Commentaries - May 2011

'Reciprocate life's manifold generosity by living long, subverting to the end.'

Sandra de la Loza, "The Art of Lockpicking The Lockpicking of Art"

...even when we believe we have freedom to use whatever words we wish to use, that we have the entire lexicon of English, at least those of us who are Anglophone, at our disposal, and are able to express ourselves in whatever ways we wish to (all of us who live in the so-called liberal democracies, that is), much of the language we work with is already preselected and limited, by fashion, by cultural norms—by systems that shape us such as gender and race—by what’s acceptable. By order, logic, and rationality. (M. NourbeSe Philip, from Zong!)

A lifelong question, to be answered by all means possible: how do we move outside the language (containers, silos, slots) that has been chosen for us? How to move within these shapes, acknowledging them, recognizing their power, undermining their power? How to choose our own lexicons, moving toward what we do not understand, accepting not-understanding as part of understanding?


Susana Baca, "Negra presuntuosa"
There's a fantastic interview with Susana Baca, from a recent visit to San Francisco, on Webos TV

I appreciate work that undoes the structural confines of category, identity, position, imagination. I’m grateful to Sandra de la Loza for her work, which propels me to experience public space and historical echo in my city in entirely unpredictable and unofficial ways. And for her presence in the banner of my posts up to now.

Sandra de la Loza, Lockpicking
Sandra de la Loza, "Lockpicking Class"

 I’m also grateful to Pato Hebert, for letting me use one of his images on this site, and for making work that humbles me with its honesty, its curiosity, its approach to public conversations beyond the conventions of what is expected of art. Please visit the sidebar (right over there, to the right!) and click on some of Pato’s links.

How do our encounters with the world—with what is outside us—help us to know ourselves better? And how, in turn, does our understanding of our own perspectives and subjectivity and history—our self-knowledge and the ongoing learning into which we are invited daily, both by the wondrousness of the world and by its challenges—help us to more deeply engage what is outside the boundaries of the familiar, including what is outside the boundaries of what is familiar in ourselves?

That’s an excerpt from a letter I wrote to my student advisees in the BFA Writing Program and Individualzed BA Program at Goddard College, one of three part-time or adjunct teaching positions I hold, alongside regular work as a freelance translator and interpreter: some might argue that an analysis of precarity as part of capitalist labor systems is no longer relevant, but I’m not sure I’d agree.

This is a discussion for another space or moment, but I think it’s important to note that I initially chose to organize my occupational life this way because I believed it would allow for more autonomy and nomad adventure than any other mode, but I’m beginning to wonder—as I watch my autonomy radically eroded by uncertainty, exhaustion and year-round work schedule—about the wisdom of that choice. And even as I write that sentence I’m aware of the privilege inherent in believing I can make choices about my occupational life, and in the idea that it might be possible not to work year round, or to have my employer even partially subsidize my health insurance.

In terms of encountering what is outside the boundaries of the familiar, I’m a little stymied as to how to handle the question of translation in these commentaries. Perhaps being stymied by translation is the hallmark of being a translator? Certainly I find that being utterly confounded by poetry is the hallmark of being a poet. One of the challenges of trying to write from and through the “trans” that is the space of transit between languages or between cultures or between ways of conceiving and articulating the world is that aside from being utterly incapable of translating all the material I wish to share here, I wouldn’t even want to do that if I could. Once, after I co-taught a mostly bilingual workshop with Mexican writer Dolores Dorantes, a student told me that our workshop was the first time she had ever concretely experienced, in person, a desire to hear what was being said by someone speaking a language other than English. The effort to understand what we do not understand—and the effortful inhabiting of the space between understanding and not understanding—seems to me much more useful than simply being handed the entirety of a “foreign” experience as if it could possibly be wholly digested, wholly transferred from there to here, wholly divested of its not-familiar-ness into recognizability.

Translation is a slow process—at least, it’s slow if I’m the person doing the translating. My process goes something like this: read a text I’m excited to translate, request permission to translate the text and receive a positive response, spend some time procrastinating (usually by doing occupational tasks) while being intimidated by the text I’m contemplating translating, start the translation, procrastinate further once I realize how very difficult the translation will be, continue to work on the translation, exchange at least a dozen emails with the person whose work I’m translating in order to clarify and/or further muddle a range of different questions about content, form, connotation and word play, finalize the translation, double-check to make sure the writer of the original has no further questions or comments, make the translation publicly available, immediately begin to question the choices I’ve made and the ramifications those choices have as they reverberate throughout the text. I’m currently in that process, at various stages, with three Mexican writers whose work I’m translating for these commentaries. I know that making texts accessible to folks who might not otherwise be able to read them is worth being slower than I’d like with my commentaries, but I still find myself wishing I could compress time or expand myself—whichever would streamline my process and make me magically able to post 2-3 times as week as originally promised. (Insert sigh here.)

Two further thoughts, for today, on subversion:

In an earlier post, I wrote about all of us (with no idea, really, who “we” are in this sentence—perhaps the makers of the world, whatever that means to each of us reading this?) as participating in an ongoing multi-dimensional conversation that is much larger than any one person or contribution. Sesshu Foster, in one of his many East Los Angeles Dirigible Air Transport Lines posts, speaks to the democratic engagement of any one person’s voice with other voices, and makes an undeniable argument for participating in public life.

As for subversion and dynamite celebration of the “trans,”  check out the Kumbia Queers, originally from Buenos Aires—interviewed here and here, and performing a cover of “These Boots Are Made For Walkin’” here.

P.S. The title of this post comes from Susana Baca; the subtitle from Sesshu Foster. ¡Que vivan!

P.P.S. Here's the sidebar text that accompanied Sandra de la Loza's banner image, in case you didn't have a chance to consult/click previously:

Los Angeles artist Sandra de la Loza, of Pocho Research Society fame, created the Stoner Spots series to portray sites temporarily occupied by those in search of illicit, transcendent or solitary experiences. The header image to the left is titled "Flat Tops." When she's not researching stoner spots, Sandra spends her time lock-picking and revitalizing public monuments.

Harry Mathews came to the University of Pennsylvania to give a performance/talk on February 26, 1997, an event hosted by the “Friends of the Library” group, which is an open-minded organization the library's supporters and external overseers. Ruth and Marvin Sackner (Penn alumni) are close to the staff of the library, and have collaborated from time to time on exhibitions of concrete, visual, and sound poetry and also of artists' books. I attended Mathews's 1997 reading but cannot quite remember how it came about: I'm guessing that Bob Perelman, the Sackners', and very possibly Dan Traister (the brilliant and super-eclectic special collections librarian) were all involved. Someone had the forethought to record the event. The sound isn't perfect, especially during the Q&A. Nonetheless, the newly segmented reading is certainly worth a listen.

  1. Introduction (1:32): MP3
  2. The Truthful Liar: The Case of the Persevering Maltese (Preamble) (4:31): MP3
  3. First Topic: A Problem in Translation (6:43): MP3
  4. Second Topic: Yes, But We're Different (3:40): MP3
  5. Third Topic: Translation and the Oulipo, One (5:27): MP3
  6. Fourth Topic: The Truthful Liar (4:03): MP3
  7. Interlude (3:35): MP3
  8. Fifth Topic: Keep Moving (3:43): MP3
  9. Sixth Topic: Translation and the Oulipo, Two (7:10): MP3
  10. Seventh Topic: Back Home at the Oulipo (6:54): MP3
  11. Epilogue: The Case of the Persevering Maltese (4:11): MP3
  12. Q&A (15:15): MP3

Complete Recording (1:06:46): MP3

Time to say a few words about the new free digital edition of The Fluxus Reader. I think I originally learned about this book through my admiration of Craig Saper, who has an essay in it. Somehow, along the way, I began an email correspondence with Ken Friedman, editor of the book. (I know Ken as a Fluxus guy, but he is also a University Distinguished Professor and Dean of the Faculty of Design at the Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, Australia.)

I'm glad I have my own copy of The Fluxus Reader; it has been out of print for nearly a decade and a half. In the run-up to the 50th anniversary of Fluxus in 2012, Ken has been getting requests for copies, but he doesn't have any, and he doesn't know anyone who does.  A recent Amazon search for used copies shows them running from $449 up to $2,500.

Ken has long wanted to make a free digital edition available, but the small typeface has made it difficult to get a clean copy. Then Rebecca Parker, manager of the Research Bank at the Swinburne University library, went to a service to have them prepare, digitize, and proof a digital edition of The Fluxus Reader. So now, I'm pleased to report, the free digital copy is available for download at:

The book is an open access edition, configured for full search and accessible for copy and paste for scholars or students who wish to quote from it. All details and pages are identical with the print edition. The PDF files are set to print out on a full-page format for easy reading.

In his contract with the publisher, Ken kept the copyright of the book as editor. In making the digital edition of The Fluxus Reader available, Ken grants full permission for use in any format or medium. This, I want happily to emphasize, is a policy of Open Access in action. And why not, in our field, where significant profits are quite unlikely? Readership is far more important.


Two images of 2011 installation work at the tour-de-force “Art in the Streets” show at the Museum of Contemporary Arts, Los Angeles. The top is spray painted on the wall for the show; bottom is a overlay of lost pets signs.

Tim Jacobs clarifies a point made by Kaplan Harris is an article we recently published:

In Kaplan Harris's “The Small Press Traffic school of dissimulation,” a statement I made in my 1970s column in the Poetry Flash is mentioned in a favorable light, yet I must take issue with Harris' aside that I filled the column with “snarky comments.” “Snarky comments,” were, if ever, seldom the case — ask Joyce Jenkins, Lewis MacAdams, David Highsmith, or any number of poets who were in the San Francisco scene back then. I tended to do as much reportage on readings and books as I possibly could, in attempting to do justice to a literary culture that was very diverse and growing rapidly.

Tim Jacobs is a poet and prose writer, and has been communications director for a number of non-profits, literary and otherwise. He currently lives in the foothills of the Sierra in central California.