Commentaries - October 2011
Susan Bee & Charles Bernstein in BC early 1970s
pdf of issue now available, for $4
Susan Bee: COVER: Light in the Forest, 1973 oil on canvas, 19" x 26"
Andrea Actis. "But sometimes a sign's all you need": A Conversation with Susan Bee & Charles Bernstein
Charles Bernstein, Ruskin (earlier poems)
Susan Bee, In and Around BC: Paintings/Drawings/Sculpture
Meredith Quartermain, The Not Of What She Didn't Know
Antony Di Nardo, The Significance of September
Colin Browne, Microcosms
Heather Campbell, Three Poems
Nicole Brossard, Tressaillir / Quivering
from The Unmemntioable: Games of Chance
Paul William Zits, the three sons of the rock harmonicon
Jenn Angela Lopes, 23' 26, Recanting: to Sing Again
Aisha Sasha John, Two Poems from The Shining Material
introductions & table of contents
edited by Jennifer Bartlett, Michael Northen, Sheila Black — from Cinco Puntos Press
This anthology makes a compelling case for rethinking postwar poetic practice in/through/by the frame of disability.
table of contents
Preface, Jennifer Bartlett
“A Short History of American Disability Poetry,” Michael Northen
from Bartlett's intro:
For me, the idea for Beauty is a Verb can be pinpointed to one single moment, December 10, 2005, the day Norma Cole read at the Bowery Poetry Club for the Segue Reading Series. A few years earlier, after a stroke, Cole lost and regained her ability to speak. Now, she used her temporary aphasia and slurred speech to compose a poem that noted a list of words she could no longer enunciate. The result of her reading this work was alternately hilarious and devastating. Cole laughed at the ridiculous, yet utterly wrenching, situation of a poet losing words, and the audience laughed with her. Yet, it wasn’t as simple as that. Although the audience laughed, they were also visibly uncomfortable. From the sophistication of Cole’s work and her genius as a person, one can guess that this was no accident. Can an entire anthology be sparked by one reading of one poet; I am sure crazier things have happened in this world we called poetry.
After, I began to consider a series of questions. What did it mean to have a disability poetics? What was the history of the movement? What about poets, much like myself, who have a disability, but do not align themselves with identity poetry or the disability poetics movement? How do they fit into such a context, if at all?
from Northen's introduction:
In 1983, a brief article appeared in Kaleidoscope in which A. J. Baird, a scholar of medieval literature, condemned the current poetry written about disability as super-sentimental, self-pitying and eliciting superficial sympathy, a poetry that failed to rise to acceptable artistic
standards and was deservedly ignored by mainstream literature. He put out a call for poetry about physical disability that was tough-minded and grounded in concrete, physical fact. The result was Towards Solomon’s Mountain, published in 1986. While few of the writers in that volume went on to produce major collections, Baird’s collection showed what disability poetry could be. It would not be an exaggeration to call the publication of Towards Solomon’s Mountain the birth of disability poetry as a genre. Of course, the writers in Baird’s anthology were not the first American poets with disabilities to be published. Josephine Miles, Larry Eigner and Vassar Miller all had success with their writing, but had said little about their own bodies in their work. Because of this, Miles and Eigner, though known in literary circles, were overlooked by the first anthologies of disability writing.
The volume you hold in your hand, Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability, is an important step in helping to transform disability poetry from marginalia into part of the American text. The time is right for it. By scanning this anthology, noting the writers included, copying a poem that especially strikes you or observing the way the writers dialogue with each other in their essays by reference to each other’s work, you are already making your own contribution to this transformation.
Many fresh faces are coming onto the American disability poetry scene. Among those are writers like Ona Gritz, Paul Guest, Laurie Lambeth, Daniel Simpson, Linda Cronin, Anne Kaier, Marie Kane and Liz Whiteacre, and Kathi Wolfe. Just as the Harlem Renaissance led to the development of African American literature and the 1960s to feminist literature, we are in a seminal period for the genre of disability literature. One day, perhaps, our children or grandchildren will look back at this decade, studying it in literature classes in the same way that we view the emergence of those other genres. It is an exciting time, and we have a chance to be in on the ground floor.
My favourite poem from Jill Jones's recent Dark Bright Doors (Wakefield 2010) was the uncharacteristically (relatively) aggressive 'Leaving it to the Sky', which included memorable lines like 'I'm having a yak with a piece of paper'. It showed another side to the generally more philosophical - if problematising - poet. A new poem 'Misinterpretations/ or the Dark Grey Outline' in overland 204 continues to work this mode.
Like 'Leaving...' the more ambitiously titled 'Misinterpretations' makes use of direct statement and capitalised phrases:
the other day I read
I had a sort of degree, but I ain't, no way Hose-Bloody-Zay
Perhaps I am Missing Pages Out Of My Life
The musical meshing is still there, but these newer effects are rawer, rougher, more 'live'. The capitalising in particular provide a new level of commentary, as if undoing the subordination that a poem can be read as having - to its title or ostensible subject matter. The more frequent use of direct address seems to reflect an impatience with readers, as if Jones has waited long enough to be understood (cue title): now it's time to do a bit of telling. This is collage not just of language or diction, but of poetic and affective modes (such as impatience) - all Jones. The impatience is not apparently just with readers, but with a too-easy ecopoetic. Like 'Leaving ...' ('I don't belong to generation green') it makes dismissive gestures towards a 'mixed up' green; and when it's water that's 'green, or grey' a poetics of disgust is not too far off (the poem is printed white, on a not too easy to read green). Jones shrugs off any readers who want to identify her as a contemporary eco-friendly product, that's a bit more expensive than the generic brand but better for the soul/conscience/planet. It's a broader, more assertive platform for Jones's brand of projective verse, and one that bodes well for a midcareer future.
It's as if there's a new sense that indeterminacy, and uncertainty can be presented in a more determined and bold fashion:
I used to know what I was thinking,
now its a field, inside,
I want more - bring out the field's rubbish, shout! There's always been something very mortal about Jones's poems; 'stretching the envelope' as yesterday's cliche had it, is not about extending something separate to ourselves. There are rat traps going off all the time and some of them are inside us. Close readers watch out!
the movement throughout the image
of body, whole, gathered and real.
begin. end . sense.
like a likeness, a sign, the ritual,
repeat. To focus becomes the object
It suffices. An Astronomy of power,
implicit, subtle, carnivorous,
bureaucracies serenade their untied shoelaces
not being able to
not being able to
(Amanda Stewart, from "Icon", I/T)
In beginning my fossicky labours, my first desire was to visit Amanda Stewart. I wanted to ask her about her sense of Sydney, since we seem to occupy a similar orbit. She went to the same university that I did, twenty years before me, and studied in the same cultural studies node that I did (though she copped the guts of it and I caught the lingering whiffs). And like me, she has found herself working, making and thinking in collective arrangements that share an approach to method, rather than an essential identity. This means that she has been variously involved with sound artists, musicians, performers, film-makers, radio-makers, poets, critics, etc., and she has produced work that could be considered sound art, music, performance, film, radio, poetry (spoken, written, concrete) and criticism. She uses the word poetry to describe what she does, where poetry is a methodology. I mean methodology very literally: how things are done when things are done. For Stewart, experimenting broadly and socially with technologies of signification, including but not limited to language, is poetry: and this has come to include a good heft of work in lots of directions, alongside many technicians, poets and otherwise.
Stewart was sympathetic to my intuitions about Sydney, and the way the city seems to lose, or lose track of, its materials. She felt that there was something about Melbourne that supported a culture and ethos of documentation, whereas in Sydney there was a tendency to forget, or misplace, its emissions. I told her the slant of my project, emphasising that the recovery of materials need not be an exercise in nostalgia, it can be a process of construction, where new relations of arrangement support new methods for dealing with material in the first place. She obliged by digging through her bookshelves and talking through memories, relation to relation.
One thing that struck me during our conversation was the good glut of women publishing in the 70s and 80s: there was a queer feminist silk screen printing facility in Ultimo (apparently with a restaurant and disco attached! -- gonna try to find more on this in the coming weeks), and Stewart was involved in a number of print anthologies that included graphics, illustrations and photography, as well as prose, poetry and critical remarks, all or mostly by women. Feminist printing presses have quite a history in Sydney, particularly in contributing to suffragette campaigns following federation in 1901 (more on that in the next post!). Stewart told me that some of the women involved in the press collectives of the 70s and 80s were also active in campaigns around the accessibility of abortion clinics, rape crisis centres, women's counselling services and refuges. Other indie publishers included the anarchists associated with Jura Books, a shop-collective and lit-share hub. Apparently, the original Jura was next door to a Latin American hang-out on King Street, Newtown, and there were occasional improvised lectures on global anarchisms when the two crews converged on the footpath.
As well as print-jams, there were also rashes of collabo and solo efforts in film, radio, theatre, punk music, alt-crit theory sessions and work straddling a number of media at once, coming to include new tech gear and computer imaging. What's so interesting about multimedia conceits in analogue contexts is that the integration of technologies, objects and processes are so physical. The stack-up of tapes, reels, cartridges, plates, screens, etc., is enormous -- and entirely un-flatten-able, in the way that digital files are now. But the desire for multiformat materials, and an aesthetic that was already predicting digital interface was ripe in the 80s and 90s, so there's this fascinating period of art-making where analogue modes start prototyping the digital: poetry, recorded compositions and sound art, performance and graphic art that demonstrate nonlinear, multilayered and/or procedural elements.
I see this in Stewart's work particularly, which is vigilantly self-aware. As a poet, she deals with written and spoken languages, and she does not see writing as a record or transcript of speaking, nor speaking as mere vocalisation of writing. The two are distinct, yet related, media for language'd poetry, and they demand different methods for composition. Her self-published collection I/T Selected Poems 1980-1996, from 1998, comprises an outfolding matte black jacket with a CD in one sleeve and a book in the other, more or less equal in size. Some pieces are included in both print and sound form, and others in only one. It is clear that Stewart composes in two modes, and the choices she makes are different for each. Together, they achieve a wonderful weight to her work that's felt at each decision: the smallest mark of punctuation, or the smallest glottal modulation. Going through I/T, I remember why I never call Stewart a sound- or performance poet: these sub-categories assume that the parent category is an essential one. In Stewart's work, I feel film, radio, mythos, machines, weapons, pixels and car engines, all destroying each other, screens cracking and acetate lacquering.
(Photograph by Heidrun Lohr)