Commentaries - August 2013

Translation from Spanish by Lisbeth Haas

 [From L. Haas, Pablo Tac, Indigenous Scholar, with art by James Luna, University of California Press, 2011.]

 [NOTE.  In a too short life, Pablo Tac (1820-1841) produced a rare work for his time: a completely indigenous study of Luiseño language & culture -- much more than what can be shown here.  Writes Lisbeth Haas in her introduction about a work never translated or published before now: “As a historian and scholar, PabloTac defied the dominant ideas expressed about Luiseño and other indigenous people under Spanish colonialism.  His work used categories of analysis such as ‘dance’ that offered an indigenous way of understanding Luiseño society during the colonial and Mexican eras in California, from 1769 to 1848.  Born in Mission San Luis Rey de Francia in 1820, Tac devised a way to write Luiseño from his study of Latin grammar and Spanish, and in so doing he captured many of the relationships that existed between Luiseños during his youth.  Drawing on local knowledge, traditions, and ideas, his writing leaves traces of Luiseño spiritual practice and thought, while also revealing the relations of power and authority that existed within his indigenous community.”]

 All Indian peoples have their own dances, distinct from each other.  In Europe they dance for joy, for festivals, or for some piece of good news.  But the California Indians do not dance just for festivals but in remembrance of the grandparents, uncles and aunts, and parents now dead.  Now that we are Christians, we dance ceremonially.  The dance of the Yuma is almost always sad, as is their chanting, and that of the Diegueños is as well.  But we San Luiseños have three principal ways only for males, because the women have other dances, two for groups of dancers, one for an individual, which is the most difficult.  In the first two many can dance; one kind can be danced day and night, and the other only at night.                                                 

 First Dance

 No one may dance without the permission of the elders, and they must be from the same people, youths ten years of age or older. The elders, before having them dance publicly, teach them the song and make them learn it perfectly, because the dance consists of knowing the song.  For it is following the song that one bows, and following the song one gives as many kicks as the little leaps made by the singers, who are the elder men, and women, and others from the same people.

When they have learned, then they can make them dance, but before that, they give them something to drink, and then that one is a dancer, and can dance and not stay behind when the others dance.  Now the clothes are of feathers of various colors, and the body is painted.  The chest is exposed, and from the waist hang feathers down to the knees they are covered.  The arms are unclad.  In the right hand, they have a wooden piece made to wipe the sweat. The face is painted, the head girded with a band of hair woven so that the cheyatom, as we call it, can go in. This cheyat is made of feathers of any bird, and almost always from crows and from hawks, and in the middle a sharp little stick that allows it to go in. Thus they are in the house, when suddenly two men go out, each of them bearing two wooden swords and shouting, without saying any word.  And then, stopping in front of the place where one dances, they stand looking skyward for a while.  The people go quiet, and the men return, and then out come the dancers. // We call these two men Pajaom, which means red snakes.  In California there are long red snakes.  They do not bite, but instead whip anyone who comes near them. // The number of dancers in this dance can grow to thirty, more or less.  Emerging from the house,  they turn to face the chanters and begin kicking, but not strongly, because it is not time yet, and when the chant is completed the captain of the dancers, stamping his feet, shouts hu, and they all go silent, and they make the sound of a horse in search of its colt.  The word hu signified nothing in our language, but the dancers understand that it means “be quiet.”  If the captain does not say hu, the singers cannot be silent, but they repeat and repeat the song as long as the captain wishes.  Then they go before the singers and all the people who are watching them, and the captain of the dancers sings and dances, and the others follow him.  They dance in a circle, kicking, and whoever gets tired remains in the middle of the circle, and afterwards follows the others.  No one may laugh in this dance, and everyone, head bowed and eyes turned toward the earth, follows those ahead.  When the dance is almost finished, everyone removes their cheyat, and holding it in their right hand, they lift it skyward, blowing out air with each kick they deliver to the earth, and the captain with one call of hu ends the dance.  And everyone returns to the house where the dance regalia is kept, and then the elders begin to suck, or smoke, and they puff all the smoke skyward three times before finishing the dance.  Once this is done, it is over. The elder returns to his house tired because the dance lasts three hours, and it is necessary to sing for the three hours.  It is danced in the middle of the day, when the sun burns the most, and then the backs of the dancers look like water fountains with all the sweat that falls from them.  This dance is difficult, and among two thousand men there was one who knew how to dance well

 Second Dance

 The second dance I never took pleasure in, because whoever can shout the most should shout, whoever can leap should leap, but always in keeping with the song, and it much resembles Spanish dancing.  There is an old singer who has a dead tortoise with a little tick in the middle; the hands and feet, the head, and the tail are sealed, and they put little pebbles inside, and thus by moving it, it gives its sound.

And it is always danced at night.   Many can dance, and when they dance, the elders throw wheat and maize at them, and here women can also dance. 

Third Dance

The third is the most difficult, and that is why few are dancers of this style.  In this dance one person dances.  Before the dancer comes out, two men come out who are called the red serpents (as we have said).  The dancer wears his pala made of feathers, from the waist to the knees;  across his shoulders runs a string hung with many feathers.  On his head he has a long eagle feather, and in his hands two well-formed sticks, thick as reed, and a palm and a half in length, and his whole body is painted.  The circle in which he dances is eighty paces in circumference, more or less, depending on the site.  Every four to seven paces, there is an elder who ensures that the dancer does not fall, which can easily happen, since he must look up at the sky, with one foot raised and the other on the ground, and with one arm in the air and the other toward the earth.  So must he walk around that circle, which is made of people who want to see the dance.

Let us begin.  The serpents come out, and the people go quiet, and then the singers begin singing with the cheyat and they say hu . . . . . . . . three times;  we said that it signifies nothing.  Then the dancer emerges and begins to run around the circle.  The singers sing; he dances according to the song, as we have said, and when while dancing he comes near an elder, he tells him hu and raises his hands, and the dancer continues on his way, he can neither laugh nor speak.  It is over; the elders smoke, and they return to their huts.

view from Carrolll Gardens garden

Photo Credit: Alen MacWeeney, in Irish Travellers,Tinkers No More
Photo Credit: Alen MacWeeney, in Irish Travellers,Tinkers No More



I tried to outrun the steepening slope

But slipped and burned my hands in the blood of half-beings

Plotted along a crippling hill.

Their faces hissed their sibilant indictments

Against my unmindful bid for escape,

And a man’s voice shouting “BACK! BACK!

You should be happy to stay where this field has your name on it!”


Smoke unfurls from the embers,

Gathering about the bowed heads of the women

like fog around a carriage-lamp.

The speaker clasps her hands in her lap,

Free of their industry until daybreak but

Coarsened by a truce with the weather,

Its terms scored deep into her knuckle-cracks.

Tobacco and burning peat adorn each crown of hair,

The incense of deities.


The husk and murmur of their voices intone

the dusking prelude

to their night’s dreaming.

Images are stacked like cards in the firelight,

A corner flickers here, there a shadow reveals its premonitions.

The women twist them through their preternatural fingertips,

Coaxing knots into twine

and weaving encounters into their kinship tapestry,

The Bayeux of seers.


Our ways of permanence have never been fathomed.

We etch out our immortalities on our likenesses,

And tin and pewter.

Not on place and ancestry.

Our etchings are our art and economy.

Free trade and market gaps fill our jugs and pails.


I dreamt of my brother’s portrait and tried to smuggle it into waking

But it slipped through my fingers.

He sits on a stump, legs splayed and feet capped

With an odd pair of shoes and no laces.

Bits of tin and tools are scattered about to his left,

And the ragged old cur snouting sawdust into a cloud.

A jet of fag-ash teeters untopped in a frozen arc

From a cigarette that dangled a life-time from his mouth.

His hands expertly dance a punch along a milk-pail

(That will be recovered - dented and dusty –

From the corner of a barn twenty years from now),

Each half- step of the tool fleshing out a fan of nettles.

The road-map of Shelta.


In our language we name a place only while we stop there –

Be it for twenty days or twenty years.

Place means a rest between journeys,

an encounter or a caressed face between half-lives.

All moveable milestones.

There is no song in a settler’s rigid-rooted heritage

That a traveller’s art does not sing truer.


Etching is the stay of the faithful.

When you look in the mirror, it’s me you’ll see.

Speak and it’s me you’ll hear.

Ancestry is the obsession of those

who value permanence of place

and remain frozen on their forebears’ landscapes.

Our history endures in the nettle-fan of barn-treasures

Long after we have wandered towards new incarnations.

You, with hazel burning in your soul

To fire a hunger in your belly and a fierceness within.


I dreamt of a sleeping tousled head in my lap,

Of soothing our spirit into his hair with love and tugging strokes.

My hand will never again let his crown grow cold.





If you came to me and asked for help

With counting off your quarantine

I’d send you whaling.

You, who aspires to reach the sky with your fists

And feel its texture,

While bound up in an ocean of stars and a thin moon.


And although the sting of brining

makes you want to flee your hands

I’d give you a brace of harpoons

And send you out to collide yourself

With the spirit of your beast.

You’ve heard the stories of how whalers

Would unpeel their kills like a giant orange

And hoist the blubber up onto joists like blankets,

Believing that they know something now

About ‘sacrifice’ and ‘comfort.’


You’ve heard those stories, and they remind you

Of all the times you took shelter

From a sudden rainstorm in a dripping cave,

Inhaling the rarified air.

There you encountered your own sacrificial comfort,

In all those times you thought of whiteness

And sought it in the thing that clings to you and repels you.


You’d never seen it up so close,

The impossibility of white.

But you would if you went whaling

With a brutal, heroic crew.

They’d suspend it for you,

The filthy tapestry of a polar bear’s pelt

hanging like a soggy wet rag

from a strip of rigging;

alongside a row of vests and long-johns.


There is no perfect white-out,

Not even the bony great whale wings

That swoop you out of the reach of petty land-battles –

Tears and upsets, broken hearts – that sort of thing.

The rise, arc and slow flip of a whale-fin

Has a sureness to it, and grace,

But it breaks the waters that house it,

Every time.


I can see you approaching a picture of sacrifice –

A whale lying washed up on a shore

Within a circle of stale, darkened sand.

From a distance you trace its bluing hills

And careworn heights,

Its chalk and lichen wire brush skin

And the blue-cheese brandings of its decay.

It has to be you who cuts into its side,

To reveal a stony seam of soil

And the laying of thorn on stone.

This is the lesson of how the earth shows kindness

To the flesh, returning you to ground.

You know without looking the stolen loot

That is pouched in its belly –

Your silvers, sorrows, and the lost keys

That unlock your myopic gaze.

You recall the feel of a whale’s breath

on your face, that muscular wind.

Sitting, you take up your grieving residence

And begin again to count off your quarantine.


[NOTE. In the wake of my ongoing interest in forms of outside writing & thinking, but here in particular the culture of Irish “travellers” (tinkers, pavees), I was made aware by Nicole O’Driscoll of a series of her poems from which the two posted here are taken. The derivation, as much else, is local, “inspired by growing up in an Irish Traveller culture … my husband an Irish traveller [who] feels that the old stories [told in chant and rhythm] will probably end with his generation.” What follows here is more than simple transcription but the old lore informs the work throughout – “a poetic turn of phrase” in travellers’ talk that follows her transition from Ireland to the UK & a sense of “luminous details” that remains a mark of true poetry wherever found. Of the two poems above, she writes further: “Nightshade is about the stories my husband told me of how the traveller women would sit around the fireside at night and interpret each other's dreams. It's interspersed with memories of the ‘shades’ of those who are no longer with them. [And] Whaling moves from the mystical tradition of traveller life to the harsh realities -- the violence and alcoholism. My husband had to work hard on himself to banish these demons from his psyche before he could really embrace adulthood. Whaling is about this journey, which took him into heroin addiction and prison before he could truly emerge as the monumental individual he is -- and an incredible artist and musician.”

All that & something more. (J.R.)]

Below is a list of the live webcast sessions for ModPo fall '13. At the time of the webcast, participants can click here and join the discussion. The origination is the Arts Cafe of the Kelly Writers House at 3805 Locust Walk, Philadephia USA; those who can join in person are welcome to do so. ModPo is a free, non-credit course and is open to all; enroll here. We begin on 9/7/13.

1. Monday, September 9, noon (eastern time)
2. Wednesday, September 18, 9 PM (eastern time)
3. Wednesday, September 25, 10 AM (eastern time)
4. Wednesday, October 2, noon (eastern time) [a discussion of Stein's "Tender Buttons" with three poets]
5. Tuesday, October 8, 9 PM (eastern time)
6. Wednesday, October 16, 10 AM (eastern time)
7. Wednesday, October 23, noon (eastern time)
8. Tuesday, November 5, noon (eastern time) [live webcast session of PoemTalk on Whitman's "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking"]
9. Wednesday, November 6, 9:30 AM (eastern time) [Please note that Daylight Savings Time ends on November 3.]
10. Thursday, November 14, noon (eastern time) [with invited guests from among the chapter 9.3 poets: Mike Magee, Tracie Morris, Kenneth Goldsmith]
11. Monday, November 18, noon (eastern time) [final words]

Are all artists' books conceptual?

Twentysix Gasoline Stations by Ed Ruscha
Twentysix Gasoline Stations by Ed Ruscha (1962), image via Franciselliott, Wikipedia.

This fall I am co-organizing a symposium through the Simpson Center for the Humanities at the University of Washington called “Affect and Audience in the Digital Age.” A collaboration between researchers in poetics from the Bothell and Seattle campuses of UW, our event explores the impact of digital mediation on contemporary poetry. Here is how my co-organizers Sarah Dowling, Brian Reed, and Gregory Laynor and I describe it on the conference website:

Audience in the Digital Age is a one-day symposium exploring emergent modes of creative public scholarship. Specifically, we are interested in scholarly, pedagogical, curatorial, and creative practices that attend to the digitally mediated character of contemporary poetry. While poets have long enjoyed a position as public intellectuals, teaching readers through carefully constructed emotional appeals, much poetic work is now written through impersonal digital methodologies such as crowd sourcing and data mining. Nevertheless, digitally mediated poetics have a particular affective density: even appropriated text from the Internet conveys the “powerful feelings” that Wordsworth described as the ideal for poetry. Given the new realities of digital composition and distribution, how has the position of the poet changed? Can digital mediation impact the direction in which knowledge and expertise flow? Where is creativity located now?


Confirmed participants so far include Kate Durbin, Rachel Zolf, Ray Hsu, and Adam Frank, who will both share and theorize recent work that straddles poetry, performance, and public scholarship.

As part of our event, we are assembling an exhibition of artists’ books that utilize some of the seemingly affectless approaches that have been facilitated by digital media, including crowd-sourcing, appropriation, data-mining, and remix. The exhibit will draw on the vast book arts collection at UW (curated by the amazing Sandra Kroupa, who is a living, breathing catalogue of the over 21,000 pieces in the collection), as well as a selection of European small press publishers curated by A. Salinas and A. Bergman, who join UW Bothell’s faculty this fall.

As I delve into this material in preparation for the October symposium, I will be sharing my findings here, in show-and-tell style posts that attempt to open up the conversation about this subset of contemporary artists’ book production that overlaps significantly with contemporary experimental and innovative poetry. I am calling these “conceptual artists’ books,” for lack of a better term, because their appropriative strategies are largely associated with conceptual writing and art. However, the book arts themselves have a history of citational and conceptual methods (often containing poetry or writing not generated by the artist, and in many cases relying on manipulations of found imagery), and one might say that artists’ books are conceptual by definition, given the fact that, as Johanna Drucker defines them in The Century of Artists’ Books, “[An artist's book] integrates the formal means of its realization and production with its thematic or aesthetic issues. […] It has to have some conviction, some soul, some reason to be and to be a book in order to succeed.” Does the artist’s book’s fundamentally self-reflexive nature (by choosing to use the book form, the artist is always in some way interrogating what a book even is) make it conceptual? Are all artists’ books to an extent the execution of an idea that drives the work?

I resist making any blanket statement, but I will say that many artists’ books fit this theme, so in the interest of cohesion, I will focus on works that take advantage of not only the ubiquity of digital information, but also the increasing accessibility of inexpensive digital printing, which enables the fabrication of books that might otherwise be considered too expensive or labor-intensive to produce, or in some cases just plain unsellable. Transformations of the market through small press publishing, self-publishing, Kickstarter and social media also facilitate the distribution of such “esoteric” works and certainly play a role in the current vogue for such projects. A cool idea for a book no longer need simply remain an idea, since the digital landscape eases both the publication and public reception of such works (thanks to Lulu, Blurb, Amazon, Issuu, UBU, and even Risograph printing).

Such print-on-demand and conceptual books are clearly in a lineage with Ed Ruscha’s books, like Twentysix Gasoline Stations (pictured above), which were printed and sold at an affordable price point (about $15), and which are now priceless because their ephemeral nature means many are falling apart or have been discarded. I am not staking Ruscha’s democratic multiples (to use Drucker’s term) as the origin point for the artist’s book, but rather a specific kind of mass-produced artist’s book with which much contemporary conceptual publishing is in dialogue – I’ll feature a series of POD artists’ books that have been created in response to Ruscha’s work in a future post, and I’m sure many Jacket2 readers have seen the recent MIT Press book tracing its reverberations through contemporary art.

I will use the space of these commentaries to begin to map this current trend and to place these more “democratic” publications in conversation with unique and limited-edition artists’ books that touch on the same techniques and ideas. Because I will be posting things as I find them (and as they are recommended to me by others --please get in touch with me using the link at right!), this commentary will be partial, multifarious, and exploratory. Books may be posted alone or in thematic groupings, and I will occasionally profile an individual artist. I hope some interesting intersections will arise.

Selected further reading:

Sarah Bodman and Tom Sowden, Manifesto for the Book (Center for Fine Print Research, Bristol UK, 2010, freely available online): Addresses the role of technology and print-on-demand publishing in contemporary book arts practice.

Johanna Drucker, The Century of Artists’ Books (New York: Granary Books, 1995): A seminal text in outlining the history of, and recurrent themes in, the artist’s book.