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.
a dialogue with Lee Maracle's keynote address
Note: above, a video of Lee Maracle giving a talk at Avant Canada: Artists, Prophets, Revolutionaries, a conference held at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario, November 4–6, 2014. Kaie Kellough’s response to the talk appears below.
too much has been made of origins
all origins are arbitrary
too much has been made of others
all others are arbitrary
too much has been made of outbreaks
all outbreaks are arbitrary
too much has been made of outcomes
all outcomes are arbitrary
too much has been made of outfits
all outfits are arbitrary
too much has been made of outlets
all outlets are arbitrary
too much has been made of outlines
all outlines are arbitrary
too much has been made of outlooks
all outlooks are arbitrary
people arrived from portugal. people arrived from africa. people arrived from india. people arrived from england. people arrived from china. people predated arrival. people arrived from predation. people were arrayed. people populated. whips patterned rays into people. people arose. people rayed outward to toronto, montréal. people raided people. people penned the past. people roved over on planes. people talked over people. people rented places. people planted people in people. people raided plantations. people prayed. people refried. people died and didn’t get second glances. people won scholarships and vanished. people lived atop people. people represented people. people brain-drained. people studied for the common entrance. people paraded to new york, chicago, boston, miami, los angeles. people stumbled and tranced. people took two steps backward. people simmered and boiled over. people plantain. people orphan. people sugarcane. people stole knowing. people plantation. people horizon. people done run from people. people arrived not knowing their patterns. people arrived riven, alone in the world. people made their way from time. people hailed from climes. people fanned their spreading. people cleaved unto people. people writhed over/under people. people arrived over/under people.
the rainforest is a mixing board with infinite inputs and infinite outputs. holes and plugs. male/female. slithering, electric water. liana cables. bloodline is a wire entering. plugging arrival in. current will be routed through the circuit. you are an overproof, alcoholic signal. outputs reach to the distillery at the airport that spills you back across the world. the wires crisscross and multiply. male, female, splitters, turn the dial on the mixing board, increase the gain. we will be hovering in the mid-range. boost the lower end, swell the lower end, theorize the lower end, occupy the lower end, the 99%, the undertone, the southern hemisphere.
too much has been made of outputs
all outputs are arbitrary
too much has been made of outsiders
all outsiders are arbitrary
too much has been made of ovens
all ovens are arbitrary
too much has been made of owls
all owls are arbitrary
too much has been made of owners
all owners are arbitrary
too much has been made of ownerships
all ownerships are arbitrary
too much has been made of oxygens
all oxygens are arbitrary
too much has been made of ozones
all ozones are arbitrary
a body, a gathering of waters, a continental jut. i near who parents? foreign, afar, not nobody. could be anybody. know my privilege, and is this grandparents? i know where they home, can fingerprint from immigrant map. guyana is the elsewhere, on whom i have never landed. everything guyana may me unwritten, may be. south of the equator, family hemispheres. i knew my great-grandmother, and only knew stories of my great-grand. master narratives, i don’t know any further, grand, mother, slave, or father. i know 2.5 generations, and? i have glimpsed the blistered, creased photographic evidence. fermented sugar has spooked the oral history. speech distilled in my grandfather. in guyana the bloodvines line-out, windward, leeward, radiate, trade routes across a fingerprint. in guyana whorl. guyana the pool, last sojourn of the motile, last truth, don’t know, before setting foot into space. walking on the moon. upside down. spinning, atomizing, becoming no return. sometimes blood spoils when i try to tongue my lines. i can’t tell, can only vernacular contour, toil, circumnavigate anonymous drift, swarm the dark. delineated back to guyana, there is arbitrary origin. i could been anyone, searching backward into no return.
with thanks to margaret christakos for editorial assistance.
d'bi.young anitafrika and black queer divinity
Note: above, a video of d’bi.young anitafrika giving a talk at Avant Canada: Artists, Prophets, Revolutionaries, a conference held at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario, November 4–6, 2014. Alexis Pauline Gumbs responds to the talk in the essay that follows.
In the beginning there was the word. And the word was “she,” born from her mother like so many other public prayers.
d’bi.young anitafrika, daughter of foundational dub poet and scholar Anita Stewart, stands at a lectern that transforms into a pulpit by the first move of her hands (Mac laptop not nearly withstanding). At the same time that anitafrika offers a critique of the repressed lust in the life of the common homosexually active and actively homophobic preacher, she creates a new congregation. She populates the room with young queer beings like her adolescent self, rich with longing and questions, but ignored, when not directly attacked by the figure at the pulpit. anitafrika’s congregation moves out of the church, walks all through the streets, makes out with other little girls at Angel’s Basic School, and bears the internal and external heat of the sun without social recognition, until now. There is transubstantiation here.
Standing, chest open in a conference room, anitafrika has traveled home to Kingston and stolen back her local pulpit into cosmic significance. And then she shifts from her dub conjure voice into an explanatory tone. Describing her own journey from Angel’s Basic School (where the angelic work was the work of girls touching each other and knowing themselves) to this moment of annunciation, weeks after the launch of the the Watah School in the distillery district of Toronto, anitafrika lets us know she has effectively reclaimed pedagogical and spiritual space. This is a pilgrimage from a spiritually violent and homophobic church to a sacred performance space where intersectionally oppressed young people speak their truth and heal each other. From a basic school where girls find each other secretly to a performance incubator where artists use anitafrika’s decade-tested Sorplusi method to learn themselves and their purpose in the context of community and commitment.
Listening to d’bi.young anitafrika describe the guiding principles of her method (self-knowledge, orality, rhythm, political content and context, language, urgency, sacredness, and integrity), I applaud her for the work of what she calls “redefining performance education.” She honors the elders in her Toronto community of artists of color and her mother’s distillation of the four elements of dub poetry (nation language, music, politics and performance) for allowing her to create a process that empowers artists from multiple oppressed communities. Rejecting an approach that would privilege inclusion in an existing white-dominated theater world, Watah encourages artists to take the stage as themselves. And due to the practice of self-reflection they engage as they work through the questions associated with each of the eight elements of the Sorplusi method, they emerge more clearly in relationship to their own experiences, their purpose on the planet, their role in their communities than they ever could have imagined was permissible or possible.
What would happen if every preacher on every pulpit engaged in equally rigorous self-reflection, dared themselves to risk self-knowledge, and accounted for their impact on their communities? Could homophobia, sexism, internalized racism, even capitalism survive the implementation of the Sorplusi method by the weekly performers on the pulpits of the world? I think of the work of queer black community-accountable preachers like Marvin K. White, who ministers at GLIDE Church and leads poetry workshops on moving trains. I think of Sangodare Julia Roxanne Wallace, who creates sermons in the Southern black Baptist tradition about an infinite inclusive god informed by the tenets of black feminism, afrofuturism, and soul music. anitafrika’s work highlights spiritual conjure work as the legacy that queer black diasporic artists inherit and activate. This is sacred work. It makes another world possible.
“I will close with a poem,” anitafrika informs the audience. And as she moves away from the lectern into the realm of the gathered chairs to enact “blood.claat,” one of her best-known poems, I can finally see the actual congregation. There are some visibly black people in the front row, leaning forward, and then rows and rows of white people, sometimes shifting nervously in their seats as anitafrika walks up to them and looks them directly in the eye, speaking of the intimacy and power of menstrual blood and the creative power of black women. She names goddesses and remedies and calls multitudes of feminine warriors into the space with her voice. And I remember at this moment, years after this performance, Watah has recently launched another crowd-fund campaign to finance its space after citing racism in its rejection from several important grants that it had depended on for operating costs. I wonder about the disconnect between arts funding and self-reflection. Between sacredness, urgency, and the short attention spans of tokenizing allies. Between the creative power of menstrual cycles and the limitations of funding cycles.
With that specific performance of “blood.claat” d’bi.young anitafrika sought to enact a chosen creative blood relationship in the pale and climate-controlled space of the conference room. Did it work? I can see from the video that the people are moved. At the moment of this writing the fundraiser is about halfway to its goal. And the sustainability of spaces like Watah beyond their novelty will let us know when the church finally says, AWOMAN, ASHE, so be it, so it is.