Commentaries - July 2013
[Green’s work over the last several years has involved an intense & detailed immersion into the specifics of her native Cumbria in the northwest of England. Her latest book, Salt Road (Indigo Dreams Publishers, scheduled for mid-August), is “a mix of poems and prose, memories, travel notes and anecdotes,” but an entry as well into the wider discourse on ethnopoetics. A key part of that work, explored earlier on Poems and Poetics, is her creation/(re)creation of a personal Cumbrian dialect & a poetry & poetics following therefrom. (J.R.)]
My story starts with a wood, Bardsea wood…
… and an intensely remembered childhood moment of writing a poem after becoming mesmerised by the wind-swaying branches of two silver birches feeling that if I let go I would become part of them. As a child I only dimly understood that it was a seminal moment in my life. What did the experience mean? How could I become part of the birches? It was an experience that propelled me into wanting to gain an insight into this kind of imaginative encounter. It’s been an itch to be scratched, a mystery to be solved, a ‘something’ I need to address. It’s a lifelong quest and it led me into looking at other cultures to help me understand it.
Leap forward about 10 years and you’ll find me in Heath’s bookshop, Barrow-in-Furness, browsing the shelves, alighting on a book called “Touch the Earth, a Self-Portrait of Indian Existence” by T.C. McLuhan. If you hover just behind me you won’t see the effect it had on me, you might feel it though. At last something that made sense. Here were people saying how they felt about the land, how they recognised its importance on the spiritual and physical health of people:
“I wish all to know that I do not propose to sell any part of my country, nor will I have the whites cutting our timber along the rivers, more especially the oak. I am particularly fond of the little groves of oak trees.”
– TatankaYotanka, or Sitting Bull, Sioux Warrior.
This book has been part of my life for almost 40 years. It led me to want to visit America, to meet with people who reverence the earth, as I do.
But I’m leaping ahead. Other languages and dialects also played a part in forming and informing who I am, what my poetry and prose is about.
When I was a child of three an older brother, in trying to teach me French, Spanish and Greek, introduced me to the pleasure in the sounds of other languages, without understanding meaning. From an early age accents, dialects, colloquialisms and other languages fascinated me. Whether the rough burr of farmers at an Ulverston auction market, or the lilt and fall of family-visiting Irish, Polish, Italian and American relatives in Cleator Moor and Whitehaven, mingling with west Cumbrian dialect and its why-use-two-syllables-when-three-can-make-a-word-into-a-song? For example, to-o-wast, for toast, or dad’s ‘Ista-ga’in tae Gaa-ity tae blawtha’ nowuzan’mak’ a scuttle?’ Meaning, ‘Are you going to the Gaiety Picture House in order to blow your nose and make a noise?’ or the Durham miners, convalescing from the 1940’s on into the 70’s at Conishead Priory, now the Manjushri Institute.
As a child I travelled with them, the Durham miners, on the school bus, back and forth from St. Mary's RC junior school, Ulverston, in the 1960's to our council house home. Conishead Priory was a home to them, to recuperate ... they gave us sweets, us kids. Gave us sweets and spoke with a lilt and a hinny and they too proved to be part of my singing, when I eventually dared tip toe into writing poetry never believing I could be a poet. But men and women such as them, my mum, dad and Nana and Granda gave me the grit to ultimately say, yes. I am a poet.
As I type this, I’m realising that it’s a series of journeys, of turnings and re-turnings. I returned to a place recently, one which has strong emotional and physical ties and which has helped lead me on this poetic journey. The place is called ‘Borneo’, named by my Great Uncle Richard ‘the beachcomber’ after he found a Dutch ship washed up on the shore. He took some of its planks for repair purposes and firewood and nailed the name of the ship to the hut. It’s a family beach home – though on a cliff top – in west Cumbria; specifically a cliff to the west of a village called Nethertown, which itself means ‘furthest most point.’ The family joke being if it was any netherer it’d be in the Irish sea!
Even though it has gone through many incarnations and been battered by the elements it remains a place of refuge, perched on a cliff top, overlooking the sea. The cliff on which it is situated is itself almost a tiny island, cut off from the mainland by a railway line. ‘Borneo’ has at once a rootedness, yet also a feeling that at any moment it could be swept up by the wind, Dorothy-like as in the Wizard of Oz, and blown inland to Scafell Pike. Or out to sea, over the Isle of Man, then over Ireland to land in New York.
I grew up not knowing whether I was Irish or English, with a mother who would point out Ireland to me – “Over THERE’s the Mountains of Mourne, you can see them when it stops raining and beyond THAT is America, where your Great Aunt Lucy went.” – and a father who listened to Irish rebel songs. I recall hearing my parents discuss the Night of the Big Wind and The Irish Potato Famine (always spoken in capital letters.) They would turn to me and say, “That’s when the Coyles’ and Fitzsimons’ came and settled HERE in west Cumbria.” It’s small wonder that I’d sit on the cliff top, listening to the shush of the sea on one side, the occasional train rattling past on the other, watching swallows and sand martins swoop and dive in spring and summer. Sniffing saltwater and gorse, surrounded by sea pinks, my chin pricked by tufts of grass, I’d stare out across the Irish Sea and daydream of going to Ireland one day – or even America.
Before travelling to Spain, Greece, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Kansas or New York my perceptions of these places were informed by what had been fed into me through literature, history and popular culture. For example: Spain, Picasso, Bullfights, Lorca, Machado; Greece: mythology, Seferis, Cavafy, Odysseus Elytis; Oklahoma: wagon trails, wind, Plains, Indians, Cowboys and Carter Revard; New York City: Empire State Building, Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, 9/11; Whitman, O’Hara; New Mexico: Lawrence, Taos, search for spirituality, cactus, thin air, Los Alamos, adobe huts; Kansas: Wizard of Oz, red shoes, wagon trains, jazz and tornadoes.
My fascination with North American Indian culture was questioned by a friend who asked me a couple of years ago: “What do you want to go writing about Native American Indians for? You have your own ethnopoetics right here!” This perceptive remark made in conversation with me by Jerome Rothenberg points towards the issue of the ethics of appropriation. Is it ‘right’ to write in response to a country, or culture, or a person’s experience that is not your own?
I’m aware of the sensitive nature of this issue. Of how, for example, a person from a culture that has experienced colonialism could take offence if a poet from the previously dominant culture was perceived as appropriating their myth, music, language, culture, geography or history. Being brought up in an Irish Catholic family I had the notion embedded in me at an early age that it was English colonial rule that lay at the root of many Irish problems. Perhaps it was this influence at a young age that caused me to feel drawn to others who perceived that they also lived under similar colonial rule. I felt then, and still feel, drawn to those whose lives and writings are perceived as being at the margins.
Writer John Burnside observed in his article in The New Statesman, 31st January 2013, that he was “willing to use anything – begged, borrowed, or stolen – to recover those transformative and connective presences.” I’m the same.
This urge to connect has led me to seek out and listen to stories, sometimes first-hand, sometimes read and reflected upon on my walks. Stories told to me on my trips over the last eight years or so to North America, such as this from Victor Robidoux, Iowa Nation Eagle Sanctuary, Perkins, Oklahoma:
When we butchered a buffalo out in the field, there, [pointing to the bare red earth of the slaughter ground] the big bull came up and watched. Then they all stood in a circle and watched. When the blood ran the buffalo went wild, pawing the ground and sniffing. The day after, when the buffalo was butchered and before the body was moved away, the males came up, sniffed the ground, tried to nudge the dead buffalo, knelt down, then got up, did a stiff legged dance. Then the cows came up and did the same thing, then the calves. Then they all left, in single file. They did the same Day Two, Three, Day Four. And that’s where we get our dances from.
Or the story of a person from Lower Manhattan who, like many others had to leave their home because of Hurricane Sandy; a story I transformed, translated into the poem “No Place.”
Or the experience of watching the sun set over the Tall Grass Preservation in the Flint Hills, Kansas, to which I responded by writing “Breathing in a Prayer.”
Or being told by a shop keeper in Albuquerque Old Town the tale of ‘La Llorona’, meaning ‘the wailing woman’ who drowned her children in the Rio Grande and then herself. Forever after her ghost went searching for them, reaching out from the river and drowning other children because she was lonely. The New Mexican legend called to mind a tale Mum told me of a woman called Ginnie Greenteeth, who lived in a tunnel near Whitehaven Docks, had hair of green slime, green teeth and ate little children.
As well as places what also makes travelling special are the people: People such as LaCretia who came up to me after the collaborative presentation George Wallace and I gave at The Gordon Parks’ Centre, Fort Scott, Kansas, telling me excitedly that if I’d had a mike they’d have been whoopin’ and hollerin’ in the aisles when I read Maya Angelou’s fine poem ‘And Still I Rise.’ Or Carol who told me my poetry was effervescent and that she’d felt she’d been on helium. Or Martha, who gracefully offered us tea at her home, refreshing after a hot day and energetic performance in front of Gordon Parks’ moving photos of the downtrodden, the neglected in society, whose inner dignity and grace he caught so well on camera.
Whether through poetry or prose, anecdotes or travel notes the aim in writing ‘Salt Road’ is to share the wonder I feel in my encounters with others on my journey through this bewildering, messed up, yet still astonishing world.
There is a Hole in things
that resists classification
and cannot be understood in the terms
that explain it
because the Hole
resists being determined
and cannot be understood as part of a system.
The noise in the head is an ache.
Doubt gives birth to invention
which sodomizes it from behind.
These beings do not exist
and yet they continue to provoke Artaud.
There are no questions or problems
worth the blood from a dirty needle
is just this stink
from the anus of a God
who is against Life.
Best to give it up.
Don’t want anyone
getting too close,
don’t need to be surprised or astonished.
I, Artaud, have had enough of this incessant pollution
of my vital substance by spectral intelligences
that resist being nailed down,
that are the result of an arbitrary calculation in the mind of God
which let loose a battalion of craven ghosts
THAT DO NOT EXIST
It’s just the laundry of human toil:
fear of death.
And the defecations of Science:
Fuck these bourgeois values.
It’s a fools game no grail no end to suffering
just filthy lucre
and that’s nothing new.
The eye flickers before God
and then closes for good.
It’s just too much when you get that near
the rim of the pit,
your face smeared with shit for leaning too close.
God is this clot of black blood in the anus,
food for angels.
It makes me sick to think.
I rage against the obscenity of God
whose pure spirit is the light of Satan.
Commentary by Cole Heinowitz, as Part of an Introductiion
“I Piss on the Machine of Being”: Peter Valente’s Artaud Variations
The poems you hold in your hands are not translations in the conventional sense of the word. They emerge from a deeply personal, sustained, and rigorous engagement with Artaud’s corpus, taking the “Interjections,” composed during Artaud’s confinements at Rodez and Ivry-sur-Seine (1946-47), as their immediate point of departure. Like Christopher Logue’s Homer, Paul Schmidt’s Rimbaud, and Stephen Rodefer’s Villon, Valente’s Artaud builds on the Poundian tradition of “criticism by translation,” a practice that demands “an intense penetration of the author’s sense” and “an exact projection of one’s psychic contents,” one that privileges “the fervour of the original” over semantic fidelity. Valente’s poems embody what Haroldo de Campos has called “transcreation,” a strategy of deviation from the literal that aims for “a greater solidarity with the final ‘gestalt’ of the [original] work” than can be achieved through “servile” translation. As Jerome Rothenberg phrased it, these poems are at once “commentary,” “extension,” and a “legitimate form of othering.”
It is in this way that Valente is able to bring us an Artaud who is frequently thought of as untranslatable, if not entirely undecipherable. Valente’s Artaud is not the “shaman,” as Susan Sontag would have it, whose works “yield nothing for the reader except intense discomfort of the imagination.” Nor is he Clayton Eshelman’s “shaman in a nightmare,” whose “madness…means little to anyone but Artaud.” Valente gives us an Artaud who very lucidly critiques institutional power in all its insidious manifestations—from metaphysics to rationalism, from communism to capitalism, and from sexuality to the self—an Artaud who wages unceasing war “against God,” “against reason,” “against classes,” “against the feminine, / against the masculine,” “against the organism,” “against psychology,” “against language,” and ultimately “against concepts” themselves.
Valente’s language reveals these “rites of black magic” with extraordinary vividness and directness.We see how unquestioned submission to authority “makes all men into craven, unscrupulous dogs, begging for alms on stoops and bar stools all over Paris”. We see in the clearest terms the torments Artaud suffered in the asylum: “It was hell back there at Rodez”, where he was “electrocuted,” “chained,” “kept in solitary”, and endured the terrifying “bardo state of electroshock”. We see “the filthy police” who “struck [Artaud] down,” who “bludgeoned” him “with an iron bar in Dublin” and sent him back to France in a straitjacket. We see the destruction witnessed by a man who lived through two World Wars: “1,000,000 dead / by fire, / by water, / by air,” “cities razed to the ground, / the upheaval of cultures, / men against men, / women raped, sodomized,” and “the burning of ships on the sea”. And we see the fragmentation of “a self that monitors it- / self in private language” in Valente’s “AR- / TAU,” whose every attempt to assert a coherent identity is interrupted and usurped by another: “it’s me, me listen to us artaud / not my / self, you’ll never find us / it is I, Artaud, / artaud is dead you must listen to us”.
Yet these poems are much more than instantiations of the systems Artaud railed against. They map the complicity and, ultimately, the interchangeability of these systems. God is never merely God in these poems: he is also Satan. Angels are never merely angels: they are also demons. Demons are never merely demons: they are also doctors. Doctors are never merely doctors: they are also capitalists. Capitalists are never merely capitalists: they are also priests. Priests are never merely priests: they are also whores. Whores are never merely whores: they are also the intellect. The intellect is never merely the intellect: it is also the body, that collection of organs “that eats, shits, sleeps,” breeds, and dies. Thus God becomes “piss,” Christ becomes “shit,” the Holy Ghost becomes “sperm”, “and all the shit and gristle of this racket of Being is pulverized in the brain as food for angels who awaken the dead Artaud by electroshock to perform surgery on his hands and scrape words from his tongue with their rusty tools”. The material world is inseparable from the immaterial world: “The unholy trinity enters matter through the anuspussy key and feeds upon the entrails of Artaud” while “[t]he filth of the spirit” drains “its shit / at the rim of matter”.
Valente’s poems scream of this vicious collusion; they “rage against the obscenity of God/ whose pure spirit is the light of Satan”:
Such terminal bullshit has passed for truth in the West
in the name of philosophy,
science, religion, politics, etc.
ought to be raped and roasted on a spit in Hell
next to that pig Descartes
and the entire dilapidated Academy
and those secret initiates who enact
vile scenarios of black magic,
having stolen the sperm of Artaud
while he sleeps.
THEY OUGHT TO RAZE THE WHOLE STINKING EDIFICE.
Looked at politically, philosophically, or spiritually, Valente’s stark revelation of such collusion is indeed formidable. But while they have much to teach in such respects, these poems are ultimately neither political, philosophical, or spiritual. If God doubles as Mammon or the Madonna doubles as the Whore of Babylon, if priests are out for “filthy lucre” and the intelligentsia are simply angling for “a chair in the rotten council of heaven”, even if the Holy Ghost is a satanic ejaculation, as Valente writes, “that’s nothing new”. The constant reproduction and doubling of these forces may expose them for the deceptions they truly are, but the real point of distilling them all “in the alembic” together is to defeat “the machine of Being” that endlessly “reproduces”. Beyond their keen penetration into the travesties of justice, reason, and morality, at their core, these poems are leveled against the very notion of Being.” …
 As Artaud wrote in September 1947, “There is no greater enemy of the human body than being.” Quoted in Jacques Derrida, Writing and Difference. University of Chicago Press, 1978. p. 246.
MITSUMI ELEC. CO. LTD. by Eric Schmaltz & The Plastic Typewriter by Paul Dutton
Barney and Betty Rubble go to the Grand Canyon and send a postcard back to Fred and Wilma Flintstone. Fred and Wilma aren’t too impressed by the canyon but think the notion of a ‘postcard’ is a pretty neat idea. (I read this in a poem long ago. Unfortunately I can’t find the source. Send me a postcard if you know.)
Over the years, the typewriter has been important for visual poetry. For example, Dom Sylvester Houédard’s typestracts. Or Steve McCaffery’s monumental Carnival.
The typewriter frequently has assumed the role of both subject and predicate. The poem is what is typed, but is also the typing itself. And the typewriter.
Design. Designifier. Designified.
So: Paul Dutton’s The Plastic Typewriter (written in 1977)
So: Eric Schmaltz’s MITSUMI ELEC. CO. LTD.: keyboard poems (2013)
The typewriter remembers. It memos. Is dismembered.
The typewriter is a kind of recorder writing down the sound or the signs of the world around it – or maybe the boss’s dictation. Or records the words in the writer’s hands. A keyboard. Backwards braille: writing the fingertips.
Or the typewriter writes itself.
The materiality of ink. Of mark making. Each key or typebar broken free from the machine-determined grid. The typewriter presupposes fixed-width letters. The well-tempered typewriter. The standard-sized paper that is fed in an ordinary manner over the platen. This standard paper, considered as the destination for normative typewriting, isn’t blank. Instead it provides an invisible grid, its ‘open field’ like razed land waiting for a subdivision.
Ghost of the machine, rolling in ink. Typewriteromancy. The medium is the message.
Typewriter: participant in master dialogue. Capitalist scribe. Corporate memo monument-maker. To quote the Italian Futurist manifesto "Weights, Measures and Prices of Artistic Genius," by Bruno Corradini and Emilio Settimelli, from 1914: "A broken [typewriter] key is an attack of violent insanity."
The letters freestyling. Not bound by a rational Cartesian gri(n)d. If Kerouac pushed back conformist rationality through the road-long stream of consciousness by writing on the continuous scroll of an adding machine, here Dutton and Schmaltz also detourn typing by allowing the letters to literally break free. They remove them from the typewriter. Finger-signifier key separated from raised type letter. And indeed, they allow the typewriter to write more than just type. To write beyond letters. Impressions of the machine. Self-inkpression.
And the typewriter: a Flintstones era writing machine when looked at from the digital age. I’m writing this digitally, the text appearing on the digital representation of a page. There’s no ink. Only light. Pixel yourself on a boat on a river. But this newfangled thing is modeled on that old fashioned typewriting machine. Keys in QWERTY order. The scrolling page. The word processor defaults to modeling the typewriter experience. Digital mimicry.
So when Eric Schmaltz in 2013 deconstructs typewriting, it’s carbon ribbon dating. He’s a retronaut re(con)textualizing the typewriter and writing in both space and time. He quotes Kenny Goldsmith in the epigraph to MITSUMI: "The twenty-first century is invisible. We were promised jetpacks but ended up with handlebar moustaches. The surface of things is the wrong place to find the 21st century." (Goldsmith, "The New Aesthetic and The New Writing.")
And what of the infamous performance of Philip Corner's Fluxus piece "Piano Activities" (1962) where a piano was dismembered, each fragment sounding as it was severed from the whole?
The plastic typewriter? Plastic: not as in preformed prefab synthetic chemicals, but plastic: a lastic effort against the conforming confab of industry. Plastic as in the plastic arts. The plastich: a fluid line of verse. A verse made of fluids.
The prepared piano vs. the prepared typewriter.
But also: the unprepared typewriter not prepared for the word world it finds itself in. The ill-tempered, untempered temp writing on a typewriter, memos from beyond the desk where the quick brown fox can only jump over the lazy dog.
This is inking outside the fox.
Eric Schmaltz writes:
A close but not too close intergenerational reading of MITSUMI ELEC. CO. LTD.: keyboard poems by Eric Schmaltz & The Plastic Typewriter by Paul Dutton
A close reading for pieces like those in the MITSUMI ELEC. CO. LTD.: keyboard poems MS is difficult for me to imagine. When creating this series, I was partly informed by beaulieu’s notion of a concrete poetic. I, too, sought to create poetry that “momentarily rejects the idea of the readerly reward for close reading, the idea of the ‘hidden or buried object,’ [and that] interferes with signification & momentarily interrupts the capitalist structure of language” (beaulieu). The creation of this series was intuitive and instinctual rather than intelligent and intentional–more sporadic than systematic. Looking back now, it may have been a response to the more regimented work I was doing at the time, but also in dialogue with a generation of writers who, in part, incorporated this sort of spontaneity and play as part of their practice.
The Plastic Typewriter (1993) by Paul Dutton–one of the famed Four Horsemen and an outstanding practitioner of sound and concrete poetry in his own right–is a direct antecedent to my own project. His suite of visual poems maps the materiality of the typewriter in a way that is atypical to its traditional use. To create The Plastic Typewriter, Dutton disassembles a typewriter and then uses it’s parts and carbon ribbon to create a series of visually stunning, dirty concrete poems. The language and its method of transmission become noise on the page, buried by the rubbings of carbon ribbons on bond paper and excessive overlay.
In this same vein, I dissembled a keyboard and since the device doesn’t have carbon ribbons I used black paint (partially as a nod to Gysin’s oft-cited dictum), white card stock, and the keyboard’s pieces to seek out a similar effect. Like Dutton, I smear, rub, and imprint the page, defamiliarizing the keyboard and its function. While the poems stand on their own and in dialogue with each other, I find an exercise of intergenerational reading (Dutton from the age of the analog typewriter, and myself, born digital into the age of the internet) to be especially useful in fleshing out some of the concerns of my MS.
For example, one of the key differences between Mitsumi and The Plastic Typewriter is that Dutton incorporates language into his pieces using the typewriter itself. He involves language that resonate like lyrics from a blues tradition, “I’ve got a letter from my baby/ this is the sweetest letter that I have ever seen” which suggests a sort celebration or revelry in this deconstruction. While in the case of Mitsumi, due to the nature of my device, the incorporation of language is much more complex, requiring several other devices–a scanner, a monitor, a console etc. thus implying a whole other series of systems. In an attempt to circumvent these complexities, I tried to imprint the keyboard pieces on the page (using individual keys like typeface on a typewriter), but only empty squares would appear on the page.
Comparing these physical gestures and their results gave rise to some interesting questions regarding our generational differences–what do these gestures, which I tend to read as emblems of our age, mean for our respective generation’s relationship to language and language devices? Does it imply or correlate to particular outlooks on language? Is this difference–my inability to directly incorporate language into the visual series–symptomatic of a virtual age? Is this material realization meaningful at all?
 It should be noted that Dutton’s text was actually created in 1977.
Thanks to Darren Wershler for his assistance with quoted sources. (GB)
Paul Dutton is a poet, essayist, novelist, and free-improvisational musician from Toronto, Ontario. Paul was a member of the seminal sound poetry group The Four Horsemen from 1970 to 1988, and since 1989 he's performed in the improvisational trio CCMC with John Oswald and Michael Snow. Paul has also worked with the vocal art supergroup Five Men Singing, among numerous other collaborations.Paul's 2000 album Mouth Pieces: Solo Soundsinging is available on PennSound, and his visual workThe Plastic Typewriter (1993) is on UbuWeb. You can find an online version of his 1991 poetry collection Aurealities at Coach House Books. Dutton's novel Several Women Dancing was published by The Mercury Press in 2002.
The Plastic Typewriter can be found here at Ubuweb.
Eric Schmaltz is a writer, reviewer, researcher, and former curator of the Grey Borders Reading Series. His creative work can be found in places such as The Rusty Toque, Poetry is Dead, filling station, The Incongruous Quarterly, dead g(end)er, and ditch, and recent literary articles have appeared in Rampike and Open Letter. Eric lives in Toronto where he will soon begin to pursue a PhD in English at York University.