Commentaries - July 2011

Poetry and activism

The 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Canada

A much-photographed, controversial mural by artist Jesse Corcoran at the Crying Room Gallery in Vancouver

Jules Boykoff

 As a youngster I had unequivocally positive feelings about the Olympics. In part this was because I grew up in Madison, Wisconsin where winter sports were bigger than Jesus. During the 1980 Winter Olympics, which took place in Lake Placid, New York, I cheered mightily for fellow Madisonian Eric Heiden as he won five gold medals in speed skating, yelping at the tv screen as he swirled elegantly around the rink. This brought the poet out of ABC’s Keith Jackson who later described him as “a spring breeze off the top of the Rockies.” My parents even got me a stylish Eric-Heiden-esque rainbow hat, which I wore with great pride. (Later I attended Madison West High School where Heiden also went). That same Olympics the US hockey team won the so-called “miracle on ice.” The moment the hockey team won the gold-medal game is etched in the chalk and bones of my then-10-year-old mind. I remember the unbridled exhilaration pumping through my little body.

Eric Heiden and his stylish hat

My admiration for Olympics was rooted in an appreciation of athletic prowess, sangfroid under pressure, and the grit and determination to do one’s best under the media spotlight. At the time I knew nothing about the burgeoning commercialization of the Olympics, where television firms jockeyed behind the scenes with Olympic bigwigs for the best fiscal deal, where crony capitalists wined and dined each other in order to curry Olympic favor. During the 1980s and 1990s, under the leadership of Juan Antonio Samaranch, the Olympics were full-on commercialized. As Robert K. Barney, Stephen R. Wenn, and Scott G. Martyn note in their excellent book Selling the Five Rings: The International Olympic Committee and the Rise of Olympic Commercialism, the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles “ushered in the formalization of relations between the world of business and the Modern Olympic Movement” (p. 160). In May 1990 I got my own personal taste of the Olympic movement when I represented the US Olympic Soccer Team (U-23 National Team) in an international tournament in France. We played the Olympic teams from Brazil, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, and the Soviet Union. Again, at the time I was oblivious to the political and economic machinations that undergirded the Games. I was just playing soccer, and, I must say, quite enjoying it.

Fast-forward two decades to 2010 when Vancouver, Canada hosted the Winter Olympics. In the months preceding the Games, Kaia Sand and I had the good fortune of heading north to Vancouver a couple times to do poetry readings and performances with the Kootenay School of Writing. For me, the poetry communities in Vancouver are as exciting as they come: innovative, open, and engaged with the world. In fact, when I read in San Francisco at the 21 Grand Series in March 2010 and was asked to fill out a Spicerian “map of influence” I made it a north-of-the-border affair and I needed to add circles to include the many Canadian poets who have affected my outlook on poetry (and looking at my map, posted below, I could have used a bunch more circles!). 

Spicerian map of influence for 21 Grand

When Kaia and I were in Vancouver in late 2009 and early 2010 everyone was talking about the upcoming 2010 Winter Olympics. Poets were organizing against the Games, or at least against the idea of holding the Games in Vancouver. Leading up to and during the Games, poet-activists ramped up their dissent around three areas: indigenous rights, civil liberties, and the boondogglicious public financing of the Games. I ended up returning to Vancouver numerous times to interview activists and write articles about what they were up to (for example, see here and here and here). In an essay I wrote for New Left Review, I described the many endeavors poet-activists and their allies were engaged in during the Olympic moment. For instance, Cecily Nicholson, Nicholas Perrin, and Am Johal created the “Safe Assembly Project” at the VIVO Media Arts Centre where the “Evening News” program took place every other night. This forum blended the work of video activists who screened protest footage, artists who responded to and critiqued the Games, and panels that focused on specific themes that brought activists and scholars into conversation. Poetry played a key role in how the events unfolded, with Roger Farr and Steve Collis (whose work Oana Avasilichioaei wrote about recently at Jacket2) hosting the pirate-radio program “Short-Range Poetic Device.” These shows played periodically throughout the Olympics, featuring numerous innovative poets who readers of Jacket2 will be familiar with, people like Cecily Nicholson, Naava Smolash, Clint Burnham, Kim Duff, Donato Mancini, Rita Wong, and Jeff Derksen.

What was striking is that poets and poetry played a key role in anti-Olympics resistance. In my next few posts I’ll engage in conversation with poets who were involved in anti-Olympics activism, reflecting on what they did and why.

Online survey

The following is a brief survey of four projects - The Tolerance Project, Project Rebuild, endpipe line and The Apostrophe Engine - that either use a website as an interactive forum of collaborative work or collaborate with the web itself to generate work.

The Tolerance Project, coordinated by Rachel Zolf, was a collaborative MFA in creative writing (completed in May 2011) to which eighty-six writers and artists donated their poetic “trace” or “DNA” to compose The Tolerance Project Archive. Each poetic DNA in the archive was then assigned a barcode and all the poems composed for the MFA, and posted on The Tolerance Project blog, used only the content that could be found in this archive. Each poem is accompanied by a list of barcodes, which then function as portholes to the various poetic DNA used to compose the poem. In many respects, a MFA in creative writing can be said to be an economic endeavor. One exchanges money for instruction on “how to write” and also for the hope of consequent access to a position as an instructor of creative writing, perhaps in another MFA program. Zolf turned this economy into a gift economy of poetic exchange, challenging ideas of authorship and voice within the institution of a creative writing workshop.

Rachel Zolf’s poetic practice explores interrelated materialist questions concerning memory, history, knowledge, subjectivity and the conceptual limits of language and meaning. Her books include Neighbour Procedure (Coach House 2011) and Human Resources (Coach House, 2007).

Another online collaborative renovation is Project Rebuild constructed by Sachiko Murakami, who asks “what is a poem but a rental unit of language?”. Project Rebuild began with a single poem about the Vancouver Special, a particular type of housing built in Vancouver throughout the 1970’s and prevalent today in most of its neighbourhoods. Murakami then asked other writers to renovate this initial poem, and now through the Project Rebuild website, anyone can renovate any of the poems on the website and any of these renovations can then be constructed, repainted, redesigned or demolished again and again. Project Rebuild is a poetic neighbourhood, turning suburban sprawl into poetic sprawl.

Sachiko Murakami’s first poetry collection, The Invisibility Exhibit (Talonbooks, 2007), evoked the “Missing Women” of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Rebuild (which includes the initial poems of Project Rebuild) is coming out in September 2011. She lives in Toronto.

The endpipe line, spearheaded by Christine Leclerc is a project of poetic activism. Conceptualized as a response/ resistance to Enbridge’s Northern Gateway Project proposal to build two pipelines that would transport oil from Bruderheim, Alberta to Kitimat, British Columbia, this poetic line began in the fall of 2010. It had an initial goal of reaching 1,173 km of collaborative poetry, poetry that would speak to the pipeline project, as well as the ecosystems and communities that would be affected by the project, but has vastly surpassed that goal and is currently at 47,082.876 virtual km and growing.

Christine Leclerc is a Vancouver poet and activist. Her first book, Counterfeit came out from Capilano University Editions in 2008. (Photo by Jenn Bauer)

The Apostrophe Engine is a website created and operated by Bill Kennedy and Darren Wershler. Its homepage hosts the poem “apostrophe,” written by Kennedy in 1993, where each line of the poem, an extensive composite of “you are…” statements, is a hyperlink. By clicking on any line, The Apostrophe Engine will get to work and search the web for statements that start with “you are…” to generate a new poem, where each new line is a hyperlink. Although the website is currently in technical rehabilitation, a print version, apostrophe, was released in 2006 by ECW Press.

Bill Kennedy was the artistic director of the Scream Literary Festival (Toronto) from 1993 to 2011 and runs Stop14 Media, a new media consultancy. Update, a sequel to apostrophe, also written with Darren Wershler, used Facebook status updates as its source material and was released by Snare Books in 2010.

Darren Wershler’s books include nonfiction Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg, poetry the tapeworm foundry, as well as books on technology and culture including Internet Directory 2000 (co-written with Scott Mitchell) and Commonspace: Beyond Virtual Community (co-written with Mark Surman). He teaches at Concordia University in Montreal.

A few notes on the cultural cold war

Here's my introduction to a session featuring readings for the Rothenberg/Joris Poems for the Millenium back in 1998. In my 11-minute intro I tried to do something a little more than my usual brief, get-out-of-the-way segue to the main presenters. I wanted to say something in particular about Jerome Rothenberg's passage (as a young poet) through the cultural cold war. I make reference, for instance, to his discovery at the University of Michigan that in the 1950s Whitman was definitely on the outs — that Whitmanism in the 1950s was academically (if not also otherwise) dangerous. (To get to my comments about Rothenberg in the 50s, you can go immediately to a point halfway through the recording.)

Crosswalks & intersections

Image by Noah Saterstrom

While I was listening to the following recordings, I kept thinking about how my friend Noah Eli Gordon used to love finding yield-to-pedestrian crosswalks when we both lived in Western Massachusetts, and how much he enjoyed simply being able to walk across the street without worrying about being crushed by a huge SUV. (We had both grown up in different parts of the sprawling Midwest where cars never stopped for pedestrians.) I don’t want to dwell too much on this personal association, but listening to each of these recordings recreated some version of that feeling of being struck by a small moment of unexpected freedom in the immediate environment.

It’s not that these recordings are full of unequivocal happiness or unchecked optimism (there’s plenty of complication, violence, distress, and danger hovering around them all), but that they temporarily create spaces for the listener to experience the interplay of phenomena, a listening-feeling that acknowledges complexity and flux but doesn’t make one feel a sensory overload (though I love recordings that do that too).

While browsing through the PennSound Singles page a little while ago, I came across this wonderful talk by Kevin Killian at KWH in 1997. The talk occurs a year before the publication of Poet Be Like God, the biography of Jack Spicer by Killian and Lewis Ellingham. The recording includes a lengthy conversation between Killian and one of Spicer’s former students, Janet Spengler. Spengler provides some fascinating firsthand insights into Spicer’s teaching and personality, as well as the cultural climate of the era. Later in the recording Killian talks about Stone Marmalade, a play collaboratively written with Leslie Scalapino and published by Gil Ott’s Singing Horse Press. For me, part of the initial pleasure of listening to this recording was figuring out exactly what was happening after hearing a few intriguing minutes at the beginning. I’ve listened to it a few times, often coming in and out of the room to discover some new piece I had somehow missed before (like Scalapino doing research for the play by watching Julia Roberts films). I love the pace of the talk, how bits of context and moments of insight wash in gently from various directions. I even like the ragged moments of the tape at the very end when people are trying to figure out where to go afterward. I’d also recommend this recording of Killian reading at the Belladonna series in 2008 which I plan to return to in greater detail in a later post.

Marcella Durand’s recent Featured Resources selections (accessible on the PennSound main page) brought to light a recording of Lorine Niedecker tucked away in PennSound Singles. The editors and staff of PennSound subsequently segmented the recording and made a Niedecker author page. You can listen to Niedecker read the poem Thomas Jefferson from Harpsichord & Salt Fish. It’s always exciting to be able to hear the voice of an author who hasn’t been recorded much. It was also good to be able to listen to her brief, informal remarks on her own work here.

 I was excited to encounter this recording of Josephine Foo reading her poem The Frightened Child at the KWH in 1998 . I’ve been reading and enjoying her recent book, A Lily Lilies, which acts as a kind of document of the intersection between poetry, performance, dance, and visual art. You can listen to other recordings that employ indexes or numbered lists in an earlier post, Back Of.

This untitled piece by Amina Cain was recorded at the 2011 MLA Off-Site reading in LA. After reading I Go To Some Hollow  a while ago I was happy to be able to hear Cain read her work.  There’s a wonderful, gestural way Cain deals with physical spaces and social interactions in her writing. In short pieces such as this recording, people and environments barely have time to materialize before they go through several subtle transformations.

More artwork by Noah Saterstrom here.

Christian & the plains

video portrait of Christian Bok

Christian Bök
I met up with Christian and Brigitte a few days earlier. We had met at the noisy lounge at his hotel on West 55th and walked over to the Mandarin Oriental lobby sky bar overlooking Central Park. But it was too dark to take any pictures. I saw Christian again at Kenny's on New Year's Day. Cheryl's studio was fairly quiet and the light was right.
January 1, 2008
(mp4, 1 min. 2 sec., 8.1 mb)

full set of video portraits