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Daniela Gioseffi–In Search of a Poetry Community: On Being a Women Writer with an Italian Name in American Literature

April 24th, 2015 margento No comments

 

(Photo Credit: TKMultimedia.com)

 

 

 

 

 

Forging into the mainstream of American poetry with the Italian name “Daniela Gioseffi” was not an easy thing to do in the 1960′s. It was a bit like a Tarantella dancer trying to perform a classical ballet, but that fact hardly occurred to me—naïve and blithe spirit that I was then! My Italian-born father’s deeply passionate nature, his ability to empathize with other’s sorrow, joy, and longing—even when they were characters in poetic dramas and romantic novels—much inspired my writing. His histrionic sensibility was not in the stereotypic style of “all-American” culture. Perhaps, as an immigrant daughter, I felt I was among the misfits whose family manner or mode of expression was misunderstood in those literary circles dominated by T.S. Eliot recitations and modes of understated white Anglo Saxon angst.

Richard C. Robertiello and Diana Hoguet in their 1986 analytical text on the subject, The WASP Mystique[1], demonstrate that Latino-, Italian-, African-, and Jewish-American styles of communicating—modes with passionate displays, talk with gesticulation, animated body-language, folksy warmth and informality—were misunderstood by the “all-American” style of social behavior. Robertiello and Hoguet conclude that this emotional restraint has caused much neurosis in ethnic peoples, and sometimes in white Anglo-Saxon Protestants themselves. These polite inhibitions seemed to dominate literary styles, and particularly during my college years, they made any display of passion in poetry seem unacceptable.

At the same time, it seemed there was a kind of “passion envy” afoot in “all American” life and art, the sort of fascination which had made Hollywood characters like Valentino fascinating for my father’s generation and which would make Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, and John Travolta fascinating in later decades. I recall that a student-poet named Frances Vanderbilt Whyatt—in workshop sessions, which I attended early on at The Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church in the Bowery—wrote a poem titled, “The Passion Through Daniela’s Window,” in response to my work. I was embarrassed by a quality I had not realized others saw in my writing. In any case, the Italian operatic style in which my father read literature to me as a child motivated me to write poetry and caused much of my work to have an ornate emotional or dramatic content.

My identification with the drama of my father’s immigrant struggle against prejudice and discrimination was strong because of the feeling with which he related the painful stories of his youth. His family, like many others in southern Italy in the early part of the century, came to the United States to escape poverty and hunger, only to be met with bigotry. His father, Galileo, sought his fortune, as so many men of his Mezzogiorno[2] village did then, in the New World, later sending for his family via steerage passage. My father and his family were to be met with much prejudice and snobbery in their attempt to Americanize themselves and assimilate.

I inherited my love of literature from a poor, hardworking, immigrant father who had struggled to achieve an education. His constant quoting of Shakespeare to me as I grew was, and still is, an important influence on my themes and style. He’d memorized the Bard’s plays while tending a parking lot at night, and working his way through Union College with an ambition to learn the English language better than his American tormentors. Felix Stefanile[3], an Italian American poet, told me he deliberately portrays working men’s themes in classical, formalist style. Like my immigrant father, he wanted to use perfect English and metric form to portray ordinary lives.

My father’s first American teachers and his classmates had cruelly mocked his immigrant speech when he’d first arrived through Ellis Island in 1910. With very hard work and study, he amassed an extensive English vocabulary and spoke with eloquence. He wanted to use language better than his American classmates.  He admired Abraham Lincoln, and believed in the log-cabin mythos of Lincoln’s life—”the American Dream.” That dream forged my ambition as he read to me such authors as Cervantes when I was ten years old, and Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet–weeping with me at the finale. He loved Italian Renaissance painters whose work he would show me with pride in color-illustrated and much-treasured books he’d labored to buy. He was very proud of being an Italian and always told me anecdotal narratives of the lives of Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Fermi, Caruso–those whom he considered to be the great Italian men.  However, he never mentioned a woman to admire in his stories of Italian accomplishment!

Since my father had always dreamed of becoming a writer, my writing has been an attempt to fulfill his dream for him. I can still picture him sitting with his back to us, hunched over his typewriter, forgoing the glories of a sunny afternoon, trying when he could, between the duties of his full-time-job as a chemical engineer, to become a writer. “American Sonnets to My Father” in my second book of poems, Word Wounds and Water Flowers (VIA/Bordighera 1995) written the year he died, 1981, is dedicated to him. It honors his struggle to be an American and tells of how I’ve attempted to fulfill his desire to be a published author. I managed to win a scholarship to the Edna St. Vincent Millay Colony for the Arts the year he died and while there, walking alone in the woods, grieving his loss—he forever so dear to me—I wrote:

You died in spring, father, and now the autumn dies.

Bright with ripe youth, dulled by time,

plums of feeling leaked red juices- from your eyes,

pools of blood hemorrhaged in your quivering mind.

At forty, I climb Point Pinnacle, today,

thinking of you gone forever from me.

In this russet November woods of Millay,

I wear your old hat, Dear Italian patriarch, to see

if I can think you out of your American grave

to sing your unwritten song with me.

Your poetry, love’s value, I carry with your spirit.

I take off your old black hat and sniff at it

to smell the still living vapor of your sweat.

 

You worked too hard, an oldest child of too many,

a lame thin boy in ragged knickers, you limped

all through the 1920s up city steps, door to door

with your loads of night and daily newspapers, each worth

a cheap labored penny of your family’s keep.

You wore your heart and soles sore. At forty,

not climbing autumn hills like me, you lay with lung disease

strapped down with pain and morphine, hearing your breath

rattle in your throat like keys at the gates of hell.

Your body was always a fiend perplexing your masculine will.

You filled me with pride and immigrant tenacity. Slave

to filial duty, weaver of all our dreams, you couldn’t be free

to sing. So be it. You are done, unfulfilled by song except in me.

If your dreams are mine, live again, breathe in me and be.

 

You never understood America’s scheme.

Your wounded dream, father,

will never heal in me, your spirit mourns forever

from my breath, aches with childhood memory,

sighs for my own mortality in you,

which I, at last accept

more completely than ever when we

laughed together and seemed we’d go on forever –

even though we always knew

you would die much sooner than I

who am your spirit come from you.

Remember, “a father lost, lost his!” you told us,

preparing us with Shakespearean quotation

and operatic feeling for your inevitable death.

 

Good night, go gently, tired immigrant father

full of pride and propriety. We, your

three daughters, all grew

to be healthier, stronger, more American than you.

Sensitive father, I offer you this toast,

no empty boast, “I’ve never known a man braver!”

The wound that will not heal in me

is the ache of dead beauty.

Once full of history, philosophy, poetry,

physics, astronomy, your bright, high flying psyche

is now dispersed, set free from your tormented body,

but the theme you offered, often forlorn,

sheer luminescent soul, glistened with enough light

to carry us all full grown. (9-10)

Yet, my immigrant father with all his passions, and despite his sensitivity, had told me it was a useless endeavor for a female “meant for cooking and bearing children” to go to college. It was the men of my generation who left the home to achieve as professionals, not the women. When I dared to defy my father by going to college, I commuted only a few miles from home to a state institution in Montclair, New Jersey.

The message I heard from my father—that a daughter was less than a son—drove me into a feminist rebellion. I began to read such feminist sociopolitical critiques as those written by Emma Goldman[4], and I fondly quoted her declaration, “If I can’t dance, I won’t join your revolution.” I also greatly admired Isadora Duncan’s[5] rebelliousness.

This made women’s themes important in my early work, particularly my first book, a novel The Great American Belly (Doubleday 1977). It is a comic feminist satire that deals with an Italian American heroine, named Dorissa Femfunelli, who travels the country performing a feminist ritual dance celebrating childbirth and women’s nurturing ways. Dorissa—a Goddess worshipping eco-feminist—rebelled against patriarchal religions and her Italian father. At the same time, she was always anxiously seeking his approval.

In addition, an early poem of mine, entitled “Belly Dancer,” was used at the end of my novel to show the triumph of the birth-dancing heroine, Dorissa Femfunelli. The poem celebrates womanly powers and the ability to bring new life into the world:

An Etruscan priestess

through whom the earth speaks,

enters veiled; a mystery moves toward the altar.

Unknown features, shadow of death, of brows,

of eyes, mouth, lips, teeth of the night,

jaw thrust forward like a pelvis,

navel hidden, mysterious circuit,

electrical wire of the first cries

thrust from the womb.

Silk veils hover over her,

turn with a whirling gestures

—the  moon glows in her belly.

Her navel winks in an amorous quiver.

Amazing belly that stretches large enough

to let a life grow. She glides, dips, shimmies,

thrusts one hip, then another.

The music breaks. Pain fills the drum. She

falls to her knees, doubles  over, leans back on her heels

as her stomach flutters, rolls with contractions, upward,

downward. She raises her pelvis, arching, widening.

Arms rise like serpents from a flesh basket,

beat, caress, nip, shimmer the air with rhythmic

pulse. At last the bloody mystery emerges,

inch by inch the head presses through the lost hymen.

Her pain works into a smile.

as the decked and bejeweled mother

pushes out her ecstasy.

Formless fluid shot into her,

molded, fired in the secret oven,

emerges, a child crying: it lives!

Its voice rings in her finger cymbals.

 

She rests her body, slowly rises from the earth.

Her breasts fill with milk.  She shakes them:

these are food; I am life; I give food!

 

Woman, whose nerve-filled clitoris

makes her shiver, ecstatic mother, dance with a fury

around your circle of women.

Spin out the time locked in your own womb,

bloom from your uterus,  Lady of the Garden.

The moon pulls you, crashes waves on the shore.

Undulate the branches of your arms in the wind,

Goddess of Trees, of all living things.

Your flesh is not defiled by

men who can’t contain your mystic

energy of woman. Belly

that invites life to sleep in you,

breasts of mortal ambrosia,

Amazon groin that lit the hearth,

altar, oven, womb, bread, table, Earth

Mother, pagan witch of magic birth,

from whom all suck  leaves that flow

through the body’s blood,

cave of your sex, our home,

moon of earth, Great Mother! (180-2)

 

Thus, the poem portrays an ancient folk ritual performed by women as a birth dance in imitation of birth contractions. The performance of the belly dance was a primitive Lamaze type of exercise to prepare women for natural childbirth—the quintessential feminine dance of life and birth—counterpart to the male “war dance” or “dance of the hunt.” It became a café spectacle after being put on display at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, but had been a folk art ritual of the Middle East and the vineyards of Italy and Greece.

“Belly Dancer” became an important part of the theatrical performance “The Birth Dance of Earth: A Celebration of Women and the Earth.” It was a choreo-poem with music and dance which I performed on campuses and in theatres around the country, travelling from Miami to Milwaukee, San Francisco to Buffalo. During the performance, I danced, with other women joining in at the finale, joyously celebrating woman’s birth-giving and nurturing abilities.  The tour culminated in a performance at the Brooklyn Museum where the leading feminist artists of the day featured their works.

If my father had taught me that women were only meant for bearing children, I devised a liberating way of celebrating the fact, and making it a feminist ritual. My work on the belly dance was published by MS. Magazine in a centerfold spread, titled “The New Dance of Liberation.” My earliest publications in those first issues of MS. were what encouraged me to persist in these womanly themes down to the present day as the Feminist Press prepares to reissue my international anthology of women’s writings, Women on War: Voices for Survival in the Nuclear Age.

Early on in the 1970′s, I also created an experimental, dance theatre and poetry piece, with visuals, titled “Care of the Body,” which won me a grant from The New York State Council for the Arts. I used the grant to create the first “Brooklyn Bridge Poetry Walk,” a multimedia street theatre piece with David Amram, famed jazz flutist, as Pied Piper, and poets reading poems about “The Bridge.”  We walked over “The Eighth Wonder of the World,” Hart Crane’s “harp and altar of the fury fused,” reading Lorca, Mayakovsky, Walt Whitman and others through megaphones. We carried hand-painted placards I’d adorned with poet’s names. Seeing mine as the only Italian name on the list of grantees for the State Council on the Arts, had given me license and ambition to forge on in that mode or form. It was a great impetus to my sticking with writing as a career.

I’d based the “Brooklyn Bridge Poetry Walk” on an Italian Renaissance custom expounded by Florentine historians. The people of Florence, for example, are known to have paraded Michelangelo’s statue of David through their streets to celebrate its creation. Also, Italian street fairs where an experience of my youth when huge sculptures were carried through ghetto thoroughfares to celebrate saints’ days with festivals. Such influences explain why much of my early work was performance poetry for theatre and street theatre.

I chose to acquire my higher degree in world drama, not poetry; all of this bravado for performance, I believe, came directly from my father’s, Donato’s, operatic way of storytelling. I had wanted to be an actress, and had acted early on with Helen Hayes and Ann Revere in Brechtian and Classical dramas.  I also wrote a playlet, titled “Daffodil Dollars.” Again, the theme was women’s empowerment. I was a part of the early experimental poetry scene in New York’s Soho—creating “happenings” or multimedia poetry events involving performance, music and dance. From there, I made a slow segue from poetic drama and theatrical performance to poetry for the page.

Although my feminist writing takes delight in all aspects of women’s lives, the women in my family—my grandmother, my mother, and my aunts—seemed to be bound to the home, the kitchen, and the sewing-machine and did not seem to find much joy in being women. I viewed them as repressed; their limitations and their need for liberation inspired me to write about women’s lives. I wanted to release them from the patriarchal culture in which I was raised where only men’s opinions were voiced because they were the only opinions that mattered.

My poetic monologue, “The Sea Hag in the Cave of Sleep,”[6] which tells of the sexual and mothering adventures of three women of different ages, was produced off-Broadway from 1968 through 1972. The “sea hags,” characters inspired by James Joyce[7], represented my Italian aunts and grandmother telling the stories of their struggle as women in a male-dominated world. They tell of how Pandora and Eve are blamed for all the troubles in men’s lives, and all the while macho ways are causing destructive conflicts, famines and other brutalities that follow war. The poem ends with the lines: “I come out of my own legs into this world,” which is meant as an affirmation of women’s self-actualization. Woman is born of woman, and that’s a different phenomenon than being man born of woman.

In tribute to this, and to Grandma Lucia (my father’s Neapolitan mother), I wrote a poem which seems to embody all that was self-sacrificing and limiting for women in a patriarchal culture and performed it at Casa Italiana, Columbia University, in 1978 at the dawning of the current Italian American renaissance in literature[8]. The poem, titled “Bi-centennial Anti-poem for Italian American Women, 1976,[9]” is not only dedicated to my grandmother—Lucia La Rosa or “Light the Rose”—it was also inspired by Ernesto Falbo. Falbo had been in the audience at one of my earlier readings[10] my reading of mine where, afterwards, he said to me, “You’re one of only two or three Italian-American women poets in this country. You’re a pioneer. There are fewer of you known than Black or Puerto Rican women poets.” Through this statement, he inspired the following:

On the crowded subway,

riding to the prison to teach

Black and Puerto Rican inmates how to write,

I think of the fable of the shoemaker

who struggles to make shoes for the oppressed

while his own go barefoot over the stones.

 

I remember Grandma Lucia, her olive face

wrinkled with resignation,

content just to survive

after giving birth to twenty children,

without orgasmic pleasures or anesthesia.

Grandpa Galileo, immigrant adventurer,

who brought his family

steerage passage to the New World;

his shoemaker shop where he labored

over American factory goods

that made his artisan’s craft a useless

anachronism; his Code of Honor

which forced him to starve

accepting not a cent of welfare

from anyone but his sons;

his ironic “Code of Honor”

which condoned jealous rages of wife-beating;

Aunt Elisabetta, Aunt Maria Domenica, Aunt Raffaella,

Aunt Elena, grown women huddled like girls

in their bedroom in Newark, talking in whispers,

not daring to smoke their American cigarettes

in front of Pa;

the backyard shrine of the virgin,

somber blue-robed woman,

devoid of sexual passions,
to whom Aunt Elisabetta prayed

daily before dying in childbirth,

trying to have “a son”

against doctor’s orders, though

she had five healthy daughters already;

Dr. Giuseppe Ferrara, purple heart veteran

of World War II, told he couldn’t have a residency

in a big New York hospital because of his Italian

name; the Mafia jokes, the epithets:

“Wop, guinea, dago, grease-ball.”

And the stories told by Papa

of Dante, Galileo, Leonardo, Fermi, Caruso

which stung me with pride for Italian men;

how I was discouraged from school,

told a woman meant for cooking and bearing

doesn’t need education.

 

I remember Grandma

got out of bed

in the middle of the night

to fetch her husband a glass of water

the day she died,

her body wearied

from giving and giving and giving

food and birth. (7)

 

Though I devoured Nancy Drew mysteries in grammar school like any all American girl, in my teens I discovered Edna St. Vincent Millay. The drama of her life, the fact that she won a scholarship to Vassar for a poem she wrote and her subsequent rise from poverty into the light of poetry really impressed me. It was a dramatic story like the ones my father told of his struggle to become educated and respectable from humble beginnings. But Millay was a woman and a feminist, and to see that a woman could work hard to become a writer–from humble beginnings –and be respected for her work, really influenced me. She was such a great beacon to me, both her life and her craft with language. I was pleased to find how Millay had marched for Sacco and Vanzetti. Her poem “Justice Denied in Massachusetts,” is a tribute to the Italian immigrant struggle in America. Her example as a liberated woman and her involvement with social justice inspired me greatly.

My father didn’t teach us Italian, not for lack of pride in it, but perhaps because he’d experienced so much prejudice for being an Italian immigrant. It’s a little remembered fact that there were concentration camps for Italian immigrants in the United States during World War II, similar to those in which Japanese immigrants were unjustly incarcerated.  I remember a poster I saw in my ghetto neighborhood as a child living in the Ironbound section of Newark. I wrote this poem as a result. It explains why I, born during World War II, am not fluent in Italian:

 

“Don’t Speak the Language of the Enemy!”[11]

reads the poster at the end of a gray alleyway of childhood

where the raggedy guineas of Newark

whisper quietly in their dialects on concrete steps

far from blue skies, olive groves or hyacinths.

Bent in a shadow toward the last

shafts of sunlight above tenement roofs,

Grandpa Galileo sadly sips homemade wine

hums moaning with his broken mandolin.

Children play hide-and-seek

in dusty evening streets as red sauce simmers,

proverbially, hour after hour, on coal stoves,

garlic, oil, crushed tomatoes blended

with precious pinches of salt and basilico—

a pot that must last a week of suppers.

The fathers’ hands are ugly with blackened finger nails,

worn rough with iron wrought, bricks laid, ditches dug, glass etched.

Wilted women in black cotton dresses wait in quickening dark,

calling their listless children to scrubbed  linoleum kitchens.

In cold water flats with tin tables, stale bread is ladled with sauce,

then baked to revive edibility. Clothes soak in kitchen laundry-tubs,

washboards afloat. Strains of opera caught in static

are interrupted by war bulletins.

The poster pasted on the fence at the end of the block

streaked with setting sun and rain reads:

“Don’t speak the language of the enemy!”

But, the raggedy guineas can speak no other,

and so they murmur in their rooms in the secret dark frightened

of the government camps where people like them

have been imprisoned in the New World.

They teach English to their children by daylight,

whispering of Mussolini’s stupidity–

stifling the mother tongue, wounding the father’s pride,

telling each other, “We are Americans. God bless America!” (36-9)

In addition to the time period I grew up in, my grandfather, Galileo Gioseffi, was also a great influence on my life and writing. From him I learned to question and rebel; Galileo was an iconoclast who loathed the Church’s hypocrisy and his rebellious attitude rubbed off on my father, and then onto me. No doubt the prejudice he suffered inspired me to join the Civil Rights Movement in 1961, at which time my writing turned to journalism for a spell.

I became a television journalist in Selma, Alabama on WSLA-TV during the days of the Freedom Riders and lunch counter sit-ins. Because television programming was not integrated in Alabama in those days, I was beaten and sexually abused by the Ku Klux Klan for making an announcement on an African American gospel show. There were burning crosses and broken watermelons on the lawn of the television station the next morning. It took me many years to write about that as I wanted to spare my father the truth. He never knew what happened to me, and I was ashamed of it, too.

I was over fifty when I finally published “The Bleeding Mimosa,” a story about my rape and abuse at the hands of the Ku Klux Klan. Luciana Polney, a younger Italian American woman writer, adapted it for the stage, and it was produced at the Duplex Theatre in New York City’s Sheridan Square in 1994. It was a very liberating experience for me to view my story acted out by others. I watched the scenes between the immigrant father and the American daughter; the conflict in those scenes—to be a good daughter, and at the same time, to struggle to overcome prejudice toward liberation—was my conflict. I felt healed as I saw it played out to a survivalist’s conclusion.

Now, as I’ve reached the age of sixty and look back over my career as a writer, I can clearly distinguish my influences. My Italian father—his passionate nature, his frustrated desire to be a respected writer in America, the prejudice he suffered, the reading he taught me to love, the education in literary art and science which he worked hard to acquire—was a large influence on my tenacious desire to forge my way into the mainstream of American letters. On the other hand, my Grandmother Lucia’s subjugation to my grandfather’s will; my coming from an immigrant family which rebelled against the Church’s ways, but in some measure upheld its patriarchal values; my own rebellion against Old World ways, seeking for truth and anarchistic liberation from the past; my desire to keep my father’s surname and strive for acceptance as a daughter who could not be a son, as a woman who wanted to make a loving father proud: all these factors had a profound influence on my drive to become the first educated woman of my family, and my strife for an accomplished voice imbued with feminist themes in American literature.

My immigrant Italian forbearers made me who I am for worse or for better, and I can never deny that rich heritage of passionate emotions—the suffering and joy that art portrays—which I learned early on from my Old World Italian family. Despite my feminism, I have to say that my Italian patriarchal father’s love of literature—his tenacity to fulfill the American Dream—was my greatest inspiration to being a writer. Sandra Mortola Gilbert, Diane Di Prima, Josephine Gattuso Hendin, and I—we feminists of that 1970s era—have I hope, offered some impetus to the women who began to publish later. The following poem says it all for me. It was written when I finally made the pilgrimage back to my father’s village of origin, Orta Nova, near the Gargano—the spur of the boot—not far from Bari, in 1986, five years after his death. The poem is titled after the village, “Orta Nova, Provincia de Puglia”[12]:

“Land of bright sun and colors,”

you’re called in Italia.

Near Bari and Brindisi where the ferry

for centuries has traveled the Adriatico,

to and from Greece.

Orta Nova, city of my dead father’s birth.

How strange to view you, piccolo villaggio,

with ladybugs, my talisman,  landed on my shirt.

 

They show me your birth

certificate–”Donato Gioseffi, born 1905,”

scrawled in ink, on browning paper.

When I tell them  I’m an author, first of my American family

to return to my father’s home, I’m suddenly “royalty!”

They close the Municipio to take me in their best town car

to an archeological dig near the edge of the city.

There, the Kingdom of Herdonia, unearthed with its brick road

leading to Rome, as all roads did and still do,

back to antiquity’s glory! Ladybugs rest on me at the dig

of stone sculptures the Belgian professor shows me. I buy his book,

“The Kingdom of Herdonia: Older Than Thebes.”

 

Ah, padre mio, the taunts you took as a thin,

diminutive, “guinea” who spoke no English

in his fifth-grade class

from brash Americans of an infant country!

You never returned to your ancient land where now the natives,

simpatici pisani, wine and dine me in their best

ristorante. I insist on paying the bill. They give me jars

of funghi and pimento preserved in olive oil–their prize

produce to take back home with me. They nod knowingly,

when in talking of you, I must leave the table to weep–

alone in the restroom, looking into the mirror

at the eyes you gave me, the hands so like yours

that turn the brass faucet

and splash cold water over my face.

For an instant, in this foreign place, I have met you again,

Father, and have understood better, your labors,

your struggle, your pride, your humility,

the peasantry from which you came to cross the wide

sea, to make me a poet of New York City.

Which is truly my home?

This piccolo villaggio near Bari, with its old university,

the province where Saint Nicholas’s Turkish bones are buried,

in hammered-gold and enameled reliquary,

the province of limestone caves full of paintings older than those of Lescaux,

this white town of the Gargano, unspoiled by turisti, this land of color

sunlight and beauty. This home where you would have been happier

and better understood than in torturous Newark tenements of your youth.

This land of sunlight, blue sky, pink and white flowers, white stucco houses,

and poverty, mezzogiorno, this warmth you left to make me

a poet from New York City, indifferent place,

mixed of every race, so that I am more cosmopolitan

than these, your villagers, or you

could ever dream of being. This paradoxical journey

back to a lost generation

gone forever paving the way

into a New World from the Old. (57-8)

 


[1] Robertiello and Hoguet, The WASP Mystique, New York: Donald I. Fine, Inc., 1987.

[2] Mezzogiorno, literally meaning “midday,” is used to refer to southern Italy and sometimes connotes stereotypes of southern Italy, including notions of poverty, illiteracy, and crime, that still persist today.

[3]Stephanile (1920-2009) was won many prizes for his poetry and work including the Emily Clark Balch Prize (Virginia Quarterly Review 1972) and the John Ciardi Award for Lifetime Achievement (Italian Americana 1997).  In reference to Stefanile’s collection of poetry, The Dance at Saint Gabriel’s (Story Line P 1995), Dana Gioia wrote that “To say that Felix Stefanile is the most significant living Italian-American poet does not do justice to his achievement.”

[4] Goldman (1869-1940) was an early figure in the women’s rights movement, birth control history, and the free speech movement. She supported anarchism and lesbian rights. Many of her papers can be viewed at “The Emma Goldman Papers,” Berkley Digital Library SunSITE. Ed. by The Emma Goldman Papers Project. 2005. The University of California Regents. 10 Dec. 2009 <http://sunsite.berkeley.edu/Goldman/>.

[5] Ducan (1878-1927) was a dancer, adventurer, revolutionist, defender of the poetic spirit. She broke away from convention in an attempt to return dance to its sacred roots. She has endured as one of the most influential figures in twentieth century dance.

[6] Poem published in Gioseffi’s Eggs in the Lake, fwd. by John Logan, Brockport, NY: BOA Ed., 1979. 46-50.

[7] See “Episode 3: Proteus” in Joyce’s Ulysses.

[8] A few years prior to 1978, Richard Gambino of Queens College had joined with Ernesto Falbo, in editing Italian Americana at the State University of New York, Buffalo, a historical fact which Gioseffi attributes to signifying the dawn of the Italian American literary renaissance.

[9] Published in Word Wounds and Waterflowers, West Lafayette, IN: Bordighera, Inc.

[10] The reading  mentioned was held at the State University of New York, Buffalo in 1976.

[11] Published in Symbiosis: Poems. New York: Rattapallax Press, 2001. Rpt. in Blood Autumn/Autunno di sangue: Poems, New and Selected. New York: Bordighera Press, 2007.

[12] “Orta Nova, Provincia de Puglia” was published in Gioseffi’s Going On: Poems, Lafayette, IN: Bordighera P, 2001.

————

Daniela Gioseffi won an AMERICAN BOOK AWARD in 1990 and has authored sixteen books of poetry and prose from major and university presses. She was a multicultural pioneer editing anthologies of world literature since 1988. Her books and writings have been translated into Italian, Spanish, German, Chinese, Japanese, and Serbo-Croatian, and published worldwide. She’s published in hundreds of major literary periodicals. Gioseffi’s renowned anthology, Women on War: International Writings, (Touchstone/Simon & Schuster) was reissued in a new edition by The Feminist Press: City University of NY, 2003. It’s a women’s studies classic in print for over 25 years.

This essay (which I have solicited and received from the author in 2010 while commencing the Poetries & Communities project at San Diego State University) also appeared in 2013 as:

Gioseffi, Daniela. “Forging into the American Mainstream since the 1970s: On Being a Woman Writer with an Italian American Name.” Pioneering Italian American Culture: Escaping La Vita Della Cucina, Essays, Interview, Reviews, by and About Daniela Gioseffi. Ed. Angelina Oberdan. NY: VIA FOLIOS 85, Bordighera Press, 2013: 119-130.

Folios/Bordighera Press: http://www.bordigherapress.org/

http://amzn.com/1599540592

Many thanks to Angelina Oberdan for bringing the reference to our attention.

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Jericho Brown–My Poems, My People

December 7th, 2014 margento No comments

I strive to be clear—not obvious.  I am neither afraid of nor married to difficulty or accessibility.  I mean to write poems that are felt before they are understood.  Of course, anyone who reads or hears my poems can tell that I have an investment in story and folklore, particularly as they are understood in the African American literary tradition, but no matter how obvious the narrative, I have never thought that knowing exactly what is going on in a poem makes it attractive.

I think of writing, first, as a process of listening to some series of sounds that enter my mind and, second, as a process of embodying those sounds.  I try and leave as much as I can to instinct, intuition, and reflex—even in the final stages of revision.  Because I’m so interested in both music and voice, I find myself trying to figure the personality of the sounds as I am composing.  At some point in the writing of a first draft, I start to take on the characteristics of the voice asking to be channeled through words that convey what I think of as a necessary mixture of the sacred and the profane, the ironic and the ecstatic.  An example of this might be something as simple as punching the computer if the voice is pissed to the point of violence.

I hardly feel that I have any control or power over the “story” that begins to emerge from a poem while composing it.  I do my best writing when I am most vulnerable to the writing, when I allow for the construction of images and lines that, in the midst of composing, frighten me.

When I write and revise, I imagine myself in the middle of a conversation, often a disagreement, with someone I love.  I mean for the experience of writing to be like the experience of saying, “I love you” or “I’m sorry” or “Baby, please don’t” to a person I need in my life.  The only difference is that, because those phrases are so trite, I have to find the language and pacing necessary to let that someone know I really mean it.

I negotiate the personal and the universal by understanding that the universal, as it has been presented to us over and over again, is a lie.  I know it’s a lie because, though I’ve witnessed audience members at readings ask gay poets what a straight person can appreciate about their poems, I have never seen a straight poet asked what gay people can appreciate about his or her poems.

The civil rights movement was not meant to erase race.  As a matter of fact, one of its goals was to make the history and contributions of various peoples in this nation all the more prominent.  I wonder what would happen if we stopped telling the lie of universality to our poetry students… if we, instead, told them the truth of difference, of the magic found in range and in oddity, in writing that which is, dare I say it, queer.  Yes, syntactical acumen just might be universal, but content is definitely not.  Content has nothing to do with anything we love.  If it did, we’d all have better boyfriends.

American poetry is at its best when it is as vast and varied as American people mythologize themselves to be.  Further, an American poet must be the poet who understands the vastness and variedness of herself as an individual.  And that poet must be vulnerable to her work. . .  so vulnerable that complete contradictions come through her poems in a gorgeous way.  I am everyday feeling more and more homeless because of a kind of thinking on the part of artists of color and queer artists who call for an erasure of identity that is supposed to somehow allow them (and me?) to be better artists.  Our lot in life as poets in this nation has a great deal to do with how many ways we can see a thing and accept its complexity as well as how many ways we can see ourselves and put into our art every inch of us.  We’ve done some work when we pile a bunch of adjectives in front of the word “poet” and allow ourselves to see the poems within the context of all those adjectives.  Without every adjective, we fall for the silly idea that there is only one way to evaluate an art object, and that idea never bodes well for innovative work.  That idea makes for really lazy reading.  That idea is un-American.

I am all about those multitudes Whitman saw himself containing.  I am enchanted and encouraged by the ways American poets of my generation show proof of this part of our inheritance through writing poems that make apparent a multi-voiced speaker.  Still, I do hope that this trend does not lead to a loss of responsibility for all that comes along with any one part of those multilayered identities.  I hope to read in the essays and interviews you are collecting a white poet who says that he is white and that the privileges that come along with whiteness in the United States have indeed informed his poetics…

. . . Which is why it is so important for me to say that I am male and that I am completely aware that my work explores maleness and masculinity (what ever the hell these may be) in the way that I think several poets of the American tradition do and have done from Whitman to Sandburg to Tony Hoagland (bless his heart).  But I haven’t done a damn thing if the poems do not admit and question the privilege that attends being born male in this nation.

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Jericho Brown grew up in Shreveport, Louisiana, and worked as a speechwriter for the mayor of New Orleans before earning his PhD in literature and creative writing from the University of Houston.  He also holds an MFA in creative writing from the University of New Orleans and graduated with a BA from Dillard University in 1998.  Brown is the author of two books of poetry.  His most recent collection, The New Testament (Copper Canyon Press, 2014), was described by Yusef Komunyakaa as a chronicle of “life and death, personal rituals and blasphemies, race and nation, the good and the bad” that illuminates “scenarios of self-interrogation and near redemption.”

 

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Bruce Bond–Poetry and Community

September 26th, 2014 margento No comments

In a cave in southern Germany, archeologists found what they believe might be the oldest surviving musical instrument, a flute made of vulture bone, and they thought, so that’s it, that’s why the Homo Sapiens survived and the Neanderthals, who were physically superior, did not. Not the mighty flute, of course, though it no doubt raised some spirits along the way, but the flute as evidence of music as evidence of community, of social organization. My mother sang to me as a kid, and then at a certain age she stopped. Many years later, she died. I hear that singing still.

And yes, part of the power of music is its phantom nearness, like the breath that sings. The poetry I love is like that. Sometimes when I write I close my eyes to see how things sound in the dark. Sometimes the silence around the language has the power of another person in the room. It is not of course. And yet, as a part of language, it becomes part of the expressive yearning, that hunger for connectivity and its opposite, for the play of meaning, that longing to be two people and one at the same time.

Of course the communal is in there, the historical, the political, and even our conditioning to say they are there—though it is a lie to say we see these things any more clearly than we see what it is that is original in our own decisions, our gestures, our errors and gifts, our words. Language is where we feel most acutely the tension between the individual and the collective, the private and the public—a tension which, mercifully, never resolves.

I feel most honest if I begin my musing on community by conversing with one person, real or otherwise. That’s how days tend to begin, by talking to one, considering, if I am mindful, that person’s face, how full of character it might be, what is in there and not there yet, the inner life in all its lovely complexity that dissipates in the hands of the larger categories. I think I do better, starting with one to see the many. This way I am more acutely aware of what in “the one” is and is not of “the many.” Both seem central to my imagination of humanity. My experience. Both. And I would say, likewise, both seem central to the experience of language. Particularly language that would embody most inclusively what we are, paradoxically by way of radiant essentials. Particularly poetry.

I am not terribly invested in the label “poet.” I tease a friend of mine who is a well-known poet who said in a radio interview that he is not a “poet,” just “a guy who writes poems.” Oh, brother. He laughs about it now too. We are all on a path somewhere. If you have written a poem, you’re a poet, I say. But “poem” can mean a lot of different things. Too many to discuss here. Perhaps central to the question about community is that “poetic activity” and what I find valuable in it is, to me, universal. It meets a universal need. That need and its symbolic expression allow for the wider resonance of poems that, in light and in spite of their inner intensities, refreshes many.

When language reaches beyond its utilitarian dailiness, via play and singularity of expression, to model one’s inner life as invested in and shaped by the outer world, it engages in something poem-like. For this reason, I find it useful to be out and about each day, trading words with whomever, because they surprise me, feed me, feed my writing. And what I say in return surprises me. Our greatest animating tensions are between the private individual and the public world, and poetry aspires to bear fuller testament to what those are by refusing to separate or conflate them absolutely. They dream the reconciliation of dualities more largely, of facts and values, culture and nature, imagination and reason. Metaphor as the heart of the poetic does similar work: bringing together without dissolving the vital energy of difference.

I see poems as “the other self,” or conscience, of philosophy. Likewise as the conscience of sociology. We’ve all seen it: the ardent Marxist, usually young, who is so smart and full of both good intentions and a desire to matter, full of the handed-down categories, brilliantly recast, the large mannered gesticulations that are the signature of civic mindedness—but the jargon has a way of effacing individuals in the distance. It’s not my intention to throw this jargon out or condemn such things, but one way of making immediate the notion of dialectic is to consider what these categories do not say. This means considering what the category of “community” can never say. Poems enact that kind of mercurial questioning, or can if they aspire toward the subtlest of inclusions. They are the one hand clapping, the one calling to the many, the many calling to the one. So when the topic turns to politics, just who is that person speaking? Who is listening? Who is imagined as listening? Are we getting better? Closer? Getting things done?

So yes. Poetry is fundamentally communal. It has the power to bring us together in the way that music does, to fill an auditorium with palpable awe as the last word falls. Perhaps it changes the behavior of some. Possible. Unknowable perhaps. Or rare. Surely it can voice a conscience that we recognize as something the culture desperately needs. I hope so. To put this hope into action is to let the best words inform our own, and so on. Words that are heard by many would be good. Really heard, the way poetry encourages us to hear by breaking into lines, slowing us down. “Bombs with slow fuses,” that’s what Ginsberg called poems. Or perhaps they comfort a mother who, in hospice, has a book by her bedside. There was a book like this at my mother’s place, a book she discussed with no one I know. I want to think it moved her. It made something enormous happen. I do not know this. I want to say, however sad or happy, it made her feel less alone.

(first published in 32poems magazine)

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Bruce Bond is a classical and jazz guitarist and professor of English. He earned a BA from Pomona College, an MA in English from Claremont Graduate School, an MA in music performance from the Lamont School of Music (University of Denver), and a PhD in English from the University of Denver. He is the author of a number of collections of poetry, including The Anteroom of Paradise (1991); Radiography (1997), winner of the Natalie Ornish Best Book of Poetry Award from BOA Editions; The Throats of Narcissus (2001); Cinder (2003); Blind Rain (2008); Peal (2009); and The Visible(2012). His poetry combines personal lyric and metaphysical inquiry as well as the influences of music and jazz musicians.

Bond has received awards from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Texas Commission on the Arts. He is a professor of English at the University of North Texas in Denton, Texas, and a poetry editor of the American Literary Review.

 

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Kevin Prufer–Poetries/Communities: Against Sentimentality

May 13th, 2014 margento No comments

 

When I was growing up, I thought of poetry as a solitary endeavor, one best accomplished in the privacy of one’s room.  Poetry, I imagined, was a kind of self-expression, an exploration of some inner emotional complexity.  At first, I imagined this complexity was communicated somewhat self-reflexively; that is, the poet thought deeply about his relationship to some event or other, then worked this out in a poem which he communicated to only one person, himself.   Later, the poet might allow others to indulge in his own interiority, perhaps at a poetry reading or in the pages of a small literary journal. I do not know why I imagined that anyone in the world should care about my inner turmoil.  I suppose I thought that the writing of poetry was a species of what I’d later call narcissism.

Recently, I was asked to make a presentation about sentimentality.  Our relationship to the word has changed over the centuries and now, I confessed to the audience, I did not know what it meant.  Surely, sentimentality, wrapped up in the softer emotions, is in some ways indecorous or cheap.  Surely there is something essentially untruthful about it, often in its overabundance or its misplacement of emotion.  There was, I suppose, something essentially sentimental about my early relationship to my own work and to my (mostly imagined) audience, believing that my display of emotion and autobiography might resonate profoundly with others, drawing us together in some intimate literary embrace.

Of course, in the American academy (and among most poetry readers and poets, who have lived in its groves) we abhor sentimentality, have been trained to root it out of our work and to recognize it in the work of literary poseurs and amateurs.  There is no greater literary crime, one of my friends recently told me, than sentimentality; one needs only say the word to condemn a writer’s entire oeuvre.  (“Longfellow,” another friend once said, “is sentimental,” and with that he washed his hands of him.)

Beholden to orthodoxies passed down to us, we rarely, if ever, pause to ask why this is so.  What is it that makes sentimentality rise above all other sins in poetry?  And what does this tell us about the way poetry serves the community, about (as you asked) “poetries and communities.”

In 1918, a preternaturally mature Wilfred Owen described the horrors of young British soldiers marching to their deaths surrounded by mists of poison gas.  A young man, failing to get his gas mask on in time, slowly dies, his white eyes “writhing in his face.”  Then blood “comes gargling from the froth corrupted lungs.” But instead of ending the poem on the harrowing, if meaningless, death of an anonymous soldier, Owen points the finger at Jessie Pope, a writer of sentimental war propaganda, the kind of stuff that convinced young men to enlist in the first place: “My friend,” he writes:

 

… you would not tell with such high zest

To children ardent for some desperate glory,

The old Lie: Dulce et Decorum est

Pro patria mori.

 

Owen would not survive the war, but other poets would pick up on his deep distrust of sentimental language, and that distrust would become infused in the Modernist movement.  Sentimentality, they knew, is bad because 1) it is often untruthful and 2) it is dangerous.  Its potentiatl for untruthfulness is clear: there is nothing sweet and proper about the young man’s death in Owen’s poem.  It is dangerous because sentimentality is a powerful mode for communicating to the masses, for using untruth wrapped in layers of sweetness, nationalistic pride, nostalgia, and (for earlier writers) decadent Victorian Romanticism to convince us, against our better judgment, to believe and do stupid, often fatal, things.  How often have we seen intense sentimentality used as a way of convincing us to enter an unjust war (witness the rhetoric of George W. Bush during the run-up to the war in Iraq), to keep women in their place (witness the proper housewife of 1950s sentimental movies), to justify the bondage of others (witness sentimental paintings of happy slaves singing in the cotton fields, wanting only to serve their masters well). No wonder so much of our distrust of sentimentality emerged in the work of Modernist poets who witnessed the first World War, and no wonder this mistrust appears only to have grown throughout the 20th century. When the WWII poet Dunstan Thompson looked over the destroyed body of yet another young soldier, he exhorted all of us: “to love him, tell the truth.”

That said, I think I’ve grown into some strong beliefs about poetries and communities.  I am suspicious of my earlier self, the young man who wrote poetry imagining that my emotions were of any importance to anyone.  They are not.  No one, beyond my family and few friends, cares.  Why should it be otherwise?

Rather, I imagine that poetry might be a vehicle for telling the truth, for working against the overwhelming tide of dangerous sentimentality, of mistruth wrapped in sugar, of lies told to us by our governments, our corporate betters, and by ourselves.  These days, the voice of poetry often seems small and faint—once, in a poem, I imagined it was like the voice of a young man locked in the trunk of a car being driven who knew where by our leaders—but it might, used well, serve as just one counterpoint in a world awash in lies.  Poets, I imagine, ought to tell the truth for the purpose not only of self-knowledge, but a better, clearer world.

That said, I don’t imagine that there is only one truth, nor do I imagine that any of these are simple.  Poetry is also uniquely suited to expressing the complexity of a moral or theological universe, one in which truths clash, in which one truth confronts another, competing one. (For Emily Dickinson, there is simultaneously a God and no god, there is both an afterlife and the void.) I am not, that is, in favor of poetry that is dogmatic, that simplifies the world, that distorts it, even for good purposes.  Nor am at all interested in poetry that sees in a multiplicity of truths only the emptiness of the very notion of truth, that merely throws up its hands or plays around in a Postmodern mode. Instead, I believe that poets might imagine themselves as citizens of a larger universe defined by complex moral positions—that we might think of ourselves if not as the unacknowledged legislators of the world, then at least as people who speak the truth to the community in the interest of much more than beauty and self-expression, in the interests of making the world better.

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Kevin Prufer‘s sixth book, Churches, is just out from Four Way Books.  Among his recent books are In a Beautiful Country (Four Way, 2011), a finalist for the Rilke Prize and the Poets Prize; and National Anthem (Four Way Books, 2008), named one of the five best poetry books of the year by Publishers Weekly.  He’s also co-curator of the Unsung Masters Series, Editor of numerous volumes, and Professor in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Houston.

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Felix Nicolau–On Romanian Poetry Manifestos of the 1990s and 2000s

April 21st, 2014 margento No comments

Poetic turmoil and half-fledged creativity

 

What degree of independence from the social context can poetry reach? When I say “social” I mean politics as well. All along the 70’s to 80’s interval, the late phase of postmodernism, political turmoil boiled over and few poets could stand aloof from that. In the East-European bloc they were forced to sift their inspiration and chaff away contemporary references. One escape was to delude censorship using irony, as the Romanian poets did in the 80’s. The end of the second millennium and the beginning of the third one were quasi apolitical in what we call western civilization. The Gulf war and the Afghanistan guerrilla war were not in our proximity. These were decades of political correctness disturbed only by a few terrorist attacks of a dubious nature.

Times are achangin’ now. Conflicts, revolutions and anti-corporatist riots set afire the whole world. That is why I think the near future of poetry is bound to be political.

In the following paragraphs I intend to offer an outlook on the Romanian poetry of the last decades. The organizing principle will be the literary manifestos of various groups. I have to stress the fact that after the fall of the communist regime the first step taken by the literati was to enlarge the scope of their vocabulary and range of inspiration. The freshly liberated literature oscillated between two poles: the new Russian School (of literature) and the American Beat. Both influences contained a massive cargo of slang, violence and scary fantasies. The uninitiated public was aghast.

 

Fractures

There is another angle on all these. In 1990, two young writers, Marius Ianuș and Dumitru Crudu, concocted the Fractures Manifesto on the night of 10 to 11 September 1998 as a consequence of a street fight. Whence the fractures… Their aim was twofold: on the one hand they wanted a less conventional style of writing, with harsh words and juxtaposed, non-discursive verses, able to render the psychic and bodily torments; on the other hand, they repelled those older writers well-accommodated into the establishment. Writers should live as they write and the other way round! This was their slogan. Twenty years later, Ianuș secured himself a position at a newspaper and after being dumped by his wife (a poetess herself) he turned to a fiery religious poetry. Crudu, in his turn, became famous especially due to his theatrical plays and novels. Both of them somehow ballyhoo characters.

Being written in a ferocious disposition, the manifesto throws the blame of the full-contact situation on the institutionalization of culture. The fake Marxist-anarchists, as they call themselves, are angry at the people who “destroy the spiritual values of humanity”. That is why they yell: “Down with the prize-winning poets! Down with the ‘mobsters’ who take profit of their literary victories and lay hand on rewarding jobs! Down with the literary small bourgeoisie!” As we can see, innovative stuff…

Wordier than ever is the rhetoric: “Fracturism won’t kill anybody, unless necessary”. They go on with finding their ancestors between foreign poets and they even produce a list with proselytes. The fracturists wage an uphill war against all the political promotions before them. They get to grips with their predecessors because these ones are not able to feel the authenticity of the common life any longer and mask this handicap by using a sophisticated, impenetrable language. In the same line with Chimerism, but for different reasons, Fracturism calls for the abolishment of postmodernism. The poetry of transitiveness and literality will remain too-high a peak to settle on. Some poets, in some moments, managed to conquer it, but the rash winds of imagination and intelligence made them climb down and go for a burton. Again and again, the theorizations included in these manifestos cannot be tracked down to ensuing creations.

 

Delirionism

Another manifesto, quite different from the first one, is Ruxandra Cesereanu’s Delirionism or the Concise Textbook on how One Shouldn’t Get Stuck in Reality. This is a neo-onirical way of escaping reality and it envisages a more intense “alteration of reality, a much more traumatizing dream”. The author could have acquired the “technique of delirium” from Leonid Dimov’s “unbridled imagination”, while Angela Marinescu could have lent her the “neurotical poetry”. From their conjunction emerge the gap and the trance induced through shamanistic techniques. The purpose is the “re-signifying of madness”, while “the metaphor and the image suited to the delirious poem are those of a sunk and flooded submarine”. Later on, Ruxandra Cesereanu collaborated over a massive poem (The Forgiven Submarine) with Andrei Codrescu.

The reference to G. C. Jung’s theory of archetypes reveals the underlying structure of the delirium. Freud’s repressed memories, transformed into phantasms, are also invoked. Let’s not forget that the phantasmatic is different from phantasm. A phantasm creates the (fake) image of reality. A demi-illusion, so to say. Enlarging upon delirium, Jung used the term “inflation”. All these allow for an expansion of personality up to archetypes.

The delirionism remains silent as to the artistic stimuli able to blur lucidity: pills, mushrooms, herbs, potions. Nothing about these intensifiers of extrasensory perception! One clue could be the musical records played during several workshops. Indeed, delirionism seems a trifle different from onirism: less literaturized and somehow riskier than the surrealist movement. I think a reference point could be Carolos Castaneda’s novels and his science of dreaming. Corin Braga, Ruxandra Cesereanu’s hubbie, wrote about the Mexican writer’s works. A close reading of the Forgiven Submarine would hint at the intelligence and humor substantial to the complex game which is delirionism.

 

Chimerism

In 1999, Vasile Baghiu published in “România Literară” The First Manifesto of Chimerism. Chimerism focuses on the social condition of writers and on their delusions of epic grandeur. The manifesto is a remote relative of Gerard de Nerval’s Les Himeres (1854).

In a nutshell: to be a writer is the highest position in the world. Literature is an “ailing passion, as if one would catch hepatitis or AIDS”. Vasile Baghiu is proud of having succeeded in implementing “the theme of sanatorium in Romanian literature”. In the interbellic period the sanatorium was a constant presence in the art of many writers, many of them evolving under French influence. Illness may stimulate delirium or compensatory fantasying based on the books one read. Sanatorium bovarism equates to imaginative wanderings in space and time. The author even manufactured a human embodiment of this attitude: Himerus Alter. This alter-ego loathes the postmodernist irony and parody. He dreams about the re-instauration of magic and illusion. The Imagination of “parallel realities” and “the taste of alienation and the Fever” needed a frame.

The chimerism contends provincialism using “the need of utopia” and the historical and spatial evasion. Summoning it all up: a heroic opposition to the world with the help of culture. Of course, culture is at odds with the shallow forms of entertainment.

The story goes on with The Third Manifesto of Chimerism on the Live Experience of Fictional Reality (“Poesis”, no. 6-7-8, 2006). The main ideas are resumed obstinately and the birth date of the movement is boastfully retained: “about 16.30 on the 21st of August 1988”. As in the case of delirionism, no stylistic or narrative innovations are homologated. The only point of reference is the irritation provoked by the postmodern parody and demythization.

 

The Depressive

With the inauguration of the new millennium, sprouts of fresh manifestos pop up. An interesting one is The Depressive Manifesto by Gelu Vlașin. In a solemn voice, we are informed that poetry remains “the personal release of a state of mind at an existential level”. He proceeds, then, with attacking mannerism, minimalism and imitation. “The colleaguewise writing” and “the hypocrites who manufacture poems as if they wrote recipes for domestic wives” push Vlaşin out of his wits.

The inceptive clarity is getting hazier and hazier. First, the depressive manifesto is endowed with a definition: “a literary movement which branched out from the new wave zone” that is “defined by the thematic approach of reality, based on the suppressing the concept of individuality and on its imprisonment into a globalizing system”. The charm dwindles and the language is getting priggish, engineer-like. To get the full Monty we are ingratiated with some indications about form: “The dispersion of blanks all over the space of the poem”. It is exactly how the pages look like in Vlașin’s volume Panic Attack (Atac de Panică): anxiety and energy are made visible with the help of emphatic blank spaces between words.

Utilitarianism

Another challenging manifesto was launched by Adrian Urmanov, who holds a bachelor’s degree in Economics and who, a few years later, converted into a monk. Presented as a foreword to The Utilitarian Poems (Poemele utilitare, Pontica Publishing House, 2003), the manifesto envisaged the absorption into poetry of the techniques of communication and advertising. If the Fracturism absorbed into “the equation of communication” the context of writing, the addressee’s perspective didn’t matter too much. Conversely, the utilitarian art will assume the specificity of advertising slogans and it will focus on readers. Persuading the reader means to carve the message into the receiver’s memory. Thus, the utilitarian poetical text is not literature any longer, but an obsessive Morse signal. It is useful to the receiver owing to the facility with which it can be assimilated. It is a type of poetical inoculation. The poems in the volume offer samples of persuasion: the fluency of the text (simple, declarative and full of compassion) is severed by brackets between which the teller confesses his empathy with the existential torments of the receiver. The advertising strategy is used (again between brackets) to turn the page and read further. Beyond the programmed humbleness and empathy flickers the temptation to manipulate. Urmanov’s enterprise is more effective in practice than in theory. Among his literary brethren, only Andrei Peniuc exercised a less hesitant-and-routinely-metronymic utilitarianism.

 

A bout de souffle

All these manifestos appeared at the delayed end of postmodernism. Some of them wanted to shun the problems of immediate reality, others, on the contrary, targeted exactly these ones. Communication is an important asset for the new poetry, too. These were the golden years for manifestos, but the iron ones for literary programs, on the other hand. With the advent of post-post-modernist literary trends, manifestos lose their edginess, while creativity is dismissed without much social fuss. As Michel Foucault once insisted, nothing escaped ideology in postmodernism.

 

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Felix Nicolau is the author of four collections of poetry, two novels, and five books of literary and communication theory: Homo Imprudens, 2006; Anticanonice (Anticanonicals), 2009; Codul lui Eminescu (Eminescu’s Code), 2010; Estetica inumană: de la Postmodernism la Facebook (The Inhuman Aesthetics: from Postmodernism to Facebook), 2013; and Fluturele-curcan: specii ameninţătoare (The Turkey-Butterfly: Dangerous Species), 2013. He is on the editorial boards of Poesis International, The Muse–an International Journal of Poetry, and Metaliteratura. Nicolau is Associate Professor in the Department of Foreign Languages and Communication, The Technical University of Civil Engineering in Bucharest, Romania. His areas of interest are: Comparative Literature, Translation Studies, Theory of Communication, Cultural Studies, British and American Studies.
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Amanda Earl–The Symbiotic Nature of Community and Poetry

January 8th, 2014 margento No comments

 

 

Community:  a social unit with common values OR a group of interacting living organisms sharing a populated environment. (definitions paraphrased/cribbed from Wikipedia).

I have several communities: my apartment building; Chinatown, the neighbourhood in which I live; the city of Ottawa; its literary community; Canada; North America; the world; and within all those places, I am also in that literary community.

I imagine a series of globes nesting inside one another like Russian dolls. For me community is symbiotic: its members contribute to one another’s well-being and being in the community contributes to the well-being of its members. This is starting to sound like a palindrome or a Möbius strip.

For the purposes of this note, let’s consider the idea of community as the general public within my city. I am a member of the public, just as all poets are.

In this note, I don’t choose to address in detail a very important aspect of community because I’ve dealt with it elsewhere: that of people helping one another in times of crisis and how such actions bring a community closer together. In 2009 I became very ill. While I was in hospital and near death, members of Ottawa’s close-knit and caring literary community came to my and my husband’s assistance. For more on that experience, please refer to this post entitled “Community” in the “On Writing” series curated by rob mclennan.

How would you define the relationship between (your) poetry and (or poetry in general; as it does or should converge with) communities/the community?

I listen and I look. Wherever I go I am always in receiver mode. My poetry comes from the intersection between what I see and hear around me, interactions with others and my imagination, experiences, memory and knowledge of other literary works, music, art and other cultural works. I filter all this through my brain and somehow neurons fire up. Fortunately I don’t set the page on fire.

I read at readings which the general public can attend. It’s true that not everyone is interested in poetry or has a reason to go to a reading, just as not all of us are interested in hockey. A former lover of mine once said, “if everyone loved oatmeal, there would be a worldwide shortage of oatmeal.”

Audiences who have come to my readings or other readings I have attended are there because they are interested in my work or my fellow writers’ work; because they are friends or family, are also poets reading at the open mic or are enthusiasts of whatever type of literature is being featured. It is lovely when people come up to me after a reading to let me know that they were affected in some way by what I read. At one reading at Café Nostalgica at the University of Ottawa several years ago, a young student told me that my reading had inspired him to pick up a pen and write while I was reading. I thought this was a high compliment. Engaging with audience members is an essential part of my practice.

I run a site called Bywords.ca, which publishes poetry monthly by current and former Ottawa residents, students and workers. The main idea of the site is to foster and nurture community, to give back to the general public at large and to promote Ottawa writers in general and to publish poets. These writers and the visitors to the site are also part of my community, as are the selectors and other members of the Bywords.ca team.

One of the key features of the site is a calendar of literary and spoken word events which take place in Canada’s National Capital Region. Event organizers send me information about their readings, signings, slams, festivals, workshops etc and I post them on the calendar and also send out notices via social media (Twitter (@bywordsdotca) and FaceBook).

My mission is to ensure that nobody who is interested in Ottawa’s literary events misses an event because they don’t know about it. We have been very fortunate to have been funded for the last eleven years by the City of Ottawa so that we can pay contributing poets, musicians and artists. The City also funds other cultural organizations and individual artists to help ensure that the artistic community thrives and is able to provide the public with an enriched and culturally diverse experience. Without such a commitment it would be difficult for such organizations to offer services to the general public.

We also hold at least one fundraising activity a year for local causes, including Cornerstone Housing for Women, which provides emergency housing and support to downtown women and the AIDS/HIV Walk for Life Ottawa, which raises funds for several local organizations that provide care and support to people with AIDS/HIV and their families. I believe that it is one of the roles of any organization working within a community to give back to its residents since we are all part of the community. Poets can be homeless or afflicted with various health issues and financial difficulties too. We are all connected. We need one another.

In addition to the above activities, I run AngelHousePress, which publishes ragged edges, raw talent and rebels. The publishing activity takes the form of limited edition chapbooks, and two on-line magazines: Experiment-O.com and NationalPoetryMonth.ca. We also host an essay series on AngelHousePress.com. These essays are written by working contemporary writers and artists and serve to aid in the continuation of dialogue about creativity, literature and art. I am interested in inspiring dialogue between creative people, just as much as I am in inspiring responses from the reading public. I think both types of response are equally valid and interesting.

I consider AngelHousePress to be another avenue for fostering and nurturing community. Creative work from all over the world is showcased via AngelHouse and accessible to anyone who might be captivated by it. The Internet to me has shrank the world and enlarged the world: the former because now anyone in the world is able to connect with anyone else of similar interest and proclivities; the latter because the World Wide Web is a gargantuan digital repository much like a dump where one can find both treasures and junk. This is why it is helpful to have curators to find the treasure and alert people to it. I consider myself to be a curator.

I also have a literary blog where I let people know about my work, but also tell them about literaria I find interesting, whether it be poetry collections or chapbooks or online magazines or podcasts or even going a wee bit outside the range of literature and including music. I do this because I am always looking for connection, collaboration opportunities and intimacy with like-minded people… to create a community of kindreds.

How do collective energies find their voice in your verse and how do you think your poems (should) reach communal interests/relevance?

I like Margaret Atwood’s answer to Peter Gzowski in a 1968 CBC interview just after she’d won the Governor General’s Award when he asked her what her poems were about. She said that poetry, like any art form, is a form of expression, and that no one asked an artist what his painting was about. So I don’t think about specific interests or relevance, but we’re all human. My poems tend to have an emotional resonance that, all being well, is something readers can empathize with and relate to.

And faced with the onslaught of cases of social injustice, violence, poverty, natural disaster and disease, the illnesses and deaths of those I hold dear, I am as affected as anyone by tragedy and I find that there’s an echo of this  in my work. I always hope that what I write resonates with someone, a fellow lonely person or a whimsical person, someone who can identify with my work. I am a misfit in conventional society, as many of us are. Writing and reading are ways in which I try to find and connect with my fellow misfits. I should point out that many of my long poems or poem series are written in the voice of a historical or imaginary character. I think that such a form can have universal resonance and create empathy in a reader.

Sometimes I will write a poem in support of a cause, such as “The Enpipe Line: 70,000+ kilometres of poetry written in resistance to the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipelines proposal,” (Creekstone Press, March, 2012) or “Air Out/Air In: 21 Poets for the Guatemala Stove Project” (Phafours, 2011).

At various rallies on Parliament Hill, I have encountered a number of my fellow poets protesting or supporting a cause. I believe that poets can be and are often engaged members of a community, as is this case, here in Ottawa. Whether they choose to refer directly to this in their poetry or whether such activism plays a more subtle role is up to them. My priority is always to serve the poem and do whatever is necessary to achieve what is called for within the work.

In this age of globalization and transnational poetries (Jahan Ramazani’s term, but not only) what do you think is the ‘community’ the poet addresses, if any, and what do you think are or may be the premises for emerging virtual and/or trans-national readerships (the “coming community” of theory again—G. Agamben—if you want)?

Here I’d like to give a specific example of a global community I belong to: the visual poetry community. We find out about one another through on-line and print magazines and blogs that publish our work, through FaceBook groups, through sites like Tumblr, Pinterest and Twitter where people share links and post work from various visual poets. Through AngelHousePress I have published visual poets from Hungary, Italy, Germany, France, England, Canada, the USA and probably other places. Visual poetry lends itself very well to globalization because it works outside of the context of languages in that you don’t have to understand a particular language to appreciate the work as a piece of art or a form of communication.

When discussing the community the poet addresses, I have to refer to the main thesis of this note: that poets are part of the community. At least that’s how I see myself. I’m writing for myself but also for other misfits and unconventional kindreds. I’m writing for anyone who has ever felt an emotion. This doesn’t change because poetry is able to be read or heard on line throughout the world. In fact, it only makes me more determined to publish online in order to share my work as widely as possible and to connect with other like-minded readers and writers. The question is mainly one of dissemination. I am grateful to translators who make it possible for me to read the works of poets who are writing in languages other than English.

Is there anything nowadays such as communities/schools of poets, in any way relevant to the life of communities around the poets?

Academia continues to attract poets to its programs.  I have a number of poetry pals who have worked toward their MFAs in Creative Writing in Canada of late. This is fairly new in Canada, but  has been a big part of poetry in the USA. I’m not sure if other countries have such programs. The general public consists of students and family of students and their friends. Do parents encourage their children to take MFAs in Creative Writing? Can students afford to do so without having to incur debts the size of a mortgage before they graduate? These programs lead to more poetry books available to be read by the general public and more instructors to teach the general public’s children. It seems like a healthy contribution to me, except for the debt.

I think in Canada there are certain schools, but it isn’t cut in stone. For example, I would say that Cobourg poet, Stuart Ross, a long-time former resident of Toronto, is a mentor for contemporary surrealism and the small press in Canada. He offers poetry boot camps, manuscript editing and has recently published a book called Our Days in Vaudeville through Mansfield Press, that is a collaboration with 29 other poets, which is a terrific example of reaching out to others in the literary community. He was a writer-in-residence at Queens University in Kingston, Ontario a few years ago and mentored several emerging writers, including Michael E. Casteels, who is a small press owner through his chapbook press, Puddles of Sky, in Kingston.

In Ottawa, rob mclennan is an active promoter and publisher of poetry with his small press above/ground press which publishes chapbooks and broadsides he distributes en masse throughout the world. He also curates a series of on line magazines and is co-publisher of Chaudiere Books, with his wife, fellow poet, Christine McNair. Through these presses and publications, he has introduced numerous writers from around the world to each other and has put Ottawa on the map as a happening literary centre. His 12 or 20 questions series with writers and small press publishers is a great initiative that allows readers to learn about the writers and their works in greater detail.

He has also offered workshops and if he’s the mentor for any particular school, I’d call it the contemporary poetry playbox. He introduces budding poets to the works of contemporary poets they might never have heard of and encourages them to play and experiment. I myself took numerous workshops from him and have learned of/been inspired by the works of Nathanël, Erín Moure, Dennis Cooley, Fred Wah, Robert Kroetsch, Cole Swensen, Paige Ackerson-Kiely, Kate Greenstreet and more, thanks to rob’s efforts at fostering community.

What are the “actual” or fictional/utopian/dystopic communities in your poetry/in poetries you enjoy or are familiar with?

I’m fascinated with the idea of fictional/utopian and dystopic communities. My poetry lives in the world of my whacky imagination. And I can’t help but be influenced by the creative works of others, both living and dead.

When I first began to draft this piece, I was working on (and probably still am) a poetry manuscript which centres around a woman’s belief that she is Saint Ursula. I am fascinated with saints and historical figures, but not so much with what actually happened to them. The fun for me is in extrapolation. The work concerns a homeless woman who has visions. Through it, I’d like to explore the issues of homelessness here in Ottawa and also chronic pain, depression, schizophrenia etc. When I was in hospital in 2009, I had ICU psychosis, causing terrifying delusions that I believed to be real. It made me worry for those who have to experience such delusions in their daily lives. I’ve written of hell based on Dante’s Inferno via these delusions and the pain I endured during my health crisis.

I also write fiction and my characters are generally bad-asses, who don’t really fit in very well with convention. I have written a few stories set in the period leading up to and after an apocalypse where characters are fighting to survive in draconian circumstances. I find it satisfying to write out my fears and as a reader, I find dystopic texts compelling. I guess it’s a bit like being a rubber-necker at an accident: we don’t want to look at scenes of grisly death, but we can’t tear our eyes away. Sometimes it helps to understand that we are all suffering; there’s a camaraderie in that. These tales also serve as morality plays for what might happen if we continue to a) use up all the resources in our environment; b) continue to place a low priority on those less fortunate…

Wouldn’t it be fun to write within the perspective of a Utopian community! My ideal world entails free love, the end to heteronormative monogamy as the dominant culture, the disappearance of gender binaries, solutions to homelessness, poverty, disease and war. In addition I would like a fully funded arts and culture program, and an endless supply of strong coffee and profiteroles please.

Is your poetry/are your poems a community?  In what way(s)?

I typically write long poems and poem series. I think each one of them is a community. Sometimes they are populated with invented or historical characters; other times they are populated with soundscapes (“Sessions from the Dream House Area,” excerpts of which can be found on 17 Seconds Magazine here), metal textures (Me, Medusa, a chapbook published on line by the UK Press, the Red Ceilings Press). Sometimes they interact quite directly with the work of other poets (Ghazals Against the Gradual Demise: chapbook 1 – “Sex First and Then A Sandwich” is in response to Jim Harrison’s ghazals; “The Sad Phoenician’s Other Woman” is in response to Robert Kroetsch’s “The Sad Phoenician.”

Could you give us a few considerations on/tentative predictions regarding the future involvement of poetry in the life of communities, or the other way round: the impact of future possible or virtual communities on poetry and their depiction in poetry?

I think we’ll need more curators to guide us in the increasing miasma that is the Internet. As independent bookstores, which used to be the primary hub for readings and author signings, close, we will need other ways to promote and foster a community of readers. In Ottawa in the last few years, we’ve seen the closure of several bookstores, including Collected Works and Mother Tongue Books. Both of which held numerous readings in their stores and sold poetry by local poets.

Sites like GoodReads.com and Canada’s the 49thShelf.com, OpenBookOntario, Lemonhound.com, help to maintain a literary community and inspire readers to purchase books, either on line or in print. There are a number of excellent literary journals on line: DitchPoetry.com, Numero Cinq (a warm place on a cruel web), the Volta, The Conversant, Penn Sound and Jacket2. As postal service is reduced, it is probably true that printed journals will cease to exist, which saddens me immeasurably, but these online hubs, for want of a better term, offer a lot of possibilities that printed journals cannot offer.

I tried to get into Second Life, the virtual reality / role playing game which also seems to have poetry readings somehow. It wasn’t for me, but perhaps others will find this sort of thing a help in fostering community.

I really like the idea of poetry events being broadcast live. The Griffin Poetry Prize for example, always streams the shortlisted readers. I wish the sound quality and video quality was better, but I think that’s coming.

Another cool thing is the book trailer where authors read excerpts from their books which are translated into short films. I think this is exciting, but it has to include an element of feedback, of direct access to the writer, either through social media or e-mail. I know many authors balk at the idea of such direct contact with readers, but for those who enjoy it, we are in a time of great opportunity for interaction between fans and creators. Take a look at the Moving Poems site, which has a huge list of poetry book trailers.

Brick Books, a Canadian publisher, has a slew of audio recordings of its poets and is at the forefront of ensuring all kinds of readers have access to poetry for free through these podcasts.

Two festivals, the Ottawa International Writers Festival and VERSeFest work with local schools to offer programs where authors are invited to schools to read and talk with children. The Ottawa Public Library and local writers organizations also offer similar activities, such as writing contests for young people. These programs seem to be increasing rather than diminishing.

The League of Canadian Poets in collaboration with an advertising company is publishing poems on public buses in a program called “Poetry In Transit.” I have read great poems by poets such as Dionne Brand, P.K. Page and Robert Kroetsch whilst standing on a crowded #95 en route home after a long day in a Byward Market café, penning my own poems and hanging out with fellow poets. Life is rough!

Community radio stations such as Carleton University’s CKCU and the University of Ottawa’s CHUO have programs which feature the arts, particularly poetry on shows such as Friday Special Blend with Susan Johnson, Literary Landscapes with Pearl Pirie, Dave Currie, Kathryn Hunt and Neil Wilson, and Click Here with Mitchell Caplan. The hosts interview poets and publishers on their programs. The CBC through shows such as Writers and Company with Eleanor Wachtel and The Next Chapter with Shelagh Rogers, also broadcast interviews and highlights literary work, including, on rare occasions, poetry. You can listen to these programs live or as podcasts later on.

I believe all of the above initiatives and activities bring poetry to the community and community to poets. You don’t have to live in the city where a reading is taking place in order to enjoy the work of the poet in the poet’s own voice, for example. And with the help of good curators, this information can be passed on to those new to poetry.

Not to discount the reading as a great opportunity as well. Ottawa is a city full of readings of poetry and fiction. While there’s a tendency for such readings to attract the same old die-hard enthusiasts, there are often at least one or two Ottawa newbies who found out about the reading through a friend or some online resource, such as Bywords.ca.

‘Poetry’?  What kind of poetry, if any?  How does poetry look in that (any?) picture (of the future), if in any way present?  And speaking of virtual, what do you think is or could be the communal relevance of digital/electronic/new media poetry?  Is Marjorie Perloff right when she states in Unoriginal Genius that writing the new century poem (concerning itself not with inventio but with the processing and absorption of the foreign itself, and therefore typically proceeding by [inter/hypertextual] sampling and appropriation] is no easier than it ever was, just different?

I think poetry looks very much the same in many ways with books and chapbooks and online journals but as I said, print journals may go the way of the dodo. I think digital poetry combined with animation will be of interest to some people as it is now and perhaps more so. I can even imagine poetry book trailers beginning a film in a theatre, much like animations do today.

I’m hoping that poetry pioneers such as Christian Bök who combines science with poetry will continue to thrive. I hope that there will be more hybrids and fewer genre labels on types of creativity. I hope that the audience for poetry or for these hybrids will increase.

Do we want to see the end of copyright? How does plunderverse as described by Gregory Betts and other forms of appropriation fit in to what is legal or acceptable when it comes to publishing? Will publishers be willing to risk lawsuits and fines if they publish text recycled from others?

I’d like to be able to play with whatever is available. The Internet has made it easier to cut and paste text. I think of Jonathan Ball who licensed his poetry under Creative Commons so that others would be able to take the text and do what they like with it, including creating new forms of art. Take a look at Gary Barwin’s reversals of parts of Ball’s book, “Clockfire.”

I think that being able to work with existing texts or music or art opens up the possibility for creativity, so I’m all for it, provided people give credit where credit is due. The Internet has made it possible for people from all over the world to contact one another. This has also paved the way for collaborative poetry projects.

The Finnish visual poet Satu Kaikkonen has few blogs where she invites contributors from all over the world to participate. See Time for a Vispo.

Or, even beyond virtual community, in Mark Surman and Darren Wershler-Henry’s terms, what is the place of poetry in the “common space” and in the age of the “power of the collective,” and what kind of poetry could that be?

I hope that poets continue to question the dogma and propaganda that is prevalent in society, thanks to increasing Big Brother presence, censorship and double speak of government and large corporations. The poet is the canary in the coal mine, n’est-ce-pas? I am hoping that grassroots collectives such as the Occupy Movement, Idle No More and other activist groups continue to grow and gain support and that artists and writers who question the dogma are able to thrive, but I worry that Conservative intolerance for unconventional lifestyles, non mainstream thinking and the power and corruption of right-wing forces will keep free thinkers underground. The fact that we have to be concerned with governments monitoring our social media and Internet interactions is very scary to me. It shows there is a need now more than ever to make art and to find ingenious ways to disseminate it, as Diderot did during the creation of L’Encylopédie when he published entries that challenged the status quo under mundane items such as “Souliers” [shoes].

And, if, as a well-known playwright twitted a few months ago and then a Washington Post article elaborated on, “poetry is dead”—which is also the name of an excellent Vancouver based poetry magazine—is there any (chance for a) post-history post-poetry out there, or in here, in your verse?

T.W. Adorno wrote that “After Auschwitz to write a poem is barbaric;”yet we have an impulse to bear witness. I think this is more important than ever today. The Serbian poet Vasko Popa was one of the writers who utilized symbolism and allegory in his work to personalize and portray the horrors of war at a time when literal renderings were censored. Poetry is an ideal and subtle means of articulating the dangers of acceptance of the status quo and a way to question the language of propaganda. I think for this reason alone and there are many other reasons to add, it will survive because it is needed by the reading public to help us translate and convey emotion, tragedy, comedy and life in all its myriad and complicated facets. To create art is to survive and to rebel against convention.

I think poetry will continue to exist, change and adapt as it has always done, and to serve an audience. I have no intention of stopping writing poetry or whatever hybrid I choose to create, even if I had a choice in the matter.  As Mark Twain once said, “Reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.”

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Amanda Earl is an Ottawa poet, publisher and pornographer. She defends your right to express your creativity in whatever way you please. She is the managing editor of Bywords.ca and the (fallen) angel of AngelHousePress. Her poetry has been published both on line and in print in America, Australia, Canada, England, France and Ireland. Her visual poetry has been exhibited in Russia and Windsor, Ontario. Her most recent poetry chapbook, Sex First & Then A Sandwich is available from above/ground press. For more information, please visit AmandaEarl.com or talk to her on Twitter @KikiFolle.

Categories: Poetries & Communities Project Tags:

Susan Rich–A Poet Is a Poet Because of Other People

December 19th, 2013 margento No comments

 

 

I am lucky. I live in five intersecting rings of poetry. It wasn’t always this way. My poetry life, and therefore my poetry community, has been hard won.

In college, one poetry teacher told our entire class, “Most of you won’t write one word once you reach the age of twenty-six.” Another professor took me aside and whispered, “Perhaps you should concentrate on children’s books.” By the time I had graduated with a degree in Creative Writing, I was without faith — not only drained of belief in my own work, but more importantly, utterly disheartened by the world of academic poetry. The community of poets I had idolized, poets such as Denise Levertov, Adrienne Rich, and Muriel Rukeyser as they went off in 1972 to investigate the war in Vietnam had all but disappeared. The famous friendship between Maxine Kumin and Anne Sexton had ended with the suicide of Sexton in 1974. The world of poetry didn’t look very promising.

Instead of pursuing poetry, directly after college I joined the Peace Corps. I wanted to travel, to learn from different cultures and experience new ways of living radically different from my own. I knew that if I were ever to have anything to say, it needed to be augmented with an extended worldview.

When I eventually returned to Boston from my two years in the Peace Corps, I found solace in books such as William Stafford’s Swimming the Australian Crawl and You Must Change Your Life. I took classes in the living rooms of poets who needed the extra cash. The casualness and camaraderie of those Thursday nights complete with a cup of tea brought me back to myself. The idea that there might be a way, after all, to be a poet in the world outside of the strictures of others’ beliefs started taking shape in my mind. Ironically, working with a grassroots community is what freed me of the need for acceptance.

After the death of my parents, I took a leap across the country and changed my life, as instructed by Rilke. At age 36, I registered as a student in the MFA program at the University of Oregon. My classmates were a strained group of twelve, representing a diversity of age, race, economic background and global geography.  Really, we were a ragtag bunch and with little more in common than a burning desire to write. And yet, eventually we learned not only to get along, but to rely on one other, and to open our hearts. The program changed us; it made of us more tolerant humans, more aware of how to live in a literary community.

Today I live in Seattle, WA, a city most famous for its coffee connoisseurs and serious readers. My first visit to Seattle left me wondering what these citizens had accomplished in their past lives to be reborn as Seattlites. The Seattle area includes mountain ranges, beautiful bodies of water, and books. Here, more people buy books per capita than in any other U.S. city. This statistic is often followed by a joke about the weather or a line that exaggerates our slate colored skies. But that is only half the story. Seattle overflows with literary organizations – most of them founded by a small group of people sitting somewhere on a sofa and asking, “why not”?

 

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Community of Geography

 

In Seattle, poets celebrate Open Books: A Poem Emporium, as our physical and spiritual home. Owned by accomplished poets, John Marshall and Christine Deavel, the store schedules readings by nationally and locally famous poets twice each month. Often, there’s a house party following the event with everybody invited.  The focus is to bring new voices into the community, not lock them out. A community focused on inclusion.

The belief that poetry is meant for everyone, that no one holds the magical keys to the lyrical city is echoed in the organizations, residencies, and presses throughout Washington State. A prime example is Floating Bridge Press (FBP). The press has its roots in the basement of poet Peter Pereira’s house. A group of friends clustered together on Peter’s couch naming all the excellent poets they knew who had yet to be published. Why not start a press? Why not?

What inspired me to join the editorial board of FPB — to spend midnight hours reading manuscripts, answering emails, and mailing out journals was the spirit of the editors. Our desire was to discover new writers and give them a voice; to open out the community of writers by organizing readings, paying poets, and publishing new people each year. More than any other organization in Washington, I believe that Floating Bridge Press has created a lasting legacy of generosity among poets. Poets Kelli Russell Agodon, Elizabeth Austen, Allen Braden, Timothy Kelly, and Katherine Whitcomb have all been published by Floating Bridge Press.

But that’s just the beginning. Writing groups, reading groups, and residencies play an integral part in the literary landscape of my home. My Community of Poetry Readers, otherwise known as COPR’s comes together every month to discuss a book of poems and to gift individual poems that we’ve discovered. Anne Carson, Deborah Digges, Mark Doty, and Gjertrud Schnackenberg reflect the diversity of our tastes. We are a group of seven poets and two non-fiction writers who travel across the state one Sunday a month to talk about poems together and to share some aloud. We create a time out of time for each other in a ritual that allows us to be fed by poetry: a communal meal.

 

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Community of Poetry Friends

 

Here is the secret nobody knows: poets need friends. OK. If you are reading this, you know it, and I know it, and so did Elizabeth Bishop. From Brooklyn over the Brooklyn Bridge this fine morning please come flying. In “Invitation to Miss Marianne Moore,” Elizabeth Bishop celebrates her deep friendship with another woman poet: her mentor and lifelong friend, Marianne Moore.

I know that Bishop and Moore shared poems, went on outings to the zoo together, and when Bishop moved to Brazil in 1951, wrote long letters.

I think if we look close enough, we’ll find that every serious poet who produces work over a lifetime has poets whom they can rely on. We need poets to drink coffee with, to talk craft with and finally (when it’s almost too late) to retell favorite stories of past and future dreams. Maybe because poetry is so far from the mainstream of American life, we need reminders that our hours, days, weeks, spent in seclusion are okay. More than okay.

I know that without my dearest poetry friends: Kelli Russell Agodon and Katherine Flenniken I would not be as brave as a poet. Without my dearest poetry teachers: Madeline DeFrees, Pamela Alexander, Linda Pastan, and Garrett Hongo, I would not be as well trained in the craft  (of course there is always room for improvement). Without my dead mentors: Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Bishop and Anne Sexton, I would not have begun writing at all.

 

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Community of Peace Corps

 

A long time ago, I was a college drop out. The only thing that convinced me to finish my degree was the possibility of joining the Peace Corps. I knew I wanted to see the world and that I wished to write about it. At age 25, I was looking for myself by getting as far away from my own life as I could. Unbelievably, this worked.

And I am not the only one. There are many poets who began their writing lives as Peace Corps Volunteers: Derek Burleson, Sandra Meek, and Anne Neelon are three examples ~ all of them went on to publish poetry collections exploring their tenure in Africa.

But it is not only the other Peace Corps poets that I am drawn to. More important to me are the Returned Peace Corps Volunteers, who perhaps find something recognizable in my poems regarding their own Peace Corps experience. My two years in Niger, West Africa, was nothing short of surreal. All I had learned about life to that point was turned upside down and tossed next to a sand dune – soon to be digested by a goat or a camel. Many of us were just out of college, inexperienced in the larger world, and ill prepared for desert life — especially during a drought of biblical proportions.

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I stubbornly subscribe to the old fashioned need for my poems to serve others. I know my poems can’t feed the hungry, house the homeless, end wars, or pass a more just stimulus package in Congress, but my job as an artist is to keep myself and others awake.

 

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Community of the Grand Double P ~

 

Poetry and politics: a subject so often avoided in literary circles in the United States. Is political poetry merely another way of saying a poetry that is engaged in the world?  Are my poems detailing the lives of Bosnians during the war inherently political or are they more humanist? Is humanist a bad word? Does it imply a hedging of bets without wanting to upset anyone? I could write an entire piece on the slippery space the Double P inhabits, but I would remain estranged from a definitive answer. This is by choice. If I write poems that when complete are “about” the inhumanity of state executions here in the United States or the rampant racism Americans exhibited after September 11th, or the inhumanity happening in Palestine right now, that was not explicitly why I wrote the poem.

For the record: I am on the side of political poetry. I believe poets have a responsibility to our society at large.

 

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World Community of Poets

 

My poems often reflect the people I meet. Since I have lived on three continents, these meetings frequently occur outside the United States. I’ve worked in several cities scattered across the globe – in Sarajevo, Bosnia, in Cape Town, South Africa, and in Gaza City, Gaza. While in Ljubljana, Slovenia I read on a candlelit stage with a translator by my side and later, outside of Galway, Ireland, I read to the mountains with an Irish friend. My poetry community is not restrained by border crossings. I believe in a global community of poets.

 

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And yet. I am dissatisfied. This listing of people and places seems flaccid next to my vision of what constitutes a community of poets. My mind conjures Anne Sexton and Maxine Kumin with their dedicated phone line, their linked handsets perched on the corners of their desks as they worked.  I try to conjure the solidarity of poets who went to prison for their beliefs in South Africa – or anywhere in the world where human rights violations occur. I think of Jeremy Cronin’s poem  — Motho Ke Motho Ka Batho Babang (A Person is a Person Because of Other People) that details the wordless conversation between two prisoners as a guard scrutinizes them. A poet is a poet because of other poets. We need each other. It’s that simple.

 

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Susan Rich (http://susanrich.net & blog) is the author of four collections of poetry, most recently, Cloud Pharmacy and The Alchemist’s Kitchen, which was a Finalist for the Foreword Prize and the Washington State Book Award. She is the recipient of awards from Artist’s Trust, The Times Literary Supplement of London, Peace Corps Writers and the Fulbright Foundation. Individual poems appear in the Antioch Review, New England Review, Poetry Ireland, and The Southern Review. Along with Brian Turner and Jared Hawkley, she edited the anthology, The Strangest of Theatres: Poets Crossing Borders published by McSweeney’s and the Poetry Foundation. Susan lives and writes in Seattle, Washington.

Categories: Poetries & Communities Project Tags:

Oliver de la Paz–Desert Ghosts: On Postcards, Presences, and Poetry Communities

December 3rd, 2013 margento No comments

 

 

 

 

I’ve been working on a series of prose poems for the past five years. The series started through collaborations with poets from the Kundiman retreat. Timothy Yu, one of the fellows from the annual Asian American poetry retreat, presented the idea that all of the fellows and staff members for that particular year send each other poems on postcards for a whole month. So, for the entire month of August I’d write and receive postcards with little poems on them. I wound up continuing a series of prose poems that initially started as small scraps of images but grew into a larger series of epistolary poems. What made the process joyous was that I was writing each postcard for someone I knew. I also knew that they were doing the same for me. Every day of that August, I felt like someone was wrapping a small precious stone in cellophane after having carefully plucked it from a stream and sending it to me.

***

What’s always been useful to my writing process is envisioning the recipient of the poem–someone who will receive the poem after I’ve written it as though it were a gift. My early understanding of poems and the act of making poetry is that one’s attention must be granted wholeheartedly towards the other person who will be participating in the poem’s creation, whether he or she is aware of their participation or not. That person needn’t be a full flesh-and-blood person in front of you. Rather, that person or those persons could be like the images one sees along an interstate in the distance during the high sun of the summer. The waves of heat creating the illusion that there is someone walking along the road just ahead of you–forever just ahead of you.

***

Some of the earliest picture postcards in history depicted war emblems. In the 1870′s a picture of armaments adorned the face of one of the first printed postcards to commemorate the Franco-Prussian war. Later, advertising appeared in postcards. Some of the early postcards in the United States were called “penny postcards” and were used as expedient means of communication. And for their size, the postcard is an ideal mode for expediency in communication. The picture does much of the talking. The text can enhance the picture, be enhanced by the picture, or can remain autonomous. There is a distance suggested by the postcard–the sender is somewhere far off. The sender is wishing the recipient were there, but also the sender acknowledges that he or she is in a place that could generate envy in the recipient. “Wish you were here.” “Having a wonderful time.” “I miss you.” The picture is shorthand for the shorthand. There is also the acknowledgment that the distance between recipient and sender is great, and that the sender is in a place where the normal rules of time do not allow him the luxury of a long engagement. The message must be as quick as a synaptic flash.

***

I’m constantly worried about these new poems.  How they’d be received outside of the immediate poetry community that assisted in their creation. There is something intensely sacred for me about these poems–I feel, in some regards, like they are not poems of my body, but rather, they are poems of a collective. Within each page, the words of some other poet climb out of the margins.

***

My family moved to the desert of Eastern Oregon when I was a young boy. There were no other Filipino families there. It was the 70′s and the Vietnam War had “ended” three years prior. Many of the soldiers who had returned from the war lived around the periphery of Ontario, Oregon, the town where we settled. I would sometimes see them when I was out with my mother, dressed in torn fatigues, coming into town for tractor parts or for groceries. They would look at us for a minute, as if they were reaching for something that had dropped into a deep and ever narrowing tube. Then they would snap out of their reveries and return to the business at hand. Their expressions always showed a bit of surprise, as if they were discovering something new as they shopped along the cereal aisle or as they filled their trucks with gas. I wanted to know who these men were. I wanted to follow them as they insisted on the ordinariness of the lives that had been returned to them. My concepts of distance and community were formed through these chance glances. I recognized the “othering” glare, but I also recognized that the glare saw something within itself that it did not know had existed.

***

Each poem of this series begins with a salutation: “Dear Empire”. Am I the ghost of this Empire figure or is the Empire figure the ghost of the poem? Throughout the poems there are ruins. There are ruins atop ruins and there are people who live among the ruins who are real people and not ghosts. My mind has lived among them for five years and I have to be considerate of their needs. A respectful distance cannot be maintained when one lives among the ruins and ghosts. But an understanding can be reached. For example, I know when I must leave the room. I know when the ghosts have been disturbed, when I have torn back the seams.

***

When I lived in Arizona, I’d frequently get lost. I’d be driving down a long road and everything would look the same. Building after building, the same stucco would rocket past me, blurring into the very landscape as though each wall were a part of the soil. I was always amazed at the sudden oasis of an apartment complex as one would spring up out of the landscape, its manmade lake and geyser issuing forth a burst of water into the air that would immediately evaporate. Some of my “Dear Empire” poems return me to this landscape. The audacity of it. The deep veins of a dry riverbed is always near these structures, the fissures deep and dusty.

***

I am writing about Empire because I want to understand Empire. Wherever Empire goes, there are many ghosts that follow. When I first began writing the series, he was an innocent enough character. I’m getting to know him. There are places, though, where he has yet to take me. I want to understand Empire’s wake, knowing that I travel in Empire’s wake. Such perspective is difficult to glean within the confines of its very walls. In order to understand a community, you have to leave that community. You have to wander into a different desert.

***

My son keeps jumping out of his bed during naptime. He is crying. He says that there are ghosts in his room. I scoop him up into my arms and carry him down the long hallway, back into his bed. I assure him that there are no such things as ghosts. That the world is filled with tangible things. That there are no apparitions. No phantoms possibly materializing in his room, the closet, on the other side of the door.

***

The veteran’s assembly hall was across the street from my Catholic elementary school. During recess, we’d see young men step out of their pick-up trucks and head inside. This happened quite often and in the middle of the day, and I wondered whether any of them worked like my parents. Whether they had any place to be. The world, as far as I knew, was full of duties–the expected places our bodies must go in order to fulfill some larger contract which I did not understand. I wondered what sort of agreement these men had made.

***

There were early controversies with postcards as a new medium. In some countries, certain images were illegal to send across international  (and even national) borders. For example, there were a series of early seaside postcards that contained images of nude bathers. Such seaside postcards were never received by people in these countries since they violated the country’s morality codes. Every community has its taboos, and every community has its way of skirting them. The postcards poems that I am writing are not themselves taboo, nor are the subjects contained within them taboo. However, I can’t help but feel like I am sharing a secret which I should not be sharing. I can’t help but feel like I’m saying something I shouldn’t say—as though I am breaking the bounds of some decorum.

***

Once the postcard prose poems were removed from the Kundiman community that assisted in their creation, they became longer pieces, as though I were writing to an audience who did not understand their context. In some ways, more exposition crept in which I would later cut. I sometimes wonder what it takes to have someone understand my poems. What words need to fit? How can I show you? If I show you, will you still be here? Therein lies the value of a community—you don’t have to explain yourself, your context. You can just be. The planes that define your body’s outline line-up with the community’s understanding of what it means to be. Your histories can remain your histories without any justification. Without any back story.

***

One of my favorite postcards that I received is that of a young Japanese schoolgirl looking out the window of a bullet train in Tokyo as the city’s light reflects in the glass. It looks as though her body is slowly dematerializing, the molecules of her dress, her skin, slowly twirling away from her as the train pushes forward through the evening air. In the photograph, she looks distracted, as though she is talking over her shoulder to someone holding on to a pole to keep themselves steady. It’s as though she too feels she is talking to someone who is slowly disappearing.

***

My son is slowly sinking into the sheets as I read him a story. There are pictures of our family in the Philippines, lining his shelf: his cousins, his aunts and uncles, their images rest atop a turquoise-painted bookshelf. It’s as though the sea were between them.

***

I remember when the director of my graduate school first met with all of the new creative writing graduate students for orientation. She looked at each one of us earnestly and urged us to embrace our time together and that our time together was finite. That we’d all be slowly moving away from each other like galaxies.

***

In the desert, you can hear things. If you are quiet, you can hear the skirt of sand pass over the rocks with a small gust. You can hear the feet of the lizards pad across the rocks. There are so many palpable ghosts in the desert–the little threads of sweat twisting their way through the cloth. The rodents tucked under the roots of a saguaro. I came to the desert years ago to find a writing community, but more importantly, I came to the desert to understand my ghosts. I needed to find a place where I could hear them. A place where I could give them my full attention.

***

Little postcards are lining up along my wall, and I am running out of room for them, so I begin taking photographs of the front and the back and then tucking them away in a shoe box. A postcard is such a useful thing–it doesn’t have the length of a letter, so there are details that get left off. So much of the language in a postcard can be substituted by the image on the front of the postcard. There is the expectation that the recipient will understand the image and, when coupled with the few words on the back, perhaps an understanding can be reached. Maybe envy. Maybe loss. What’s also useful is that the postcard takes up space. It is, itself, a body. It is not the same as an e-mail note–rather, because the postcard is a body, it occupies an area the size of its height and its width. I, myself, have no more room for all these selves, so I must put them away. My office is littered with presences.

***

In the local Phoenix news, a horse and rider had somehow ascended Camelback Mountain but had no way of descending the mountain. So the newscasters were constantly talking over the footage of a helicopter carrying a horse in a harness, dangling from a cable over the city of Phoenix as the purplish dusks of the desert eased their way into the lenses. The horse’s head was slumped down–it was obviously sedated, and the apparitions of the city’s lights veered this way and that as the camera’s tried to steady their shots.

***

I have written over 100 “Dear Empire” poems and see no end to them. They fill my hard drive. I write them with a strange ease, as though someone were controlling my hand. As though someone were cradling my arm in a harness and dragging my limp wrists over the keyboard. They are easy for me to write because they are ongoing conversations. And while that conversation was initially prompted in the midst of a community of Asian American poets, I’ve maintained that conversation. I am having that conversation with my son, telling him about the painted rocks, the little gems of postcards arriving in the mail. I’m telling him about the desert monsoons. The way water so quickly vanishes before it touches the ground.

***

I was driving from New Mexico. The rocks there were like the veins on the back of the hands; there was a near-fibrous quality to them. The colors streaming out of them like ribbons around a gift. The road was clear, except for the yellow dashes of the highway divider, blurring into a single line with my car’s speed. I was leaving Arizona for my first job, carrying behind me all my books, my clothes, furniture. I could feel the weight of it all drag the U-Haul down a bit, especially as I drove up the hills. It was August in the desert, which was a terrible and unpredictable time in the Southwest. Not only was it hot, but there was also the possibility of flash flood. In my side mirrors, I could see the thick-headed thunder clouds bearing up on me. The desert can play tricks like that–clouds suddenly appear and disappear as you turn your head, or squint. Up ahead, the apparitions of figures arc and dance off the blacktop.

***

My poetic process has continued to be a dialogic one. Even before the postcard project with my Kundiman cohorts, I wrote poems for someone or for the idea of someone. For the longest time, my private poems were written for an unrequited love, my father, mother, for me. The act of writing a poem has to be one of the most compassionate things someone can do, for within that act, you are ultimately declaring you are here before a ready listener, preparing to say something that will reveal an emotional state–yours, regardless of the illusion of distance. And in that emotional state, we as speaker and listener are vulnerable.

***

The truth is, when I decided to go to Arizona State University for graduate study in creative writing, I wanted to return to the desert because it was the closest thing to a home landscape that I had ever had. And though I never felt that I had established a community within the desert landscape, I felt a sureness walking on the ground within that landscape. Certain ideas of home are difficult for me to process, since I have had many homes–while I lived in the desert of Eastern Oregon for the longest duration of my life, I never felt I was a part of that place. Once, during a break from college, I purchased postcards from a local mini-mart. The postcards had pictures of cowboys, jackalopes, pheasants, and dusty covered wagons bouncing along the trails. Some of the postcards celebrated the pioneering spirit of the West. Some of them mocked the “redneck” lifestyle. I sent these postcards to friends in Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, aware that they’d find novelty in the cards. I imagine the postcards pinned to someone’s refrigerator with a brightly colored magnet. The image of a cowboy rising up with the arch of a horse’s back as it attempts to kick its rider, lifted high above the kitchen tiles and faded pictures of cousins and uncles.

***

I’m writing these “Dear Empire” poems because I’m trying to define my community in them. They also depict my struggle to identify myself within a community. There are ghosts throughout their sentences. Whole paragraphs can be heard without bodies attached to them. They pass through walls. There are spaces that are embodied within the words. There are gaps within the prose poems’ narrative memories. I am writing many of these poems because I am searching for something that a single prose poem cannot find. The act of writing these pieces is the act of driving through the desert–the veterans’ facilities, the strip malls, the saguaro and the sage brush all blur by in my mind’s search for something, a single locus that I can call here. That I can call home. Somewhere, high above the skyline, I imagine the body of a horse being lifted from a mountain, dangling from a harness above the cityscape. Its legs hang limply and it looks like a spent rag, heavy with the wet weight at its tips.

***

This is a postcard for you. I am here at my desk and the world is behind the door. The world is outside, lining up toy cars and trains.  Sound parts the barrier. He is sorting colors and shapes and I can hear his mother talk calmly to him as his voice rises with the high excitement of young joy. There are so many other things to tell you–the sun has come out, finally. The cedars flat needles turn silver in the shine. I am about to open my door. I am about to walk down the hall past the portraits of my family and friends, far away from this place. I am about to step out into the brightness of the afternoon.

—————————-

Oliver de la Paz is the author of four collections of poetry: NAMES ABOVE HOUSES, FURIOUS LULLABY, REQUIEM FOR THE ORCHARD, and the forthcoming POST SUBJECT: A FABLE, which is a collection of epistolary prose poems. He is the co-editor of A FACE TO MEET THE FACES: AN ANTHOLOGY OF CONTEMPORARY PERSONA POETRY, and the co-chair of the Kundiman advisory board. He is the music editor for AT LENGTH and teaches in the MFA program at Western Washington University.

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Norma Dunning–The Writing of My Poems

November 25th, 2013 margento No comments

 

 

 

There is something so delicious in the placing of a chocolate covered ice cream bar between your teeth and onto your tongue. There is something so delicious in the way your tongue happily accepts this act and how all of this deliciousness, and calorie-filled, mixture slides down your eager throat. You feel it freeze your intestines in the process, and shock your system into what is called, ‘a brain freeze’—this is how you know that this cold delightfulness is truly very chilling. It’s so very pleasing that you hear your throat involuntarily murmur in the near sensuous delight of it all. It’s fun.

This is also the way mainstream citizens related to the chocolate covered ice cream bar called, “Eskimo Pie.” This is not how I react to anything beginning or containing the word ‘Eskimo’ or ‘Esquimaux’ or any of the words that mainstream societies use to bring into the minds of their people, that image of an Inuit person, dressed in a fur-ringed parka, harpoon in hand, waiting with silent patience over a seal breathing hole. This is the image, which is super-glued into the consciousness of non-Inuit people, globally.

When I wrote ‘Eskimo Pie I” and a year later, ‘Eskimo Pie II’, I was asking myself, how many Inuit would have ever eaten such a thing? I was thinking of all the government-driven policy that removed from the Inuit of Canada traditional drum dancing and tattooing. I was thinking of all the Inuit who had their traditional names and naming systems removed by the Eskimo Identification Canada system, which in turn effected how Inuit view not only the continuing of life but also the ceremony involved in death. The E-number system was followed by Project Surname and later Project Correction, because having a singular, non-gendered name in Canada was prohibited.

I was thinking, most of all, about all the little Inuit children who were forced into residential schools in order to be able to ‘blend in’ or assimilate with the dominant Canadian society. Unless you are the child of a residential school survivor, you truly don’t know what was taken away from you because of the experience of your parent. So when I even see the words, “Eskimo Pie” I see humiliation, degradation and the demeaning of my peoples.

I see just another example of expropriation of my culture and the way the representation of the Inuit lingers on, into present day, as a smiling, innocently-stupid type of peoples who remain unable to care for or manage themselves in a way that’s meets the fur-ringed standards of the majority of Canadian society. For every bite of ‘Eskimo Pie’ by mainstream society, another attempt by an Inuit person to be more than the mainstream image, is chewed up and swallowed and dissolved into mush. All of the things that were slowly trying to imprison the Inuit, while the rest of North America was enjoying a treat, called “Eskimo Pie”. Good for them.

While an entrepreneur in the US was making and marketing a tasty, summertime delicacy Inuit children were being taught that their language, their beliefs and mainly, their very existences were of no true value unless they became a whiter shade of Eskimo. Therein lays the irony of it all, the pain and the hard truth that most Canadians don’t want to acknowledge and that is all I ever ask for, acknowledgement. So much time has stumbled past us all that it is too late for blame, or finger pointing or further repression, it is only time for Tukitaaqtuq, an Inuktitut word meaning, “they explain to one another, reach understanding.” It was my hope in the writing of ‘Eskimo Pie’ that the other side of a ice cream bar is explained and perhaps, understood.

The poem, “Mamaqtuq” was a different experience for me. I had written a paper on traditional Inuit hunting methods and found myself thinking, I can’t recall ever getting out of bed on any morning and saying to myself, “What am I going to kill for supper tonight?” Like everyone, I just drive over to a local meat counter and review what’s freezing up in it and take it home to thaw and later cook up.

I had read and written on the planning, the care, the building of cairns, and the waiting and waiting and waiting for that one sideways, shimmering, shadow on the horizon—the caribou herds. All of the preparation of arrowheads, the tightening of bows, the practice throws of spears spinning in the air, all of this done days and months in advance of this one small flash in time. All the work that goes into one meal, while at home the women who were not participating in the hunt went out and threw small stones at tiny birds to make sure their babies had something to eat today—just in case. Just in case that one moment in time didn’t pan out today or not at all, just in case they had to mentally prepare for another hungry winter.

But as all of this is going on, while skin tents are going up and water is being boiled, there lingers within every camp member that one hope, that on the wind they would smell them and that smell will be good and later it will taste good too. This is the one constant in traditional Inuit life, the never knowing. The one thing that kept us together, that made us share, that made us laugh, and together, way back then and into today—we survive.

This is the one thing that no one—Inuit or non—can take away from me—the memories that lie deep within my blood and stay fresh within my being. Although, the non-Inuit try through their words to claim what is mine—they can’t, not now, not ever. They don’t live it, they don’t roll out of their hides in the morning and put their feet onto the ground, knowing that there is someone out there who is going to try and tell you that they know you better than you do. They don’t own it. I do, and I forever will be ilnautuq.

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Read “Eskimo Pie I” and “Eskimo Pie II” by Norma Dunning here

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Norma Dunning is a beneficiary of Nunavut and currently is a 2nd-year MA student in the inaugural class with the Faculty of Native Studies at the University of Alberta. She has been awarded The James Patrick Follinsbee Prize for Creative Writing (2011) and the Stephen Kapalka Memorial Prize for Creative Writing (2012) through the U of A. Both prose pieces were written in an urban Inuit genre. Norma continues to write and explore poetry and prose from this vantage point—and always will.

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Joan Houlihan–Language and Community

November 17th, 2013 margento No comments

 

 

Some say language creates the world. A well-known hypothesis of language learning (1)

states that after around five years old, deprived of the conditions leading to language

development—overhearing and interacting with speakers—children can no longer learn

how to form syntactical structures, they can only memorize individual words and their

definitions. The relationship between words cannot be formed. But what is the world if not a

relationship between, among, to and for?

 

To consider relationships between words is to also consider relationships between

people—parent and child, siblings, friends, couples, groups, cities and nations—in short,

community. While the pronoun “us” gave rise to my imagined community of hunter gatherers

in The Us, and while discovering and uncovering the life of this particular

community, line by line, in each poem, I discovered/uncovered the essential truths of any

community: food, warmth, safety, and belonging (“Us nest fine a weather long / between

the heat of kin / the least of us in huts / built round with stones.”) It seemed to me then, while

writing the poems, as it seems to me now, reflecting on them, that the language itself both made

and served the group. Saying “us” created an us, and each time the us speak as one in a collective

voice they confirm themselves anew. They state their existence as a community. In The Us,

language creates a world of relationships: between words (syntax) and between people

(communication).

 

Furthermore, because I wanted to portray the group as always at the threshold of

language (and thus civilization), I felt their language needed to be as simple as possible,

directly concerned with immediate surroundings, basic transactions of need, and without

adornment. Because the natural world of the group was close and dangerous, sometimes

awe-inspiring, in its very nearness this world became almost a member of the group itself

and therefore had to be treated as an entity, another sentient life-form (“From dirt, a stir

put forth its mix, smell / of weed and green-held bud, deep cups / sweet and sharp.

Warmer started day. / Sun lay wider where us walked.”)

 

The concerns of this imagined group are the concerns of any community, and The Us

functions as an allegory of community, especially in the group’s drive to find a home—a

physical location free from attack by enemies (“thems”) and able to sustain life (hunting

and/or farming). As with so many migratory or diaspora groups, the us are forced to

keep moving under harsh conditions (“Froze by winter blast / us could not grip on meat

or crust, / ours fingers blackened down to all the hand”), and the resting place they find

is an island untouched by civilization, in a time when all relationships, including those

between humans and animals, exist before the community of all living things is shattered

and splintered. (“Then horses low and red / came slow for us to ride / necks

outstretched for hands, / eye cast down and soft / and nuzzled forth and bent for us to

climb”).

 

The idea of community then, is a central concern of the book, and I examine this idea in

two main ways: first, through the viewpoint of the collective “us,” and second, through

the viewpoint of a separate consciousness formed by the independent action of one

member (“ay”). The emergence of a separate member’s viewpoint parallels the emergence of

individuality through separation: ay sees his mother suffering and being left behind by

the group, and he therefore must choose to act separately from the us (“ay am hers son

and could not leave her colding.”). This loyalty to a first “community” (the bond between

child and mother) supersedes the bond to the later community (the us).

When his mother dies, and ay experiences the further trauma of being captured by the

“thems” and enslaved to them, his separation/individuation continues. He has lost his

primary relationships (father, mother) and his community (the us). The ultimate trauma

is an experience of violence (an attack by one of the us, who is called greb, leaves ay

brain-injured and unable to move or speak), and he is driven into internal dialogue, his

sole relationship residing within himself, as he literally talks to himself (thinks).

 

In the final sections of the book, ay explores his thoughts through rhetorical questions

and interior monologue (“When hurt stops the mouth / what talks on?”) as he is forced to

struggle with ideas of his own origin and purpose:

 

Rain made me here. What would speak me

have a noise? Even bird would fold

and pleat then leaf-stirred make its cry

and go. How could winter matter touched rattling

to a tree, holding white and close

another sleep? Ay could not tell.

Ay came back simple, milded, felled.

 

Displaced by his injury into a mute state, ay develops a heightened connection with self

(or god–mind–spirit), the only connection left to him, one that does not require exterior

speech or response. In his speechless state, immobilized and dependent on being lifted,

carried, and fed by the us, ay returns to a primary bond, that of the infant and mother, as

the us tend and protect him as a collective mother.

 

In the process of taking care and looking out for ay, the us re-forms the community

around him, embedding him, healing the piece of the collective that has been wounded so

that unity can be regained. (“Lifted like a brae, soft-turned by hands, / murmured on,

wrapped in cloth, ay were / still. The us made a shade to lay me down”).

The progression or movement from inner silence (pre-language) to connection with

another human (language) enacted through the infant’s pre-lingual connection to the

mother and later, through language, to a family and wider community, is one that I

attempted to recreate through the injury to the ay and his loss of language as

communication.

 

“Mother tongue”—the phrase is apt, as language is not merely a means to (or result of) a

primal bond, but the keeping together of those in the same family, tribe, citizenry, nation;

not only a tool of creating community, but a reelection and expression of the community as it

knows itself, its identity. In this sense, the language of a community is an action, an enactment of

bond, and the language itself, in its syntactical relations, forms its most useful and harmonious

arrangement of parts, a community of words.

 

(1) Eric Heinz Lenneberg. Biological Foundations of Language. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1967.

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Joan Houlihan is the author of four books of poetry, most recently, Ay (Tupelo Press, 2014). Her other books are: The Us (Massachusetts Center for the Book’s “must-read” book of 2009) The Mending Worm (Green Rose Award from New Issues Press), and Hand-Held Executions. Her poetry has been anthologized in The Iowa Anthology of New American Poetries (University of Iowa Press) and The Book of Irish-American Poetry–Eighteenth Century to Present (University of Notre Dame Press). She is a contributing critic for the Contemporary Poetry Review and author of a series of essays on contemporary American poetry archived online at bostoncomment.com. She has taught at Columbia University and Emerson College and currently teaches in the Lesley University Low-Residency MFA Program and Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts. Houlihan is founder and director of the Colrain Poetry Manuscript Conference.

 

 

 

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