Nothing brings back the 1975 World Series better than Jack Jones singing this adaptation of jazz standard "Talk of the Town" to sell Chrysler New Yorkers:
Nothing brings back the 1975 World Series better than Jack Jones singing this adaptation of jazz standard "Talk of the Town" to sell Chrysler New Yorkers:
Given: We cannot write outside our time. We are invariably and inextricably in and of the times in which we live.
Given: The expansiveness with which we define “our times” and the ways in which we include the experiences of people other than/othered from ourselves in our work is variable and generally well within our conscious control.
Given: The practice of recognizing and including in our art the experiences of people marginalized or threatened in ways that are different from the ways that we ourselves are marginalized or threatened (if we are at all), is a personally, politically, and artistically risky act. The very real dangers of co-optation, appropriation, and/or reinforcing otherness are always present.
Given: We need to do it anyway.
The we I’m speaking of here, in particular, is we the privileged. Those of us with any combination of skin privilege, class privilege, gender privilege – that we.
And there lies a primary challenge: if there’s a we, there’s a they. And it feels dangerous to think in terms of us and them, because that way lies segregation and supremacist thinking -- it would be so much lovelier and rosier just to think and speak of a grand us, a human us.
But to do so is to deny the very real fact that groups of human beings, particularly in our United States, move through the world with vastly different threat types and threat levels, and some conversely with vastly different levels of protection and opportunity. And denying that in our art makes us liars, and contrary to some people’s belief, liars do not make great poets.
So if we’re going to tell the truth of our times in our poems, we need to recognize and examine our privileges and marginalizations, as well as our human connections and commonalities.
To be clear: this is not a call to “give voice to the voiceless” or any of that patronizing artist-as-savior business. People without or with less privilege have voices, make no mistake. Nobody needs us to speak for them.
This is, however, a call to dig deep into the personal and cultural histories that inform and platform and buttress our privilege, and expose those to the world’s bright eye. To examine the intersections between our privileged lives and the lives of those held outside that, particularly where those intersections do not cast us in flattering light. To practice the subtle and necessary balancing act that is speaking up and out in ways that expand the platform for other voices rather than usurping, speaking in place of, or silencing them.
Given: We’re going to fuck this up.
As long as we’re writing out of our own immediate, personal, experience, pretty much the worst we’re doing to do is write a bad poem. No harm, no foul. But the moment we step outside that, things get dangerous.
And well they should: nothing crucial is safe. And safety is a privilege denied to many. It is precisely because we could choose to write within the bubble of our privilege that we must step outside it.
How we do that is up to each of us, and is a topic for another blog. But for now, I’ll say this: all those ascot-grasping essays on “Can Poetry Matter” and “The Death of Art” will continue apace until the poetry that insists on speaking to and of its grimy, shameful and still sometimes tenaciously glorious time, insists on grappling with all the dark and needful complexities of our era, takes a solid, rightful and well-lit place center stage and cover page.
Are the dead still with us? When the flesh is husk, does the spirit speak? Can a love be everlasting? Can a hurt be overlong? After a predator dies, are his crimes still wrong? When the nightclub closes, do the splintering floors still dance? How many balls are just memory? How many illnesses took lives? I've heard hundreds of eulogies, yet I am not wise. What survives? Why bereft? Spirit-speaking? Spirit-listening? Smoldering ash? Life-theft?
And you, dear Eriq, are you with me? Do you still commentate at spirit-balls? Do you remember the time when we were five years old at Aunt Jackie's house when we first met Mr. Yardley, the predatory man who became our theatrical manager? We were not siblings, but we bled the same blood. AIDS covered you in blisters. You raged through your last hours. "But," you cried through fevers, "I thought I was resistant." Then death was a hiss. Years ago, Mr. Yardley told his new child charges arraigned that day at Aunt Jackie's: the only role that we would truly play as child entertainers was the part of a child. We learned to be cherubic: to smile with our eyes, with our teeth, with our cheeks pinched and puffed. What kind of death attends an abused child who plays innocent for money? What did it mean to perform childhood yet never be a child? Now that you are spirit, Eriq, are you finally a child?
And you, dear Jimmy, are you with me? Do you still dance at the spirit-Show Palace in a ghost-Times Square? Do you still run your hands across your litheness, lick your teeth, blink your eyes, cooing, "Everybody wishes they could have this puertorriqueño skin, this puertorriqueño hair." You were Apollo when you burlesque-danced at the Show Palace, and I was just the nightshift domestic who cleaned the wall-to-wall mirrors (and an occasional fill-in dancer, shockingly homely, weak in gathering tips). Do you remember the night you hauled me to Jerome Avenue in the Bronx while you scored Gutter Glitter from your supplier? I told you that I would never, ever let anyone put me in danger like that again. You replied, eyes dancing with Zip: "If not for Baysay, I would love you." Does the deathplace have Weasel Dust and Bubble Gum and Brooklyn Pearl and DC-Dust? Nothing was free, right? After I asked to crash at your tiny sublet and told you I had no money, you still demanded I write a poem for you each day. Of course, I complied. "Life is about something for something," was what you would say. So, then, what is death? And do you still read Apollo poems in the sprit-night?
And you too, Woody, the standout former Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company dancer. Long legs, terrific ballon, alert mind, warm-hearted, off stage and on: a black crane, a swan in human lace. We met at the Paradise Garage. I was sitting in the corner on the floor and you urged me to dance. Then you took me to the round-walled Better Days on West 49th and the cramped Buttermilk Bottom on Franklin Street. And when you came to D.C., we went to the Bachelor's Mill where the cunning catch dates in their fists. And just before you started teaching as a dance professor in Texas, we talk on the phone and you sigh: "What's fame, what's money, what's life without love?" And, oh, you adored the metaphysical poets and house music and gospel songs and soft-spokeness and warm ocean waves. In the 80s, your favorite group was Ten City--you let me listen to their song "Devotion" on your Sony Walkman. "Don't come to Texas, baby," you told me when you were dying, "I don't want you to see me like this. I'm so weak." Are they still singing, "I wanna give you devotion?" Or, "When you're short on cash/I've got your length/when you're weak/I'll be your strength"?
Kristina Marie Darling: I have always admired the way that your texts exist in spite of, beyond, and against traditional genre categories. Your work has the denseness and lyricism of poetry, with gorgeous and fractured narratives surfacing and resurfacing. In many ways, you question genre boundaries while appropriating the conventions of existing literary genres, a project that's wonderfully ironic and subversive. To what extent do you see genre categories as gendered? Are there larger power structures in the literary community, and in the academy, that dictate genre boundaries? Is writing against them and beyond them a feminist act?
Molly Gaudry: I’m wrapping up my coursework now as a PhD candidate at the University of Utah, where I’ve been spending a lot of time interrogating everything I thought I knew about genre. Is it multi-genre or mixed genre? Are these different from hybrid texts? Or non-genre texts? Do generic boundaries even exist, and, if so, where do they most rigidly appear and why? Is a crossover an invasion, a breach, a misstep, a test? Is it always transgressive? Or is it an attempt to erase, blur, break down walls? To what extent can the common reader learn to accept and appreciate that these boundaries and borderlines are, and have always been, invisible? I am struggling to answer these questions for myself.
I read something interesting recently in an anthropology essay about liminality. “Vermin” was used as a metaphor for boundary crossers. Rats and other critters that sneak into our homes, where they don’t belong, have breached the social contract. They are pests that must be taken care of, must be returned to their place. I’ve been thinking about this a lot with regard to so many invisible boundaries socially constructed around us. The metaphor works for just about any marginalized individual, group, or social structure that attempts to move. I’ve only just begun to wonder about the broad-spectrum potential of what more play in literature might mean, what might come of more widespread generic boundary crossing, because if we can learn to be more willing to allow these shapes and forms to shift and mutate then perhaps we’ll be less rigid in other areas of our lives, too.
I’d like to continue to talk about "feminist acts.” When did you first begin to recognize, in your own work, your feminist investments?
KMD: I definitely agree that writing against genre embodies many forms of resistance, since it is often those in power who delineate genre categories. And it's frightening how these generic categories shape cultural production and the ways that we inhabit language.
I first began to recognize my feminist investments as an M.A. candidate in continental philosophy at the University of Missouri. Many of my colleagues were working within the analytic tradition, and their work drew heavily from logic and the sciences. I was immediately struck by the strict genre conventions that bound their work, and as a result, their thinking, and what was possible within their writing. Research papers always came in preferably five sections, with a clearly worded claim, a tripartite argument, and extensive footnotes. Either that, or the papers didn't make it to conferences, didn't get published, and couldn't be used as writing samples. I admired the mental discipline of these philosophers, but it was difficult not to notice one thing: out of twenty or so students in my year, I was one of two women enrolled in the program. It became cognizant of the fact that one must have access to training, and forms of writing, in order to take part in this particular conversation. And women were frequently denied access to those academic forms of writing, and the training needed to inhabit them with confidence.
In part as a result of my work in philosophy at the University of Missouri, I became interested in rendering these academic forms of writing more inclusive. My work often takes the form of footnotes, appendices, and indices, which are often filled with decidedly non-academic content (including autobiographical writing, aestheticized language, etc.). It seemed problematic to me that these academic forms of writing privilege what have always been hailed as masculine values: logic, rationality, and a scientific mindset. In many ways, my work is a small effort to carve a space for the feminine within academic forms of writing.
MG: I’m really interested in your desire to carve space for the feminine within academic forms of writing. I like to think that my own writing is “feminine,” and I feel that it is (in a Marguerite Durasian kind of way, which is quite complicated and problematic in many ways). Still, I would like to have a better idea of what I actually mean when I say, or feel, that the “feminine” is part of my overall project. I love how you say that you’re claiming the spaces of footnotes, appendices, and indices, and feminizing these constructs. I wonder how you feel about the body of the work, traditionally privileged as the primary space of the text. How important is it to you to claim it for yourself? Or, conversely, to what extent would you want to reject it? What does it mean to you to rethink and reenvision these secondary spaces, like footnotes, which traditionally function to support the primary text, or even tertiary spaces, like appendices and indices?
KMD: That’s a great question. For me, the desire to privilege the body of the work over marginalia reflects many of the implicit hierarchies within language. I’m very interested in what happens when the hierarchies are reversed, when the margins become the main text. In this sense, I suppose I am claiming the main text for myself, but in other ways, I’m trying to redefine what we think of as the main text, to shift the reader’s attention to things that currently only occupy the periphery of their field of vision.
Some readers could certainly see this use of form as a feminist statement about women’s voices being pushed to the margins, but I’m more intrigued by what is possible within those marginal spaces. When the individual subject is (socially and formally) marginalized, they have nothing left to lose, and there is a kind of freedom in that. They are not burdened by the pressures of inhabiting the main text, as they do not have to create a narrative arc, a logical sequence of events, or speak in a way that we recognize as legible. For me, this reversal of main text and marginal text affords the possibility of working outside of accepted ideas about logic, coherence, and narrative structures. It is a subversion of not only hierarchies imposed upon language and various types of cultural texts, but it is a subversion of reason itself. I think this is why I’m so drawn to academic forms of writing. They represent our definitions of logic and legibility, but also the structures of power and authority, and the social inequities, that our ideas about reason give rise to.
With that in mind, I'd love to hear more about the relationship between your life as an academic and your wonderfully experimental work. In what ways do your scholarly interests intersect with your creative work? To what extent do you find your creative work resisting, or reacting against, aspects of academic culture? I'm thinking of the strange genres one must learn and make oneself fit into (like the job letter), as well as the connection (even though we all try to deny it) between these academic genres and structures of power and authority....
MG: I love what you said there about being intrigued by what is possible within marginal spaces and not being burdened by the pressures of inhabiting the main text. There really is a freedom in that, isn’t there?
I’m about to begin my last-ever semester of being a full-time student. I’ll be taking Lance Olsen’s Experimental Forms, and I’ll be sitting in on Melanie Rae Thon’s Narrative Theory and Practice. Both of these professors used the word “liminality” in their syllabus, and between now and the end of the semester I hope to have a much stronger grasp on what this means and how it might be applied to the literature I’m most drawn to as a reader, and how it applies to my own work, which I hesitate to call “experimental.” It’s interesting, actually: before the PhD, I would have used the word “experimental” quite freely, but I’m a lot more cautious with it now. This is a result of Michael Mejia’s fiction workshop, during which I began to wonder to what extent we might generally think of “innovation” as the goal or successful outcome of “experiment” (and perhaps it is the experiment, then, that is our most valuable practice). I’m not sure, though, that I’m ready to call my own work experimental (and if it’s not an experiment, then it’s not by this logic innovative), because although it may look illegible on the page, it still privileges characters’ psychological logic-making abilities, and, as a result, it is concerned with overall legibility and accessibility. In short, I write novels. I inhabit the main text. I work hard to create narrative arcs and characters with deep psychologies. All I am doing is reshaping the novel form, which is nothing new, if we consider the novel’s history to be monstrous and all-devouring, and so to turn to poetic forms that predate novels and recall even older traditions seems in some ways backward-looking as opposed to forward-looking. I don’t know. What do you think?
KMD: I'm fascinated by your definition of the experiment as a text which strives for innovation. So much of the time texts are lauded as experimental when they simply reproduce familiar structures of thinking and writing. But I think that there's more to innovation than just the text. For me, part of innovation is the relationship a text creates between the artist and his or her audience. Many of the books that I consider the most innovative, or the most experimental, imagine the story, or the poem, or the novel as a collaborative endeavor, in which the reader participates actively in the process of creating meaning from the work. This collaborative relationship between reader and writer, text and audience is something that the Lit Pub represents for me (and of course, your novels represent this as well). I think that your work is especially fascinating in that it prompts us to re-imagine the boundaries between text and reader, and between self and other. The text, or the magazine, or the press, represents not just a message or an overarching narrative, but a community. This is innovative, in my opinion, because it privileges process over product, allowing one to exist in a constant state of becoming.
In this respect, I think that we have a lot in common as publishers and cultural producers. I see my small press, Noctuary Press, not as a group of texts, or a project with an overarching message, but rather, as a forum for a dialogue. Noctuary Press is a starting point, a touchstone for conversations about what constitutes genre, the dangers of genre categories, and the gender politics inherent in our definitions of genre. I love being surprised by reviewers' interpretations of Noctuary Press books, as well as creative responses and collaborations that our books have given rise to. Pank Magazine published a wonderful creative engagement with Carol Guess's F IN, a review by J/J Hastain, which is a wonderfully innovative text in its own right. And I'm always happy to hear about our texts being taught in creative writing classes.
With that in mind, I'd love to hear more about your work with the Lit Pub. How did you envision your contribution to the publishing landscape initially? How did this vision change shape after you had started publishing?
MG: I’m interested in what you say about the relationship between writer, text, and audience. I’m thinking of Iser’s field of play, and where we as authors attempt to position readers, from page to page, or even from line to line, particularly with ergodic texts like yours, privileging rhetorical metalepsis, paratext, and even parody (or reclamation) of paratextual spaces. And texts that, in both of our cases, play with readers’ desires to fill in narrative gaps, what’s left untold and unsaid (and where, and why). So even as focalization may not be first and foremost on my creative agenda, it’s definitely there in the process of struggling with the creation of a text that problematizes both overreading and underreading, even as I (think I) privilege voice.
As for Noctuary Press and Lit Pub — actually, let me just jump in here first and further praise j/j hastain as an inspired writer and critic — I see Lit Pub, as you see Noctuary, as a starting point. Where you say Noctuary offers up a starting point for dialogue, I add that Lit Pub is a starting point for authors, a launching pad for careers on the rise, a place for mostly first books to emerge. Previous titles do influence what the catalog has room for in the future, which means I’m always looking for something new, something the catalog doesn’t yet offer. In this way, there is room for dialogues about the texts, but what those conversations may be surprise even me from book to book, author to author.
Actually, this brings up another point I’d like to talk about — you are a powerhouse in terms of your own academic and creative achievements alone, but add to these your literary citizenship, your press’s and authors’ contributions to the contemporary literary scene, and the countless awards, residencies, and fellowships you’ve earned, and I have to ask you a question I’ve often been asked: How do you do it all? And a followup I’m rarely asked: How do you balance your public and personal lives?
KMD: Thank you for your kind words about my work and Noctuary… It definitely means a lot coming from a writer as accomplished as you! I think your questions are great, too, and professionalization is something that definitely doesn’t get talked about enough in graduate school.
I do get asked from time to time how I’m able to go to residencies, publish books, etc., especially at a relatively young age. My answer tends to be very anti-climatic and unpopular. Most graduate students enter an MFA or a PhD program and feel an intense pressure to professionalize once they start the program. But I started sending out work when I was in eighteen years old, and started applying for residencies and fellowships when I was an undergraduate. In retrospect, this was a good thing to do, because once I entered a graduate program, I didn’t have to learn the forms of academic and professional writing (like artist statements, cover letters, and project proposals). I already had application materials ready to go. Now applying for residencies, fellowships, and other opportunities seems manageable, since it’s a fairly familiar process. The practice I had early in my career really helped.
But this doesn’t mean that I’m a good planner, or that I look ahead. I took a poetry workshop when I was an undergraduate at Washington University and it just ran away with me. I loved everything about it and couldn’t wait to be part of the poetry community. I wanted to start reviewing books, going to residencies, and meeting other poets right away. I’m still very engaged in the literary community, and it’s out of sheer love for what I do every day. And how many doctors and stock brokers can say that?
In terms of balancing personal and professional lives, I don’t think the two can really be separated. Many professional opportunities have led to great friendships. For example, I met Carol Guess when I was promoting my book, Melancholia, and now consider her a friend and terrific mentor. I met my friend and collaborator, Max Avi Kaplan, at a residency at Vermont Studio Center (something that I saw as a purely professional opportunity at the time). I really believe that if you love what you do, you will love the people you encounter, so it’s never really been a challenge to balance personal and professional lives. I do wish, though, that I had a few more hours in every day.
While we’re on the subject of literature and community… I’ve always seen you as someone who is an exemplary literary citizen, contributing exciting work while giving back to others and supporting projects you believe in in multiple ways (publishing, promoting, collaborating). How did literary citizenship begin for you? How did you see yourself in relation to a larger community when you began writing, and how did that relationship you envisioned change over time?
MG: That’s a really nice way to look at the intersection between the professional and personal. As for my own literary citizenship, it really came into focus for me in 2008, when I read Blake Butler’s blog post, “Where did Lucy purchase her new vagina?” Overlooking the problematic title, I offer that the post itself is a call to action, a list of to-dos anyone can do. I’m not sure if I was already editing online journals before that post, but I know I felt empowered when I read it, and I always trace my own service back to Blake’s. He served as a model for me, back in 2008, and inspired my own writing and my ideas of why I should be engaged with others’ writing.
And, to answer your question: when I first began writing (as a creative writing major at the School for Creative and Performing Arts, the nation’s only public K-12 school of the arts), I wasn’t even thinking about publication, for instance. Even as I made my way into an undergraduate English major, I was pretty intensely focused on the work (arrogantly so, at that), and I’m not sure I even knew a larger “writing community” existed. I probably had some conception of the “publishing industry” existing solely of Cheever types, and that, if lucky, maybe a young writer would get a story in The New Yorker followed by a Random House book deal. It really wasn’t until after my early interactions with Blake and others in the online community that my perception of what writers, and writing, and publishing could be — truly, an interconnected network of readers and writers of all ages everywhere exemplifying the best attributes of the spirit of from-the-ground-up, community-focused, Internet-enabled grassroots culture-shifting movements.
Julie Babcock's stunning first collection of poems, Autoplay, offers spare, carefully crafted lyrics that are as familiar as they are uncanny. By invoking the seemingly tame imagery of Midwestern cities, the poems in this striking collection lull the reader into a sense of complacency, only to skillfully undermine this expectation that they will encounter a familiar narrative. As the book unfolds, Babcock excavates violence, discontent, and enchantment from beneath an unremarkable exterior—marked by "the green hills of the gold course," "baby-sitters," and "breath against the mirror"—restoring a sense of both danger and wonder to everyday life. In doing so, Babock offers the reader a perfect matching of form and content, particularly as her stylistic dexterity illuminates and complicates the content of the work itself.
With that in mind, Babcock's use of received literary forms to deliver unexpected content is particularly impressive. She draws a parallel between inherited modes of writing (of which couplets, tercets, and quatrains are only a few examples) and the Midwestern cultural landscape, suggesting that both have been made to seem inhospitable to creative endeavors, but can give rise to stunning imaginative work if we allow them to. She writes in "Ohio Apologia,"
A twin can never divide her wealth.
I planned to go where I'd never melt
into a mold of virgin or slut.
I wanted to love you to love myself.
I crossed the rivers with my bag of stealth
my story line revised and trussed,
but a twin can never divide her wealth.
Here Babcock simultaneously inhabits a traditional literary form and received ideas about femininity, suggesting that one can work within these bits of inherited culture to expand what is possible within them. In much the same way that the speaker herself is "twinned," her story line is "revised and trussed," suggesting the inherent instability of both literary traditions and narratives of identity. Autoplay is filled with beautifully crafted poems like this one, which offer a carefully constructed relationship between style and content.
Along these lines, I found Babcock's use of domestic imagery compelling and provocative, especially as she suggest the violence inherent in being confined to a given place. She creates a wonderful tension between the confines of formal poetry and the volatility of the images contained within these formally pristine edifices, suggesting the inevitable discontent with one's origins. Consider "Autoplay,"
I am the baby-sitter. She
is snuggled so close
we might be one.
We hear a noise
and flee the house.
"We're safe," I say, as we jump
on the outdoor trampoline.
For Babcock, a particular place entails not just mere surroundings, but specific gender roles, modes of communication, and narratives of identity. In much the same way that the speakers' voices are contained within neatly presented tercets, couplets, and pantoums, the violence inherent in narratives of place is also subsumed within these orderly forms. What's fascinating about this tension between style and content is the way that Babcock subtly suggests that conflict, and contradiction, can reside beneath a seemingly un-rippled surface. Like many of the poems in Autoplay, this piece is as beautifully crafted as it is self-aware. This is a stunning debut, and Babcock is a poet to watch.
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....
John Gallaher's finely crafted poetry collection, In a Landscape, reads as an exercise in blurring boundaries, an effort to challenge the received models of writing, reading, and authorship that we have become accustomed to. Presented as a book-length sequence of linked lyric pieces, which appear in long, Whitman-esque lines, the work in this stunning new book asks the reader to consider the myriad ways that poetry overlaps and intersects with memoir writing, particularly as Gallaher strives to eliminate any distance between the speaker of the poems and the author. In many ways, Gallaher's work gestures at the artifice inherent in the lyric "I," offering instead poems that allow the reader to observe the inner workings of memory and consciousness experience.
Gallaher's work is perhaps most impressive in moments when he creates an expectation on the part of the reader that the work will read like prose, then proceeds to undermine that readerly expectation. For instance, the work is presented in long lines that look, at first glance, like prose, leading the reader to expect a linear narrative, filled with exposition, that creates an orderly progression from one event to the next. As the poems unfold, one is surprised and delighted to discover the poems' elliptical and associative logic. By creating this provocative relationship between form and content, Gallaher suggests the artifice of the narratives we create to lend a sense of order to the world around us. He writes,
I just forgot how to count Roman numerals, and had to look it up.
I used to be good at them, and would always wait for the end of T.V. shows,
where I'd get to count the date. The game was: figure out the date
before it blinked away...
Here Gallaher presents us with lines that look like prose on the page, but remind us that consciousness and memory are inevitably fragmentary, no matter what narratives we construct around them. In many ways, Gallaher prompts the reader to see the beauty inherent in fragmentation, suggesting that these brief episodic narratives and associative leaps remain closer to the truth than the clear linear progression that one finds so often in prose. In a Landscape is filled with poems like this one, which remind the reader of the artifice inherent in the creation of narrative, which offers only an illusion of wholeness and coherence.
Along these lines, Gallaher's associative and elliptical narratives suggest that consciousness itself is fragmentary, and memory represents only our efforts to lend a sense of continuity to our experience of the world around us. The poems in this carefully crafted collection frequently use the style of the work to make this ambitious philosophical argument, offering the reader a perfect matching of form and content. Consider this passage,
The other night we drove downtown and something was on fire
somewhere. We could smell it and see smoke, but
we couldn't tell exactly where it was. A little to the east and south
of the parking lot, I think?
What's most intriguing about this passage is Gallaher's use of enjambment. By breaking the line after "fire," and beginning next line with "somewhere," Gallaher suggests that the uncertainty and subjectivity of narrative increase as it's made more and more elaborate. This idea comes across most noticeably in the phrase, "A little to the east and south...", which evokes a sense of certainty through its specificity, a sentiment that is undermined as the sentence unfolds in the next line ("of the parking lot, I think?"). I find Gallaher's use of style and technique to convey to evoke the subjectivity and artifice of narrative to be artful and compelling. In short, In a Landscape is a finely crafted book, and a wonderful addition to this writer's already accomplished body of work.
Kristina Marie Darling: Your new book, The Complete Dark Shadows (of My Childhood), Book 1, offers readers an extended engagement with 1960s mass culture, exploring the myriad ways that television and radio shape the individual consciousness. This idea that culture determines what is possible within thought, and within the human mind, is gracefully enacted in the content of the poems, which appear as pristine couplets. I'm intrigued, though, by moments when the form is broken, and the poems deviate from the pattern that has been established. As the writer, how do you know when a form should be broken? What does breaking form make possible within the content of your work?
Tony Trigilio: Thanks so much for your detailed reading of the book. My hope is that, as you mentioned, readers can identify with the ways mass media and individual consciousness shape each other in the book. As I get deeper into Vol. 2 of the Dark Shadows project (about half-finished with the second volume now), I gain a deeper appreciation of mass media's roots in the verb "to mediate." I realize the connection is obvious: but it's one thing to experience media/mediation intellectually, and an entirely different thing to experience it psychically and viscerally. Like all of us, the development of my own psyche was mediated by electronic communication—for me, it was television and radio, and for folks growing up now, it's digital media. It just so happens that the mediating force for me was a kitschy vampire and all the nightmares he caused me (though I was way too young to understand he was kitschy). As scary as the continual nightmares were, they did introduce me to the power of dream and to the idea that dream-reality is as vital and real as waking-reality.
I appreciate your remarks on the symmetry of the couplets, and, perhaps more important, your remarks about those moments when I break the couplets. For me, the breaking of the couplets creates an asymmetry that speaks back to the formal boundaries I've deliberately imposed on the project. The accumulating couplets lead, for me, to a weirdly discontinuous feeling of finality in each segment of stanzas. By "discontinuous," I mean that each segment of couplets sustains itself until eventually reaching a resolution (the one-line stanzas that break the couplets) that is really not a resolution at all, because, ideally, it resists the expectation for continuously symmetrical couplets. It resists the desire for resolution. My hope is that the one-line stanzas lead the reader to the next segment of couplets as part of an ongoing chain of formal buildup and formal collapse. This dance between structure and collapse offers, for me, an ongoing chain of speech (form) and silence (collapse) always mediated by the white space of the page and the horizontal lines that break up each segment of the book. I'm working with the same couplet structure in Book 2, but I'm also starting to feel like I need to break into a different formal constraint for Book 3. I don't know what form will suggest itself for Book 3 yet.
This tension between speech and silence seems vital to your poems, too. Your work often brings me back to John Cage and his urgent sense of the musicality of silence—really, his adoration of silence as a phenomenon that's just as powerful as sound (and, in the same way, his adoration of noise as a phenomenon just as powerful as music). Whether you're elevating footnotes and indexes from the margin to the center, or whether you're writing haunting silences into the abstract lyric or prose poem, it feels like you want to enact the limits of speech at the same time that you're urgently speaking. Your work reminds me that even though language never gets us to the real thing-in-itself, we absolutely have to keep speaking, because language is our ticket into the cultures we live in, and is our vehicle for re-envisioning the cultures we live in. Can you talk a little about the writers and artists who've influenced your interest in silence? In literary terms, your work evokes Jenny Boully's writing, among others, but the way Cage comes into my mind when I read your work makes me curious about who your influences are from other art forms, too.
KMD: Thank you for your generous and thought-provoking reading of my work. I appreciate what you said about the importance of asymmetry in a text, particularly the ways that such an imbalance (whether formal, visual, or sonic) leaves room for the reader to imagine, speculate, and participate in the process of creating meaning from the text. To forge connections between different elements of the poem. We definitely seem to share an interest in fostering a more active reader, prompting them to inhabit the text and help construct it.
In my own work, I strive for asymmetry of all kinds. This can range from formal imbalances (like footnotes to an absent text, or footnotes that become the main text) to pairings of very different types of language, taken from vastly different registers and discourses. I feel that this kind of asymmetry in a literary work almost always involves silence, a gap between what the writer has articulated and the connections that the reader must forge himself or herself. For me, this silence, this gap in a poem or story is where the reader's imagination lives, it's the aperture where he or she enters the work and begins to interact with it.
My most recent book, Fortress, uses silence perhaps more than any of my other collections. The book begins and ends with erasures of Elaine Scarry's The Body in Pain, in which I erase human suffering from the book. As you can imagine, there wasn't much left, only "the fragile blue thread," "the small arc," and "hands placed on a piano...remembering a song as though it were another form of breathing." The poems themselves are confined to the margins, made to inhabit the book's least habitable spaces. I'm very interested in the effect that this unwieldy amount of white space has on the reader. I hope that the visual imbalance of the book, in which text is overwhelmed by white space, and sound by silence, prompts the reader to consider the myriad ways that we are coaxed to fill silence, to eventually find beauty in what most would call an absence.
I would have to say that the text that most piqued my curiosity about silence, white space, and erasure was Yedda Morrison's Darkness. She erases people from Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, leaving only the natural world in all of its threat, ruination, and majesty. I love the fact that the gesture of erasure becomes as meaningful as the text itself, illuminating and complicating the small fragments with which we are presented. In many ways, meaning resides in what isn't said, in what is taken away. In my own work, I certainly emulate this use of white space and silence to spark the reader's curiosity, to prompt their own imaginative work. Along these lines, Ronald Johnson's Radi Os and Janet Holmes The Ms of My Kin are also favorites, along with Jenny Boully's The Body: An Essay.
While we're on the subject of erasure, silence, and white space, I'd love to hear more about the moments of rupture within your poetry. The Complete Dark Shadows (of My Childhood) is wonderfully cinematic in its presentation, as the poems are presented in discrete episodes, almost like scenes of a television or radio show. I admire the way that the transition from scene to scene, the break in narrative continuity, invites the reader to speculate and imagine in much the same way that incompleteness, white space, or asymmetry would in a literary text. What possibilities does a rupture in the narrative thread open up within your work? By challenging received narrative structures, and the reader's desire for continuity, what other ideas, hierarchies, and assumptions can a poem challenge?
TT: My sense of textual rupture is, I think, much like the excellent way you describe your sense of textual silence—operating as a “gap” in the text “where the reader’s imagination lives.” A ruptured narrative thread offers the reader a chance to participate in shaping a narrative rather than just passively receive the text. My hope is that, as I challenge the reader’s desire for continuity, I’m highlighting the artificial linearity of traditional narrative structures. I’m trying to foreground the constructed-ness of narrative in order to allow maximum space for associative leaps within sections (and between lines and stanzas) of the poem. I really like how your remarks on asymmetry are encouraging me to reflect on the assumptions about narrative and non-linearity that simmer between the lines when I’m writing (not just writing the Dark Shadows poem, but, really, as I write anything). I’m often trying to negotiate new kinds of narrative structures that tell stories through gaps in meaning. I guess I like to take what looks like traditional narrative and reveal—and revel in—what is non-linear and not always rational about the way it unfolds. In my ekphrastic response to the Dark Shadows TV show itself, for instance, I absorb the slow, interminable, episode-by-episode crawl of soap opera narrative (a crawl I enjoy, all the same, as a fan of soap operas) while simultaneously re-imagining this linear narrative crawl in a poem where fragments of autobiographical detail frequently irrupt.
I’m drawn to how this approach disrupts traditionally received hierarchies of narrative. My discontinuities are an effort reveal the seams produced by narrative threads, rather than conceal them as part of a fantasy of wholeness. In doing so, I’m trying to re-think the assumption (a hierarchical assumption that puts the writer above the reader somehow) that narrative only functions as a force that shapes the chaos of experience into digestible linearity. We don’t experience the narratives of our everyday lives this way, and I’m drawn to work that reflects our actual experience—work that allows narrative to emerge as messy, associational, in-progress, and sometimes ruptured.
The roots for this approach to narrative date back, for me, to my discovery of Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor comic books, especially how his seemingly mundane, quotidian storytelling becomes associative and moves by implication rather than declarative exposition. But Pekar’s work moves this way only if I’m attentive to the gaps in meaning between panels (like the way white space functions between stanzas in a poem, or the way white space deliberately “imbalances,” as you described it, the written word). I’m drawn to much the same in entirely different writers like Lydia Davis, too. In form and structure, her work unfolds in mini-narratives, of course; but, as one reads her work more closely, the narratives actually emerge in crisply accumulating roundabout moments of thought. I’m drawn to how much her work might look linear on the page, but how her commitment to psychological and phenomenological detail produces narrative momentum that is recursive rather than linear.
I see this same sort of recursive movement in your work, especially in the new book, Fortress, with its sly “minor plots” swerving around, while also propelling, the major plot of the unfolding margins and blank pages (“the book’s least habitable spaces,” as you put it so well in response to my previous question). But the blank pages aren’t just a representation of absence or loss—too much is happening in and around that so-called blankness. The seemingly ancillary text and footnotes instead allow a rich narrative to emerge through distinct objects that function as vital social and psychological markers in the narrative.
I’m fascinated by the weight placed on what could seem like marginal relics or curios in your work—photos, keys, discarded gloves, jewelry, empty bottles, forgotten photos, among others. Amid the silences and textual traces, the actual physical phenomena represented in the poems are intellectually and emotionally crucial to the dramatic situation and to the reader’s experience. I’m especially drawn to what the domestic objects in your poems evoke and reveal about the psyche, and what they permit the psyche to hide. You take mundane, everyday objects and invest them with radiant intellectual and emotional meaning. As I deepen my own commitment to those objects in your texts, and as those objects then become more and more psychologically resonant, I begin thinking of the vital curios that mark the boundaries of the psychic spaces I inhabit myself (those spaces that I inhabit happily, and those that unsettle me). This isn’t just an autobiographical tangent for me, as a reader of your work: instead, it’s a moment when, as you mentioned earlier, the reader becomes an active agent encouraged “to inhabit the text and help construct it.”
Also—and I guess this is related to what domestic objects both reveal and hide—I’m struck by the rich textures of the rooms and homes in your poems. As you write in a particularly tense moment of physicality in Fortress: “the room is multiplied into a house of rooms and the house into a city of houses, the body is carried forward into / civilization” (68). I remember interviewing Nick Twemlow last year, and, during a discussion of how our childhoods influence us, he remarked that every house he remembers from childhood has a unique “tone” of its own. I feel like this could be a description of how you approach rooms and houses in your work: your work sounds out the tone of each space, and it does this through an intense dialogue between silence and speech. Can you talk more about the generative potential of objects, houses, and rooms in your work? I hear the echo of Stein’s cubist-influenced attempt to render the physical world from as many angles of vision as possible—and to make a new kind of coherence from the messy collision of these frames of reference. But I imagine the scope of what you’re doing is wider, and I’d love to hear more about the poetics of space in your work.
KMD: First, thank you for the incredibly generous reading of Fortress. I really appreciate the way you described Lydia Davis's work, suggesting that her "mini-narratives" read as an "accumulation of thought," an effort to create coherence from the disparate (and often very strange) phenomena with which we are presented. I really admire the way Davis calls our attention to the artifice of these narratives. And I agree wholeheartedly that narrative offers the illusion of wholeness, that it feeds into a fantasy of coherence and orderliness that simply doesn't exist in the (often very random and disconnected) world around us.
I see the poetics of space in Fortress as an effort to suggest the myriad ways that the creation of narrative, and the stories we construct in order to link disparate experiences, are much like building a cathedral, a beautiful house, or a room in which to keep various artifacts and mementos. In Swann's Way, Proust describes this as the "enormous edifice of memory," and I love this comparison between the individual's search for order in the world and elaborate architectural structures. We often build beautiful shrines around experiences that are important to us, and more often than not, we use narrative to do this. The creation of narrative becomes an act of both homage and preservation, much like building a sacred architectural space.
When writing Fortress, I was also intrigued by the ways in which objects, mementos and artifacts accumulate much like the narratives we construct around events. In many ways, these objects, these keepsakes are the accumulation of thought that you so eloquently describe in Davis's work. For me, thought and memory are embodied and physically palpable, and I love exploring the implications of memory manifesting in this very tangible way. Because these objects, these mementos are a kind of language unto themselves. They serve as beautiful and emotionally charged signifiers, which represent something purely internal, a memory or emotion that is housed inside the individual subject. When memory is externalized in this way, narrative becomes the link between interior and exterior, between self and world, between internal language and shared culture.
I think this is why I'm so drawn to scholarly forms: the footnote, the glossary, the archival fragment, etc. These fragmented, marginal forms of writing resist the fantasy of narrative cohesion in a way that I find fascinating. But perhaps more importantly, the reader is implicated in this the process of creating a narrative around an event that isn't theirs, a memory that is part of a consciousness other than their own. I love thinking of fragmented forms as bridging the gap between interior and exterior, but also, between self and other. And this is what scholars do so much of the time. They create magnificently cohesive narratives around diary fragments, notebooks, and texts from another temporal moment, artifacts of another consciousness. I'm very interested in the ways the relationship between reader and text doubles back on itself, is mirrored and refracted.
With that in mind, I'd love to hear more about your literary scholarship and the ways in which it informs your poetry. I certainly admire the way you've pursued both very different forms of inquiry with equal precision and dedication. What does your background as a scholar make possible within your poems? Would your poems be possible if you had never written or published scholarly writing? And most importantly, is possible to separate poetry and scholarship? After all, your poems read as gorgeously rendered deconstructions of much of the literary and cultural landscape.
TT: Your excellent description of the poetics of space in Fortress really captures the experience of reading the book—the architecture of narrative functioning as an extension of the architecture of physical space. And I love how the Proust quotation speaks to this relationship between the mind and the tactile world. Thinking of writing in this way makes narrative an experience of fluidity—of “exploring the implications of memory,” as you put it so well. It’s a compelling argument for the generative potential of narrative, where, as readers, we co-create from what is implied, fragmented, and/or absent.
I can see how the process of finding a language for absence owes a debt to scholarly forms, especially considering that contemporary scholarship is understandably skeptical of assertions of self-presence. Thinking more about your question on the influence of my scholarship on my poems, I work from an initial premise that creative writing and scholarly writing are not in opposition to each other. The research and shaping of an argument in a scholarly essay or scholarly book is itself, I think, a creative act. I’m grateful for your kind words about how my scholarship and my poetry overlap each other. My scholarship and my poems are inseparable, even though they almost always work in different registers of language and levels of diction, and they are modes of creation that make each other possible. My background as a scholar helps me understand where intellectual and affective energies can feed each other. While my scholarly training helped me become a better, more complete reader of poetry, it also encouraged me to complicate poetry’s traditional lyric “I” and to challenge, for myself, the primacy of this “I.” Scholarly work on subjectivity creates, for me, a middle-way between contemporary poems that resist selfhood and contemporary poems that celebrate selfhood. I don’t want to abandon the “I,” but instead want to dramatize it within the social and cultural contexts that make it a speaking subject and not a static “I.” I’m most drawn to poems that create a stage for a self whose speech is constructed from a web of complicated, interrelated political and historical forces (my debt to Foucault oozes from every pore of this sentence, I know). Poems such as “Special Prosecutor” and “Autoresponder@whitehouse.gov,” from my first collection, The Lama’s English Lessons, definitely wouldn’t exist in the same way if not for my scholarly research on the way power circulates in written language and speech. Also, my poetry collection Historic Diary might not have been possible without my scholarly background in New Historicism. The book’s title came from the name Lee Harvey Oswald gave to the diary he kept in the USSR. Just the fact that someone might call his/her diary “historic diary” is, for me, a cipher for the productively messy relationship between poetry and history.
I’ve enjoyed our collaborative dialogue, and I’ve learned a lot—especially about the experimental potential of silence, speech, and narrative—from the give-and-take of our discussion of our shared interests. As we approach the end of the interview, I find myself coming back to a question that reaches beyond our specific, individual projects and, more generally, talks about the ways we approach our work. We are both writers who seem to thrive on juggling multiple projects at once, sometimes in multiple genres. I always try to keep in mind that if I don’t work hard to create the day-to-day consistency of a sustained writing practice, I’ll be juggling projects but never actually finishing them. Can you talk a little bit about your work habits—where you write, or how often you write, or maybe what kind of environment you need to write in? I’m drawn to this question, I guess, because I always like to hear fellow writers talk about how deliberate they have to be about carving out writing time. The wonderful paradox I’ve found is that I need disciplined regularity—writing as much as possible in the same location and sometimes at the same time every day—in order to experiment and take wild leaps in the writing itself. It’s something I learned many years ago, when I was a professional musician, and I realized that the discipline of rehearsing several times a week was a requirement to making the kind of music that was constantly full of surprise and that swerved from predictable song structures. The work habits required to make and record music translated naturally to writing habits, even though writing is such a solitary and quieter mode of art-making (of course, it’s noisy in our heads, but I mean that the physical space around us is quieter than, say, a music studio). The process of learning how to create productive work habits as a musician, then, led to a kind of lightbulb moment for me in learning how to create productive work habits as a writer.
I also want to add a final note about how great it is to be a part of the same press as you, BlazeVOX Books. I often say to friends and colleagues that BlazeVOX publisher Geoffrey Gatza has built a press that reminds me of the old SST record label. SST Records took chances with risk-taking music that other labels were too tradition-bound to touch, and their track record with such music was so good that I had to check out everything the label put out. Whether or not I knew the band, I wanted to pay attention if their album came out on SST. As a reader and writer, BlazeVOX means to me what SST once did as a musician.
KMD: I've enjoyed our collaborative dialogue as well, and appreciate your description of scholarship as a middle-ground between "contemporary poems that resist selfhood and contemporary poems that celebrate selfhood." I think this is why I'm so drawn to scholarly forms of writing in poetry, as they allow for a polyphonic text, allowing the same speaker to try on various discourses and registers. For me, scholarly forms, when used in a creative way, can complicate the lyric "I" in a way that I find thought-provoking. Jenny Boully's The Body: An Essay is a great example of this.
And thank you for asking about my work habits. Most of my books wouldn't exist without artist residencies. These literary arts fellowships encourage me to deliberately carve out time in exactly the way you described. This is also where I meet many of my collaborators. What's more, the opportunity to work alongside artists from other disciplines is great for challenging the limitations I tend to impose on my own practice. It's difficult to say something is impossible in poetry when one is surrounded by painters, composers, installations artists, and sculptors, many of whom use text in interesting and surprising ways. For me, all of writing is a collaborative act, and consciousness is essentially dialogic. I think this is why I'm so drawn to working in collaborative, communal settings like Vermont Studio Center, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Ragdale, and Yaddo.
BlazeVOX Books has created a kind of community too, and it's been so much fun collaborating with other writers who publish with the press. What could be better than a literary press that not only publishes experimental, innovative, and challenging work, but connects its authors to other writers around the world? It's an honor to be published by the same press as you, and I've also been able to connect with several other writers I admire through BlazeVOX: Susan Lewis, Leah Umansky, and Carlo Matos, to name just a few. I love the sense of community that BlazeVOX creates for its writers.
Let me just say that it's been a pleasure conversing with you. I feel like I've learned so much about your work, my own practice, and the larger literary community. Thank you for a great conversation!
Khavaran cemetery, located in southeast Tehran, is a place where religious minorities bury their dead. Jews, Christians and the Baha’is are not allowed to be buried in other cemeteries on the grounds that "they are apostates and must not contaminate the resting place of Muslims.”
In February 2009 the Islamic Republic of Iran announced its plan to demolish the cemetery and run a highway through it. By this they intended to erase all evidence of the massacre. However, the cemetery still stands and every September on the anniversary of the massacre the authorities have blocked and harassed Mothers of Khavaran, a group consisting of the families and supporters of the executed, to visit the cemetery. On May 18, 2014 Mothers of Khavaran received the 2014 Gwangju Prize for Human Rights.
"The Poem" by Mohsen Emadi is a short film about Khavaran; it is about human brutality in the name of religion and ideology. The film has been screened in Spain, Brazil, Mexico and Portugal. Emadi is a poet, literary translator and filmmaker.
In 1955, Davood Pirniya, a music lover and a well-connected and powerful man within the Iranian government, used his political resources to fund and establish an orchestra, bringing in the best vocalists and composers for a new radio program that presented a gorgeous marriage of music and poetry. He called the program Flowers (Golha). The earliest version, Eternal Flowers (Golhayeh Javidan), featured poetry by beloved ancient poets: Saadi, Rumi, and Hafez. In each program selected poems were recited by a mellifluous voice, followed by a musical interlude and then golden-throated singing to a beautiful composition in traditional form. Later, in Multicolored Flowers (Golhayeh Rang a Rang), poems by contemporary poets were also included in the program. Although singing poems is an old Iranian tradition, these programs introduced to the public—young and old, rich and poor—work by new poets as well as by ancient masters, in a form that was pleasing to the ear and the heart, the mind and the soul. These radio programs became immensely popular in both cities and villages, among the well-educated as well the illiterate.
The programs were numbered. Here is number 570, with Homeyra, one of the divas of the time, singing poems by two contemporary poets as well as Iran’s beloved Hafez. The program begins with an introduction of the artists; then Firouzeh Amirmoez recites the first section of the first poem. After a brief musical interlude, Homeyra sings that same section. Listen:
Today many of Iran’s talented musicians and vocalists live in exile. Here in the United States a well-known and immensely talented Iranian vocalist and composer, Mamak Khadem, is among a handful of musicians in exile who have kept this beautiful tradition alive. In her 2011 album, A Window To Color, Mamak brings to musical life Iran’s beloved 20th-century poet, Sohrab Sepehri. Here is a video renditions of one of the songs, "At the Water's Edge" (Labeh Aab):
In recent years Mamak has also begun composing traditional Persian music for poems written in English or in translation. In 2010 she performed my poem (written in English,) “I Am Neda,” at the Billy Wilder Theater for an event sponsored by PEN USA and the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. Two years later, in her album Widow to Color, Mamak sang Sepehri’s poem “Az Sabz Be Sabz” (Green to Green) in translation. It’s enchanting to hear the English words dance between Persian melodies.
Here is a portion of “Green to Green,” along with its translation. I wish I could play the entire song here, but if you are interested, download it from iTunes. Better yet, get the album. It comes with an insert with all the translations.
From Green to Green
(by Sohrab Sepehri, Translated by Sholeh Wolpé)
I, in this darkness
wish for a luminous lamb
to come, to graze
on the grass of my weariness.
I, in this darkness
see my outstretched arms
wet beneath this rain
that once drenched
the first prayers of man.
I, in this darkness
to ancient meadows,
to golden images we watched
on mythical walls.
I, in this darkness
saw the roots
the meaning of water
to death’s new sapling.
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
Alice Quinn, in all her ebullience, “Bob, this is Eve. Eve Grubin. She’s David Grubin’s daughter! She’s a poet.” This in the sunny, energized Poetry Society of America offices—what a great meeting. Eve was a young poet with a new job. Her dad, a renowned PBS producer/director, had just created “The Language of Life: A Festival of Poets” hosted by Bill Moyers and shot at the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival. My own PBS series, “The United States of Poetry,” had been broadcast at the same time. There’s so little contact between poetry and television—seemed like David and I were the only people in the universe uniting these two opposites. But plenty of people thought David and I represented two different camps of poetry – academic and street/spoken word. But David had had me be in his film and – oh, this was so marvelously complicated! But it was terrific meeting Evie that day at PSA, thinking of David also as a father, like I was with my daughters. And now we could say hello at parties! Who knew where this might lead?
The story begins The Poem’s new forms in the dawning of the Era of Digital Consciousness. In the beginning, (1980?), I knew television to be the Enemy. TV was why nobody was coming to my readings! They were all at home in front of the Cyclops in the Corner. But then, by luck and friends and a certain proclivity, I had the opportunity to get poetry on television—on WNYC-TV, before Giuliani sold it and it became NY1. For the six years that I produced “Poetry Spots,” television became just another way to transmit the poem. Funny what a little power will do.
I’d learned from Walter Ong that Orality is not a precursor to writing, but a separate and equivalent consciousness. This factoid changed my life. Television became just another platform for poetry to make nothing happen. For tens of thousands of years poetry was solely an oral art. Then came writing, famously followed by print. Now we have digital: film/video/internet. The medium of transmission may change, but the poem is always The Poem.
This interest in Orality is what led me to my fieldwork in Africa, searching for the roots of hip-hop. And I knew that if I were to make this expedition right, led by my guide, mentor and friend, Alhaji Papa Susso, I’d need a couple of cameras and a soundman. Luckily, this kind of realistic insanity is shared by my good buddy, Ram Devineni, who produced these explorations of oral traditions into a three-part series on LinkTV. As soon as we had DVDs of the imaginatively-titled “On the Road with Bob Holman: Africa and Israel,” I immediately sent one to my PBS doppelgänger, David Grubin. It had been 20 years since PBS did poetry.
And so it was that we found ourselves at a pleasant boite on the Bowery, discussing poetry over lunch. David liked “On the Road”! Well, I said, I think of myself as a poet in my documentaries. It was great to talk with a real documentary filmmaker, and heartening that he liked my work. Maybe I got a little nudgey when I asked David if there was anything he could do to help me with this project, and he replied, What do you have in mind? Why don’t we do a project together, I subtly suggested, With you as producer and director? And to my utter astonishment, David replied, Well, let’s see if we can get the money.
It may sound like a line out of Hollywood, but I didn’t notice. If anyone knows the production of an educational documentary from soup to nuts it’s David Grubin and his a fistful of Emmys. He said he’d try the National Endowment for the Humanities first, they had funded him in the past. When I went to the NEH website to check out the grant form, I couldn’t believe that their application model was for “The Buddha,” Grubin’s award-winning documentary. (“The Buddha”, by the way, has over 700,000 likes on Facebook now). This might happen!
And it did.
Here’s our secret. David is totally committed to poetry, as is his wife, the artist Joan Grubin. They read poems to each other every morning, and David’s memorized quite a number. He and I have a great time talking over everyone from Stanley Kunitz to Sekou Sundiata, and the synthesis of our sensibilities—I still remember the way that I was attacked by some people from the Dodge Foundation, “You can’t make a poetry film in MTV bursts, with no narrator!”—was really played out in our quest to use poetry as the engine to bring the world’s attention to the language crisis—half the languages on the planet will disappear this century.
I suggested we make the film in Africa, where Orality is a way of life. Africa is where poets, griots, have a real role in society—and they get paid, too. We could start off in the Kalahari, I said, and listen to Koisan, the “click” languages—they have over 140 phonemes (sounds), the most in the world. Listening to a Koisan speaker is like listening to a jug band in the mouth. And of course there’s the incredible griot traditions of West Africa, where I had previously spent so much time learning, straight from the origins, of African American musical traditions, the birthplace of the blues, jazz, hip-hop. David listened. We need an argument,” he said. We need to tell the story of how languages become endangered, and why that’s important. What do we lose when we lose a language?
Finally, after a lot of nudging on his part, I got it. How about we have a language that’s dying, say, a last speaker. and a language in the struggle of revivification, and close with a success story, actually the only success story (outside of the special case that is Hebrew) -- Welsh, the only language to have come of the endangered list.
And that was it. That’s what we did, and that’s how Language Matters came to be. The money came through from the National Endowment for the Humanities (thank you so, NEH!) and also some from (LINK) Pacific Islanders in Communication (mahalo!). The show will be broadcast this week in most parts of the US, but you’ll have to check your own listings to find out exactly when, and in some places, like Minneapolis, it won’t broadcast until April. Please check with your local stations. My sister Amy lobbied the affiliate in Richmond, VA, and now we’ll be seen there. Thanks, Amy.
One little anecdote for the road. We knew we had to have Wales, and when we met linguist Nick Evans we saw the camera-ready qualities of North Arnhemland, Australia. But for the “language in transition section,” I really thought we should head to Greenland, where some linguists are working in tandem with the population, leading the writing of poems in Greenlandic about walrus hunting and seal fat while actually engaging in the hunts—what could be better?
But Bob, David replied, W.S. Merwin is in Hawaii. He’s studied the language, and planted endangered species of palms that would make a great physical analogy. And the story of the punana leo, the language nests where children speak only Hawaiian…I just stared at him. Ok Bob, David said. You go buy the parkas. I’ll get the bikinis.
On the westernmost ledge of Europe near Slea Head in the Kingdom of Kerry, huts of corbelled stone cluster by the Atlantic. Clocháns, they are called, quarried from native rock and hefted into place a thousand years ago, though a thousand years means little to these sea-sprayed fields. If not for the hand-printed sign advertising, “Dunbeg Stone Fort—Beehive Huts Ahead,” I might have trundled past, having my hands full keeping my rental from careening into gorgeous oblivion. I unfold my Yankee length from the sedan and rattle the chain until a pensioner in burdocked overalls shambles down the path to unlock the gate and collect the two Euro admission. As we climb gorse hillocks he keeps up a hum of badinage about Skellig Michael and the Book of the Dun Cow; Kevin and Colmcille and the Blind O’Driscolls, as if raillery could coax them back to life.
“Where’s home?” he asks; then mulls “Ohio” knowingly, as if to seal the secret. At the crest of a mound, he stiffens a finger at the dense, silent city of beehive huts.
They are eight flint humps rising from packed clay. I circle them, then lean against the largest, patting its warty flank. Somehow, with no moldings or wood supports, the makers have executed a mousehole-shaped doorway. I peer into the thigh-high portal, then bend deeper to enter the dark. Inside, moss and clay close in. As my eyes adjust, flecks of daylight pierce the unmortared stone.
Re-emerging into light that now seems brilliant, I wonder who lived here. I don’t know much about 8th century architecture, but it’s clear that more commodious hovels could have been dug, even out of straw. And there was wood here once, before the forests were cleared.
“Twas the poets,” crows our host, with a look that seems to mock an age that mistakes height for stature.
As he expounds on the annals of this desolate place, rhapsodizing about bards who memorized thousands of lines and fili who encoded the esoteric ‘rosc’ poetry—“the like of which wasn’t heard again until that Joyce fella”—it dawns on me that these were early MFA’s. Our guide doesn’t know the exact requirements, but the curriculum, he says, took between twelve and twenty years to complete, depending on the degree. There were brehons, a class of poet-lawyers who could splice royal lineages as far back as Finn MacCumhal, and monks who cribbed a hunk of western civ on moldy vellum. Behind the monks lurked the specter of druids, whose secret examinations were so perilous that only one in three survived.
Well, between the ritual deaths and the frigid dorms, the registrar wouldn’t have been too busy.
It’s commonplace to say that MFA programs produce too many writers. Asked if writing programs didn’t wind up discouraging young writers, Flannery O’Connor famously replied, “not nearly enough.” But it seems an odd complaint. After all, what’s wrong with breeding talent? Ancient cultures set aside resources for artistic training; why shouldn’t we? And while we’re at it, why not pipe in some heat and cut a skylight?
Over the last half-century, MFA programs have allowed generations of students from diverse backgrounds to cultivate their gifts. Even if most of our graduates don’t wind up on Oprah, they will have experienced an apprenticeship in a mind-broadening field; they will have learned principles of form and nuance that translate into many occupations, and they will have plumbed their potential for self and world-awareness. At the very least, they will have become better readers.
Thus preaches my committee in Ohio and thus have we held during the long years shaping a new consortial MFA program: a cluster of four state universities, each encrusted with a bureaucracy as hermetic as these huts. Appealing for the benediction of the Board of Regents, we spaded proposals, chiseled curricula, and spread spread-sheets over roundtables like fresh straw. The campaign took as long as it once took to certify a bard.
One document we had no trouble composing was the Needs Statement. Having viewed the dizzy graphs, we knew that there’d be plenty of applicants. In Northeast Ohio, just as across the country, the workshops are filling up.
We had a bit more of a problem when it came to explaining what we thought all these students would do when they graduate. They could teach, of course; and we put that down right away. Numero Uno. But a glance at current classes—one prof for fifteen students—revealed that none but a few would achieve this august goal. PhD’s are in the same boat: they survive at about the same rate as wannabe druids. What fraction of our grads climbs on the tenure track? The graphs didn’t say.
Without certification they can’t teach in public high schools, but they might hook up with Poets in the Schools programs, or join the swelling army of adjuncts, or coach soccer at prep school. But even jury-rigged, the ark leaked. So we needed another plank. And we found one:
While the MFA is not a vocational degree, creative writing and publishing constitute a large enterprise that requires new talent…. Major companies in Northeast Ohio depend on a supply of skilled writers and editors. The internship collaboration with local communities, as well as the teaching experience available to MFA teaching assistants, will equip our graduates to enter new and expanding writing fields.
Fair enough. The world needs editors, technical writers, advertisers; and the MFA degree is an ideal preparation for all sorts of writing, just as the committee claims. But today, with the whitecaps mounting coastal granite and the wind stinging the wildness into a wet squint, it all seems awfully tame. I think of a tenth century poem scrawled in the margins of his calligraphy by a monk in a stone settlement just like this one.
The sea is wild tonight.
No need to fear
that Viking hoards will come
and terrify me.
Do I envy that ancient poet scanning the Atlantic through a chink in his beehive hut? He faced no committees, no boards. No need to justify his scarecrow muse. But I don’t yearn to take his place. I’d miss the food and company and light and warmth, and those Vikings sound more dangerous than a provost.
Yet today I could almost yield to the conceit that even in Ohio we live on the edge of a great ocean, peering into the mist, the way these ancient hut dwellers peered out. The sea is not the Atlantic with its terrifying ships, and our universities are far from beehive huts. They are capacious, starbucked, crackling with Wi-Fi. In fact, they seem more like great longships themselves, raiding coasts the Vikings never dreamt of.
And what, to stretch this metaphor, do they raid? Why do these splendid vessels terrify?
Drenched and stiff-limbed, I think with tenderness of the rolling seas of Ohio. I’m proud of the work that my colleagues and I did conceiving, planning and implementing the NEOMFA program. From four separate entities we made a web. We forged bonds among our faculties and paved the way for a program with a virtual campus encompassing hundreds of square miles. We fostered a community that crisscrosses the rust belt. We’ve even laughed about getting a school bus. Still, I feel uneasy. I can’t speak for my colleagues, but in all our meetings I never felt truly at home. I never wrote or spoke in my own language, never thought about the wayward accidents that had nourished my own writing life or how to bring them to bear on younger lives. Not that I want to calligraphy our proposal on parchment, or chant it in rosc, or storm the Regents, proclaiming like Cuchulain, “I give no more proof than the hawk gives that he’s no dove.” But as I recall our solid, serviceable, and successful proposal, with its headings and sub-headings and graphs and samples, I wish that somewhere in the margin I had doodled, “the sea is wild tonight/ No need to fear…”
What I feared then was abandonment. If we didn’t sell our program in terms administrators approved, we would not be allowed a seat on the great ship. What I fear now, after we’ve been ushered on board, is that in composing a plan shaped by the university’s priorities, we tainted something essential at the core of creativity. It might be something felt only in the dark, when even the chinks of light fade.
I fear, even more than slashed budgets and fainting enrollment, being absorbed by a culture that tolerates but does not sustain us. I fear that in defining ourselves in foreign terms like ‘accountability,’ ‘progress,’ and ‘utility,’ we forsake the place where we are most useful, accountable to the voices that speak through us from the past. I fear that in gaining a chair at the amply-set table, we lose our way back to a grave darkness that, once extinguished, may be beyond recovery.
How would such a self-fulfilling proposal look? What would I change, after a pilgrimage to these ancestral MFA’s? It’s tempting to say I’d fling the doors open to artists and performers and visionaries and yes, even lawyers—if they were bold enough to enter a world without codicils. I’d ask students to choose an authentic art using the tools most native: sound, memory, insight, or vision. Writing is not the only way to find this place; it’s just a technology, and should not rule by fetishistic power. Of course we’d have no poetry majors, fiction majors, creative non-fiction majors, translation majors, or playwriting majors. Erase the boundaries. Instead of huddling them into genres, let specialties emerge and entwine out of immersion in all. Modern descendants of early MFA’s should know that they have more in common with the motley inhabitants of this silent city than with people who make advertisements or briefs or newspapers—or university proposals. Open the workshops. But close the craft & theory courses: veil the mysteries from all but initiates. For internships let’s have real ships. Require penniless travel and field work in pastures instead of offices. Teach work that pays the rent, engages hand and mind and frees us from selling genius to a market which twists talent to its own ends. Give credit to poems that bring rain—or in this climate, stop it. Credit for stories that sift into the underworld. Credit for not writing sequels. Graduation comes at the point of exhaustion or death or a re-entry into selfhood that bears the world inside. Yes, it’s tempting, in the slanting rain as I trudge back to my car from a hillock near Slea Head, to revise our MFA proposal. But I don’t want these changes, except in dreams where Ohio is a stormy coast. With my colleagues at home, I stand by the words we wrote.
But I want a larger space for such dreams. Or should I say—after squeezing into a beehive hut—a more intense space, so real and present that it might tint the fluorescent light of a committee room or throb in the engine of an old beater bearing a student across the whaleroad of Northeast Ohio. Let this small dark space remind us who we are, where we come from, and what, if we fail to dream, we might become.
(from By Heart: Reflections of a Rust Belt Bard University of Tennessee Press)
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!
The attacks of September 11th were very difficult for me as they were for many people. It was the last year of my MFA program. In addition to teaching and flying, I was finishing my thesis which was a book length collection of poetry about a flight attendant named Kimberlie.
I was surprised some flight attendants were able to work right away. I was afraid there were going to be more attacks. I took an unpaid week off which the airline allowed us to do without a problem. After a week, I had to go back to work. I was scared and grieving but broke. In the briefing I had with the two other flight attendants prior to our trip, I told them I was scared and it was my first trip back. One of the other young women said, “I’m scared too, it’s my first trip too. My mom is coming on all our flights with us.” Her mom could pass ride space available for free as part of our employee benefits and it wasn’t a problem getting on any of the flights because they were all practically empty. In spite of what anyone may think, I fully admit I was so glad to have a mom there watching over us. The other young woman working with us didn’t seem frightened at all. Her husband was a high school history teacher and the attacks caused him to change his entire course to 9/11 backstory. For the first time in his teaching career, his students were enthralled.
Of course, flying and finishing assignments and my thesis, 9/11 entered the poems. The fear I felt. The images I saw. Very shortly after 9/11, I went to the Hong Kong Ladies’ Night Market where a vendor was selling t-shirts with screened images of the Twin Towers burning right before they collapsed. The shirts were hanging outside his booth, high on display. He saw me looking at them with shock and disgust and he looked at me indignantly as if to say, “That’s right.”
I had scheduled for Eileen Tabios to be the Guest Author in the class I was teaching. She spoke to the class about the difficulty of finding language immediately after a tragedy occurs. Grappling with language myself, all I could see was the image of the dust settling and feel a sense of quiet dislocation. Images without sound. It became the final poem of the collection.
On the first visit to the Beinecke Library, I spent the few days I had in a rush of disorganized search rather than methodical research after I came across the headed paper that showed that my father had been to Springfield in the mid to late seventies.
The arrangement of material in boxes and folders was confusing to someone totally inexpert at research, and I moved between documents from the early years of the century -- a legal arrangement (see right)between Robert Emmett, my grandfather, and his mother Nora Linane Fitzgerald, dated June 2nd 1908 that struck me as strange, a death certificate for my grandmother Anne Stuart that I didn’t notice at the time was not an original, but a document reissued on June 15, 1944 (above) the announcement in the Albany Argos that Anne, an actress with the F.F. Proctor Stock Theatre Company, trained in the Sargent Dramatic School, was leaving for Springfield, Illinois to marry Robert Emmett Fitzgerald (Image 8). A little later I was peering into a photograph of my youngest sister on her First Communion Day, in the garden of the large house outside Perugia and below the village of San Fortunato that my parents bought in 1961; then a clipping from an Italian newspaper dated 1971 about my twenty-two-year-old brother as a salesman of water beds, and then a photograph of my mother and three of my siblings as young adults in the attic studio where my father had labored on his translation of The Iliad for the six months that he was not teaching at Harvard every year during the sixties, quickly followed by the original marriage certificate between my father and mother from April 19, 1947.
It was all a jumble of disconnected fragments that merely added to my disorientation and fascinated confusion, until I came across notes from my grandfather to his children about their dead mother.
“Boys: Robert and Monty. This I think was a letter written to your mother at a time that I was very seriously ill (June before going to the Chicago Hospital) and was to be opened by her if anything happened to me. Anne never opened it.”
I loved the touch of rhetorical hesitation in that ‘I think’ and even more the gesture in the final sentence, ‘Anne never opened it’, containing as it does the dramatic irony that not only did his beloved wife never have to read something from him after he died, but that instead she was the one to die before him. And although the undated scrap of paper was there in the folder, there was no actual letter: what happened to it? Did my father ever read it? Perhaps it was somewhere else in the archive, stored in another box, another folder.
From the letter to an insurance company found in the attic of the Reisch building that had housed the Fitzgerald legal practice, I now knew previously unknown details of the accident Robert Emmett had had in 1904:
“During the summer of 1904 I was an actor spending the summer season in New York City. In early July or August of that year I was injured while a passenger on a Sixth Ave. Surface car...
The injury was slight and beyond a little stiffness for a day or so I paid no attention to it. During the autumn of that year while playing in New York my back began to give me some little trouble. I first noticed a stiffness when stooping over to wash and things of that character.
Gradually I became worse until I had to stop work, along during December…. I suffered intense pain and gradually my condition became intolerable…
During April or May of that year I returned to Springfield, Ill., which was my home.
I did not get any better and in July a small swelling appeared over my left hip. I then sent for Dr. John Ridlon, a specialist in the Chicago Savings Bank Bld., Chicago, Ill., who examined me and upon examination said that I had Tuberculosis of the Sacro Iliac joint, due he believed to the injury I received in New York and he ordered me to remain in bed until nature had altered the condition.”
Despite the intolerable pain, despite the fact that Robert Emmett was forced back home by illness just as he was establishing himself as an actor, despite the doctor’s prescription of bed rest, he and Anne Montague Stuart were married on September 12, 1905, as a second scrap of paper to his sons testifies:
“To Robert Stuart Fitzgerald and(?) Bernard Montague Fitzgerald
This is a marriage certificate of your Mother and Father. The dried flowers were used by Father Hickey to sprinkle Holy Water when he blessed us. We were married in a tent under a big maple tree on the south side of the house 1202 South 7th Street Springfield. I was ill in bed at the time.”
These scrappy notes confirmed my romantic sense of my grandparents’ relationship: Anne had chosen to marry a bedridden man. A man whom she had to nurse. A man with whom she did not get pregnant for over four years. A chaste and virginal marriage for all that time? Or perhaps the marriage bed was an engagement in awkward love-making that would not cause more pain to the tubercular sacro iliac joint, and the careful avoidance of a pregnancy.
Robert Emmett described his condition for the next three years in the letter to the insurance company:
“I remained in Springfield, in bed for a period of three years until the summer of 1908, then I went to Chicago to the North Chicago hospital as a patient of Dr. Emil G. Beck with Dr. Ridlon as a consulting specialist. Dr Beck had been lately advocating the injection of Bismeth paste in certain sinuses. He performed a slight operation, merely a puncture where fluctuations indicated the presence of puss and gave me several injections of his paste.
The soreness and tenderness around the hip and the joint infected, gradually left me. I was put into a plaster case and in October was able to leave the hospital in crutches. During the time that I was sick in Springfield and in the hospital I ran a temperature of 99 to 101 degrees with an occasional jump to 102. I suffered a great pain at any movements of my left leg.
After I left the Chicago Hospital in 1908 I recovered rapidly, but the illness left me with my left leg about one inch shorter than the other, and left the leg much thinner than the other one. I have since walked with crutches, tho I am able and do discard them in the house and in the office.”
In the essay “Light From The Bay Window” published in The New Yorker on December 1978 and included in The Third Kind of Knowledge, my father wrote:
“Poking around in my grandmother’s room one day I found in the big drawer of her writing desk a letter to her in my mother’s fine swift angular hand. The date must have been early in 1905, because in this letter my mother formally declared her attachment to my father and her wish to marry him. ‘I cannot live without Bob,’ said one of the sentences, and the force of that grownup passion startled and awed me.”
How could the body of this woman who had expressed such passion for this man, who had agreed to commit her life to him, be taken away from him in death and carted across the country to a plot in Albany?
As I drove away from New Haven at the end of the few days I was able to spend at the archives, up towards Rhode Island where my father is buried at Swan’s Point, I imagined the maple tree under which my grandparents were married.
Most of the leaves of the maple are still green, but the green is faintly filigreed with gold and ruby. The sun is still hot, and the katydids hum. I imagine my young grandfather as he is in the undated photographs of him lying in an iron framed bed. The bed has been wheeled out to the tree, and the young man can see the play of light through the leaves, and the play of light and leaves over the face of his bride when he turns to her during the shortened ceremony that does not include a Mass, but does include a blessing with the Holy Water sprinkled from the shaken flower Robert Emmett will be so careful to keep. His bride stands on the right beside the bed so that he does not have to move and increase the pain to his left leg. Robert’s mother Nora and his brothers, Arthur, Edward and James, as well as his sister Marie are there. Surely the bride’s parents are also there. Surely her sister Agnes is there.
I had to return to the Beinecke and search through the boxes for further revealing scraps of paper. I had to find a way to visit St.Agnes, the cemetery in Albany where my grandmother was buried, and look for clues among the tombstones that could explain why her remains were taken away from the young man whom she’d been nurse to before she could be wife, whom she had tended before she could tend to their child. Why was it that the cemetery in Albany had a stone bearing her name and her dates, May 5, 1878 – March 24, 1913, rather than the cemetery in Springfield?
Brian Turner’s latest book is My Life As a Foreign Country: A Memoir published by Jonathan Cape/Random House UK (June 2014) and in the U.S. by W.W. Norton & Co. (September 2014). His two collections of poetry are Here, Bullet (Alice James Books, 2005; Bloodaxe Books, 2007) and Phantom Noise (Alice James Books, 2010; Bloodaxe Books, 2010) which was short-listed for the T.S. Eliot Prize in England. His poems have been published and translated in Arabic, Chinese, Dutch, French, German, Hebrew, Italian, Polish, Serbo-Croatian, Spanish, and Swedish.
His poetry and essays have been published in The New York Times, National Geographic, Poetry Daily, The Georgia Review, Virginia Quarterly Review and other journals. Turner was featured in the documentary film Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience. He received a USA Hillcrest Fellowship in Literature, an NEA Literature Fellowship in Poetry, the Amy Lowell Traveling Fellowship, a US-Japan Friendship Commission Fellowship, the Poets’ Prize, and a Fellowship from the Lannan Foundation.
Turner earned an MFA from the University of Oregon before serving for seven years in the US Army. He was an infantry team leader for a year in Iraq with the 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division. Prior to that, he deployed to Bosnia-Herzegovina with the 10th Mountain Division (1999-2000).
Kelle Groom: Brian, your stunning memoir, My Life as a Foreign Country, will be published by W.W. Norton next month. Tim O’Brien wrote of its brilliance, “It surely ranks with the best war memoirs I've ever encountered—a humane, heartbreaking, and expertly crafted work of literature.” As a poet and author of two critically acclaimed poetry collections chronicling the experience of war, what drew you to write a war memoir?
Brian Turner: I didn’t initially set out to write a memoir. A few years ago, in early 2009, I was awarded an Amy Lowell Traveling Fellowship—a truly astonishing opportunity to travel anywhere in the world, for an entire year. I’d written several short pieces for Peter Catapano (for “Home Fires” at the New York Times) and then, as I traveled under the Amy Lowell Fellowship, I began trying my hand at a series of haibun—a traditional Japanese travelogue. Of course, I ended up mangling the form and I’ve yet to figure out how to fully inhabit an English-language version of the haibun form. That experimentation led me to an approach to the essay that was far more fragmented than work I’d done in earlier essays. I was beginning to learn how to trust the jump cut, the bright turn from one thought to another—as well as the reader’s ability to cross the wide synapses between disparate fragments.
I was excited by the short pieces I’d written, and that enthusiasm evolved into a much larger, uncharted essay I began to write while traveling from one country to another. Looking back, I can see how that meditation grew in fragments, one country at a time, as I boarded a train or stowed my gear on a ferry. Once I’d reached about ninety pages of material, it was edited down to a much tighter, leaner piece of writing. The Virginia Quarterly Review published that now twenty-two page essay (“My Life as a Foreign Country”) and I knew a book had announced itself.
Part of what I enjoy about the essay, as a form, is that I feel as though I can explore the wide canvas of the page, and, by extension, even more of the tertiary and dimly-lit pathways of the imagination.
Kelle Groom: My Life as A Foreign Country is comprised of 136 chapters (and two short bookend pieces). Did you always see it organized as over a hundred short chapters? How did your work as a poet influence the structure? When you first began writing the memoir, how and where did you start?
Brian Turner: Once I had the first chapter, I dove in headlong and committed myself to seeing this book through to its last page. The first chapter (which no longer fully exists in that form) braided several narrative and lyric threads together, fragment by fragment, in a style that depended upon successive accumulation of revelation. I challenged myself to create a different stylistic approach in each chapter of the overall book while simultaneously developing the initial threads to a greater and greater complexity throughout. One early reader said, upon completing the book, that each chapter had a kind of internal culture that the reader needed to adapt to and learn. For example, I wrote one chapter as a 3-act play and another as a semi-linked series of haibun.
I’m grateful for the early readers and writers who sat with the book at this stage and shared their thoughts on how the work might mature. By this point, I was working with Alex Bowler at Jonathan Cape. Alex is brilliant and he rolled up his sleeves to dive into the bizarre creature I’d placed before him. We disassembled the entire book, piling like items/events/meditations together to regroup the internally braided threads by type. The book was then reordered in something close to what it is now (though that effort would take many more drafts to accomplish). The one image that I held in mind, from first draft to the last, was something I called a 21st century rain. Even from the beginning, I had a vague sense of some cascading visual hallucination, something beautiful and terrible all at once, that would appear near the end of the book. I didn’t know what it was, but I had a sense of it.
Kelle Groom: Why was it important for you to find parallels in the history of war?
Brian Turner: The movement of the mind through an extended meditation, as in the essay, can allow us to witness some of the connections binding our own internal wiring together. It can help us to see how the year 1862 or 1924 or 1965 might speak to the year 2003. In the vocabulary of the poet, we’d say that parallels work in ways similar to a rhyme scheme. This begs the question—what can be learned from the echoes, or repetition, of sound? In the case of war, perhaps when we begin to recognize generational parallels we are actually beginning to chart a kind of pathological inheritance, one handed down from generation to generation, often from incredible people, people we might revere and whose character we might deeply wish to emulate, people we love. This is certainly true in my case.
Kelle Groom: Your memoir is stunningly imagistic. How did you work to create such powerfully visual/visceral scenes? Did you rely on memory? Photographs?
Brian Turner: A wide range of research went into the writing of this book—from calling up old friends and creating a series of email conversations with family members (most in California, with some as far as Perth, Australia) to the study of historical books, books on flora and fauna, photographs, old journals, and much more. Some research cast light on language, offering tones and textures for a descriptive passage, for example. Some research, promising at first, left me retracing my steps out of dead end streets.
Of course, I did my best to inhabit the moments under construction on the page. Memory is the faulty guide for much of it, but I tried to accept the blurry edges and missing portions the way, perhaps, the term wabi sabi is sometimes used in conversations on aesthetics.
When we stand before ancient ruins and experience a sense of breath-taking beauty, our minds clearing away the debris and reconstructing the invisible to its former glory, isn’t there also a doubling that takes place which intensifies the experience, offering the sublime? In moments like these, we hold two contraries together in the same moment—the resplendent past coming alive within the ruins whose beauty is also inescapable. They are one and the same. We are witness to both the compression and expansion of time itself. And, here’s what intrigues me even more: the entire process is analogous to writing and the act of memory. We build and rebuild the invisible with language, while living within the ruins of our own lives.
Kelle Groom: How do you write about terror and the unspeakable grief of war? In his introduction to Best American Poetry 1991, Mark Strand wrote of his father reading his first book of poems: “The ones that mean most are those that speak for his sense of loss following my mother’s death. They seem to tell him what he knows but cannot say.” This ability to tell us what we cannot say, is what matters most to me in poetry. I understand, in particular, the importance of form when writing of violence and grief. Can you talk about how poetry works in/enters your memoir? What did poetry offer you?
Brian Turner: From the time I was a small boy, I loved to read books on history. In fact, before I wanted to grow up and become a major league baseball player, I wanted to be an historian (at about seven or eight years old). Still, one of my problems with history mirrors some of the issues I have with memory—most of history is a vast and overwhelming vault of the unrecorded, the lost, the excised, the deliberately omitted.
Historical accounts, films on war, war stories—they are often composed of streamlined narratives that follow a fairly traditional arc. I didn’t find that steady narrative in my own experience of a combat zone. I experienced something much more fragmented and lacking in cohesion. The art of collage, a kind of pointillism of experience—this was the form that I thought might help me explore the questions I had before me as I sat down with an empty notebook, pen in hand. Great meaning can be culled from the silences between things, as well as the things themselves. Invisible threads tie one fragment to another. What are the threads, and what can we learn from them? I believe this is part of the reader’s work, part of the joy of listening deeply to a book… Poets converse with silence, as much as they do with language.
Kelle Groom: Would you talk about the importance of empathy in My Life as a Foreign Country? I’m struck over and over by the urgency to see through the eyes of Iraqi citizens and soldiers.
Brian Turner: First, I’ve struggled with the ethics involved in attempting to inhabit another’s experiences and to ‘write them down’ as I imagine those experiences to be. At the same time, I’m trying to shape the meditation in a way that includes the cares and wonders and concerns I have for the world. I’m hoping any potential reader will grant and recognize that these are my attempts to widen the lenses available to the world of this particular memoir. And this process is something I’ve done all of my life. The old clichés remain valid—we can better understand our lives and the world we live in when we imagine ourselves in someone else’s shoes, when we try to understand where someone is coming from…
It’s more than that, though. At a much more human level, my heart was not a closed room, one shut off from the lives of those around me. And around me, in Iraq, millions suffered and struggled (and still do). And for those who might want to kill me? How could I not recognize their humanity? How could I not also recognize that many of their possible reasons for doing so were sound? All of this has only amplified over time, rather than diminishing.
Kelle Groom: Of your memoir, Nick Flynn wrote, “One question echoes through these pages. How does someone leave a war behind and walk into the rest of their life?” Is this answerable?
Brian Turner: My hope is that the last few pages of the book might prove useful in considering these questions.
Kelle Groom: One of the most powerful sections of your memoir begins:
“The soldiers enter the house, the soldiers enter the house.
Soldiers, determined and bored and crackling with adrenaline, enter the house with shouting and curses and muzzle flash, DET cord and 5.56 mm ball ammunition. The soldiers enter the house with pixelated camouflage, flex-cuffs, chem lights, door markings, duct tape. The soldiers enter the house with ghillie suits and M24 sniper rifles, phoenix beacons and night vision goggles, lasers invisible to the naked eye, rotorblades, hellfire missiles, bandoliers strapped across their chests.”
Can you talk about the creation of this incantatory chapter?
Brian Turner: I was an infantry sergeant while in Iraq. I was also one of my platoon’s demolition guys. During the various missions my platoon took part in, we conducted so many raids that they blur and meld in my mind. They break into pieces, fragments, moments, voices, sounds, gestures, images. When I think of those raids, the fragments roll in like waves, one after another. In this sense, the form in this section is organic and it builds in intensity, just as my own body reacts to the gathering of memory.
The key to finding my way into this section, however, came from an unexpected and phenomenal source: Rick Moody. I saw him read his absolutely stunning story, “Boys” (from Demonology) during a visit he made to Lake Tahoe, where I direct the low-residency MFA in Creative Writing. The form he created with that story has incredible velocity; it’s a vehicle with great power. It’s a gift I’ve done my best to honor.
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.