Commentaries - April 2011

Brief thoughts inspired by Gonzalo Rojas and Hazel Dickens


Veo un río veloz brillar como un cuchillo, partir
mi Lebú en dos mitades de fragancia, lo escucho,
lo huelo, lo acaricio, lo recorro en un beso de niño como entonces,
cuando el viento y la lluvia me mecían, lo siento
como una arteria más entre mis sienes y mi almohada.

(Gonzalo Rojas, excerpt from the poem “Carbón”)


I see a swift river glittering like a knife, dividing
my Lebú into two halves of fragrance, I hear it,
I smell it, I caress it, I cross it within a boyhood kiss like I did back then,
when the wind and the rain swayed me, I feel it
like another artery between my temples and my pillow.

(This is one stanza of five,  my translation; I don’t have Rojas’s Green Integer selected, From the Lightning, translated by John Oliver Simon so don’t know if this one’s already been translated. You’ll find the entire original along with a wide range of other Rojas poems here.)

I often find myself wondering (internally or aloud) why what I do—whatever that might be at the moment—matters. Many, many writers and artists have reiterated this question in a multitude of compelling ways; here’s one (a quote you’ll also find as part of the thinking in my translator’s notes to Myriam Moscona’s Negro marfil, secretly arrived at my doorstep recently though officially out in September from wondrous Les Figues Press):

Each war leaves behind remains...
   Once one has covered thousands of anonymous corpses with a blanket of ashes and sand, one cultivates forgetting.
   So poetry rises. Out of necessity. Amidst the disorder where human dignity is trampled, poetry becomes urgent language.
   But words pale when the wound is deep, when the well-planned chaos is brutal and irreversible. Against that, words. And what can they do?

Tahar Ben Jelloun, The Rising of the Ashes

(Note: The interview to which I just linked fascinatingly doesn’t mention in its brief intro on Ben Jelloun’s biography that he was interned in a Morrocan prison camp for a year and a half, during which time his active writing life began. More thorough (but equally somewhat elderly) information can be found here.)

Many of my students ask similar questions about the purpose of writing or art, the impact our work might (or might not) have on others, and on reshaping the difficult worlds through which we move. Somehow what I find nearly impossible to tell myself, in the moments when I’m sitting in front of the blank page or the blinking cursor, or when I wake bereft of purpose in the middle of the night and the only comfort or softness seems to come from feline companionship, I am more often than not able to articulate — perhaps even convincingly — to my students. That is: that we are all part of a worldwide ongoing conversation that is necessarily and wonderfully much, much larger than any one of us, and that each of us enacts different and equally crucial forms of participation in that conversation, which vastly precedes us and extends vastly beyond us and within which any model of competition or narrative of singular heroism is utterly irrelevant. That everything we do matters, and that part of our reason for being and for making work is to model different ways of mattering — different ways of approaching fact, history, craft, structure, consciousness, interaction. That we may never know in what ways or how profoundly our work or our way of being in the world might affect other people, and that the lack of such knowledge doesn’t mean our lives have no impact. Consider all the writers, artists, musicians, teachers, or other humans whose work and/or presence in this world revolutionized your thinking in some form. Consider how rare it is to have the opportunity to tell those humans how their work has re-woven the texture of your thinking, how it has shifted the boundaries of what you imagine to be possible.

This week, two such humans left this world: Chilean poet Gonzalo Rojas, and Appalachian singer Hazel Dickens (coincidentally, both children of miners).

Here is a tiny array of links: check them out, and go forth to find more of your own! (And please send me any especially good ones through Facebook or at — thanks!)

Gonzalo Rojas reading “80 veces nadie” at the Festival Internacional de Poesía de Medellín in 2003, when he was 86.

NEA feature with John Oliver Simon’s translations of Gonzalo Rojas

John Oliver Simon’s blog post on Gonzalo Rojas, with a fantastic account of a day with the poet in Chile.

Video profile of Hazel Dickens, part one and part two, produced by Russ Barbour and Cecelia Mason for West Virginia PBS.

“Please Mommy Please,” by Hazel and Alice, recorded in 1967.

Hazel and Alice on Smithsonian Folkways.

P.S. As I’m posting this, just learned that Poly Styrene has died. She may not find “Oh Bondage Up Yours!” to be especially spiritual (one obit makes a point of quoting her on this), but my vision of spirit absolutely includes any model of anti-authoritarianism you can dance to raucously. Here is a more thorough obit, from NPR. Considering the Guantánamo information just published on Wikileaks (and consolidated quite usefully at The Guardian), all I can say is ¡¡Oh Bondage Up Yours indeed!!

Kevin Davies on political poetry: "I'm reminded of Ed Dorn saying something like 'You're handing me this piece of paper and telling me it's political? It's about as political as a gopher hole.' I'm totally agnostic about the ability of unpopular verse to effect change in the political world. I just don't believe it. I don't think for a second, oh, here I am striking a blow against capital. Political change is not made by the choices that we're making in verse. We're doing this so that certain possibilities can exist in the world. So that works of art can exist, temporarily, and they'll certainly bear traces of our political vision because if they don't they're no good."

Baloney Hoagie responded to my commentations last night! You should read the letter he sent to Claudia Rankine first. This will be my last post on the whole affair (will cleanse our palettes with a great interview on Thursday). You can read many other responses to the questions of race and poetry at Rankine's website. Thanks to everyone who engaged with me via email & facebook--I appreciate all your comments. 

Dearest Craig,


Thank you for giving me 12 hours to respond to your Jacket2 commentaries on the subject of “racial narcissism” in my poem “The Change.”


To start off, let me say, that I think, since we’ve never met, and I will probably think this later too, that, to me, you are wise, to believe that racial narcissism permeates the pathological individualist consciousness and unconsciousness of some White Americans in ways that are mostly Republican.


The elements of our narcissism are, as we all know, ignorance, fear, racism, and privilege. Its sources are confederate and capitalist and colonial. We drank narcissism from our own teats, and we practice it every day, as we blindly publish our way through the publishing world’s endless inequality.


That is one reason why it seems reverse-foolish to think that the topic of racial narcissism belongs only to white skinned Americans and not brown skinned Americans. Many brown poets, like yourself, seem to think you’re all that.


This is especially true in contemporary American poetry where a poem is often presumed to be in the voice of the author. I can’t jump over it—of course I am racist and sexist, a homophobe, a classist, an idiot, a middle class American, a college girl at UCLA who hates Asians, a fool, a dentist, a fourth generation settler, a citizen of Nacirema, a lover of mixing metaphors, a terrible poet, and a Holy Mouth Man. Quality poetry is not my claim, my game, nor a thing remotely within my grasp. I’m one kind of White American; this outsourced software will not be taxed by good intentions, or even dignified behavior.


This White Poet plays with himself; that is, mostly he traffics in his own repressed racism. This White Poet’s job is arrogance, omniscience, racial-prodding, and truth-obscuring. Nothing kills the settler-frontiersman-spirit of narcissism more quickly—have you noticed?—than humanizing poems, with its agendas of compassion, empathy, sympathy, humanity, and moral certitude.


Just as you find my posture of “narcissistic white poet” offensive, I find the posture of “inoffensive white poet” not just boring, but unimaginable.


I don’t believe in defending my simplistic poems to you; you are not white, but I suspect there are still some white people will still continue to buy my books.


I want some of my poems to hurt people’s feelings, especially non-white people. I think that poems should be hurtful. A poem is a loaded gun.


When it comes to the subject of American racial narcissism, it is a pathology some White Poets suffer, whether in our Personae or actions. You can’t change us, even if you tried for fifty, or a hundred years.


I would rather write dirty poems than make nice. Do I even have a conscience?


Finally let me say that I think my poem “The Change” is not “racist” but represents the “Racisttery Poem of Our Moment.”




Baloney Hoagie


[please note: this letter was written by BALONEY HOAGIE and not TONY HOAGLAND]


screen shot from "paper mill" web site offering papers on Wallace Stevens for sale

Kenny Goldsmith responded to my blog entry from a while back, entitled "5-page paper on Stevens, yours for just $59.75." Here's what Kenny writes:

Some time ago, you blogged about the conundrum of finding a paper mill selling an interpretation of Steven's poem "Mozart, 1935," which might have incorporated your own work on this subject into it, a remix of your own words. You say, "Is it possible that I would have been buying a hack-job remix of my own article on the poem?" You then go on to say that "I think I would have asked for reimbursement from my university-sponsored research fund for this expense. After all, it would have been research. No? How desperate would a student have to be to use one of these sites?"

My answer is not desperate at all. In fact, each semester, I force my students to purchase a paper from paper mills and present it as their final project as if they wrote it themselves. Each student must stand up in front of the class and present it with such irrefutable conviction as if they themselves wrote it and truly believe every word of it. Failure to do so convincingly results in group censure from the class, and ultimately in a lower grade.

The kernel of how we must teach today is embedded in your quandary. By reifying the old lines of "this is mine" and "this is not," we perpetuate myths of originality. Was your research sprung completely from your own genius? Most likely not. You sourced it from dozens of places. What is original -- and genius -- is the way you wove those sources together. But isn't that what good research always has been? It's just that the digital makes this process transparent and eminently elastic in ways that were hidden before.

Marjorie Perloff has recently begun using the term "unoriginal genius" (the title of her forthcoming book on the subject) to describe a new tendency emerging in literature. Her idea is that due to changes brought on by technology and the internet, our notion of genius -- a romantic isolated figure -- is outdated. An updated notion of genius would have to center around one's mastery of information and its dissemination. Perloff has coined a term, "moving information," to signify both the act of pushing language around as well as the act of being emotionally moved by that process. She posits that today's writer resembles more a programmer than a tortured genius, brilliantly conceptualizing, constructing, executing and maintaining a writing machine.

It's time to let go of notions of propriety and ownership of language, particularly in university situation where there is a subsidized economy. None of us are writing for profit -- we are subsidized by research funds and university positions -- and are thus obliged to take the most theoretically radical and experimental positions possible. Imagine if other research wings of universities such as science labs took the safe and known ways? They certainly would be upbraided for not taking chances. Why can't we do the same?

- - -

Now my reply to Kenny's reply:

I'm sort of hoping that the parents of our students will see the $59 charge on their sons' and daughters' credit-card bill, and a discussion of this purchase will ensue. In such a conversation--I'm imagining it taking place over the Thanksgiving dinner, with Aunt Minnie and Uncle Schloime listening in--Kenny's teaching will spread like waves across the pre-postmodern generations, the tuition-paying traditionalists who thought that by sending their kids to an Ivy League school they were escaping unoriginality rather than venturing to its center.

Anyway, the tone of my blog entry was all wrong, as I can see upon re-reading, and I think threw Kenny off. I find the fact of a $60 five-page paper on Wallace Stevens absurd and I'm not primarily concerned about the fate of my own academic writing in the world of digital copying. Really. I don't disagree with Kenny--as he knows--about remix. I don't fear it and I have very little concern about owning my interpretation of a poem by Wallace Stevens. It was my hook, my start on writing about the topic. Already not a fan of the grade-giving and grade-getting system of higher education (a view to which this blog amply testifies), I'm bemused by the lack of consciousness and laziness of people in that system feeling the need to pay top dollar for a dumbed-down academic remix. A little bit of work of could have produced the same (I mean even a remix) for free. You see, that's where we begin to see differences between Kenny's uncreative writing course and the paper mills he seems to favor (he doesn't really favor them--imagine him and the purveyors of such a venture in the same room!--but his position necessitates that he be annoyed by people annoyed by them). Kenny's students are (to say the least) extremely conscious of the aesthetic or anti-aesthetic (but that's still an aesthetic) of the sampling, and the violation of conventional values--a violation felt as such by the giant middle on the spectrum running from cool anti-authorial stealing to lazy pirating advantage-taking profiteers--is material for his pedagogy and their learning. He "forces" them to engage in such violation and it's the beginning of their venture into the art world. Kenny and his students, brilliant in their creative uncreativity, are doing one thing, which I admire and literally support. And his world is energized by its all being free. A gift economy thriving on the new digital world in which authorship has happily disappeard. I'm there too. But the purveyors of the paper mill have created something that is the opposite of the gift economy, and the result is an uncreative uncreativity that only very very superficially befits the world Kenny enjoys living in.

To me, this is all about pedagogy and the fate of higher education. I adore the energetic, intense, resourceful (that's, by the way, another word for creative) not-lazy students who are self-consciously participating in the lazy buy-your-papers economy. I don't adore students for whom this process is a matter of sheer unselfconscious ease. The former is learning, being part of a community of learners (such as in Kenny's amazing classes), and it is always, always a rigorous uncreativity. The latter are mere corner-cutters, seeking the easy. I have little time for them. What Kenny and his students do is not easy--seems easy, but isn't. Let's make that distinction.