One day Joan Retallack decided it was time to discard some books and journals from her personal library. Among them were Martin Buber’s I and Thou; a collection of short stories by David Kranes (Utah Press, 1979) called Hunters in the Snow; a 1974 volume of poems by Richard Howard; a published interview with Rita Dove; 1981 issues of The Socialist Review and Georgia Review; an issue of the Chicago Review that included an important line of Dante; books of poetry by Maxine Kumin, Ai, Burt Hatlen and Thomas McGrath; a 1988 number of Gargoyle magazine in which was published a poem by Angel Gonzalez beginning “The most obscure things have already been said”; Nuns and Soldiers by Iris Murdoch; Explanation and Understanding by Georg Henrik von Wright (Cornell, 1971); and others. This act of elimination, which on the contrary turned out to be a recycling and an archiving, produced a poem she came to call “Not a Cage,” after John Cage.
In Chapter One of Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paolo Freire writes, “Attempting to liberate the oppressed without their reflective participation in the act of liberation is to treat them as objects which must be saved from a burning building; it is to lead them into the populist pitfall and transform them into masses which can be manipulated” (47). For me, the key term in this passage is “reflective participation.” Students cannot simply be told that they must write; they must find their own composing process through “reflective participation.” Students need to ask themselves, “what are the words you do not yet have?” (Sister Outsider 41) and then write their way to an answer.
Here’s a simple pleasure: a few words on what’s perhaps my favorite book of poetry from last year, Cecily Nicholson’s Triage (Talon Books 2011). And it’s a nice fit with this series of commentaries, as Cecil’s is perhaps the very embodiment and quintessential example of what I’m calling “neighbouring zones”—the sometimes overlapping, temporarily concatenated realms of art and activism, poetry and revolution. Long both a poet and an activist/community organizer, Nicholson’s poetry simmers up out of ten years of social work in Vancouver’s notoriously fraught Downtown East Side (“Canada’s poorest zip code,” as it’s often proclaimed).