Commentaries - July 2011

with excerpt: new@Sybil

Bergvall in Stockholm

photo: ©Cecilia Gronberg: Weld Gallery OEI reading, May 10, 2011

Caroline Bergvall has emerged over the past decade as one of the most brilliantly inventive poets of our time. Bergvall's new book, Meddle English, is multilectical, conceptual, sprung lyric – let's just say pataque(e)rical  –  extravaganza.

At Sibyl, the English portal of Sibila, we've published Bergvall's own excerpt from the first piece in her new book, which I asked her to send my way as I was eager to have at least part of this work readily accesible on-line. Here are two crucial passages which are for me a kind of manifesto for writing in our time, for the kind of poetries I want: a poetry that doesn't accept English as a standard but as a site for meddling: a meddling that allows for the kind of transformation that is the foundation of exchange. Indeed, Bergvall's comments on voice strike me as getting to the heart of a central concern in the expanded field of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E: the aversion of "voice" in the pursuit of voices, voicings.

I repeat what many have said, that poetic or art language must not
implicitly be held to account of identities and national language,
the seductions of literary history, or the frequently fetishistic
methodologies of art movements, but rather seek, far and close, the
indicators and practices of language in flux, of thought in making:
pleasured language, pressured language, language in heated use,
harangued language, forms of language revolutionized by action,
polemical language structures that propose an intense deliberate
reappraisal of the given world and its given forms.

More often than not, we each use a voice that speaks for us before we
get to speak. Quite apart from the ideological implications and
beyond palliative arts methodologies, this is why so many of us
spend so much of our lives and imagination working at the undoing
of a voice or identity we do not wish to be tagged as and questioning
the methods of environments we might not wish to represent. It is
through this confusing, seemingly self-defeating process of dissociation,
of "disloyalty", that other forms of allegiances are made manifest
and other conductor channels can be generated.

In addition to its opening work of poetics, Meddle English includes a substantial selection of the Bergvall's remarkable Chaucerian vocal insinuations and extensions, as well as many other works that skirt the boundaries among sound/performance/visual/textual. Bergvall's Meddle English dwells in the space between languages, which for her is not an abstraction, not an idea, but an embodying/enveloping ground. Moving from but burrowing into ESL/PSL (English/poetry as a second language), Bergvall's bravura performances move toward a fluid third term, not bilingual but n-lingual, as in the the final section of "Cropper," woven with permutations of an English phrase in Norwegian and French, which brings us back around to her layered excavations of middle English, where the old literally melts into the new. Bergvall's is a poetics of the "nomadic" (in Pierre Joris's sense)  and "disfluency" (as Jordan Scott uses the term), where blockages, stuttering, error, code switching, and skips are not fragments of lost whole but stiches that make up a fabric. In Meddle English the frogs in our throats become catnip.

Read the full selection from "Middling English" here.

I recently read with Bergvall in Copenhagen. Her marvelous reading that night is now on PennSound. It's a good place to being an acquaintance with Bergvall or to renew one:
Copenhagen, Gyldendal, May 8, 2011
(19:04): MP3

Note: parts and versions of Meddle English are on line:
Bergvall's "Cat in Throat," which appears in a shorter version in the book, was published in Jacket 37.
From "Shorter Chaucer Tales": "The Summer Talke" in Jacket 31, "The Franker Tale in Jacket 32 . "The Not Tale" in Poetry (listen also the PennSound recordings).

& do see  Michael Leong's review just out of Meddle English in the Brooklyn Rail.

Bergvall at PennSound
& be sure to listen to her Close Listening program.

attempt to photograph spider web (right)

I'm in this sort of, ok very odd location for thinking here once more about bay area poetry community stuff: not at home, but not that far away either, at an artist residency program. It's not something I've had the privilege of doing before, this going away to read and write in a quiet place with a few others scattered nearby. I never thought I'd be able, or want to read and write in such a quiet place; I've always felt most comfortable in those quiet places surrounded on all sides by the sounds of other people, cars, parks, the freeway that runs almost right above the house at night. I keep trying to figure out how to be in this other quiet. This incredible luxury. A constant fear of squandering time, which must be, at least in part, what I've been invited here to do.

The big difference right now feels like the distance between me and a BART station, the closest in Fremont or Millbrae, and neither anywhere within walking distance from where I sit watching two lizards who would like to come inside. They run up to the glass door every hour or so, peer in, dart from side to side, appear to do something like modified pushups. Last night I listened to what I am  pretty sure was an owl (hi dear people reading Alma), while up too late watching videos and reading about actions in solidarity with the Pelican Bay hunger strike, while up too late watching videos and reading about actions in protest of the most recent killing by BART cops, who shot Charles Hill on July 3, shot him three times in the chest,  a man so drunk witnesses described him as unable to stand.

I brought two crates of books with me, not really knowing what I would need, and am thinking today about the many relationships between the contents of those two crates and some sentences from some people on reading groups in the bay area, posted here a while ago. How much my reading is shaped directly by conversations with other poets, in so many different contexts and locations.

For instance, I brought a lot of poetry by Lyn Hejinian because of ongoing conversation with Del Ray Cross about her work.

I brought As Always, Julia, the letters of Julia Child and Avis Devoto,  because it was a gift from Cynthia Sailers, and because I'm hoping to return to a poem I wrote a while ago in which Julia Child and Julie Powell operate as murky allegorical figures.

I brought the Wack! catalog because Lauren Levin was talking about her experience of reading it in such a compelling and exciting way it made me want to read this all over again.

I brought Against Forgetting sort of because of reading "On the Concept of History" recently in the allegories group, and reading the Benjamin again made me wonder a few days later about Carolyn Forche's The Angel of History, which I've never read, and also brought with me, and how Forche is one of those poets whose writing I have a weird relationship to, who was somewhat important to me as an undergraduate, at least the few poems I read, in what class I cannot now remember? and who I came later to perceive as unfashionable, something around the problem of the very idea of witness, coherency, positionality, and whose work I subsequently failed to think through again in any meaningful way, and am hoping to maybe do so now.

I brought Blanchot's The Writing of the Disaster because I seem to be always reading it. And also this is related to the previous paragraph.

I brought Karen Tei Yamashita's Through the Arc of the Rainforest  because I-Hotel was some of my last summer's July, the symmetry of that, and because David Buuck loaned this one to me months ago now, after she read at Mills.

I brought René Daumal's Mount Analogue because Cedar Sigo suggested it to me so long ago.

I brought The Many Headed Hydra in part because Kit Robinson loaned it to me this year when we were talking about his idea for a poets theater piece taken from its pages, and in part because I only got to read a bit of it before Clive Worsley borrowed it from me and then he finished it and now I have the time to read it, and because this book feels related to a lot of other things in the two crates.

I printed out and brought all of the Petroleuse Press chapbooks with me because of ongoing conversation and thinking, coming out of the Durutti Free Skool I participated in this spring.

I brought two of the books for the upcoming Durutti Free Skool big meetup, in part because I can't stop thinking about and responding to them, in part because I want to keep them close to the top of my brain for August, and in part because I'm trying to think about Caliban and the Witch in relation to Home/Birth, by Arielle Greenberg and Rachel Zucker.

I brought Home/Birth because Michelle Tarantsky so kindly sent it along for me to review after I mentioned it in a previous post here, and because I'm hoping to write that review this month.

I brought With the Weathermen and Arm the Spirit in part because Jess Heaney leant them to me, and in part because these are the books I read immediately before and after Home/Birth, on two very long plane rides last month, and I want to think about these three things together, and in part because I can't stop reading about women and resistance movements, which is also why I brought Assata: An Autobiography, which I talked about with Sara Larsen and Lindsey Boldt after the gender talk at Brian Ang's a while ago. This reading on women and resistance movements is also why I brought The Women Incendiaries, and also sort of why I brought The Wanderground, which caught my eye in the library with its title and lavender spine, and is such a weirdly perfect example of something, and definitely why I brought Reflections on the Way to the Gallows: Rebel Women in Prewar Japan, but also I brought this last one because I heard about Kaneko Fumiko for the first time a few weeks ago at a talk on "Resisting Gendered Order: Histories of Anarchist and Nihilist Women."

That talk is the last thing I attended in the bay area before heading out of town for a while, and I keep wanting to discuss the evening some more with the several bay area poets I saw there. I keep thinking about the various similarities between activist/punk/anarchist communities and poetry communities, each with their specialized languages, each with some not always clear to me divides and arguments around the street/the academy. On the train on the way back from the talk, Juliana Spahr and I talked about how we wanted something from the talk which we didn't really get, like we wanted to hear more about how the women of the Paris Commune protected the cannon, what exactly they did with their bodies, how they moved their arms or legs, in what direction, when they threw themselves between it and the troops, or when they threw themselves on it, we talked about some of the tactics described in Raúl Zibechi's book Dispersing Power, the pulga (flea), the wayronko (ground beetle), the sikititi (red ant). The beetle especially, sort of obsessed with the wayronko, with its "movement without a route or prior plan, like the flight of the beetle, which seems to lack any predictable direction." I keep feeling astonished every time I encounter a beetle in my workspace here (think it is this fellow but am not sure) for their movement is truly erratic. Sometimes I think they think I am a bear and are dashing from side to side to confuse me.

I've missed a lot of other things here, such as the 1987 California Department of Conservation Division of Mines and Geology's Earthquake Planning Scenario For a Magnitude 7.5 Earthquake on the Hayward Fault in the San Francisco Bay Area (there are a lot of maps) and some books on Oakland that I've been meaning to read forever, and because I keep trying to write about Oakland: Chris Rhomberg's No There There, Robert O. Self's American Babylon, Albert Vetere Lannon's Fight or be Slaves. But also all the things I brought for no apparent reason, like White Noise, what was that about?

As I write this I keep feeling the things I'm missing, the sounds of other people, cars, parks, the freeway that runs almost right above the house at night. Pots and pans outside the prison. Miguel Guttierez and Hot Probs, no kidding, with Susie Bright! tonight! at Radar, this list could be so long, the Berkeley Neo-Baroque Press reading last night, Lindsey Boldt and Dodie Bellamy last weekend, and so many other things I probably don't even know I'm missing. But also I keep feeling the sounds that get made together, the less tethered sounds, the reading and thinking together sounds, things moving and slipping, coursing between people. The sound that runs right above the house at night. The owl. The spiders. The lizards. The sticky webs.

A conversation with Jared Hayes

Jules Boykoff

In his book Ideas of Space in Contemporary Poetry, Ian Davidson has written that in terms of poets’ response to the “spatial turn” he believes,  “The most satisfying responses to spatialization and globalization are from those poets who engage with those processes through both the content of their work and through experimentations in poetic form” (p. 27). One poet whose “experimentations in poetic form” I’ve found consistently thought-provoking is Portland, Oregon-based poet Jared Hayes.

JB: In the mesostic poems posted below how does your methodology emerge in terms of both form and content?

JH: in the poems posted, my methodology emerges through chance operations and formal boundaries. i decided that for this project, titled, the dead love, i would attempt an architecture that fosters new ways of reading material i had been spending a lot of time with. i was trying to undo, demilitarize, deconstruct, re-perform, pre-perform my own reading of material based on ethics. most of the texts i had been reading (and continue to read) have to do with the ethics of philosophy, poetics and psychoanalysis. as i read these texts they seemed to call for their own distribution or dissolution. by chancing through a long series of quotes i had compiled from my readings i went about composing a new path of reading through writing. so more specifically, the content is bound by the texts i have been reading. and because these texts continue to point toward otherness, void, and psychoanalytic formation, the arising of the mesostic form seemed to fit well as one way to let those ideas and formations become. 

Two poems by Jared Hayes: 

imaginary zenith
hands and more hands together
renew the ancient problem

wing sounds in the dark
where these ears are
the name of an other
my desire stranded

a mirror loves rapture
sleeping in your mouth
everything is
event of meeting      difference


what matters who’s speaking
“I” is nothing
what we come to know

as I sd to my friend
there is no ethics without
the darkness

how the world is
around us
limitless field

JB: How do you see these poems as social? How are they spatial?

JH: i believe that language is inherently social. sociality is the stuff of language. so with that in the forefront of my thinking i like to imagine hospitality: open invitation, threshold, exploration, communion. i don't want to tell someone how to experience the architecture and content of my home. rather, my hope is to provide a container for  active dialogue and thinking. in that sense i am also thinking of the authors of the texts which these poems are culled from. i want the authors from which i am culling to be an active part of the dialogue in the same way the print on the wall or the fabric of the couch or the ceramic of a mug might take center stage and speak in a conversation among us. i'd like to provide context for a multiplicity of voice, of interpretation and dialogue at the same time holding the ethic of hospitality paramount in the text. the social space of hospitality is the point from which i hope to begin. 

these poems are spatial in a few different ways to my thinking. i think of them as engaging a space on the page, a historical space, a contemplative space, a psychoanalytic space, a de-compositional space. these spaces forming and dissipating differently through the poem for each active guest. in the act of creating this writing i have been thinking quite a bit about de-compositional processes in nature, the slowness of attempting to cultivate new and different practices of community. my process has aimed toward taking my own relationships to texts and trying to slowly let them decompose and dissolve within an architecture of hospitality: to become a place for animals to gather. 

JB: In our commentaries we’re exploring moxie politik—poets taking poetry off the page and intervening in various social spaces. I know you have an interest in poets vaulting into the public sphere. Who is doing this now in ways you find provocative? Who’s got the moxie?

JH: chicago poet jennifer karmin has the moxie! jennifer's projects get me all excited about a public poethic. her projects have inspired me to find ways to move outside of the page...or to move the page outside. one project i've found very exciting in it's community engagement is a walking poem jennifer staged in chicago starting at the chicago picasso sculpture. asking poets to send her poems and walking directions, jennifer read a poem out loud then gave a copy of the poem read to a passerby or listener in an envelope that read on the outside, "this is for you." then she continued on with the motion directions given by each poet. these kinds of pedestrian poetic gestures are activist and important to the vitality of our communities. moxie!


For an engaging example of inwardly spatial readings of texts, see Davidson’s (2007: 31-32) gloss on Alice Notley’s work as well as Kim Duff’s (2008), consideration of the urban spatiality in the poetry of Louis Cabri and Rodrigo Toscano.

Ian Davidson, Ideas of Space in Contemporary Poetry, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.

Kim Duff, “The Spatial Logic of Louis Cabri and Rodrigo Toscano’s Urban Poetics,” XCP: Cross Cultural Poetics 19 (2008): 22-40.

a.rawlings performing with Maja Jantar at Stichting Perdu in Amsterdam, 28 May 2010. All photos taken by Frank Keizer.

How does text eat itself?Prologue (a.rawlings, Wide slumber for lepidopterists)

How does a text sound itself?

How does a body text itself?

How does a voice body itself?

How does a sound eat its voice?

How does a voice body its eat?

These are some of the productive questions that arise when faced with a.rawlings’ work, a work manifested in the arena of the printed page, in the voice and composition of its performed embodiment and in a moment full of presence and risk unfolding between rawlings and one of her collaborators.

rawlings practices what Umberto Eco called an “open work,” an approach perhaps more common in music, yet less common in poetic practice, where “every performance explains the composition but does not exhaust it. Every performance makes the work an actuality, but is itself only complementary to all other possible performances of the work.” (Umberto Eco, “The Poetics of the Open Work”)

This is a work that is textual and textural in both its written and voiced forms. In oscillating between text, sound, movement, improvisation, rawlings composes an embodiment of language akin to an organism; a composition which, like an organism, is fluid, alive, evolving vulnerable and risky. Her inscribed pages demand that we improvise their possible renderings; her performances layer and make concrete a vocabulary of sound and movement, they make language happen.

In the din of traffic on a busy urban street I write. There is the breeze fickle with rain, the birds full of morning and linden, the shifting gears of a truck, the whir of a cyclist’s wheels touching pavement, the hurried footsteps of a passerby. There is my breathing, the swallowing lurch of tea, the soft clicks of the keyboard. And in this, an improvised composition of a body in an environment, a composition that demands that I listen and that I happen, much in the way that rawlings demands of us through her work.

As an interdisciplinary poet and arts educator, a.rawlings has performed and published work throughout North America, Europe, and Australia. Her first book, Wide slumber for lepidopterists (Coach House Books, 2006) is being translated into French. In recent years, she has spent time in Belgium, Canada, and Iceland working on her next manuscripts, researching sound/text/movement with special emphasis on vocal and contact improvisation, and collaborating with local artists. Her current collaborators include experiential theatre company bluemouth inc. and Belgian artist Maja Jantar, Canadian musician Nilan Perera, and Canadian dancer Julie Lassonde. To listen, watch, discover some of a.rawlings’ work, including her work-in-progress, Environment Canada, meander through her author page at PennSound.