Already the renewed disruption of knowledge
spreads across the globe — Jordan Abel
Whoever has emerged victorious participates to this day in the triumphal procession in which the present rulers step over those who are lying prostrate. According to traditional practice, the spoils are carried along in the procession. They are called cultural treasures, and a historical materialist views them with cautious detachment. For without exception the cultural treasures he surveys have an origin which he cannot contemplate without horror. — Walter Benjamin
In November 2014, a representative sample of Canada’s avant-garde gathered in St. Catharines, Ontario, at the Avant Canada: Artists, Prophets, Revolutionaries conference to map out the state of experimental writing today and for the future. A major focus of the event was Indigenous poetics and politics, including the keynote address by Stó:lõ First Nations elder, philosopher, and author Lee Maracle. Her apposite message to the future-oriented, mostly settler audience was to remember: remember how and why your families came to Canada, remember who was here to greet them, remember the violence of displacement and the violence of the passage across the Atlantic. The turn to the past contradicts typical understandings of the avant-garde, which as Tyrus Miller has noted, is “constituted and defined by anti-historical impulses.” To stand before a group of avant-gardists and point back in time was risky, but the fact is that Maracle’s message played into already mobilized undercurrents in the contemporary Canadian avant-garde that are moving poetic practice forward in new and necessary directions. It is an undercurrent that is deeply politicized, earnest, and radical, yet aware of its own complicities, indeed aware of the enforced complicities that arise from Western capitalist hegemony and racist legacies. Texts by poets such as Jordan Abel, Rachel Zolf, Shane Rhodes, Christine Stewart, d’bi.young anitafrika, Lillian Allen, Jason Edward Lewis, Kaie Kellough, and many others maintain such avant-garde signatures as linguistic playfulness, indeterminacy, and comfort with ambiguity. In contrast to the hubris and ego often associated with historical avant-gardists, these contemporary Canadians explore the possibilities of decolonizing themselves and their texts, and by challenging the basic assumptions of daily life in the country contribute to the more widespread political efforts to decolonize all of Canada. They position themselves as followers of Indigenous activists, not leaders in that revolutionary struggle, and are creating a point of intersection between radical politics and experimental art — the intersection that is, in fact, the proper place of avant-garde production.
Decolonizing literature, in this context, reimagines the past and revitalizes the present — especially including the contemporary avant-garde. Decolonization from an aboriginal perspective means, as the Cree poet Neal McLeod recently wrote, a “return to our own conceptions and frameworks, and rage against simple conventions of mimicry”; the clearest reasons for decolonization are to “deal with our collective trauma as experienced in residential schools and the spatial diasporas from our own homelands.” In the context of reimagining Anglo-môniyâw (Plains Cree for “European”) colonial society and the avant-garde writing traditions that have emerged within that population, decolonization means to remember the plurilinguistic and fragmented material conditions of culture in North America’s formation, and to endeavor to rebuild the present by reimagining and reremembering its past. Thus, Lee Maracle said at the conference:
You [in St. Catharines] are in the Treaty of the Dish with One Spoon. What does it make you want to remember? If you just swallow that idea, that one concept, you are going to change the way you see things. One dish, one spoon: that means we’re all eating out of the same pot and it means we’ve got to share. [… You were] brought here and expected to forget who you are. That is not possible. Then you experience shame when you try to remember. As immigrants you are expected to forget. […] Or we can sit down like an avant-garde and ask who we want to be. Decolonization is about recognizing that this is not England and never was and that Canada is really a Haudenausaunee name for village. […] If you deny your own memories, you won’t want to hear anybody else’s.
The possibility of decolonization only begins with the establishment of a postcolonial perspective on North American (Turtle Island) history and culture, and a reflection on the role colonization has played in the formation of North American national cultures. It is in that context and from that perspective that the conference used the term “avant-garde” to recognize artists who are unsatisfied by the present state of art and culture. Such a deployment of the term coincides with, but radicalizes, Agamben’s sense of those “who truly belong to their time, are those who neither perfectly coincide with it nor adjust themselves to its demands. They are thus in this sense irrelevant. But precisely because of this condition, precisely through this disconnection and this anachronism, they are more capable of perceiving and grasping their own time.”
The avant-garde are those who mobilize this dysschrony, this sense of disaccommodation with the ideological coordinates of the present. If the avant-garde isn’t fighting for something, for some revolutionary or radical change, the value of the term dissolves absolutely; thus, exclusively, it is the commitment to revolution that makes the avant-garde a useful category of art production. Given this frame, it is noteworthy that Canada’s avant-garde artists are increasingly attuned to the re-emergence of the Indigenous populations in Turtle Island (North America) and especially to their rising influence in Canadian culture. While the historical avant-garde had a problematic relationship with some of the darkest tendencies of European imperialism, fascism, and hegemony, a new avant-garde in Canada is emerging through the combination of art and politics specifically oriented to advancing anti-imperialism, combating fascism, and rethinking the racist underpinnings of Western capitalism. As Sonnet L’Abbé notes in her essay “Erasure,” “Canadian poets have been more eager than their American counterparts to deploy […] strategies of explicitly politicized cultural critique.” In particular, a subset of authors are mapping out a necessary reimagining of settler-Indigenous relations, thinking about new ways that settlers in Canada (those who came since the first settlements in 1604) can inhabit the land without erasing the Indigenous peoples and cultures who preceded them.
The emergence of Indigenous-avant intersections is not new, but the current activity marks a pronounced development from previous gardes in Canada. For instance, bpNichol, Captain Poetry, the man who, as publisher and poet, functioned as the center of the vortex of CanAvant production for over two decades until his death in 1988, was deeply concerned with the roots and origins of language. As part of that investigation, Nichol wrote about the Indigenous people in Canada. In a humorous long poem on the Métis rebel Louis Riel, one of his native characters observes a waitress ignoring a native man and quips that doing so is “as Canadian as genocide” (“The Long Weekend of Louis Riel”). His own unsettledness is mapped out in his life project, the nine-volume work The Martyrology, which documents his traveling back and forth over “a flat country of uncertain boundary” unmooring his language and knowledge, until he wonders, “maybe it’s me who’s out of place / displacing air by my very presence.” Successive generations of Canadian avant-garde authors and artists, from Lawren Harris onward, have mined the negative potential of such indeterminacy and placelessness. Increasingly, though, contemporary writers use avant-garde techniques to expose this recurring motif of unsettledness in Canada and Canadian literature as an attempt to supplant and displace the previous inhabitants; in short, to erase them from their own land. Where once Canadian authors like Sir Charles G. D. Roberts dreamed of European Canadians becoming the “autochtons” of the land — the naturalized natives, that is — many contemporary avant-garde authors now reject the colonial violence of that desire and through earnest humor and serious play begin to map out a decolonized imaginarium. Steve McCaffery’s paper responds to Nichol’s efforts to place language somewhere in the flux of human experience. Christian Bök’s paper highlights the politics of the micropress gift economy that Nichol championed in the Canadian context. In the intolerant glare of colonialist capitalism, the simple, generous act of giving away your work for free becomes a radical gesture, one to which many conceptual poetries pay homage. It is a mark of both outsider status and evacuation of privilege. There is a reason the Canadian state outlawed potlatch ceremonies, for the enormous challenge they posed to the logic of Western economics and social-politics.
In thinking about the intersections of Indigenous decolonization and the avant-garde, it might be instructive to think of the avant-garde as a kind of pun, pointing backwards to that legacy and century-long tradition as much as forwards to the work that remains to be done. The pun hinges on the difference between avant and avant: the French adverb for earlier or before and the French adjective for forward or in front. If the avant-garde are those in front, the future-oriented soldiers of a better tomorrow, the avant of Canada also refers to those who came before Canada — including the begetters of the colonial legacies of British and French settlements and then also the Indigenous populations who long preceded and coexisted alongside them. The before-Canada and the avant-garde met for the first time in the eighteenth century, when the conscripts, derelicts, and convicts of the new colony were compelled to fight on behalf of the European powers alongside Iroquois warriors. The earliest use of the term “avant-garde” in Canada dates back to 1704, in reference to the “coureurs de bois” and “des Sauvages”: Indigenous warriors, Métis, and French Canadiens sent to battle at the front (avant) of the French military. They were the sacrificial lambs of battle, the first soldiers sent into hostile territory, and those most likely to be killed. The before-Canada and the avant-garde meet again in contemporary times when the legacies of the European revolutionaries intersect with the politics and poetics of decolonization. Avant and avant, the essays included in this feature also look back as they look forward. They reread the ideological foundations of the present, unsettle them, and by doing so, open up new possibilities for a reconfigured future. By engaging with selected highlights from the conference (themselves embedded in the feature), these essay responses extend the necessary conversations already underway in Canada and open up those discussions to broader North American and international frames of reference. Like the avant-gardes the conference explored, this feature invites you to look back as you look forward.
Rachel Blau DuPlessis
Alexis Pauline Gumbs
“Where New York poets and others … tended to hear a ‘cool,’ abstract, even cerebral, poetry,” writes Peter Boyle in the translator’s essay accompanying this feature, “in Latin America a more emotional, threatening, and visceral ‘magic’ surrealism developed.” Boyle places Cuban poet José Kozer’s work in this surrealist camp: time and reality become warped and subjective in Kozer’s neobaroque poems. Boyle translates three poems from Kozer’s Carece de causa (“No known cause”) for this Jacket2 feature: “Retributions,” “Things near at hand,” and “Echoes.” He notes that the poems of Carece de causa mark a distinct shift in Kozer’s work, in which the writer “develops a style of poetry unlike anything I know of in North America, an approach to poetry very much his own.”
These poems come from Bernadette Mayer’s long-unpublished early book, The Old Style Is Finding out Something about a Whole New Set of Possibilities, which was written mostly from 1966 to 1970, when Mayer was between the ages of twenty-one and twenty-five. Unlike the majority of the poems in the book, they were never published in any form until their appearance in Eating the Colors of a Lineup of Words: The Early Books of Bernadette Mayer (Station Hill Press, 2015), which we coedited. When Mayer began The Old Style, she was a student at the New School for Social Research in Manhattan, taking poetry classes from Bill Berkson. She had met or at least seen many of the New York School poets, including John Ashbery and Frank O’Hara. She was launching the journal 0 to 9 with Vito Acconci, who was married to her older sister, Rosemary, and who had known the orphan Mayer sisters since the late 1950s. The first issue of 0 to 9 was printed in April 1967, not long before Mayer graduated from the New School. During the next two years, she continued to edit 0 to 9 with Acconci and lived with the filmmaker Ed Bowes in the East Village and Soho, according to a series of interviews with Mayer in 2013–2015, as well as the partially fictionalized timelines that Mayer included in Studying Hunger (Adventures in Poetry/Big Sky, 1975) and Studying Hunger Journals (Station Hill, 2011). Mayer said that she discussed both poetry and her own poems by far the most with Acconci, who lived nearby with Rosemary during the 0 to 9 years.
Discussing Acconci’s poetic influence on her work, Mayer said, “Even though I had my differences with Vito Acconci, I really thought that he was correct in the sense that you don’t see poems as this thing that’s surrounded by white space and is a precious object.” One thing that appealed to her in Acconci’s work was “using a source … that was already there.” Partially contrasting her writing to his, she suggested that she was more interested than he was in “thinking about letters and … how words look and sound.” In addition to her relationship with Acconci, Mayer became very close poetically with Hannah Weiner and Clark Coolidge by 1968.
The first poems here, “Auditoriums” and “The General,” come from the initial section of The Old Style and appear to be among the earlier poems in the book, written before the launch of 0 to 9. They are short, like almost all of Mayer’s very early poems, and impersonal, unlike the poems preceding them in Red Book in Three Parts, which was dated “1965–66” on its original copyright page. “Auditoriums” shows an almost obsessive interest in “how words look and sound.” The second stanza of “The General,” a quotation from Leonardo Da Vinci, shows Mayer’s interest in “using a source … that was already there.” The next five poems, beginning with “Split Decision,” come toward the middle of The Old Style, in the section appropriately titled with the letter “A.” Some of her earliest “thinking about letters” is evident in “The Sun’s in my eyes …,” and the interest in “how words look and sound” is strong in the repetitions of “Here’s Gold,” “Day,” and “15 Times.”
After writing these poems, according to a chronological notation on the handwritten contents page reproduced on page 88 of Eating the Colors, Mayer wrote her first long poem, Story, which soon became her first published book, coming out as a special issue of 0 to 9 in 1968. Story is one of Mayer’s most extended uses of sources. She seamlessly weaves together preexisting writing from Native American myths, “a recipe for true sponge cake, a 19th century letter about etiquette, quotes from Edgar Allan Poe,” according to the author’s note in Eating the Colors. Around the same time, Mayer submitted an early version of The Old Style manuscript for the inaugural Frank O’ Hara Prize, which was awarded to Joseph Ceravolo’s Spring in This World of Poor Mutts in 1968.
When Mayer returned to The Old Style manuscript after writing Story, she embarked on a series of longer poems, beginning with “One Thing,” published in 0 to 9 in June 1968. Asked whether writing Story freed her up to write long poems like that, Mayer said, “Yeah. But I was working, at that point in time, in a total vacuum. I had never had any idea that anything I was doing would be interesting to anybody else. I mean, who would it have been interesting to? Certainly none of the poets that I knew.” The next poem here, “Drivers Dividers,” comes among a group of poems “using a source,” notably the encyclopedic poems “One Thing” and “Anthology.” “Drivers Dividers” is visually similar to the poem that immediately precedes it, “Bus Stop,” and similarly built out of signs in the environment, as well as the repeated word “divider” and pairs of letters beginning with “u u” and cycling through the alphabet to “t t.”
Left to right: the covers of Story (1968), Moving (1971), Memory (1976), and Studying Hunger (1976). Photos courtesy Craig Dworkin.
“Complete Music of Webern (A Movie)” is one of the longer poems in The Old Style. “It was based on this box set that I had of Webern,” Mayer said. Each section begins with the alphabet spread horizontally across the top of the page. “The line begins under the letter that it begins with.” In the poem, Mayer weaves together a number of sources, just as she did in Story, but on a smaller scale and less seamlessly. The most common thread, phrases such as “9 min., 56 sec.,” presumably a track length, highlights the importance of time in Webern, legendary for his brevity. Another common thread is fragmentary descriptions of people on a bus, people getting off the bus, which fulfills the title’s cinematic promise. There’s the suggestion that everything happens in small increments of time, or that all of experience is broken up into small increments. Another strand is “first avenue goes uptown,” “second avenue goes downtown,” etc. — useful knowledge for anyone in New York. Asked if she had an impulse to transmit useful knowledge in poems, Mayer said, “Well, in Moving, there’s a recipe for pound cake. So I mean it’s all over my work … For a person who has a certain amount of knowledge, to impart it is an appropriate thing. So this is my job. I get together all this knowledge and I try to impart it to people. It’s not a complicated issue.”
Some of the other obvious repeated strands are quotes from artists and philosophers such as Donald Judd, Marcel Duchamp, and Ludwig Wittgenstein; descriptions of the weather; a thus-far-unidentified piece of hyperbolic writing; and a couple of factoids about Webern, culminating in the apocalyptic “anyone / going by the name of Anton Webern, / Mittersill, Austria, please stay inside,” which resonates with the great composer’s end, shot to death on his front doorstep by an American soldier in Berlin in 1945.
“Complete Music of Webern (A Movie)” is very similar to the long poem that immediately precedes it in the book, “A Moving Boat Is a Squeezed Boat: 52 Cards,” where each roughly one-page section begins: “Jack explained that the moving boat was squeezed as it floated by the pier,” a line that Mayer in an interview linked to Einstein’s theory of relativity. One of the sources that Mayer uses is lines from her own poems, which helps us date “A Moving Boat …” and suggests that it was written after the companion Webern poem, though, of course, they could have been written simultaneously. Lines appear twice from “Definitions at the Center of the Newspaper June 13, 1969”; and twice from “Family” and once from “untitled,” which were both first published in 0 to 9 in January 1969. In the second section, there’s a line from the companion Webern poem: “7 min., 50 sec.” Some of the other threads are the repeated Jack line, references to Walt Whitman, and quotes from Buckminster Fuller, whom Mayer mentions in Moving.
Among the last poems in The Old Style, “Design What Design Does” appears to be an improvisation loosely exploring repetitions of a series of words: design, devoted, what, why, do, want, spaces, put, has, what, covering, over, rectangle, spaces, done, them, you. “From the point of view of four-dimensional space-time …” and “The Invisible Structure,” and even “Minnesota,” with its outside-the-body travel, continue the scientific vein of “A Moving Boat …”
In October 1969, Mayer moved from New York to Great Barrington, Massachusetts, where she lived alone in the country until the following May, and worked on the book-length poem Moving, which was published in early 1971. Moving was followed in quick succession by her New York epics Memory, written in 1971–1972, and Studying Hunger Journals, in 1972–1974. Meanwhile, Mayer didn’t succeed at finding a publisher for The Old Style, which was assembled in its final form after she wrote Memory, according to the handwritten contents page. In 1976, she was able to publish less than half of the poems in the first section of Poetry. The majority of the poems were either never published, such as the poems here, or published only in 0 to 9, a collector’s item until Ugly Duckling Presse republished the magazine’s issues in 2006, and they still aren’t very well known.