Flow, Fissure, Mesh

Home » 2013

Yearly Archives: 2013

Ellen Foley, No Stupid Girl

In her disco-punk memoir The Importance of Music to Girls, Lavinia Greenlawfrequently dwells on a disconnect, an existential fracture that shapes and even constitutes her self-image; the book maps out her negotiations – some deliberate, some instinctive – among a conflicted mix of adolescent identities, of identifications, that seem to circulate around what it means to be a girl, to be called a girl, in the late 1970s and early 1980s. I’m not being tentative when I say seem to: the work of seeming, as both pretending and appearing, is at the crux of her methodical self-fashioning. The book consistently returns to a vocabulary of wanting, of want. Greenlaw depicts herself as a teenaged wannabe, trading costumes, styles and surfaces: always trying, always coming up a bit short. For instance, she articulates her admiration for “Tina,” role-model for nascent disco queens, by collating a wilting deference to peer-pressure with an ersatz Amazonian fierceness:

I was becoming a girl as instructed by girls but I knew I wasn’t a real girl, at least not of this kind. I wanted to be a disco girl like Tina whose every aspect conformed to some golden section of girldom: her height relative to her shape, her prettiness relative to her smartness, her niceness relative to her toughness. Tina offered certainties. She issued instructions on how to dance, who to like and what to wear. . . . Each morning, her face would be retuned – the brightness turned down, the colour turned up – and she would stride into school, her hips and breasts armoured, her hair a winged blonde helmet. I wanted this shell, which she used to attract or deflect at will. To me she was wise and ruthless, a goddess of war.
Those certainties soon become illusory, their surfaces shivered. Greenlaw’s leave-taking from disco (to take up another set of surfaces, another glamour, in punk) involves an accidental collision – a moment of casual violence – with her friend on the dance floor; as she waits for help with her cut face, she catches a glimpse of herself in a washroom mirror: “the face I saw was mine but this was not a reflection. It was too far away, more like some inner self that had slipped free and looked back at me now with my own fundamental sadness.” Mimesis is belied by its own bad promises. What’s fundamental for her, as a girl, what’s essential to who she wants to be, can never be more than pathos in lack: a likeness – “more like some inner self” – that sadly never can or will make herself whole.
         Lavinia Greenlaw’s about my age. My own leap wasn’t from disco but from some sort of sci-fi soft rock – I liked Styx a lot – to punk and after, but the dynamics were roughly the same as hers. Except, of course, for the girl part. I was enabled by the same dynamic as Greenlaw, and I understand her preoccupation with want and fracture, with that fundamental sadness, but I came at it as more of an insider, as a boy. I didn’t seem to need my own version of that armour, and I could choose to identify more directly, though still at some remove, with Joe Strummer or (like Greenlaw) Ian Curtis or with any other self-styled punk frontman.  I perceived the homoeroticism in Pete Townshend’s 1980 song “Rough Boys” as emblematic of a transgressive effeminacy in punk ‘s – particularly the Sex Pistols’ – preoccupation with image, although I am not sure how far I was ever able to follow through on its gender trouble.
Still, I was reminded of this version of the girl problem with the release in November of About Time, Ellen Foley’s first album in about thirty years. (I haven’t listened to the record well enough yet, but it sounds to me so far like the power, the tough richness of her voice has remained undiminished, and I’m so glad to be able to hear her belt out some raw, driving rock and roll again.) Ellen Foley’s return to recording recalls how important her first two albums were to teenaged me – Nightout (1979) and Spirit of St Louis (1981) – as well as her vocal presence on Sandanista! by The Clash (who are essentially her backing band on the second record, which was made while she was dating Mick Jones, billed in the liners as “my boyfriend”). She was the girl, as far as I could see and hear then. Her sound, her image and her sensibility yoked together a seemingly fey prettiness – what Greenlaw says she wanted simultaneously to embrace and to throw off – and a powerfully resilient, gutsy resistance to bullshit effeminacy. Despite appearances, she was nobody’s girl, nobody’s fool.
         There is plenty to say about what Ellen Foley’s music comes to embody, but I want to concentrate on her take on the iconography of the girl. She first made her presence known in pop music as the female interlocutrix on Meatloaf’s “Paradise by the Dashboard Light,” and she recorded duets with Ian Hunter (who had produced, and performed on, her debut album, Nightout) and others that extend her role as respondent, as the girl you serenaded but who could out-sing and even out-swagger you back. She performed a version of “We Gotta Get Out of Here” with Hunter on “Fridays,” ABC’s short-lived answer to Saturday Night Live, on May 5, 1980, a performance that suggests much about how Ellen Foley takes on a male-dominated stage.

She comes in half-way through the song – you can catch glimpses of her, back to the audience, waiting to pounce. Most importantly, for me, is her refusal to be subdued, even by Hunter’s obvious recalcitrance. (And it’s important to note that these are rock-and-roll theatrics: Ellen Foley has stressed in a number of interviews how grateful she was to Hunter and to Mick Ronson, and how happy she was with their musical relationship.) At the close of the song, she declares into the mike she’s going to have a dance contest with Hunter, and he turns to face her, but does nothing. Undaunted, she goes ahead and has a dance contest all by herself.
         She seems here in one sense to have donned the blonde armour, the make-up of girlish deference that Greenlaw describes around disco girls, but – strident in her flashy white pantsuit – she also becomes something more in this clip: unshaken, energized, assured. She owns the last minute of that song. This playful, ironic  doubling emerges most tangibly in one of the most memorable covers on Nightout (a song she still performs in concert), the Jagger-Richards penned “Stupid Girl”:
I’m not talking about the kind of clothes she wears 

Look at that stupid girl 

I’m not talking about the way she combs her hair 

Look at that stupid girl
You see the way she powders her nose 

Her vanity shows and it shows 

She’s the worst thing in this whole damn world 
Well, look at that stupid girl
The song first appeared on the Rolling Stones 1966 lp Aftermath, occasioned as both Keith Richards and Mick Jagger have separately admitted by their frustration with female fans and with their failed relationships. Prima facie, as the lyrics make obvious, it’s a misogynist rant. Girls are sick and stupid, Keith and Mick tell us, because they’re so shallow, so vain, because of their obsession with image. (Not at all like Mick and Keith. Not at all.) So why would Ellen Foley choose to sing this particular song? Because the thing is, if you listen to her version, backed by snarling guitars and thumping four-on-the-floor kick drums, you get no sense of anything but absolute commitment, of anything but digging in and digging deep. There is nothing vain, nothing insincere about Ellen Foley’s voice. It sounds completely like she means it.
But what exactly can she mean? Because, despite the venomous lyric, what we hear from her isn’t a woman calling others out, sniping at all the Tinas she can’t ever be. She’s singing the admixture of desire and loathing that the Stones song articulates, sure, but she’s also shoving it back in their faces, in their ears, our ears. I remember hearing this song as an adolescent listener, blasting it out of my stereo, and feeling that mixture of toughness and allure that few singers beyond Ellen Foley, in those transitional years, ever managed to catch. In a lip-synched video of “Stupid Girl” made for the Kenny Everett television show in1980, that catches a little of this pushback in its campy staging around body builders and beauty contestants.
When Ellen Foley sings into the beefcake armpit of some muscleman or into the plasticized coiffure of a pretty second runner up that “She purrs like a pussycat / Then she turns ’round and hisses back,” it’s not at all certain whose image – boy, girl or her own – is being confronted and undone. Rather than self-pity, the fundamental sadness that Greenlaw highlights, Ellen Foley offers her audience a means to uncover another certainty, a centredness that the unshakable timbre her voice enacts.
         Mick Jones wrote “Should I Stay or Should I Go” for Ellen Foley. As a provocation, it seems to offer a bitter critique of indecision, of a girlfriend unable to make up her mind and of a boyfriend in thrall to her waffling. I’m assuming the song comes at the end of their relationship, and the recording by The Clash does appear to offer a sort of vindicating, and maybe even vindictive, catharsis for Jones. The thrashing guitars and double time chorus enact a release, a letting go that the lyrics themselves never allow.

A 2007 audience video of Ellen Foley performing “Should I Stay or Should I Go” suggests that her vocal power remains undiminished, and goes a long way to reclaiming her agency, again by taking hold of the song and singing it back at the boy or boys who authored it. More than that, it points to the subtle ways in which the indecisiveness of the lyric comes not from the object of its attention – an interlocutrix who doesn’t really answer back within the framework of the song – but from its male persona, who stays bugged by his own irresolution, by the unsatisfied involution of his own desire. When he says that if he stays there will be trouble, but if he goes it will be double, he’s pointing – at least when we hear the song with Ellen Foley’s voice in mind, in our mind’s ear – to the essential conflict, the trouble, around heteronormative desire, around gender and identity, that Greenlaw’s memoir confronts, and into which it sometimes spins and stalls – the difficult importance of music to girls.  And for me, that importance, that insistence, sounds something like the intensity, like the depth and like the ruthless beauty of Ellen Foley’s voice.

Saving Anything of Value, on Carmine Starnino

The last lines of “Cornage” – the sixteen-part sequence of carefully-turned triple quatrains with which Carmine Starninocloses his 2000 collection Credo – frame the cultural work of a poem as an act of salvage, rag-picking language for splashes of unexpected colour (he has just rediscovered the resonances of the word “vermeil”):
                           Even this poem is one more example
of the usefulness in scavenging through
the day’s refuse, saving anything of value.
Starnino’s characteristic line, often an artfully balanced pentameter or (as if to register a little Gallic influence) hexameter, suggests at this point in the sequence a posture of measured resignation. The task he sets for himself isn’t so much to “purify the dialect of the tribe” (as T. S. Eliot once parsed and repurposed Mallarmé), although he might still aspire to breed lilacs out of a nearly dead land, a poetic labour that involves recovery more than rescue – to reanimate what he perceives, even in himself, as contemporary staleness with a mix of archival and ethnopoetic rummaging. The poet doesn’t so much conserve as curate, mindfully intervening in whatever lexical felicities cross his attention by unpacking etymologies and re-stitching phonemic meshes. (In part five, he lists the “[w]ords I’d like to get into a poem: eagle-stone, ezel, / cornage, buckram, scrynne, waes hail, sillyebubbe,” and proceeds to write poems that use most of them.) The idea is to “smuggle in / this fox-fire,” an audible and tangible vitality he feels missing from poetry. But the vatic intensity he craves is often either contained or held at bay in these poems by cautious and even anxious craft, a technical command I have to confess is also what I admire most in Starnino’s writing. He can be affronting – “gnarled turds” is quite a phrase – but it’s not shock that works best in these poems so much as their gently nuanced fabric of echoes and hums; notice above, for instance, how “usefulness” morphs and reduces into “refuse” or “scavenging” into “saving,” or how liquids and vowels from both words fuse in “value.” These words don’t so much flare up as entwine and accrete. I can call that meshwork anxious because I’m taking a cue from Starnino’s “Credo,” which remarks almost as an article of faith “the fear with which / a poem caskets away everything it wants to rescue.” Cultural and poetic rescue, as I said, seems closer here to recovery, a salvage rather than a saving. 
         What is it, then, that these poems do? What’s their function, their “usefulness,” in a contemporary cultural context, a Canadian context (if that’s not too much to demand of them)? Starnino already takes up the procedural challenge at the outset of “Cornage,” where he casts his ear back to a patriarchal medieval world to explain his reasons – as a poetics, in fact – for his choice of title:
Cornage was the duty of every tenant
To alert his distant master of approaching invaders.
I have thereby stationed this poem on a tout-hill, where,
In time of danger, it will blow a horn as warning.
He offers the recovered word as a moment of civic engagement, as cultural “duty”; more than that, the poem comes to act as a warning, as a ward – as portent, as monster (check the etymology, the Latin monstrum). But what exactly is the danger the poem confronts? A linguistic entropy? A verbal decrepitude? A lack of monumentality or durability, of poetic heft? I hear the problem Starnino wants to address, and I hear his trepidation. But I’m not sure how ultimately dire, even to a poet, this situation might be. And I am not sure that building a poetic casket out of that fear is the best way to go here.
         I’m looking back on these poems because I have been reading “An Interview with Carmine Starnino” from the most recent issue of CV2. Writing poetry, he says,
is a critical as well as creative act, and value judgements are part of any good poet’s skill-set. Just as a literary culture is the sum of all our actions, a good poem is the sum of ruthless decisions toward every word in a draft.

In the unflinching self-awareness of the poems in Credo, most of them written a good fifteen years ago, I hear prefigured this interlace of critical and poetic sensibilities. I admire an editorial ruthlessness in composition, evident in the deliberateness of Starnino’s formalism. But I have to say that I don’t accept his over-simplification of aesthetic value judgment, as if there were merely right and wrong, soft and hard choices to be made. (And frankly, I don’t think the best of his poems accept this over-simplification either; they’re much better than that.) Starnino sees a risk, even danger, in critical candour, and he defends his cohort of poet-critics – he mentions Michael Lista and Jason Guriel, among others – as deserving “our respectful attention,” which they do. But I’m not sure that candour – as opposed to acuity, perhaps – is what’s especially missing in recent poetry and recent reviews, Canadian or otherwise: the rigour of poetic attention has always been a sticking point for committed readers of poetry. The issue for me has to be not whether a poet pays attention, but defining the nature and practice of that attention, of that respect.  Saving “anything of value” needs to be made precise, carefully, and the diffuseness of that “anything” replaced with a materially substantive sense of what such value might be, and especially of what cultural and linguistic apparatus is producing that sense of value, of values. To this end, the poet’s task, it seems to me, doesn’t need to devolve into a parochial cosmopolitianism – ferreting out “the best” of what is thought and said in Canada and pushing it onto a fictional world stage – nor into a diffusely Canadian cultural nationalism, so much as to situate and to address, rigorously, the audible and tangible mediations between self and world that a poem – a good poem – wants to gather.

Occupations: Wadada Leo Smith’s Ten Freedom Summers

Wadada Leo Smith speaking to the audience in Guelph after the performance of Ten Freedom Summers 
The citation accompanying the announcement that Wadada Leo Smith’s Ten Freedom Summers was a finalist for the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Music stresses its monumentality: “An expansive jazz work that memorializes ten key moments in the history of civil rights in America, fusing composed and improvised passages into powerful, eloquent music.” He was also voted “Composer of the Year,” in Downbeat magazine’s critics’ poll, for this same work – as well as for his compositions for large ensemble, recordings with the Finnish orchestra TUMO issued as Occupy the World (TUM) earlier this summer. His comments on the Downbeat award, published in the August 2013 issue, stress more than history and canon, more than monument making, although Smith remains deeply conscious of his enmeshment in the continuum of African American musics. Smith points to community-building and change as key principles both in the historical self-awareness promoted by the AACM, through which his compositional and instrumental practices were first nurtured and supported, and in his own compositional practice, which stresses collaboration and mobility.
Those principles suggest, if not enact, a powerful cultural politics: a politics both invoked and put at issue in Ten Freedom Summers. His music, in many respects, offers aural analogues to grass-roots participatory democracy – mutual resonances that come together in practices of sounding and of sounding out.  As Franz A. Matzner’s liner notes for Occupy the World put it, “Smith has long inhabited the space where political and artistic movements converge.” Matthew Sumera’s notes for the Cuneiform 4-cd recording of Ten Freedom Summersargue that Smith’s work produces much more than programmatic musical echoes of real-world engagement: “[This] music was not simply about the Civil Rights and Black Power movements. It was part of them.” He quotes Wadada Leo Smith’s assertion that the performances of the suite invite a proactive and imaginatively engaged audience: “They poetically suggest what can be done. . . . None of these pieces [is] meant to simply be listened to.” Sumera pushes this claim further: “Rather, they are meant to be lived.” Extending the reach of Smith’s music beyond the aesthetic (as merely music) into the political (as music that makes a difference, that matters) isn’t liner-note hyperbole, but gestures at the core impetus of his improvisational and compositional practice, of his fusion – as the Pulitzer citation puts it – of these two seemingly incommensurate conceptual frameworks.
In an interview with Daniel Fischlin published as an appendix to an article by Fischlin in Critical Studies in Improvisation, Smith still calls what he does a “model” for political engagement, retaining the idea of an aesthetic analogue: “I strongly feel that the most beautiful model that we have of the practice of democracy is in fact expressed through the workings of a musical ensemble when it is improvising. That experience is a microcosm of those same democratic principles.” But I also hear echoes of Walter Benjamin’s call, in the last of his Theses on the Philosophy of History, for a refusal to aestheticize the political – to convert engagement into spectacle or artful mimesis – and, more importantly, for a creative practice that politicizes the aesthetic, that makes art matter. And it seems to me it’s worth testing, at least a little, how Smith’s work delivers on its claims, how it refuses the dilution of its vital human energies and seeks to reanimate a commitment to positive social and cultural change.
         I’m already sounding like I’m on board with the broader project, and I have to admit that I am. But it’s important, I feel, still to retain a certain level of skepticism in order to assess the critical potential of this nascent utopianism, addressing what I feel is a persistent need for colliding artistic and political ideals, but doing so in as open-eyed and keen-eared a manner as I can manage. This exact idealism certainly coloured my expectations when I bought a ticket for a scaled-down performance on Saturday September 7, 2013, at the River Run Centre in Guelph by Wadada Leo Smith’s Golden Quartet (without accompanying chamber ensemble) – which included Anthony Davis on piano, John Lindberg on bass and Anthony Brown on percussion. I was jazzed. This concert had the potential to be transcendent, epochal, monumental. The suite contains creative music – I had been listening at some length to the recording – of the highest order, and I really wanted it to deliver on its implicit promises of raised and altered consciousness – a promise that, in my earphones and on my stereo, I felt as if it had already abundantly kept, in fact. It sounds as if I was setting myself up for a disappointment, but that wasn’t the case. The quartet’s music was eloquent, deep, and uplifting. However, in performance, the often stringent demands of Smith’s conception and of the score itself also become a bit more tellingly evident. (A review of the performance by Alayne McGregor can be found here.) The Golden Quartet arranges itself in a semi-circle, with Smith stage left, rather than in the horns-to-the-front configuration of the typical post-bop ensemble. (Smith has often in his recordings worked with the spatiality of sound; on the ECM record Divine Love, for instance, he uses proximity and distance from the microphone to reshape the texture of multiple improvising trumpets.) While at first this spatial configuration might suggest a quasi-democratic leveling, in performance it makes Smith more visible to the other members of the quartet, leaving him able to direct the music more cleanly and organically.

During the Guelph concert, their eyes moved only from score – much of the music looks like it has been through-composed, though its sounds highly spontaneous – to Smith, closely attentive to the demands of structure and direction. In this particular instance, the rhythm section (all of whom are masterful composers, improvisers and bandleaders in their own right) appeared at times a little anxiously bound to the page, which gave the music at a very few points a brittleness, a slight strain that was out of keeping with the committed attack that the composition demands: it needs the instrumentalists to be on, fully inhabiting any given sound moment. While the musicians clearly share in the responsibility for carrying the larger design forward, Smith is still in charge; at several points in the Guelph set, when the collective energy seemed to lag, he strode to centre stage, pumping his right arm as if to impel the rhythm more vigorously forward. He frequently cued the quartet as to which of the nineteen movements they were playing next; rather than establishing a running order ahead of time, it appeared as if he were allowing the dictates of the moment to establish where the music would go next.
The larger design was always there, marked by definitively firm fragments of melody; I recognized (from my earlier listening to the recording) the In a Silent Way-like line from the second part of “America” (section 15) and the loping dirge of “September 11th, 2001” (section 16). (According to the review I’ve linked above, they didn’t play “America,” but I’m sure I heard it.) Jesse Gilbert’s video projections (of photographs of various civil rights activists, for example, marking several evocative moments in the suite) are also meant to suggest certain diegetic moments, when the music speaks its politics definitively. In the May 3, 2013, edition of The New York Times, Ben Ratliff reviewed the first of three nights of a complete performance of Ten Freedom Summers at Roulette in Manhattan, remarking on its simultaneously resonant and frustrating narrative aspirations:
This piece has stories to tell, or rather to refer to. It’s not meant to suggest a narrative but a series of images, evoked mostly through sound. It’s never obvious or literal, which is both very good and sometimes problematic.
A little of that frustration appeared to me to find its way into the urgency of Smith’s efforts to conduct the ensemble on stage in Guelph, visibly driving the music toward making it communicate, making it speak.
In the interview with Daniel Fischlin, Smith suggests that this tension is deliberate, and that speech – as democratically motivated debate and discussion – comes more as an after-effect of the listening experience, rather than as any expressive content of the music itself:
But the quartet still enacted a key aspect around the idea of productive debate, of musical performance as a thinking-through of the politics of voice and voicing. Smith still retained something like mastery over the set. His horn tone, for example, was magisterial, brassy, Armstrong-like, with a southern rawness to it: his own sound guided the ensemble fairly firmly. At the same time, Smith’s compositions aspire to what he calls multiple-dominance, a negotiation for aural space within the shifting dynamics of an ensemble:
I’m not sure I saw – although I may still have heard – a great deal of this sort of collaborative compromising during that set in Guelph; instead, it felt as if Smith were urging the other players toward a more definitive and confident co-participation in the music, but that the urgency and commitment still originated with him, with his instrumental voice.
In a very real sense, Smith wants the other performers in his groups to occupy his compositions. The liner notes for Occupy the World take an epigraph from Henry David Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience that speaks to a link between aesthetics and politics, a link that Mr Smith has pursued musically, improvisationally, for more than four decades: “Is a democracy, such as we know it, the last improvement possible in government? Is it not possible to take a step further towards recognizing and organizing the rights of man?” The aesthetic dimension might not leap at first glance out of these lines, but if you look again closely at what Thoreau says, it does begin to locates itself in the crossover between a phenomenology of recognition and the craft of organization: how, we could ask, does Smith’s music activate and intensify participatory attention as it organizes and re-organizes itself?  The coincidence and dehiscence of individuated lines, the fluid rhythmic geometries of his conception, the resonant potentialities of diversely intersecting timbres are all for him avenues, in performance, for occupying music. There are, he has said, two crucial aspects to his “concept for composing,” which he calls (in the liner notes for Occupy the World) rhythmic and polylinear:
Firstly, my composition are non-metric designs in regards to their rhythmic and sonic construction. The horizontal flow of the rhythms and sonic elements of a composition [is] achieved through a proportional structuring of the music’s geometric forms that, in performance, is realized by the shape f the music’s properties and not by its metric count. [. . .] [Secondly,] when I compose, I do not change the tonality of the instruments being used. . . . I do not believe in reducing the sonic field to a singular tonal spectrum, where one could have a multiple sonic spectrum hat shares the same musical grid without losing the large world of possibilities inherent in the sound universe.
The sometimes clashing sometimes consonant textures of the given timbre and tonality of instruments enacts a dynamics of argument, of compromise and self-assertion that, for Smith, has the potential to achieve what he calls a “higher level of realization,” as both performers and listeners, audience members. I am not sure if this realization happened during the hour or so I witnessed The Golden Quartet perform Ten Freedom Summers: Smith has set the bar very high for his collaborators. The music, taken on its own terms, was wonderful, powerful, moving: playing of a very high order that I was privileged to hear live. In the Downbeat piece, Smith admits that his project remains necessarily utopian, a figuration of human potential. He evokes the Occupy movement in New York, and globally, as a vitally nascent politics in which his music, he hopes, might participate:
“That was a great re-imagining of the possibilities of our society and possibility for radical change of our society,” Smith said. “It has not achieved it as such, but nevertheless, the idea is still there and not going away.”

And that persistence suggests something of the feeling of monumentality, of significance, that Smith’s music evokes: its moment.

Half Sonnet for Nelson Mandela

I have been putting up the odd poem in this blog, self-publishing what feel to me like more public pieces, and maybe worth getting out there quickly enough, after they’re done. There’s an element of the improvisational in these ones, for me, because they’re pretty immediate, not heavily revised. So here is what I have done in memory of Nelson Mandela, who not only called for racial justice, for human dignity and respect, but lived that call. I was listening to Eddie Daniels interviewed last night on As It Happens on CBC Radio about his friendship with Nelson Mandela: powerful stories of Mr Mandela’s humility and the politics of care.

Half Sonnet for Nelson Mandela
Fact is,
Nelson Mandela died today.
Half a cold world away,
the pared-down moon
hangs like a tin cup,
like an upturned palm
low in the ecliptic.
He said: own up,
atone. Moonlight
pushes it blue fingers
through the chain-link back fence.
Fact is, he said,
it falls to us
to put this world aright.
5 December 2013

David McGimpsey and Daniel Zomparelli at Play Chthonics (Audio)

I am keen to introduce the poets: photo by Ryan Fitzpatrick
Daniel Zomparelli and David McGimpsey read at Green College yesterday, as the third pairing in this year’s series of Play Chthonics: New Canadian Readings at the University of British Columbia. Here is an audio capture of the reading, which includes their responses to questions after the reading. Daniel read new work from his iPad, including a poem about Kimmy Gibbler that he had written that day, dedicated, he said, to David McGimpsey. McGimpsey read from his recent collections: Li’l Bastard (2012), which he describes as a sequence of “chubby sonnets,“ and Sitcom (2007), some of which he noted involved re-casting text from Timon of Athens. Both poets engaged in their own versions of what I think is a kind of pop-culture code-switching, coaxing and inverting lyric from pulverized mass media language and image flows. Zomparelli read a pair of poetic synopses of gay porn films. His poems and McGimpsey’s play with the ways in which, as viewers, we’re alienated from experience by screen or headset and, as participants, we’re thoroughly immersed in and seduced by the variegated and empty textures of spectacle, of hubbub: “That Taylor Swift song is not about you,” McGimpsey writes in sonnet 11, “David McGimpsey likes – then unlikes – this.” The reflexive play, the give and take of mass culture that interpellates us (making us feel as if a song were about you, were calling you) even as it refuses us any shared humanity, informs McGimpsey’s poetics, and lends them something of a pathos of misrecognition: “I tried / to recall lyrics to a pop song once loved.” An “I” – like a dropped syllable – feels as if it’s missing from that last line, which is already metrically slightly ungainly, one syllable over its normal count: a spectre of subjectivity, of a self that wants to call itself into existence amid the tangle and meshes of discourse swirling from phones and pads and pods; but trying is not recalling, and recalling is not reanimating. Words, for both of these poets, seem to act as placeholders, markers of wanting, of what – remaindered and unrealized – might still despite everything get to be called human love.

Sincere thanks to Green College for their ongoing and generous support of this reading series, and to the Improvisation, Community and Social Practice research initiative for helping to sustain the series this year. Copyright for this work remains with the artists.

Steve Lacy’s Tips: Scott Thomson and Collaborators at Guelph (2011)

A unit of tactile measure: the foot, the arm, the thumb. [from Le Jour et la Nuit: Cahiers de Georges Braque (1917-1952)]
When I took up this blog in earnest – well, more in earnest than I had before – in 2011, one of the pieces I meant to write but didn’t manage to get down on paper was my reaction to a workshop-performance of Steve Lacy’s suite Tips by a trio called The Open (Scott Thomson, trombone; Susanna Hood, voice/dance; and Kyle Brenders, soprano saxophone), augmented by dancer Alanna Kraaijeveld, at the Guelph Jazz Festival in September that year. The trio is a sub-configuration of The Rent, Thomson’s excellent quintet dedicated to performing Steve Lacy’s music, one of a number of significant repertory bands – including Ideal Bread and The Whammies – to have emerged after Lacy’s death. (Lacy’s collaborator, trombonist Roswell Rudd, who has also been Thomson’s teacher and mentor, has written a promotional blurb for The Rent’s 2010 recording praising their many virtues: “The Rent has done the world a solid favor by rendering a bouquet of Steve Lacy’s compositions with precision, imagination and love. Thanks so much.”) Gratitude is also something I feel when I remember, even now, the powerfully moving reading of Tips the quartet gave that September afternoon in the foyer of the Macdonald Stewart Art Centre at the University of Guelph. It was one of the highlights of the festival, and continues to be, to my mind, one of the most artistically engaged and engaging moments I have experienced as an audience member, as a listener.
         In the autobiographical essay he wrote for Daniel Kernohan’s anthology Music is Rapid Transportation(2010), Thomson describes a shift in approach and attitude he underwent as he began performing demanding improvisational music like Lacy’s:
 [B]efore I started playing music, while I certainly listened deeply, passionately and, indeed,  differentlythan most people I knew, I listened as an ostensible outsider and as a kind of passive consumer. […] Since I started playing, however, the tangible experience of playing collaboratively (improvisation, composition, or both, it doesn’t matter) has taught me how to listen as a participant in the music making process whether performing or not, a change that has been profoundly rewarding. Fundamentally, it’s the difference between listening to and listening with.
The shift in prepositions is significant, because it speaks to a practice of listening as active engagement; Thomson is careful to note that this practice isn’t limited to musicians, but that in his case collaborative musical performance is how he felt enabled to begin to produce a bridging of intersubjective detachments through co-creative experience, through some kind of shared aesthesis. It’s a sharing that appears to consist, as well, both in and through not identification but mutual difference – as opposed, perhaps, to mutual indifference.
What I think I found truly uplifting about their version of Tips was that it seemed as if I had shared in a bit of that bridgework; as an audience member, I felt as if I were somehow taking part in the unfolding, present tense of sound and movement in front of me. The “open” in the trio’s name suggests an openness – in approach, in conception and in realization. Both despite and through their virtuosity, their “precision” as Rudd puts it, these performers offer each other and their listeners genuine, tangible openings onto a temporal and spatial immediacy, onto the textures of what happens, of happening itself. (A video of the workshop performance, with question-and-answer session about their work, can be viewed here, on the Improvisation, Community and Social Practice website. If you look carefully, you can even catch me, on the left hand side, asking a question.) It may be a bit hard to sense or to glimpse this collaborative vitality in the video recording that was made that afternoon: we’re held at something of a remove by lens and electronic screen, by the interface. The presence that informs a palpably successful live performance is sometimes hard to catch second-hand. For me, there was something powerfully affecting in the mesh of the instrumental lines, of Susanna Hood’s voice and of Alanna Kraaijeveld’s kiltering, edgy movements that drew me in and that held me, for a while. I wish I could explain it better. (“In art,” writes Georges Braque in his diaries, the source for all the aphorisms and tips in Lacy’s brief suite, “only one thing counts: that which cannot be explained.”) Lacy’s music can sometimes seem a bit detached, a bit incisively formal, but when this quartet took up Tips that day they uncovered in its firmly unresolved tone-rows and intervals, in its fricative melodic eddies and currents, a fleeting means to touch the all-too-human fabric of our uneasy time. “Emotion,” writes Braque, “cannot grow nor be imitated; it represents the seed, the work of art represents the bud.” A pathos.

Ngugi wa Thiong’o: Memoir as Self-Translation (Lecture Notes)

(On Wednesday, 6 November 2013, I gave the second lecture that week on Ngugi’s memoir, Dreams in a Time of War, for my first-year class at the University of British Columbia, English 111, which is an introduction to prose non-fiction, focused this year on the theme of “dislocations.” I have been developing what I want to think of as an “improvisational pedagogy,” which aims to foster as sense of engagement by trying to stage an on-your-toes critical thinking around texts, and their interpretation: the idea is to go into class well prepared, but to try and let the lecture unfold in situ, allowing the structure to emerge as you speak. When this kind of teaching works, the results (from my perspective) are really significant, and what I hope happens, right there in the classroom, is a more vital and compelling dialogue around the course material. However, this kind of improvising can also be a bit risky, in as much as it can also potentially fall apart on you. After my first lecture on Ngugi, I felt that I hadn’t brought the material together as fully as I had hoped, so I decided to script the second lecture more completely, which I did the night before, not to work at the last minute but still to preserve a few vestiges of that critical immediacy, if possible. The last paragraph of the script, along these lines, isn’t really a coherent paragraph, but consists of a set of claims about Ngugi’s memoir that I could then elaborate at that moment, which I did. Here is the script for that lecture, which I think turned out pretty well; this was intended as introduction to reading Ngugi for first-year students, not as particularly original criticism – work for which others are probably much better qualified than I am. But it does attempt to map out my own engagements with Ngugi’s texts, to model a potential critical practice for these students.)

Over this past summer, I read In the House of the Interpreter, a second recent volume of memoir by Ngugi wa Thiong’o, published in November 2012. That reading prompted me to put the first volume of Ngugi’s memoirs, Dreams in a Time of War (2010), on the syllabus for this course. As in the earlier text, Ngugi offers a first-hand account of growing up in late colonial Kenya centred on his time as a student, in the latter volume his experience at Alliance, the first high school in the region aimed specifically at educating Africans – apparently modeled on Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. The New York Times “Sunday Book Review” (from February 8, 2013) praises Ngugi’s second memoir for  “eloquently telegraph[ing] the complicated experience of being simultaneously oppressed and enlightened at the hands of a colonial regime.” The double-bind of an imperialist cultural pedagogy, empowering the colonized by inculcating in them a reflexive deference to the literature and values of the colonizers, is a pervasive theme of both memoirs. The earlier volume also maps Ngugi’s peripatetic early experiences at several schools, from the fostering of Gikuyu language and identity at Kamandura elementary to the often violent suppression of native culture at the “new” Manguo school. In Decolonizing the Mind, Ngugi has recounted the punishments he and his classmates received at this latter school for speaking their own languages, or for not speaking English, and he replays that infamous scene for us in Dreams in a Time of War:
In the new Manguo school, English was still emphasized as the key to modernity, but, whereas in the Karing’a Manguo English and Gikuyu coexisted, now Gikuyu was frowned upon. The witch hunt for those speaking African languages in the compound began, the consequence rising to bodily punishment in some cases. A teacher would give a piece of metal to the first student he caught speaking an African language. The culprit would pass it to the next person who repeated the infraction. This would go on the whole day, and whoever was the last to have the metal in his possession would be beaten. Sometimes the metal was inscribed with demeaning words or phrases like “Call me stupid.” I saw teachers draw blood from students. Despite this we were proud of our English proficiency and eager to practice the new language outside the school compound. (177)
It’s important for Ngugi to recognize that the key moment in the colonization of selves and minds happens in and through linguistic violence, epitomized in the sharp-edged scrawl on that metallic shard. Ngugi traces his largely innocent and even “eager” complicity – and the complicity of his classmates – in the British colonial machine (and who, after all, wants to be beaten, or wants to be labeled stupid?), but his aim is often more diagnostic than imputing. He tries to describe and to understand how this fractious doubling of self and place emerges as a cultural symptom of colonization, and he wants to lay the groundwork for evolving a set of tactics and practices with which he can negotiate with that complicity, if not somehow manage to throw it off.
         The title page of his 2006 novel Wizard of the Crowbears a one-line epigraph: “A translation from Gīkūyū by the author.” Ngugi has been practicing self-translation from Gikuyu into English since the late 1970s. There is a deeply political commitment in self-translation that emerges when we know something of Ngugi’s biography, which I am reproducing from his own website; in 1977,
Kenya’s ruling dictatorship appears to have made a number of attempts to assassinate Ngugi in the decades following his release, and his work was often suppressed in Kenya; he has written and taught in exile, principally in the United States, to the present day. While in prison, he made a statement about his writing practices that has gained wide notoriety, remarking on what he felt was a necessary turn in his work toward indigeneity and autochthony, a reconnection to a genetic sense of place:
Dreams in a Time of War begins with Ngugi’s nostalgic imaginative return to the familial – in fact, largely maternal – “oral universe of story-telling,” shared around a fire (29). Going to school, and gaining a education for which he yearns palpably, also fractures that intimate connection to home, to place: “And then I went to school, a colonial school, and this harmony was broken. The language of my education was no longer the language of my culture” (Decolonising the Mind). English, and soon English literature, produced a seductively modern scission from the vitality of the oral, from its magic:
English became the measure of intelligence and ability in the arts, the sciences, and all the other branches of learning. English became the main determinant of a child’s progress up the ladder of formal education.
Literary education was now determined by the dominant language while also reinforcing that dominance. Orature (oral literature) in Kenyan languages stopped. In primary school I now read simplified Dickens and Stevenson alongside Rider Haggard . . . .
Thus language and literature were taking us further and further from ourselves to other selves, from our world to other worlds. (taken from Decolonising the Mind)
Understanding Ngugi’s complex relationship to those “other worlds,” to globalization, is crucial to beginning to evolve a reading of his memoir that remains responsive and alert to the negotiations he undertakes with decolonization. It’s not a question, after all, of simply returning to Gikuyu; in many ways, Ngugi simply can’t go back, at least not unproblematically. His writing operates self-consciously from a position of exile, of geographic otherness. On the second page of Dreams in a Time of War, for example, he frames his hunger – as a child of poverty, he couldn’t afford lunch at school – analogically, thinking his life echoes a famous scene from Oliver Twist (“Please, sir, can I have some more?”), which, he says, he had read in an “abridged version” at school: “I identified with that question; only for me it was often directed at my mother, my sole benefactor, who always gave me more whenever she could” (4). The literature of forced displacement is also the literature of analogic return to the maternal hearth, to earthy genetics. The book opens, in fact, with a reflection on reading (“years later”) the opening line of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, but Ngugi hears not only an arbitrary mimicry of the name of a colonial Kenyan governor, Sir Charles Eliot, but also the impossible echoes of a day in April 1954 in his hometown of Limuru, when his elder brother Good Wallace, a Mau Mau partisan, escapes police custody. Highbrow, canonical Anglo-American literature is reappropriated by Ngugi’s personal Gikuyu imaginary, and converted into raw material for popular local story. In his Wellek Library lectures published in 2012 as Globalectics: Theory and the Politics of Knowing, Ngugi describes this re-appropriation of canon (itself framed by a reference to an exiled maverick of African-American literature, the novelist James Baldwin) as a necessary step for re-entering the debate – the dialectics, as he suggests (compare Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, Marji’s comic book “Dialectic Materialism”) – that not only surrounds but actually informs the decolonizing self, a self not so much translated as continuously translating, negotiating its own terms:
This post-colonial catholicity – a kind of troubled but widely various universalism, perhaps a “humanism of the other” as one philosopher (Emmanuel Levinas) suggestively puts it – manifests itself in Dreams in a Time of War as young Ngugi’s enthusiasm for the poetic magic of words, both Gikuyu and English; “one day,” he writes, “I am able to read on my own the Gikuyu primer we used in class”:
I can hear the music. The choice and arrangement of the words, the cadence, I can’t pick any one thing that makes it so beautiful and long-lived in my memory. I realized that even written words can carry the music I loved in stories [. . .] (64-65)
Gikuyu transcribed in Latin-European orthography promises a return to that enlivening maternal hearth, but that return is only enabled by the acquisition of a literacy proffered by colonial culture. Biblical passages – re-purposed chunks of Christian liturgy – are also almost as resonant for him: “I committed . . . whole passages to memory. They were poetic. They were music” (69). Ngugi seems to unpack an Afrologicalcadence, a rhythmic sense, even from Western European literatures; they sing in his ear, in a manner that recalls Karen Blixen’s seduction by the landscape and culture of Kenya in the early pages of Out of Africa: “When you have caught the rhythm of Africa, you find that it is the same in all her music” (24). But for Ngugi, the point isn’t to parody the kind of cultural safari in which Blixen engages, trying to catch a vitality from that world that promises her some “magnificent enlargement of all [her] world” (25). The enlargement entailed by colonial modernity certainly catches up young Ngugi in its whelming sweep, but the cadences he uncovers in his languages, in translation, wants to reverse that flow, to push back at it, and to open other spaces.
         More often than not, that oral creativity finds itself beaten down or overwritten by imperialist literacies; space for articulating shared connections to place, to ground oneself, is not always made within the written, but is instead undone by it, as in the case of the double-sale of Ngugi’s father’s land. (See page 19.) The Gikuyu, by Ngugi’s account, are forced to re-appropriate resources, to squat, to inhabit their own spaces simultaneously as outsiders and native and to make subversive use of the scraps and shards of economic modernization, of globalization. Consider Ngugi’s description of how he and his brother constructed their own skewed version of a wheelbarrow, which they then market back to those in power – metonymically, the landlord’s children. (See pages 52-55.) His description of his circumcision (pages 196-203) counterpoints cultural inscription on the body – a Gikuyu ritual of initiation into the community of manhood – with the modern work of education, of self-writing. How are bodies tied to place, and how are they sites of displacement, of translation, of debate? Conflicting accounts of the Lari massacre (pages 180-81) seem aptly to frame, for Ngugi, the ironies – which he’ll later start to spin into dialectics, generative conflicts – of colonial discourse. And finally, Mzee Ngandi’s recounting of Jomo Kenyatta’s 1952 courtroom speech offers us, through the added filter of Ngugi’s memory, an instance of the creative misprisions and re-appropriations of story-telling, as the oral and the written collide and reshape one another. (See page 187 on.) This section concludes by giving the memoir its title, and suggesting something of the expansive power not simply of myth but of myth-making that Ngugi wants to take on in his own creative writing (195).

Without Lou Reed Around

Here’s a short tribute piece, an elegy that came together quickly earlier this week – a small offering from a listener, in memory of.
Without Lou Reed Around
Without Lou Reed around
         the real world starts to feel
under rehearsed.
Without Lou Reed around
you’re going to get away
with less.
Without Lou Reed around
you’ll find out how much noise
those one-chord wonder boys won’t throw your way.
Without Lou Reed around to set you straight
you’ll wish you’d paid
a lot better heed the first time.
Without Lou Reed around
bootworn floorboards ought not
to rumble like the trashed cones of blown subwoofers.
Without Lou Reed around
any silk-screened bananas
on leftover album covers will likely turn brown.
Without Lou Reed around
dog collars and lampblack lipstick
become a hard look to pull off.
Without Lou Reed around you’ll never know
whatever else it was you once
needed to know.


Short Conditional Take on Anne Carson

If I attended “An Hour with Anne Carson,” at the Vancouver Writers Festival yesterday.
If Aislinn Hunter introduced her, using the unlikely but nifty words “betweenity” (purloined from the Brontës’ letters, she said) and “blacksmithery” (source unclear).
If Aislinn Hunter spoke of Anne Carson’s writing’s “fierceness, a fearlessness framed in exquisite craft.”
If Anne Carson then said she had never had an introduction that used the words “betweenity” and “blacksmithery.”
If her miked voice had what seemed to me to be intensity in restraint.
If Anne Carson said she was glad to be back in Canada if only to get a proper bran muffin.
If she then read an essay written in a kitchen in Ontario in winter.
If it was called “Merry Christmas from Hegel,” and if it was, post Nox, a meditation on stillness.
If she admitted, perhaps untruthfully perhaps not, to not understanding Hegel.
If she said she will paraphrase Hegel badly.
If the essay described, with what seemed to me to be aching restraint, what she called “snow-standing” amid the stillness of conifers.
If the text only mentioned Hegel briefly.
If she wrote something like, “The world subtracts itself in layers.”
If she also described that subtraction as something like, “shadow on shadow in precise velocities,” which might be an image of Hegelian negation.
If she said afterward that she wouldn’t be able to answer any questions about Hegel.
If people applauded because it was a beautiful essay and her reading was very beautiful.
         If she then read an essay on a painting by Betty Goodwin.
If the essay was called “Betty Goodwin Seated Figure with Red Angle,” and if it was written for an issue of Art Forum.
If the right title is “Seated Figure with Red Angle (1988) by Betty Goodwin (by Anne Carson).”
If Anne Carson said, “The form is kind of whacked out.”
If by form she meant her essay not the painting.
If she also said that she wanted to find a form or a syntax that suited her own inability to have an opinion about Betty Goodwin’s painting.
If she never said, Ut pictura poesis.
If the form she chose was to write the whole thing in conditionals, seventy-three of them she said, including mention of horses and Freud, each of the seventy-three beginning with the word “if.”
If the idea was to open up to the sentence “the space in your mind that is prior to opinion.”
If I heard in her sense of “opinion” what Plato calls pistis, “belief,” a subordinate form of doxa, “opinion,” but she did not say this, and I may be both pretentious and wrong.
If she said her conditional essay “was fun to do but will be intolerable to listen to.”
If no one believed her when she said this.
If it wasn’t intolerable, not at all.
If she wrote, “If body is always deep, but deepest at its surface.”
If this made me think.
If she also wrote, “If artists tell you art is before thought.”
If by that she meant Betty Goodwin specifically, but I also took it to mean herself.
If everyone applauded again because she was wryly brilliant and provocative.
If she went on to read from Autobiography of Red and red doc>.
If there was more heartfelt applause.
If she took a bow.
If people asked her questions.
If she took another bow.
If she autographed my book, “Respectfully, AC.”
If I could thank her.

Short Take on Paul Muldoon Talking, a Précis

Paul Muldoon was interviewed by John Freeman on stage at the Waterfront Theatre at the Vancouver International Writers Festival this afternoon, and he’ll be reading as one of eight poets at the Poetry Bash tonight at Performance Works on Granville Island. He was asked right off the bat to talk about his collaboration with Warren Zevon, which resulted in a song, “My Ride’s Here,” the title track on Zevon’s last record (and was then covered for a posthumous tribute album by none other than Bruce Springsteen). Mr Muldoon said he “kind of went to school with Warren Zevon,” noting “just how difficult it is to write a song” to make it sound so effortless, and praising Zevon’s genius. He found himself, in composing his lyrics, trying to locate a raw, emotional “angle of entry” into a song. Asked to differentiate between poetry and song, he said:  “I suppose at some level the pressure per square inch in that [Muldoon’s lyric, ‘You Say You’re Just Hanging Out . . .’] isn’t quite what it could be in one of the poems.” At the same time, he said how he wants to realize his own desire for directness and clarity, which lyrics can so better “at some level.” He said he was still “struck by Seamus Heaney’s (I think) successful attempts to pick up Yeats’s suggestion that ‘Myself I must remake,'” and also declared that “poems are more evidently (not necessarily more truly) made out of the core of one’s being.” He described the impact of BBC radio on his desire for clarity and “the need to be direct.” At John Freeman’s request, he read “Wind and Tree” from his first collection: “In the way that most of the wind / Happens where there are trees, / Most of the world is centred / About ourselves.” He read from Madoc, noting as well that he was a “big fan of our friend Laurence Sterne” and how he had also derived a “fascination with lists” from Robinson Crusoe, Defoe’s interest in “stuff.” He said he encouraged his students to develop “a sense of the resonances of every word in a poem,” the specificity of language. He read his song-lyric, “Elephant Anthem,” and noted how he used to pore over lyrics printed on lp sleeves.