Commentaries - June 2012
Improvising an academic paper?
I’m thinking about an idea that I heard Grammar Girl (Mignon Fogarty) talk about—“so-called attempts to legislate language change”—how and when uses of words vanish, how and why there are “made-up” words, etc. I also participated in a workshop with Peter Elbow on speaking onto the page. So, today, my question is this: how does one really change a language or become confident enough in his or her own language fluency to take real risks in the face of traditional usage? Elbow said something early in the plenary that really stuck with me since—“culturally, we tend to think of writing as harder than speaking.” In other words, the resistance to writing may people experience is actually a cultural construct that has the potential to be undone or overthrown.
I’m immediately reminded of Steve Benson’s work, particularly the improvisation/talk he gave at the Segue Reading Series on May 12, 2007, as part of a panel on Language Poetry and the Body that Tim Peterson and I hosted (see Issue 4 of EOAGH). Benson’s performance included the following notes on his process (while the process was occurring):
don’t know what I have to say, so I recorded some notes on a tape cassette,
which I’m playing in my pocket, and there are little wires that run up to my ears,
so that I can hear through the wires what I recorded on the cassette
and help me know what I might talk about or what words I might use…
I love how Benson invites the audience into his composing process, as well as how Benson consistently challenges the way speaking and writing are taught to us. When students are asked to give a talk or a presentation--they are nervous, they read off a paper, they fear the language they need to use, and they often don't let their bodies know what they know.
So, what do Benson’s process of composition, Elbow’s ideas of “speaking to write,” and Fogarty’s phrase “legislate language change” all have in common? I think that each gestures towards what Elbow calls “finding the words […] with conviction.” When we teach prose writing, how often do our students really read out loud? How often do we meet the student who speaks brilliantly in class, but that rhetoric never makes it onto the page? Elbow writes, “all too often people write ineffectually because they don’t fully own or inhabit their words. This is a common problem since so often they write only because someone (like me) is making them write” (Vernacular Eloquence 237). Why not work improvisation, risk-taking, talking the paper, transcription of an orally composed work…into a freshman’s regular composition experience? Might this be a new way to “legislate language change”?
[In a previous posting on Poems & Poetics I followed Susan Howe’s lead in calling attention to the effort by George Quasha & myself – in America a Prophecy (1973) – to create a new form of anthology, not so much a ranking of notable American poets as a juxtaposition of disparate, often incongruous voices, putting collage or assemblage at the service of a new omnipoetics, “from pre-Columbian times to the present.” While that much was clear to some at the time of first publication, to others – like Helen Vendler in a characteristically obtuse review of the book – the point of the work was clearly beyond their tolerance or comprehension. What appears here, then, are the four opening poems from America a Prophecy, brought together as a foretelling of the total work to follow. That work, after a long hiatus, is newly re-available through Quasha’s Station Hill Press – a limited printing but enough to get the book back into circulation. ]
The Tree of the Great Peace [Iroquois, c. 1450]
I am Dekanawideh and with the chiefs of the Five Nations
I plant the Tree of the Great Peace. ...
Roots have spread out from the Tree of the Great Peace. ...
the Great White Roots of Peace. ...
Any man of any nation
may trace the roots to their source and be welcome
beneath the Great Peace. ...
and the chiefs of our Five Nations of the Great Peace
we now uproot the tallest pine
Into the cavity thereby made
we cast all weapons of war
Into the depths of the earth
into the deep underneath. ...
we cast all weapons of war
We bury them from sight forever. ...
and we plant again the tree. ...
Thus shall the Great Peace be established. ...
– Adapted by william brandon, after Arthur C. Parker
Walt Whitman: from Song of Myself 
Dazzling and tremendous how quick the sunrise would kill me,
If I could not now and always send sunrise out of me.
We also ascend dazzling and tremendous as the sun,
We found our own my soul in the calm and cool of the daybreak.
My voice goes after what my eyes cannot reach,
With the twirl of my tongue I encompass worlds and volumes of worlds.
Speech is the twin of my vision . . . . it is unequal to measure itself.
It provokes me forever,
It says sarcastically, Walt, you understand enough . . . . why don’t you let it out
Come now I will not be tantalized . . . . you conceive too much of articulation.
Do you not know how the buds beneath are folded?
Waiting in gloom protected by frost,
The dirt receding before my prophetical screams,
I underlying causes to balance them at last,
My knowledge my live parts . . . . it keeping tally with the meaning of things,
Happiness . . . . which whoever hears me let him or her set out in search of this
My final merit I refuse you . . . . I refuse putting from me the best I am.
Encompass worlds but never try to encompass me,
I crowd your noisiest talk by looking toward you.
Writing and talk do not prove me,
I carry the plenum of proof and every thing else in my face,
With the hush of my lips I confound the topmost skeptic.
Ezra Pound: Religio, or The Child’s Guide to Knowledge 
What is a god?
A god is an eternal state of mind.
What is a faun?
A faun is an elemental creature.
What is a nymph?
A nymph is an elemental creature.
When is a god manifest?
When the states of mind take form.
When does a man become a god?
When he enters one of these states of mind.
What is the nature of the forms whereby a god is
They are variable but retain certain distinguishing
Are all eternal states of mind gods?
We consider them to be so.
Are all durable states of mind gods?
They are not.
By what characteristic may we know the divine
And if the presented forms are unbeautiful?
They are demons.
If they are grotesque?
They may be well-minded genii.
What are the kinds of knowledge?
There are immediate knowledge and hearsay.
Is hearsay of any value?
What is the greatest hearsay?
The greatest hearsay is the tradition of the gods.
Of what use is this tradition?
It tells us to be ready to look.
In what manner do gods appear?
Formed and formlessly.
To what do they appear when formed?
To the sense of vision.
And when formless?
To the sense of knowledge.
May they when formed appear to anything save
the sense of vision?
We may gain a sense of their presence as if they
were standing behind us.
And in this case they may possess form?
We may feel that they do possess form.
Are there names for the gods?
The gods have many names. It is by names that
they are handled in the tradition.
Is there harm in using these names?
There is no harm in thinking of the gods by their
How should one perceive a god, by his name?
It is better to perceive a god by form, or by the
sense of knowledge, and after perceiving him thus,
to consider his name or to "think what god it may be."
Do we know the number of the gods?
It would be rash to say that we do. A man should
be content with a reasonable number.
What are the gods of this rite?
Apollo, and in some sense Helios, Diana in some
of her phases, also the Cytherean goddess.
To what other gods is it fitting, in harmony or in
adjunction with these rites, to give incense?
To Kore and to Demeter, also to lares and to
oreiads and to certain elemental creatures.
How is it fitting to please these lares and other
It is fitting to please and to nourish them with
Do they have need of such nutriment?
It would be foolish to believe that they have,
nevertheless it bodes well for us that they should
be pleased to appear.
Are these things so in the east?
This rite is made for the West.
Gertrude Stein: from “Winning His Way” 
What is poetry. This. Is poetry.
Delicately formed. And pleasing. To the eye.
What is fame. Fame is. The care of. Their. Share.
And so. It. Rhymes better.
A pleasure in wealth. Makes. Sunshine.
And a. Pleasure. In sunshine. Makes wealth.
They will manage very well. As they. Please. Them.
What is fame. They are careful. Of awakening. The. Name.
And so. They. Wait. With oxen. More. Than one.
They speak. Of matching. Country oxen. And.
They speak. Of waiting. As if. They. Had won.
By their. Having. Made. A pleasure. With. Their.
May they. Make it. Rhyme. All. The time.
This is. A pleasure. In poetry. As often. As. Ever.
They will. Supply it. As. A measure.
Be why. They will. Often. Soften.
As they may. As. A. Treasure.
Poetics List book from Roof, 1999
check out the full EPC Digital Library
a new feature of the Electronic Poetry Center
brief 44 / 45 – Oceania (2012)
It’s not that easy to keep a literary magazine going in New Zealand. Longevity is, of course, not always the point of such projects. Sometimes a journal – Oriflamme (1939-42), Morepork (1979-80), AND (1983-85), the pander (1997-99) achieves its aims in a few issues, and can then be safely consigned to the library shelves – or the backrooms of secondhand bookshops.
More often, though, they fall by the wayside due to diminishing enthusiasm on the part of the editors, or (even more frequently) inability to sustain the crippling financial burden they so often represent.
Our literature is littered with dazzling wrecks of magazines: Bravado, Evasion, Glottis, Printout, Quote Unquote, Spin, Starch – to name just a few of those which have come and gone over the last decade or so.
That’s definitely a reason to cherish those few literary journals we have which still publish poetry – some as their principal focus, others as one concern among many. The ones that I’m personally aware of (and I fear there may be substantial gaps in the list) are as follows:
- In Dunedin: Landfall – the oldest and most venerable of all NZ literary magazines, founded by Charles Brasch in 1947, and now published by Otago University Press.
- In Christchurch: the longrunning magazine Takahe, founded in the 1980s, & the stranger and more avant-garde journal Catalyst, discussed in my earlier post on sound poetry.
- In the capital, Wellington, there’s the eminent Sport, begun in the 1980s; the almost equally venerable JAAM, from the 1990s; & the comparative newcomer Hue & Cry. As well as these print journals, there’s the online periodical Turbine, and the Best NZ Poems site, both run out of Victoria University’s International Institute of Modern Letters.
- In Auckland: there's Poetry NZ, our oldest and most prestigious purely poetry magazine (now in its 44th issue); the poetics journals Percutio and Ka Mate Ka Ora, discussed in my post on translation; the online journals Trout and Blackmail Press; and then, of course, there’s brief, the magazine formally known as A Brief Description of the Whole World, founded by Alan Loney in 1995, and still running 45 issues later.
It’s the latest brief, the themed double-issue 44-45: Oceania, I’d like to talk about here.
I guess the idea behind it is the strange propensity of New Zealanders – and Australasians in general – to forget that they live in the middle of the largest ocean on earth, and to ignore what we owe to the cultures scattered across that immense expanse of atolls and islands.
The editor of this issue, Scott Hamilton, is no stranger to literary controversy. His literary / political blog Reading the Maps has attracted over half a million hits since he started it in 2004, and is regularly cited as one of New Zealand’s most influential confluences of alternative opinion.
This immense double issue has all sorts of material in it: an exposition by Murray Edmond of his classic poem “Von Tempsky’s Dance,” an essay (by me) on the iconography of Antarctica, and an intricately reasoned piece (by film-maker Paul Janman) attempting to reconcile the Chinese I-Ching, or Book of Changes, with the philosophical system known as ’Atenisi realism.
And what’s ’Atenisi realism when it’s at home? Well, as I understand it, it’s an attempt to reconcile – or perhaps sidestep – the binary opposition of Platonic and Aristotelian approaches to nature in favour of a more Heraclitean approach. It was originated and espoused by the late Futa Helu, who founded the ’Atenisi (“Athens”) institute in Tonga, and who is the subject of Janman’s documentary Tongan Ark, soon to screen at the Auckland International Film Festival.
In his invitation to the launch party for the issue, Scott elaborates as follows:
As many of you will be aware, brief 44-45 features, amongst many other things, work from a number of Pasifika and palangi writers who have taught or studied at the 'Atenisi Institute, the private university founded in Tonga nearly fifty years ago by the classicist, opera singer, pro-democracy activist, and staunch advocate of intercultural exchange Futa Helu.
'Atenisi's legendary founder died in 2008, but his daughter Sisi'uno, who is the current Director of the Institute, and the American sociologist and novelist Michael Horowitz, who ran the Institute between 2008 and 2010 and has an extract from his new work of fiction in brief 44-45, will be flying from Nuku'alofa to Auckland for the launch.
Auckland-based members of the Helu family and former students of 'Atenisi will be performing a song and dance at the event, and some outtakes from Paul Janman's festival-bound feature-length documentary about 'Atenisi, Tongan Ark (tonganark.net), will be screened on a wall.
To its fans, the ’Atenisi Institute offers a set of approaches to the study of world culture which avoid stereotypical divisions between “Western” and “Polynesian” thinking. To its critics, it’s a haven for disillusioned hippies and intellectual beachcombers trying to build yet another utopia in the South Seas. One thing’s for sure – it raises hackles.
Another motive for holding the launch party at the Onehunga Workingman's Club was, in fact, to use that as a locus for collecting books for the institute. As Scott goes on to say:
Because of the poverty of most of its students and its unpopularity with Tonga's ruling elite, 'Atenisi has always lacked resources. After talking with Sisi'uno about her struggle to replenish her institution's library, which stands in a small wooden building in the middle of a swamp, I suggested that supporters of brief might be interested in donating some books for the university at the launch on the May the 26th. With Sisi'uno's agreement, I made an appeal for donations of books in a post last week on my weblog. I'm pleased to be able to report that my post has prompted numerous pledges of books, some of them from people in distant parts of New Zealand who will be unable to attend the launch, but will be posting texts for us to pass on to Sisi'uno.
That’s one of the things I like most about Scott’s issue. It’s combative, engaged: located in time and space. It’s rather funny to think that despite having run for seventeen years, with so many eminent editors and contributors, brief still doesn’t figure in the New Zealand Book Council’s list of local literary magazines.
Perhaps they’d rather it would just go away. It shows no signs of doing so just yet, though, and with a 46th issue, edited by Auckland-based Art Historian Bronwyn Lloyd, coming up later in the year. If you’d like to contribute to that, or find out more about the magazine, look for details here.