'Reported ocean'

One or more voices out loud

Myung Mi Kim in New York City, 2006. Photo by Charles Bernstein.

There are so many ways for something to be unsayable. Reading a poem out loud is one of these ways. From this vantage, consider the prospect of the contemporary American poetry reading for poets who believe that “the text is not the text.” For poets who ask, as Myung Mi Kim is always asking in her work, “Who has authority?” and then are asked to appear at the front of the room and wear their author-ity by reading out loud.

“For which no pronunciation exists”[1]

but exists in the room and later on tape,
offered because asked, asked because written.

Listen to this moment during a 2010 event at the Kelly Writers House. Not long into the reading — about thirteen minutes — Kim invites several audience members (at 13:00) to join her in a “brief experiment.” She asks them to read with her from “fell (for six multilingual voices)” in Penury, encouraging them not to worry about how it turns out, or how fast or slow they go — no performance anxiety, guys! (to paraphrase). She wants several people reading, because for her, this poem “is not the poem unless it’s read by six different voices at the same time.”

The audience-readers, including Kim, read a page together. Mostly, they read the page in unison — find each other’s speed in common.

We come to poetry readings because we like to hear poetry read, but we may not be ready to read.

“Through sameness of language is produced / sameness of sentiment and thought.”[2]

Variant sounds, then, as a way to differentiate feeling and thought.

After they read the page together, Kim interjects (at 15:44) to offer further direction. She says she heard many languages at once when she composed the piece. “Read as openly as possible,” she tells her co-readers, “including associations, possible shadow words, possible translations, mutations.”

The small group of three/four voices resumes reading. Initially, Kim reads with them but soon stops, perhaps to listen better (at 16:05). As before, the readers are in unison, and although invited to improvise, they don’t. Although Kim has given them permission to slip in a “word that isn’t there,” no one audibly takes her up on it. Why not?[3]

Why couldn’t the readers go beyond the fixed text in front of them — even when encouraged by the author to do so? There are more “concrete” answers (including, say, the readers’ lack of time to acclimate to performing the text this way). Beyond such speculation, however, should we feel disappointed that, more abstractly, the unsaid holds sway even in an attempt to give it voice/s?

Here, I turn to something Kim says about “dis-abling” habituated practices of language. “The idea of something not working, something not being sayable or reproducible, (re)printable, carries its own charge,” says Kim.

Even in the face of an invitation to say the unsaid, something unsayable sparks. We don’t know what it is.

Peter Quartermain writes: “Good reading, bad reading: neither is wholly possible; either might bring us to the threshold of speech. Strength of vocables: to bind.”[4]

And if something cannot be voiced, or is voiced only with great difficulty, then let’s say the strength of those un-vocables is in leaving things unbound.

Kim talks about the difficulty of reading aloud with Leonard Schwartz on his radio show, Cross Cultural Poetics. Before she reads “Hummingbird” (from Dura),[5] Kim says, “To some degree part of what [it] wants to ask is: where is the point where you can’t always voice something but it can be read and there is an experience of language, but it happens or takes place on a different kind of register — something that’s not simply attenuated or happening in a caesura or rift, but literally the difficulty of articulation, the difficulty of finding a music for a thinking, or a sort of thinking for which there is no a priori measure. So the poem tests these uncertain and undecidable spaces between measure, between song, between the un-articulable, if that’s a word. So, it’s going to be hard to read it, especially in this kind of format because it’s on the air, or I’m speaking it on the air to you. So we’ll see …” (12:37).

Kim’s description of the poem’s other-register music reminds me of Quartermain’s idea of how a poem’s polyvocality evaporates when it comes to air: “The difficulty in voicing the poem … may also have to do with a kind of tentative polyvocality, a simultaneity of possible tones and interpretations, possible (at least in a general sort of way) inside the head but impossible of public performance — a kind of undecidable music or tune” (221).

How flat we may come out when we open our mouths.

In the case of “Hummingbird,” I see a similar foyer between inner and outer in the spaces Kim writes into the middle of the poem’s lines, lines like these:

The writing hung on the wall]     [whose writing is it[6]


Varied]             [faculty and expression
Sod]     [the first deleted me written over (92)


Wall and sheep            Tell and speak (93)

The wall is the brackets that stave off and scaffold the silence living dead-center of the line. The sheep are what moves between fenced and stonewalled fields. The fields of the poem and the faithful who come to hear it. Kim knocks on/through the wall.

Kim: “I think what I’m trying to perhaps pose here is this: can that space be left undetermined? Would it be possible to disengage the impulse to have art perform an equal translation or transparent rendering into the social?” (Close Listening).

Looking at it this way, I’m glad that the polyvocal reading Kim invited in 2010 didn’t work out. Its not working out carries a charge. Something there is, muffled, unutterable, and singing a messed-up choir off-tunish in our heads. A place where things fall apart or hold their own, terrifically private and out of reach, and where they also, like a reported ocean,[7] form waves.



1. Myung Mi Kim, Penury (Richmond, CA: Omidawn, 2009), 1.

2. Ibid., 27.

3. Full/partial, hazy disclosure: I believe Kim made the same invitation a few years earlier at a reading in Buffalo and I think I was one of the readers. If I recall correctly, I too was unable to improvise any variant readings.

4. Peter Quartermain, “Sound Reading,” in Close Listening: Poetry and the Performed Word, ed. Charles Bernstein(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 228.

5. Kim, Dura (New York: Nightboat, 2008).

6. Ibid., 100.

7. The phrase “reported ocean” comes from Dura: “False vocalization of the consonantal text / Rose thorn and reported ocean / The beginning of things” (3).

Another day: Derksen v. America

Jeff Derksen at North of Invention; click here to view his performance. Photo by Aldon Nielsen.


Reading M. NourbeSe Philip's 'Zong!'

M. NourbeSe Philip at North of Invention. Photo by Aldon Nielsen; click here to view her performance.

There is no reading this book; it must be read.

Zong! is a book-length poem not so much “about” but “entangled in” the late eighteenth century British court case regarding the throwing overboard of 150 “negroe” slaves by the captain of the slavetrading ship Zong during its trip from the West Coast of Africa to Jamaica. NourbeSe Philip constructs her texts in the belief that this is a story “that cannot be told … [but] that must tell itself.”

This is legal poetry. This is, legally, poetry. Philip’s “intent is to use the text of the legal decision as a word store” in poetic maneuvers that try to sustain the material and immaterial balance of precision shared by both law and poetry. The poetry displays the agonizing tension of an exploration through the minute particulars and silences locked within the legal text, the precise and cautious movement that tries to not tell the story that must be told. In her back notes she says: “The ones I like best are those where the poem escapes the net of complete understanding — where the poem is shot through with glimmers of meaning.” The compositional task she set for herself, a palpable “negative capability,” explodes into the particles of language; the letters, syllables, sounds, silences, and spaces bob and glitter until the page becomes a seascape of indeterminate yet suggestive signs and linguistic attentions:

rt with the negroe                                     s w                                                ale and   
flee dow        
                                            n the river                                                  do not
read this ruth                                                   it will destroy you                    
                 am my lad                                                                               jot these no
                                          tes these tunes                          fa la s

This is both a reading and a score. In reading this we move into the spaces and fragments with the trust that this soliloquy of evidence is, simply, proof of the unfathomable meanings hinted at, in the surfaces of language. Meaning here is not to be “made” but, rather, felt. Der Traum! Story rendered not as history but “histology” — cellular. Information carried. The pages of this section, “Sal,” float and riff on the data, the dendrita. Visually the pages detail the wide range of performance of the words themselves, their intonations and shapes, elisions and resonances, language levitating between tongue, eye, and mind.

When NourbeSe Philip performs this text the silence between the particles is as articulate as the letters, syllables, and words. “Zong! #1” is a veritable creek of attention as the word “water” generates a letteral turbine of iteration and association.

w      wa                                            wa                                        t
                         er                                           wa                                        te
                  r                                                                       wat
                                         er                                                                  wa   ter
                         of                                      w

Typographically too difficult to illustrate in this essay, the last section of the poem, “Ebora,” presents the text as “overwritten” (i.e., layered) which elicits notions of erasure, correction, confusion, overlap, and so forth. When she performs (reads) this, the overwriting inserts segments of “tongue-tied” text, static, and submersed language.

What is so engaging in this work is its adherence to the layered possibilities of making the poem. The book poses a poetic treatment of story as the most dynamic and ethical response to reading and writing history. Philip avoids becoming implicated in story language: “The poems resist my attempts at meaning or coherence and, at times, I too approach the irrationality and confusion, if not madness … of a system that would enable, encourage even, a man to drown 150 people as a way to maximize profits …” Instead she, and the text, work hard to sustain a provocative and confrontational relationship to the normative materiality of history by juxtaposing, as she suggests, the nonmaterial or immaterial layers it is always cloaked within.

The poetic text is presented in six sections, each with iterative turns and elements that dovetail laterally with different abstractions and content that surface in the project. Material echoes resonate from the names, words, phrases, and things Philip provides in a “Glossary” and a “Manifest.” The “Notanda,” a sort of “postface,” is an incisive discussion of how Philip approached the writing. Part journal and part essay, this grounding helps balance the tension and energy of the poetry.

Zong! is, as they say, a piece of work. It is one of the most labor-intensive poetic texts I’ve encountered. Unfortunately many readers will prefer the work to be transparent, the reading of it to be effortless. Against such a norm, NourbeSe Philip’s insistence on the more substantial, yet difficult, complications of history and story is doubly admirable. Don’t expect to just read this book but, understand, it must be read.

Response to Nicole Brossard

Nicole Brossard at North of Invention. Photo by Aldon Nielsen.

I admitted to write makes no sense. I am interested in consciousness. Thought follows the land of the spine. Caresses and alibis. The body in the center persists. Let’s not touch silence. Catch me in my difference. Un autre paragraph. Le peau hesitante. Le vaste complication de la beauté. We are closed to reality. Skin hesitating between philosophies and the dawn. The universe is on the page one page over. The nudity of reasoning beings. The present is not a book because of the body. Joy that traverses the rose bushes. The blind spot of pleasure. Suggestions heavy-hearted. Immensity. Sentences permeable to death and oblivion. There remained a wound in the middle of the universe — one needed to behold it. Eternity that recommences at the edge of the void. We served each other in order to exist. The poets. Light enters them in spite of themselves. Drop another ice cube in my port, if you would. Été, enfants, electricite. We propose to physically possess poetry. Syllogie. — Lines/phrases from Nicole Brossard’s reading

Nicole Brossard’s reading on January 21, 2011, concluded the two-day North of Invention conference, a gathering of avant garde Canadian poets, each of whom gave a talk and a reading at Kelly Writers House in Philadelphia. Brossard’s reading said something about poetry’s magic and power, its sweetness and hopefulness, its profundity and wit and otherness — its aliveness. I always like to find an occasion to present my favorite quotation from Charles Olson: “art is the only twin life has, its only valid metaphysic.” That is why, when hearing Nicole Brossard read, one feels — I felt, and I just watched the PennSound video — restored, revivified, reminded. Reminded by the lexicon of Nicole Brossard’s poetic imagination, a lexicon I would be unlikely to confront in most Anglophone poetry, with its admonition against “abstractions” still a first law in creative writing classes, as if an “abstraction” (“immensity,” “silence,” “consciousness,” “eternity,” “oblivion,” “light”, “reality,” “exist”) is a substitute for the real, rather than an extravagance of the real, owing to the felt extravagance of experience. An abundant, inclusive, affective language that has the power, as Brossard says, to enchant, disgust, and thrill, instills the pleasure one experiences in her poetry. It is, as we used to say, personal and political at the same time, for it is in poetry, Brossard says, that she is most faithful to herself and her relation to reality. So was Rimbaud and Verlaine; so it is in French poetry, French song lyrics, French philosophy. Their utopias always included immensity, oblivion, and existence. These words, in French, possess a quality of longing they seem to lack in English, where, embarrassed, they subside into the margins. Brossard’s poetry gives us back the wholeness of perceptual experience; for her, ideas are not only in “things.”

Anti-patriarchal, feminist, lesbian-utopian, and constitutive of a beautiful, erotic, and revolutionary écriture-feminine, Brossard’s luminous works in both prose and poetry are admired and respected by both English- and French-speaking Canadians. At Kelly Writers House, Brossard read from a new edition of selected works, edited and introduced by Jennifer Moxley, a tantalizing piece about a gathering of poets (whom “light enters in spite of themselves”) in a garden — perhaps a festival or conference occasion. Laughing, punning, quoting lines of poetry, the poets “serve each other in order to exist.” When the speaker says, at the conclusion of this piece, “drop another ice cube in my port, if you would,” the audience (their reflections shimmering in the glass panes of the door behind the podium) shouted and clapped for joy, and so did I. Honoring the conference’s stated interest in the practice of constraints, Brossard read from a book of alphabets, saying that using constraints was like swimming in the ocean, as opposed to the “swimming pool” of her own familiar methods. The poems openly struggled with English alliteration, especially with the owlish-sounding letter “w,” which barely exists in French, transforming the fraught history in Canada of English/French language issues into the playfulness of formal constraints, where we as readers and listeners are invited to “catch [her] in her difference.”

Nicole Brossard’s reading was a moving finale, a great programming decision on the part of the organizers, Sarah Dowling and Charles Bernstein. In his introduction to Brossard’s reading, Bernstein thanked Brossard for the “jouissance she brings to our poetries.” Her lifetime of work is indeed, as Bernstein said, a cause for true celebration.

Responding to Fred Wah

Fred Wah at North of Invention (photo by Aldon Nielsen).

January 20, 2011, at North of Invention: A Canadian Poetry Festival, Fred Wah disturbs Canada’s national imaginary.

In his talk, in the Kelly Writers House, in Philadelphia, USA, Wah describes his poetic practice as a kind of grammatical GPS that locates and disturbs the Canadian national imaginary. Formed by his experience as a person of Chinese, Scottish, and Swedish descent, Wah pays close poetic attention to the minute and overlooked in language, identifying and troubling coercive nationalistic narratives. In doing so, he practices an “alien ethnic poetics” that “locates a time and space outside and between what is signified on the nation’s surface.”

Demonstrating his poetic system of location, Wah considers the preposition “from,” in the national slogan, “from sea to sea,” reminding us that to be from Canada is to not be from Canada — it is to be from elsewhere. Recalling the Canadian government’s Chinese Exclusion Act [1], and the federal legislation that made it illegal for Indigenous people to vote until 1960, Wah locates Canada as a country founded on racist immigration policies, and a brutal and bureaucratic process of colonization.

And these are accurate coordinates. In fact, since Canada is a country based on the illegal annexation of the traditional lands of hundreds of Indigenous nations, even the communities that are actually from here (and have always been here) are not from that Canadian here.

Wah identifies his poetics and Jeff Derksen’s “public language” as interventions into this national imaginary. As is evident by the critical intensity of Wah and Derksen’s work, Canada has always been deeply invested in its own imaginary delineations; Canada has never been north of invention.

Wah notes Joy Kogawa’s Obasan, the Japanese redress of 1988, and Nicole Brossard’s feminist poetics as important influences on his poetic interventions supplying vital entry points for him “to write from.” But he also emphasizes that influences can have their own complex conditions. Locating another imaginary realm, the jurisdiction of the writer over language or material, Wah recalls Brossard’s critique of his transcreations of her lesbian feminist Ma Continent (1974), and Steve McCaffery’s concern that Wah’s work with Indigenous pictograms in Pictograms from the Interior of B. C. (1975) [2] took the pictograms out of their original context. Wah’s willingness to share and thoughtfully consider these responses within the context of his present writing practice is striking and generous. It demonstrates his unflagging commitment to writing and to thinking about writing. Language play, he concludes, is serious work; we need to take care with the materials we address.

After the talk, during the question period, Derksen suggests that since the Canadian avant-garde has shifted to include a poetics that is more critically conscious of issues of race (thanks to writers like Wah), the movement should now evolve beyond the Canadian national boundaries o speak to the larger context of North America. 

But such a shift may not be in keeping with Wah’s findings.

That is, considering what Wah’s poetic location devices have demonstrated, perhaps the Canadian avant-garde needs to turn its attention even more closely to the contemporary consequences of our bogus narratives and bloody history, to the Indigenous communities in Canada, to governmental interference in Indigenous rights, sovereignty, land title, basic access to health care, education, and clean drinking water. Maybe it is time for the Canadian avant garde to poetically investigate the language of our history, to read our treaties, to understand the legal implications of the Royal Proclamation of 1763 — and, for non-Indigenous Canadians (like me), to live up to the responsibilities (past and present), the legal conditions and commitments, that we have, as people who live on these lands. [3] 

In Bob Perelman’s response to Wah’s talk, and Derksen’s comments, Perelman affirms the necessity of poetic systems of location, and reiterates Wah’s call for care. Although Perelmen acknowledges the importance of the instinctive artistic response, he suggests that intuition and immediacy require an understanding of history. Our unfreedoms, Perelman says, “are harder to perceive with our senses because we are so inured to them . . . sometimes we mistake sensual immediacy for freedom when we are actually faced with evocations of our unfreedoms.” As a Canadian living in this country that habitually defines its citizens as just and decent, it is also clear to me that we are profoundly inured to the unfreedoms of others, and that our subjectivities and freedoms are tangibly built on those unfreedoms. Take the pictographs. As Wah says, these were “undocumented,” and they probably still are, undocumented and unacknowledged. Official Canadian historic discourse and policy have rendered most Canadians illiterate in Indigenous legal systems, histories, cultures, languages, oral and inscribed expression — our national identity, and our continued appropriation of Indigenous land and resources depend on this lack of education.

From here, where I write this, on Treaty Six land, in traditional Cree territory, Wah’s poetics, his talk and the conversation that follows locate and trouble our illiteracy, the fraught privilege of our poetic play, and the national imaginary of this country. [4]



1. When the Canadian Pacific Railway was completed, the Canadian government moved to restrict the immigration of Chinese people to Canada. The first federal anti-Chinese bill was passed in 1885. It took the form of a head tax of $50 imposed, with few exceptions, upon every person of Chinese origin entering the country. No other group was targeted in this way. The Head Tax was increased to $100 in 1900 and to $500 in 1903. $500 was equivalent to two years’ wages for a Chinese laborer at the time. Meanwhile, Chinese people were denied Canadian citizenship. In all, the federal government collected $23 million through the Head Tax. Despite this “tax,” Chinese immigrants continued to come to Canada. In 1923, the Canadian Parliament passed the Chinese Immigration Act excluding all but a few Chinese immigrants from entering the country. Between 1923 and 1947 when the Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed, less than fifty Chinese people were allowed to come to Canada.

2. The terms commonly used for the people who lived in Canada prior to European contact are Indigenous or Aboriginal. First Nations, Métis, and Inuit are for specific groups. For the most part, in Canada, the word “Indian” is not used, unless the speaker is Indigenous or is referring to the federal government’s control over “Indian” status.

3. In 2000, at the University of Alberta (on Treaty Six land), Cree lawyer and activist Sharon Venne asked her non-Indigenous audience: “What are your treaty rights?” See Venne’s article, “Treaties Made in Good Faith.” In Canada, even if you do not live on treaty land, you still exist within a country that was founded based on a series of binding legal agreements with Indigenous Nations. See Anishinaabe law scholar John Borrow’s “Wampum at Niagara: The Royal Proclamation, Canadian Legal History and Self-Government.”

4. Thanks Fred.