Commentaries - August 2011

An Ellsbergian task for poets

Daniel Ellsberg performs a magic trick at Whitman College
Daniel Ellsberg performs a magic trick at Whitman College

Kaia Sand

Maybe the poets could come up with a better term than ‘whistle-blower?’ That’s what I recall Daniel Ellsberg asking.

It was the spring of 2005 in Walla Walla, Washington, when I had the luxury of a day’s conversations with Daniel Ellsberg, famed for releasing the Pentagon Papers in an effort to end the Vietnam War by revealing how high-level officials were misleading the public. Ellsberg was visiting Jules’s class and giving a lecture at Whitman College, where Jules was employed, and because Jules was employed, he was busy, and I was not so busy, and, thus… I discussed poetry with Ellsberg over green tea. He was an early publisher of Frank O’Hara’s at the Harvard Advocate, he recited lines of poetry from memory, and he urged me to read Robinson Jeffers.

Whistle-blower. If a whistle is blown in a sporting event, someone may have fouled or the half is over or there’s some extra time. But in most instances these offenses are within the bounds of a game, which would be a generous reading of the acts that Ellsberg exposed. War is a game, this metaphor conveys.

I batted around (to continue the sporting metaphor) the idea of finding a new term with some poets, but we never came up with anything else (although I recall Daniel Bouchard suggested employing Ellsberg’s name as a synecdoche). ‘Whistle-blower’ has some things going for it, after all: the image is rich, and appeals to the auditory sense as well.

I’m intrigued by this Ellsbergian task for poets, for those of us who do dwell with words according to soundplay and connotation and rhythm and allusion and connective thinking … how might our care with words circulate?

Take Global Warming. Take Climate Change. Both terms fall short.

The term Global Warming incites furious letters-to-the-editor during snowstorms and other not-hot weather disasters. The term carries with it a need for explanation: a rise in climatic temperature is over the long-term, but what we experience immediately and sensorily is weather, which, as part of the overall phenomenon, is not always hotter, but more chaotic. While "weather is personal experience,” as climatologist Heidi Cullen writes in The Weather of the Future, while climate is a “focus on weather timescales beyond the memory of the atmosphere, which is only about a week” (8). So to speak of a climate heating up is to speak of long-term statistics, not our daily experience of weather.

Climate Change is a term that has been used to describe large-scale shifts in the climate, which include the non-human-caused ice ages etc. Climate Change, as a term for our current and future human-caused predicament is, well, awfully understated, as Republican language strategist Frank Luntz intended it would be. In the same memo in which he suggested Republicans emphasize “scientific uncertainty,” he also wrote “‘Climate change’ is less frightening than ‘global warming.’ ... While global warming has catastrophic connotations attached to it, climate change suggests a more controllable and less emotional challenge” (142). 

Climate Disruption is a bit more accurate (& rhythmically pretty nice), but not image-rich. Climate Chaos is alliterative, with nice trochees….  

Ideas, poets?

It is with this interest in how poetic images circulate in everyday and activist uses that I am intrigued with the care that Craig Santos Perez developed a metaphor when he addressed the United Nations in 2008 regarding the impact of the military impact of Guam, and how his poetic work infused his activist work, and his activist work, his poetic work.

I will explore that in my next commentary.

works cited
Cullen, Heidi. The Weather of the Future. NY: Harper, 2010.

Luntz, Frank. “The Environment: A Cleaner, Safer, Healthier America.” 2002. Accessed Aug 6, 2011. Environmental Working Group. http://www.ewg.org/project/luntz-memo-environment

On the other side of the tracks (PoemTalk #44)

Fred Wah, "Race, to go"

from left: Lisa Robertson, Jeff Derksen, Bob Perelman, Fred Wah

LISTEN TO THE SHOW

Lisa Robertson, Jeff Derksen, and Bob Perelman joined Al Filreis to talk about a poem in a sixteen-poem series by Fred Wah going under the title “Discount Me In.” That series and several others were brought together in a book called Is a Door.  Our poem, “Race, to go,” is the first — a proem of sorts — in the “Discount Me In” group, and we have occasion during our discussion to talk about the several valences of discounting. I don't count. The census misses me because I fall between the cracks in racial categories. The neo-liberal moment has cheapened me. Both positively and negatively racially charged language around food, freely punned and intensely oral, turns casual by-talk into rebarbative backhand (creating an effect distinctly pleasurable) and brings into the poem the entire story of official Canadian multiculturalism. Bob and Al, the Americans here, learned a few lessons about how different from the American melting-pot version of multiculturalism the Canadian approach has been, where there's “a pseudo-maintenance of a piquant difference” (as Lisa Robertson put it).  Our poem pushes piquant playfully yet angrily hard, to the point where sanctioned everyday cultural practices connect to the larger failures of the neoliberal economy.

In Banff, in 2010, Fred Wah took the opportunity to read many of these poems and to discuss them with Charles Bernstein as part of the Close Listening series; this material is all available on Fred Wah's page at PennSound. Here is a recording of Fred Wah reading “Race, to go.” Here is a related poem, “Count,” and here is “Mr. In-between.”

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Yard work

Collom, Nguyen, and the domestic

a deer looks up from browsing lawn on Pine Street, Boulder, CO
Deer Yard

In my last post, I referred to an at-homeness the “eco” implies (after the Green root oikos), and to alienated/naturalized binaries, that the errant poetics of Will Alexander might help us rethink. Indeed, the “household” trope is a timeworn frame for ecopoetics, promoted in my own rationale for the journal of the same name: 

“ ‘Eco’ here signals—no more, no less—the house we share with several million other species, our planet Earth. ‘Poetics’ is used as poesis or making, not necessarily to emphasize the critical over the creative act (nor vice versa). Thus: ecopoetics, a house making.” 

When I asked poet Robert Hass where he thought “ecopoetics” got started, he cited Gary Snyder’s Earth House Hold and Wendell Berry’s The Long-Legged House (both published in 1969) as the first notable titles in this area. I don’t know who coined the phrase “household Earth,” but I’m sure Stewart Brand, and his Whole Earth Catalog, had something to do with it—and/or Buckminster Fuller, and/or Gary Snyder, and/or that famous photograph of the Earth from space (1968/ ’72), with astronaut Edgar Mitchell’s comment: “It takes more than a moment to fully realize this is Earth . . . home.”  

I have been reading a terrific manuscript by Jack Collom, Second Nature, a collection of essays and poems on ecopoetics, and a spirited defense of “nature” in a time of postmodern skepticism, in the works for many years (a recent issue of Bombay Gin, no. 36.2, celebrated twenty years of Collom’s “ecolit” classes at the Naropa Institute—though for some reason this issue is not archived at the magazine website), in which he defines ecology as, “literally ‘knowledge of the house.’ In the sense that our house is now the entire world, the study of ecology has come to be a comprehensive study of the relational--the spreading interdependence of all things.” I took the photograph above, through the dirty car window, of a deer on the lawn right across the street from Jack Collom’s and Jennifer Heath’s house, this past June. Typical Front Range intersections? For Collom, at least, the “house” of ecopoetics is one of difficult interdependence, rather than easy autonomy: 

My workroom is a slice of porch wedged between kitchen and garden. Unbroken stretch of window east and south, great greenleaf vistas. Outside one window hangs a feeder (abandoned now), then frequented mostly by house finches. Squirrels would scoot along the very narrow sill and look up longingly at the seed-laden plastic cylinder just a little too high above their heads. I was treated to many an intense underchin view—only a foot away from me—as they stretched and calculated. Some tried the leap . . . and clattered to the ground. 
          But Maeve was lithe, and actually able to spring, grab, hang on and feast. There were complications too tedious to explicate involving nearby vines as well, but the main upshot was I cut a slat of plywood and nailed it to the sill below the feeder—slanting between window and sill—to foil Maeve’s leaping forays. a photograph of the poet Jack Collom reading at Naropa University in June of 2011
          Then the brave and dogged creature began to eat the plywood, to regain her flat launching pad, and . . . perhaps the wood was toxic . . . perhaps some sly neighborhood cat . . . Maeve disappeared. 
          We were bereft. 
          No other squirrel since her day has come close. 
                  (from “Lumping and Splitting”) 

Co-editors Marcella Durand, Andrew Schelling, Elizabeth Robinson and I are preparing Second Nature for publication with Instance Press later this year, in celebration of Jack’s eightieth birthday. Contact ecopoetics if you would like to subscribe for a copy. And read Collom’s poetry: the classic is Arguing with Something Plato Said (Rocky Ledge Editions, 1990), now out of print, though a good chunk of it is collected in the excellent Red Car Goes By: Selected Poems 1995-2000 (Tuumba Press, 2001), edited by Reed Bye, Clark Coolidge, Larry Fagin, Merrill Gilfillan, and Lyn Hejinian. Exchanges of Earth & Sky (Fish Drum, 2005) offers an exquisite meditation on volatility, in body, mind and word—both Erik Anderson and Cole Heinowitz have written sensitive, thought-provoking reviews for Jacket. Collom’s collaboration with Lyn Hejinian, Situations, Sings (Adventures in Poetry, 2008), is also a lot of fun. Kasey Mohammed wrote a good review of it for Constant Critic

In her introduction to the illuminating “Women and ecopoetics” feature she edited for how2, British poet, editor and ecocritic Harriet Tarlo (who has just issued an anthology of Radical Landscape Poetry, with Shearsman Press) critiques the household trope: “the home-making analogy is still uncomfortably domestic in its connotations, suggesting the human’s residence on earth as the centre of the universe. By metaphoric extension, the human ecopoetical product (poem or critical work) is also seen as the all-encompassing centre. . . . All this centring of experience in the ‘house’ of the poem is reminiscent for me of the biblical Adam creating his dwelling place, naming his wife and his animals in the manner of the patriarchal Jehovah.” 

On the one hand, Tarlo’s critique seems to assume that the work of the poem is one of centering, whereas “house making” could be more verbal than artifactual—working, in fact, to decenter the poem from poetics, to place the artifact in an expanded field. On the other hand, the gendering of the “whole earth” cultural front speaks for itself, and the feminist critique certainly stands. 

Consider the poetry of Hoa Nguyen, which both celebrates and troubles at-homeness by sounding the boundaries between household and earth: 

Hoa Nguyen birding in CincinnatiHecate Doesn’t 

Hecate doesn’t fucking 
need you or your loving 

Lovingly pull the oak seedling out 
planted under mother oak 
by squirrel             A squirrel joke 
No just hungry squirrel 
Frugal squirrel 
Thoughtless thoughtless dreamy squirrel 

Can’t blame squirrel or oak seedling 
Sad in the yard 
                 digging it out 

Yoga pants and Hecate lochia  

Of childbirth, & the post-partum body, uprooting, in(ter)dependence, affection, squirrels, economics, and, of course, the lyric—“Thoughtless thoughtless dreamy squirrel”—Nguyen’s fierce care (including an oak joke) digs up the backyard of any patriarchally sheltered household (Hecate “doesn’t need you”). The final nominative line (as to name the poem, and the book from which it is drawn, Hecate Lochia) breaks the lyric chain obliquely, embedding the oak in sounds (“lochia”) the poem won’t echo. (Nguyen has spoken—in an email conversation with Ryan Gallagher’s students—about not knowing how to pronounce her own name, with the proper accents, being born into a language she cannot speak, and how she sometimes thinks she writes poetry toward these “lost cadences of sound.”) Nguyen’s poetry cracks open the home, the way Collom’s tragically avid humor does, to a landscape of difficult interconnections. 

Here is a video of Nguyen reading another poem from the same collection, “We Might be Folding,” at the Tulsa (New York) School Conference, November, 2009 (with apologies for the poor sound, but at least it conveys Nguyen’s dynamic, eye and hand gestural reading style). In this eco-collapse poem, the “boy scouted” speaker (who never learned how to start a fire without matches) asks, “Are grackle eggs edible?” She admits to “gauzy” bee-keeping dreams and to wondering whether she should “really collect shoes/ of future sizes            for our boys’ feet,” in a time when, “Polar Bears are melting in the drowning spaces.” 

Poet Linda Russo has been writing a series of what she calls “Yard Works,” which you can look for an excerpt from, along with a short essay on the project, in the upcoming ecopoetics issue of Interim magazine (edited by Chris Arigo, Matthew Cooperman and myself). For Russo, yard and poem are analogous, as frames for concentrating attention—on landscape, economics, human-nonhuman interactions, the whole “field of perpetual conflict.” Tarlo’s how2 feature includes an essay by Russo, “Writing Within: Notes on Ecopoetics as Spatial Practice,” wherein she concedes that, “My bioregion, then, is not my artificially-defined yard (from the Old English, geard, meaning enclosure). Although it poses a handy perceptual limit, my traversions into the life of birds and other nonhuman life-systems only begin there.” 

Tarlo’s remains a cogent critique, along with all the other good reasons for questioning talk of the “homeland.” (I’ll look at her anthology, The Ground Aslant, in another post.) For ecopoetics, “household” has offered a transitional trope, between ecoliteracy (e.g., knowing one’s way around the night sky, as a familiar kind of celestial “garden”) and evolutionary perspective, realizing humanity’s marginal place in the scheme of things (i.e. we look, with a mutant sweepstakes consciousness, into the night sky as into “outer space”). 

Environmental ethics seem to entail both perspectives—just as Aldo Leopold, in A Sand County Almanac, celebrates the familiarity of an old board, reading its “autobiography” within the seasonal patterns of his adopted “sand county,” at the same time that he admires the strangeness of the Sandhill crane, which knows humanity a lot better than humanity knows it (since cranes have been around about twice as long). 

I suppose my use of “house” has entailed equal parts idealism and pragmatism, thinking of it as a big household we are bound to share with all kinds of people and species we don’t necessarily agree with or even “get along with.” The idea being that we need to get creative about living together, rather than stay all alienated. 

The irony, of course, is that the so-called “aliens” have the most to teach the household about difference. Especially given searing inequality. In my next post, I’ll look some more at ecopoetics as rethinking the household from alien, uprooted perspectives. 

'Active solidarity with directly impacted communities'

A conversation with Cecily Nicholson

Cecily Nicholson reads at the Rhizome Café in Vancouver
Cecily Nicholson reads at the Rhizome Café in Vancouver

Jules Boykoff

Recently I had the good fortune of conversing with the amazing Cecily Nicholson about her poetry and activism.

Her first poetry book, Triage, was published by Talonbooks in April 2011. Triage is a thick, engaging, formally innovative book that does a whole lot at once: it slides between worlds, engages in critique, challenges the self-appointed arbiter role of the mass media, celebrates solidarity. All the while it thrums with the political, exploding the all-too-common dichotomy of activism and aesthetics.

Cecily has worked with women of the downtown eastside community of Vancouver, Canada since 2000 and is currently a coordinator of the Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre. She participates in the VIVO Media Arts Centre as an organizer with their Safe Assembly project, 2010 and the Imminent Future series, 2011. As a writer and poet Cecily works in collaboration with the Press Release Poetry Collective, formed in anticipation of the Vancouver 2010 Olympics.  This summer she is teaching at the Purple Thistle community centre’s Summer Institute and collaborating on the upcoming AK Press publication: A Radical Handbook for Youth.

JB: As I read Triage, I kept forging mental connections between the lines on the page and your work as an organizer (e.g. the poem “SERVICE”). Can you talk about how Triage moves between aesthetic and activist spaces? How does your work at the Downtown Eastside Women's Centre enter the text?

CN: Aesthetic and activist spaces are separated in real and imagined ways that produce in me a kind of anxiety regarding contradictions I experience personally and the broader limitations reproduced through this separation. Triage was an opportunity for me to develop some cohesion (hopefully) through differentiated spaces. Some of the poetry I worked out publically in exceptional spaces like Rhizome Café in Vancouver where we’ve held many warm gatherings of activist/poet/artists. 

I realize that the book has become a tangible point of entry for me to level critique, roundly, that includes myself.  I think that my experiences and mobility are pretty limited. For the text to be grounded it necessarily contains my everyday life, including paid work and organizing.  I prefer poetry that documents, witnesses, reveals structure, talks back and raises questions in ways that are not closed or irrelevant to my friends, family, allies. I’ve learned to reference cultural production with a specific interest in its process and public, and not simply the object/outcome. I relate best to work being produced under hard conditions and in active solidarity with directly impacted communities. If my poetry is relevant to the work of organizing then that’s a fortunate convergence.

Poetry is necessary work for me – I don’t wish for it to be easily absorbed. The use of the cultural front in furthering causes of capital, colonialism and ultimately violence and poverty is difficult to get out from under. This was evident in the olympic moment.  The poetry collective I work with are all organizers in different areas. We formed in anticipation of the olympics and choose to publish work that was anonymous and felt free to be moderately (and justly) seditious.  In support of various actions we performed individually and collectively.  At that time the deliberate influx of capital into arts production was glossing civic and national identity – this happening prior to a period of wider retrenchment of arts funding – the backdrop being long decades of dismantling and disregarding social supports.  These issues are at play in the processes of gentrification that continue to be resisted in the downtown eastside of Vancouver and elsewhere.

Relative to the downtown eastside I have a lot of privilege, most significantly as a paid worker, over the years.  Now the area is being dominantly constructed as an arts district, so the problematic of cultural capital and producing work from this location is even more fraught.  Acknowledging this, Triage is my best attempt so far to speak alongside a community of women in struggle – who are politically astute, resilient organizers and active cultural producers in ways that refuse to be co-opted. My work at DEWC enters into Triage as a jumbled series of narratives and samplings. I wrestle with the language of bureaucracy.  In “SERVICE” I consider migration into the core and the daily grind of the service industry in a place that also cares for movements and uprising.

After so many years, I am pretty worn and re/traumatized by some of this work. Poetry is (“not a luxury”) in part a stabilizer – how to process brutality, brash capital injections,  perpetual loss and confusion.  I’ve been an organizer in varying degrees back to my youth. I started attending formal arts spaces and galleries about three-four years ago with a mind to understand how this work is organized.  Some of the poetry in Triage draws from my notes including workshops, events, gatherings as well as protest. It also engages street art – non professional, public practices from visual art to music to poetry.  I am aggravated by the general disjuncture of formal art and the literary from organizing, and from my everyday.  My optimism as poetry is in motley otherness, in struggle – marching, writing or whatever it is we’re doing locally, implicated in broad networks and multiple fronts. Women of the downtown eastside are central to my understanding of other possible worlds.  When I look to the hard working people around me I am ever driven to invoke a stronger potentiality than the conditions dictate.  

JB: In the lead-up to the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, you collaborated with the Press Release Poetry Collective and formed the Safe Assembly Project at the VIVO Media Arts Centre. Moving out of the Olympic moment, do you see poetry-activist momentum? If so, where? How did the Olympic moment alter the terrain where aesthetic and activist spaces come together? On the poetry-activism front, what’s going on in Vancouver right now that you find compelling?

CN: As much as I’d like to, I haven’t seen a significant poetry-activist momentum coming out of the olympic moment (though I am immediately wary of the construct!). I do observe more intent within organizing around social justice issues, opening to a current awareness of poetry, its worth in struggles with language and the meaning it can bring our understandings of community.  Many of us are less concerned about positioning our activist selves as poets (poet selves as activists…) – more concerned about deepening our capacity to communicate and share information outside of traditional forms: the communiqué, press release, panel, lecture etc. and to let loose a creativity that actively works against proscribed folds and conditions of language and discursive regimes. Relations have formed and strengthened through poetry. These are integral to us as struggling individuals concerned with strengthening social structure. Poets in Vancouver, the lower mainland and more widely – here – participate in ways that facilitate another voice for protest; we are present at celebrations and in memoriam in our communities; we work with youth; stand outside of detention centres and court-houses and enter boardrooms – we share our poetry with each other as a point of love, contact, support and affinity. 

There are reasonable critiques regarding the armchair poet imagining its activism, romanticizing and co-opting, taking up bodies as objects of study – too easy a tendency we’re familiar with this in arts and academia.  What matters more is relations, interrogating one’s privileges, listening, grounded support, material and social accessibility and being present. So, what poetry-activist momentum I do observe involves a strengthening of relations.  Openness to poetry as an aspect of the political terrain, recognizing an aged legacy of such poetry work – including resistance to English as the language of exchange – has softened skepticism of organizers (poets, artists or not) toward the relevance of this work.

I also mill about the periphery of elite and individual-focused production in closed community, the funded aspects certainly dominated by academia and academic discourse, which means inaccessibility to whole groups of people – these are contained spaces regularly suspect about political contention and unresponsive to denouncements of hierarchy (in my experience).  Critiques around power and spatial segregation – here – are marginalized and often ignored – from the category of retrograde poetry makers, my people, typically. I am frustrated by the veneration of the (upwardly mobile?) working class, situated as I am in relation to communities focused on survival or precariously without citizenship. And I refuse the erasure of experiences of racism, sexism, ablism etc etc, and anti-colonial grounding that a dogmatic adherence to class politics often bypasses.  Nonetheless, more dominant spaces of literary arts romantically informed by these notions are certainly relevant to forward struggles –and locally are in general: mobile, influential and often well-intentioned and very kind.  I wish there was more synthesis.

Fortunately, good work that I find compelling is all over the place. Regardless of individual positions, these for me are grounded in real events: folks writing and reading to welcome Tamil refugees incarcerated upon arrival on Vancouver’s shores last summer (many are still detained, all 492 still in limbo) – tune in to Stark Raven's Podcast Prison Justice Day special, August, co-op 102.7 (archives at prinsonjustice.ca) – I loved the solid performances around Mining Justice week in Vancouver this May and would point specifically to the ongoing enpipeline project as exemplary. There are amazing individuals taking time and work in collective and collaborative modes engaged and aware, standing up and backing the voices of directly impacted communities on issues of extraction, water, food security, violence, poverty…  Compelling to everyone who imagines themselves progressive I hope – as this decent work builds connections, relations and strength with people, fists raised.

Nicholson on the front lines at a G8-G20 protest in Toronto

Photo: Cecily Nicholson on the front lineswith fist raised at a G8-G20 protest in Toronto