate of rice and mango. True meaning: What a mess) and tienes que echar pa'lante (Literally: You must move forward. Truly: Never give up);
*every song Celia Cruz has ever sung with La Sonora Matancera and the Fania All Stars and all the solo stuff, especially that little snippet of a sound check where she’s in Zaire with Fania and busts out la “Guantaramera” in that magma-from-the-earth’s-core timbre of hers and then starts dancing, gliding away from the mic as if caught in the happiest of dreams.
* Wifredo Lam’s oil on canvas, Le sombre Malembo, Dieu du carrefour / Dark Malembo, God of the Crossroads.
*my mother's voice, which can sound like a chime or a siren, depending on the topic of conversation (Chime: I am so proud of you, mima. Siren: Please don't talk to me about Obama).
6. My mother, a Cuban-born American, is intensely Republican, and I am an American-born Cuban and a progressive. When our president won his second term, my mother told my brother she couldn't talk to me for a few days because she didn't want to hear me gloat and because she couldn't bear to see this country go down the same socialist-communist road that Cuba had traveled for more than five decades. My mother confiding to my brother, who passes it along to me, all of this over the phone, because, in my family, a conversation so intimate is unbearable to hold in person. Another Cubanía: Do not confront a person you love with your truthful unpleasantries but freely discuss with others, who will then share them on your behalf.
7. The god of the crossroads stands in a brilliant thicket of green. In my favorite painting by Wifredo Lam, the Afro-Cuban modernist, the deity also known as Elegua in the Santería faith spreads his cloak around a host of horned heads and leaves, an assembly of watchful eyes.
8. My friends and I, or at least those of us excited by the news, have burned up our phones and laptops with Cuba jabber: articles and songs and old photographs posted and shared; written responses on blogs and magazines; talk of how it all arrived on the 17th, the feast day of Babalú Ayé, the Santería counterpart to San Lázaro, the Spanish-Catholic saint of healing. We parsed the president’s speech and how, in what my friend Dan Vera called “a baller move,” Obama quoted José Martí, the 19th-century poet-journalist-activist who fought hard to liberate Cubans from Spanish rule and whose words are often invoked by both island communists and exiles as a tribute to independence. “Liberty is the right for every man to be honest,” said Martí, “to think and speak without hypocrisy.”
9. I have spoken to my mother about Christmas plans and presents, what time we will Skype. We have not discussed Cuba yet. It might take years. We are both the Great Avoiders and neither one of us wants to tear into this ticking box because we love each other more than we revile one another’s politics. And while I have found many of her other stances infuriating, I can only feel a kind of protectiveness towards her now, towards all exiles who are pro-embargo. After living in our community for so long, I understand what is at stake for my mother, for so many. They are losing everything all over again. To them, normalizing relations with the Cuban government means the Castros not only stole all they loved — they finally got away with it.
10. Because I am a poet, and thus, a hoarder of images, I kept a notebook that catalogued the details of my farewells before I moved to Santa Barbara from South Florida: the ibis that flashed white while they flew by our windows each dusk, how my brother rocks forward when he’s laughing hard, friends cooking dinner or playing guitars. It felt important to write down what would no longer be in short reach, but I was hardly engulfed in sorrow. How would I feel if I knew I might not see any of it again? What do I know about that kind of heartbreak? Not much.
11. Empirical fact: There is no one as patriotic as an immigrant-turned-citizen. When I visited Miami in
November, I overheard two Latinas at the car rental discussing plumbing problems. In Spanish and English, they shrugged it off and noted how in this country, that kind of thing was easy to resolver. Both nodded their heads in unison and shared a mmmmm-hhhmm. Subtext: The U.S. rules. In South Florida, Cubans, Haitians, Dominicans, and Venezuelans fly their American flags right alongside the flags of their birthplace, staked on the porches of their homes or flapping from their cars. Their chit-chat is an intricate brocade of English and their first tongue, often in the same sentence, their meals a patchwork of, say, barbecue hamburgers served up with yucca and the ubiquitous rice and beans. In July, my mother texted all of her friends and family to celebrate the anniversary of her arrival to this country. “52 years in the good ole USA,” she tapped. “The best country in the world.” I’ve heard the latter six words from so many immigrants; I’ve lost count.
12. Perhaps assimilation, in its realest sense, is not an obliteration of the past, but the making of a new kind of space, one that holds what “was” in the same open hands with what “is.” At 14medio, an independent online daily launched in Cuba, dissident and writer Yoani Sanchez reported Cubans blowing kisses at President Obama when his announcement was televised in Havana. “Now and again the cry of “I LOVE…” (in English!) could be heard from around the corner.” Are these the beginnings of Cubans and exiles stitching a new embroidery, a cautious piecing together of here and there, them and us, what happened with what we all might become? After half a century that also feels like the quick flick of a wand, I am hopeful. We are moving towards one another again.
Hello friends - this is Jess Smith with my second installment on fitness and writing. Thank you all for your thoughts on last week's piece.
For the next few weeks I'll be exploring the connection between physical fitness and writing. Long obsessed with both, I'm hoping to examine the relationship between the body and the pursuit of writing from many angles - why are so many of the most exciting poets I know also obsessive runners? Why are so many of the poets I know former hardcore athletes, some of them even flirting with professional status? Alternately, why do some writers slyly criticize the pursuit of physical fitness? Is fitness an addiction like anything else, and we poets are somehow more prone to be seduced by its high?
And, as with any work, I'm excited to explore questions I've long had about myself and my own dogged pursuit of fitness, often at the sacrifice of sitting down to write. I look forward to posting here and to hearing your thoughts on the matter, all you poet-athletes out there.
For my second post, a meditation on illness, family, and how I dealt with my body and my writing when my mother was sick. That's her holding my hand at her wedding in 1988. Big hair = big love. Happy reading and happy weekend.
First, she said it was a stomach bug. Nothing to worry about. Then she called me to say, okay, it’s a lump. A lump I have to have removed. Three days later, finally, she said it: cancer.
Sometimes, when you have a horrible suspicion, it almost feels good to have it confirmed. The relief of substantiation.
While I do not always write about my mother, she is present in everything that I write. She has often struggled with her appearance in my work. Ever my biggest supporter and number one fan, it’s still not easy to be criticized or dramatized by your daughter. I’ve also appropriated some of her stories - mostly because they are so totally amazing and crazy - but I’ve never known how to just write about her. It’s always around her, next to her, or she’s operating as an overseer, some high Southern priestess hovering above my work. A mentor whose mother passed away when he was a teenager put this phenomenon well when he told me “No matter what poem I’m writing, my mother is always dead in that poem.”
Though I have a large and exceptionally close family, my mother is the epicenter of my writing world. For many reasons (all of them sad), my father has not been a part of my life since I was a child. My mother and I had a few hardscrabble years in there where it was her and me against the world. I don’t think either one of us has quite lost that sensation.
Because poetry begins where words fail us, it is the only medium in which I’ve ever adequately been able to approximate my devotion to her, my worry for her, and - sometimes - my anger.
When she received her diagnosis, the oncologists were roundly optimistic. The tumor was small and caught very early. She was young. Though they could not say it would be an easy process, it would be easier than most. And, most importantly, her chances of survival were excellent, virtually foolproof. Barring complications, of course.
I felt relieved, gratified. I felt like we’d all been sleeping next door to a bar with a neon sign flashing cancer at all hours, keeping us awake and afraid, and now we could close the blinds and get a little rest.
I fantasized about her recovery, how she would take up running and yoga. How bright her skin would be. How her sweet, skinny little arms would get the shadow of definition. I read up on the long-term benefits of exercise. I force-fed her journal studies on heart disease, Alzheimer’s, and all manner of cancer. She had always been a sporadic gym-goer but once she got well, I believed, working out would serve as both atonement and salvation.
Communication is big vat of pressurized steam: if it can’t find its way out in words, it will find it way out in tears. Or laughter. Or sex. Or violence. If we refuse our need to share with each other, it will grow and deform inside of us. No matter how often we lie, the body does not.
When students or friends have said to me “I just don’t get poetry,” I want to yell. Or laugh. Or jump on them and shake their shoulders and say of course you do. There is more than one way to understand a thing.
“Poetry speaks to the ways we are silent with each other,” said the poet Rachel Eliza Griffiths. Everyone knows this silence. Poetry creates communion by exploring it.
My silence, when my mother was ill, manifested itself as incessant chatter, an unbroken conversation about fitness loud enough that I wouldn’t be able to hear anything else over the din.
Mostly my mother smiled and asked for ice chips when I rambled on about green juices and marathon training. She fell asleep a few times, at which point I would go for a very long run. During the month I was home after her surgery, it seemed I could do nothing but exercise, read about exercise, and tell other people about exercise. I did not write or pick up a book or even watch television that demanded anything of me beyond passive observance (think What Not to Wear and old Dick Van Dyke Show reruns). I didn’t practice yoga once.
One afternoon I went in to check on her and tell her about some things she could do to help improve her circulation. Vascular recovery, I said. Inflammation. She nodded, green eyes half-closed, and said she would try whatever I suggested. Picturing myself a doctor or at the very least some romantic wartime nurse, I pulled back the covers took her calves into my hands. She was so thin, her muscles so atrophied, that her entire body felt as substantial as an earlobe. I almost dropped her from the shock.
Propping her legs up on pillows while she grimaced, moving her knees so that they were at the exact right angle, I went on and on about cell regeneration, stress hormones, adding green tea to your daily diet.
There is a line in the novel Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee where he writes that his protagonist, David Lurie, has “never been afraid to follow a thought down its winding track, and he isn’t afraid now.” I have always clung to this notion of the true intellectual, one who is not afraid of thoughts but only actions. That we must, in fact, entertain all manner of perverse, disturbing, overstimulating thoughts to understand anything to its fullest.
The one thought I cannot abide, though, the winding track I’ve never followed, is my own mother’s mortality. The boundary where she begins and I end is blurry, at best, and I’ve long felt responsible for the perpetuation of her existence. I write about her so often to show the world this extraordinary, maddening woman. To do her honor by recreating her in her many forms. To keep her alive forever.
It took me a long time to understand that I was angry at my mother for getting cancer, that I had silently been ticking off a list of her sins:
She drank too much Tab in 1992-93.
She stressed herself out over stupid things.
She didn’t eat enough vegetables.
She didn’t eat enough in general.
More than anything, I felt a well of fury that the idea of her death - unthinkable to me - seemed even remotely reasonable to her. That even the flicker of acquiescence had darkened her face. This fury did not take into account the terror she must have felt, the disconnection from her body which she could no longer trust, the fundamental unspeakability of illness. It was, like most rage, a position of pure selfishness.
My plans for her body, her post-cancer recovery, were a way of judging her. Wagging my terrified, fit finger at her and demanding she do it my way. So that I might be less afraid.
I heard Cheryl Strayed speak at a conference two summers ago about her own mother’s cancer. We were about the same age when our mothers got sick, but Strayed’s mother did not survive. She said that sometimes she still goes into a sort of fugue state she deemed squirrel-brain - as a squirrel searches for food thinking only nut nut nut, sometimes she catches the loop of her empty brain crying mommy mommy mommy.
I believe the best poetry has more to do with this mindset, with working to both escape and describe the impulsive heart trap, than it does with perfectly formed, measured thoughts. I wrote probably a hundred poems about my mother’s illness. I wrote about how it wasn’t so bad, how it was awful, and I wrote about how it just was. I wrote in the voice of my sisters, in the voice of my mother’s husband, in the voices of strangers. They were benedictions, they were formal letters of complaint to God, they were remedial worksheets in learning a new language: “the unwell form of the verb mother is conjugated as…” It was like fumbling around for a lightswitch in a windowless room only to find there’s no bulb dangling from the ceiling.
None of the poems were any good because I was still so far inside it. I’m not even sure I will ever write anything valuable about my mother because my feelings for her are so bright, so loud, so undisciplined.
Today my mother is in full remission. While she did not fit her plans for recovery into my manic fitness rubric, she did change her life. Something in her is quieter now, gentler without being afraid. As her own parents face their mortality, I watch her slip into the same squirrel-brain that I did when she was ill. Her eyes a little glassy, her breath slower for a moment. And I know we are all just holding our hands up to the future, hoping to press it back a few days, hours, minutes longer. I know I am writing to get beyond the fact that it will never be enough.
Originally from Georgia, Jess Smith now lives and works in New York City. Her work can be found in Sixth Finch, Phantom Limb, Ghost Town, The Best American Poetry Blog, Lumina, and other journals. She received her MFA from The New School in 2013.
My husband Paul and I are having dinner at a local Indian restaurant, drinking our oversized Flying Horse beer and eating our eggplant with tamarind. “Name ten poets you care most about,” he says. He never asks me things like that nor do I think that way. I start to answer – this one, that one, no this one, no. Dante definitely. Sappho for sure. I have to think about his unusual request – why was he asking anyway? - so I mull it over for a few days, then hand him a list. I stick with my long-time-ago favorites. He looks it over, then asks, what are your favorite lines of each of them? Again, days pass. Again, I hand him a list. I heard wind flaking sapphire. Mais ou sont les neiges d’antan? Holy! Holy! Holy!
Paul’s a painter. He never said why he wanted this information. A few weeks later he tells me that he has been working on a new painting – did I want to come see it at his studio? And there’s another Indian restaurant of the ground floor of his studio building, so that means another Indian lunch
Here’s what he made from that list! The large painting is called Words Inside My Wife’s Head. Note how it is color-coded! His name is Paul Graubard.
Tacked on a wall in his studio is a copy of Frank O’Hara’s poem WHY I AM NOT A PAINTER which I had recently given him.
I am not a painter, I am a poet.
Why? I think I would rather be
a painter, but I am not. Well,
for instance, Mike Goldberg
is starting a painting. I drop in.
“Sit down and have a drink” he
says. I drink; we drink. I look
up. “You have SARDINES in it.”
“Yes, it needed something there.”
“Oh.” I go and the days go by
and I drop in again. The painting
is going on, and I go, and the days
go by. I drop in. The painting is
finished. “Where’s SARDINES?”
All that’s left is just
letters, “It was too much,” Mike says.
But me? One day I am thinking of
a color: orange. I write a line
about orange. Pretty soon it is a
whole page of words., not lines.
Then another page. There should be
so much more, not of orange, of
words, of how terrible orange is
and life. Days go by. It is even in
prose, I am a real poet. My poem
is finished and I haven’t mentioned
orange yet. It’s twelve poems, I call
it ORANGES. And one day in a gallery
I see Mike’s painting, called SARDINES.
Jeffrey Harrison wrote a longish poem, ALICE NEEL’S SOIREE after going to a Neel exhibit, in which he pictures a party she threw. She’s naked almost until the end, as are lots of people there including Frank O’Hara.
….Alice waddles through the room, holding
a paintbrush like a wand, or as if
she were the non-chalant conductor
of this human symphony.
“She’s put on a blue dress: “I was beginning
to feel like so much meat,” she says
to a woman wearing nothing
but a huge blue hat and pink panties.
“But you of course are a glorious creature.”
his nose in profile like a small cliff, unmistakable,
his eyes wide in a blue trance and the lilacs
behind him seeming to crown his head,
and I rush over to him as to an old friend….
Old friends all close and far, poets and painters and a whole lot of love for my long list of favorites.
Here’s a story about how imagination and history get mixed up. Jamali was a 16th century Sufi court poet who lived in Delhi. According to Delhi’s oral tradition, he had a male lover named Kamali, although no-one knows who Kamali was. For nearly 500 years, this story has traveled down from generation to generation.
I stumbled upon these characters while I was in Delhi for a writing residency. One week after I had arrived, the residents were told that later that day, we would have a chance to visit the newly restored Jamali Kamali Mosque and Tomb.
Our bus arrived at an overgrown park entrance. We traipsed alongside a river full of plastic trash, climbed through hills of brush, climbed over unrestored ruins and arrived on top of a hill where the Jamali Kamali Mosque and Tomb stood. A brand new sign at its entrance informed visitors that the Tomb held the remains of Jamali, a 16th century Sufi Court Poet and Kamali, whose identity, the sign said, was unknown.
The small tomb’s intimacy was stunning. Looking at the two white marble graves, the conservator of the restoration explained who Jamali was, then said, “It is believed, through oral tradition, that Kamali was his homosexual lover.” “What?” I blurted out, “But….the new sign out front says his identity was unknown.”
Jarred by that fractured moment, when I returned to my Delhi desk, I began to write as if I were Jamali speaking to Kamali. The sound of their imaginary voices propelled me forward. I had neither plan, nor goal. Seeing the beauty of their graves, hearing the tale that had been passed down, spurred me on to invent a story of love, sex, separation and death. It is not based on any historical record – there isn’t one.
I went back to India in 2011 to celebrate the book’s publication bringing Jamali-Kamali to the Jaipur Literary Festival. Bipin Shah, of Mapin Publishing, arranged the Delhi book launch. To our amazement, the moderator scolded me. How dare I take on these historical figures and record my imaginings? The audience argued like a bunch of eloquent, intense debaters. I argued my case for the imagination, then read. Jamali and Kamali’s voices filled the room. Later that night, I remembered Salman Rushdie’s words: A poet’s work is to name the unnameable…to shape the world, and stop it going to sleep.
One day, months later, I looked up my Jamali-Kamali book title to see what was happening with it. I ended up on an Indian website, a travel portal to Delhi. I was reading about the historical monument, the Jamali Kamali Mosque and Tomb - which subway to take for your visit – opens at sunrise - closes at sunset - Thai restaurant nearby. Then I was shocked to read:
Jamali Kamali offers a fine piece of structural design and a fascinating story behind it.
After his death in 1535, Jamali was buried in his tomb alongside Kamali. Very few are aware that both these men were deeply in love with each other. In Jamali’s poetic works you can find passionate words and phrases describing his immense love for Kamali such as “On the map of your body, there is nowhere I would not travel.”
The “fascinating story” behind the monument is a fiction! It comes from my imagined poem, not from historical facts. Jamali did not write the line quoted above. I did.
The webpage relates a few details about Jamali’s life as if they are facts, but the details are taken from the invented poem. The website suggests reading my book, Jamali-Kamali: A Tale of Passion in Mughal India, to those interested in more of the men’s histories.
As Rushdie wrote Sometimes legends make reality, and become more useful than the facts. And Jamali and Kamali, thanks to one website’s misrepresentation, move deeper into the Indian story -- history coming alive through art.
Hi Everyone, thanks for tuning in and thanks Stacey for having me on board. For the next few days I’ll be writing in one way or another about words/sounds and history/imagination.
I’ll start with my personal story about the messiness between fact and fiction. As a tiny girl, my mother took me on the train from the suburbs of New York into the city where I took painting lessons in the basement of the Metropolitan Museum. I loved to paint pictures in my head.
When I was ten years old, polio struck. I was shocked to be immobilized, first by the deadening effect of polio and later by an enormous body cast. As my body was losing motion, my mind was painting. I remember lying inert in my hospital bed, focused on the dots of the hospital ceiling tiles. I pretended they were all kinds of animals on the move - bears, camels, foxes on parade.
With the help of my pal, my imagination, I joked around on the hospital ward, making life not only bearable but fun. Looking monster-like in my full-length body cast, I wrote a letter to the Barbizon School of Modeling, asking whether I could become a model. Here’s their dead-serious response:
Although my illness made for a rich mental life, no amount of pretending could alleviate my actual physical confinement. Had I focused on that rather than letting my mind wander free, I can’t imagine how miserable I would have been. In fact, during those strenuously hard years, I felt very alive. Better a life without such obstacles, but for me, immobility shaped my vision.
After polio, I valued my mind’s flexibility like gold. Eventually, the poetry and prose I wrote relied on imagination.
Now, after many decades, I’ve written my true story, a memoir of all things, in which not all is true. I’ve made some things up, like an earthquake that hit our town. Even with clues that the incident is metaphorical, my sister called and said, “I didn’t know there was an earthquake in Larchmont!”
There’s a new turn on the fact/fiction front for me. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a major character in Polio Boulevard, has emerged in a new project focused solely on him. In these pages, I am driven to have every word factually correct. A first! Nothing made up as far as that’s possible -- a new universe.
Three years after FDR was stricken with polio at 39, he bought a houseboat with a friend and named it the Larooco. This was after he was assistant secretary of the Navy but before he was Governor of New York and long before he was President of the United States.
From 1924-26, he spent a few months each winter in the Florida Keys on the boat. It was the most withdrawn-from- the-world period of his life. While there, Roosevelt kept a nautical log, writing longhand each day about fish caught, weather, the boat’s route, engine trouble, meals, and guests.
Here’s how the Larooco Log begins:
Saturday, February 2, 1924
At Jacksonville, Florida, FDR went on board and put Larooco in commission. Sailing-master Robert S. Morris and Mrs. Morris spent the day getting provisions, and the trunks, etc. were duly unpacked, fishing gear stowed and Library of World’s Worst Literature placed on shelves.
And on he goes. Ship ahoy!
We follow the work of Anna West, which is why we're eager to see this exhibit. Opening Reception: Friday, November 14th from 6-9PM
168 North 6th Street Williamsburg •
Brooklyn, NY 11211
Saturday, Sunday 1 - 6 pm or by appointment
Submit Your Work To The Inquisitive Eater: New School Food
"It seems to me that our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we that we cannot straightly think of one without the others," M.F.K. Fisher writes in the Art of Eating. The best food writing is not just about what's on the plate, but is, like all literature, also interested in language, psychology, and the most pressing issues of the day. The Inquisitive Eater: New School Food provides a forum for artists and academics to explore the intersections between food and family, the environment, politics, economics, social justice, and media.
by guest blogger Karen Schiff
My post today is the least pre-planned & the most thought-through of this week. This morning, I attended a demonstration of Chinese calligraphy (by contemporary ink & performance artist Zheng Lianjie), so I'm about to write about poetry-painting connections that are totally fresh...it's just chicken-scratch. And this evening, I attended an opening of Tairiku Teshima's "Symbolic Calligraphy," such as this 2006 painting of the character "Sui (Greenery)" at right
(which is rendered imagistically, with a loose hand, & large: 43 x 28-1/2 inches). Yet I've been thinking for many years about calligraphy, & its way of seamlessly integrating visual & verbal modes (to the degree that it doesn't even make sense to separate them into distinct "modes").
Around 2005, in a class about Japanese Visual Culture,
I heard that a single spoken word in Japanese can mean writing, painting, or scratching -- these three concepts are homonyms.* I remember that the word was "kanji" (but internet research now leaves me dubious: apparently "kanji" can mean many more things than these words, & I don't see anything online about painting or scratching. I'd love to know more about this...). True: writing can be made by scratching lines into a wall (of a prison, for instance), or a stylus into a wax tablet (from classical through medieval times). An image can be made by scratching a needle into a metal plate (as in an etching), or a fingernail into fingerpaint (or any tool into any paint). And now that we've connected scratching-writing & scratching-painting, how can we connect writing-painting? In calligraphy.
East Asian calligraphic traditions have certainly been rich areas for visual-verbal integration. A 1992 article about calligraphy, "Pictocentrism," written by Charles Shiro Inouye (who happened to teach that Japanese Visual Culture class, all those years later!), was formative in my thinking along these lines. But western calligraphy can be imagistic, too. In art school, I studied with Brody Neuenschwander, whose handwriting might be familiar to you from the big screen: he does calligraphy for Peter Greenaway's films. He creates tools & techniques that would allow Roman letters to become more visual. For instance, he bends pen nibs out of cola cans, to create splatter effects such as those in "Your Feelings Slip" (2008), at left. (When I go through the process of "decoding" the writing in this piece -- I cannot "read" it without working at it -- I see that its "subtle fire" is being conveyed by the colors & lines, as much as by the language & its capitalizations.)
This morning, Zheng Lianjie noted that the tools for Western calligraphy are not as flexible as those in Eastern traditions. The metal nib & the feather quill cannot change direction as easily as a pointed animal-hair brush. (I'm sure he does not know about Neuenschwander's cola-can nibs, which can move sideways more easily than standard metal nibs, but still...Zheng's observation holds.) Not only can the pointed brush pivot easily, but its stroke has a wide range of widths, no matter how long the hairs on the brush. These technical details may help to explain why Roman handwriting has not gotten as imagistic as in China & Japan: we're simply locked into the letters. Yet we also regard handwriting differently.
After Zheng Lianjie introduced several ideograms in terms of their meanings, I asked whether we also should be thinking about these not just in terms of legibility, but also as visual compositions -- attending to line quality & the overall visual arrangement of the lines in relation to each other. He said that we should definitely be thinking about our writings as paintings. His way of explaining this, though, wasn't in terms of the visual qualities I had been isolating. His definition of writing-as-painting was that we should be making our strokes while "going inside" to connect with the aspect(s) of ourselves that would find expression on the paper, so that we would be working on our "writing" the way we would work on a studio project...or the way we might create a poem. He insisted that even though we were officially beginners, our work was manifesting our individuality: just as we each had a way of moving, we each had a way of using the brush. Our ideograms were actually more fresh, authentic, & individual expressions, to his eye, than if we were more practiced. (He even encouraged us to sign & frame them!)
The Western analogue for this philosophy -- graphology -- is often considered quackery. Though it is perfectly ordinary for us to recognize each others' handwriting, we do not generally take seriously these visual qualities. Perhaps the difference is that graphology tries to diagnose specific character traits, while the kind of "individuality" Zheng Lianjie was talking about today was more holistic -- less reductive. Western "handwriting analysis" tends toward personality dissection, categorization, & desiccation; I also associate it with diagnosing criminality or deviance. In any case, I am uncomfortable with this binary opposition of the two writing styles, & the disparate ways of thinking about writing...so for the rest of this post I will seek middle ground.
First, I'll look to the work of another contemporary artist (& sometime colleague of Zheng Lianjie), Xu Bing. Before today, my admiration for Xu Bing's artwork centered around some projects with Chinese calligraphic nonsense. Because I don't speak or read Chinese, ideograms always look indecipherable to me, anyway...but Xu Bing takes them one step further. In a multi-year project, "Book
from the Sky" (1987-1991), he created nonsense using familiar calligraphic strokes (see the printing woodblock carved here), so that a printed page would resemble Chinese writing but be utterly gibberish. Then he created an entire room full of these printed texts! (See right -- printed books are on the floor & on the walls, as well as suspended from the ceiling.) Another project was to write English letters in a Chinese calligraphic style, constructing an ideogram out of each word (see below). He calls this "Square Word Calligraphy" or "New English Calligraphy," & I find it fascinating... the calligrapher here has just written "Little Bo Peep." We tried this out today, & I found how hard it was. Yet this was still an exercise in writing according to a form -- someone else's form. How could language be written in a visual form that is not prescribed?
This small photo to the right, a snap from tonight's "Symbolic Calligraphy" opening, suggests another approach. It's the character for "Country," but Tairiku Teshima makes the outer structure of the ideogram into a border, & thereby transforms the negative (white) space into a dynamic shape. While the word can still be recognized & read (I can say this with conviction because it was one of the ideograms we worked with today), the piece looks & functions more like a painting.
How might this be possible in Roman lettering? (And why should we care?) Extending Neuenschwander's ideas about calligraphy farther, we could see all of our letters as the arts that they are -- each type style an entire territory (meaning that a type style condenses historical forms & ideological associations into the microcosm of a printed letter), & each penstroke a drawing. I think that this way of thinking about text could defamiliarize it so that we gain a degree of remove, a critical distance from texts whose aim is to persuade. (Including this one...) Sure, typography can also be used to persuade, but once you're hip to its tricks -- once you can see letters visually -- you're not as subject to typographic manipulation.
Now, that is what we could gain distance from. What could we get closer to? I'm thinking that seeing writing as an image could infuse all texts with an aesthetic register -- a visual poetry, you might say. At this historical moment, when we're reading standardized type styles all day on our devices, a bit of play in our assumptions about text could revivify the eyes (& the mind) with which we're processing all that data. (For a fun, new, typographical look at NYC, for instance, click <here>.) I've tried to enact a bit of that this week, by setting my blog in Times New Roman instead of the default Helvetica...& by using all of these ampersands. Now it's time for me to go back to my studio, where I make text even less readable -- or more visual -- than what I've been writing about here. (You're welcome to visit! Open Studios in my Brooklyn neighborhood are this weekend, & more info about my location is <here>.)
Many thanks to Stacey Harwood, for inviting me to blog for this week!
Over the past year, I've noticed a trendlet (not even a real trend, yet) of galleries exhibiting poets & writers in their project rooms -- small, windowless rooms at the backs of the buildings. I get a thrill when I anticipate visiting these shows: I love seeing how visual & verbal modes interact in these exhibitions. Sometimes a poet's words are composed in visually arresting ways; sometimes writers are creating collages out of writing; sometimes a poet's collages have no words at all. And so, what are they all saying?
Let's start with Dickinson, that cloaked keystone of American poetry's past century. Last fall, during The Drawing Center's "Drawing Time, Reading Time" exhibition (an uneven yet fascinating survey of artists using language in their work, even when no letters were visible), the Center's back gallery held a fascinating little sideshow: “Dickinson/Walser: Pencil Sketches.” I say the show was "little" because the pieces in it were tiny: Emily Dickinson's handwriting scratched loosely over envelope scraps -- sometimes whole, & sometimes cut or torn to make them even smaller. Here, I could imagine that her line lengths may well have been inflected by the spaces in which she wrote, much like I remember that some famous artist said in an interview that the paintings' sizes expanded when the family bought a bigger car. There was also the incredible immediacy of imagining her finding & using these bits of paper, & storing them in her desk...their smallness made them feel closer to her body because they could be so easily hidden in pockets or in books held in the hand. I don't know the entire history of these...shall I call them manuscripts, or artifacts? -- I haven't studied the deluxe compendium edited by Jen Bervin & Marta Werner, The Gorgeous Nothings: Emily Dickinson's Envelope Poems. (Werner has reconsidered the term "envelope poem" as being too prescriptive; click <here> to read a Poetry Foundation interview where she explains her thinking.) These works add to the story of the "fascicles" of manuscripts that Dickinson bound together, in a simple suturing gesture that prefigures so many American women sewing the bindings of artists' books, a century later. (Or she carries on with a tradition of women working at anonymous positions, in book production industries.) In a New York Times review of The Gorgeous Nothings, art critic Holland Cotter asks, "Are they art? Sure. Why not?" & here I will restate the question: "Are they art? Sure. Why?" Because they are gorgeous.
In part, their visual appeal comes from off-handedness: Dickinson was pursuing a verbal goal, & this material medium was simply her launching pad. Yet the envelopes also look like lily pads, each with a color & quality of paper that seeps into the viewer-reader's experience of the poem-in-the-making. (And here, I'm thinking about the etymology of "poem" as a "made thing," which I wrote about on Day 1...)
The viewing experience gets both more & less complicated in the case of Robert Walser, whose tiny writings on envelopes look impossible to decipher. I wish I had taken more time to probe these works, which felt dense with thought. Here's a full image of one, & a detail of another:
Robert Walser, "Microscript 215, October - November 1928," detail
Robert Walser, "Microscript 419, 1927-28," detail
Part of the draw (so to speak!) of these envelopes is that I definitely cannot read them. Though with Dickinson's envelopes I can flip back & forth between reading & looking, here I must see the writing as fields of visual pattern -- or, in the case of the detail on the right, I can look at the entire piece as a visual composition. Walser's micro-code contributes to this, plus the fact that I don't speak the German he was encoding. Plus, sometimes Walser was drawing lines in addition to inscribing linguistically coded marks. These works take on a mind-mapping quality, creating visual frameworks for inner cosmologies. Apparently, these were drafts for later works...but how different they appear from my own handwritten envelope notes, messily jotted while I'm on the phone, only to get lost in a pile of papers on the desk! (To gain inspiration from how both Dickinson & Walser write on envelopes, the exhibition's entire gorgeous catalogue is free online: click <here> to view.)
A few months after the Dickinson/Walser exhibition, another Dickinson-themed show opened in Chelsea: Janet Malcolm's "The Emily Dickinson Series" at Lori Bookstein Fine Art. While Malcolm is perhaps best known as a writer for The New Yorker, she has not only written poetry but she has made art for years. And this exhibition is clearly based on poetry...its modestly scaled collages were mounted in the gallery's handsomely proportioned small room, diagonally opposite the entrance. This exhibition (the collage pictured here at left is topically entitled Language) also had a connection to the earlier one at The Drawing Center, in that Dickinson scholar-poet Marta Werner was again involved. Malcolm gathered the primary materials for her collages by writing to Werner in search of a copy of Emily Dickinson’s Open Folios: Scenes of Reading, Surfaces of Writing, an older book of literary history that Werner had written. Werner still possessed one copy of the book, & she sent it to Malcolm. Sometimes I felt confused about which part of the exhibition was more important to Malcolm -- the correspondence & sympathetic connection with Werner, which was well documented in the show's accompanying literature, or the work of finding visual expression through the collages themselves.
Lori Bookstein's project room has also hosted collage exhibitions by poet Mark Strand, who studied Fine Art at Yale in the 1950s. His assemblages of hand-colored pieces of paper pulp, which Strand creates at the Dieu Donné paper mill, have opened the Fall season both last year & this year. (He has also shown with the gallery before.)
Mark Strand collages, both "Untitled"
At first I thought the collages were composed with such elegance that they were too genteel. Even small bits of surprising color seemed carefully arranged to raise not-unpleasant tensions & then resolve them into polite visual harmonies. This was an artist who had clearly absorbed his Bauhaus-inspired training. (And the collages were so even, in terms of their visual mastery, that I found it hard to pick two to include here.) Could I see beyond the work's evident refinement, toward something more than formal excellence? It took me three visits, but Yes. I was tempted to look at the pieces of paper in Strand's collages the way I think about the swatches in some of my own: as analogues for the "sorts" of type in letterpress printing, packed together into a chase. But Strand's rambling compositions (including some proto-landscapes), & the variety of shapes & sizes in his torn & cut paper pieces, didn't have the strictness or rectilinearity to justify (!) a connection with printing. Besides, I would have found that solution unsatisfactory -- imposing the framework of letters would be grasping for low-hanging fruit.
Eventually, I saw something more fitting: competing energies contained within each piece. I mean both each piece of art, & each piece of paper: Strand's pulpy swatches had all kinds of movement in them, & these movements set up tensions when they were arranged next to each other. Also, the borders of the cut & torn edges contained the internal movements of each swatch. Altogether, the sequence (from small bit to entire field) of movements, borders, juxtaposed energies between paper pieces, & finally overall compositional elegance established a deeply satisifying alternating rhythm of wildness; containment; contrast; resolution. In this back-&-forth movement, I finally glimpsed the sense of humor that I appreciate in Strand's poetry. The collages wink at you from within a Stoic's richly (dis)passionate frame.
by guest blogger Karen Schiff
The New School's room 510,
at 66 West 12th Street, was an unexpectedly perfect place for last month's conversation between Edward Hirsch &
David Lehman. Though the two were scheduled to discuss Hirsch's new reference work,
A Poet's Glossary, the occasion coincided with the publication
of Hirsch's latest book of poetry, Gabriel. You can see a write-up of the event elsewhere on this blog (click <here> to read the post). In that account, as well as in a recent New Yorker article about Gabriel, Hirsch is quoted on the difficulties of writing about a life challenge so devastating that I'm finding it hard even to type any words for it here. So, revving up resolve & writing most plainly: Hirsch's son, his only child, Gabriel, died unexpectedly in 2011, at age 22, when a party drug he maybe didn't anticipate mixed with physiological conditions he certainly couldn't control.
How I wish those words weren't true, or that by un-saying them I could rewind reality & bring the dead back to life. Lehman & Hirsch agreed ruefully that the poem they most wanted not to write was an elegy for offspring. And Hirsch looked like he had been through the gates of hell. I had last seen him in 2008, at a reading he had given in DC, & I wondered if he had survived cancer in the interim. But mortality delivered a somatic shock in a different guise.
I had gone to the event with a secret plan, built on a conversation I'd had with Hirsch after his 2008 reading. Back then, I had hoped he would read his poem, "The Horizontal Line (Homage to Agnes Martin)," because I admire Martin's work. When he didn't read it that night, I confessed to having considered sending him my request, by e-mail before the reading, & he enthusiastically encouraged me to do so some other time. He'd be happy to put that poem on the set list. So before the New School reading, I e-mailed him my request, with a reminder about the 2008 conversation. Hirsch replied with the amiable suggestion that I ask during the Q&A about ekphrasis, so he'd be able to talk about Agnes Martin in an answer still tied to the context of his glossary of poetical terms. Sounded great! I agreed.
But Gabriel blew in. ("Unbolt the doors / Fling open the gates / Here he comes") As soon I heard Hirsch speak about the impossibility of finding a form in which to write about his vivid & inimitable son, now gone...details of ekphrasis & even the implacability of Martin felt moot. Hirsch's eventual arrival at a flexible form of three-line stanzas, with short lines & no punctuation so the emotion could turn on a dime (to evoke the "Mr. Impulsive" aspect of Gabriel's personality), didn't feel like an arrival at all, but rather a taking up residence in a dynamo of (e)motion. Thank goodness there was no Q&A.
Instead of formulating my coded question about ekphrasis, I started to think about Hirsch's struggle to articulate the unimaginable (or the unarticulable). And as I gazed around the room, I saw artworks that looked like potent ruminations on the same theme. Behind Hirsch & Lehman I recognized a Cy Twombly, from his phase of "scribbling on blackboards." (This was Untitled -- an apt title! -- a 1971 silkscreen from Cy Twombly's On the Bowery portfolio -- see detail, above.) On the far wall was a series of lined drawings by Sol LeWitt, like so many empty notebook pages. (These were were four etchings from the 1973 Sol LeWitt portfolio, Straight, Not Straight, and Broken Lines and All their Combinations -- details, farther below.) Scrawl & silent anticipation: are these works not about the discontents of language? Here are the walls I saw from my seat (I took snaps of the empty room, later):
Sol LeWitt, "Straight, Not Straight, and Broken Lines and All their Combinations"
What can each of these artists reveal about the challenge of articulating something beyond articulation?
Twombly is hot on a trail, chasing something down the line again & again. Agitation is electric in the contrast of black & white lines, & in the vigor of the circular marks that have no meaning. That is, no denotation, no connotation, no notation at all...they are all O. "O" for the moan of not being able to say. "O" for the endless line of that infinitely circling letter (I'm thinking of John Cage's repeated enso drawings); "O" for the zero of what we can actually conclude about Twombly's intention. This work both invites & denies access to its maker's conundrum: let me tell you the story of my inability to tell.
LeWitt, by contrast, has figured something out, found a cool remove. He may even be a little amused by the problem, which now isn't necessarily about expression but is about strategies for expression. "All their combinations." I don't know if these four etchings are the only ones in the portfolio, but here are close-ups of their line patterns, in order from left to right:
Not Straight Broken Not Straight / Broken Straight
Though these lines were planned in advance, they are not dully or overly rational. We still see the skittering hand, the vulnerability to error. What is inexpressible is perhaps the extent of variety itself. LeWitt tries to catalogue categories of the infinite, while Twombly dives into its excessiveness. Whose art falls in the middle? I think of Hanne Darboven's calculated non-scripts, or Mary McDonnell's clotted arteries of blood-red lines (both, like Twombly's, "Untitled").
Hanne Darboven, "Untitled"
Mary McDonnell, "Untitled"
And what of Hirsch? While many commentators talk about his strategy's resemblance to Dante's terza rima (fitting for such a hellish journey), there are no schematic rhymes here. Rather, I hear something of Twombly's repeated O, in the truncated rhythm of the thought that cannot be sustained. When I listen to Hirsch read from these poems, & I zone out slightly -- in much the same mode in which I looked around room 510 last month -- I can hear underneath the words, to where each capsule sounds like a brief keening. Allen Ginsberg recommended composing lines according to the length of the breath, & Hirsch reminds us: sometimes we pant.
I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark
from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman
THE RULE OF THUMB
Ringfinger was nervous
when they learned
that Hand might succumb
to the rule of Thumb.