Commentaries - July 2011

Risking a page or voice?

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.

Recording of Robert Creeley's responses to Martin Duberman's questions about Black Mountain College

Black Mountain College

We at PennSound are grateful to Jeff Davis for helping us make this recording available from the North Carolina Division of Archives and History, with permission from the Creeley family. The recording was made apparently in the late 1960s. It is available on PennSound's growing Robert Creeley page.

What brought you to Black Mountain? (1:17): MP3
In what capacity were you there? (2:32): MP3
What were your first impressions? (5:43): MP3
Did they subsequently change? (3:22): MP3
Who among the faculty or students impressed you? (2:17): MP3
Is it accurate to refer to a Black Mountain school of poetry? (8:44): MP3
What were BMC's particular strong and weak points? (4:55): MP3
Anything about the school's tone or procedures you wish were otherwise? (2:32): MP3
What satisfactions and tensions resulted from living at such close quarters?(5:07): MP3
What accounts for perennial faculty splits at BMC? (3:34): MP3
Did good relations exist between the college and the community? (9:40): MP3
Why did the college finally close? (1:07): MP3
How would you evaluate BMC's influence on your artistic growth? (11:16): MP3

complete recording (1:02:07): MP3

To speak or speak to what cannot be spoken

Los muertos

 What can be said?

Here is the text of the poem you just witnessed, "Los Muertos" by  María Rivera, originally published in an anthology titled Los muertos, a tenth-anniversary celebration of the independent press Mantarraya Ediciones, in which 22 writers offer perspectives on death given the particularly deadly sociopolitical context in which contemporary Mexico is enmired. Román Luján and I translated the poem into English collaboratively:

The Dead

There they come
the beheaded,
the handless,
the dismembered,
the women whose coccyx were smashed,
the men whose heads were crushed,
the little children crying
between dark walls
of minerals and sand.
There they come
those who sleep in buildings
that are clandestine graves:
they come with their eyes blindfolded,    
with their hands tied,
shot between the temples.
There they come, those who got lost somewhere in Tamaulipas,
brothers-in-law, sons-in-law, neighbors,
the woman they gang raped before they killed her,
the man who tried to make them stop and got a bullet instead,
the woman who was also raped, who escaped and told it, now comes
walking on Broadway,
comforting herself with the wail of ambulances,
hospital doors,
the light shining on the water of the Hudson.
There they come
the dead who left Usulután
La Paz,
La Unión,
La Libertad,
Sonsonate,
San Salvador,
San Juan Mixtepec,
Cuscatlán,
El Progreso,
El Guante,
crying,
those who were bade goodbye at a karaoke party
and were found shot in Tecate.
Here comes the one who was forced to dig a grave for his brother,
the one they murdered after collecting four thousand dollars,
those who were kidnapped
with a woman they raped in front of her eight-year-old son
three times.

Where do they come from,
from which gangrene,
oh lymph,
the bloodthirsty,
the soulless,
the butcher
murderers?

There they come
the dead—so lonely, so silent, so ours,
hooked one to the other under the enormous sky of the Anahuac Valley,
they walk,
they crawl,
with a bowl of horrors between their hands,
their terrifying tenderness.
They are called
the dead found in a ditch in Taxco
the dead found in remote spots in Chihuahua,
the dead found scattered among plots of land,
the dead found dumped in La Marquesa,
the dead found hanging from bridges,
the dead found headless in communal farmlands,
the dead found by the side of the road,
the dead found in abandoned cars,
the dead found in San Fernando,
the countless hacked to pieces and not yet found,
the legs, the arms, the heads, the femurs of dead people
dissolved in barrels.
They are called
remains, cadavers, deceased,
they are called
the dead whose mothers don’t get tired of waiting,
the dead whose children don’t get tired of waiting,
the dead whose wives don’t get tired of waiting,
picturing them among subways and gringos.
They are called
tiny sweater woven in a drawer of the soul,
tiny t-shirt for a three-month-old,
photograph of a toothless smile,
they are called mamita,
papito,
they are called
tiny kicks
in the womb
and the first cry,
they are called four children,
Petronia (2), Zacarías (3), Sabas (5), Glenda (6)
and a widow (girl) who fell in love in elementary school,
they are called wanting to dance at parties
they are called reddening of flushed cheeks and sweaty palms,
they are called boys,
they are called wanting
to build a house,
to lay bricks,
to give my children something to eat,
they are called two dollars for cleaning beans,
houses, haciendas, offices,
they are called
cries of children on dirt floors,
light flying over birds,
flight of doves in the church,
they are called
kisses at the edge of the river
they are called
Gelder (17)
Daniel (22)
Filmar (24)
Ismael (15)
Augustín (20)
José (16)
Jacinta (21)
Inés (28)
Francisco (53)
among bushes,
gagged,
in ranch gardens
hands tied,
in the gardens of houses with security systems,
fainted,
in forgotten spots,
disintegrating silently,
hushed,
they are called
secrets of hit men,
secrets of slaughter,
secrets of policemen,
they are called cry,
they are called fog,
they are called body,
they are called skin,
they are called warmth,
they are called kiss,
they are called hug,
they are called laughter,
they are called people,
they are called pleading,
they were called me,
they were called you,
they were called us,
they are called shame,
they are called cry.

There they go
María,
Juana,
Petra,
Carolina,
13,
18,
25,
16,
their breasts bitten,
their hands tied,
their bodies burnt,
their bones polished by desert sand.
They are called
dead women nobody knows nobody saw being killed,
they are called
women who go to bars at night alone,
they are called
working women who leave their homes at dawn,
they are called
sisters,
daughters,
mothers,
aunts,
disappeared,
raped
burnt to ashes,
thrown away,
they are called carne, flesh,
they are called carne, meat.

There
with no flowers
with no gravestones,
with no age,
with no name,
with no tears,
they sleep in their cemetery:

it is called Temixco,
it is called Santa Ana,
it is called Mazatepec,
it is called Juárez
it is called Puente de Ixtla,
it is called San Fernando,
it is called Tlaltizapán,
it is called Samalayuca
it is called El Capulín,
it is called Reynosa,
it is called Nuevo Laredo,
it is called Guadalupe,
it is called Lomas de Poleo,
it is called México

 
*

What can be said?


 

ni una más

The above is one of dozens of images found by searching  "ni una más" on google image: this one is located on the excellent indymedia site desinformémonos (disinform ourselves), where you can also find a photo gallery of images from the anti-violence march from Cuernavaca to Ciudad Juárez last month.

I’ve been thinking about this commentary for weeks, planning for it, working closely with Román  on the translation he initiated and originally read at one of the Evenings of Various Wonder at my home. And now that I’m in the midst of writing sentences I hope to share with you, whoever you are reading this, I find myself with almost nothing to say.

What can be said? What does poetry have to say to the most intimate, embodied, close-range atrocities and to the most institutionalized, impersonal, structural brutalities? It’s not that I think the answer to these questions is “nothing”—¡on the contrary!—but rather that there isn’t a single thing to do or say to make these realities bearable, either on a personal individual specific level or an a collective sociopolitical (and also specific) level. Atrocity and brutality are not and will not be bearable. So it is the task of art-making, of conversation, of learning (in school and irregardless of school), of reading and writing and researching—of all the ordinary and extraordinary experiences that make up a day or a week or a month or a lifetime—to “say something” different than the violence we are forced to witness everywhere. To make manifest a different way of being in the world.

Even in the most adverse of circumstances where our humanity and dignity and agency is eroded (or sandblasted or bomb-blasted) on a daily, minute-by-minute basis, it is possible to act with honor, clarity, self-respect, solidarity with others. It took me a while to figure out why the hunger strike at Pelican Bay (which inmates in at least one-third of California prisons are actively supporting with solidarity strikes, and which I encourage you to support by signing this petition and making any kind of noise you know how) kept reminding me of María’s poem and vice versa, why I kept returning to the hunger strike in my mind and via my browser as I fine-tuned the translation in an email exchange with Román. Perhaps it is that these two actions (each made of many actions)—the writing and public activation of this poem, a hunger strike based on demands for humane treatment—are two moments on a broad-spectrum continuum of speaking truth to power, taking direct transformative action for justice. Perhaps it is some sense that crystalline electrifying articulation of belief is in the deepest sense poetry.

I actually think, however—in addition to the possibilities above—that the link in this train of thought between the Zócalo in Mexico City and the yards of high-security prisons in California and elsewhere is the idea of impunity, as illustrated by both the government-sponsored violence against civilians in Mexico and the government-sanctioned inhumane treatment of people ensnared in the prison industrial complex in the U.S. And one work that activates this link, for me, is the documentary “Presunto culpable” (“Presumed Guilty”), by Roberto Hernández and Geoffrey Smith, which follows the narrative of one person (of many) wrongly convicted and incarcerated in Mexico for a crime he did not commit. The film was censored shortly after its release, but is available on YouTube; though there have been multiple court decisions in favor of the filmmakers’ right to show the film, the case is still in litigation (though some press suggests otherwise).


(There is also an English-language trailer, slightly different from the Spanish-language version.)

Silence colludes with impunity, makes it invisible, the shackling scaffold of the status quo. What I have to say—perhaps what any of us has to say—is entirely inadequate to the matters at hand, irremediably and disappointingly not enough, never enough. And not saying it—whatever it is—is absolutely and undeniably not an option. Even when “what can be said?” is all there is to say, as when death is being addressed, there is nothing to do but to say it.

Confluence of influence

“If activities and people are assembled, it is possible for individual events… to stimulate one another. Participants in a situation have the opportunity to experience and participate in other events.” (Jan Gehl, Life Between Buildings) When positing this simple idea, Danish architect Jan Gehl was imagining the kinds of urban architectures and public spaces that can encourage confluence and assembly, yet this is exactly what Margaret Christakos has created through Influency Salon: a space and structure where, on one hand, poetries and poetic practices can assemble, interact, exchange, and then disperse, though altered and affected by this exchange, while on the other, the exchange itself engenders active participants, i.e. responsive and engaged readers.

Influency is a forum, assembly hall, meeting space where eight guest poets, of varied practices, appear over some weeks to present both their work and a complex response to the work of one of their colleagues. Influency is also a course through the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies’ Creative Writing program, where those registered not only read the poets’ work but actively engage, respond, write through it. Influency is also an online salon described by Christakos as “its own hungry room, curious about new readers and writers who might visit, comment, critique, and become engaged with us in thinking through contemporary poetry’s effects and impacts.”

photo credit: Anthony BurnhamInfluency is a poetic project possibly at its most expansive form. It is a “book” with an open and fluid shape, where the letters are dialogues and pages are people. It is constantly expanding, though not linearly, but spatially and laterally and virtually. Influency allows for the convergence and divergence of ideas. Influency is movement and moving, creating avenues of poetic thinking, inquiring how something means, rather than what it means, and encouraging us all to join in the conversation.

 

Margaret Christakos has published eight collections of poetry and a novel, and has been active in the Toronto writing community since the late 1980s. Recent collections are Welling (Your Scrivener, 2010), What Stirs (Coach House, 2008) and Sooner (Coach House, 2005).

Influency has also led to the creation of RespondencyWest, a lecture and reading salon in Vancouver, facilitated by Jason Christie and Jordan Scott.

Photo credit: Anthony Burnham

Craig Saper: Something more intimate to what is called thinking

When we at the Writers House brought Craig Saper back to Penn in 2001 to give a talk about Fluxus, some of us attended because we are fascinated by Fluxus and really admire Craig's way of discussing such art. A few Writers House regulars came in spite of not having experienced Saper's brilliance at first hand, but because it was known around the House that he had praised KWH as a learning community (see below).  Others came because they still by then lamented the loss of Craig from the Penn faculty (by denial of tenure). On that occasion Joshua Schuster — he was by then a grad student but he'd known Saper from his days as an undergrad too — gave a fine introduction. Here is that introduction, in its entirety:

I have this vision stuck in my head of Craig Saper, at the University of Pennsylvania, in 1996, pulling up an essay by Walter Benjamin and reading: "I am unpacking my library. Yes, I am." It was a storybook beginning to a storybook class. We were confronted from the outset that there was a crises in criticism and that we were going to have to invent our way out of it. At stake was a way both in and out of criticism itself. Benjamin was a model; that the act of unpacking one's library could be the very model for a form of scholarship and knowledge. Where else could we find models? With adrenaline and a hallucinatory focus, and perhaps anything could serve as the conceptual apparatus from which to generate new ways of thinking. How can an event be a model of thought? How do you think a handshake or a barricade or a letter being passed through a postal system? All that is solid melts into air-there, capital in its own act of disguise was exposed as a model for new ways of thinking. Or a telephone call, that brings one to the question of what is called thinking? Or to take tonight's topic Fluxus, the art movement, could it secretly be the code by which a university could be built anew?

This search for models itself repeated the structure of avant-garde art, which by fiat never distinguished between material and event as the substances for creative thinking. Using materiality and event as the basis for thinking was nothing new in philosophy either: who could not say that the Greeks used the model of the sun to begin the adventure into philosophy, or the model of the philosopher falling into the well as the model of skepticism? But the key to creativity here was not to use the avant-garde as an object of criticism, but as a process of thinking itself. The false prison of the code of professionalized knowledge in the university was sundered. The breakdown in power became a power generator itself. You became your idea, it possessed you and took you into places you weren't sure could be real. At one point I found myself defending the logic of flypaper by waving the sticky, slimy paper during a lecture. One felt what it might be like not simply to think about knowledge, but to be inside the very force of knowledge when it breaks off from knowledge itself.

The university did not take this irreverent challenge standing still. As the story goes, the university asserted itself in its own model of thought, professional, tame, middle class, coherent with all the techniques of capital. And Craig Saper was not permitted to remain (although thankfully he did find another post at another university, so this fortunately complicates my demonizing of academia). Still, this moment was the most true lesson of my entire undergraduate experience: that knowledge, as a form of discourse, does not take lightly any challenge to its operational status. That knowledge is a field that must be respected, monitered and maintained, and the critic must tend this field, making sure that its fertility is properly harnessed and controlled.

From out of this field Craig Saper comes to us. He is the storyteller that Walter Benjamin warned us about. But he won't just tell us stories that will sooth us and rid us of our fears that grow in the all-too-triumphant field of academia. Not now, not in this world, which is at war, which is constantly in the mode of coming to terms with its own crises. All one can hope for is that somehow the world is becoming more open to such a story teller, a person like Craig Saper who will engage and possibly dazzle his audience, not simply with knowledge, but with something far more intimate to what is called thinking.

For the record, I also want to note that in April of 1997,  just before the Writers House closed for four months of renovation (after which it opened again as “the Kelly Writers House”), Craig was with us to present as one of the earliest sessions of a series still going today - "Theorizing." That day Craig presented with Dick Higgins, one of the most important Fluxus artists. And: see this earlier post about Craig's "Readies."