Seven discourses with Rachel Zolf

June 5, 2011, to August 15, 2012

Rachel Zolf (photo by Brian Adams).

Discourse 1 with Rachel Zolf
June 4, 2011

Dear Rachel,

I’ve been reading reviews of your books — and what are reviews if not testimonies to such-and-such-a-thing happening to a reader— and what a way to hear you again, in yet another kind of crowded room, after a flash of a chat in Buffalo when you came here to read (it was not snowing, there were nachos) — and what is a reading if not testimony to such-and-such-a place gasping around the voice of a poet — and there are two such ones that I want to begin by reciting here. If reciting is to say out loud, then these two moments are worth reiterating in a new context — reciting someone else’s words as if to say “Hello” again and to have my questions follow the greeting as exclamation marks: “Hello!!”

In the February/March 2010 issue of the Poetry Project Newsletter, Thom Donovan reviews Neighbour Procedure expertly. He describes the book as an “investigation of grievability” driven in part by Judith Butler’s query in Precarious Life: “Who counts as human? … What makes for a grievable life?” Grievability — unlike flammability, combustibility, solubility — is an unnamable index of an ability to be mourned; a quality that every subject “possesses” in varying quantities; a coordinate that locates a subject within cultural remembrance. Your investigation into this impossible index begins not with the mischievous pointing of Holmes’ pipe but with the studious, open palmed gesture of appropriative poetics. Indeed, ceci n’est pas une pipe, but a poetry of a telling of a sketch of a drawing of a painting of a landscape of terror and unknowing. This is a poetry that is just as many times removed from the content of its sources (war coverage from the New York Times, Jerusalem Post, comment streams from, the Qur’an, and so on) as it is knotted into their weft.

Thom’s sentiment is that you “remain [/] remarkably faithful to [your] affective content — an achievement appropriative poetries too often fall short on.” I concur with this, somewhat. It is true that your book emerges after your return from your very first visit to Israel-Palestine a few years ago and deals with the intersection between your life as traveler, scholar, poet, investigator, and guest. But my sense is that, even upon “return,” the author remains at that diwan — the guesthouse which forms the “centre of Palestinian communal life” — and that this continued residence (as guest) is perhaps what could be termed “affective content.” Would “affective content” be a trace to a source or relation to a host long after the poet’s displacement? How do you read the term “affective content”? Do you read this consistent fidelity to source texts as an “achievement” or something quite else?

Thom’s claim about your fidelity to “affective content” in Neighbour Procedure comes three years after K. Silem Mohammad’s review of Human Resources, which points (sans pipe?) to how you deal with “the basic problem of reflecting the state of human language with a feeling accuracy.” I wish to place “feeling accuracy” close enough to “affective content” to examine the combustibility index of their relation in your own process. How do you experience the neighborliness of appropriative strategies and your own “mad affects”?

Dear Divya,

I really liked this section. I felt right from the first line that the section had kind of a sad, apologetic tone, which seems appropriate to a list of corrigenda. I was very struck by all the delicate, tender imagery in this section, especially the parts about plants: “skirl: frond of thrush notes,” “the pudge of hibiscus,” “apply sepals on your groin,” “sulk of lawn,” etc. It was exciting to see these phrases juxtaposed against images of the inside of the body and against religious language. There were many nachos, too many, as evidenced in the Holiday Inn bathroom, wondering how did they get the cheese so smooth and orange and uniform. Interviews can be so that poem died long ago, and yet somehow right here right now a discourse blooms in the bright orange sun of the creamy white paper to vocalize “Hello, Divya,” gaily smiling “yalla yalla yhello!

Oh no, do I now have to go back to the TD review and the JB book and brush up on this or that pearl or pudge of coal? Or shall we nail our bums to this proboscis I mean prosthesis and see what swells I mean swills from the welter of our associations. Ah, metaphor I mean metonymy … Okay, I love the range of TD’s mind, the risks he takes to reach for discourse beyond what he knows he knows, so rare and vulnerable and somehow vilified in “our” circles, which bugs me, but I digress. So what I remember from NP PPNL review (let’s be all corporate and an acronymistic, shall we) is a kind of existential horror that puff, my four books had melted into two, but after I got over the first sentence, there was JB and again a sinking feeling like fuck did everything come from JB’s maw, where is my brain, my very own idea, my non-existent BA, is this because I have an innie not an outie? In this sense, the reader is presented with the possibility of communication or community “as if we had answered,” but this is foreclosed or problematized by the complicated folding that preoccupies the text. What can be between? How can the folds be negotiated Q14543 liu ougadougou pogrom?

Clearly this author function needs more couch work. Do you think Kim Rosenfield has an opening? Of course, I was tickled purple to read TD’s theorizing, how he got so much right, even if most of the book was written before said author function got on said plane with the Birthright Israel kids playing “Two Truths and a Lie.” No razor’s-edged thanatourist, no go native, no modest witness on grand tour for aesthetic signal output gain. I steal because I have no imagination, so she says in hi-fi surround. Mark Twain’s trip was way more trippy. The first thread that I will discuss is the text’s articulation of proximity and distance. In beginning my work on the text, I made a list of all of the words relating to “far & near, between, together & apart.” The list included nearly every word on the first page and a good portion of the words on the remaining pages. Then I added mad affects between, beside, underneath, above, and after what remained, because I think it was Shoshana Felman who said something about madness, unreadability and literarity, whatever that is. I think the author function may have wanted to enact, I dunno, affective economies or something like that that, you know, swirl around in the air and stick to your bones like bits of flesh and wire. Like that, as Rodrigo Toscano would say. Combustible.

And Kasey’s review. I smile when I think of meeting Kaia Sand in Olympia, her happy eyes and brilliant “Lotto” reading, how we exchanged five books to send on, and one HR bloomed on a limetree, and KM got the unlovely materiality of hording and shitting and fucking and sticking as if he had answered, indeed, and yes, dear DV (ha, Diana Vreeland), I have to say in my awshucks Canuck way, I was so pleased, kind of like when you poured that expensive brandy in my Buffalo tea to soothe ragged vocal folds so that Dada could rise up and colonize for the third time that day. It is in this sense that the text is able to express a certain sadness, as it recognizes its own imperfect ability to communicate and expresses that imperfection through complicated language, conditional sentence structure, sound play and puns, and sentence fragments. The reader is placed in proximity to a body, only to be pulled away from it, is offered communication, only to have that bungled and complicated, and is forced to become active in the text, as if it were possible to answer, as if it could be parsed. There you go, as my ma would say.


Discourse 2 with Rachel Zolf
June 26, 2011

Dear Rachel,

Your response pulses with so many voices. I had to use a many-tentacled stethoscope to find the one beating throat that was yours in there, tangled as it was in a pile of other vocal chords. I hear Sarah Dowling’s reviews of my own project exuviae from our years at Temple (where we were so like baby snakes, baby harpies, that we had to invent a movement called nubilism just to name the difference between the uterus and grad school) echoed in your own ventriloquy. You pulled threads of language from her reviews and responses to her peers and wove new poems that became part of The Tolerance Project. And now they unravel and braid new threads into this thing we are weaving between us. And of course, how not to notice the whiplash effect of seeing “one’s own words” appear without warning? The familiarity of poetry done and dead, an archive long buried hurried right towards me and I had to turn so fast — the experience was the affective equivalent of the impulsive stretch of your spine when something going 80 mph hits you from behind. Archives can do that. They travel very fast even when they appear to be still.

Your response reminds me of Bernard Réquichot’s “reliquaries,” Rachel. Do you know his work? He made voluptuous and repugnant dioramas of animal forms through collages of appropriated materials — entrailling composites of bone and skin, fingernails and lashes. These reliquaries, fabulations of soft tongues of oil paint and flesh, thicken the visual frame towards a kind of endoscopic purview of organic forms. The result is body projected so far outward that its guts spill out, reorganizing itself as the viscera of the viewer herself. So, the gallery space becomes a hall of mirrors and encountering his work becomes an awkward autopsy — a “seeing with one’s own eyes” gone terribly awry, horribly pleasurable. Roland Barthes described the experience of his painterly sculpture as a “detumescence of the body.” I read that as a pleasurable arrival at the fact that entrails leave trails.

I see your Neighbour Procedure as archiving traces in a way not unlike this. When I see Réquichot, I am pleased with my whole body. I see collage as the drift of subjects toward contact. Which is to say: I can recall the continuity between two bodies. This too is something I can sense in your own response about a poet’s “fidelity” to “affective content.” A touching that is not touching in the sentimental sense, but an abrasion of the very part that is touched and a daubing of that portion with something resembling unction. To cure (both to preserve and to relieve) relates to curate. And this is how I see myself as you make me understand any “fidelity” to “affective content.” Curating a “fidelity” to “affective content.” When another someone says in your voice “the reader is placed in proximity to a body, only to be pulled away from it,” and this other someone is Sarah Dowling, then I too see why the possibilities of response need be “bungled and complicated,” why we must maintain the “as if” when parsing the texts emerging from appropriative strategies. As things of this ilk, both Neighbour Procedure and your The Tolerance Project have something in common: they both claim that those who speak in tongues always include themselves in their estranged speech.

 In your introduction to The Tolerance Project you say: “The collaboration wants and includes you.” I see this project as a repetition, a saying again of other masters of fine arts. The project involved eighty-six writers who have “donated their poetic traces.” Each of these traces is give a barcode. Every poem you created towards the completion of your MFA was archived, labeled, curated, and organized on the premise of the hyper-rational barcode and the metaphor of the DNA trace. This is quite unlike how you seem to be thinking of collaboration in terms of affective negotiation with source content, no? Barthes noticed a kind of collaboration in Réquichot’s reliquaries that I want to share with you in this regard:

[For him] the [reliquary] box was not the (reinforced) frame of an exhibition but rather a kind of temporal space, the enclosure in which his body worked, worked itself over: withdrew and added itself, rolled and unrolled itself, discharged itself: took pleasure: the box is the reliquary not of saints’ bones but of Réquichot’s pleasures.

This seems like a productive analogy for the MFA experience, no? How would you describe the experience of The Tolerance Project — how and why it was conceived, how and why you rolled and unrolled and (enrolled) yourself in it, how and why the “collaborative” was essential in the so-named mastering of “fine” art?

Dear Divya,

Wow, you just managed to gross me out nicely, my dear Divya. Not enough for you to get my bowels bouleversing with the radioactive orange nachos, was it? Because the identification between Bernie’s viscera and the eggplant parmigiana samwich I just wolfed is a little too close. Here I thought I’d do a nice one-two click and up would pop a pleasing little Joseph Cornell-like assemblage prompting me to spout something pseudo-smart about after Auschwitz failing better at containing uncontainables; instead j’est un autre viscera spill on bloody nose and eyelashes. When the be stings indeed!

Anyway, sorry about the whiplash, Dr. ABDiviso Victory, but I do love that you were pleased with your whole naturally stinky body. Maybe we could pretend like we’re in a Nicole Brossard discourse and talk about desire in language in, across, and splayed on the wooden table between us. But I digress, je m’excuse, said estranged throat beats multitudes. I wonder which one came out for you, they tend to slip from grasp like the snakes at the foot of my childhood bed. Love the image of the viscera of the viewer herself, don’t know why I went to such a clean association as Michael Asher and the blank walls of the Claire Copley gallery, but I disembodied. I see why you went for the gross out, but I’m surprised it wasn’t Human Resources that popped, the pilgrim’s progress from collecting marbles to coins to gesturing to hand over poo to ma only to — psych! — pull back, incorporate.

Ain’t got no ice cream, but got an archive swerving. Like the barcodes that go nowhere certain or pure, just to yet another archive. There is no identifying Das Ding there or there there, no mastery or comfort, just a conditional opening to another discharge, travailing, as if. Google any line in Neighbour Procedure and witness the spill — is that collaboration? The final Barthes quote draws me to Tehching Hsieh, the hunger artist in his Tribeca cage, how an image of him comforted me during the duration of the MFA, every second a strait gate, yes and no unsplit. Like guest and host and hostis, we come from the same root enemy, we want contact and encounter, loaded words like Lot’s girls given away to be raped, fidelity to proximity and contiguity, not just me and my appropriative mastery. Language really spoken by as if here I am on several throated registers, not mad like angry, mad like response.


Discourse 3 with Rachel Zolf
August 18, 2011

Dear Rachel,

I want to note something that is emerging as a motif without us calling its name — so I guess I’m going to baptize it.

Q: “What did Althusser name his baby at the baptism?” Why did Althusser strangle his wife?

A: “Hey You There.”

Q: Why did Althusser go not straight to jail but to lecturing philosophy at the university?

You reference two major projects from an “institutional critique”-era conceptualist art vein: an earlier piece by Michael Asher (Untitled, 1973) and Andrea Fraser (also Untitled, 2003) in your essay on the inception, method, and experience of The Tolerance Project. For his piece, Asher installed space as space at the Claire Copley gallery, a storefront peeking out into LA’s La Cienega Boulevard, by removing all the artworks, and taking down the wall that would divide the curator and gallerist Copley’s office and storage area from the rest of the exhibition space. Copley, the curator-gallerist turned exhibit, the all-seeing eye turned ideal object, could be gazed upon by an audience who would be confronted by the visibility of the ideological and social division of the art-gallery. Sandy Ballatore’s immediate and astonished response to Asher’s piece in Artweek[1] was to note that “all that stuff on the walls is gone, along with every bit of privacy.” Exactly thirty years later, Fraser’s piece takes the audience-as-voyeur/creep into a hotel room in which she performs sex with a private art collector for $20,000, “not for sex” but “to make an artwork” along with the mystical white crow, the sword and the flower that shattered stone. You also mention the face-smashingly ouch compelling One-Year Performance 1978–1979 (Cage Piece) by Tehching Hseih in which the artist captured himself in a exactly? 11’6” × 9’ × 8’ wooden cage with only extremely minimal provisions was there a toilet? and spent a year recapturing recapturing his image image in a daily single photograph.

These three pieces about four walls were very significant to you during the MFA experience and, of course, throughout The Tolerance Project. They work explicitly with the limitations and pleasures of along, against walls. They work to expose “architecture” as an ideological drama between concrete, plaster, and the hoops made visible studs. They are attempting to negotiate the permeability of the gallery wall like the apartheid fence shot through with nails, the privacy of the walls of a hotel room plastered with soporific wall paper and well hung ha! with cropped reproductions of Monet’s Water Lilies, and the absolute irrelevance of the barred walls of a cage during voluntary confinement/constraint/the poem.

This comes into our conversation as I was considering your description of the many resistances to The TP during your MFA. You were told that you were “violating the privacy of the workshop structure,” that the workshop instructor “spoke about preserving the “sanctity” of the “safe” workshop space, where “you can feel like you can do anything” (except something like The Tolerance Project)” The language of privacy, describing the seminar or workshop space as a Temple, not to be molested (much like the body of a masturbating Christian, hairy palms aside) you’re creepy and not to be betrayed, seems in direct opposition to its public, institutional status. one fellow ephebe, wearing an epaulette of red wool, after hearing teacher-sage cry re broken hymen of workshop sanctity, ejaculated the rather banal “I thought everything was public” (but only into my little ear, not the pub(l)ic torso of the sweaty workshop).

There is a whiff of the old talkshow-mistaken-for-therapy-session TP as reality TV show for poets (suggested other-Rachel Levitsky in initial brainstorm) privilege syndrome which I myself was often confused by (“Divya Victor rolls her eyes too much, too often, at too many students”) see how DV averts the gaze that is not merely benign or polite or discourse. The talkshow is, in fact, not surrounded by four walls the talk show ain’t containable. Neither is it a private “chat.” could be the last public space, says Lisa Robertson Applause is the obtrusive mark of the audience. I don’t get it I don’t get it Applause is the sound of the poetics of witness. is so uncool The so-named sanctity of the private convo between the Big Oooh, hairy palms inside and her abused-fame-tourist-du-jour I’m having a flashback is marked by this applause’s resounding and repeated violation are you making a pun, dear Div? of what would otherwise have been a private conversation. This is also the structure of testimony, in the court of Law where’s V(i)P when we need her? as it is in the church of Lord, sans applause. one hirsute paw flapping

“Respecting” someone’s privacy in a public space actually reverses the logic by which egalitarian inclusion can be conducted within splitting architectural spaces. This is one of the things Matta-Clark Acconci’s Seedbed ooh, re-flapping proposes in its utter disregard for the Puritanism of the cognitive, aural, and self-conscious privilege Not only does the architectural intervention presage much of the private and invisible shell implied by the museum-goers’ well-paced gait and sober nodding. of his subsequent work, but all of Acconci's fixations converge in this, the spiritual sphincter of his art. Rosler’s Semiotics of the Kitchen offers a similar fuck-you. It forces us to reckon with the private-domestic shredded open into public and mediatized by collapsing the invisible wall between the gallery and the TV-screen, and by flashing our historical fondness for eroticizing (rather than compensating) female labor (in or out of our trenchcoats). or Jeanne Diehlman’s sexy housedress kneeding meat.

I see The TP’s simpatico with Asher’s critique, along with Fraser’s later pieces in a network with all these other artists who suggest not merely that privilege is co-constituted with access but also that that we continue to think of subjective privacy in architectural and material terms — even in the times of the post-post-Patriot-Act (the new post-post-postmodernism), that breakfast cereal, and the diffused-ownership of all data. The cachet claimed by the privacy of a subject in arts practice is baffling at a time where the “private citizen” cannot exist in the US. (“What is your house made of, little piggy? Straw or brick or language?” etc.) The story utilizes the literary Rule of three, expressed in this case as a “contrasting three” Further, however, the Romantic notion of the lone artist writing by the faint glow as the third pig's house turns out to be the only one which is adequate to withstand the wolf.  of her MacBook which the MFA model of privacy retellings of the story sometimes omit the attempts to trick the third pig wishes to sanctify is necessary or state that the first pig ran to the second pig's house to sustain the multi-million dollar private hyphen State complex that is the MFA industry, then both of them ran to the third pig's house of bricks — what Mark Novak has called a key institution in the “neoliberal language industry.” The latter is often an attempt to write out death or violence in the story.

One of Novak’s big questions in his provocative “Neoliberalism, Collective Action, and the American MFA Industry” is whether “the American MFA industry is capable of producing anything other than the neoliberal writer” Um, not really. The TP is certainly lumbered with this question. I am not expecting you to answer his question Ask Jeff Derksen, he’ll know. Where do you see the issues of privacy and poetic composition intersect with the interests of the Sing it: we are neo-lib-er-al familee, “neoliberal language industry”? look at us discoursingingly In other words, your preoccupation with walls You know the Israelis have this equipment throughout the MFA that can see right what has that meant through concrete walls during and since? the heat of bodies flickering along the border with Mexico.


Discourse 4 with Rachel Zolf
February 14, 2012

Dear Rachel,

It has been a long time since we’ve written to each other in this here, rather than in the here of my Gmail inbox. And since the last writing-to, you’ve moved to another place than the place you were writing to me in. This has not changed anything but assures me that a half a year has passed out of consciousness. However, it is good to return to asking you questions and saying things remotely to your ear.

All the while, I’ve been wanting to return especially to the paper you gave at the Rethinking Poetics conference at Columbia University on June 12, 2010[2]. In this paper, you stake a claim for the “Noone” who/that Paul Celan mentions in closing of his poem “Ashglory”[3]:

bears witness for the

“Noone” is both the absent body who does not bear witness and the (present but remote) one who does bear witness for the witness — a figure who partially fails, a figure who partially tries, a figure who is twice removed from that which needs witnessing. Celan’s is both a complaint and an admission of the “Noone.” Using this figure, you argue against the role of “the poet as direct transparent witness,” against the “modest witness” as ethnographic fieldworker,” and against the claims that poetry functions as proxy-witnessing. But you do see the possibility of “the polyvocal, multi-focal, desubjectified or maybe just ‘bad’ subject who bears witness for the witness who bears witness” to a catastrophe.

Even as you give this ten minute talk on the muselmann — the mute, illegible, silhouette of racial resemblance; the “faceless,” “donkeys,” “cretins,” “camels,” “cripples,” “swimmers,” “tired sheiks,” “shell-men,” “husk-men,” and “mummy men” of the camps who no one can forget and who no one can remember — you also interrupt yourself to give an account of what might be happening in Israel-Palestine, as you speak of not speaking: “Israeli troops have killed at least nine unarmed people and wounded scores of others on a humanitarian ship carrying ten thousand tonnes of food, medicine, building supplies and toys to Gaza.” This ruptures the conference with the rhetorical question least beloved by a pacified audience: “Can poetry do anything about a tragedy like this?” To this you respond with a “No” and a confession “[a]nd again I wonder what the hell’s the point [of poetry].” The point of poetry, as your paper seems to conclude, is that it continues to call you to “fail well in the catachrestic effort to listen to what is unsaid and beyond knowledge in the testimony of the witness who bears witness for the Muselmann’s “bare, unassigned and unwitnessable life” (Agamben, Remnants 157).

The fact and trope of aesthetic failure has a long and important history, but that is not what I want to get into here, exactly. I was struck by your use of the phrase “catachrestic effort to listen to what is unsaid.” “Catachresis” is an event in which a word is misused or applied to a thing unwittingly, or with mistaken certainty (one of the dictionaries offered me “Militate” as a word often used instead of “Mitigate”!). Apart from semantics, catachresis is a rhetorical fact which emerges when there is insufficient language for a certain parallel to be drawn between two things (for instance, “He was forced to buy the Morrissey record sight unseen” has a catachrestic use of “sight unseen” as there is no ready parallel for auditory phenomena). In this, catachresis is about an application of language out of its “appropriate” context. Spivak talks about catachresis, in the post-colonial context, as a misapplication of an (often abstracted and academic) rudimentary category/nomenclature to a lived/real experience, and is critical of it as a figure of translation that is complicit with the so-called subaltern’s muteness.

I am intrigued by the phrase “catachrestic effort to listen to the unsaid” not only because of all these amazing refractions it produces, and not only because (more obviously) listening to silence is a type of catachresis (catacrisis? catechism? catechasm?), and thus also bound to “fail well.” I am also interested because of the way in which the act of listening displaces/replaces writing or speaking in your sentence. Is this listening also the work of composition (aurality as metaphor)? Or perhaps it is a matter of the audience’s “catachrestic effort to listen” to the shifts in diction, languages, volumes, and textures of your performance?  How do you now see/name the different scenes in which the “catachrestic effort to listen to the unsaid” occurs?

Dear Divyalentine,

Here we are once more entre nous, not a catachrestic space, but a little rust-covered, too long away from words (forgive me). As the fascia tissue begins to loosen within a too-stuffed frame, I feel room in this room (thank you).

You know how you can have fixed ideas in your memory that are actually just wrong? Like I was certain that in one of my vain attempts to be in university in my 20s, an inspiring teacher, Doug Chambers, taught me that occupatio was the rhetorical term to describe a line such as, “No light, but rather darkness visible.” And I was even more certain that that particular line came from Milton’s “Sonnet 16: On his blindness.” For years, I’ve been using occupatio to describe how the negation enacts the negated, but, once again, I failed to find the right word. I hope I didn’t use it in that essay you mention. Is plus de metaphore or plus de metaphore more or no more (metaphor)?

You may have guessed that I use “catachrestic” catachrestically in that try (essai). Always this reaching, these impure limits, (peut-être) thresholds. The liminal doesn’t interest me so much anymore. I want the mirror to become a window, the threshold a gate, or whatever failed metaphor you choose. The act of “bearing witness,” like the act of being a “neigbho(u)r,” is a theological-political limit concept that I find productive to think about. The impossibility and necessity. What does it mean to speak not to or for but with? What does it mean to decolonize? What does it mean to be a bystander? What does Spivak say? “It is called ‘power’ because that is the closest one can get to it. This sort of proximate naming can be called catachrestic.”

Come to think of it, maybe “Noone bears witness” isn’t occupatio or apophasis but prosopopeia. As De Man says, “Something monstrous lurks in the most innocent of catachresis: when one speaks of the legs of the table or the face of the mountain, catachresis is already turning into prosopopeia, and one begins to perceive a world of potential ghosts and monsters.”

I like to try to listen with ghosts and monsters. Much is left unsaid, must be imperfectly enacted or performed. I have a poem about a famous Dada guy who thought it was okay to take over a Palestinian village and turn it into a Dada artist’s colony for Jews. I think people tend not to “get” much from this poem until they hear me (fail to) perform what the ghosts and monsters didn’t say. Did you know that catachresis means abuse? They really did set up another Cabaret Voltaire in Palestine. Plus de sens or plus de sens? Like a discourse on vocality. What does Divya Victor say?: What does it mean to enact or perform vocality?


Discourse 5 with Rachel Zolf
June 8, 2012

Dear Rachel,

So much of communication is apologizing for silence, and it is my turn to do so. I wish readers could also witness how much of the time composing this conversation takes place in walking around dining tables and skirting the dishes in the sink or lingering between PS617.A55.2007 and N6537.S648.A35.2010. There is also silence in this inter/entreview on vocality, also, yes. But there is also a lot of saying again — repeating, parroting, quoting, misquoting, displacing. To displace that: As an adolescent I had recurring dreams about translating for ghosts of bulls, panthers, horses, houses — but I rarely ever managed this since that dream community would also be made of bulls, panthers, horses. It was a difference of species that made it impossible. To displace that: Like how an Osage orange is also a Hedge apple, which is the way naming makes apples out of oranges. This stays with me even as I think about vocality today. But instead of recalling ghosts, let me recall two stories about ghosts. (They say this is narrative, no?)

When Primo Levi was walked into Auschwitz, confused, exhausted, starving, thirsty, just another piece in a pile of pieces, another rag in a knot of rags, he was sheared and shaved, stripped and disguised as another man resembling another man, standing ankle deep in cold water and among strangers muttering to themselves, unable to communicate with each other. Now, a German walked into the crowd. The crowd of monologues presented him with a German interpreter named Flesch — a translator, who, like the men in the crowd, was a Jew. Flesch’s job was to translate German into Italian for those “hundred miserable and sordid puppets” (Levi 26). Primo Levi recalls this incident as such: “One sees the words which are not his, the bad words, twist his mouth as they come out, as if he was spitting out a foul taste” (24). In time, however, Flesch stops asking the officer the questions of those men who have already been marked for death. He refuses to turn the Italian throat inside out for the German ear. About him, Levi says “I feel an instinctive respect [for this man] as I feel that he has begun to suffer before us” (24). Is it the content of speech that causes him to suffer? Or is it the manner of ventriloquizing the violator? Or is it the way in which he becomes a puppet for the puppets? Does he begin to suffer sooner than the others because he has to carry an other’s language his mouth first?

Vocality and witnessing are related in the act of carrying the “bad words” or in that twisting of the mouth that Levi observes. I’ve been thinking a lot about vocality and ventriloquism, as you know, and the figure of the puppet has become increasingly important — first as an analogue for an impoverished agent and then as a form of mimesis in poetry. This brings me to my second story.

When Paul Celan wrote to his friend Hermann Lenz about his reception after a reading he gave to a group of Germans at the peak of de-Nazification in 1952, he said that the audience accused him not just of writing “unpleasant” poetry but of performing “Death Fugue” in “the voice of Goebbels” (Celan, Selections, 21). Celan later described his choice to write in his mother tongue, German, and in the tongue which murdered his mother, German, as a “phenomenon of interference” in which you hear “the effect” of “the same frequency coming together” (34). He is the double-throated poet whose German speech transforms the audience’s eyewitness of survival into the earwitness of disavowing the expression of that survival. His German tongue was heard only as a prosthetic extension of expressions that he could not claim as his own. What of Celan was displaced when Goebbels was heard in his mouth?

The displacement of language is vocality specifically as it relates to witnessing, and my framework for it is built on Holocaust discourse. The displacement of language, as a physical act, shows up over and over in memoirs of the camps, diary entries, nightmares. There is a lot of anxiety about living and dying in Babel as puppets fitted with strange tongues. But why puppets? Why this figure? SS officers and criminals employed to dig out holes in the ground for mass graves were not allowed to refer to the dead as corpses. They were given strict instructions to call them rags, bricks, shit, dirt. One other word on the approved vocabulary list was figuren: puppets.

The subject of the camp is always also potential corpse, or, more tersely, as Adorno would have it, able to reproduce death. These subjects are provisional — both marked only by identity and utterly disenfranchised. There is a perforated agency here. Puppets are inanimate figures animated by the hands and vocal displacements of a ventriloquist — uncanny shells that resemble pupa — a little girl or rag doll, after which they are named, or pupae the emerging form of in-between life and potential form. They are small theatres of unliving, provisional, fragile life which resembles ours and yet are of an agency completely other.

When we speak of witnessing for or with these ghosts, do we take into consideration the corpse? The figuren? We dare not evoke them that in criticism. We dare not call them up in poetics. We shift our eyes. But, as my friend Joey Yearous Algozin recently declared during our panel on violence and art at the UBPoetics @ 20 symposium: “Let’s face it, subjects produce corpses.” Ventriloquy as vocality allows for the corpse to remain visible, ghastly, unbearable, bodily — rather than engaged as transcended or haunting.

The manner in which voiced puppetry or ventriloquy imitates a human body and throws forward a dissociated human voice exposes a fundamental problem for the politics and poetics of witness associated with trauma, for me. Ventriloquial vocality confronts the complacent tether between an identity and the origin of a voice — whether heard in the shocking gap between the thin croak of our recorded voices and our ideal voice, in the amusing scandal of uncoordinated vocality in poorly dubbed films, in the acousmatic resonance of Pythagoras’s disembodied voice booming at his students from behind an arras, or in the frightening spectacle of an exorcist yanking twelve voices out of a twelve year old. To ventriloquize Kelly Oliver, these voices are “beyond recognition.” Dissociated from its so-named “rightful owner,” the ventriloquial voice wanders, occupies strange throats and speaks in frightening tongues. It repeatedly exposes our misplaced faith in the primacy of the voice which presumes that a disembodied voice must be attached to a plausible body. But in scenes of historical concussion, physiological trauma, and extreme physiological and psychic trauma, what constitutes a plausible body is made ambiguous. And this is where poetic vocality lingers, far from a voice’s rightful owner — ventriloquized. So, Rachel Zolf, poppet, I, a puppet, pupa, pupae, whatever is speaking, am barely I, and that is what Divya Victor would say.

Dear Divya,

Here is a sweet story of a little Indian girl. It shows how a few lessons learned in early life about religious truth enabled her to be a great blessing to her stern old uncle, a great Indian hunter in the cold north land. I am sure when you have read the story you will say it is a beautiful fulfillment of the prophecy uttered long ago, “A little child shall lead them.”

Astumastao was the name of our little Indian girl. It seems to be rather a long name, but, like all Indian names, it is very expressive. It means “coming to the light,” or “coming dawn.” She was born in a birchbark wigwam, in the wild country far north. Her parents soon drowned in an accident. A poor little orphan girl, her relations often half starved her for days together.  

One summer it fortunately happened that there visited that country a devoted missionary, who was travelling through those wild regions, preaching the Gospel among the different tribes. The boat in which he journeyed was a canoe made out of sheet tin. He had as his canoe-men two stalwart Christian Indians, one of whom, whose name was Hassel, acted as his interpreter. While Mr. Evans, the missionary, tarried at this village, holding services as often as he could get a congregation, he noticed the poor little Indian girl and inquired about her. When he learned her sad history, he asked her people to give her to him.

And so the little orphan child was taken to the far-away Mission home at Norway House. The Indian Mission school at that time was under the charge of a Miss Adams. Like many other noble women, she had left a happy home and many friends in civilization, and had gone out to that desolate country to be a blessing and a benediction to the people. She was anxious to do all she could for the welfare of Astumastao, the little Indian orphan. She took her into the Mission school, bathed and dressed her in new garments, and was constant and zealous in her efforts to instill into this mind so dark and ignorant some knowledge that would lead her into a higher, better life.

Astumastao was gifted with an exceedingly retentive memory. Hence she was able to quickly grasp the meaning of what she was taught, as well as to repeat many verses of the Bible, and some sweet hymns which had been translated into her own language. Although she had never heard any singing beyond the monotonous droning of the Indian conjurers in their superstitious pagan rites, yet here under Miss Adams’s loving care she speedily developed a sweet voice for song, and delighted exceedingly in this newfound joy. Thus passed a happy year, in which Astumastao saw and learned many things, not only about happy home life, but also about the one living and true God. 

Some twelve months after Mr. Evans had rescued her from her cruel relatives, there came to the trading-post near Norway House an uncle of Astumastao. He was a great hunter, and had with him a large quantity of valuable furs to exchange for supplies he needed. As he had no children of his own, when he saw the bright little girl who was his brother’s daughter, he insisted on taking her back with him to his distant wigwam home.

With deep grief the missionary and Miss Adams saw Astumastao embark in a birch canoe  with her uncle Kistayimoowin and aunt, and paddle away for ever out of their sight. Neither her uncle nor his wife were actually cruel to their young niece, of whom they had thus taken possession, but the lot of a young Indian girl in any pagan abode is from our standpoint often a very sad one.

Astumastao, remembering some loving advice given her by Miss Adams ere they parted, resolved to do all she could to be a blessing to her uncle and aunt, and so she was     industrious and obedient. She loved to sing over the sweet hymns she had been taught in the now far away Mission Sunday school, and tried to keep fresh in her memory the verses of the Great Book, as well as the lessons taught her by the good white friends at that place.

Thus she lived for a year or so, and then there was a sad change for the worse. This was caused by the arrival in their midst of another and older uncle, Koosapatum, who was a cruel, superstitious old conjurer. Years before he had been robbed and swindled by some wicked white traders, who had first made him drunk with their fire-water, and then robbed him of a valuable pack of furs. This cruel treatment had so enraged him that he had become a bitter enemy of all white people, and was resolved to do all he could to keep the Indians from walking, as he explained it, in the white man’s ways. To enable him the more thoroughly to succeed, he went through all the years of suffering and fasting and dreaming required to make himself a great conjurer. We have not room here to tell of all the ways by which an Indian at length reaches to this position, and becomes an adept in the use of his poisons and other things, thus terrorizing over the rest of the people.

One day, while Astumastao industriously sewed a mocassin, a familiar song came into her young heart, and sweetly floated out on the forest air. Its singing carried her back to the faraway Mission Sunday school, her voice in sweetest melody. Poor Astumastao, little did she imagine the dire results or the sad ending of her song!

When her uncle, the conjurer, in a drowsy state over his tobacco, first heard her sweet notes he thought they were those of a bird, but as her voice rose loud and strong, and he was able to comprehend the meaning of the words she sang, all his hatred of the white man rose up like a tempest within him and filled him with rage. 

When Astumastao regained consciousness she was lying on a bed of rabbit-skin robes and balsam boughs in the wigwam, with her aunt bathing her head with cold water. Of course her little heart was filled with consternation and sorrow when told of the terrible threats that the uncle would kill them all by poisoning if ever the songs were heard again. So from that hour the little forest singer had to hush her notes and keep mute and still. Often the song would seem to burst out of itself, but Astumastao had to be satisfied with its melody in her heart.

One day, Koosapatum’s gun, which was an old flint-lock, suddenly burst in his hands, and it was soon evident that the end was near for the old conjuror. Of course Astumastao sang in her native tongue this first sweet hymn she had ever learned, “Jesus my all to heaven is gone, He whom I fix my hopes upon; His track I see, and I’ll pursue. The narrow way till Him I view.”   

When two or three verses had been sung, the dying man said, “Who is this Jesus?”

Fortunately for Astumastao, her devoted teacher had believed in having the children commit to memory portions of the Sacred Book. And so, in answer to that thrilling question from the dying man, she replied, “This Jesus is the Son of the Great Spirit, who died to save us. ‘For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have ever lasting life.’”  

The sick man was thrilled and startled, and said, “Say it again and again.”

So over again and again she repeated it. 

“Can you remember anything more?” he whispered. 

“Not much,” she replied. “But I do remember that my teacher taught me that this Jesus, the Son of the Great Spirit, said something like this: ‘Him that cometh unto Me I will in no wise cast out.’”

“Did He say,” said the dying man, “that included the Indian? May he go too in the good white man’s way?”

“Oh yes,” she answered, “I remember about that very well. The good missionary was constantly telling us that the Great Spirit and His Son loved everybody, Indians as well as whites.”  

“Sing again to me,” he said.

And so she sang, “Lo, glad I come, and Thou, blest Lamb, Shalt take me to Thee as I am.  Nothing but sin have I to give, Nothing but love shall I receive.” 

“What did you say was His Name ?”  

“Jesus,” she sobbed.  

“Lift up my head,” he said to his weeping wife. “Take hold of my hand, my niece,” he said. “It is getting so dark, I cannot see the trail. I have no guide. What did you say was His Name?” 

“Jesus,” again she sobbed.

And with that name on his lips he was gone.  


Discourse 6 with Rachel Zolf
July 25, 2012

Dear Rachel,

Responding to stories with stories is appropriate, and defines appropriation. The shift of property from mouth to mouth seems to take place in whispers and during in-between states. Be it of the brazen “My daddy can beat up Rambo / O Yea? My daddy can beat up Rimbaud” variety, or gossip, or the historical renovation of master narratives. Think of how the droning dictation during catechism keeps sleepy kids, dragged out of their Saturday night pyjamas, from nodding off, or how the hushed nightly reading of The Giving Tree sends children to their sweet 80 percent wool, 20 percent cotton winter naps, or how the hiss of rumor between two desks in a classroom half-lit by a flickering projector during sex-“ed” defines power hierarchies during recess. These stories are carried forward to audiences who are half-there, rapt or distracted, on-their-way-to-else.

Reading the story you sent me highlights vocality’s relation to storytelling. The form of its narrative — its curved syntax, its adjectives, its repeated saccharine pockets — is suited for the guardian’s (cultural? parental?) voice and for the sleepy child open to moral instruction. On the page, the narrative is less instructive and more threatening — its colonizing fantasy and violence screeches more sharply. The story is charged with intimacy in its form, but stripped too of its potential to become intimate to the listening subject. (I was certainly not tucked into bed by you). Obviously, wrenching story from the oral tradition also involves the displacement of mediums — from voice to page — and of audiences — from bunkbed to book.

You’re working on a project that adapts and curates Canadian white-settler narratives to the medium of appropriative poetry — could you say more about this project? How does storytelling and appropriation come together or diverge for you? How does the retinal page segue from the oral moral tales?

Dear Definitely Not Muff-Divya,

Here I am, as Abraham would say, writing to you from the so-called neutral Swiss alps, batting away pontificating EGS philosophy boys and trying not to feel too oversaturated by the monstrous landscape. Hey, there’s Žižek referring to Toni Morrison as a “fat black bitch,” and there’s writer Ilija Trojanow declaiming that Bulgarians are the “niggers of Europe.” Did that guy I was just discoursing with about bodies in architectural space just mutter to a swaggering friend that he hadn’t “tried with this one yet,” i.e., tried to hit on me? Yesterday, my new friend Chris and I climbed a mountain on our day off from Continental philosophy. I felt so Swiss and Romantic, until the last 50 meters when I felt like an old lady leaning on Chris’s hairy Lacanian-Canadian arm. Today we have a new teacher, the writer and Semiotexte cofounder Chris Kraus, and most of the philosophy boys chose to stay behind with last week’s professor, the one I called “Daddy” who decried “identity politics” and “political correctness” before introducing us to Heidegger. Did Daddy (who’s Jewish btw) really just ask my classmate where she’s from, and when she replied that she’s Palestinian, suggest “so you’re a Jew from Arab descent?”

The mood in class changed palpably today, and I felt relieved I didn’t have to come home at lunch to take Rescue Remedy while my true friend Melissa Buzzeo kindly recited to me from Luce Irigaray’s The Way of Love:

Some theosophists, some defenders of interiority, in love with the cosmos, as body and as universe, in love with a divine not reduced to a logos, resist the formal games to which these eunuchs of the heart and the flesh abandon themselves in diverse coteries. They are suspect in the eyes of such theorists, who seem to forget that the most rational knowledge is first mystical … For lack of taking this into account, knowledge, if it can be submitted to battles, notably with regard to power and appropriation, no longer conveys much meaning … it hardly indicates a path for living, loving, thinking with wisdom. The philosophers of the West are without doubt the first technocrats of whom we suffer today multiple avatars …


With, thus, a privileging of the object, of the similar, of the multiple, as the speech of little boys, adolescents, and men bears witness. A privileging that is totally unthought by the philosopher but which constrains him to remain among those like himself without confronting the delicate relational, but also logical, problems that a dialogue with one or several different subjects poses, or would pose. With women, for example. (3–4)

Fast forward a few days to a new pedagogical expérience (with a French accent and a decidedly German twist) and Hey, did that pretty-famous-I think-supposedly-feminist-definitely-supposedly-“outsider” Derridean philosopher just use battle imagery and violently shut down all discourse that didn’t come at her in a phallogocentric, uh, vein, while shamelessly flirting with the two philosophy garçons mentioned above? She had had dreams of people putting masks on their faces in order to avert disaster. One of these dreams was of a high tower on a hill being pushed over and falling down on the inhabitants of a village below, but the people put on masks and escaped injury!

It’s funny, I had this sort of crisis of conscience a couple days before I got on the plane to lope over the mountains like Frankenstein’s unnameable remnant son, thinking “Why am I still buying into Western notions of epistemology and ontology when there are more holistic and a fuck of a lot more embodied models of thinking out there about self and world?” I thought about how it wasn’t until I went to Palestine for the first time during the 2009 war on Gaza that I woke up to the ongoing colonization of First Nations in Canada. Why didn’t I know that the Boers modeled the bantustans on “our” reserve system? Why wasn’t that in the school textbooks? There I was writing a book in response to the ongoing murderous effects of insidious denial and disavowal in Israeli society, and I had no real consciousness of my own place as a settler-invader on someone else’s soil, no sense of response-ability (however impossible/disavowed that gesture may be in Continental philo-parlance) to indigenous knowledges and ontologies — and realities.

Anyway, I’ve gathered a number of nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century white Canadian settler narratives, fictional and nonfictional, and am writing into their aporias and catachrestic moments. You could say I’m a little hunchback pulling messianic time flashes out of my solar anus, because I still like Bataille and Benjamin. Maybe I’ll coin a new um movement called Cunnilingual philosophy.

Back to the bit of puppetry I sent you, it may be important to note that the word “Indian” is much more charged among the wimpy Canadian multicultis than among US melting pot cowboys. This story is a snippet of a portrait of one of the “real” Christian missionaries who really took First Nations, Métis, and Inuit kids from their families and stripped them of language and culture and clothes and dignity and yes, voice. So there is appropriation and appropriation, and I know both are violent, and I am trying not to appropriate as I appropriate, but that doesn’t mean I can’t appropriate from the appropriators. Capiche?

Must return to Kraus class, though I’m already in Agamben’s (time spills). Supposed to bring three objects to write to via personal discursive autoprose, and I am hopeless at personal discursive autoprose. Think I’ll bring Irigaray, the Rescue Remedy, and the pen. Think that while I’m out there gleaning discourse to fold and shove and tinker into eruption, I should never again leave behind the mark of the hand of the poet. It matters.


Discourse 7 with Rachel Zolf
August 15, 2012

Dear Raquelito,

Why do I have that awful brute Rex Harrison singing “I’ve grown accustomed to her face” in my head? That awful, pedantic, Professor Higgins. You know, the truth is, he does begin the song with a “Damn, damn, damn!” And that’s how I close this discourse. I truly am damn, damn, damn sorry it’s ending. I’ve enjoyed our yearlong conversation and it has transformed my own thinking and writing over the last many months. For this and for all your patience and camaraderie, I thank you.

Damn, damn, damn.


DVide and Canker

PS: As we close our conversation in this context, I ask all poet-discoursers to ask my next poet-discourser a question. What is your question for this poet? Send it to me after your adieu.

Dear Divyalicentious,

I just read over our discourses — were we on acid? There’s a guy in my class here in the grotesque alps who takes acid every other morning — and he’s more lucid than the profs! Shall we really make this ecstasis public? I can feel the vultures wheeling. Still, I am beside myself with longing for your beautiful thinking. Thank you, dear Dingo.

Always already yours,

Rachie-poops (indeed a real childhood moniker)

PS: Dear Next-Discourser,

Do we have the right to bear witness?



1. “All that stuff on the walls is gone, along with every bit of privacy. Actually viewers don’t intend social interaction. They come to look at art. But without knowing it, they are an integral part of the work they see. How unsettling, and uncomfortable.” Sandy Ballatore, “Michael Asher: Less Is Enough,” Artweek 5, no. 34 (October 12, 1974): 16.

2. Rachel Zolf presented a paper at the Rethinking Poetics conference, Columbia University, New York, June 12, 2010. Panel title, “Affective Economies and Prosodies,” with Jeff Derksen, Lisa Robertson, and Chris Nealon.

3. Paul Celan: Selections, trans. Pierre Joris (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), 104.