Jordan Abel's 'Injun'
Note: above, a video of Jordan Abel giving a talk at Avant Canada: Artists, Prophets, Revolutionaries, a conference held at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario, November 4–6, 2014. Alex Porco’s response to Abel’s talk appears below.
Nisga’a poet Jordan Abel’s 2016 book of poetry, Injun, is a rhetorical analysis of “pulp propaganda” and a decolonizing application of the Tzara-Gysin “cut up.” Put another way, the book ostensibly asks: what if we sent Bernays rafting on the Nass River of Northern British Columbia to toss his Freudian guts out? “It will come to him as his own idea” — as in a dream.
Injun is a demonstration of what Ming-Qian Ma calls “counter-method” poetics, or the performance of “poetry as rereading.” Recent examples include Rachel Zolf’s Janey’s Arcadia (Coach House Books, 2014), Moez Surani’s Operations (BookThug, 2016), and Hugo García Manríquez’s Anti-Humboldt (Litmus Press, 2015). Abel rereads American westerns of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, with hokey titles like The Lure of the Dim Trails, Gunman’s Reckoning, Riders of the Silences, Two Boys in Wyoming: A Tale of Adventure, Desert Gold, and Sunset Pass; or, Running the Gauntlet through Apache Land. Abel’s book is a demonstration against the Rollo Martins of the world, a.k.a. Buck Dexter, author of The Lone Rider of Santa Fe. “In normal circumstances [Martins] is a cheerful fool.” He means well, producing sentimental fictions that shape public opinion about Indigenous peoples, about the landscape and property, and about settler history and violence.
Using Project Gutenberg’s digital library, Abel identified 509 uses of the slur “injun” in “91 public domain western novels with a length of just over ten thousand pages.” Next, he subjected the uses of the slur to chance-based cut ups: “Sometimes I would cut up a page into three- to five-word clusters. Sometimes I would cut up a page without looking. Sometimes I would rearrange the pieces until something sounded right. Sometimes I would just write down how the pieces fell together.”
His long poem’s arrangement becomes increasingly scattered. Abel’s visual prosody scissors against syllabic stress patterns: “si lvertip // b” or “bl o ody gor ge.” Eventually, letters are loosed entirely from semantic units, i.e., the word and line. Finally, even the directionality of the page is turned upside down. The mirrored guts of (my/our) English. Abel’s rereading moves rhythmically from symmetry to asymmetry.
Similarly, his vocal performance moves from mono to multichannel audio, generating an insipative force that serves as a counterpoint to the page’s increasingly dissipative and multidirectional visual prosody. Abel reads, records, and layers vocal tracks that overlay, interrupt, and dislocate the “place” of meaning. His mouth, teeth, and tongue are concealed beneath an outlaw’s bandana. This costuming serves two purposes. First, the bandana makes it impossible to fix the source of Abel’s voice(s) to his body. Like Nsiga’a Halayt, he summons the supernatural. Ghosts in the (colonial) machine of Logos. Second, he mocks the iconicity of a stock character type, i.e., the outlaw, in western pulp novels.
Abel’s long poem is also supplemented by a series of poems — “notes,” he calls them — that list the results of similar keyword searches of those same novels: words like “whitest,” “frontier,” “truth,” “gold,” “territory,” “money,” “scalped,” and “redskin.” Furthermore, in an appendix, Abel includes an erasure poem: every sentence that includes “injun” in each novel is collected into a prose assemblage; however, the slur is erased from the text, creating empty spaces to be reinhabited with alternative modes of representation. (They’re also spaces through which I, as a Canadian, confront my own complicity. Caesurae.)
“These novels,” says Abel, “put up a wall around how we could think about this particular time period, the settlement period. It’s very necessary to return to these kinds of narratives. I find the genre of westerns to be so frustrating. It’s a genre that is still being written … still romanticized.” Injun is his second attempt at engaging with the western. His previous collection, Un/Inhabited, examines contexts of use for the word “uninhabited.” As he explains in remarks made at the Avant Canada conference, Un/Inhabited imagines “public domain [texts] as an inhabitable body of land.”
(Dream vision: last night, I imagined that Abel concluded his trilogy with a Cage-inspired mesostic reading through his database. In the dream, he slips into a room, with a bayside view, at the Zane Grey Pueblo Hotel — now, in fact, closed — and switches out the dresser drawer’s copy of the Bible with his new book. The room’s guest: Daniel Snyder. The book’s title: Mr. Abel Goes to Washington.)
The injurious representational regime of the pulp western tacitly encouraged white North Americans to despise the Other — as much as they would eventually come to love bacon for breakfast and the “Howdy, partner” salute, with a canonical tip of the lip of a Stetson. “Injuns in a heap,” writes Abel, and, later, “injun s mu st hang.” In section l of his long poem, an italicized voice announces,
let’s play injun
and clean ourselves
off the land
same old gun handed business
Abel adduces a correspondence between the treatment of Indigenous people and other horrors of the twentieth century, that is, the holocaust and lynching (“same old”). He points to the myth of purity that’s disseminated via mass culture’s (so-called) benign entertainments and that authorizes violence as “play” in the settler’s imagination.
In other words, Jordan Abel ain’t (thankfully, finally) your Canadaddy’s “old stock” Duncan Campbell Scott.
1. Abel, qtd. in Chelsea Rooney, “Jordan Abel: Un/Inhabited,” Project Space, September 25, 2014.
8. At Avant Canada, Abel participated in the conference session titled “Unsettling Appropriations.” The title of his performance was “The Place of Scraps.” His fellow panelists included Rachel Zolf (“An Appropriative Poetics of Canadian Settler Discourse”), Christine Stewart (“Acting As If You Have No Relations: Žižek, Christianity, the Avant-garde, and Living on Turtle Island”), and Shane Rhodes (“X”). Susan Holbrook was the panel chair. The event took place on November 6, 2015, in the Studio Gallery of Brock University’s Rodman Hall Art Center.
On Christian Bök
Note: above, a video of Christian Bök giving a talk at Avant Canada: Artists, Prophets, Revolutionaries, a conference held at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario, November 4–6, 2014. Vanessa Place responds to Bök’s talk in the essay that follows.
Something like that. The point is that one should never defend oneself against one’s critics. One’s critics are always right. They may be knee-deep in it, but they are always right. Right, though, about what? I take no issue with Stephen Collis’s critique of Conceptualism, as I understand it via Christian Bök’s rejoinder, with which I also refuse to quarrel. But what, my darlings, are we quarreling for? Or over, or, better yet, around? It seems to me — which is a lovely feminine position to take — so insular, so subjective, and so easily dismissed, that there is a structural engagement at stake that is rather more than either Collis or Bök overtly bargains for. Because, like all card games, the big money is in the back. Bök is right, of course, that Conceptualism is famously thievish in a Robin Hood sort of way — and Collis is right, naturally, that there is a certain amount of personal frisson that accrues and is capitalized upon in this form of thieving. Our outfits are uniformly fabulous, the goods are there for the getting, and the dollops of personal celebrity sufficiently intoxicating/infuriating for everyone’s fun. But, again, my pets, never look at the right hand when the cards are being shuffled. What’s missed in this game is the questioning of its precepts: that dialectic is an apt description of the contemporary engagement, that there is an alternative Western political subject, or could be any aesthetic expression that could rightly trumpet itself from beyond the walls of its birthplace. Moreover, and more to the point (and we do so love a good sharp point), to assert a signification that is coincident with authorship is the very structure of all that prevails. In other words (another point of adoration, for what’s authorship if not a word count), to argue about this interpretation or that interpretation as being the better interpretation is a sucker’s game: the real money is in refusing to interpret. To be a lousy signifier, one that simply refuses to work properly, to hold the position of the one who knows or knows better, who fails to spin the sign just so you will think this or that or the other is far more unsettling to the contemporary mind than the business as usual of convincing this one or that one that there is this or that notion to be derived from the work or worker, like a wee ingot of meaning, and once we can easily reduce either work or worker to their proper Sein, we need do no more than trundle along, celebrating or condemning as we see fit. And we do see in fits, that much is for certain. For the proper move today is no longer dialectical but trilectical: we live lives that are as constituted in our fits of self-regard, which is always infused with the tisane of the social, and the social always mediated, and the mediation, always interlarded with the joie de suivre of current capital. And current capital capitalizes on the widget-one as the common unit of production and consumption. Put another way, social media trades on your tirades, on you representing yourself, or at least looking nice for the camera in your phone. Otherwise its advertisers cannot sell you stuff or sell your stuff to its advertisers. We happily participate in this, even and including excoriations of capitalism on social media; it then knows to pimp Verso books and Benjamin bifocals, or Esty knick-knackery and PETA promotions versus Tory tea cozies and tech stock pick primers. It does not particularly care, nor do I. I am happy to dress for the evening, to play and play along in my suspicion that interpretation is, like beauty, in the sockets of the beholder, that it will be, like history, written and rewritten to endless turns of edification and renunciation, and that no one will be forever the wiser, though we will all be sufficiently entertained. To my delight, the constant collaboration between those who know and those who know better plays itself out like an endless bad date or doomed romance, with the other sweetly hissing, “You see, I know you better than you know yourself.” To say that Conceptualism is politically noxious mistakes the smell of burning flesh for the flesh that is burning: but tell me again, my piglets, what I am supposed to think and how you would have me be. That will make all the difference that we can possibly stand. Which may be the promise of Conceptualism.
On Ron Silliman's monsters
Note: above, a video of Ron Silliman giving a talk at Avant Canada: Artists, Prophets, Revolutionaries, a conference held at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario, November 4–6, 2014. Erín Moure responds to Silliman’s talk in the essay that follows.
I’ve been asked to comment on Ron Silliman’s excellent talk “Your Monsters Are Our Monsters: The Problem of Borders and the Nearness of the American Avant-Garde.”
In Silliman’s “L-shaped talk,” the shape itself merits consideration. A small l is very singular, like 1, like I. A capital L, however, walks out of itself, first creates the singularity of 1, l, I: then walks away from it.
Who makes an L by drawing the second line toward the center? Who lifts their pen (a hegemony) to draw a line against itself? No, we draw the line continuously and it walks away from singularity.
Where is Silliman’s line walking? Away from the moment of his conversation into an “infinitely larger project,” which surpasses him and includes all poets, all borders, not effaced but ever present (verticalized at times with walls) and not describable (nor does he try) because the infinite is something that can’t be spoken without making it finite, because to speak of something you must be in some way positioned outside, and the infinite does not permit of such positioning.
Already eight hundred languages in NYC homes, and their cacophony sustains (only univocality topples). The irritability of borders and bordered beings everywhere creates not absence but resurged borders made of dead and injured beings, between Palestine and Israel, between Africa and Europe, Serbia and Hungary, the US and Mexico. If a country finds its definition by what it tries to keep out, it dooms itself, for languages infiltrate borders and thrive in homes, and humans cross thresholds regardless of the danger and this is poetry.
The issue is not whom we poets imitate inside the walls of English. It is not that of feeding one hand to the lion while tapping on a keyboard with the other. It’s to be migrant or a-drift, to acknowledge the migrant deaths that sustain our privilege on the planet, even the privilege of this very conversation.
The crux can still be located perhaps at the doorway of the house, not that of the nation, for individual decisions are involved, and individuals can drift over a threshold successfully — perhaps like Chus Pato writing a language descended from itself (“Old Portuguese” is Galician, for Galician is the root language of Portuguese), who speaks now in English (someone has translated her) — not effacing the borders either of the house, or of the inside/outside of the human person, that undividable, for if you divide an individual, it dies. It can only self-divide, a bit at a time, imperceptibly.
Inside, we are all of us blood and messy (#Iamschmuck); outside, marked by colors and impure. Inside the house, we remove our shoes so as not to bring the outside in, the colours and contaminations, the iterabilities, the people dying in order to be people dying (for the deaths of failed crossings are beyond reason). We who remove our shoes do so because our shoes are not pretty. They stink of feces and the ooze of plants.
As we sit in the house, fields outside are getting drier. Who will feed whom, who will listen to eight hundred languages at a time when species are dying out? The animals we think of as without language were never mute. And there is no way to listen to all languages; we can listen only to some and then listen to those who are listening to others. Outside, the seas are rising but we can’t live on seas (Drift, Zong!), and on terra firma today it’s drier. We are already the Vikings of Greenland, the Twelve Tribes of Easter Island or of Israel, and we see (sea) as readily (red) as ever, but time will not part waters for us.
Que podemos facer. Eu, xa, non teño resposta, nin fame para buscala. Son das persoas que achegan á morte e que morrerán antes do desastre. Miro xa ás nenas, aos nenos. Que van facer. En que idiomas? Ou xa pasou o tempo das palabras humanas …
What if we were to listen, particularly to the languages we suppressed? Listening means letting speakers learn to speak again and do their speaking to move perceptibly onward, not just to “overcome” the deaths and ruin. Here I point to indigeneity in the forms it will assume. I point to what could happen in the wake of the genocidal actions that were residential schools. This first. Without it, no poetry can matter.
Pouco me importa se ninguén me escoita. Para min, o mundo civilizado sempre fora unha miraxe. Son unha sucia en botas sucias. Credes que un día terei fame? Son unha infame.
Do you really believe that I would lift my pen and turn the line back to itself? Nor does that lion on the porch need to enter. When it feels a hunger in its rage and scrupulous othering, it will ravage its own arm.
Rachel Zolf's 'Janey’s Arcadia' in Winnipeg
Note: above, a video of Rachel Zolf giving a talk at Avant Canada: Artists, Prophets, Revolutionaries, a conference held at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario, November 4–6, 2014. Heather Milne responds to Zolf’s talk in the essay that follows.
Rachel Zolf’s poetry jolts readers from their comfort zone and into a contact zone where they encounter a poetics that is semantically “readable enough” but that conveys its urgency primarily on an affective level through shock, defamiliarization, and a poetics of glitchy error. What Zolf has called “mad affects” are experienced in readerly, textual encounters with her work. They also happen when the text moves off the page and into the realms of the aural, the visual, and the performative.
When Zolf reads aloud from Janey’s Arcadia, she reads the glitches; they come across as an embodiment of grief or repudiation made manifest in what sounds like sobbing or retching. These glitches carry traces of the trauma of colonial violence, as Zolf’s body becomes a conduit for the transference of affect.
She has made a short video translation of three poems from Janey’s Arcadia using pilfered National Film Board of Canada footage. She has orchestrated polyvocal actions in several cities in North America. These actions bring the poems from Janey’s Arcadia into the fraught space of the contemporary settler city. They become embodied, collaborative acts of resistance.
I participated in one of these polyvocal actions in November 2014 in Winnipeg, the city where the poems in Janey’s Arcadia take place. We met outside the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR), a controversial, newly built, government-run museum. The CMHR has refused to call Canada’s treatment of Indigenous people a genocide because it has not been officially recognized as such by the government. This was the same government whose leader at the time claimed that Canada has no history of colonialism and refused to call a government inquiry into the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women. The CMHR has been built where the Assiniboine River meets the Red River; it is an ancient gathering place for Indigenous peoples and now the site of the museum, a market and a hotel. Three months before we gathered, the body of fifteen-year-old Tina Fontaine had been found in a bag in the Red River a short distance downstream from the museum. That autumn, a group called Drag the Red had been searching the river for the bodies of missing women.
We assembled on this historically, spiritually, and ethically freighted site on a freezing cold day in November. With the imposing glass and tyndall stone structure of the CMHR towering over us, we performed our polyvocal action. We were acutely aware of the museum’s security cameras trained on us, but nobody asked us to leave. We were an alliance of writers, activists, artists, and academics. Some of us were settlers, wanting to “look into our own backyard” to grapple with the injustice of the settler-state in which we are complicit. Others in the group were Indigenous writers and activists engaged in a politics of decolonization.
The action began with a smudging ceremony and a prayer song led by Anishinaabe drummer Ko’ona Cochrane. We then stood in a circle facing away from one another and began the polyvocal part of the action. We read simultaneously; our words met and clashed in the cold November air. Zolf read the words of the white settler women from the poem “What Women Say of the Canadian North-West.” Ko’ona Cochrane read the names of missing and murdered Indigenous women who appear in the same poem, while Colin Smith read language from police reports related to the cases of missing and murdered women. Katherena Vermette read a Chrystos poem that she had modified to include references to Winnipeg. I read from “Vocabulary to Come,” a section of Janey’s Arcadia that Zolf composed using words lifted from the writings of fur trader and explorer Alexander Henry.
The polyvocal action felt like an invocation as well as an intervention that responded to the museum as an institution, the site on which it is built, the crisis of missing and murdered women, and the layered and violent colonial histories of Winnipeg and Canada. In the circulation of affects as discursive relations that happened in the context of this polyvocal action, I experienced what Zolf calls “ec-stasy” or shifting beside and beyond myself. It felt like a transmission of mad affects, a political and poetic contact zone, and a powerful actualization of a poetics of witness. It was a confirmation of the political and ethical stakes of Zolf’s approach to poetry and her ability to facilitate charged encounters that move her work powerfully from page to world.
On Jeff Derkson and Louis Cabri
Note: above, a video of Louis Cabri giving a talk, coauthored by Jeff Derksen, at Avant Canada: Artists, Prophets, Revolutionaries, a conference held at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario, November 4–6, 2014. Tyrus Miller responds to the talk in the essay that follows.
In “Immanence and Affect in Post-Avantgardism: Imagining the Social Subject,” Jeff Derksen and Louis Cabri argue that the contemporary social forms through which “the revolutionary imperative” (Neil Smith) expresses itself compel avant-garde poetry to rethink its historically inherited modes of address, formal organization, and function. Early in the twentieth century the avant-garde had tapped the effervescent energies of social revolution as the driver of aesthetic innovation, and returned back to the social world — in a whirlwind of new sounds, images, and words — its marvelous surplus of utopian impulses and ideals. But this virtuous circle of artistic avant-gardism and revolution was accompanied by its vicious shadow: the tempting convergence of the organization of aesthetic avant-gardism with the authoritarian forms of the revolutionary vanguard party and the consolidating revolutionary state, and the progressive narrowing in both of the aperture of freedom they had originally intended to open in the world. “The idea of an intellectual vanguard does not sit at all well in the poetry world of today,” note Derksen and Cabri. They go on to attribute this uneasy status to the cunning dialectic of the avant-garde I have sketched above, the undeniable imbrication within avant-garde expressions — in their organizational as well as formal characteristics — of emancipatory intentions with a compulsive mimicry of the gestures of political authority and domination.
They suggest breaking this self-manacling through a post-avant-gardist “spectral rescue” of avant-garde emancipatory poetics. They would reorient poetry that employs techniques from the historical avant-gardes — such as the homophonic translations of Vancouver-based poet Catriona Strang — away from the representation of received collective identities and towards the adumbration of new, fluctuating, emergent collective forms not readily subordinated to the powers of representative party and state. In particular, they look to “populism,” as formulated by the political theorist Ernesto Laclau, as possessing an organizational and signifying logic (“populist reason”) on the political plane that might be understood as homologous to the formal and rhetorical dimensions of contemporary post-avant-garde writing. Summarily, Laclau sees populism as a paradoxical generalization of heterogeneous demands that cannot be met by the reigning political and social system; though irreducible to a common “cause” or “last instance,” under particular circumstances these excluded demands can become loosely enchained to form a kind of ragged text that enunciates a “People,” its suffering and resistance, its defeats and victories. The “People,” however, is not so much a social subject whose saga expressively flows from its inner essence (for instance, a nation); nor even is it the epic tale of recapture of its alienated essence, the arduous adventure of relearning an inner truth long ago dispossessed by a hostile master (the Marxian working class coming to class consciousness). Rather, it appears as an experimental montage of discrepant social fragments that composes, willy-nilly, a serial text for which the “People” might eventually serve as its entitling caption. In turn, Derksen and Cabri speculatively venture, might we not allow avant-garde techniques of montage and linguistic experimentation to resonate with populist reason’s yoking of heterogeneous collective actions, meanings, agencies, and motivations, for a contemporary repurposing of the avant-garde’s historically deflected utopian politics?
I am sympathetic to this argument, and elsewhere, in a different context, I utilized Laclau’s “populist reason” to reframe Lukács’s antimodernist defense of realism in the novel. “Not only,” I argue, “for the realist novel, but also for a much vaster span of novels this logic of populism, this problem of constituting ‘the people,’ would be at stake. Lukács’s focus on the novel, including the realist novel, remains timely, insofar as the logic of populism increasingly defines the political and cultural horizon of our day. What is no longer timely, however, is his exclusive valorization of realism in the articulation of populist reason.” Derksen and Cabri boldly extend this argument, going well beyond the modernist and postmodernist montage narrative I had in mind, into the far reaches of avant-gardistic “shiftology,” zaum, and linguistic reconstellation. Yet their argument does not just provide an interpretive frame for contemporary post–avant-garde practices, despite their manifest concern with the ways in which revolutionary politics might be remade under the pressures of globalization, neoliberalism, and planetary technologies of computation and communication. It also performs, implicitly, a “spectral rescue” on the avant-garde of the past, allowing us to read in it, in shades, the not-yet of our particular community to come:
Whorlen of the worldwide will,
the otheren of graygrow time,
stillfallen blanketing the field —
the selven that are names of mine.
1. Tyrus Miller, ed. and trans., “Editor’s Introduction: The Phantom of Liberty: György Lukács and the Culture of ‘People’s Democracy,’” in The Culture of People’s Democracy: Hungarian Essays on Literature, Art, and Democratic Transition, 1945–1948 (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2013), xxxvi.