Nomad life

Desperate Literature International Bookshop, Madrid, Spain.

Marcus Slease’s new book Play Yr Kardz Right (Dostoyevsky Wannabe, 2017) collects poems written in the last several years, almost all of them featuring an unusual technique: pronunciation spelling. The particular variety he employs is called “eye dialect,” because it is meant to appeal to the eye rather than the ear. You can’t detect it from simply listening to the poems, for example at Slease’s book launch reading in Madrid last September.

Slease’s approach foregrounds linguistic heterography or the lack of correspondence between the written symbols of the language (in this case in English) and its spoken sounds. The feature is felt especially acutely by children and adult learners — two kinds of experience that introduce hints of anxiety to what is an otherwise joyful and funny volume. The opening poem “Mareed to the Mob” recalls the period when Slease’s parents, having recently converted to Mormonism, moved the family from England to Las Vegas:

All day in injun summur

I watch sin sitteez

there r 3 sin sitteez

1 uv corse Paris

& anuthur Berlin

& 3 Shanghai

xpansive & sumtymz

xpensive xpatrots

kaim fur sex

to all the sin siteez

bear brested laydeez

all the wrage

I kaim to sin sittee

in the 80z

it wuz kalled Vaygas

we went to the strip

but not fur sex

I wuz ownlee 11

they kalled my mutter

sistar Slease

my mutter sed

it wuz like leasing

uh hous & add-ding an s

(s+lease equalz Slease)

leif iz not uh lease

not uh leesh

peeplul kaim

to sin sitteez

fur freedom

how to be free at 11

I cud not undurstand

the ways uv the wurld

we did not play

the slots in sin sittee

we sed thee & thou

we got rid of wee

we wuz far from home planet

in new manlee meat sittee

it wuz all meat

if u 8 the manlee hamburger

u got it fur free

the meat wuz bloodee

like uh bode

my bode iz uh tempul

go insyde

& give it uh skrub

sin sitteez wen

will I be free

I tuck my innur fricshun

in my belly

& go alone

into the desert

to lift the rocks

& play with lizardz

Other poems describe Slease’s subsequent teenage years in the United States and his attempts to assimilate into the American society. Learning to write “well” — and speak “right” — was only the beginning of the process, which in any case he ultimately abandoned. As he explains to Laura Wetherington:

I worked hard to become American. I wanted to become more American. I practiced moving my mouth in the mirror like an American until the sounds came out right. It took about three years. Age 11.5 to maybe 14.5. But I was never fully American (whatever that means). In rule 13, from his “Belief & Technique For Modern Prose,” Kerouac says to ‘remove literary, grammatical and syntactical inhibition.’ So there’s that. The desire to work through inhibitions in both form and content.

While most of the poems in the volume refer to Slease’s later years, the pronunciation spelling is maintained almost continuously. The strategy creates a more than unusual tension — call it “lack of correspondence” — between speech and writing. It also produces a curious split in the speaker/poet, as he navigates between two incompatible stages of life: childhood and adulthood. In this respect Play Yr Kardz Right calls attention to the importance of movement and change to Slease’s poetry. It offers a particularly vivid example of transposition, in this case English to English translation or even self-translation, since he originally published some of the poems using standard spelling.

Slease has always drawn inspiration from works of art, literature, and music. His influences, by his own admission, include “Buddhist philosophy, surrealism (both hard and soft), shamanism, collage art, noise music, Leonora Carrington, Richard Brautigan, Ivor Cutler, Chika Sagawa, James Tate, Guy Maddin, David Lynch, and various other fabulists, absurdists, surrealists and satirists.” His choice of pronunciation spelling for Play Yr Kardz Right also has an acknowledged precursor, bill bisset’s Stardust (1975). As Slease says in another poem, “Too Loud Uh Soleetud” (borrowing the title from a novel by Bohumil Hrabal), “my life iz in buks.”

But Slease is equally inspired by places; as he says in the same poem, “my life iz / an endluss train.” Travel, combined with extended stays in various cities around the globe, is a source of renewal for him as a person and poet. Born in Portadown, Northern Ireland, Slease moved to Milton Keynes, England at the age of six and then, as I mentioned earlier, to the United States, where he spent his teenage years, not only in Nevada, but in Utah, Washington, and North Carolina. In 2005 he left the United States, apparently for good, to live in Seoul, South Korea, then in Katowice, Poland and Ankara, Turkey. He also spent a couple of years in London and, since last year, he has been living in Madrid, Spain. During these sojourns he has supported himself, not surprisingly, by teaching English as a foreign language.

Slease’s poems travel with him as he travels, each location providing its own kind of inspiration, but also demanding an adjustment of speech, writing, and style. His previous collection Rides (Blart Books) documents subway commutes in London and around the United Kingdom. His mu (Dream) so (Window), published by Poor Claudia, is a sequence of impressionistic and confessional transcriptions based on a notebook he kept while living in Seoul. Drawing on his experiences in the Polish region of Silesia, his collection Godzenie (BlazeVox) is part travelogue, part an exercise in cultural immersion, part a book about “how to live with disciplined joy in the continual alienation that is urban life,” as Gabriel Gudding aptly puts it. These and several other books — often published with micro presses though Slease occasionally appears in “big” magazines like Poetry and Tin House — contain lovely, exquisite, uninhibited poems. They are conceived, as Slease says, as “a collage of reading loves and what is happening in the moment mixed with memories.”

Slease refuses the comforts of rootedness, stability, permanence. In doing so, he represents what the philosopher Rose Braidotti identifies as the model of nomadic subjectivity “in flux, never opposed to a dominant hierarchy yet intrinsically other, always in the process of becoming, and perpetually engaged in dynamic power relations both creative and restrictive.” For many years now this “world alien,” as he jokingly calls himself in the interview with Wetherington, has been writing poems that celebrate flexible identity and mobile imagination. Equally introspective and retrospective, Play Yr Kardz Right beautifully illustrates his nomadic poetics.