Diane Rothenberg: From 'The Economic Memories of Harry Watt' (The setting & the text)

Harry Watt (right) with Ed Currey, circa 1970
Harry Watt (right) with Ed Currey, circa 1970

[To be published in 2015 as part of an expanded & revised edition of Diane Rothenberg’s Mothers of the Nation by Nine Point Publishing in Bridgton, Maine] 



We first met Harry Watt in December, 1967.  Stanley Diamond prepared a letter for us to carry along and telephoned ahead to introduce us.  Diamond was interested in the experiments in translation that my husband, Jerome Rothenberg, was doing and thought that a meeting with some of the singers of the Allegany Seneca, a group among whom Diamond had worked, might be conducive to further explorations in translation.  Harry Watt received us in his warm house on a very snowy evening and, because of his fond memories of Diamond, made an effort to acquaint us with the community. We went back several weeks later and the next summer rented a barely converted gas station just outside of the Steamburg relocation area.  During that summer, Jerry engaged in productive translation projects with several of the leading singers and songmakers, and our relations with many people intensified and expanded.  Toward the end of the summer we were honored by clan adoptions in the Longhouse, and Harry Watt became my uncle in the Blue Heron clan.  


We returned regularly to western New York in the following years to visit, to participate in ceremonies and to talk with friends.  Some of the best talk was with Harry Watt.  We would meet at his house, or around his sister’s table, or, in better weather, at the old house, several hundred yards away through the woods, where Harry Watt and his wife had their gardens and where he most liked to be. This was the house that he had preserved when the forced relocation in 1965 caused by the building of the Kinzua Dam required that everyone occupying a house within the flood plain move.  The misery of the time of removal was vividly felt, and the new houses generally resented.  Harry Watt’s old house was the almost singular representative of what had been a very recently transformed way of life and, as such, conveyed layers of meaning and emotion that we could hardly begin to appreciate.  It was located high on a bank overlooking the Allegheny River, with the gardens on one side and the woods all around, and Harry Watt would point to places when he talked about his childhood, about herbal knowledge, about encounters with animals.  He talked about his experiences at the local Indian school and his running away from it for a perceived injustice, about his experiences traveling around the country doing construction work, about the skills and men involved in his work, about his encounters with Indians in other parts of the country, about Indian sovereignty, and about his hopes and fears concerning a retention of Indian identity by those who were losing the Seneca language and ceremonial knowledge.  He talked about schemes for teaching the old ways, about his respect for those who were educated and knowledgeable in those ways, about his own sense of deprivation in having chosen paths which led him away from an early immersion in Seneca language and culture, onto his return in his later years with an eagerness and a sense of responsibility toward a goal of Seneca cultural preservation. Harry Watt’s dedication in these matters was essential to the smooth running of the Longhouse Religion and, most importantly, to the preparation for the annual cycle of Six Nations meetings which preserved and carried the message  of the prophet Handsome Lake throughout the intertribal circuit of believers. He was a model of a traditional Iroquois peace chief (although he did not have such a title): dignified, courteous, reasonable, personally available and generous, highly intelligent, and responsible to the collective.  For these, and many other reasons, strangers were sent to see Harry Watt, and he was accustomed to representing his community to visitors – journalists, scholars, students.  We witnessed many of these encounters and grew familiar with some of the regular turns the interviews would take, so that, over the years, we heard him discourse many times on some of the same subjects.  Two of his favorites were religious epistemology and working, and I began to feel that I could “hum along” when he introduced one of these topics, although I tried not to seem inattentive and not to interrupt. 


In June, 1972, we rented a house In Salamanca – on the Allegany Seneca reservation – for the beginning of a new project, this time the field work toward my dissertation.  We had no clear idea of how long we would stay, but the work was going well and there was no other we needed or wanted more to be, so we stayed for two years and left with great regret.  My own work turned more and more toward historical research and archives and away from a systematic accumulation and recording of fieldwork notes.  I regret now the tapering off of these detailed notes; when I reread them I hardly recognize my own voice, as if I were reading the experiences of some other person.  Our social interactions and participation were intense, but became less instrumental, and the “participant” activity quite assuaged my early 1970’s discomfort with the “observation” part of the anthropological enterprise. 


Harry Watt frequently remarked that “people say I should write a book.”  I had heard that statement often enough to feel some impatience whenever I heard it again, but also to feel that maybe he really should tell the story of his life in writing and that I should help facilitate that ambition. While it also seemed to me that hearing a systematic account of life on the reservation at the turn of the twentieth century might be of use to my research, I was already more focused on the turn of the nineteenth century, so my own goals were of secondary concern in this project. I offered to come around with the tape recorder that I rarely used, to transcribe his dictation, and to collaborate with him on editing it for potential publication.  It seemed like a tidy project.


On November 16, 1972, I sat on the sofa in Harry Watt’s living room, hunkered down for some serious descriptions of his early life on the reservation.  He sat in his rocker, eyes slightly closed in an attitude of remembering and, to my distress, began, “When I was a boy, we really knew how to work.”  I had heard that many times before and I was sure that was not the way to start this project.  I tried to divert him, to suggest he talk about his grandparents, his memories of being a little child, events and people in his family.  He responded briefly to my inquiries, but seemed determined to continue talking, in what seemed to me a platitudinous way, about working.  The tape recorder ran on and he talked on, while I sat enveloped in a cloud of frustration. When he tired of talking, I turned the machine off, went home and transcribed what was on the tope, gave him a carbon of the transcription the next day, and never mentioned the autobiography again.  My copy was filed away, that other filing system in my head contained only a record of my frustration, amended slightly by my feeling of superior wisdom about what a real autobiography should be. 


About five years later, friends who were editing an issue of a conceptual-art magazine, proposed that contributors from various disciplines should consider the subject of memory from the perspective of their own work.  My experience with Harry Watt’s autobiography still rankled, and so I began an essay exploring the generalizing tendency of the elderly in relation to their own pasts and the related problem of using oral history as data.  After I had completed several paragraphs, I remembered that I had the transcript in my files and thought to search it out for relevant examples. 


Harry Watt’s words flew out at me as a reproach both for my incomprehension and for the opportunity I had missed.  The organizing principle of “work” was for him a primary value and a life metaphor.  It was through working that he defined himself and it was through the core of economic behavior that the rest of life was elaborated.  Because I did not open my ears and my mind, as the Seneca invocation directs one to do, I missed the opportunity to know more about it.  The transcript which exists represents in small measure an homage to the man who died in 1986 and is included here in full to convey both the spoken cadences of the oral delivery and the richness of ethnographic detail. 




When I got a little bigger I worked, I had things to do.  I always had things to do.  When I got back from school I always had something to do. I started even before I went to school.  I used to bring wood in.  I had a bunch of sticks and carried them in  I piled them higher on my arms when I got bigger. 


I carried wood and I carried water, helping my mother by bringing water. I carried water for her for washing and cooking.  My dad used to tell me,” Always watch the water pail.  If you see it empty, fill it up.” He said, “Always have it full.” 


I always worked.  For instance, milking cows; we had cows.  I went after cows.  And in the summer time, I had to go after cows.  In the winter they didn’t go out. 


But as I grew older, there was more work.  Many times when other kids would come along and ask me to go along with them, go fishing or go somewhere, “I can’t go, I’m too busy.”  There were times when the kids would help me do something to get it done so I could go with them.  Those kids didn’t have the farm like we had.  They didn’t have no stock, and they didn’t have to have chores.  They had to get wood; we all had to do that. We all knew how to cut wood, how to use an axe.  I knew how to use an axe by the time I went to school. 


They all burned wood and they had to go out to cut wood.  The wood near the houses was just brush and wouldn’t last more than a few days.  I went out to cut trees.  Maybe they would be so big I had to cut them three times to get them into the wagon.  I cut maybe seven, eight trees at that, and that is a good wagon load. 


I didn’t have a saw.  We didn’t have power saws in those days.  But there were hand saws that two men used together.  But I went after wood alone with just an axe.  I would hitch the horses to the wagon and used to go up the hill to cut wood.  I would be wasting wood by cutting it and letting it lay there and rot, so we would cut it and then I would get the logs clear down to the foot of the hill, and then get the horses and load it up.  It was work. I don’t think anyone works like that now, today.  One thing though, I had to learn to harness the horses and there was a time I couldn’t do it and when I wanted to use the horses, why the old man had to hitch them up. 


In my family there was three more boys older than me.  They went to school. I had one brother that went to Carlisle, the Indian school.  And then another brother that went to Hampton; that’s in Virginia.  And the oldest one, he graduated that Quaker school.  He graduated the eighth grade.  A lot of them graduated from that school from the eighth grade. 


But I, I didn’t I went to the Quaker school and then I got away from there.  I ran away from there, after about three years.  What happened to me, some time ago I met a Quaker.  He had my records, and he said, “Oh, it’s you, Harry watt.  You ran away from school.”  I said,  “Yes, I ran away from school; I didn’t like the idea.”  I said, “I had to work all day and after that I was hungry and I was punished for something I didn’t do and I was kept out until I was late.  I was late and they didn’t feed me.  And I was hungry and I didn’t like that.  So I said to myself and four other boys, we got ready and we took off. And I never went back.  I was sorry I didn’t go back.  Maybe I could have learned a little bit more.  But instead I went to work.”  I came home and I told them what had happened.  Well, my dad wasn’t too much about going to school and I suppose he thought if I went to work, why it would be that much less on his hands.  So I went to work.


I was fifteen years old when I went to work.  It was about this time of year, in the fall, when I ran away.  And just abut that time there was a man going around.  He was looking for me to go to work.  They were laying railroad tracks down to below our city.  Petroleum Center is the name of the little town.  They were laying railroad track there going down to Titusville. So I went over there looking for that man.  I found that man and he said, “Yeah.  How old are you?”  “Oh, nineteen.”  Yeah, I lied four, five years.  He looked at me.  “Yup. You big enough.  You be ready Monday morning when we start to go, your pay begins. 


Oh, I was all for it.  When we got there, you had to work.   It wasn’t too  hard work, but I worked hard.  My job was men’s work and that is everything.  I pick up rails and I had to learn how to drive spikes and I didn’t know how to work with my hands with tools and I had to learn. But it didn’t take too long.  I knew how to chop with an axe, and use a hammer, and that helped me a lot. 


We worked all winter and we lived in a camp.  I often thought of that. Just the other day I said, “There’s something I’m hungry for.  We used to have at the camp, we used to have a man cook.  He used to fry potatoes and bread crumbs and fish, canned fish.  He would empty that fish in a great skillet where the potatoes were cut up and add some bread crumbs and cover it and let it fry.  He had to turn it over.  And the bread got kind of brown, toasted like and everything is brown and the fish got all mixed with the other things. Oh, I used to like that.  I looked for that in the morning, for breakfast. You had to eat to work.  In a place like that you don’t get fat.  You eat all you can; you wear it out.  We come back for dinner.  But when we had to go out, they had lunches in bags.  They generally had a place, a shanty or two shanties, where we put our tools and they had a stove in there. 


There was about thirty men from here. We had about three hundred men.  I met a boy, he was a Mexican.  There was a big store and we used to all go there.  They had ice cream and all that and some of that candy.  But this guy, he was about my age.  He must have been, but I never asked him.  He kind of liked me and he would try to talk to me and he couldn’t because he couldn’t talk English.  There was a bridge close by there and we used to go to the bridge and just sit down and let our feet hang down.  And we’d talk.  We tried to learn each other’s language.  I talked English and I taught him what to say, the meaning of different things, the names of things in the store.  He ask me, “Como se llama?”  I got so I could understand too.  I could understand his language.  I used to know quite a bit, but since that time I lost interest of it and I didn’t see anybody I could talk to. But when I was talking to him, I could almost talk right along.  He learned finally. 


There were about one hundred Mexicans. And also Italians, pretty near a hundred of them too.  And about a hundred Indians.  Each group stayed apart and didn’t mix.  Oh, they had fights.  There was two killings down there.  The Mexicans had two or three and the Italians, they had some too.  They killed each other inside the groups.  In our group, there was two, killed in a fight.  One of them was the cook.  He was stabbed.  The other guy, he was beat up and I think the train run over him. 


I worked down there all winter and I got me some nice warm clothes, because I bought them myself.  I always wanted some clothes, some warm clothes.  I got my own money and when I got back I gave some to my mother. “Oh,” she said, “I’ll keep it for you.” 


After I came back from there I had cows and I had young stock and I had a horse.  I kept the cows on my father’s land; didn’t have to [ay him for it, but he used the milk.  My first calf was given to me.  My grandmother on my mother’s side gave me one when I was about eight years old.  When I first went to school I had a horse, a little horse.  I used to ride.  The horse got bad after a while, but he lived quite a while.  I consider myself a good rider.  For a long time I didn’t have a saddle, so I rode bareback.  Finally I got an old saddle I bought myself.  My father and mother, they saved their money and they worked hard.  My father, he never went out to work for day’s wages.  He’s working on the farm and what money he got, he went to work for others for a day or so at a time.  But he had milk and from the milk he had an income.  I remember when he had about thirty cows.  We all milked.  My mother used to milk, my sisters, my brother, myself.  At first I had one cow I used to milk.  That one cow, my sisters started in to milk that cow; my brothers started in to milk that cow.  It was easy.  After a while when you grab the teats, the hand gets strong from milking cows all the time.  It’s a lot of exercise.  We used to have some hard milkers. 


I had some cows.  Oh, she was a good cow.  I sold that cow and I got horses for it. I sold that cow and two yearlings and I got big horses out of that.  They weighed thirty-two hundred pounds, about sixteen hundred pounds apiece.  So they were pretty big horses.  I worked them horses.  I wanted them because if I had big horses I could do this and that.  If I had big horses I could go and skin logs, go and haul lumber; I could go and haul wood.  So the old man said, “You get yourself horses and a harness, and I’ll buy the wagon.”  So one day I went shopping for horses.  I bought this heavy pair of horses, made a trade.  I got a good price on this cow because it was good.  I told the man how much she give and he didn’t quite believe it. So I said, ”You come down in the evening and I’ll show you.”  She used to milk two milk pans full of milk in one milking.  I sold the cow to a guy named Underwood.  He was a farmer and he was a dealer too.  You have to watch how you dealed with them guys.  I got a good deal.  I told him that one the heifers was coming in and it didn’t come so he told me, “You got me.”  So I said, “It’ll still come.” 


In those days I stayed home for a while after I came back from working and did a lot of things then.  That was the year they started to pick up the track.  There used to be a railroad track down to the park and when they got through with it and there was no more lumber, they tore up the tracks.  And I worker there.  And that was work.  We used to pick up the rails and put it on the railroad car. After you got one up there, you give it a good push into the car.  I used to get so tired; I slept at noon.  There was an old man there I knew well, and wherever he said I should go I went there and I said, “Wake me up about quarter to one.”  Then I’d go to sleep.  I’d wake up, hurry up and eat, get through and get back to work.  To get to work I had to walk several miles. I wasn’t the only one who had to walk.  Every day walk down there, work ten hours, walk back.  When I got back, eat, sit around a little bit, then go to bed.  That job lasted all summer and they shut down after it started to snow.


After that I worked on the railroad.  I worked there quite a few years.  I can’t describe exactly railroad work.  Railroad work is a certain kind of work.  When you work on the railroad you don’t do that on the farm.  Railroad work is its own work.  It’s railroad work.  We laid the rails, and then we spiked them.  Gauged them, then spiked them.  Sometimes we had to put down plates on the ties, and sometimes we put them every other tie.  And there was times we had to put them on every tie, that’s around a curve mostly.  It’s all heavy work.  Sometimes we laid new tracks, sometimes maintenance.  Sometimes maybe a broken rail. They get that rail out and put a new piece in there.  Or else when just a piece off the end is broke off, then they cut it off, and fit one in there.  I’ve done that.  I’ve stood on the railroad tracks and just pound, swing that pounder all day long.  The first day you get awful tired, just don’t want to get up the next day.  It hurts, hurts to move.  My back hurt. But two, three days, maybe four days, you feel better.  Finally it’s gone.  In the morning you wake up, and why, you feel just as good.  You might feel a little tighter. 


I worked uptown as a carpenter’s helper and mason and I poured concrete and worked around concrete.  And I did plastering.  And that’s hard work.  The first day I thought my neck was broke.  Sometimes when I get through with a job, by the next day I’d have another job.  I’d heard about them by going around and different men would say, “There’s a job over there.”  I’d keep that in mind and when I’d get a chance I’d run over there and, “Sure, some to work tomorrow.”  They were building houses quite a bit in Salamanca in 1917, 1918. 


The old bridge went down in Quaker Bridge in 1917/  That year we had a cold, cold winter.  We had zero weather for about two weeks continually.  One day it was about 35 below.  I had a Model A Ford, a roadster, and the starter couldn’t turn over.  I had to crank, tup, tup, tup.  It got started, warmed up and I went down the road.  The people, some had cars, and they were cranking.  The ice was four, five, six feet thick, and when it came down the river it hit the bridge.  It hit that bridge and the bridge lay on the ice and it carried it to an island down below, down to the point of that island and that’s where it stopped. They got most  of that iron.  The bridge was built around 1878.  The same company built the new one.  The old one was wide enough for automobiles, but the iron that laid in there weren’t bolted down and even the boards were not tied down. So when the cars came, the boards would loosen and slide one way and the other and finally they had to fasten them down.  And the floor beams began to slide off one way and the other and drop off.  With the new bridge we put up, it was all concrete floor so it was solid.  So that was my first bridge job.  I worked with it until it got through.  We finished it about the last of August 1920. 


I worked the last day on that, and the next day I had a job over at the Quaker School.  I painted the roof.  They had a tin roof and they wanted that painted before it got too cold.  I went and got a partner for myself and we painted the roof for about two weeks.  There was a lot of roof there. 


My father told me I should go into farming, but it’s that payday.  The railroad, they paid every two weeks, and the farmers they paid once a month.  Only a few jobs paid once a week.  There used to be a tannery in Salamanca and they paid every week. 


In those days, after I came back from the railroad, I had horses.  And I got a course from a school for horse trainers.  I wrote for instruction and I studied and finally I graduated.  I was a horseman, I could train horses, break horses to work.  One time I had nine horses. I bought some, I traded some.  In those days there were quite a few horse traders.  I got into that a bit.  I had two teams.  My Dad used to use them but he had his own too.  He always had his own. 


Then I raised young stock.  I raised bulls.  One time I had four of them and they got to be a good size, about two years old.  There was one of them that you just couldn’t hold him in a fence.  I was feeding them for meat and I sold them.  I had to feed them at night and in the morning before I went to work. 


In those days I used to watch the first automobiles came around, when I was eight years old.  We used to see a truck come by.  We used to hear that coming way down the road.  Maybe two cylinders—chug chug, chug chug.  And then we’d go down to the road and watch that thing go by.  It had high wheels, same size front and back.  And the motor was cross ways and it had a crank and a heavy chain in there.  It made me think, standing there watching that car go by and I’d think, “Someday I’m going to have one of those.  Someday I’m going to learn exactly how that thing runs.”  And I stand there and I’d think that, “Wouldn’t it be nice if I could do that.”  Everybody’d say, “Harry Watt can fix that.”  I used to have that in mind.  Finally I bought a car when I was about seventeen years old.  When I was working on the bridge I got pretty good pay.  On this bridge here I got about 60 cents an hour while the others were getting about 30 cents, 35 cents.  Then when I worked for American Bridge Company made $1.00 an hour.  The railroads were paying around 30 cents, that was good pay.  I remember before I went to work, my brother was going to work on the highway, working for a contractor.  It was good wages, $2.00 a day. 


I was about the only one around here to go into iron work.  Later on they did.   Before the 1930’s there were some from the other reservations who were iron workers.  They were down there putting up a new bridge, just this side of where the Kinzua Dam is now, a railroad Bridge.  About four Indians worked there and that’s about all the iron workers there were in them days. I would be the only Indian that worked on iron in some places. 


[Originally published in Dialectical Anthropology : Essays in Honor of Stanley Diamond, edited by Christine Ward Gailey, Gainesville : University Press of Florida, 1992. Diane Rothenberg's own book, Mothers of the Nation, in which this essay also appeared, was published by Pierre Joris's Ta’wil Books in the same year, & a newly revised & expanded edition is scheduled from Nine Point Publishing in 2015.  Of this & other of her essays, David Antin writes: “To each of these essays Diane Rothenberg brings a tough minded rationality and precision of regard that assumes for the ‘others’ who are the subjects of the essays a similar rationality in the pursuit of their interests as they perceive them.  Setting the actors in the specific economic, social and political situations in which their actions are embedded, she shows us with great clarity and perhaps a certain implicit black humor how intelligently they have all played their previously bad hands.” The final section of the Harry Watt essay (“the commentary”) can be found here on Poems and Poetics.]

Decoding 'Digital Natives'

image of Digital Natives art installation, photo by Mark Curry

On April 6, 2011, about three years before the City of Vancouver formally acknowledged that Vancouver is on unceded Coast Salish territory, the City declared its 125th birthday, celebrating with a series of free events and public art works. One public art project the City commissioned was Digital Natives, a text-based, site-specific installation considering Indigeneity in the early 21st century of globalised digital communication technologies and media saturation. Curated by poet Clint Burnham and artist Lorna Brown for Other Sights for Artists’ Projects, the installation took the form of a series of tweet-like texts broadcast on Astral Media’s large electric billboard, located on Sen’akw, Squamish Nation territory, just to the side of the Burrard Street Bridge. From April 4 –30, pedestrians, cyclists, and drivers encountered typical billboard content, advertisements, interspersed with unattributed texts by several Indigenous and non-Indigenous North American artists and writers, including several Vancouver poets.

Brown’s catalogue essay “Mixing Messages” considers the production of meaning in public spaces. She says readers are sophisticated at decoding the signage they encounter on daily basis in the city: information/instruction on how to move through the polis as a docile body, monuments to the colonial enterprise, and ever ubiquitous advertising. The use of the billboard for the project is a deliberate attempt to disrupt everyday reading practices within the realm of consumption. Careful to qualify to term because of its violent connotations, Brown says “intervention […] is the correct word to describe the introduction of texts by individual people under the guise of art, into this field of operations. Using the sign itself as an artistic/literary space for exchange between native and non-native contributors and communities, Digital Natives places the banality of advertising language next to its tactical use in the process of colonization, and alongside the word and image craft of contemporary poetics and art.”

While the process of meaning making for readers of Digital Natives is more complex than translating advertising, some texts use the familiar conventions of social media, making messages more easily decipherable:

If you lived under this bridge
you’d be home by now

A détournement of “If you lived here you’d already be home”, a slogan for one of Vancouver real-estate developer Bob Rennie’s many projects, this message calls attention to homelessness, linking it with gentrification.

Some interventions make interpretation more challenging such as Marianne Nicolson’s, of the Kwakwaka’wakw Nations, who wrote:

Dukwala’masixwa  ’Kikw?
Can you see the Totem Pole?

Nicolson’s message, in Kwak’wala and English, places Indigenous language first, positioning English as secondary, creating a pause in citizens’ typical visual engagement with the city’s signage through her deployment of a native yet “foreign” language. Having read the second line in English, viewers now understand the meaning of the first line, then pause yet again to comprehend the question she asks. Her text also points out the City's strategic use of totem poles in the past. Brown’s essay includes an email from the contributor, who says her text refers to both medium of the billboard and a nearby totem pole:

Celebrating the centennial of BC in 1958, the Kwakwaka’wakw artist, Mungo Martin carved a gift pole for Queen Elizabeth. This pole was shipped to England (along with Mungo Martin) as an official present. A copy of this pole was erected near the Maritime Museum and the Vancouver Museum just below the Burrard Bridge and adjacent to the contested billboard site. The reference is a play with the formal character of the digital billboard erected atop its tall pole. The act of public advertisement mimics the Pacific Coast Aboriginal public declaration of rank and ownership traditionally expressed by the ‘totem pole’. The concepts segue with contemporary land disputes over land ownership and voice (who has a right to say what, where and how) and the idea of cultural ownership and spectacle (to see).

Translations of English texts into Kwak'wala, Skwxwú7mesh/Squamish and Hen’q’emin’em’/Musqueam are simply unreadable for most viewers, while some interventions are overtly legible in all-caps English, such as Indigenous American artist Edgar Heap of Bird’s:


This text, censored by Astral Media, situates the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics’ commodification of Indigenous culture within the historical context of Canada’s residential school system that attempted, with some success, to destroy the native population of Canada. This system separated families, forcing children in live in residential schools where they had to wear Western clothes and hairstyles, and practice Western religion; they were forbidden to speak their native languages and lacked adequate food, shelter and medical care. Children experienced unchecked physical and sexual abuse by the Church officials and staff that operated the schools. 

To “show the world” that the government honours First Nations culture, new road signage including the Indigenous names of places popped up along the newly-expanded Sea to Sky highway shortly before the spectacle of the Olympics began; these physical and semiotic signs position English names over Salish names, representing the imposition of the state on the original people of the land. The road signs may have raised awareness of native names, but they do little address systemic racism against Indigenous people, and the Games, a powerful agent of gentrification wherever they go, increased the numbers of homeless Indigenous people, some of whom may be sheltering at the ongoing tent city protest against homelesness at Oppenheimer Park

Another message plainly states to the public what Indigenous people require for present and future economic security:

economic stability = capital transfer /
access to natural resources / forestry tenure /
fish allocations / water reservations

image is of the text above

And this intervention tells non-Indigenous Canadians what they need to recognize in concrete ways: 

It’s all unceded land is it not? 

Jerome Rothenberg & John Bloomberg-Rissman: From the pre-Face to 'Barbaric Vast & Wild' ('Poems for the Millennium, Volume 5')

[What follows is a draft of what will be part of the pre-face to Barbaric Vast & Wild, the assemblage of “outside & subterranean poetry” to be published later this year by Black Widow Press the de-facto fifth volume of Poems for the Millennium & the culmination for the moment of a project that began nearly fifty years ago with the original publication of Technicians of the Sacred.  I’m posting it now on Poems and Poetics before I head off for six or seven weeks on the road, to engage in readings & performances in France & Germany, but with the intention of picking up again soon after I return in mid-October.  The over-all project toward an omnipoetics will go on anyway as long as I do, which is about the best that we can hope for in such a doubly bounded life.  (J.R.)]



In 1968 the present co-editor embarked on a series of anthologies/assemblages aimed at the remapping of poetry on a global, historical, and contemporary basis.  The range of works these books have charted include not only poets and poetic genres widely recognized as part of a normative literary canon, but, perhaps more tellingly, work that may fairly be described as having flourished outside the nexus of poetry or of literature as commonly understood.  The result has been an exploration and opening of forms of poetry and expression long overlooked or dismissed by readers and purveyors of the art.[i] 

            The opening work for this was Technicians of the Sacred, still in print after more than forty years and two distinct editions, which brought together poems and related works from largely tribal-oral cultures on a nearly global scale.  This was followed in short order by a pair of more specifically ethnic (or ethnopoetic) books Shaking the Pumpkin (American Indian poetry) and A Big Jewish Book (“poems & other visions of the Jews from tribal times to the present”) and by a string of books (America a Prophecy in the early 1970s and the first three volumes of Poems for the Millennium in the 1990s and 2000s) that were a rethinking of American and world poetry over a 200-year span.  Aimed at what one of us spoke of as “a rewriting of the poetic past from the point of view of the present,” each of these large books brought forward, alongside recognizably canonical work, newly developed ideas of ethnopoetics and what we are here calling outside and subterranean poetry.

            As what we hope will be a culminating volume in this progression of books, the two present editors have assembled a wide-ranging gathering of poems and related language works, whose outside/outsider positions, in our judgment, challenge some of the boundaries where poetry has been or where it may be practiced, as well as the form and substance of the poetry itself.[ii]  It also extends the time frame of the preceding volumes in Poems for the Millennium, hoping to show that, in all places and times, what the dominant culture has taken as poetry has only been part of the story.

            It is our underlying contention in fact that poetry in our time and for many years before has come to be viewed, rightly or wrongly, as the outside/outsider art par excellence, an art whose very practice flies in the face of what we are expected to hold near and dearest.  The poet under those conditions resembles not only the shamans of our primal and archaic pasts and presents, but the traditional clowns as well, whose sacred and disruptive art like that of our secular avant-gardists would call the culture’s deepest truisms into question.[iii]



At the same time that Technicians of the Sacred was published, the other co-editor was just getting into poetry. The timing, however fortuitous, was perfect.  He never lived in a world without some access to the history of the outside and subterranean and was lucky enough to come of age as a poet with all the concomitant possibilities that were then emerging in Technicians of the Sacred and elsewhere.  For him, then, poetry has always been the whole world poetry, in all its manifestations: written, oral, performative, genre-busting; a challenge to the status quo of the (internal and external) power relations affecting all aspects of human life on earth, which have, as far as he’s concerned, always needed challenging.  Since those power relations manifest in ways that now threaten the very existence of all life (e.g., global warming, the ongoing “sixth great extinction”, “total subsumption”, etc)[iv] for him it is necessary still to keep forcing the margins, to keep open the road to the Palace of Wisdom, as William Blake called it, a road, it only becomes more obvious as time passes, that is a road we sorely need.[v]

            While there is always a danger that the terms we use may prove to be less elastic or forgiving than we intend them, the two key words in this instance “outside/outsider” and “subterranean” name two approaches, sometimes overlapping, to the kind of material with which we’ve been dealing.  Of these two, “outside” rhyming with “outsider” focuses on the societal position of the poet or the group and their separation from the normative world and/or the dominant culture, sometimes forced by religion and state, sometimes by a deliberate act of self-imposed exile, sometimes by psychological or physical circumstance.[vi]  As such the term itself goes back to its use as an equivalent to what the French artist Jean Dubuffet had called art brut for the art and poetry of the insane,[vii] but also to what was singled out otherwise as “folk” and “naïve” poetry and art over a wide range of genres.  Included as well in our view of the possible outside are poems and related language works from dialects and “nation languages” (K. Brathwaite), thieves’ cants and other argots or vernaculars, working class and lumpen poetries, popular and newspaper poetry, sermons and rants, glossolalia and glossographia, slogans, graffiti, private writings (journals and diaries) or semi-private (correspondence, blogs, or social- networkings), women’s work where long suppressed and /or undervalued,[viii] and so on.

            As the second defining term for our work, the “subterranean” marks another if related field for poetry that often falls between ideas of “outside” and “inside.”  A clear extension of Technicians of the Sacred into the historical or post-“primitive” subterranean, our work under this rubric draws extensively on the writings of mystics and heretics (among others) or what Gary Snyder famously called “the great Subculture” “schools of thought and practice,” as he saw them, “[that] were usually suppressed, or diluted and made harmless, in whatever society they appeared.”[ix]  The range of work here, deriving from practices outside of poetry and often outside of society, is enormous and its exploration now opens poetic forms and modes of thought previously closed to us: a poetics of the open as against the closed, the free against the fettered, the transgressive and forbidden against the settled. Its shibboleths are terms like “free verse” and “open form”; the Dada cry “to liberate the creative forces from the tutelage of the advocates of power” (R. Huelsenbeck); the assertion by William Blake that “poetry fetter’d, fetters the human race.” As such it also binds us to the political and moral renegades and “outriders” (A.Waldman), whose work has come undiminished from the last century into our own.[x]

. . . . . . . 



We view all of these works those presented here and those still to be brought forward as fertile grounds for the creation of new forms and occasions, like the “creative chaos of liminality” described years ago by Victor Turner.  It is our hope too that their presence here will move us closer to the realization of the full potential of poetry in all times and places and will reinforce our sense of how poetry broadly defined like Dada as “a state of mind” (T. Tzara), a form of languaging and thinking appears in the real lives of people and peoples everywhere.[xi]

            It is in that sense that the recovery of the outside and subterranean should be viewed as part of a still larger project, what we’re tempted to speak of here as an omnipoetics and the ultimate assemblage toward which we’re heading as an anthology of everything.  That we will never get there is also certain[xii] and we remain aware, as with every previous attempt, of how much and how many we can’t manage to include.  With some such sense of limitations we were determined that this gathering would not turn into an anthology of contemporary “outsider” poets where the claim to outsideness is as widespread as it is, that it would be no more than an attempt to create a map or collage of possible outsides filled with their own near certainties and contradictions.  Nor can it be limited to the naïve or untrained poets and artists who loom so large in other approaches to outsiderness.  We have accordingly not hesitated to include a small but significant number of poets who in the course of time have attained and kept an unquestionably inside status: Dante, Blake, Hölderlin, Dickinson, among the more notable.  For this and much else we have tried to make our position clear in the accompanying commentaries.

            We have also chosen as our title a phrase defining poetry from the Enlightenment philosopher and writer Denis Diderot as a way to stress its disruptive and ultimately expansive nature, calling the civic order the civilized order into question even while sharing in it.  If that much was a guideline for us and it was there was a still larger sense in which we viewed the assemblage as a whole as itself an experiment, to discover by juxtaposition the possible relationship (as both harmony and discord) of poetries from a diverse range of times and cultures/subcultures and from a spread of social levels in those cultures where such terms apply.  It became in that sense our version of what

Robert Duncan had spoken of as a “grand collage” within each poem and, again, as “a poetry of all poetries.”[xiii]

            Along some such lines and as a mark of continuity with our own works, we have also drawn from time to time on commentaries from our previous writings in Technicians of the Sacred and elsewhere.  Working together here, we are tempted to think of the work of poetry over-all as a work in common, shared with a larger world in which every languaged being can play a role, while at the same time it calls a number of the “inside” assumptions into question.  Toward that end we hope that this book may lead to others, new configurations and special views as valid as our own.  In saying this we see the new century and millennium as a continuing field for poetry & the work of the outside as a reminder of the greater work at hand. 




August 2014


[The end notes that follow are part of the collaging game that John Bloomberg-Rissman and I have been playing throughout, and should be read as such.]

[i] “To compose such a symposium of the whole, such a totality, all the old excluded orders must be included. The female, the proletariat, the foreign; the animal and vegetative; the unconscious and the unknown; the criminal and failure — all that has been outcast and vagabond must return to be admitted in the creation of what we consider we are.” (Robert Duncan, from “Rites of Participation”)


[ii] One may ask why the desire for such an extension of the field? Among a number of possible answers: “We wanted to stay human!” (Hans Richter, Dada: Art and Anti-Art). Or William Carlos Williams in an often cited directive: “It is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.” 


[iii] Or transposing Wittgenstgein’s words about philosophy to a similar reconsideration of poetry: “[Poetry], as we use the word, is a fight against the fascination which forms of expression exert on us.” (Ludwig Wittgenstein, Blue Book, 27)


[iv] “When they think their land is getting spoiled, the white people speak of ‘pollution.’ In our language, when sickness spreads relentlessly through the forest, we say that xawara [epidemic fumes] have seized it and that it becomes ghost. … If the epidemic continues] the forest will become dark and cold and will remain so forever. … Then the waters will gradually cover the entire earth … just as it happened at the beginning of time.” (Davi Kopenawa, The Falling Sky: Words of a Yanomami Shaman)


[v] “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.” (W. Blake, from The Marriage of Heaven & Hell)


[vi] it is through the ECLIPSEs “darkness”of my life & work you see, one is presenting oneself hidden in plain site/sight/cite through these works
“in Other words” the streets the stones the grass one walks on is one finds there the writing of one's way
the feeling of being so outside that is hopeless, “total eclipse”

 “suicidal” “psychotic depression” “chronic substance abuse” etc  through all that
is as a poem of mine says
“To go through darkness until all that remains is LIGHT”
to find this writing this Way this being in the stones and as Petra Backonja wrote (paraphrase poorly) to do what  Gerard de Nerval in AURELIA says is impossible: to find the way of writing so that the stones themselves speak (David-Baptiste Chirot, in a private communication)


[vii] “A work of art is only of interest, in my opinion, when it is an immediate and direct projection of what is happening in the depth of a person’s being. … It is my belief that only in this ‘Art Brut’ can we find the natural and normal processes of artistic creation in their pure and elementary state.” (Jean Dubuffet, from ”Prospectus et tous écrits suivants,” 1967)


[viii] “Why ... was I born a woman, to be scorned by men in words and deeds? I ask myself this question in solitude. ... Your unfairness in not writing to me has caused me much suffering, that there could be no greater suffering. ... You yourself said there was no goal I could not achieve. But now that nothing has turned out as it should have, my joy has given way to sorrow. ... For they jeer at me throughout the city, the women mock me.” (Isotta Nogarola [1418-1466], Italian humanist and intellectual, from a 1437 letter to the philosopher Guarino da Verona)


[ix] “Peasant witchcraft in Europe, Tantrism in Bengal, Quakers in England, Tachikawa-ryu in Japan, Ch’an (Zen) in China. These are all outcroppings of the Great Subculture which runs underground all through history. This is the tradition that runs without break from Paleo-Siberian Shamanism and Magdelenian cave-painting; through megaliths and Mysteries, astronomers, ritualists, alchemists and Albigensains; Gnostics and vagantes, right down to Golden Gate Park.” (G. Snyder, Earth House Hold)                                                                                                                     


[x] “Poetry is a rival government always in opposition to its cruder replicas.” (William Carlos Williams)  Or Anne Waldman on the figure of “the outrider” as a still more engaged subterranean force or presence: “The Outrider holds a premise of imaginative consciousness. The Outrider rides the edge parallel to the mainstream, is the shadow to the mainstream, is the consciousness or soul of the mainstream whether it recognizes its existence or not. It cannot be co-opted, it cannot be bought. Or rides through the chaos, maintaining a stance of ‘negative capability’, but also does not give up that projective drive, or its original identity that demands that it intervene on the culture. This is not about being an Outsider. The Outrider might be an outlaw, but not an outsider. Rather, the outrider is a kind of shaman, the true spiritual ‘insider’. The shaman travels to zones of light and shadow. The shaman travels to edges of madness and death and comes back to tell the stories.” (From the essay “Premises of Consciousness: Notes on Howl”)  And John Bloomberg-Rissman: “I don’t want to be anybody’s legislator / unacknowledged or otherwise / I just want to look ‘em in the eye and say ‘yo!’”


[xi] “Dada is a state of mind. That is why it transforms itself according to races and events. Dada applies itself to everything, and yet it is nothing, it is the point where the yes and the no and all the opposites meet, not solemnly in the castles of human philosophies, but very simply at street corners, like dogs and grasshoppers.” (T. Tzara, “Lecture on Dada” [1922], tr. Robert Motherwell)


[xii] “ … when its graph will expand with unparalleled volume and regularity, we may hope that the mysteries which really are not will give way to the great Mystery. I believe in the future resolution of these two states, dream and reality, which are seemingly so contradictory, into a kind of absolute reality, a surreality, if one may so speak. It is in quest of this Surreality that I am going, certain not to find it but too unmindful of my death not to calculate to some slight degree the joys of its possession.” (A. Breton, in Manifesto of Surrealism)


[xiii] In the grand collage signs flash green against blue, black against white, red against yellow. Enlarged pupils of the emerging doctrine attend the hidden teacher of the increasing sound.

      And all the signs rime.

                                                Robert Duncan, Bending the Bow

Or again: “In the poem this very lighted room is dark, and the dark alight with love’s intentions. It is striving to come into existence … a poetry of all poetries, grand collage, I name It, having only the immediate event of words to speak for it. In the room we, aware or unaware, are the event of ourselves in It.”


Forty years ago the New York-based film critic Armond White (who was a year ahead of me at Central High and Wayne State University in Detroit) hired me as a music critic for our college newspaper, The South End, and I started writing pop, rock and r & b record reviews a la Robert Christgau, Dave Marcus, Lester Bangs, Vince Aletti et al (side note: I preferred Creem to Rolling Stone). That model—short, pithy snapshots—was the inspiration for the last three months of chapbook and book reviews here at Jacket2, plus a way to make a dent in those to-be-read stacks of books and chapbooks. I read a lot more books than the ones I reviewed and I learned a lot about my own predilections and prejudices in the process. Below is a list of the chapbooks and books I did not, for a variety of reasons, review but nonetheless like well enough to recommend (with the usual caveat emptor).

 Not Reviewed But Recommended:

  • Eleni Stecopoulos, Daphnephoria (Compline)
  • Todd Melicker, King & Queen (Little Red Leaves, 2012)
  • Joe Milazzo, The Terraces [Das Arquibancadas] (Little Red Leaves, 2012)
  • Hugo Garcia Manriquez, Two Poems (Hooke Press, 2013)
  • Brian Teare, Black Sun Crown (Fact Simile Editions, 2012)
  • Dan Beachy-Quick/Srikanth Reddy, Mobius Crowns (P-Queue Books, 2008)
  • Dana Crum, Good Friday 2000 (Avenue Press, 2014)
  • Kate Greenstreet, called (delete press, 2011)
  • George Albon, Love and Strife (self-published)
  • David Brazil, Holy Ghost  III & Holy Ghost IV (Compline)
  • Micah Robbins, Crass Songs of Sand & Brine (Habenicht Press, 2010)
  • Norma Kassirer, The 1985 Notebook (The Buffalo Ochre Papers, 2012)
  • Eileen Myles, Pencil Poems (Chax Press, 2011)
  • Tom Mandel, Partial Wave FormSome Epigrams of Palladas (self published)
  • Selected Late Letters of Antonin Artaud: 1945-1947,eds.  and trans.: Peter Valente and Cole Heinowitz (Portable Press@Yo-Yo Labs, 2014)
  • John Coletti, mum halo (Rust Buckle Books, 2010)
  • Elizabeth Robinson, On Monsters (Little Red Leaves Textile Editions, 2013)
  • Christine Hume. Ventifacts  (Omnidawn, 2012)
  • Jonathan Skinner, With Naked Foot (little scratch pad editions, 2009)
  • Nathaniel Mackey, Outer Pradesh (Anomalous Press, 2014)
  • Matt Rasmussen, Black Aperture (Louisiana State Press, 2013) 
  • Srikanth Reddy, Readings in World Literature (Omnidawn, 2012)
  • Lisa Jarnot, Joie de Vivre (DirtySwan Projects, 2011)
  • Susan Gervitz, Prosthesis:: Caesarea (LRL e-editions, 2009)
  • Will Alexander and Janice Lee, The Transparent As Witness (Solar Luxuriance, 2013)
  • Julia Drescher, Birds of Paradise (ypolita press, 2011)
  • Nikki Wallschhlaeger, I Would Be The Happiest Bird (Horse Less Press, 2014)
  • Stephanie Young, Picture Palace (ingirumimusnocte, 2008)
  • Zack Haber, if you want to be one of them playing in the street...(Quiet Lightning/Tiny Splendor, 2014)

EPC@20 : Twentieth Anniversary Celebration in Buffalo Sept. 11 and 12

Thursday & Friday, Sept. 11-12, 2014
UB Media Study (afternoons) + Burchfield Penney Art Center (evenings)

Featuring: Charles Bernstein, cris cheek, Tony Conrad, Loss Pequeño Glazier, Steve McCaffery, Myung Mi Kim, Tammy McGovern, Joan Retallack, Laura Shackelford, Danny Snelson, Dennis Tedlock, Cecilia Vicuña, Elizabeth Willis, & Wooden Cities with Ethan Hayden.

 Exhibitions: "Abra" (Amaranth Borsuk, Kate Durbin & Ian Hatcher); Pry: iPad-based Novella (Samantha Gorman & Danny Cannizzaro); "Enter:in' Wodies" (Zuzana Husárová & Lubomír Panák)

full schedule at EPC.