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Monthly Archives: February 2013

Live Short Take on Jen Currin and Ken Babstock

Last night, I attended a poetry reading by Jen Currin and Ken Babstock, part of the Play Chthonics series here at Green College, U. B. C. As an experiment in listening, in refocusing a divided attention, or maybe in overwriting distraction, I thought I would try blogging live, drafting a post as a transcript and as a reaction. I find I have trouble hanging on to the lines of poems at readings; there is no rewind, no pause, and if things seem to resonate and to hang in my ear for a moment or two, the succession of coming lines overwrites and pushes them out of my immediate memory. I tried to write the odd line down as the reading happened, tapping it onto the virtual keyboard of my smartphone blogging app. I hope I didn’t distract from the experience of those around me. Some people find the technologies of social media inherently abrasive, rude. And maybe they’re not wrong. Those technologies are at least distracting, and distracted. It was a great reading; both poets offered up innovative, paced, striking poems. There was too much to catch. But I tried to hang on to bits as they flowed passed:

Jen Currin is reading poems chosen by chance from her books. This: “Night arrived in the form of a candle.” This, not given at a reading before: “Dogs on film and no one wants to hold her hand in exile.” And this, from somewhere in her Hagiography: “To make it sane I planted poppies.” New pieces: “Photo Booth” (“You’re a descriptive kind of girl”); “The Oceans” (“I feel your seaweed body bending my way”); “Taking an Intuition Class” (“We understand a little, just a little of us”); “The Emergencies” (“We must listen”); Our Face on the Cover”; “Fear is Not a Body Part.” “The Art of the Spiritual Headache” ends with a gesture at freedom, freeing. Applause.

Ken Babstock is trying sitting rather than standing: harder to breathe, but less jittery. The necro lyric or the zombie lyric: writing continuing to write lyric beyond its end. “Are songs litter?” Reading like Jen some things that he doesn’t normally. Randomized choices? An elegy for Vic Chesnutt, “I Think I Will Go to Bakersfield”: “What can I say? I’m done.” “Hoping Your Machine Can Handle the Big Image”: a response to Karen Solie’s “Tractor”. Ken says solipsism gets a bad rap. Rep? Rap. Now a sequence of sonnets, procedural constraints, hybrids, holes. Not wholes. Nostalgically treating Cold War surveillance. Low frequencies.

During the question session, Jen discusses her interest in Elizabeth Bishop, and talks about a project for which she uses the words of Bishop’s poems as a source vocabulary to make new poems, rearrangements. Ken is asked about the connections between his new sonnets and John Berryman’s Dream Songs.

There was more. You can hear it on the recording. But I wanted to listen rather than transcribe so I stopped. Interesting how little clings to such a transcription, though my impression was that the act of copying did intensify the memory of the words, of lines. But much fell away, as well. 

If you look closely, you can see my smartphone open and lit up on my lap. (Photo by Karen Correia Da Silva)


Jayne Cortez passed away—went flying home—on December 28, 2012, so this small tribute comes a month or two late, but I did want to record publically my sincere admiration for and indebtedness to her poetry and her performances. There was a proper obit in The New York Times, and there have been many warm tributes, including one from critic Howard Mandel.

Karl Coulthard introducing Jayne Cortez
at the University of Guelph, September 2011
I met Jayne Cortez only once, and only recently, when she gave a keynote talk about her own work at the 2011 Guelph International Jazz Festival. She presented selected recordings she had made over the past 30 years with her band The Firespitters (whose revolving personnel often included her son, percussionist Denardo Coleman, as well as members of Ornette Coleman’s electric ensembles), and her comments focused on elaborating the chiasmic chant from the title piece of her recent Best of CD: “Find your own voice, and use it. / Use your own voice, and find it.” This sounds like advice for new performers – and it is certainly that – but the aspirational panacea of self-discovery these crossed lines offer is only part of their intention.
I have to admit that I am well trained to be suspicious of the expressive, and for better or for worse I incline toward an arch poetic technique that finds its touchstone in Martin Heidegger’s maxim, Die Sprache spricht: language speaks itself. Wimsatt and Beardsley’s affective and intentional fallacies are difficult beasts for me to shake. It can be perilous for a non-African-American like me to associate the expressive with racially marked text, and to implicitly divide it off from canonical, oblique, academically-mediated and difficult Poetry with a capital P; black identity, down that slippery slope, gathers in the emotive and the embodied, while technical linguistic prowess remains the provenance of a white cultural dominant – a racial bifurcation with which I’m not just uncomfortable but which also belies what most poetry, for me, wants to accomplish, to speak. I think George Lewis’s conceptof the Afrological – which he links principally to musical practices – is useful  to invoke here, in as much as it aims to foster dialogue (“Gittin’ to Know Y’All”) without necessarily enabling cultural or racial appropriation.
            My memory of Jayne Cortez isn’t so much her talk as of a conversation we had the next day, by chance. We were both staying at the same hotel in Guelph, and ended up riding in the same Red Car van to the Lester B. Pearson Airport in Toronto, to catch our flights home. The trip takes nearly an hour. Ms. Cortez remembered me being at her talk the previous day, and asked politely after my own poetry, which I’d read at the colloquium. We talked about emerging writers, and about her husband Melvin Edward’s sculptures, and I remember she praised William Parker’s generosity and musical vision. But most of all, what I recall is her tone and spirit; she talked with you, not to you. She, too, seemed generous and open; she smiled almost the whole time we talked. I admire her greatly that she would so happily and freely engage with somebody she’d just met and hardly knew. It was like she genuinely wanted to know about you and your inclinations, and to share hers. Respectful exchange, a crossing.
            One of my favourite pieces on her compilation CD is a duet with baritone saxophonist James Carter, an improvised blues (called “I Got the Blues,” recorded in 1994) involving, as her notes put it, “verbal call and response between the poet’s voice and the baritone saxophone sound.” Neither she nor Carter is hesitant or diffident; they know their voices. Cortez doesn’t offer any sort of phonemic sound-poetry, but sticks to the declarative, what she does best: an edgy, passionate, and fierce lyricism. Still, the piece is as much interchange as exchange; they listen and speak to – with – each other, and it is the alternately assertive and yielding textures of that conversation, as much as its content, that come to matter. Cortez says that writing a poem is a matter of getting your mouth on the paper, of expression finding its way over a page. But I think that the reverse might also be true: to find a way to sound out off the page, to make those marks speak—mouth to paper, paper to mouth. Jayne Cortez’s work, for me, offers a model of committed self-expression, a finding.

Short Take on Tim Daisy & Ken Vandermark

Found a copy last week of Light on the Wall, a double LP by Tim Daisy (percussion) and Ken Vandermark (reeds), recorded as a duo and both solo in Poland in May 2008, and issued on Laurence Family Records. The sound, both live and in the studio, is excellent. You can really hear Daisy’s distinctively open sense of space in the live duo set; Vandermark offers a set of solo “Etudes for Jimmy Giuffre,” but to me their duos not so much build on Giuffre’s chamber-ish conceptions, as recall duos by another Jimmy, Jimmy Lyons, with Andrew Cyrille–not that there is anything derivative in this music, but rather that both are thoroughly cognizant of their position in an emergent sense of a building tradition of forward-thinking sonic experimentation, the extemporaneous edge where the performing present takes up its audible pasts: a historicity of the avant-garde, coming on. That, and it’s a great record.

Dead Paper

In an essay revised for the second edition of her Nomadic Subjects, Rosi Braidotti takes up the fraught question of men in feminism, somewhat ironically I’d say, by building on Michel Foucault’s concretizing of the conceptual, the “materiality of ideas”:
One cannot make an abstraction of the network of truth and power formations that govern the practice of one’s enunciation; ideas are sharp-edged discursive events that cannot be analyzed simply in terms of their propositional content. (264)
What this means, for Braidotti, is that
heterosexual men are lacking intellectually […] a reflection on their position in history. The politics of location is just not part of their genealogical legacy. They have not inherited a world of oppression and exclusion based on their sexed corporal being; they do not have the lived experience of oppression because of their sex. Thus most of them fail to grasp the specificity of feminism in terms of its articulation of theory and practice, of thought and life. (265)
The politics of sex and sexualities, for Braidotti, needs to account for the materiality of ideas, and to address and even to enact not merely propositional or conceptual empathies, but the interactive negotiation of differences, or better, of pluralities; her Deleuzian nomadism, sieved through Luce Irigaray, wants to work through an amalgam, an admixture, an assemblage of intellectual deference and embodied resistance to his “becoming-woman”:
For Irigaray, as for Deleuze, the subject is not a substance, but rather a process of negotiation between material and semiotic conditions that affect one’s embodied, situated self. In this perspective, subjectivity names the process that consists in stringing together—under the fictional unity of a grammatical I—different forms of active and reactive interaction with a resistance to these conditions. The subject is a process, made of constant shifts and negotiations between different levels of power and desire, constantly switching between willful choice and unconscious drives. (274)
This blend of situated excisions and unraveling sutures characterizes Braidotti’s repurposing of Deleuze, but what I’m hearing here also resonates with my current reading of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” for my Arts One class. I have to confess that I bristle – just as she appears to predict I might – at Braidotti’s foreclosed feminism, at my preemptive and summary exclusion from feminist critique by virtue of a generalized bifurcation of human sexual anatomy into a male-female antinomy, a division which, despite her philosophical pluralism, Braidotti still maintains. But I don’t want to appear to be a resentful, if privileged reader, grumpy about some area of gendered experience that he can’t finally appropriate or even access. And I do think Bradotti has a point: that sexual politics must emerge from materially succinct, and distinct, lived subject positions, to which we have incomplete access at best. (I am concerned, still, about the seemingly unimpeachable gender solidarity, however, that she continues to claim.) 
Rather than resentment, I want to suggest that this incompleteness, this dis-closure (as opposed to foreclosure) might be more productively understood as an unnamable and inassimilable source-point, a singularity, around which surges of differential and even creative energy might be said to accrete.  As a man in feminism, or at least in its sights, what I want is to think toward those gendered exclusions, those singularities, not to appropriate any vital differences – what makes other lives others – but to participate, even if only tangentially, in what Gilman characterizes as an economy of difference, what she calls (in the story and in her tract) work:
Those who object to women’s working . . . should remember that human labor is an exercise of faculty, without which we should cease to be human; that to do and to make not only gives deep pleasure, but is indispensible to healthy growth. Few girls today fail to manifest some signs of this desire for individual expression. (Women and Economics 157)
Labor – which she distinguishes from the “morbid, defective, irregular, diseased” and pathological work of human motherhood, the reduction of women to reproductive and domestic vessels (181) – is for Gilman essentially expressive, inasmuch as it entails an instrumental – that is to say, a poietic – and even causal relationship between what Braidotti calls “theory and practice” or between the propositional and the active. Gilman’s critique is as site-specifically and as historically gendered as Braidotti wants feminist work to be, but it also generalizes itself and its “lived experiences” in contradistinction to Braidotti’s exclusions, to introduce women’s experience into an aggregate of the human, to produce a still fraught but nonetheless accessible, differential humanism. The exclusion of women from the purview of the human is for Gilman something to be overcome – in the act of writing, no less – rather than a set of exclusions to be materially reversed and re-instantiated by a reactive, if just, politics:
What we do modifies us more than what is done to us. The freedom of expression has been more restricted in women than the freedom of impression, if that be possible. Something of the world she has lived in she has seen from her barred windows. (Women and Economics 66)
The determinisms of oppression need to be overcome, but it is in the eruptive and disturbing – and decidedly material – acts of resistance, including a resistance on and through paper, as much as the utopian teleology of a better, just and “modified” world, that Gilman values: the work, the lived and living process, of pushing back and of tearing down and of breaking through.

(public-domain image of Charlotte Perkins Gilman from the Library of Congress on-line collection)

The bars in the passage I’ve just cited echo the bars on the windows in the abandoned, “atrocious” nursery that Gilman’s unnamed narrator inhabits in the rural house her husband has rented out (apparently to enable a rest-cure for his wife’s incipient hysteria) and to which she is provisionally confined, a space that sharply inverts Virginia Woolf’s “room of one’s own,” in which the patriarchal benevolence of her husband (and other “doctors”) effectively bans expressive work of all kinds, especially writing: “There comes John, and I must put this away,— he hates to have me write a word” (13).  Even the narrator doubts her own expressive capacities, scare-quoting her first mention of “work” both to trivialize her own labor and to accede to her husband’s will that she deliberately distance herself from the unruly action, especially writing.
That she remains existentially trapped in a nursery speaks to Gilman’s critique of married motherhood and of the limitations it imposes on women’s capacities for self-expression. (The narrator has had a child, but she defers its care to “Mary,” admitting that she cannot be with her infant son because it makes her “so nervous” [14].) She is infantilized by her husband – “’Bless her little heart!’” – and effectively mastered by his “care.” He presents himself as the intimate physician of her psyche, but also doubts the reality of her feminine pathology:
John is a physician, and perhaps—(I would not say it to a living soul of course, but this is dead paper and a great relief to my mind)— perhaps this is one reason I do not get well faster.
You see he does not believe I am sick! (9-10)
Her tentativeness to assume the defiant agency of a speaker, to even suggest that her husband’s wishes might be detrimental to her health – and not, perhaps, only “one reason” but in fact the reason she cannot get better – is ameliorated by the confessional dead-space of the page, its inaccessibility to him both as secret diary and as empirically “dead” paper. Gilman juxtaposes the propositional and the lived, the representational, abjected deadness of words on paper and the lived realities of the narrator’s oppression outside the bounds of the page: a juxtaposition crucial to Braidotti’s materialism. This bifurcation is sutured in the tale – cinched, perhaps, without necessarily being healed or remediated – in two ways.
First, in the impossible horizon of the present tense, as the narrator’s descriptive account verges on speech act: “I am sitting by the window now, up in this atrocious nursery, and there is nothing to hinder my writing as much as I please, save lack of strength” (13). These moments of reflexivity suggest that the act of handwriting, as an assemblage of corporeal effort (or “strength”) and propositional or thematic matter (whatever our narrator is describing or writing about) are drawn increasingly closer together. Her clipped style, with its journalistically brief paragraphs, affirms this aspiration to immediacy, to assemble action and description into the same written, subjectively-permeable moment. The penultimate page comes closest to this impossible presentism, when the narrator seems to be recording events in her journal as they happen around her, effectively making them happen (again?) on the page as her account unfolds:
                        Why there’s John at the door!
                        It is no use, young man, you can’t open it!
                        How he does call and pound!
                        Now he’s crying for an axe.
     It would be a shame to break down that beautiful door! 
This torrent of clipped paragraphs is meant to represent an hysteric break, but what it accomplishes in fact,  on the page, is expressive plenitude, an enlivenment. The potentially violent breach of that nursery door, behind which she has deliberately locked herself in an effort – a labor – to  exclude, and to exclude herself from, patriarchal mastery, is avoided by her admission to John of where to find the key, but it’s worth noting that her deference involves an immediate shift into the past tense:
            “John dear!” said I in the gentlest voice, “the key is down by the front steps, under a plantain leaf!” (36)
The expressive collision of word and event lapses into narrative distance, objectified and written down in retrospect, as soon as her husband’s access to her closed psyche is (however contingently, however much “perhaps”) is re-enabled.
             But the question of when and where – after the fact – the narrator continues to transcribe her experiences remains troubling here. The monstrous creeping she describes – creeping over her husband prostrate form, after he has fainted in his own moment of appropriated hysteria – does not entail a muted or inexpressible femininity, but is given voice through her:
“I’ve got out at last,” said I, “in spite of you and Jane. And I’ve pulled off most of the paper, so you can’t put me back!” (36)
She tears down the suppressive yellow wallpaper, behind which she has been imagining – perceiving – the trapped spectral figures of creeping women, but her account of this culmination of her self-assertion is recounted from a transcendental point-of-view, outside of the narrative time-frame. That paper, too, is the second image of subjective suturing that I want to take up. The narrator has become pathologically fixated on the “unclean,” torn, irregular, repellent, yellowed wallpaper leftover on the nursery walls. She scans it for “patterns,” in an effort to read and interpret it, to master what it says; it reduplicates a species of domestic panopticism, even – “those absurd, unblinking eyes are everywhere” on its surfaces (16).  The narrator links the wallpaper, at least overtly, not to oppression but to expression: “I never saw so much expression in an inanimate thing before, and we all know how much expression they have!” (16). The wallpaper, that is, becomes a metonymy for the “dead paper” – to which it is tied contiguously in the tale as a writing surface – onto which the narrator pours out her life, animating the inanimate page over which our own eyes pore. Still, that paper is suppressive, as the shadows of the window-bars play across its surfaces. Visual layers emerge as the narrator tries to make sense of what she sees, the elusive arrhythmic “pattern”: “If only that top pattern could be gotten off from the under one! I mean to try it, little by little” (31). Held under the surface, the submerged “pattern” is an irregularity, the repeated figure of a creeping woman, who starts to push at the paper’s outer membrane – trying to emerge from the amniotic wall – as she “takes hold of the bars and shakes them hard” (30). Writing as écriture féminine – in secret, excluded behind closed doors, in an atrocious rented room – both stitches a subjectivity onto the dead page, a monstrous graft, but also tears at those sutures, pushes viscerally through the page to touch the material quick of the reader’s living world. This is the marvelous horror of Gilman’s tale, its vital creepiness: that it tears at its own pages the way our narrator tears through that paper.
Cited Things
Braidotti, Rosi. Nomadic Subjects: Embodiment and Sexual Difference in
          Contemporary Feminist Theory. 2ndedition. New York: Columbia
UP, 2011. Print.
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. The Yellow Wallpaper. Old Westbury, NY: 
          The Feminist P, 1973. Print.
– – -. Women and Economics: The Economic Factor Between Men and
         Women as a Factor in Social Evolution. 1898.  Ed. Carl Degler. 
         New York: Harper, 1966. Print.