Gizelle Gajelonia, Timothy Yu, and Jonathan Stalling in conversation
Not intertexts, but inhabitations!
As editor of Tinfish Press, which publishes experimental poetry from the Pacific region, I try to put different Pacific poets and poetries in conversation with each other. After 15 years of editing, I no longer think of myself as someone who simply publishes books. Instead, I offer up fields of books, islands of them. The point is to move between these islands, not to stay fixed in one place. In The Radicant, Nicholas Bourriaud (on whom I’ve blogged elsewhere) describes such a poetics this way: “It is a matter of replacing the question of origin with that of destination.” He writes of the importance of the “itinerary, the path” (55), and of the need for movement. I would like to use this space on Jacket2 to get some of these conversations moving. Many, but not all, will involve Tinfish authors; webs of connection attract across time and space and small press offices.
My first imagined conversation occurs between Gizelle Gajelonia (13 Ways of Looking at TheBus, Tinfish Press), Timothy Yu (15 Chinese Silences, Tinfish), and Jonathan Stalling (Yingelishi, Counterpath Press). Each of these poets inhabits the words and poems of others or, in Stalling’s case, lives within a Chinese/English that oddly merges the two languages.
Gizelle Gajelonia is a young writer in Hawai`i who has read canonical American poems. But — like so many students at the University of Hawai`i — she does not identify with Connecticut winters or post World War waste lands or Nova Scotia moose sightings or imagined trips to Guadalajara by a poet in New York named John Ashbery. She fails even to quite get a canonical “local” poem by Eric Chock, namely “Tutu on da Curb,” published in the early 1980s about an old woman waiting for TheBus in her mu`umu`u. (This poem can be found via Google.) Hers is "Nana on the Curb, about a Filipina woman. So Gajelonia preserves the husks of these poems, but replaces their internal organs with Hawai`i words, histories, and cultures. The famous ending to Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” in Gajelonia’s version, is spoken by Queen Lili`uokalani, whose nation has been taken from her. As she moves from poet to poet, poem to poem, she takes her reader on TheBus, O`ahu's local transportation system. Her poems are bus stop/way stations to canonical travels. My upper-level undergraduate poets recently appreciated Wallace Stevens's “13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” much more after they'd read her revision of it.
Where Stevens writes in his VIIth way of looking at the blackbird:
O thin men of Haddam,
Why do you imagine golden birds?
Do you not see how the blackbird
Walks around the feet
Of the women about you?
O Mufi Hannemann,
Why do you imagine steel-colored trains?
Do you not see how The (rainbow) Bus
Efficiently transports the bodies
Of the people around you?
Reading the poem in this context makes students aware that Stevens's poem was about a place; Haddam is a town. According to its website, Haddam is “one of the hidden treasures of Connecticut.” Haddam may have thin men, but O`ahu had as its mayor one Mufi Hannamann, who is very tall and not especially thin; he favored building rail, a still contentious issue. In Gajelonia's rendering, he favors the “gold colored” (and priced) trains to the ordinary blackbirds of TheBus.
So Gajelonia has honored Stevens's poem even as she pokes fun at it. Timothy Yu is more pointed in his rewriting of Billy Collins's poems in 15 Chinese Silences. As he notes at the back of the chapbook, “These poems . . . were begun in response to Billy Collins's poem “Grave.” The speaker of the poem describes the ‘one hundred kinds of silence / according to the Chinese belief,’ but then admits at the end of the poem that these Chinese silences were something he had 'just made up.' I took it upon myself to write these 100 Chinese silences.”
Like Gajelonia, Yu burrows into the pre-existing condition of poem, revising, parodying, ultimately rewriting it as witty riposte. He does not attack Billy Collins ad hominem, for that would be too easy and too narrow a task, but he scathingly critiques poems in which Collins references Chinese culture. Take the opening of Collins's poem “Old Man Eating Alone in a Chinese Restaurant,” which the reader can find on a German website (of all places):
I am glad I resisted the temptation,
if it was a temptation when I was young,
to write a poem about an old man
eating alone at a corner table in a Chinese restaurant.
To which Yu responds:
I have resisted the temptation
to write a poem about an old man
eating alone at the unwiped counter
of an American restaurant.
In his treatment of Collins's “In the Room of a Thousand Miles,” namely “Chinese Silence No. 10,” Yu takes a poem in which Collins begins by claiming to be happy writing at home, then moves very far afield, ending with a reference to China:
I visualize a lion rampant on an iron shield,
a quiet battlefield, a granite monument.
And then—just between you and me--
I take a swallow of cold tea
and in the manner of the ancient Chinese
pick up my thin pen
and write down that bird I hear outside,
the one that sings,
and then sings again.
To which Yu responds, deflating Collins's lyric gestures, especially his bird's song:
I visualize a dragon swallowing San Francisco,
gnawing the Golden Gate, choking on Coit Tower.
And then—don't tell anyone--
I smile into my diet cola
and in the manner of the ancient Chinese
pick up my dried-out pen
and tattoo on the skin of my palm
a character that means
“A journey of a thousand miles
is really, really long.”
I hear Gizelle Gajelonia and Timothy Yu talking to one another from within their hauntings of canonical (or wannabe canonical) poems. They're laughing at the canon, and their laughter offers a homeopathic cure to what earlier poems leave out, or add in. But I also hear a third voice entering the conversation, that of Jonathan Stalling, whose book Yingelishi has the bravura wit of the other poets' work, but who brings Chinese and American texts into conversation with one another not by way of translation but of transliteration. In a way, Stalling is also talking to Collins, demanding he attend to Chinese culture, not his invention of it. But he also sets up a conversation (if one can call it that) between the Chinese and English languages, between the languages of business and those of poetry. Stalling, a scholar of Chinese and of American poetry, hears transliterations of English in a business English handbook, then transforms those sounds back into poems in Chinese. Hence, from the business English of “please forgive me,” he gleans “Vast private profits, Buddha offer impermanent mysteries,” and from “thief! Thief!” he gets “Farmer! Farmer!” Stalling's motive is both artistic and pedagogical: “I feel strongly that one must intervene in the normal cultural ways of hearing to interrupt the dismissive impulse that seeks to deflate the anxieties that arise when hearing these accent lines. Through singing the work, I believe new structures of feeling can be built to house heterocultural ways of hearing that will move us toward greater transpacific consciousness” (6-7). This is not Collins’s timeless-but-solitary bird that “sings again,” but an actual Chinese opera singer with an audience. You can find the opera here on-line and listen. Or, as Nicholas Bourriaud puts it, quoting Claude Levi-Strauss: “‘The one real calamity, the one fatal flaw which can afflict a human group and prevent it from achieving fulfillment is to be alone’” (36).