Commentaries - June 2011

'The long biography of a poem'

Kaia Sand

In Distant Reading, Peter Middleton describes reading a poem as though it has a “long biography.” This approach involves “mining what is available of the aggregative textual archive that composes the textual memory of the poem, its showing in magazines, performance, anthologies, its construal in reviews and commentaries and other treatments” (23).

Consider the long life of Claude McKay’s "If We Must Die." Written in 1919 when Claude McKay was waiting tables on a railroad dining car, this poem rallies courage and dignity as resistence to oppression.  Claude McKayThe poem “exploded out of [him],” according to McKay, in the context of racial and economic tensions he witnessed from city to city.  He first read it to his crewmembers on the train who he describes as responding with emotion, one waiter crying. The poem was published by the Liberator in 1919, “above an article on Bolshevism and religion,” according to William Maxwell, and reprinted in dozens of African American publications soon after. Fast forward to the 1930s, and a divergent context: Winston Churchill may or may not have read it to the House of Commons (Al Filreis explores this scenario here), rallying the country to war—"If We Must Die" recast as a war poem. Fast forward again to 1971, and the prison uprisings in the Attica Prison: In 1971, Time magazine described how a poem found on a prisoner was “crude but touching for its would-be heroic style,” mistakenly attributing authorship a prisoner, and adopting a conscending tone in the process. A month later, Gwendolyn Brooks chastised Time Magazine with a letter to the editor (“Please tell the poetry specialist who gave us the above that his “find” is a portion of one of the most famous poems ever written ...”) These are some marquee moments in the long biography of “If We Must Die” that inform my reception of the poem. I also read the poem through more private memories—projecting it in front of a winter classroom in western Oregon, or recently stumbling on tens and tens of tribute YouTube videos.

While this example emphasizes reading an intact poem through swerving contexts, I am interested in how Peter Middleton's idea of the long biography of a poem might be claimed by the poet herself.  How might a poet take an active role in recasting work? How do changing audiences and contexts imbue the poem with significance, and how the poem might bend, alter, accrue these contexts, too? 

A poet might choose to recast a poem when it moves from functioning like the news to a no-longer-immediate context. Bill Moyers recently described on The Daily Show how the media often dwells on the “immediate,” while as an investigative journalist, he mines for “the important.” Both are compelling vantage points for poetry. While an immediate focus often equals a superficial one on the mainstream media, poetry that functions like news often does so with a critical edge. Poetry unveiled as urgent and critical news can certainly charge a poetry reading (I'll write about Aaron Vidaver's “The Worst is Behind Us,” which critiqued the early media coverage of the financial meldown and subsequent economic hardships, in a future commentary.)

An interesting example comes from a February 28, 2003 Social Mark reading in Philadelphia. At a Slought Foundation group reading, Kristin Prevallet performed “From Cruelty to Conquest,” applying an Oulipian technique to a speech George Bush gave before the United Nations as he mobilized U.S. troops for war in Iraq. She blocked out words with “oil” until the speech was overtaken with oil. Later that night, in what Ron Silliman described as “a strange apotheosis,” Jules Boykoff chose the same Bush speech to perform a different procedure. He removed text from the speech, revealing rhetorical emphasis on such moments as “We have no quarrel with the Iraqi people.” Boykoff ended his reading with the comment that he had “just removed some words that [he] thought were superfluous.” (Both poems are archived at Slought Foundation. Prevallet's poem is at the 56:30 minute marker; Boykoff's is at 1:21:49). Poetry as critical journalism.

When poetry functions like news, what happens when it is no longer immediate? How might a poet recast the work for enduring importance beyond archival interest?

A year and a half later, after her poem ceased to function like news, Prevallet recast it into a performance at Naropa University where, decked in a bathing suit, she guzzled oil (actually molasses), choking on it as she also choked the on the word “oil.” While her first iteration of the poem was timely—the United States was less than a month away from launching war on Iraq—her later performance interrogated the enduring, violent role of oil in maintaining an USAmerican 'way of life.'

Kristin Prevallet performing “From Cruelty to Conquest” at Naropa University, July 2004

Prevallet has experimented with recasting in other ways. She resisted her “inclination to write new poems just because [she was] bored with reading” her book, I, Afterlife: Essay in Mourning Time by recasting the elegiac work from a focus on personal loss to shared grief, “public mourning.” (Read her description in an issue of Big Bridge edited by Dale Smith. Prevallet's essay is catalogued in the section, “Gallery 1: Looking Around”).

By recasting poetry one views it as “probably unfinished” as Middeton writes (24) “The density of social spaces within a specific geography has also increased enormously, producing social distances that contemporary literary texts have to weather somehow, treating them either as local distances of climate aginst which the text must be proof, a background noise to be ignored, or a field of difference to be celebrated and incorporated into textual production” (3). Recasting a poem is a way of embracing that “field of difference“ to consider how the poem might be charged anew.

I have been thinking through these possibilities in my poetic practice, experimenting with recasting poetry through my project, Remember to Wave. Because I am interested in inexpert inquiry (something I'll explore in a future commentary), I wanted to leave the inquiry open to change. Composed and performed as a walk, Remember to Wave evolved in part because of how other people participated. But I also became interested in recasting the work off-site, both through creating a book and various maps and through reading variations of the work in various contexts, whether a few miles from the walk in a neighborhood bookstore or thousands of miles away. Each iteration contributes to “the long biography of the poem” and helps me sustain attention.

There's a whole lot of language out there. A mess of it, actually. Producing poems rapid-fire heaps more language onto that mess, as we busy ourselves with it all. Yet, poetic form is a way of gathering the mess into significance. By staying with a poem, rethinking it, recasting it, one might create a dynamic, sustained form for gathering the mess. 

Poetry is no fence

Border Crossing Culvert
Border Crossing Culvert

I can’t imagine I need to explain my absence from the Jacket2 site, other than to myself, but just in case... I didn’t drop off the face of the earth (as those of you expecting a twice-weekly post might have thought—though I suspect “those of you” are really only me, and long ago I ceased actually expecting to meet my own expectations, much as I might yearn—however uslessly—to do so or feel irked—however unendingly—by not doing so), but I did cross the border between San Ysidro and Tijuana through a runoff tunnel (i.e. sewage culvert) underneath a binational (trinational if you also count the strip of no-man’s land between the two massive fences as a “nation”) border patrol access road. This past weekend, with my compañero in the world of language justice organizing, John Pluecker, I worked as an interpreter with Political Equator 3, the cross-border urban ecologies conference organized by Estudio Teddy Cruz. There’s already been some press about PE3 in various places, so far most thoroughly at Jill Holslin’s superb blog At the edges; additionally, JP and I are planning to write a longer post at some point about the experience as it relates to community-based projects and language justice.

Border Fence
Border fences, San Ysidro-Tijuana, from the Tijuana side

There’s nothing quite like being on a contested border to bring home the combined futility and hostility of fencing, patrolling, surveilling and excluding. And it is differently yet equally compelling to contemplate the border in its entirety, as if it could be contemplated as a whole thing, rather than a series of related and unrelated moments in space.

Border Fence Drawing
Etched drawing on the border fence, Tijuana side

Reading across cultures and across languages feels like a very different and simultaneously not so very different sort of border crossing (or crossings). It’s not especially easy, and not especially smooth, and not especially automatic, which is, in my view, what makes it so especially useful. I could go on about this from a political, ethical, or social point of view—or from the perspective of creating new and more activated literary ecologies—but instead I want to attempt (repeatedly, hence the titling of this post “part one”) to answer a question that I’ve been asked many times before. Once in a while, a person who is interested in reading more outside the U.S. context or in beginning a practice of translating contemporary Latin American literature will ask me how to find work by emerging, not-the-usual-suspects, not-always-already-conventionally-legitimated writers.

Locating writers whose work engages and excites us—from anywhere, local or not—is a rhizomatic, sometimes haphazard, often intuitive process. One thing (or text) leads to another, which leads to another, which leads elsewhere altogether. The same way I recommend that my students read literary journals before they begin submitting to them, so they can identify places they’d be excited to share their work, projects to support and by which to be supported, and spaces where their work might find an apt home in kindred company, I’d suggest that folks interested in translating start to read online or print journals that might introduce them to writers whose work isn’t yet familiar to them, and then to follow the non-linear and often circuitous threads proposed by those writers/writings, to see where further explorations might lead. So, rhizomatically, we might gain a sense of poetries that interest us by reading poetries that interest us. (If that seems like a tautology, that’s fine, though I don’t intend it as such and actually believe that’s the way learning works.)

The work of hundreds (or perhaps, by now, thousands) of contemporary writers from all over the Americas (and the backwards extension of Latin America, Spain—an honorary “American,” we might say, sort of, if colonialism can be considered any kind of “honorary”?...) is available through the linked series of autonomous self-curated collections of poetry known as afinidades electivas/elecciones afectivas (elective affinities/affective elections—though it might be more denotatively accurate (yet less sonically apt) to translate that title as “chosen affinities/affective choices).

The first afinidades electivas/elecciones afectivas was created in Argentina some years ago (in 2006 the site registered its first hundred poets, so my guess is that it was created in 2005 or thereabouts; surely I could get more concrete information by contacting Alejandro Méndez, who curates/facilitates the site, and perhaps at some other point I’ll do that—or perhaps you will, dear reader, and you’ll send me your correspondence with him, which I’d be glad to translate and post here).

If you click on “links” in the left-hand bar of the Argentinean site, you’ll get to the links of other similar sites in Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Italy (defying my claims that it’s an “American” project—oh well!), México, Panamá, Perú, Spain, the United States, Uruguay, and Venezuela, as well as links to magazines, small presses, and a variety of other projects. There are different links on each of the affinities pages, which together provide an amazingly full and inspiring (also overwhelming) view of contemporary writing in Latin America (or Latin America-plus, to be accurate).

So get to it! (That’s an exhortation to myself, as much as to anyone else, of course...)

Susan Bee / Charles Bernstein collaboration

see images and full  text of poem.

A note on the Baroness

Irene Gammel and I corresponded on and off during the time she was writing her fine biography of the Baroness Elsa von Freytag Loringhoven. It's the only fully/carefully researched book about the Baroness that's been published. Here is the blurb I wrote for it:

The Baroness cut the most compelling modernist figure. She literally wore New York dada, thus inventing it as a pattern of aesthetic costume to be worn so tight that it was her skin, her self. She was, as Irene Gammel puts it in this remarkable biographical study, an "assemblage of paradoxes embodied in one body." That the Baroness knew and inspired or inspiringly repelled nearly everyone associated with the rise of modernist practice in New York has been already part of the story, but it has never been so richly detailed. In Gammel's presentation the Baroness emerges as far more than an ingenue. She became a mature, self-conscious dynamic artistic force--and remarkably productive in her own right, not despite but because she exhausted herself up from the inside out.

My students and I study the Baroness briefly during "chapter 2" of my course on modern and contemporary American poetry. Scroll down to the last lesson on this page and see various links to Baroness materials.

 (blank book response project, bathroom stall, Mills College)
(blank book response project, bathroom stall, Mills College)

Some notes on reading groups. Sentences contributed by others, remixed by me. For more information on participants and procedure, see Part I.

The text is a conclusion in which I’m complicit due to my silence.

If it remains in the realm of textual politics: snooze.

How this different time and attention can, and often does, generate alternative ways of proceeding (a la a community of flaneurs), about where to wander next, in the same text, in a different text, through a reading list evolving from the discovered questions and interests of the group.

Where the she meets the reader.  


I forgot to use it and now it seems not to exist.

Without knowing all the groups, I'm going to guess (and ask, and wonder?) why is gender still such an issue?

Right now I think the community in the Bay Area is rightfully pretty fond of itself.

I participate in what is now a daylong series of groups studying languages other than English. 

What anxiety? 

My mother-in-law, who will die soon due to metastatic breast cancer, in a kind of hushed panic, said to her daughter, Emily, "I'm not afraid of where I'm going, I'm just not sure how I'm going to get there." Maybe that has something to do with wanting to get together with other people.

I find my brain sucks it up in a way that it is more ready to process it and make tangible connections; because the space isn't "class in the academy" then political work seems much more relevant, much more possibly shared or alluded to, because it becomes another text, another source of reference that could easily be written up and read by the group also.

Setting or at least discussing boundaries and expectations at the beginning might help alleviate some the anxiety. 

I suppose what I would most like to say is that I've avoided the reading/talking groups because the moments when I yield to the idea group, thinking that the group might have something to do that is different or nourishing in the sense of my own work as a writer or my work as a person and so say "hey, ok, sure, GROUPS", I find myself in a space that is deeply frustrating and basically anti-nourishing. I want to say that this is because if I am using my scant free time to DO SOMETHING, I actually want to be DOING SOMETHING and I haven't ever been in a situation where a bunch of people talking about Marxism has ever gotten to the point where people suddenly do SOMETHING/ANYTHING revolutionary besides reading and then telling each other about the reading. But maybe it is also because group dynamics are often annoying and hierarchical and depressing in the sense that they get dominated by that one guy in the corner in a room full of women or taken over by the back story of individual anxieties and grievances. 

Translate the following English sentences into Spanish.

5.  She understands the ideas, but she doesn't want to talk. 

Ella entiende las ideas pero no quiere hablar.

--Easy Spanish Step-by-Step, Barbara Bregstein

Let’s become strong enough to effect a shift towards reciprocity.

I don’t feel or anticipate mastery, but rather enjoy reconnecting with languages I studied in college, making progress in new languages, and sharing in others’ enthusiasm for the beauty of languages – the essential technology...?

We may find ourselves forgetting what we looked like then, how we dressed, or even what we said, charting time by what we read.

money is a dead woman because she was a whore this is obvious.  history is a dead woman who is dead and absent photograph forever and so history becomes forever and art is the historical lie of it all she is forsaken. --Alma, Alice Notley

I feel a little guilty today.

The three groups all have different participants, although some of the people are common in each group, and some interpenetration has occurred by which some people in one group linger into the next group and more or less become part of that group too, even if they’re not “studying the language” per se.

In Rukeyser’s words, language can be approached, “as we use it--as a process in which motion and relationship are always present...”

How time can move in a reading group is a particular pleasure, Off the academic clock of the classroom or seminar or conference, paces are set by the group.  

The desire to be perceived as humbly omniscient seems pathological.

I want to think about what about groups might be useful, what might be useful even in the inclusion/exclusion dynamic though it is painful, i.e. how to think positions, be fellow travelers, accept many tactics, make and keep allies, imagining from Dispersing Power the small groups that build the large group or federation or wave; that is, within the small group bonds of trust and affinity build, these bonds springboard action, daydreaming about groups meeting in a ridiculous group summit, anti-purity, a group of many groups not hiding their variousness but able to converse.


The ambitions are probably unique to each individual who arrives for one or more of these sessions, but ultimately, the series of sessions  demonstrates a collective approach to training in an area of knowledge very rarely approached outside of formal paths. 

I want to get my identity in order so that I can discourse honestly I mean with integrity.

As there is something calendrical to what was rendered by our hands, the potency of embarcation, and where this tutelage has sent me.

The reading group is another way of “spending” our “free time” (whatever “non-labor time” we can cobble together), a small step toward challenging the stiflingly private domestic structures which dictate what is the proper way to spend one's time--and with whom, a way of reactivating the potency in the interstices between the deadening work factories and daily work-horse maintenance.

I've noticed that including a period of reflection at the end can be super helpful too.

Correspondence becomes not a souvenir of the event, but the event itself, when located.

Tiredness and schedule conflicts from the rest of life are the worse problem.

It's kind of like binge reading, I'll read a lot the day of, or in the class and not at all ahead of time. I try not to be careful, and do less underlining.

I don't care how it impacts anyone's 'poetics' -- the stakes are too high for that question or i am not amidst the immediate privilege that question imparts unless wind or affinities do carry me there maybe i haven't couldn't arrive ever fine i will still operate.  

Three hours spent close reading two pages.  Or three books in three hours.   

It seems like tensions and frustrations can arise out of a lack of structure and that it can be helpful to designate someone as a group leader or facilitator.  This position could change with each meeting or stay the same, depending on the nature of the group (class, discussion, informal hangout etc.).  If someone can remove herself from the fray, at least part of the time, she can potentially help guide the discussion, ask questions, move it along or help untangle it when it hits an especially gnarly snag.  In my experience, having someone take on that role can enable the discussion to actually go much deeper, partly because I think it helps everyone present feel safe, like there are boundaries. 

I decided to host this group after reading Sara's chapbook, which was in such communication with Alma and so much, really, in communication, and more feels at stake than ever before and I holding two jobs and fight shyness and my beloveds keep leaving earth so do i really have the psychosomatic spacetime to host this kind of thing and will i figure out how to speak of course. 

Textual relation is amplified by the proximity of readers, so there is place in it.

I want feminist groups.

As a resource, gratified to pass out my first free reading texts to a study group which was Subjectivity and Otherness: A Philosophical Reading of Lacan by Lorenzo Chiesa and later Lee Edelman's No Future--for free!

There’s a lot of humor in my Sanskrit study group, partly, I believe, because the language is so difficult and also because the dynamic of people is very fun-loving; we inevitably find ourselves in bouts of hilarity that afterwards leave me wondering how to retell the joke to a friend, like, what was the joke about? Oh, someone offering a mneumonic for a letter that relates to a rain cloud. Not translatable.

It is different for me to want to spend my very limited free time reading books with others. I find I value the presence and thought of others for how it adds to and interrupts my own thinking.

i can get myself to the reading group (sometimes), but i'm often overwhelmed by the number of valences, "stories" (architecturally-metaphorically speaking), the speed, the discourses. i wish i were not overwhelmed. i wish i were energized.

Who sets the agenda?

Reading for a reading group makes the content more memorable; it's like reading a shared document where things get highlighted and pulled into multiple tracks in my mind and memory. I read names and dates and events as if I am sitting at a desk, reading it will sitting upright, except I am in an easy chair at home, or lying in my bed, with a pencil in hand. It becomes immediately shared and connected to the people I will talk about it with and then it sticks so well in my mind.

I open the directions before anyone arrives -- there must be root vegetables as a grounding compliment to the etherial (words) intention of evening, burdock root and other spleen/liver helpers, roasted (fire), and tarragon, definitely tarragon, "whose spirit provides positive energy for producing change". 

There seems to be a desperate desire to understand/destabilize/topple our catastrophic contemporary socio-economic situation—gathering as a group to discuss a text together is just one expression of this outpouring desire.

It is a small thing, but it is a mighty thing, to put one’s body in a creatively-organized environment with other bodies to think together (outside of the usual restrictive apparatuses), to maybe feel what a collective thinking body might be.

I am thinking in a more public me (thought not a maybe-stressful-in-a-meeting-me) when I am reading and I am also thinking in writing-creating project tracks.

These sessions happen on Sundays, and they happen at the house where two people live who participate in the group; this is extremely convenient, as some people in the groups live in San Francisco and most live in the East Bay.

That seems like the important question. What are these groups substituting for?

it is exploratory learning with others. what could be better?

I want to extend the limits of my individual body to encounter other bodies more readily, and more often, in order to develop new ways of gathering, interacting, discoursing, approaching what a text is, who can read it, how it can be interpreted, and how it can be used.

I cannot measure jumping when I am jumping.

As much as I try to eat beforehand, I often don’t have time and end up arriving to study groups hungry, but there always seems to be food there: usually pastries and always coffee/tea, sometimes frittata, kale soup, quinoa, toast with butter, waffles, strawberries, and chocolate.

Some of the same leaders and group tensions and identifications and valorized texts and friendships and cadres. 

I think for a reading group to feel good to me, there needs to be a pact first between the readers/talkers that we together are a social order worth upholding. This means not establishing our social order at the expense of the text, and not basing our social order on the text.  I want eros to be in the middle of the room between us: The words that come out of our mouths, the lines and letters on pages to be really, in the service of us. I feel a desperation that this picture of a way of talking, with nuance and accuracy and authenticity, right here, right now, may not be possible.

4-6, but like the idea of large chaotic groups of inclusive membership although you always here one or two members speak. I prefer the work group in which each member is accountable. 

Tea and coffee are consumed in great quantities, and recently there has always been a frittata courtesy of David and a quinoa soup courtesy of Sara.

I want a social fabric beyond heterogeneity.

Anxiety about authoritative space. Anxiety and pleasure around eating together.  

There is no 'private' group. 

It helps to have people to talk through non-fiction with.  I don’t see the point of non-fiction if it is not going to be shared. Why accumulate thoughts and ideas about our world if one is going to live, think and speak alone?

I am motivated to read things all the way through.

The overwhelming need which finds expression in the gathering—various and imperfect and exhausted and touchy and dreamy and hopeful and inspiring and loving—is a symbol of the power within each of us, and most powerfully in an us, a collective.

I'm not going to name them. 

Compared to a grad seminar, talk is more all over the place, as if people stand for people and are not just cogs in the system. But that is sometimes painful, in a different way than grad seminars are painful.

Such that the power of our ideas about these collectively read texts might be a bit more nuanced, fluid, open, and also entrenched in our living (see Kanye’s line which is not exactly on point (the problem of the figures) but gets at something I mean: “I am the day Ice Cube met Michael Jackson / keep them away, huh, something might happen.”)

I think that, almost beyond the back of consciousness, people who identify as artists are coming to understand that the current catastrophe is not one that is going to be helped much by art, and that such an idea is a holdover from the cultural politics of a previous century. But at the same time, there is a sense that militant left action (I mean a real left, not the let's-all-vote! liberalism which has somehow gotten named "left" in the sorry realignment of our era) has often oriented itself around reading groups, in the same way that fascist groups oriented themselves around shooting clubs in pre-war Germany. "Orient" is a key word here, because it suggests that the reading that the reading group does is — important, a pleasure — but not its goal or function; it provides a coordinating signal as the group moves toward some kind of action that is not the reading or making of texts.

Ambition is applying energy to thought.

Sometimes I dread going to my Sunday language study group, because it’s a long drive over the bridge, lasts hours, but once I’m there I feel so grateful to be having this ongoing conversation/communal learning around languages with such a caring group of friends, that I wonder why the dread?

I think that the poetry community's increased engagement with reading groups is a desire for something beyond reading groups.

Am hosting but not leading -- hope no one leads no voice anywhere but all giving ourselves huge swaths of permission. 

Sometimes I act on it but hopefully with restraint.

i think for sanity's sake, i'm not only opting out of groups, but i'm opting out of conversations about the groups, esp public ones. it gives the illusion of feeling generative, but ultimately leaves me feeling utterly devoid of content and inspiration.

A tricky question. Contre Freud, there is no leaderless group.