Polyvocal affects

Rachel Zolf's 'Janey’s Arcadia' in Winnipeg

Note: above, a video of Rachel Zolf giving a talk at Avant Canada: Artists, Prophets, Revolutionaries, a conference held at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario, November 4–6, 2014. Heather Milne responds to Zolf’s talk in the essay that follows. 


Rachel Zolf’s poetry jolts readers from their comfort zone and into a contact zone where they encounter a poetics that is semantically “readable enough” but that conveys its urgency primarily on an affective level through shock, defamiliarization, and a poetics of glitchy error. What Zolf has called “mad affects” are experienced in readerly, textual encounters with her work. They also happen when the text moves off the page and into the realms of the aural, the visual, and the performative.

When Zolf reads aloud from Janey’s Arcadia, she reads the glitches; they come across as an embodiment of grief or repudiation made manifest in what sounds like sobbing or retching. These glitches carry traces of the trauma of colonial violence, as Zolf’s body becomes a conduit for the transference of affect.   

She has made a short video translation of three poems from Janey’s Arcadia using pilfered National Film Board of Canada footage. She has orchestrated polyvocal actions in several cities in North America. These actions bring the poems from Janey’s Arcadia into the fraught space of the contemporary settler city. They become embodied, collaborative acts of resistance. 

I participated in one of these polyvocal actions in November 2014 in Winnipeg, the city where the poems in Janey’s Arcadia take place. We met outside the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR), a controversial, newly built, government-run museum. The CMHR has refused to call Canada’s treatment of Indigenous people a genocide because it has not been officially recognized as such by the government. This was the same government whose leader at the time claimed that Canada has no history of colonialism and refused to call a government inquiry into the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women. The CMHR has been built where the Assiniboine River meets the Red River; it is an ancient gathering place for Indigenous peoples and now the site of the museum, a market and a hotel. Three months before we gathered, the body of fifteen-year-old Tina Fontaine had been found in a bag in the Red River a short distance downstream from the museum. That autumn, a group called Drag the Red had been searching the river for the bodies of missing women. 

We assembled on this historically, spiritually, and ethically freighted site on a freezing cold day in November. With the imposing glass and tyndall stone structure of the CMHR towering over us, we performed our polyvocal action. We were acutely aware of the museum’s security cameras trained on us, but nobody asked us to leave. We were an alliance of writers, activists, artists, and academics. Some of us were settlers, wanting to “look into our own backyard” to grapple with the injustice of the settler-state in which we are complicit. Others in the group were Indigenous writers and activists engaged in a politics of decolonization.

The action began with a smudging ceremony and a prayer song led by Anishinaabe drummer Ko’ona Cochrane. We then stood in a circle facing away from one another and began the polyvocal part of the action. We read simultaneously; our words met and clashed in the cold November air. Zolf read the words of the white settler women from the poem “What Women Say of the Canadian North-West.” Ko’ona Cochrane read the names of missing and murdered Indigenous women who appear in the same poem, while Colin Smith read language from police reports related to the cases of missing and murdered women. Katherena Vermette read a Chrystos poem that she had modified to include references to Winnipeg. I read from “Vocabulary to Come,” a section of Janey’s Arcadia that Zolf composed using words lifted from the writings of fur trader and explorer Alexander Henry.  

The polyvocal action felt like an invocation as well as an intervention that responded to the museum as an institution, the site on which it is built, the crisis of missing and murdered women, and the layered and violent colonial histories of Winnipeg and Canada. In the circulation of affects as discursive relations that happened in the context of this polyvocal action, I experienced what Zolf calls “ec-stasy” or shifting beside and beyond myself. It felt like a transmission of mad affects, a political and poetic contact zone, and a powerful actualization of a poetics of witness. It was a confirmation of the political and ethical stakes of Zolf’s approach to poetry and her ability to facilitate charged encounters that move her work powerfully from page to world.