Commentaries - April 2012

Cairo collage by Maged Zaher

In early 2006, Maged Zaher emailed me at Jacket and asked to have one of his  poems considered for publication. As often happens, he forgot to attach the poem. A pithy correspondence ensued and it continued between us even after the poem, my software mission, was published in Jacket issue 29. At some stage in our email exchange Maged asked me if I’d be interested in writing a poem in collaboration with him. So began a project that continued over a year or so and resulted in twenty-one poems that can be read as a continuing long poem.  Susan Schultz published the poems that we’d assembled and titled  farout_library_software as a Tinfish Press chapbook in  2007.

farout_library_software cover by Chae Ho Lee
cover by Chae Ho Lee

Maged Zaher, as Leonard Schwartz told us in a recent Jacket 2 commentary, “as a Coptic Christian living in Seattle but going back and forth to Egypt, has an intriguingly refracted positionality on recent events and his own poetry.” Leonard goes on to provide links to radio interviews with Maged on his poetry program, Cross-Cultural Poetics, including a conversation about Maged’s most recent collection, Portrait of the Poet as an Engineer, published by Pressed Wafer in 2009.

         Maged Zaher in 2008 (photo by Pam Brown)

Here I want to highlight a feature that Maged edited for Jacket in late 2008.  It showcased the translation of three Egyptian poets into English - Ahmed Taha, Osama El-Dinasouri and Mohamed Metwalli.  Maged's percipient introduction outlines the problems and differences in getting from Arabic into English, as well as canvassing tradition in Arabic poetries.

Here is the link to the feature in Jacket #36:

Defining key aspects of the modern — can’t be done simply. But why not try? Here’s one. The modern poem isn’t about expression or expressiveness, something the poet has urgently wanted to say. It’s primarily neither topical nor personal in the accepted 20th-century sense of the person who has things “inside” that must be said, written, conveyed. The poem isn’t telling you you should or must know something. It doesn't cover or fill a gap, a need, a want. The poem is merely (oh that huge “merely” — but I don’t mean it trivially) a means of keeping a reader from going from it, a detention, a planning to stay, and then — in it — is a remnant of the poet, all we know of him or her at that moment, then (now, the time of coming upon the words) and here (in the poem itself, making an inside that's nowhere else but where it is).

To the extent that the above definition is apt and useful, then the modern verse mode derives largely from Emily Dickinson, who in more than half her poems makes the point I've made above the matter of the poem.

And Cid Corman, not otherwise deemed Dickinsonian, is surely getting at this in this poem:

It isnt for want
of something to say—
something to tell you—

something you should know—
but to detain you--
keep you from going—

feeling myself here
as long as you are—
as long as you are.

And here is a recording of Cid Corman reading that poem.

Today Jacket2 and Jacket were listed for the first time in WorldCat, the international library catalogue.

Trans-pacific gender / genre in work by Jai Arun Ravine, Eileen Tabios, & j/j hastain

Lava on Hawai`i Island, 2010

j/j hastain begins “crepuscular,” from the relational elations    of ORPHANED ALGEBRA, (with Eileen Tabios, and hereinafter referred to at treooa) with this simple problem: “The dilemma of belonging. What of that has to do with things exterior to us and what of it has to do with our own regard of exteriors and interiors?” (27).  hastain responds to Tabios's sequence of prose poems about orphanhood, in particular those orphans who are older, considered too old to be adopted.  The orphan who becomes part of Tabios's family (provenance Colombia, destination California) is doing word problems in algebra.  But these problems are more complicated than the math would indicate.  Arriving at a reference to walls that “slant at 65-degree angles” the child thinks of “the man you longed to call 'Dad.'”  He is not father, but “potential father.”  What appears outside the “glass-less window” is “a lucid mountain.”  The man has scarred the boy.  Their relation is not lucid.  Hence, the “answer” to the equation is “'indifference > hatred'?”  Equations do not generally end with question marks; this one offers a “resolution” only in ambiguities.  Most of us consider indifference to be a thing better than hatred.  But an orphan, who needs feeling, an emotional relation, longs for it to be strong, not absent or ambiguous.  His regard meets the world's disregard in an equation whose answer is no answer.  As hastain writes in “LUCIDITY DISCERNING”: “The desire for a father is not a father” (30).

But Tabios and hastain are most engaged in what happens when relation between persons occurs, or between genders within persons, namely in the TRANS of their “relational elations.”  They are fascinated by displacements, yes, but also in “active placements,” whether those are relationships within adoptive families or within individuals whose gender-identities are not normative.  These placements require new words, new pronouns, new definitions of family.  They require new stories.  An aside: as a new adoptive mother, I remember finding most books on motherhood inadequate to my and my child's needs.  One book was about a baby bird who lost its mother and could only find animals that did not resemble him, and were therefore not his mother.  The antidote, it seems, was a book called A Mother for Choco, in which the bird discovers that its mother is a bear, whose other children include a pig, an alligator and a hippo. Same story, very different plot. (That my daughter loved the first book best further jumbled my assumptions; perhaps she understands fiction better than do I.)

j/j hastain understands displacements: “By Trans I mean that I have never felt solely like a woman. I have never felt solely like a man. By Trans I mean never only feminine nor only masculine” (71).  And so hastain also understands the need for new stories of the body's attempts to make family.  hastain writes several possible family stories: the first posits two lovers who decide not to have a child; the second is of a set of lovers who “had to be inseminated in order for them to physicalize a child”; the third set of lovers has a different field of pronouns — “xe” and “xir” — and have bodies that have been altered by surgeries; the fourth set of lovers has a child by way of surrogate; and the final “character” “considered it an act of love to not physicalize a child but to instead invite already physicalized children in” (44).  This “character” had to deal with nations (trans-national adoption) as well as bodies, with a child's “gristle,” with losses.  In each case, as hastain gently puts it, “Their yearning was real” (41) but (as with the lovers who use a surrogate), “They felt confident about complexities. Confident that they were meant to . . . [that] there was a new narrative to be had.”  And — this is the crucial and — “More than anything else they were excited to be forced to learn to listen differently” (43). 

It's that “listening differently” that is the real TRANS in Tabios's and hastain's book; it's a trans that risks appropriation.  hastain is not, nor ever has been a “real” orphan, although xe has experienced gender (and generic) displacements.  When a body rises into metaphor, it can easily be “assumed” to be something it is not.  But better to take that risk than to leave these trans-travelers solely to their solitudes.  It is the place “of someone finally watching” (66).  This watching is not espionage but witness, not “at”  but “with,” insofar as “withness” is possible.  In answering the first algebra problem in the book, the boy calls into question the very notion of reasoning.  The question, based on Sam's and Elwin's having certain bills for lunch, is: “is there a way for both to pay without getting change?” and the answer is: “They cannot pay anymore. My reasoning? My own transparent bones are proof.  Almost evaporated by ancient knowledge, I am twelve years old” (13). 

The central trope of treeooa is that of math problems; school work offers Tabios “comfort . . . as a means to rein in the often overwhelming emotions I felt when thinking about orphans” (56). Jai Arun Ravine's and then entwine, another book of transpacific, transgender, transrelational voyaging, has as its subtitle, lesson plans, poems, knots Ravine, who published earlier poetry in Tinfish's journal (#18) under the name Alysha Wood, is a transgender writer who is also transnational by the immigration of xir mother to the United States from Thailand to West Virginia.  Ravine's return involves language learning, so many of the lessons are in the Thai language; others are about how to peel a mango.  Then there are documents, such as the page on which the student practices Thai letters, and another that (to my untrained eye) resembles the application for a visa or a passport, whose instructions are in Thai, but whose boxes are filled in by ravine in English-language poems.  That documentary poetry is yet another “trans” probably goes without saying.  This trans shuttles between genders, nations, prose and poetry, and between the document and the feelings the document evokes.  (I've blogged elsewhere about ways in which the documentary archive relates to feeling.)  As at least one of my documentary students this semester discovered, instructions are one way to anchor affect to story.  He interweaves the document instructing him on how to set up an oxygenator with the story of his grandfather's death.  “How to do something” moves in odd, and moving, parallel to the way (no directions offered or needed) the body undoes itself.  The cadence is awkward, yes, but its awkwardness is appropriate to the story. 

Jai Arun Ravine's book is also the story of how family is created; this family is made of a mother, Gaw, and her child, Ram.  In the “lesson” section of the book, Gaw is seen trying to contain the fruit she has just cut.  She also tries to contain her child: “It was her habit to pour her child into old containers.  Old tin cans of soybeans.  Plastic bowls.  She poured her child into such and such a container until it becamse obvious that the child would not fit” (61).  It is to her a “question of economy,” one she learned in crossing the water.  “She knew she could not take anything with her and this translated to saving space.  To holding as little as possible at one time” (61).  And yet translation is ever inexact; some words cannot be translated, and some people cannot be made to be either “this” or “that.”  In the section of the book written inside a document that clearly relates to identity (as do passports), Ravine writes: “in the space between who she may become” in one box, and in the next one down, “and the questions of strangers.”  Then, “Ram is asked, Who are you? Are you a boy?”  The child responds in yet another box: “And Ram answers with her craving for cut papaya and som tam.”  The response is not really a response, save in that telling pronoun “her,” which we have already begun to call into our own field of questions. 

I feel too settled into my identities to understand the full TRANS of Ravine's book.  For me, xir use of Thai in the book only gestures to another content, another way of listening to the world.  But that's a significant gesture, as it obliges this reader to at least conceive of (or adopt or find a surrogate for) meaning apart from what is most at home for him or her or xir.  The other day a friend, new to Hawai`i, remarked on how much those of us who move here try to belong.  “Would I belong more if I lived closer to the ocean?” was her witty question, but joking or not, it's a very real one.  How are we here; what is our state; do we fit in?  That we assume places themselves to be fixed is an assumption not borne out on the Big Island, where lava  still flows, where you can find land younger than you are and stand on it for a time.  To live within a transposition of states — their “conjugations,” as Ravine puts it — is a real transformation, one that these books guide us toward.  Tabios, hastain and Ravine write out of a “relational elation” that is only possible within constant change.  And that reminds me of a math problem, one to which there is no answer, not even at the back of the book.


Eileen Tabios curates an important website, Poets on Adoption, written from myriad perspectives.

The challenges of pronouns for trans-gender persons can be examined at this site.

The focus of the Poems & Pictures exhibition I curated in 2010 for the Center for Book Arts in New York City was primarily on collaborations between visual artists and poets, primarily in book form, between 1946 and 1981. I fondly refer to these thirty-five years as a ‘renaissance’ in the art of collaboration, a rich period of revitalization that was often made possible by adventurous publishers who, in various ways, made such collaborations and ways of exploring and complicating the relationship between word and image possible. The history of the book often sidesteps art history and criticism, while a close examination of the work itself tells another story, its own story, distinct, but not dissociated from other artistic and literary traditions. In these years, arguably for the first time, Americans created the first books that broke from the principles of European book design, while rivaling the experimental works of the Dadists, Futurists, and Surrealists of the early decades of the twentieth century. Some of the books included in this exhibition were: Joe Brainard’s C Comics; Wallace Berman’s Semina; Robert Duncan & Jess’ Caesar’s Gate; Tom Raworth & Jim Dine’s Big Green Day; Larry Eigner & Harry Callahan’s On My Eyes, Kenneth Patchen’s Panels for the Walls of Heaven; Ted Greenwald & Richard Bosman’s Exit the Face; Charles Bernstein & Susan Bee’s The Occurrence of Tune; Bill Berkson & Philip Guston’s Enigma Variations; Joanne Kyger & Gordon Baldwin’s Trip Out & Fall Back; and various collaborations between Ron Padgett & George Schneeman. And a whole lot more.

The exhibition also included a few books produced more recently that signal a new generation of experimental book design, as well as collaborations between poets and visual artists, is emerging. After the closing in New York, the show traveled to the Museum for Printing History in Houston, the Western New York Book Arts Center in Buffalo, and to the Center for Book and Paper Arts at Columbia College in Chicago, where it closed a few weeks ago. When I toured the exhibit around the time AWP was happening, I became increasingly aware of how many books produced post-2000 could have or should been included. The relationship between writers and artists has changed a great deal in the last thirty years, which is the primary reason Poems & Pictures ends in 1981. There are a lot of reasons for this shift, many of which were explored at the Collaborations Conference in Caen last spring, but I feel that the desire to collaborate isn’t dead, it’s just momentarily confused. In fact, the subject of collaboration in art and interactive media has never been a more mainstream topic of conversation, to say nothing of the extensive (expensive) research being produced behind the scenes at campuses and startups everywhere. One of the common distinctions between new media and old is that where mass media talks at us, new media demands that we talk back: you simply can’t just sit and watch.

Poetry has been saying the same thing for a long time, as have books that challenge traditional notions of what a book is and does, books that demand a similar form of attention, interaction and response in order to generate meaning. The relationship between the book’s makers and readers is direct, and here I’m thinking of our most carefully-conceived ebooks and books alike. For the next couple of weeks I’ll be writing about some of the writers, publishers and artists that appeared in the post-2000 section of the Poems & Pictures exhibit, as well as some others that I would like to add to this virtual curitorial project here at Jacket2.