Following up on my last post about Janet Neigh’s wonderful article on multilingual poetry and feminist pedagogy, I wanted to spend a bit more time reflecting on multilingual writing in the classroom, and more specifically in the creative writing workshop. I know this might sound daunting — what if the teacher doesn’t speak the same languages as the students? How will she know if their writing is any good?
Luckily for me (and also for my students), when I teach creative writing I’m not interested in diagnosing what’s good and what’s bad. Instead, I want to see what the students can make language do. To that end, I try to take an expanded and expansive approach to language: I want the students to think about the different languages and different kinds of language that they use every day, and to think about how any of these might take on a new life in writing.
Let me try to spin this out as a quick draft syllabus: in my upcoming 300-level poetry workshop, “Languages of Poetry,” we’ll begin by reading Frank O’Hara’s “Personism” manifesto, which is about how a poem should be between two people, without any paper mediation. Then, we’ll try this exercise devised by Kara Walker, in which we’ll write a story together through text messages.
“Lamenta,” the longest series in Myung Mi Kim’s fourth collection, Commons (2002), is structured after the metonic cycle, a calendrical unit of nineteen years. A lunisolar measure, the metonic cycle encapsulates the notions of simultaneity, equivalence, and difference. It is the “period of whole days over which the visible lunar and solar periods almost resynchronize” (Dictionary of Weights and Measures). This re-synchronization suggests a confluence between two different measures of time, which can be identified without subsuming one order of measure into the other. Importantly, there is a remainder when these two cycles nearly meet: “the difference between the 236 synodic months and 19 mean tropical years is barely two hours.” A portion always exceeds.
In a discussion with Divya Victor included as part of this feature, Myung Mi Kim quickly arrives at the following problem: “I can’t quite imagine a relationship with a poem, the fact of writing or reading a poem, that would be permanently inscribed.” The sentence reads like an aphorism.
When the feminist poetry press Kelsey St. published Myung Mi Kim’s 1991 epic work Under Flag, a publicity blurb described it as a book that “documents” the “struggle to learn English,” an experience, the blurb goes on to say, that “resembles the experience of innumerable other US citizens in a century that has been shaped by wars and vast human migrations.”
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.
On March 15, 2007, Penn students and Charles Bernstein interviewed Myung Mi Kim as part of Bernstein's "Close Listening" series. Michael Nardone has now transcribed the entire discussion, for publication, later, in Jacket2. Meantime, here is an excerpt:
STUDENT: You mentioned yesterday how each reading is different and how you would have other people come up and read your work. If you could just elaborate on that and how would someone who doesn’t speak another language experience repercussions while reading?
KIM: Let me start with the second part of your question first, because I think it dovetails nicely with what I’ve just been saying about what are the demands on sense and sense-making that are politically and socially and culturally driven. So, when you ask that question about, well, what about a person who doesn’t speak, you know, another language, and what kind of condition would be produced for that reader, my question always, whether out loud or implicitly, is can you produce an approximation of the condition of language again unhooked from the demands of communication and communicability and transparency, and can you somehow suggest/evoke/amplify/proliferate different ways of being inside and listening to and activating the space that we call language, which doesn’t belong to any one language group, doesn’t belong to any one particular idea of how basic things that benchmarks of language like rhythm, syntax, intonation, inflection, taking all those things as resources for meaning, as resources for experience. So, in other words, even if there were no identifiable thing called the second language, there’s something produced about an experience of language, and I think everyone has access to that.