Commentaries

Announcing 'Journal of Poetics Research'

A new hub has emerged in the world of online poetics research from Jacket’s own founder, John Tranter. Tranter’s new multidisciplinary Journal of Poetics Research, based in Sydney, Australia, explores “the theory and practice of literary discourse in culture, media and the arts broadly conceived, including poetry, prose, journalism, drama, cinema, radio and television, as well as … literary, historical, social, institutional and psychological modes of narrative, theory and contention.”

Tranter founded Jacket magazine in 1997 and ran the journal for forty issues until 2010, when Tranter retired from thirteen years of intense daily involvement with the journal and the Jacket archives moved to servers at the University of Pennsylvania upon Jacket2’s launch. Tranter then began developing Journal of Poetics Research, which now features noted Australian scholars Kate Lilley, Ann Vickery, and Phillip Mead as managing editors and puts internationalism as a high priority.

While the majority of the journal’s content (articles, reviews, and interviews) will be peer reviewed scholarly pieces, Tranter and the editorial team also have plans to publish new creative writing, photos, and research materials on occasion. Included in the first issue — currently free — are poems from Toby Fitch and Brian Kim Stefans, a feature on John Forbes, articles from Rachel Loden and Chris Stroffolino, and an interview with Charles Bernstein, as well as a collection of research resources from Kris Hemensley, Robert Kenny, Vivian Smith, and others. We at Jacket2 can’t wait to see what comes next. — Kenna O’Rourke

Multilingual sounds

Coca-Cola's "It's Beautiful" vs. LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs's TwERK

LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs's TwERK
LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs's TwERK

Is multilingual poetry any different from other representations of multilingualism in contemporary culture? In my previously two commentaries, I've looked at some of the things that multilingual poetry does differently than other kinds of poetry. But what does it do differently from other cultural forms that are also multilingual?

One recent example of a multilingual cultural text is Coca-Cola's 2014 Super Bowl commercial "It's Beautiful," which was also shown during the Sochi Olympic Games. This ad touched a nerve because it features eight tween girls singing "America the Beautiful" — but they do so in, Spanish, Tagalog, Mandarin, Hebrew, Keres, Senegalese French, and Arabic as well as English (quelle horreur!). Beginning in English with a shot of a cowboy on a white horse, the ad includes diaphanously lit outdoor scenes, wholesome images of kids in a movie theater, surfers bobbing on the waves, break-dancers, a family on a roadtrip, a brightly lit Chinatown. Representations of urban modernity and rural tradition are seamlessly interwoven, and all differences are overcome through the shared melody of the girls' multilingual hymn. 

My take on this ad is that these young girls "too, sing America" — a weird kind of nod to Langston Hughes. Unlike Hughes's "I, too," which offers an impassioned critique of anti-Black racism, Coca-Cola's ad doesn't challenge anything (of course not!). Instead, its celebration of America glosses over histories of race-based exclusion and the present-day racial and gendered inequalities that the singers might face. In this way, Coca-Cola's ad is pretty typical of many cultural representations of multilingualism: it represents a benevolent, exciting, and non-threatening expansion of the national body — in the words of one critic, it's "all of the diversity and none of the discrimination."   

In the realm of poetry, however, multilingualism usually does something different. Without a familiar melody to drown out and smooth over unfamiliar words, we are left to grapple with long histories of cultural exchange and confrontation. 

Take, for example, the work of LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs, who weaves densely textured poems from the languages of her local communities and everyday life. In interviews Diggs explains that her upbringing in Harlem brought her into contact with Puerto Rican, Dominican, and Haitian schoolmates, Chinese business owners, and later with West African French-speaking communities and a Bangladeshi diaspora. Accordingly, her poems are written in a dizzying array of languages including English, Spanish, Japanese, Hindi, Maori, Hawai'ian, Samoan, Malay, Swahili, Quechua, Yoruba, Portuguese, Chamorro, Barbadian dialect, Cherokee, Tagalog, and Papiamentu. 

TwERK (2013), her first book, orchestrates a virtual-world mash-up of racialized and racist figures from across the globe: the first sequence of poems, "anime," includes a dialogue between the Japanese animé characters Jynx (from Pokémon) and Mr. Popo (from Dragonball manga, and here called "Mista," evoking closer-to-home histories of racialization). Jynx and Mr. Popo have both been widely criticized as contemporary examples of racist caricature, and both were even altered for North American audiences in order to minimize their racist associations: Jynx's skin tone was changed from black to purple, and Mr. Popo's was changed from black to blue. His exaggerated red lips were also shaded in completely. 

Diggs's poems take up these transformations, and the two characters address one another in paired poems, "mista popo hollas @ jynx" and "who you callin' a jynx?" The first begins, "In 2004, Viz began to downside Mr. Popo's large lips digitally," and alternates between a narrating speaker and Mista Popo's "croon[ing]" to Jynx: "Mista Popo want that hibiscus round your neck. // Mount me with your mammy tie-dyed kimonos // Go-go ganguro manga mamasita izza to my dizza" (3, 4). Mista Popo's humorously lascivious come-ons evoke the cultural mythos around Black male sexuality, but his comments also suggest alternative sources for Jynx's appearance — her straight blond hair, wide lips, and black skin have also been compared to the ganguro girl culture, a Japanese fashion trend in which young women wear a dark tan and deliberately artificial contrasting makeup. So where exactly do these racialized caricatures come from? 

Diggs tracks the evolving images of Jynx and Mr. Popo and the exaggerated romantic plot she establishes between them. As the speaker in the first poem states, "Mista Popo was determined to prevent Kami [whom he serves] from tappin Jynx's ass before him" (3), but Jynx "ain't feeling [his] vibe easy breezy / ... // Mista Popo, mista Tom, // you queasy" (18). The poems revolve around the idea of blackness as property through the contested intellectual property of the animé creators, through Mr. Popo's status as Kami's servant, and through Mista Popo's attempt to make  Jynx "his." But Jynx's refrain "ya can't handle it!" disrupts this idea of ownership and reinscribes the meaning of the characters' changing skin colors. Jynx declares herself a "half-breed" ("Watashi wa zasshu") and suggests that her "black/purple flesh" is the valuable result of "cross-polination." If this element of hybridity is what allows Jynx and Mr. Popo's images "mass circulation" in North America, Diggs also suggests that it is the "mass circulation" of racist caricatures that gives rise to Jynx's "cross-polinat[ed]" image in the first place. 

In Diggs's poems, rhythm pulls us through any number of languages, which we encounter like clusters of street signs. But unlike the multilingual song in "It's Beautiful," rhythm doesn't hide complication or provide a facile feeling of familiarity and comfort. Instead, in Diggs's poetry — as in so much multilingual work — it is precisely through the sonic qualities of rhythm and rhyme that we're forced to confront difference as difference. And what's important about Diggs's poetry is that although the confrontation is always a lot of things, it's never merely beautiful. 

For Kader El-Janabi: 'The French Connection'

[The following short essay & poem were commissioned a decade ago for publication in Kader El-Janabi’s short-lived magazine, Arapoetica de la Poésie Internationale, but with that magazine’s demise or suspension, were never actually published.  The issue for which they were intended was to focus on the connection between American & French poetry over the preceding century.  In its original English version the concluding  poem (“Three Paris Elegies”) had appeared earlier in my book, A Paradise of Poets (New Directions, 1999). Baghdad-born & long exiled in Paris, El-Janabi was for me an exemplary Parisian, a late Surrealist & a fighter against all forms of political & religious despotism – concerns at the center of his poetry & art.  The events since 2003 in his native Iraq & elsewhere have brought a further tragic dimension to his world & ours, in the course of which his presence is no longer felt as it once was.  Largely out of touch with him since then, I miss him deeply & offer what follows as a kind of belated tribute & remembrance. (J.R.)] 

 

For myself, writing and living in late-twentieth-century America, there was a sense that all of us, as poets, shared a past and future with forerunners and contemporaries across a startling range of times and places.  This came at a time when we were discovering ourselves also as American poets with a new language in which to write and a new perspective – a series of new perspectives – that we could write from.  If the thrill of the moment led some into an easy jingoism or a more interesting localism, for others it opened the possibility of an experience of poetry and life that could truly push against the boundaries of languages and cultures.

 

For those of us who meant to proceed by new means, modern means – to be “absolutely modern” in Rimbaud’s phrase – the memory and presence of Paris and France loomed large.  Never mind that at the same time we were discovering America or that we were determined dwellers in our own cities (New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago).  Paris as city and vortex (Pound’s word) was with us in our imagination as poets – even for those of us who had never set foot there.  There were exceptions of course – poets who felt themselves to be more exclusively American or were themselves distanced from the great cities of America and Europe; Snyder and Olson, say, among the really good ones.  But for myself again, Paris, once I had found it, was a place I could inhabit, not the physical city so much as the world of experimental and radical modernism that the city had once come to represent.  Post-modernism, for myself and my companions, was no more than the transfer – often contentious – of the older modernist impulse into a new terrain and time.

 

I have lived almost my whole life on the two coasts of North America – New York first and California later.  From both of these Europe was less than a single day’s travel, and because that travel became increasingly possible (starting for me in the late 1960s), I came to think of myself as inhabiting two continents.  In 1997 I spent four months in Paris, and there have been several other extended visits since then.  At the time of the 1997 trip I had initiated, with Pierre Joris, a translation project that would extend over the next few years.  What we had chosen to do was to translate the collected poetry of Picasso into English, Pierre to focus on the French and I on the Spanish.  So I brought Picasso with me to Paris, or in another sense, I found him there: Picasso and other ghosts in a Paris that had long since dissolved into history and myth, leaving their names on houses and streets or, for some, etched onto tombstones in the city’s great cemeteries.

 

I began in fact to think of Paris as a cemetery city, a city filled with ghosts – both its ghosts and ours.  The presence of the dead was then particularly strong for me, because of the number of friends who had died over the preceding year.  These mingled with the ghosts of that early avant-garde whose place had been here and whose work we had been determined – some of us – to reach and to surpass.  But more than that of course, there was the actual city as it existed in the summer and autumn of 1997 – an evidently threatened economy that made for an increased number of beggars, some curiously well-dressed I thought, in the streets where we were living.  That was in a space between La République and the Canal, where in the square itself one afternoon we saw what seemed to be a large soup kitchen for the unemployed.  And whatever I saw there fused quite naturally with Picasso’s words as we had brought them over into English:

 

the blockhead who stretching out his hand asks them for a little alms sitting alone on the ground in the middle of the plaza

 

and again:

 

over the beggar’s hand
only adorned with blossoms
alms collected through those worlds
he pulls along

All this to form another continuity.

The poem that follows, translated here by Jean Portante, is not only a lament for the dead and  the living, but a celebration of my own French connection as it appeared to me in 1997.  The first of the three elegies is derived from Picasso’s favored form, a block of prose absent all punctuation, and the second is the account of an event, a minor existential crisis, in the Pyrenees.  It is in the third, however, that the fusion takes place – of past and present, dream and waking life – and leads me to the realization of a world in which time loses its meaning in a simultaneous present which isn’t time at all.  If this can travel from my own place and language into yours, then it’s likely that another connection will have taken place.

 

Jerome Rothenberg

Paris/Encinitas

November 2002

 

*

TROIS ÉLÉGIES PARISIENNES

 

1

 

dans mon sombre dimanche à moi la lumière s’approche comme la lune à travers des plumes ce qui à peine vue sombre coulée par l’aveuglement & la pensée que tout le monde est mort autour d’une ville sur le point de disparaître tout comme elle l’a fait auparavant engloutie dans une poche vide et démesurée & avec  une odeur de terre les lumineux aventuriers de 1910 dont c’étaient les rues partageaient une tombe commune avec ceux qui ont suivi atteignant même l’endroit où toi et moi attendons en compagnie des amis partis un à un comme des cybersinges s’envolant dans l’espace insouciant

2

au-dessus d’une gorge nous pendions
& oscillions
les montagnes étaient vivantes de chaque côté
témoins de pierre
l’air était immobile rien qu’un lointain souffle de vent
nous étions assis suspendus par un câble d’acier
sans voix
personne à qui parler dans le monde
sauf toi et moi
cette révélation
je crois que c’est son vide que je prise le plus
et même maintenant arrivé à paris
je suis assis seul
& je le sens éclater de ma poitrine
électrique
final
ruée de pas dévalant une rue vide

3

 

pourquoi un homme bien habillé s’approche-t-il de moi & me demande-t-il l’aumône?
               (c’est un rêve, me dis-je, cela ne peut pas être vrai)
               pourquoi une mère souriante habillée pour la messe tend-elle une main pour me toucher des nuages tout autour d’elle assise par terre
               pourquoi demande-t-elle de l’aide
               & pourquoi est-ce que je continue de marcher  la laissant derrière moi
               où il n’y a ni rue ni soleil
               même à paris en ce jour le plus chaud de l’été
               quel est le bruit qui vient vers nous du coin de la rue bruit d’une vague suspendue dans l’air de ruches d’abeilles de mains qui applaudissent dans le noir
               qui est l’homme qui porte une fleur dans son oreille une chemise avec  beaucoup de plis un gilet une barbe les boutons qui brillent comme des étincelles électriques
               à mesure que je scrute ses traits je peux voir que ses lèvres sont parties sa langue est lourde & pend d’un côté & forme des mots  qui ne m’atteignent jamais que l’obscurité couvre
               tous les gens de cette rue sont assis contre un mur les uns les yeux ouverts d’autres enfoncés dans un sommeil profond
               tous sont bien habillés
               les hommes portent des costumes d’affaires & des blazers un gilet un veston croisé un smoking & queue-de-pie mais n’ont ni manteaux ni chapeaux
               leurs chaussures sont simples toujours d’un brun obscur ou noires avec des traces de sable de promenades dans les jardins parisiens lacets défaits parfois sans chaussettes
               & les femmes bien habillées aussi même si la chevelure de l’une est avachie alors qu’une autre l’a clairsemée et laisse entrevoir son crâne une troisième porte les traces d’une barbe une grande tache humide sous une aisselle 
               on n’a qu’à les regarder & déjà ils se mettent à parler
               comme parlent les oiseaux
               plumes que le vent fait tourbilloner à travers le square
               nous sommes assis au paradis & nous nous repassons un ballon
               bouts de papiers à nos pieds
               puis c’est l’heure de partir & nous tournons à l’angle de la rue montons par le petit escalier & les entendons suivre
               une bouffée de musique d’un temps lointain une voix de femme devenant régulière les mots qui émergent  bas & hauts implacables ouvertures processions
               & c’est picasso en tête un petit homme aux épaules poilues il s’est mis en short de course comme frank o’hara tous les deux maintenant des étoiles du collège mineola tous les deux déclarant maintenant leur amour du mal
            et apollinaire qui est également là sa tête pas plus grande que l’ongle d’un pouce flanqué de gertrude stein yeux comme ceux d’une poupée folle & quelqu’un qui ressemble à mon père max jacob enveloppé dans un habit brun de moine dans lequel son corps disparaît
               ici dans un monde où il n’y a que des petites gens des fantômes où le ciel n’est pas un ciel la terre rétrécit quotidiennement sous du plastique argenté disparait glisse entre mes mains comme des billes dans un salle de pachinko les yeux  tourbillonnant comme des lumières rouges
               pour finir ici à la république avec  tous les autres morts les fantômes affamés sous nos fenêtres soupe populaire pour les morts ceux qui courent ceux qui s’accroupissent maintenant dans l’herbe
               ils disent notre faiblesse la déchéance incorporée à la vie décomposition chaos anarchie confusion d’autant plus confondue saleté pêle mêle
               hors coup & hors usage hors gonds hors argent hors temps hors jeu hors haleine hors boulot hors espoir hors pouvoir
               parce que les hommes qui viennent vers nous bien que morts sont exactement comme nous & nous fixent comme des princes déchus
               soyez les bienvenus dans la mort disent-ils leurs regards nous divisent en deux
               les nombres dansent à nouveau derrière nos yeux
               les cercles se brisent
               l’homme portant une horloge à son oreille comptera le silence
chaque jour est été
               ce qui était naguère vivant est parti
               & ce qui n’a pas encore été vivant
               est parti aussi

Paris
août/septembre 1997

 

Translated into French by Jean Portante

no one is illegal / the system is illegal

In previous commentaries I’ve written about displacement in Vancouver caused by gentrification in the context of the original displacement of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh peoples, the original inhabitants of this land known as Vancouver. Now I want to consider people bought to this land by displacement.

In August 2010, a few short months after Vancouver’s $6 billion Olympic spectacle (the City’s second mega event after Expo 86), 492 Tamil children, women, and men arrived on the coast of British Columbia. Fleeing ethnic persecution and civil war, the migrants boarded the cargo ship MV Sun Sea and began their dangerous 3–month journey. Various state forces intercepted the ship and directed it to Canadian Forces Base Esquimalt on the southern tip of Vancouver Island before incarcerating the migrants at prisons throughout Greater Vancouver.

No One is Illegal-Vancouver (NOII), an anti–colonial migrant justice collective, was active in supporting the refugees, raising awareness of their expected arrival and organizing a demonstration that included poetry to demand that the government let them stay. During the migrants’ incarceration, NOII held regular noise demonstrations outside of the prison walls, projecting poems and songs in Tamil from a loudspeaker system so the refugees know they were welcome. I remember seeing little hands waving to supporters from between the bars of a window, the distance so far you couldn't see skin colour. In the fall, the collective published a chapbook titled  r/ally, which begins with a statement of intention to produce history through poetry: 

as we highlight continued community resistance against the colonial canadian state and its (in)justice system we will remember the victories we have achieved and celebrate our stories. here, through poetry. with gratitude, this collection is formed from words of our allies.

Contributor Cynthia Dewi Oka, poet, activist and revolutionary mama, was a child when she came to Canada as an Indonesian refugee. Oka’s “490 stay” speaks to the Tamil migrants’ arrival and experience of detainment:

sea anxiety sun premonition children
in smoke kissed teeth singing there is life after
death in uniform how tall your gun freedom

feet levitate in delineated air breath there
electric ribbons decorative foliage buses meeting
scheduled appetites famished & overflowing

hands conditioned to curl tight around
full first world mouths clean water & metal
guarding small pale hearts called citizenship

come terror sewn in our surface open
chest against bulletproof glass numbered
shoulders twisting pale in august burn

blood earn rest (never) return like real
names etched in leaves on forest floor children
tread carefully whispering their sadness

stay for dreamtime blinking on other side
of water & nausea & debt & abeyance
of loved ones pearling in river bottoms

brown desire to live magnificent biological
weapon the nerve to ask for love be met
precious how many boats does it take

How many boats indeed?

The final page of the first edition of r/ally reproduces a NOII poster about the impending arrival of the migrants and features a quote from Vancouver poet and black historian Wayde Compton:

what colour is enough? what language does it speak?
and isn’t that the real issue written between the bordered lines,
the bartered lives in this semantic peanut and shell game?

The quote is from Compton’s “Illegalese: Floodgate Dub” in Performance Bond (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2004). The poem is dedicated to an earlier group of asylum seekers, 600 Chinese migrants from the Fujian province who arrived on the coast of BC in 1999 in four run–down ships:

if you arrive in the belly of a rusting imagination, there are grounds to outlaw you. but Canada is a remix B–side chorus in the globalization loop: a sampled track of “back home”–desiring, “old days”–admiring, democracy dreaming, racism–reaping homesickness that even medicare can’t cure. there is no “fresh off the boat” or the plane or the hope of consistency in foreign and foreigner policy or obduracy of floodgate metaphors and death sentence deportations. the backbeat back–bone of the chorus that screeches “back home!” is the drum and bass treble track alliteration of Koma-Koma-Komagatamaru.

When the Komagata Maru steamship arrived nearly a century ago in May 1914 carrying 376 passengers from India, it was refused entry. All 376 passengers were British subjects, yet only 24 were permitted to stay at a time when the nation admitted thousands of white Europeans. Compton historicizes Canada's shame of turning away ships that carry racialized passengers, connecting past and present:

when jurisdiction cuts the earth to the bone
the proper diction is the unspoken issue, and the flesh
of the people’s colour in the boats in the hull in the belly of a dream
without papers or defination, in quotations, “refugee,” a penstroke
from relief. languishing in the languaged exile of illegalese.

and if it was heroic for runaway slaves to seep into Canada,
why is it villifiable for Chinese migrants to hide in the belly  of a dream now?

One of the women aboard the MV Sun Sea was pregnant when she crossed an ocean to get here. Swimming inside the ocean of her mother’s belly inside the hull of a rusty ship, the baby girl was born shortly after arriving in Canada. According to Canadian law, she is not illegal. 

 

Lee Ann Brown talks about 'Tender Buttons'

Lee Ann Brown talks about Tender Buttons at the Kelly Writers House on October 1, 2014. Photo by Michael Bergmann.