Articles - August 2011

Into the Field: Nick Montfort

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Nick Montfort is a writer and scholar specializing in digital poetics and computational media. He has a Ph.D. in computer and information science from Penn, and is currently an associate professor of digital media at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. We discuss his most recent book, Riddle & Bind (Spineless Books, 2010), as well as his poetry generator series ppg256 and his early story “Kung Fu Christ.” You can find more of Nick’s work at nickm.com.

On the other side of the tracks (PoemTalk #44)

Fred Wah, 'Race, to go'

from left: Lisa Robertson, Jeff Derksen, Bob Perelman, Fred Wah

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Lisa Robertson, Jeff Derksen, and Bob Perelman joined Al Filreis to talk about a poem in a sixteen-poem series by Fred Wah going under the title “Discount Me In.” That series and several others were brought together in a book called Is a Door. Our poem, “Race, to go,” is the first — a proem of sorts — in the “Discount Me In” group, and we have occasion during our discussion to talk about the several valences of discounting. I don't count. The census misses me because I fall between the cracks in racial categories. The neo-liberal moment has cheapened me. Both positively and negatively racially charged language around food, freely punned and intensely oral, turns casual by-talk into rebarbative backhand (creating an effect distinctly pleasurable) and brings into the poem the entire story of official Canadian multiculturalism.

Race, to go
What’s yr race
            and she said
what’s yr hurry
how bout it cock
                                                        asian man
I’m just going for curry.
 
                        You ever been to ethni-city?
                        How bout multi-culti?
                       
                                        You ever lay out skin
                                        for the white gaze?
 
What are you, banana
or egg? Coconut
maybe?
                       
                            Something wrong Charlie
                            Chim-chong-say-wong-leung-chung?
                            You got a slant to yr marginal eyes?
 
You want a little rice with that garlic?
Is this too hot for you?
 
            Or slimy    or bitter    or smelly    or tangy    or raw    or sour
 
— a little too dirty
           
            on the edge    hiding underneath    crawling up yr leg    stuck
 
between the fingernails?
 
Is that a black hair in yr soup?
                        Well how you wanna handle this?
                         You wanna maintain a bit of différ-ence?
                         Keep or mother’s other?
                         Use the father for the fodder?
 
What side of John A. Macdonald’s tracks you on anyway?
 
                         How fast you think this train is going

                                                                                                                  to go? 

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Bob and Al, the Americans here, learned a few lessons about how different from the American melting-pot version of multiculturalism the Canadian approach has been, where there’s “a pseudo-maintenance of a piquant difference” (as Lisa Robertson put it).  Our poem pushes piquant playfully yet angrily hard, to the point where sanctioned everyday cultural practices connect to the larger failures of the neoliberal economy.

In Banff, in 2010, Fred Wah took the opportunity to read many of these poems and to discuss them with Charles Bernstein as part of the Close Listening series; this material is all available on Fred Wah’s page at PennSound. Here is a recording of Fred Wah reading “Race, to go.” Here is a related poem, “Count,” and here is “Mr. In-between.”