Commentaries - July 2011

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.

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.)

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.

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

How can we once again common a commons?

“What is your address?

you are everywhere

and nowhere at once” (Anarchive, 71) An address, as physical location, necessarily connotes boundaries, ownership, enclosure. Land is demarcated and receives an address, a name and number, so that it can be owned, so that it can enter into an economy of production and consumption. But as you, dear Stephen Collis, through your multi-volume, on-going work, “The Barricades Project,” turn the address back into an address, into speech, into the spoken toward someone, I, among many, find myself addressed and become part of this spoken which is not enclosed, not monetarily and economically situated, and which moves. And the spoken that you evoke between us, dear Collis, is not in straight lines, it meanders land and lexicons and authors, swims in rivulets, gets tangled in brambles.

Anarchive addresses the commons throughout and thus holds a part of The Commons within it, and it also includes translations of Ramon Fernandez. Translations of Ramon Fernandez by Alfred Noyes with an afterword by Stephen Collis make up the Quixote Variations. In The Commons, signed by Stephen Collis, an introduction to “The Barricades Project,” written by Ramon Fernandez and Alfred Noyes, appears at the end of the book. So parts of every book are folded into each book, and each book propagates several subjectivities as its authors. In the Quixote Variations although Fernandez is the author per say, we receive his voice through his translator, Noyes, who in fact holds the copyright to the book, while Collis provides the afterword. A move that is reversed in The Commons, where Fernandez and Noyes get to have the last word at the end of the book as they introduce “The Barricades Project” in an “introduction” which also functions as an afterword to The Commons. Time is folded as well, for although Fernandez disappeared in 1936, he turns up in Barcelona in 2007 to collaborate with Noyes on this afterword, and since the “after” is quite complex in this instance the whole section gets called an “introduction.”

And to further fold matters, in this introduction/afterword we discover, if we hadn’t already, that throughout The Commons we have in fact meandered along with “the so-called mad peasant poet John Clare,” “the primitivist Henry David Thoreau,” the spirit of “William Wordsworth,” as well as “a host of authors of Romantic Guides and Tours.” (138-39) So the subjectivities of all these authors rise through various voicings, embodiments and gestures to fracture and shadow the surface of the page/landscape, and in so doing populate it. These acts of populating create a commons.

A commons, as Collis reminds us, “is the absence of the private. It is not collective ownership but collective use of the unowned, the unownable…” (Commons, 139) Collis’ work is not bound within one book, but extends across the physical boundaries of several books, it is work that can be said to in fact exist between books. Yes, language is unownable and thus the common of commons, yet this work makes a further claim in its foldings, which is that an “author” is also in a way unownable, that an “author” can also be a “commons.”  So Stephen Collis can write “John Clare” and Alfred Noyes can write “Stephen Collis.” And so the work folds and folds again and folds again.

As it folds into one of Collis’ current projects, a collaboration with Jordan Scott called DECOMP. In 2009, they left 10 identical copies of Darwin's Origin of Species in five distinct BC ecosystems, and let them decay there for a year. As Collis tells us, they “were curious about the strange things many people were saying about so-called ecopoetics, so we wanted to see how different "environments" would "read" a text. True to form, each ecosystem had something different to say about Darwin's text. As far as a compositional process, we were probably more interested in "variation" than "natural selection" (we had of course engaged in some very "unnatural selection" ourselves). We were also curious about the possibilities of an "organic" conceptual poem (since conceptualism so often celebrates the machinic and technological).”


Stephen Collis is a member of the Kootenay School of Writing and lives in Vancouver, where he teaches American literature, poetry, and poetics at Simon Fraser University. His books include Anarchive (New Star, 2005) and The Commons (Talonbooks, 2008), which form parts of the on-going “Barricades Project,” and most recently On the Material (Talonbooks, 2010). In January 2011, he presented his work at "North of Invention: A Canadian Poetry Festival."

All images courtesy of Stephen Collis.