Commentaries - April 2012

Jed Birmingham’s library began with his William Burroughs collection. After he obtained all the books, he started to research and obtain any periodical that Burroughs contributed to, but quickly realized that the small press culture of the little magazines was just as interesting (if not more) than Burroughs’ contribution, and that’s how our little magazine, Mimeo Mimeo, got started. The poets, artists, printers, paper, collating parties, distribution, associations, manuscripts, postcards, and, letters are all part of the overall aesthetic and culture of the Mimeograph Revolution, brilliantly documented in Steve Clay and Rodney Phillips’s A Secret Location on the Lower East Side. There are few people who take the art of mimeo as seriously as Jed, whose attention to detail is more common amongst bibliophiles specializing in incunabula and antiquarian books. In addition to sharing his research, he also shares aspects of his collection and others online in the Bibliographic Bunker at Reality Studio. Check out the Floating Bear archive, for startes, which includes a free, downloadable spreadsheet mapping the recipients of Di Prima and Jones' legendary mimeo magazine.


Part of the "Hand Upon Hand" sculpture in Centennial Park, Sydney; poem by Adam Aitken

In her marvelous, odd textbook, The Writing Experiment: Strategies for Innovative Creative Writing, Hazel Smith devotes a late chapter to “Mapping worlds, moving cities.”  Composing in a kind of sociological sublime, she writes in the subsection, “The diasporic city,” of the sub-section, “Cities rather than city,” “As the concept of the nation-state breaks down, people migrate and borders shift.  The modern western city has become a mixture of nationalities and ethnicities: this has transformed food, clothing, customs, art and language” (260).  Cutting to the chase, she ends her paragraph on “the diasporic city” with this pithy sentence: “The diasporic city is as much about displacement as about place” (261).   The neatly structured description of this city hardly masks the layers of discomfort and exuberance to which Smith refers, inviting students to write their own city-selves.   Two writers published by Tinfish Press, one of them Hazel Smith and the other Caroline Sinavaiana (as Sinavaiana-Gabbard), explore that vein of dis-ease.  They have almost certainly never met, as their paths have covered different roads, followed different tides, but putting their work in conversation opens new possibilities for talking about poetries of diaspora. Hazel Smith was born in London, graduated from Cambridge, and played the violin professionally before she and her partner, Roger Dean, moved to Sydney, Australia in the late 1980s.  Caroline Sinavaiana was born to Samoan parents and grew up mostly in the American South, discovering odd affinities along the way with Bob Dylan, J.D. Salinger and other writers.  After attending Sonoma State in California, she moved to Sāmoa, where she taught briefly in high school and then — after earning her Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Hawai`i-Mānoa — for many years at the college in Tutuila.  She has been my colleague in the English department at UHM for over a decade now. 

Smith and Sinavaiana both gravitate toward “the poetics of uncertainty,” rather than attempting to get a fix on self and place. In her poem of that title (“The poetics of uncertainty” with “the” an ironic tag if ever there was one), Smith introduces herself this way: “I was born in Britain but I am not quite British, I have sojourned in Australia but I am not quite Australian. My grandparents left Lithuania in a  hurry, and I am often in a rush, but that doesn't make me Lithuanian. . . I am not an academic though I have a PhD, and I am not a poet though I am often held to ransom by the metonymic. But there have to be some putative commitments, some concessions to containment, some gatecrashing of normality. And so it seems I am Hazel Smith, British-Australian, a search term on the internet, a candidate for lunacy, no more, no less”  (The Erotics of Geography, 31).  More pointedly, she writes that, “You can smell me in the smoke at Auschwitz, hear me in the voices of the Taliban, find me amongst stolen Aboriginal children.  But I am as much predator as prey” (32).  When I looked for Hazel recently at her hotel in Auckland, I was told she was not there.  I insisted, then added perhaps she was there under the last name "Dean."  Again, she wasn't there.  When I mentioned that she was there for a symposium on the long poem, the clerk finally found her in that folder, her name Hazel Dean. As she notes in “The Poetics of Uncertainty,” “Sometimes when I'm buying a washing machine, or booking a hotel, I'm known fleetingly as Hazel Dean” (31).

Sinavaiana's genealogy runs through Sāmoa, Europe, southern United States of America; her experiences run much the same route, if in a different set of directions.  Like Smith, the central theme of her Tinfish Press book is geography, and like Smith, her “topic is the erotics of the inexact.”  Sinavaiana’s inexactitude is physical, yes, but also spiritual; she is a Buddhist.  Buddhists, like Pacific Islanders, claim long lineages, and hers joins them together in a poetry composed of Samoan stories, Buddhist wisdom, memoir, and yes, committee meetings.  (We get our spiritual educations where we can.)  Perhaps the most important living concept for Sinavaiana is that of vā.  “In Samoan epistemology, the space between things is called the ‘vā.’  Relationships are va, the space between I and thou. In friendship we cultivate the vā like a shared garden, that patch of ground between us we planted with bananas and strawberries. Teu le vā. Cultivate the space between us, our relationship” (20). Sinavaiana grew up on an American airbase in the South, her race ambiguous, as she was neither white nor black.  An airbase provides a semiotics of power.  Her later life in Sāmoa involved “A grand canyon of space between the American self and the holographic somebody I stepped into when I got off the plane in Tutuila,” between American power and the colonial nightmare (and its discontents) she found in Sāmoa. And so she cobbled together (in only the best sense of the phrase) a wisdom tradition for herself composed of Nafanua, the Samoan goddess of war, Bob Dylan, Allen Ginsberg, Rumi, and the Buddha. 

Both poets acknowledge that voice is more performative than fixed, more expressive than still.  Hazel Smith collaborates often with Roger Dean (the cd-rom that comes with The Erotics of Geography contains some of them; others you can find here and here).  None of her poetry readings are readings, per se, as they all enact the breath.  Sinavaiana points to Charles Olson's projective verse as a mainstay in her own poetics, citing his ideas as a “revelation” that poetry exists “in a direct link to one's heart” (18).  While Smith engages less in the voice/heart nexus, she can approach that space obliquely, as she does in “The Idea of Elegy,” which begins in lots of ideas, but ends here:

every time I saw Hilary
she added more weft to the warp
I don’t want to cram her into a story
William says that death forms
the outer limit of containment, categories and definition
yet it is also powerful and precise
the bull’s eye of destiny
though I am never in the centre when it hits
if it’s happening in Australia you can be sure I am in England
if it’s happening in England you can be sure I am in Australia

but after this witty diversion into the diasporic, Smith returns to her friend:

I must check first that Hilary is mentioned
in the major reference tomes on weaving
that Rory’s book is on the road
that Kate's photos are pasted up in albums
and then make a note of it in my diary     (51)

Peter Sacks wrote extensively of the interrelation between mourning and weaving; I remember that much from graduate school.  But it's the need to remember that strikes me here, to write down names, references, put down photos, take notes, lest the lost ones be lost.  To think about diaspora is, really, to think about dying.  And then about elegizing.  Sinavaiana notes in her prefatory essay that one of her students had recently died.  She moves from that note to thinking about a lament, to citing John Kneubuhl on the Polynesian lament (“a house ‘of words into which our dead can move and live again and speak to us . . . ’”) and then concludes her thoughts by quoting Rumi on grief.  It's a complicated response, and yet it is not. 

But death and diaspora also lend themselves to humor, and both Smith and Sinavaiana can be very funny, playful poets. Sinavaiana begins her “pilgrim's progress” with the exuberant and funny lines, “farewell, Expectations and False Hope! / on second thought, don't fare well. Fare badly. Fall / & break your wily neck” (38). Her commentary on committee meetings in our fair department, circa 2000, includes #2: “your wish to be right / no matter what—bullfrogs sing / to rotting grapefruit” (62). And in the years since she composed these poems, she has written funny and wise poems and non-fiction pieces on her experience of going through breast cancer treatments. This is writing that discomposes its audience, taking the ground out from under our chair legs, as we hear words read in Sinavaiana's characteristic breath-marked syncopations. Likewise, in “Ought to do,” Smith exuberantly piles words together into one longish procrastinary rant. “The ought-to-do becomes / not-want-do for reason-roam. / Cuty is as duty does she doubts. She will / dither while the do-ought-must berates / the want-ought-won't” (39).

Of course there are worlds of difference between Smith and Sinavaiana, as between other diasporic writers from Sarith Peou, on whom I've written here, to Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, and many many others.  Diaspora is rarely shared, or shared easily, because there are so many versions of it.  Yet, as Adam Aitken writes in lines cast in bronze (oh irony!) in Centennial Park, Sydney:

and from the mouths of the wise ones
custodians sing a Law of living
that writes us
yields its path

and gives us
message of repair
that says
'it’s fine, it’s clear
you are here
your homesickness
will not last
you're home
within us,
clear path to sweet water:

all spirits
be spoken for.  

Diaspora is an economic reality, a cultural tearing apart, often born of political turmoil.  The “message of repair” offered by the poetic custodians, Aitken, Smith, and Sinavaiana, is a spiritual path.  Its “Law of living” is worth the abiding.


You can hear Caroline Sinavaiana read here.  Sinavaiana’s book can be found here.  Unfortunately, it is nearly out of print, and is unavailable directly from Tinfish Press.  YouTube here.

You can hear Hazel Smith perform with Roger Dean here.  Smith’s book can be found here.  Very much in print.

Jill Moser, While Turning, 2011

Jill Moser's show of new painting opens on April 19 at Lennon, Weinberg in New York

More reactions to the Short Takes on Long Poems symposium

The persistence of memory
Michele Leggott & her guide-dog Olive

Lisa Samuels, one of the three co-organisers of the Short Takes on Long Poems symposium (with Robert Sullivan, mentioned in my previous post,  and Michele Leggott, pictured above with her guide-dog Olive), writes in to specify that it was she who was responsible for the two words "begin anywhere" which started off our long,  collective, ten-part beach poem the other day:

Nice to see your Jacket2 write-up, and that you used the 2 words I wrote at the beginning of our very very very very very very very very very very long beach poem – I'm sure I am pulling 'begin anywhere' from some co-making moment, and that too is par for the symposium.

Which prompts me, in turn, to claim responsibility for inscribing the four words visible in the picture above, beside Michele and Olive, which were meant to be a quote from the last line of the title poem of Allen Curnow's 1982 collection You Will Know When You Get There:

Down you go alone, so late, into the surge-black fissure.

On the surface, the poem records a walk down Lone Kauri Road to Karekare beach, where the poet intends to gather some shellfish. Figuratively, however, it seems to be reminding us that we’re all going to be taking a long walk on a short pier one of these days, into the "surge-black fissure" of "there" – whatever version of the afterlife we can imagine for ourselves.

You'll note that I failed to remember the correct wording of the poem, and instead wrote "blue-black fissure" (Robert did correct me, but by then it was too late to erase it and start again – wet sand is a rather unforgiving medium).

In fact all the scraps and fragments of poems I wrote on the beach that day seem to have been plagued by misprints: Curnow was only one of the many people I got wrong. After a while I began to think that the only way out was to claim it as some kind of postmodern trope: intentional incorrectitude.

Funnily enough, this matches almost perfectly with one of the papers we'd heard the day before. Susan Schultz of the University of Hawai'i-Manoa (whose own impressions of the symposium can be seen here) had shown us some videos of the very elegant thought experiment she and her two collaborators Jaimie Gusman and Evan Nagle had been conducting with George Oppen's poem "Of Being Numerous." They read out parts of the poem to "mainly friends and local residents who are not poets," and then recorded the words and concepts the listeners could remember: in some cases a lot, in one (very memorable) instance, a little girl possibly perturbed by some of the rude words being used, nothing at all.

Her paper was extremely interesting to me. It made me think at once about the long controversy over the technicalities of the oral transmission of Homer (and the apparently fathomless repertoires of traditional knowledge associated with tribal chiefs and tohungas): of the power and persistence of memory (to quote the title of Dali's iconic 1931 painting). But then, on the other hand, we have the immense lost corpus of Ancient Greek (the missing books of Sappho, the rest of Greek drama, all those plays which have not come down to us) or Anglo-Saxon literature to remind us of the fragility of such mnemonic systems.

What would I remember of the tradition if the libraries burned tomorrow? Precious little, and that contaminated by misreadings and misquotations, as the beach at Oneroa reminded me.

"Poets do not forget," I said in my first post – quoting the Italian poet Salvatore Quasimodo via a translation by NZ poet Kendrick Smithyman. But of course they do. The other day at dinner my father broke into a conversation about my mother's recent eye operation with a long anecdote about the seagulls he used to feed out of the back window of their house (he's now too frail to go out and forage for the left-over muffins and bread-rolls they were so fond of). The truth is that everyone forgets: poets, doctors (like my father), and archivists alike. My father's illness is gradually wiping out all of his memories, new and old. It won't be long before the last residue is gone: our names, his name, where he lives, who he is ... That impassioned recital of the names and attributes of his seagull friends was a Chekhovian moment – sad, and yet somehow intensely poetic at the same time.

Dr John Ross 24-2-09

[My father feeding the birds]

Like so many Kiwi men of his generation, my father has always been a great teller of anecdotes and reciter of humorous verse (much of it composed by him). Some of them I remember myself, and no doubt my mother and my brothers could supplement my recollection with a few more. It's deeply disconcerting to witness the gradual erasure of so great an oral store though. Perhaps I should write them all down while I still can. But then where should I keep them? In a notebook? on the internet?

Which brings me round to the point I’d like to make as a reaction to all this. It’s a critical commonplace that the existence of reliable writing systems – the ability to write it all down (as Governor Grey did with the words of his traditional informants in the mid-nineteenth century) leads eventually to the erosion of formal memory training and memory systems.

The existence of the internet – a kind of immense mnemonic metaphor – has led, in its turn, to the erosion of print archives and physical memory repositories. If it’s stored online, we’re virtually absolved from reading it. It’s accessible anytime, therefore need not be looked at right now.

In his lifetime Allen Curnow (1911-2001) was generally regarded as the most distinguished and internationally recognized New Zealand poet of his generation. A brief web search will reveal to you how little of his work is available online, however. The Curnow estate – quite reasonably – sees his work as far too valuable to put up on sites where it could be copied or downloaded for free.

Kendrick Smithyman, on the other hand, far less widely read – though greatly respected – during  his lifetime, now has an immense website, co-edited by Professor Peter Simpson and Smithyman's widow Margaret Edgcumbe, devoted to his collected poems, with full cross-indexing and critical and biographical apparatus available at the click of a finger.

Despite the (alleged) “difficulty,” the mandarin complexities, of a good deal of his work, Smithyman has thus become automatically the most readily accessible of the major New Zealand poets of the last century. Whereas even the need to check my quote from “You Will Know When You Get There” required me to have a copy of Allen Curnow’s Selected Poems to hand.

What do we remember of a poem, any poem – even our own? Very little, I fear (even if she’d extended her experiment to other poets, I suspect that Susan Schultz would have found our memories for recited verse pretty sketchy): a few scraps of wording, some vague sense of atmosphere and event … The internet may delude us into imagining that we can use it as a kind of external hard-drive devoted to extra memory, and its convenience and flexibility in this regard do mean that we’ll be shifting more and more of our work onto it. Who, after all, can question the value of projects such as the online Smithyman edition?

In the end, though, any memory system or set of storage protocols is mortal: a single mind, a caste of priests, a library vault, or an engraved microchip. Osip Mandel’shtam’s widow Nadezhda kept the memory of his last poems alive by reciting them to herself and a series of helpers till the day they could be smuggled out and published in the West. The only moment in which they truly come back to life, though, is the one when we experience – read or hear – them again ourselves.

Crater of the extinct volcano Maungawhau or Mt. Eden, in Auckland

At the recent Short Takes on Long Poems symposium in Auckland (see Jack Ross's take here), Jacob Edmond, whose comic-serious talk concerned the literal weights and volumes of long poems, kept asking a single question of other speakers.  “In what way is the work you're talking about local?”  Or, in the case of my presentation, “Do you think your videos [of people in Hawai`i saying back lines of George Oppen's ‘Of Being Numerous’ as best they could] localize the poem in some way?”  Jack Ross argues that the symposium would have been too international had it not included the work of Robert Sullivan and John Adams, writing the interstices between Maori and Pakeha in Aotearoa / New Zealand.  This discussion felt like home to me, albeit set on a different stage and peopled by very different writers and critics than is the case in Hawai`i.  But of course these distinctions are hard to keep or enforce when (like me) you can leave Auckland at 7 a.m. of a Monday morning and arrive in Honolulu at 7 a.m. the same morning.  Yet Lucas Klein, a scholar and translator of Chinese poetry, quoted the Chinese poet, citizen of New Zealand, and resident of London, Yang Lian, as saying: “There is no international, only different locals.”

Jacob Edmond is one of Yang Lian's translators; he and Hilary Chung published a book of Yang Lian’s Auckland poems and essays in Unreal City: A Chinese Poet in Auckland (Auckland University Press, 2006).  Auckland is, of course, a real city.  But to find one's accidental exile there, as Yang Lian did for several years after Tiananmen Square in June 1989, is to enter a place profoundly unlocal in its language, its climate, its watery surround.  The man forced to dig graves during the Cultural Revolution came to live near Grafton Bridge, which goes over a cemetery in Auckland.  As the editors tell us in their introduction, “Grafton Bridge is described with realist accuracy . . . but the bridge and the view also provide the starting point for a hallucination . . . or mirage . . . that transforms the real Auckland landscape and the surreal space of the poem, with its threatening ‘iron’ and ‘stone masters’ that seem to force the final cry ‘for the pain unexpectedly prolonged in the night.’” (8-9).  Later, they add, “Thus ‘City in a Mirage’ [one section of their anthology of his Auckland poems] develops a poetics of exile in which the strange world of exile—the ‘city’—in a sense compensates for the displaced subject’s loss of reality—the ‘mirage’.” (17).  So, while Yang Lian writes in “Grafton Bridge,” of “a sky shrivelled by extinct volcanoes,” a fact of the city’s geography, where volcanoes form “power points” that overlook city and ocean, he maintains in “The Garden This Afternoon,” that “what is not illusory cannot be born” (41).  These are not real gardens with imaginary toads in them, because both garden and toad are real.  But they are gardens in which exilic sight refracts the world where death (loss, exile, silence) meets the imagination (poetry, the freedom that comes of not-freedom).  This is where “the living gather round death’s window and cry,” as he writes in “The Book of Crying and Forgetting,” dedicated to Milan Kundera. 

It's also a place where “when you talk about your childhood it's as if you're not actually talking about yourself but about somebody else hiding inside your body” (76).  Early in the book we see a pencilled sketch of the house at 137 Grafton Road where Yang Lian lived (the drawing is by his wife, Yo Yo).  But in the essay “Ghost Talk,” late in the book, Yang separates those English words, “house” from “home,” to note that, “Whenever you mention this dilapidated old house, you always say ‘there’.” (75).  His exile rendered insubstantial the very structure of the house in which he lived, as it did the language in which he writes.  The result, to cite the title of the book’s last essay, is to live in the “City of One Person,” a city he can't believe exists, even as he climbs the extinct volcano near his house and looks out over its buildings to the sea.  From this house, which exists as structure but not as idea, he looks back at his life, the life that seems more imaginary than real, “blurring your address so it appears to be a place you have never been before” (91).  The poet may be dead, but the dead might never leave:

     who says the dead are dead and gone     the dead

     wandering locked in doomsday are the masters of eternity

     on the four walls hang four of their own faces

     massacre once again     blood

     is still the only famous view

     to sleep into a tomb is fortunate     but to reawaken in

     a tomorrow the birds fear even more

     this is just a very ordinary year     (59)

This is the last stanza of his two stanza poem, “1989.”  That year was hardly ordinary for Yang Lian, other Chinese poets exiled by the government, or anyone “at either end of the refugee horizon” (48), but his “ordinary” is at once deeply ironic and honest.  Auckland is ordinary, as is any city.  But Yang Lian's exile makes of loneliness the unreal city of Edmond and Chung’s title.

“When you are alone,” Yang writes, “nothing exists except your illusions” (90).  Rather than losing himself alone, he also loses the city he walks in.  “The city of extinct volcanoes, sea and stone is really there. Feeling for them is like feeling your own face. But as you feel for them, they are lost” (90).  Yang can see his dream self, his mirage, but is otherwise blind to the locality he lives in.  Perhaps for that reason, among others, he writes a poem to Michele Leggott, who has been losing her sight for many years, and is now nearly completely blind.  In “Sense of Sight, or, Island No. 5,” which he dedicates to her, he writes (in the mid-2000s), to himself as much as to her:

     it is never the eye that the view awaits

     an island     always mirrors an inverted image of an island inside the heart

     lights are recorded on a poem's silver printing plate

     night pursues a predestined logic     like a dog pursues an eccentricity

     barks wildly     one side of darkness is that point where it begins

     what sunlight once buried     accepts you back first of all

     eyes beautifully open     possess pure loneliness at last     (64)

Yang Lian's Auckland is a place of disorientation, dislocation; rather than “localizing” place, as Jacob suggested many of us had done, Yang dislocalizes Auckland more profoundly than had Baudelaire Paris or Eliot London.  His local and Auckland's local are so different as to make them mutual hallucinations.  But it matters that Yang wrote about Auckland, because Grafton Bridge, the War Memorial Museum, and the extinct (or are they?) volcanoes are local landmarks.  So between the purely local and the purely international, if either actually exists, we find the dis- or dys-localism of Yang Lian's antipodal city.  It merits our reading, if not our touristic gaze. 

Many thanks to Michele Leggott, Lisa Samuels, and Robert Sullivan for organizing the conference and to Brian Flaherty and Tim Page for taking the adventure out of  technology.


Hilary Chung has an essay on Yang Lian and Gu Cheng in the new on-line issue of Ka Mate Ka Ora.  Read it here.