Surrealist Doodle

Surrealist Doodle
This was used as the cover of Karawane in 2006 and I have included it in on a number of bags and postcards over the years. Someone on the subway asked me if it was a Miro. I was very flattered!

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The Liberation of the Imagination: From “Feminine Writing” to Revolutionary Poetry

In the introduction to Feminist Critique of Language, editor Deborah Cameron cites a quote by Shoshona Feldman on language that particularly resonates with me and my work on poetry, language and liberation.

Shoshona Feldman (1975)

“The challenge facing women today is nothing less than to reinvent language . . . to speak not only against but outside the structure . . . to establish a discourse the status of which would no longer be defined by the phallacy of male meaning.” (In Feminist Critique of Language, ed. Deborah Cameron, p. 8)

Cameron elaborates further upon Feldman’s idea, discussing briefly the work of French Feminists such as Luce Irigaray and Helene Cixous and a search for a “feminine writing” and “women’s language.” (By the way, I highly recomment Cixous. I have not delved much into Irigaray, but to me her work seems very much grounded in some rather complicated Freudian and psychoanalytic theory. Cixous is lively and quite readable.) Cameron also raises the other side of the debate, citing Elaine Showalter’s position that the issue for women is not so much a male-based “prisonhouse of language” (props to Jameson) but the very fact of access and entitlement for women to speak. The issue is not the inadequacy of language, or as Judith Butler would point to, the way in which language performs, enacts, speaks into being our condition (from the moment the declaration is made “It’s a girl” Butler tells us, a whole universe of implications is set in motion.). Others reject an essentialist strain that says that women need different language than men to express their lives, their realities, their psyches, their thoughts, etc.

To me the core issue here is that all marginalized, disempowered people, need access to a language of imagination. Not a replacement language per se, but a paralanguage, a language that works, functions on a completely different level than the ordinary, the quotidian, the banal, the mundane, and (consequently) the hegemonic uses of language. The language as it is now practiced, even if it is not inherently structured to protect and maintain power, it has certainly been subverted to that use, propagated in contemporary life, by the constant onslaught of mainstream media—advertising, news, the normative values promoted by almost all television programming and many movies (look at the glorification of the police not only through shows like Cops, but through shows like CSI that glamorize police work, or the nuclear-family centered values of most sitcoms, etc.). In insidious ways we are constantly being told what to believe, what to buy, how to act, how to be moral, how to be patriotic, how to look a certain way, how to fit in and belong in American society, etc. etc. How is one to rethink the world, remake the world, the government, the neighborhood, the culture, the communities we come from and live in, our own very daily existence, among the onslaught of images that perpetuate someone else’s vision and serve up to us only the world as we already (think) we know it?

Resistance is possible through the remaking of language, of finding new, creative, imaginative linguistic practices to sustain us, to help us move toward our visions, to help us have visions we never even thought possible. I am talking here about a language that speaks outside of the dominant discourse, whether racialized, patriarchal, class-based, etc., an un-discourses or non-discourse, a paradiscourse, that brings with it the chance to step outside, run alongside, that does not attempt to use the tools of power that already exist, but to forge new tools that could create new structures, new edifices not previously imagined. The techne, the tool, in many ways proscribes what can be built. We know that with new technology new ways of thinking emerge. So why would we not want new mental and imaginative linguistic tools of our own? As Sol Lewitt says, rational thoughts repeat rational thoughts. The way we think perpetuates itself, we continue to think only in the ways we’ve always thought. I’m not looking then for a feminine language per se, except insofar as it might offer a resistive language, a paralanguage that we can frolic in and search for something unknown, a Dada language a non-sense that leads to sense a zaum a de-formed formalism that will birth new forms.


It has to be said, lest it sound like I am proscribing something equally restrictive and repressive . . . I am not arguing against any type of poetry per se. I do not want to create a monolith of styles, themes, as restrictive as a Marxist insistence on social realism. I do oppose the stilted reification that much slam work has fallen into. But I also do honor and acknowledge the word of identity formation, community building, and progressive values that many forms of poetry can participate in. But I want to ask, then what? NOW what? Where do we go? After at least a century of searching actively for a revolutionary function of poetry, (why) have we given up? (why) have we abandoned the incomplete experiments of the past? Where and how can poetry function uniquely, in other words, what are the unique functions of poetry, as a revolutionary practice?

In the term avant garde, where avant garde falls into elitism, is in its very accepted (if perhaps unofficial, naturalized) definition that the avant garde is ahead of, “anticipates” and in many ways, is therefore, more advanced and “better” than mainstream art, culture, society. And art, culture, and society need only to “catch up” Then of course, in the catching up, the mainstream has then co-opted the avant garde, misusing for commerce or entertainment, for style, failing to recognize the true substance, the original intent (as contemporary Surrealists are famously wont to lament).

I prefer instead to think of the avant garde as the “first wave,” the ground work of consciousness, preparing the field. The change of consciousness, overused and virtually emptied of meaning as that idea may have become, is what necessarily must predate genuine social change. It is not up to poets (or even activists, politicians or “leaders”) to proscribe where that change needs to go, but to empower the imaginations around us to imagine something new, to dream our way out of the current world, which works only for a very few people.

Education is the watchword and it has a very important role to play, but as an instrument of “instruction” and propaganda, it is subject to the same pitfalls that all other forms of discourse and communication fall pretty to. Religious missionaries often (almost always) accompanied or came fast upon the heels of conquerors to ensure that hears and spirits were converted while trying to enforce a new culture and a new rule upon the conquered. Poets must see themselves as missionaries of the imagination, not as propagandists.

To restructure language is to restructure thought, to restructure possibilities. To scramble, if not permanently, which is impractical and will not lead to the world we want, but temporarily, the world as we (think) we know it, the language that binds us to the now, to put new ideas, new juxtapositions into play, new planets into orbit. This is the revolutionary work of the poet.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Patricia Smith reading in Minneapolis - April, 2008

Hey all. These are my notes, ramblings, reportage and observations from a reading by Patricia Smith here in Minneapolis. I had some fantasy that I would shape this into a narrative, but shaping things into narratives just isn't my forte these days. I need to be a free spirit, I need to be wild. I want to be free . . . the butterflies are free . . . And I have two papers and 40-minute lecture to write. So um, yeah, here's my rambling notes. As always, please post your own comments, reportage, and observations . . .


Patricia Smith Reading – April 8, 2008
Plymouth Congregational Church
Sponsored by the Literary Witness Program at the Church

The place is packed. Why are all of these people here? What drew them to this event? How does such a "traditional" reading structure draw in this many people, including a number of people I've never seen at any other reading event in town, as well as some of the usual suspects. The audience is skewing a bit older than a slam, lots of people in their 50s-70s. But a few young people and literary types are here. At first the audience seems to skew more white than African-American but eventually that balances out a bit more.

She calls herself a reporter and poet. An interesting combination of course, based on an idea of poetry as observation. Again, this is not a blurring of roles that I always care for or think serves the cause of poetry – which is to say, the potential of poetry, the uniqueness of it. But I like her and she has a good energy and I'm rolling with it.

Patricia says that she starts all readings with the same poem as a way of rooting the reading.

I can already in the early part of the reading see and hear some aspects of slam in her reading style, but not in the usual formulaic way. The rhythm is appropriate to the lines rather than bending the work to fit a certain style.

Moreover, I can hear the roots of "testifying" in the work.

It's still very storytelling/narrative in style, progressive politics in the themes – personal and political.

"Can you teach me to remember my mama?"
Child "asks me for the words to build her mother again."
Teacher says first time she "admitted her mama died."

Some nice poetic turns of phrase in some of the work.
"full of breast music and finger songs"
"cursing the trees for their teeth"

She introduces her "persona poems" which she says are written from "bad movies"

Medusa – from "Clash of the Titans" in which Smith says that Medusa "hooked up with the wrong guy" while her body is going through the change into Medusa.
The performance of Medusa is very breathy with use of anxiety and silence at the end.

Smith says "I'm very aware of being in a pulpit" where she is reading form and says that she feels anxiety over the Medusa poem and the parallel to defiling Athena's temple.

"The Blood Sonnets"

How to be a lecherous old black man . . .

Invocation of the Blues

Lots of humor in her performance – playing to the crowd. Again, I can see in that the slam ethos, the entertainment aspect of the performance. Not bad per se and she handles it well and it doesn't feel like pandering the way it can in slams.

She does some Katrina poems that are part of the book coming out from Coffee House Press. She tells the story of reading these poems at a conference at Palm Beach, which was obviously not a good experience. She explains "never enter a poetry reading with a Bentley parked outside."

The Katrina piece she reads is in numbered sections that function like snapshots, partial pictures, a mosaic of images and emotion. The images are very powerful, I think (of course, since this is my aesthetic anyway, but nonetheless, I like to be proven right) they more powerful in their partialness, in the flash, snapshot, than if this were a coherent narrative. The performance itself is no different really or necessarily greater than in the other pieces she's done so far. But this is the one that makes my own urge to poetry start to come out, that loosens the logjam of images that can get stuck in my head.

One section is blank/silence, but still has personas, first person, the partiality, the interrupted narrative . . . perhaps a story so overwhelming that the person/a still doesn't quite know how to tell it, how to sort it out and make sense of it, only to give an image a though a moment here and there, to convey without being able to explain. If this were a visual piece, it would be collage, a Hannah Hoch piece, a Mina Loy . . . I want to cut a picture for each section and glue it together to make a new face, body, map, geography from it.

"They left us to our god but our god was mesmerized elsewhere."

34 pieces – a fragment now, it could be the title of a poem, but I believe it's the number of segments in the Katrina poem. A segment poem – all collages.

There is prescription, of course, even though I have my preferences. To write a prescription would be to reify, as dead and stiff as the slam form as become as social realism, but to keep in mind what poetry is inherently and uniquely.

Even as a narrative, there is a tear here, a rip. It does not give you the whole picture, leaves something for you to fill in. How do poems like this fit my thesis?
I have to think about it.


"Emily whispered her gusts into 1000 skins."

Variations of the poems themselves

A litany like Kerouac of names on hurricane list

The numbered poems, collages, narratives

Soldier poem – collection of images. Could not be put into paragraphs. To do so would be a prose poem, but never a short story.

There is a notable lack of the usual I/me in the poems. Even when it's personal or clearly about her in some way, she does not move herself into the central subject position.

"Musical" poem for John Coltrane
Again, here I can see the speed/energy that would set the tone for slam aesthetic, although it shows more variation than the genre currently allows for.

She is not the most famous poet in the country. The truth is, I don't actually know how famous she is or is not outside of slam. I never know how "ordinary" people know certain poets. So I know her from slam, but I don't know how or where others know her from. But this church is half full, possibly as crowded as a Sunday service on a warm morning, maybe more attended than vespers? Certainly gives the lie to the nobody cares about poetry angle. It seems with the Literary Witness Program that this audience is as geared to the progressive/social justice angle, which goes along with my belief that we need to get the hell out of the bookstores and the literary ghetto that is the poetry reading and get to wider audiences where they live, where they congregate. This, as I know from my own work, doesn't mean that one still can't do experimental or avant garde work for these audiences. It just means that the mountain has to come to Mohammed. Smith has brought out a combination of work. Some is more "experimental" than others. Some of it, like parts of the Katrina poem or the jazz poem, might be considered experimental to an audience that only knows a certain type of poetry, but maybe not to someone like me or someone from the "literary community" if such a think can even be said to exist with a straight face. None of the work is out of the reach of the audience. But then again, I don't believe that experimental work is out of their reach. They're just taught not to understand it.

Smith's work does run a gamut of styles and voices and approaches and I respect and appreciate that.

And she has a great fantastic and generous energy and style.

The evening ends with a standing ovation.

In the Q&A Patricia jumps right into taking about her early involvement with the slams. She explains that when you're writing in that environment you're not really writing for yourself. The poetry is more "recreational" and she saw the slam then as "recreational poetics." It took a while for her to read a poem that felt like "her" poem. If even in the early days of slam it was hard to find your voice, how much more difficult could it be today, in these days of the reified slam voice and style, in this Def Poetry Jam era?

She speaks of a mistake in drawing lines between genres. There is always a story to tell, whether it's in a poem, a play, a short story. As opposed to my work which is a swirl of images, intended to elicit a feeling, Smith talks about writing poems "about" things.

Her commitment to the live aspect inherent in poetry is evident when she says it's not so much about reading as much poetry as you can, but to listen to as much as you can. There's something that happens "when the poem hits the open air." Open mics are very important to her, in particular non-poets and people who come to open mics to tell their stories. The poem is always meant to be heard "not just stuck on paper." The audience was likewise interested in the issue of orality in poetry. She traces her own interest in writing to her dad's stories and the way he used language.

She talks about shattering kids' pre-conceived notions about what poetry is. "I never knew what poetry could be." She told a story about poetry commandos, busting into classrooms and reading.

At the same time, she also talked about the importance of self-publishing and chapbooks as from the community she came from. She says that she ultimately got published because she was visible.

Patricia's persona poems, she says, allow her to explore other people's realities, to get into other people's business. Poets start out with themselves and then go out into the world and come back to themselves. Of course, this can also be the justification for a lot of bad, self-indulgent navel-gazing poetry. But that poetry fails to transcend the self, to get out of the poets' self. Smith's Katrina poem, for example, clearly transcends her and gets into other people's realities while anchoring/grounding the piece to herself, showing her ability to relate to someone outside of herself without having to make it about her. Few poets these days can do this.

I think of Kristeva and the narrative vs. the text. In narrative the patient's first elaboration/reconstruction of history comes in the form of narrative and the meaning within narrative forms such as the novel express the subject's positioning within the family structure, the first formation of identity. The "matrix of enunciation" in narrative is focused on "I" or "author" replicating paternal/patriarchal role in the family, although the I is changeable and able to take on any possible role inside or outside of the family relations. This mode, in which most poets work today, is not and cannot be revolutionary, but is rather a part of how we come to form ourselves and our identities and link to one another.