|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.
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.
(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,
Ngugi’s controversial play [see source for full text] . . . Sharply critical of the inequalities and injustices of Kenyan society, publicly identified with unequivocally championing the cause of ordinary Kenyans, and committed to communicating with them in the languages of their daily lives, Ngugi was arrested and imprisoned without charge . . . It was at Kamiti Maximum Prison that Ngugi made the decision to abandon English as his primary language of creative writing and committed himself to writing in Gikuyu, his mother tongue. . . .
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:
In writing one should hear all the whisperings, all the shouting, all the crying, all the loving and all the hating of the many voices in the past, and those voices will never speak to a writer in a foreign language.
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:
James Baldwin talked of how he stopped hating Shakespeare the moment he was able to appropriate Shakespeare from the straitjackets of English imperial nationalism and place him in a more catholic space. (8)
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).
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
Without Lou Reed around
you’re going to get away
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