Lady Lingual

An introduction to Adeena Karasick

Adeena Karasick at North of Invention. Photo by Aldon Nielsen.

I first saw Adeena Karasick read at The Idler Pub in Toronto in the nineties, when I was somewhere in my early twenties. It’s a bit embarrassing to remember because I had no clue what she was talking about or what she was doing. As someone whose experience did not yet include experimental or conceptual poetry, I felt strangely threatened and a little dubious. But I also felt exhilarated. I realized little by little, word by un-word, that she was doing something wild with — and to — language. She was actually dismantling words and reconstructing them in new ways.

I immediately wanted more. I wanted to Figure It Out. I think I can pinpoint hearing Karasick as the first time I realized there could be more to poetry than the lyric — something fun, fiery, mysterious, and potentially politically charged. To challenge the accepted, normal use of language is more than a geeky wordster habit; it has revolutionary potential. To do so as a woman, a feminist, a Jew — well. Karasick has a way of opening up meaning and language so that suddenly we are faced with more possibilities, more excitement. There’s hope for change and for questioning. For something better than where we are, stuck in a world of clichés and repeated, soul-damaging truisms.

This recording of Karasick reading at North of Invention is an excellent entry point into her work. Although her poetry is equally (and differently) stimulating on the page, experiencing a live reading helps listeners make connections we might otherwise miss the first time around.

In her opening piece, “Phat Freitag,” Karasick eases us into her sensuous, almost giddy language play. She throws us puns and rewritten sayings or clichés, like “Life is a cabernet.” She bubbles a fun sound-poetry mixed with the performance of a character. And this is a Karasick trait — she never reads as herself. She is always bigger than life, goofy at times — like when she says “froth sauce” with an affected, accented inflection. Throughout “Phat Freitag,” meaning becomes clear, then muddies, then changes again. And despite all the silliness, Karasick leaves us with the uneasy laugh of “an Islamist sandwich, toasted awry.”

Next Karasick moves us into her newest work, “This Poem,” from TalonBooks. “This Poem” is a tour de force long poem that tells you exactly what it is, in no (un)certain terms. Using the structure of repeating the line “This poem …” Karasick takes us on a rhythmic, alliteration- and rhyme-obsessed, sometimes musical, breath-heavy journey. Quite literally, “This poem is living beyond its meaning.” Karasick brings words to life in such a vibrant way that you feel they have physical substance. Words caress or smack you upside the head, but also get inside it so that you never become fully immersed in just the sound or feeling. “Verfremd me,” says This Poem, aptly.

Karasick then treats us to three older works. “Poemology” is an amusing piece on how to construct a good poem. Re-creating the language of advertising, she has fun with fixed ideas about writing, giving advice like how to avoid “contextual disease.”

The next piece, “Rules To Text By” plays with a text by Ellen Fine and Sherrie Schneider called “The Rules,” the topic of which was advice on How To Get A Man. Instead, Karasick tells us how to read or, “how to get a text.” The piece is full of humor, like much of Karasick’s work, and is also an excellent example of her unique explorations of the, um, sexiness of poetry. Karasick delivers the piece sensually, and with the kind of bawdiness usually only men get away with. For all its seemingly cheap laughs, the piece is inherently feminist. “You are in control of your own textasy,” it tells us. Serious writing doesn’t have to be cold and sexless, or more specifically — “genderless” (i.e. male).

Karasick closes this section of the reading with “Typographilia,” a poem that plays with slang and pop/tech culture. This is one of Karasick’s great gifts; she takes the everyday, the now, and twists it up with history in a linguistic way. She is on top of what the kids are talking about, so to speak. When she wrestles with something troublesome, with one of the many difficulties of navigating the postmodern world, she asks questions like, “What the font?

The reading closes with another section of “This Poem.” We’re left with its “fleshy hashtag” demarcating the ways in which we are creating memes, changing language, moving into new territories of communication. Karasick’s work shows a refusal to be bogged down by language, old or new. She makes it fresh and vital, asks it difficult questions. She plays it like an instrument — and also lets it play her.