On the Thursday of the AWP Conference in Portland, OR, I skipped the long line for badges and made my way through the throngs of people chatting, milling purposefully, and sitting and sipping decent coffee along the corridor floors of the Oregon Convention Center to a panel titled “Vietnam is a Seven-Letter Word.” I was familiar with some of the writers presenting but not all of them, and I was intrigued by the description, which noted that “women of the Vietnamese diaspora [would] offer insight into how writers may elasticize and complicate definitions of one’s various assigned ‘identities’ and lend voice to the silenced, obscured, or overlooked.”
Jeanette Armstrong’s poem collection Breath Tracks(1991) sews the sinew and muscle of the writing hand to the lips and lungs of the speaking mouth. The title of the book gestures toward the entanglement of writing and speaking in the body: tracks, the trace of language upon the page that is left by movements of the hand, and breath, that which comes before, during, and after the act of vocalization — a trace of the body in itself. In its positioning of these enmeshed mechanisms, Breath Tracks is a book about the mouth on the page or, to borrow the words that Armstrong imparts to Kim Anderson, these poems articulate “how sound and body gesture to create an art form.”
[In announcing the publication of my latest book of poems from Black Widow Press, I thought the following postface might be of interest in what I say about the book’s title and the concerns that inform the book as a whole. Further information, for those who seek it, can be found at the Black Widow website, but for now I would hope to make the context of the work, including a number of procedural and aleatory poems, as clear as possible.
Because this is the last installment in this commentary series, I allowed myself to exceed the word limit to which I held myself in earlier posts. I have shed light on stations in the Arabic prose poem project. Although the imagined thread I’ve been tracing doesn’t end here, this is where I will stop tracing it for now. Poets of earlier phases were more aware of themselves as writing against the grain of Arabic poetry in general and the earlier Arabic modernists in particular. The poets of the later phases do not have to make the same effort to breaking away.
Anna Strong Safford and I are editing a book, to be published by the University of Pennsylvania Press in 2020, in which we present fifty poets writing 1,000 words each in response to fifty poems. Fred Wah on Creeley’s “I Know a Man.” Rachel Blau DuPlessis on H.D's “Sea Rose.” Tyrone Williams on Baraka’s “Incident.” And also Mónica de la Torre on Erica Baum’s “Déjà vu.” Reproduced above is Baum’s piece (from “Card Catalogues”).