Upon moving to Olympia, WA, in 2003 and starting up the radio program Cross Cultural Poetics, my first impression was that Seattle was a suburb of Cairo. That was because two of the first people I met in the area were Maged Zaher and Mohammed Metwalli, both émigré poets from Egypt's capital. They immediately made me feel part of a larger conversation about poetry that was happening amongst themselves and many other of Egypt's writers the next block over, in Egypt. How to resist the death grip and the officialdom of the Mubarak regime without opening the door to fundamentalist attitudes towards the poetic word that might suppress it? To what extent might the prose poem, and a flattening of the lyric, help to undermine a certain hyperbole perceived as problematic for the Arabic language? What is the most productive way to lay out a lineage of modern Egyptian poetry?
I am at MLA in Seattle this week, doing a lot of talking with folks from various fields about “epic.” Epic, it seems, touches us all. Speaking yesterday on what feels to be an important distinction between “orality” and “performance,” I was reminded of the following response sent to me by poet cris cheek on his relationship to the epic form:
out of London in the mid-twentieth century i would point to my engagement with any sense of epic form emerging from the quest (the Jabberwocky), travel writing (The Owl and The Pussycat and The Jumblies) and i became aware of epic thru The Odyssey and that larger scale of going out and coming back through challenges and confronting demons and learning through experience and of how one lists the gathering, the production and the circulation of such resources. of course the multi-modality written of in terms of the delivery of such an epic form energizes me . . . that the oral is a grounding for poetry, that it is sounded and sonically projected through architectural design, that it is spatial and embodied and connected to gesture. that poetry is performance and is performed and witnessed . . . that poetry is live . . . (or at least can be) and subsequently socially dispersed and carried in memory as acts of language.
Always books, there were always books in our multiple homes, growing up across one nation and across an ocean. I remember, in school, being so buried in a book, more than once, that I did not respond to teachers calling my name, but had to be physically jostled in order to be taken out of the book. Book then was an odd mix of physical and nonphysical space, room enough to get lost in. Think of the way a book is entered (and here I speak of physical books, with pages to be manipulated by hands, groups of pages bound together in what I suppose I should call a codex, though that word seems only to rarify what I grew up with as common daily object), a dance step in, beginning with an act of opening to space, only light and shadow on a two-page spread with nothing printed there, then a turn to a page-spread almost as blank, a half-title page, with only a title, sometimes only a part of a title. It's a doorway, a place to quit the world outside, shake it off, and prepare to come home ("Home is the hunter, home from the hill / And the sailor home from the sea") or at least to some other place. Another turn of the page and one encounters information, a confirmation of the title, a name or name of author or authors, most often a year that stamps the publication in time, and a publisher's name and sometimes place, and perhaps we should take a moment to exhale; for the first time, here we are, where this particular home begins to take shape, and gives us something of its created history. Not yet at the beginning of the main text of the book, which often can occur 9 or more pages after one opens the book. But we have negotiated the exit point (from outside the book) and entry point (to a place where we begin to conjecture the matter of the book). We have been eased in, and we are ready to be engaged, we who love to be astonished.
I first started to look at Erica Baum's art when she did her Card Catalogue series: close-up photographs of old library card catalogues that showed several of the card tabs imprinted or typewritten (and sometimes, for really old cards, handwritten) to indicate subject headings, categories, etc. Several of these photos show the catalogue drawer labels. My favorite of these is "Jersey City—Jesus." Anyway, that was 1997. Erica has done several interesting projects since then, all exploring the visual qualities of language as photographic subjects; words in the visual ambience, just there for the looking. Ubuweb has a pretty good collection of PDFs marking the progress of this art. Have a look.
“The card index marks the conquest of three-dimensional writing, and so presents an astonishing counterpoint to the three-dimensionality of script in its original form as rune or knot notation.” — Walter Benjamin, One-Way Street