This is a transcript of Órói or her poetical unrest, an aural note for Jacket2 on a.rawlings reading with Maja Jantar during the North of Invention conference, a Canadian poetry festival held at the University of Pennsylvania at Kelly Writers House in Philadelphia in January 2011, as seen and heard on PennSound.
If you’re reading this because you can’t hear the sound file (4:39), please follow me. I’ll guide you through it.
— I’ll tell you what you can’t hear.
First, about the sounds:
En guise d’accompagnement, a tapestry (from the Persian taftan, tabidan: “to turn, to twist”) inspired by a’s name and based on preparatory work for Telephone, a poetry journal from New York which asked me to translate Augusto de Campos, who called himself a concrete poet. I took the task literally and translated the name instead of the work. I started with A, using some of the sounds the letter can produce in English and in French (five, to be precise: a, a, a, a, and a). It’s dedicated to Edith Sitwell, who, in turn, called herself an abstract poet.
[Insert a silent sequence which will then be considered the normal, regular or standard silent sequence.]
I had to ask about her.
[Insert a shorter silent sequence.]
I had to bug people to know about her.
(To bug someone [as you would bug a room] helps to listen.)
[Insert a slightly shorter silent sequence than the previous shorter silent sequence.]
I asked a friend who happened to know her (un hasard, he’s translating Wide slumber for lepidopterists in French), and who told me about another friend, and I asked her.
[Insert a similar slightly shorter silent sequence.]
I asked François Luong who’s from Strasbourg and who has lived in Houston and who’s now in San Francisco, and I asked Karen Hannah who’s from California and who has lived in Korea and who’s now in San Francisco.
[Insert a standard silent sequence that feels longer than it is.]
He says they’ve been looking for the center of the Earth, working on a geological site full of Icelandic digressions. / She says she sails, wholly unfettered. / He says to think about her is tiring. The idea of her. He can’t wrap his mind around it. Too numerous dimensions, he says. / She says she has natural urges to root and unnatural urges to unroot. / He says her wording’s comparable to an ecological spill. / She, a letterpress printer, says she’s smitten, and worked from a sound poem of hers. / He says her work’s hard to put into words.
[Insert a longer silent sequence.]
a.rawlings says she’s been displacing her body. She’s from Northern Ontario or maybe Toronto, she has lived in Belgium and Iceland, now maybe back where she came from. She’s been swerving between repetitious bruising and improvisational healing, using divinatory practices and line drawings, studying volcanoes and dancing, making nonstop nonsemantic hellos and devising a poetics of the corpoverbaurovisual.
[Insert a quarter of a standard silent sequence.]
I would like her to meet Susan Philipsz, who was born in Glasgow but who lives in Berlin. Her father’s Burmese. She was awarded the 2010 Turner Prize for art, but she only uses sound.
[Insert a standard silent sequence.]
A poet who doesn’t know better will use words and meaning as a place to start. A poet’s place to start should be anywhere. Displacing’s a good place.
a.rawlings, hats off to your good start.
On a.rawlings and Maja Jantar
Performance, especially of the type that a.rawlings and Maja Jantar execute, creates a new syntax for sound and text as they swirl vividly around each other. You can see it in the way their bodies move, pulling sound out of lungs through stuttered and sometimes simultaneous arm movements. In their performance, we witness these two bodies on stage, connected through sound and text, looking to physically touch each other at all times. Chests push out or suck in, arms move up or down or yank toward abdomens. Try watching on mute for a minute: a.rawlings’s mouth is incredibly expressive.
The most powerful moments arise from the physical and aural linkages and disruptions that occur throughout the performance. What is happening here? Their hands reach out and sound or silence comes, somehow seeming connected to the movement of the arm. Here: two voices piecing through language simultaneously but also against the other. They’re in different speech patterns, as we all are. We all have cadence and comfort zones for our tongues and limbs. And it’s the moments where the two voices sync up as best two voices can where I feel I lose the most language and enter something else: song? Voice? Sound? Music?
I say lose, but I don’t mean loss. What I lose is the connection between signifier and signified. I reach aporia, a space where all those doubts I have about language become useful through the exhaustion of the words and the sometimes violent, sometimes beautiful separation of word as a vassal of meaning from its aural genetics. Once in this aporatic moment, I’m able to let go of language as a fixed centre for meaning. “I will not ruin the environment.” When synced up, repeated, pulled apart and reconstructed, then pulled apart again, this phrase is ultimately exhausted; it becomes an aural environment of its own that is directly connected to body and time through the various affects and defects of language. This is a gain. So a.rawlings isn’t “exhausting” language in the Deleuzian sense of a total destruction of possibility, but tiring it, weakening it in a productive way that allows us to see possibility in it through the affective and the physical.
What strikes me about a.rawlings’s work is how well situated it is in the body, even when we’re observing her poetry alone on a page. The physicality of sound is what is “here” even as it swirls away from the body and the page. She creates a presence for language that is complex and powerful for the reader and the listener.
On a reading by Fred Wah
In this video, Fred Wah reads three poems from his recent selected, The False Laws of Narrative, edited by Louis Cabri, followed by six poems from Is a Door (2009), followed by an unpublished piece for Omar Khadr and, finally, a joint reading with Nicole Brossard of “If Yes Seismal,” his transcreation of Brossard’s “Si sismal.”
For me, these poems, and generally much of Wah’s poetry, spiral into and out from the third piece in the reading, “The Poem Called Syntax” (published in So Far, 1991). Just the mention of poetry and syntax in the same breath brings to mind Robin Blaser’s Syntax (1983), and his deliberate adoption of a paratactic collage of quotations, memories, reflections, and patternings of sound and sense which Charles Olson famously found lacking: “I’d trust you / anywhere with image, but / you’ve got no syntax.”
No controlling syntax is exactly the point. For Wah, like Blaser, how poems combine words, sounds and perceptions — the gathering or syntax of them — is crucial: poetry is not about imposing the narrow thinking of the standard complete sentence, or of the egotist’s diary, or of religious and political dogma. Poetry is about tapping in to a realm of sound and sense much larger than narrow frames of reference limited by individual or cultural experience; it’s about affirming the possibilities of knowledge outside and beyond what we know, and extending our knowledge through “ungrammatical” patterning.
When Wah says “We live on the edge of a lake called Echo,” several lakes come to mind; indeed, the poem refers to “all lakes.” One lake is Kootenay Lake, the 100-mile long lake in the interior of British Columbia where both Wah and I grew up, and where he has, since the 1970s, had a summer cottage. The geography of southern British Columbia is marked by several similarly long lakes in parallel valleys by which locals navigate their mental and physical treks in the province. Every spring runoff, these lakes flood.
Another lake is Blaser’s “lake of souls” (via Dante), which he said “is / probably the secret of syntax itself.” Quoting this line in “Music at the Heart of Thinking 114,” Wah comments “That’s the drawer of poetry, closed to keep the lake from flooding.” Wah envisions poetry working in a clutter of phonemes and morphemes, a chaos of linguistic signaling, waiting for connections in a “quilt of meaning.” “Just throw it into / the drawer,” Wah writes, “mess is poetry’s mass.” This does not mean poems are left uncrafted — on the contrary, Wah’s poems are full of formal patterning — they are as adroitly composed as improvised jazz from which he derives much of his poetic method — especially evident in the first two pieces in this reading, selected from his serial poem “Music at the Heart of Thinking.”
Another lake that comes to mind is the one in Michael Palmer’s serial poem “Notes for Echo Lake” (1981) — a long meditation on “micro-syntax below the order of the sentence and even … the word,” and on the relations between sign, self, names, speech, text and “a music or music beneath the hill, an ‘order of feeling.’” Palmer notes Plato’s warning against “shadows of … words cast against the wall” and his warning against song, and Wah too explores a connection to Plato’s cave allegory, imagining a “geometry of sound” high above all lakes, “something like Plato’s cave of noise.”
“The poem,” the big poem of everything, then, is a lake of sound, where we swim around, mindful of our own narrow habits of reference echoing back our limited vision. The depths of this lake where poetry works “are not a / privilege,” Blaser said, “but everybody’s.”
The lake is also syntax, the way we gather sounds and threads. Crucial to syntax, Wah shows us in the six poems from Is a Door, is that we open doors to other possibilities in sense-making, breaking down the readymade Western capitalist conclusions that deluge us, including, for Wah, stereotypic closures of race and class. At the level of phoneme, morpheme and rhythm, Wah tells us we must kick open our desires to find doors we haven’t tried. His dedicatory poem “to the dogs,” like Peter Culley’s book of that title, invokes an ongoing thread in his work (signaled by earlier titles like Loki Is Buried at Smoky Creek) — dogs as a lens for twenty-first-century human conditions. What are we barking at? How do we get ideas from barking?
'Eunoia' patanoia patadox patadise
When I write, I face my own death. This is the message the writer sends from the edge of the grave. Only days before stepping over the threshold, in Learning to Live Finally, Jacques Derrida, the specter of différence writes back to us as though from the other side:
The trace I leave signifies to me at once my death, either to come or already come upon me, and the hope that this trace survives me. This is not striving for immortality; it’s something structural. I leave a piece of paper behind, I go away, I die: it is impossible to escape this structure, it is the unchanging form of my life. Each time I let something go, each time some trace leaves me, ‘proceeds’ from me, unable to be reappropriated, I live my death in writing. It’s the ultimate test: one expropriates oneself without knowing exactly who is being entrusted with what is left behind. Who is going to inherit, and how? Will there even be any heirs?
Faced with the exponential increase in data, and the rapid passage into obsolescence of hard and virtual archival alternatives, the question of the Überleben, afterlife or survival, of one’s work becomes all the more acute. The structure of the trace that requires me to live my death is inescapable. There is no way to ensure my inheritance. In fact, in a kind of Heisenbergian gesture, when I read a text, as I am now misreading the Xenotext project, I have already done it irreparable damage, if one considers transformation as damage. That is the very nature of the Überleben.
It may be, as we shall see, that the archival obsession is an impossible desire for immortality in the face of death. All life, even the afterlife, is ephemeral. Here, as wherever we are faced with an irreducible contradiction, is the ideal place to propose a pataphysical solution.
The pataphysical solution simultaneously subverts the grand narratives of science as progress, and art as genius. By offering solutions to problems that are either insoluble or imaginary in the first place, pataphysics reveals the aporia and lets it stand. Pataphysics points to the paradox of the problem it seeks to resolve. It compels us to turn elsewhere, to think otherwise. To confront our responsibility.
The Xenotext, if we read it as pataphysics, demonstrates that even when we abandon the unreliable paper and virtual substrates, to encode our text instead in the hardiest of living cells, the problem of its survival remains.
Undeniably, as Pak Wong and Eduardo Kac have already demonstrated, it is absolutely possible to encode text as DNA strands in minute organisms such as bacteria. In this way human data can be attached to organisms with proven track records for longevity, and thus hitch a ride into the distant future, to be retrieved either by future humanoid generations or, if that unfortunate species has destroyed itself by then, by alien anthropologists and art lovers from distant planets.
The genius of the Xenotext Experiment is that it not only stores information, but that the encoded poem generates a response from the host organism in the form of another poem. The bacteria itself becomes a machine for writing poems. There appears to be a dialogue between the geneticist-poet and the organism, even if that binary is conceived stereotypically as male human/female bacterium.
And yet we know that, in fact, the genetic nucleotide is already a poem. With endless permutations. Its own secret language. A language that human science has only begun, not to decipher (because that would assume some original signified prior to language, and attribute some teleological purpose to the genome’s language), but to translate in what might be described as a radical translational process. Radical because there is no way to translate in a literal sense the genome’s language into any human language. The geneticist produces a translation that she can understand or that can be useful to her human needs, for medical purposes, for example, or to store data. But the poem is already there. If “the word is now a virus,” the virus has always been the word.
The biogeneticist then is a reader. Her relationship to the text is that of a translator, seeking to give the original an Überleben, which is the task of the translator. The translation emerges from the original text, it lends itself, offers itself to the original text, as an Überleben, an “afterlife” or, in Derrida’s translation of Benjamin, a form of “survival,” of living on. To speak of translation — and writing is always already translation — is to speak of death and responsibility.
But the Xenotext Experiment is not listening; it imagines it is initiating a conversation, when the other has already been speaking. When the geneticist-poet penetrates the organism to encode new information into the nucleotide, he in a sense interrupts the other’s speech, the nucleotide’s own poem. What if the aliens were not somewhere out there in heaven or in the World-to-come, but instead had always been here, reading the poetry of nucleotides? Or more potentially radical: what if these tiny organisms are in fact the aliens, the xenos who have always been here reciting long strings of generative poems to each other while humans are busy murdering each other?
We sometimes imagine ourselves reaching out to alien civilizations the way our ancestors reached out to the angels. Or like Paul Davies we speculate that they are already here, speaking in codes implanted in the tiniest organisms among us. Aliens standing in for God: superior in intelligence and yet harboring some sort of inexplicably benevolent interest in our planet.
But xenos, the foreigner, the unknown, can be guest or host, stranger or friend. The word lies at the root of the Greek policy of xenia (comparable to the ancient Hebrew practice of akhsania of which Levinas speaks): hospitality toward the guest, the foreigner, the other, who might turn out to be a god disguised as a beggar (xenia was also extended to the poet or traveling bard, in the form of bed and board).
The aliens are not out there, but already here; they are both guest and host, and they have been writing poems long before we chipped a stone. As I am compelled to turn back, to face my death, and the irretrievable future of the trace, what remains is my responsibility. When I write, faced with my death, I am faced with my responsibility. Like Socrates, I am compelled to take responsibility for my death, to give it meaning.
The pataphysical solution to the extinction of the earth and its inhabitants compels me to reflect on my responsibility to that biosphere. The Xenotext calls upon us to turn our face away from the heavens and back to the smallest living being on this our planet. What is my responsibility toward that nucleotide, and toward the bacteria which I encode with my message? I am compelled to reflect, not only on the attribution of value to different organisms, based on criteria like size and closeness to my own species, but also on my attitude towards the other in general. Towards writing. What is my responsibility toward the living biosphere in which my death awaits me? What is my message which I seek to encode in another living organism?
“This concern for death, this awakening that keeps vigil over death, this conscience that looks death in the face is another name for freedom.” — Jacques Derrida, The Gift of Death
Steve Collis emphasizes the point that elements of practice that conceptualist writers identify as their own are not “new.” Ron Silliman makes the same observations in his reception of Notes on Conceptualisms, remarking that “constraint-based practices are as old as time itself”; that Vanessa Place’s 50,000-word feat of syntactical suspension in Dies has, if one thinks of its concept in procedural terms (say as a kind of biggering and bettering of the Joycean long sentence) been done before; and suggesting that the kinds of conceptual disruptions achievable through strategies of appropriation were long ago realized in the logic of the readymade.
12.6 “It’s been done before”
3.14 hardly being a reason not to do a thing again, especially
9,11 an art thing,
Collis is particularly resistant to a Goldsmithian conceptualism that got trend-conscious folks all busy-beed about the Boring, boasted of an ethic of plagiarism, and took a tone that propped up “creativity” as the new overearnest-kid-with-the-bad-haircut that we were all going to laugh at. But it’s not the mean-girls manner of the making of the conceptualist club’s code that raises the stakes/hackles, it’s the code-making itself. Collis’s urging toward:
x/y a dialectic poetics is a warning against (re)
#.# codifying practice that has such deep roots in avant-garde
REF tradition [“as new”?]
Making it new has always been about setting trend by introducing [ ]* into recognizable modes. Recognizing that we think and write within a communication of poetics, where participation involves a consistent production of and through recognizable poetic terms, Collis cannot fathom imaging this “distribution-oriented sign system” (as Jeff Derksen flashes it in his talk) outside the material systems in which poets’ bodies find themselves. So when the pitch of certain conversations around conceptualism, open-source ethics and empty signification hit notes of claiming that poetry circulates within the “non-economics” of a closed system of poetic readers, that the ineffability of this poetic commerce to the logic of capitalism is the same as being “freed from the market constraints of the art world or the commercial constraints of the computing and science worlds,” and that this “non-economics of poetry creates a perfectly valueless space in which these valueless works can flourish,” Collis understandably reacts.
Interestingly, the stance toward appropriation one sees in a poem like Vanessa Place’s “Miss Scarlett” suggests that at least some conceptualisms share Collis’s perspective on language as a mimetic instrument of belonging-ing, and his perspective on the archive, which Collis insists on calling “The Commons.” Collis follows a post-Derridiean conceptualization of the archive, where the book, the library, or even the concept of “all digital trace in the material of global information systems” are organizings of accumulated masses of information, the readings of which have been streamed and controlled by disciplinary or professionalization systems of affect-cum-capital.
1.1 i.e., This toning of veritas belongs in a museum or a legality.
Collis envisions language as belonging to everyone, as a commons, yet understands the full network of lines of code, the material wealth of information, as having been enclosed, under strategies of capitalist ownership, into intellectual properties and documental forms. As such, the wealth of language is variously accessible to poets as material to re-insert to the frame of poetry, or — more pointedly — variously accessible to people to lay eyes on in the first place, who might from there to learn strategies of expression, critique, or the luxury of ironic appropriation — in the first place.
Place excises lines of text mimetic of African American speech from a canonical screenplay: “She sadness cyan’t be expressd in no pretty essay, neida” (Globe and Mail, 23 Feb. 2002). She places them on a page charged by the historicizing and genre-fying enclosure-frame of the placiest of places in American poetry, a page of Poetry magazine. Place’s un/respect of codes of copyright and ownership is a challenge to the lines of text that enact legal framings of the “source” text but also is a branche of the excised lines to from one set of historico-structural lines of mimetic gesture (Hollywood screenwriting) to another that enforces/expects the genre of poetry, planting cuttings from one estate into another. See how they thrive?
Edmond Jabès: “The book breaks off from the book only to rejoin it farther on. So the empty space between two pages or two works is the place and non-place where our limits of ink and screams are set up and broken down” (381).
Both Place and Collis see the entire field of textuality as undifferentiated in its presence. Both ask what of the material language is in fact the poet’s to “own” under the banner of her “authorship?” Place asks from a place of thinking the guerilla snapshot and the crop; Collis asks from a place of thinking an anarchy of lineages and this moment’s history of leftist anti-homage investments of avant-gardes. If Collis, Kootenay Old School style, might support a manifesto of poetic:ethic:poetic:ethic, is that the same as aesthetic:ethical:aesthetic:ethical?
In Place’s poem, at least, the tones of its dissonances are dependent on the contiguities and discontiguities of discourses from which the “appropriated” language is taken with frames of poetry. The enclosures matter. The thicker the thicket of tonal and proprietary lines “crossed” to be brought to a centre of framed [poeticized] attention, the stronger the offensive charge. Dear reader, I ask:
this poem would do
appropriated by a Black
on a page of Callaloo
One. Point. Too.
* you are here and now