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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.


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


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



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



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



“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.


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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Garry Thomas Morse–The Beethoven Frieze

November 3rd, 2013 margento No comments



I should preface by stating that in terms of my work, I believe that the most dominant factors relating to my personal heritage, or the ones I would wish to lay claim to, are Celtic, Jewish, and Native. Jerome Rothenberg has pointed out that he doubts whether radical poetic practice can be thought of as “distinctly Jewish” although once in a while, I wonder if there is a particular intellectual tradition that makes this practice attractive to some exceptional poets of Jewish heritage. I can no more label “alienation literature” as “Jewish”, although there is a Germanic or Viennese schism that casts a long shadow through much of my writing. The Celtic is more a fantasy of being associated with a hyper-intellectual Swiftian gift of the Blarney, thinking of Oscar Wilde, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Flann O’Brien and Iris Murdoch, whose work has all informed my own.

The more I try to reconcile what I believe to be my Native character, most of all in the aesthetic sense, with any preconception of “Nation,” the more isolated I find myself, which is to say out of keeping with the national dialogue perpetually seeking to define and frame whatever it can define as “First Nations.” To use terms in the Kwak’wala language, I do believe there is a way of being in the world so that you can be lakhsa – showing the necessary rigour and willingness to be initiated into the ways of the main spirit of the hamatsa ritual. Generally, it is more common to be wikhsa, one of those who have only leaned against his walls. This is but one of a number of specific cultural ideas that have informed what I consider my own artistic principles. One is put in the position of being a West Coast Native trying to import what are deemed foreign beliefs into a Western framework. I am not seeking a parcel of land, rights to minerals, or pomp and ceremony. I am seeking this rigour of attention and cultivation that leads to deeper intimacy, engagement, and ultimately understanding. These days, that is a precious commodity.

As with other communities in relation to artistic pursuits, the concept of a First Nations community appears to be even more anachronistic—the term not only erases the unsavoury history of the Indian Act but also attempts to unite what are in themselves many disparate Nations with their own belief systems and rituals. To delve into any one particular of a people would only be to go against the grain of branding history as a hieratic totemic tchotchke of a souvenir. I use ‘souvenir’ deliberately to indicate a congealed form of memory in a gift shop, since the original form of the living document was in atavistic memory and through the oral tradition of Native peoples. To reduce this to treaties and bureaucratic quorums may not be shocking to some, and yet for many, it involves such a paradigmatic shift in terms of culture and in terms of consciousness that what is gained can only result in loss, and what is lost is that vital aesthetic sublimation that Western culture has more or less dismissed or neglected in favour of commercial interest.

Barbara Olins Alpert has suggested that a culture as accepting of syncretism as that of the “American Indian” has demonstrated a unique ability to express their own belief systems as well as those of interlopers in what appears to be a workable unity, and that “this ability to layer metaphor upon metaphor probably increases a symbol’s power and mystery.” I find that theses notions of syncretism and layering speak to my own methodology of late. When faced with overweening conceptual reductionism, minimalism, and mechanization, modes that are sometimes interesting but not applicable to my own expressionistic yearnings, I resort to a “primitive” instinct for exaggeration and a decadent mode of expression. It is the blazon in the caves that resonates with the blazing bright colours of my ancestors as their great canoes came into view.

Most of my work at present involves a type of deconstructivism that manifests itself in the form of fragmentary text-based superstructures, with their own verbal and linguistic resonances—in some ways, these are grotesqueries in continual correspondence via their hyperdecadent patois, resulting in poetry and prose that do not so much approach the condition of music but rather draw intricate analogies to particular histories and examples of music and opera, as with the poetic lyric voice voix à voix classical tonality as it approaches the continual threat of silence and incoherence. I refer to my intensive reworking of texts as my “Stravinskian method,” and I have reached the point where it feels necessary to communicate such a layered polyphony in visual form, one that establishes correlations through artistic paraphrases that exist well before or at least about the global interstices of domineering Nationhood.

Gustav Klimt’s Beethoven Frieze is the best existing model for my latest poetry project, which due to its absurdist ideals (attempting to find cultural reconciliation and aesthetic identity through “primitive” art and classical music instead of politics and in the process reaching for a conceptually driven expressionism that engages Paleolithic cave renderings, Native petroglyphs, modern art, and Canadian vispo) may also suffer accusations of “unclear ideas through unclear forms” and the poem in question is something of an off-kilter thesis and a transitional bridge in which the history of the symphonic shift from instruments to human vocalization forms an analogy with the poetic shift from lyric undulations to the visual exposition that awaits.




The Beethoven Frieze

(quasi una Fantasia)


where the poet no longer chooses the aesthetic Form but it is imposed by the inner vision of the Idea itself in the view of trichromate primates those Old World monkeys with three opsins & the hard eyes of Typheus although I was offended at this & explained that I did not play for money or lascivious Hostile Forces clinging to the edges of Klinger’s naked polychromy in the middle of signing a compound ‘potty-mouth’ Washoe the chimp shared the preference of Louise Bourgeois meaning RED upon concave effect to accent heartwarming plosives in the hollows akin to kettledrum scherzo in the wake of shamanistic representational theory—picture dots in trance states or red elemental lines or thick dactylograms meaning RED blowing through mouth & breathing life onto cave walls where the poet inclines toward the plastic artist with such Gestalten when hung up on Anschauung—that ‘thing in itself’ with symphonic phosphemes in exclusive aboriginal eyes warning: a graphic depicition of spiritual matters although Beethoven might die before I had earned a reputation by galops & potpourris turning over the leaves of this score utterly deaf to the immense applause when waging art not war with such Schreckensfanfaren that echo in the cacophonic lines & goldleaf travesties of Klimt aching for a hint of expressionism in the striate cortex where visual space is charted for the swells then he tore himself from me with such force that he left one of his coat-skirts in my hand fumbling to find in Music an Idea of the world a word or a sword for a haptic Mahler on his apocryphal quest to the very


of tonality amid those ephemeral figures floating over the head of Poetry coddling her cithara like a Tondichter not a Tonsetzer for apes prefer these symmetrical apses to asymmetrical tritones & in the Hebrew adawah beneath the feet of supplicants tugging gifts to ochre mine custodians or to bronze paraphrase of the swells & hollows of the body according to Bernini these erotic paraphases like the heavy eyelids of Adele Bloch-Bauer in the paparazzi scuffle of Judith moved to the right by Alma when the superficial sensuousness of the Viennese seemed the fresh warmth of life the postilion blew his horn into the hidden walls of the wealthy turned inside-out as the sudden flash of RED is drawn out of light ratios just before the clusterfuck of hypothalamus hippocampus anterior cingulate amygdala & so on to the point that everything got awfully monochromatic & his gloomy repellent expression did not tend to allay my confusion & there was a decided feeling of awkwardness; no one spoke

—“Write; I cannot hear.”

—he could not hear!

back to the Black Frieze at Pech-Merle & its foveal mammoths & horses or any embossment that turns bison when the animal in us cocks its head to hear the music of the right hemisphere’s fusiform gyrus in recognitions over time that beckon stalagmos as Sappho says over drip holes for vulvas in Chauvet & petroglyphs for penises forming load-bearing enormity for cloud terraces elsewhere when not cinched about the waist of certain trickster figures before they were formerly institutionalized as Paleolithic aesthetics of accumulation piggyback tone bursts upon the world of waking as they come to see a poor musician as they would go tomorrow to look at some rare animal as they hear too much wretched stuff every day to be always in the mood to take an earnest interest in anything serious yes in the gentlest fluctuations of one ground-colour beneath the feet of bird-headed women hey genius what if that blazon were neither hoof-trap nor accounting system but instead an act of disassemblage where the implicit obliteration of the figurative through intensified non-figuration is paradoxically indicative of desired sanctity something like chucking out all of Rilke’s angels when not stalled in temporal-parietal-occipital junction due to cross-modal abstraction plaguing the wonky eye & long hypersensitive ears of that shamanic figure O let us slake our bright passions in the depths of sensuousness was not even muttered when Goethe & Beethoven avoided one another like bosses or when Wagner wrote galops to pay for his pilgrimage to see the latter in another apocryphal moment the torch passing of the human voice conducted by our Jewish knight to Viennese boos & hisses & the slow clap & growing booyah of a rubbish painter & future Führer in sore need of role models from the flying leap of a misunderstood horse to the Kwakwaka’wakw wolf with two tails that devours the world to the supernatural puppets dallying to the mosquito sparks that consume the chief cannibal spirit Baxbaxwalanuksiwe come winter to sacrificial stone that heralds spring on the West Coast according to Morse mythology if I should make an opera according to my own conception the people would absolutely flee from it with the liquefaction of boundaries touching a nerve in the academic body accusing Klimt of Verschwommene Gedanken durch verschwommene Formen & we certainly don’t want that blurring the expectations of our pretty young things not to mention the rats that rectify rectangles that mean food or Duchamp’s elaborate changes in order to bring out an idea implicit in the original coined as ‘rectified ready-made’ after the initial startle reflex over objets d’art akin to unrolling bog paper in the scherzo of the artistic milieu the rush of acetylcholine toning it down for swallows of song-line mnemonics about to enter distorted imagery adagio ma non troppo e molto espressivo the second Kandinsky finds a forgotten work upside-down & the whole non-objective thing begins to the spasmodic booms of those irresistible tympana or even the encouragement of that dusty basso continuo yes let those wild primal emotions that stretch out into the infinite that are represented by instruments be contrasted with the clear definite emotions of the human heart represented by the human voice in the early stages of anamorphism where the poet falls prey to neurons forever networking into metaphors like the three-note call of quail or two-note call of cuckoo in that dwindling eclogue between our ears pressed against the phallic breasts of Bourgeois or deep within the Venus of Willendorf with the red weathered away & beside that gaunt figure of gnawing grief Xeuxis tries to lift the painted curtain of Parrhasius & Cimabue tries to flick away the painted bug of his pupil & naked in bronze marble onyx ivory & other gewgaws Beethoven tries to drown out the elusive influence of Haydn where poetry must stand aside for words are too weak for this task in the final movement emerging as usual from the nethers in low rumbling murmurs & rising through an interrogative fog of deconstructed motives & this is a nervous break-

down of form as we know it O friends no more of these

sounds let us rouse ones more pleasant

& joyful


Freu – de              schö-ner                Göt-ter-fun-ken                   Toch-ter aus          E-

ly-si-um                wir be-tre-ten       feu-er-trun-ken                    Himm-li-sche        dein

Hei-lig-tum          Dei-ne                   Au-ber                                  bin-den                  wie-der

was die_______Mo-de                   streng ge-teilt                      al – le                    Men-schen

wer-den                Brü – der              wo dein                               sanf-ter                Flü-gel weilt

where the poet foolheartedly with feet in mouth

longs for such long unfoldings of ecstasy

this lovely celestial spark

this crazed kiss

for the whole freaking world




Garry Thomas Morse is the author of four books of poetry, including Discovery Passages, the first book of poetry about his ancestral Kwakwaka’wakw First Nation, and finalist for the 2011 Governor General’s Award and the 2012 Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize. Along with his first collection of stories Death in Vancouver, his experimental speculative fiction series The Chaos! Quincunx comprises Minor Episodes / Major Ruckus, Rogue Cells / Carbon Harbour, and Minor Expectations (Fall 2014), all available from Talonbooks. Morse’s work is studied at various Canadian universities, including SFU and UBC, and he defiantly resides in Regina, Saskatchewan.

(tag: Louise Bourgeois)

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Betsy Warland–Saving a Seat for the Reader

October 29th, 2013 margento No comments

Saving a Seat for the Reader (an essay for Margento)




I stopped writing poetry a dozen years ago. What follows is an essay on why I shouldn’t be writing this essay but am.

I “grew up” as a poet in the United States during the ’60s and ’70s when writing, publishing and reading poetry were at the visionary core of the feminist, anti-racists and anti-war activist communities I was involved in. When I immigrated to Canada in the early ’70s, Canadian literature was igniting. During this time, a number of remarkable women poets (Gwendolyn MacEwen, Margaret Atwood, Dorothy Livesay, P.K.Page, Nicole Brossard and Phyllis Webb among others) attracted wide readership. Alongside the evolution of feminist writing and thinking that continued to inform me, the vibrant Toronto poetry scene became my new training ground. At that time, the education of emerging poets was mostly the domain of the male poets. This became problematic when feminist thinking and theory opened up new subject matter which male poets frequently considered unworthy. An adjacent community was needed.

In 1973, I initiated the Toronto Women’s Writing Collective. We offered peer-led writing workshops, organized conferences, published anthologies, and with the Toronto Women’s Bookstore, hosted for three years an annual event that featured U.S. and Canadian feminist writers (such as Adrienne Rich and Nicole Brossard) in dialogue with one another. These dialogues attracted full houses of 500 people.

In the early ’80s, I moved to Vancouver with the burning idea of organizing a national conference that would bring together women involved with all aspects of the literary written word. This 1983 three-day conference and festival, Women and Words/Les femme et les mots was a watershed gathering of 1,000 women. In short, through all these years I was an intensely community-based poet.

These were anything-is-possible-years. Feminist literary and publishing communities and Canadian literary and publishing communities infused and creatively provoked each other. These were years of passion, vision and hard work. Poetry throbbed in our bodies and minds, its daily flow essential as blood.

By the early ’90s things began to shift.

I was one of the four editors of conference proceedings “Telling it  – Women and Languages Across Cultures” (1991). Although this was a remarkable gathering in many respects, conflicts arose around crucial issues of racism and homophobia during the conference and while editing the proceedings. At that time, racism, classism and homophobia were coming to the foreground in the feminist endeavors everywhere in North America. This second wave of “consciousness raising” was absolutely necessary but at that point – when our funding was being cut and we were still a nascent community – we stumbled in redefining ourselves collectively.

By the mid-90s, a twelve-year relationship with my lover and co-author of two books, Daphne Marlatt, ended. This had been a pivotal relationship. Daphne and I collaborated on a number of projects including a first in Canada: a cross-Canada reading tour from our companion books of erotic love poems – touch to my tongue (Daphne’s) and open is broken (mine). My first book had included lesbian love poems but the lover’s gender was implicit and not stated. In this, my second book, it was specific and I became known as a lesbian writer. For Daphne (published since 1968), touch to my tongue was her fourteenth book: she was already a respected and well-known woman writer.

In hindsight, I realized that I emerged as feminist lesbian author and this was an aberration. Other feminist lesbian writers lives hadn’t unfold this way. In their early publishing years they had had close friendships with, a number had had romantic relationships with, and nearly all had had been students of literary men.  I had not.  Consequently, my inclusion in the poetry community was significantly limited.

On a national scale, government funding began to be cut back: funding that was crucial to enabling women’s conferences, newspapers, magazines and publishing houses. In the ’90s, poetry took a nosedive in Canada. Although many of our poets had been nationally respected and read as much as fiction and nonfiction during the rise of Canadian literature, “just being a poet” suddenly wasn’t enough. I did some research and discovered that, while the number of poetry and fiction books published annually in the ’70s and ’80s was similar, in the ’90s fiction shot ahead. Poets began writing novels. These novels enrich our literature in general but significantly lessening our poetic voice in public discourse. In capitalism’s insatiable commodification of everything I suspect that poetry just couldn’t be monetized profitably. Also, “Canada” was a relatively young country formed by colonization, and the highly regarded role poets hold in older cultures had not been established. Among the aboriginal peoples, however, poetry through song was and increasingly plays a central role. During the ’80s and ’90s, aboriginal writers began to be published, read and acclaimed, and their writing challenged and inspired me.

Except for a handful of  “recovering romantic poems” written between 2005-2006, I stopped writing poetry after 1998 when my collection of nine suites of poems, What Holds Us Here, was published. Simply said: the reception of my work and latitude for acceptance within the poetry community continued to be too sparse.

Through the ’90s feminist writing, and feminist experimental writers (of whom I was) continued to open up new territories of thought, form and content not previously seen on the page. But our internal conflicts, along with increasing government cutbacks, continued. A bi-annual Feminist International Bookfair, which I was invited to in Oslo and Montreal, folded. In Canada, universities became the only secure outposts for feminist writers. Some of us were hired, or became part of the canon for ongoing study in courses, thesis and dissertation work; some us were not.

A poet without a community is a contradiction in terms for me. One can be a poet who critiques, even rejects, a community — but this still is a poet in deep relationship to that community.

The hybridization of grass-roots politics and the personal yet public voice was subsumed by the academy’s concerns. Excepting most women writers of colour, experimental feminist writers and poets were becoming increasingly theory-informed, driven. I too was excited by a number of theorists and thinkers, but theory-determined poetry was not a fit for me.

I became a poet without a community.

A poet is more deeply intertwined with community than the fiction writer or nonfiction writer. In our most important life and death rituals poetry is what we turn to, communally recite or sing. The necessity for quick cohesion and absorption goes hand- in- hand with these gatherings: one page of poetry can profoundly move and bond people while it takes an entire novel to call up a similar response.

“A poem enters your heart like an idea enters your mind.”

Breathing the Page


The very structure of the poem acknowledges the interactive presence of the other (reader or listener); the poem’s un-inscribed space literally saves a seat for reader/the listener, literally provides space for their own thoughts and emotions.

As a poet without community I had to reinvent myself. It began with two tandem events: when I began writing my memoir Bloodroot – Tracing the Untelling of Motherloss (2000) in lyric nonfiction prose; when I was asked to design, then direct, a creative writing program in which I could define “learning in and building community” as the program’s organizing principle. This program is The Writer’s Studio at Simon Fraser University. An unusually diverse and community-minded program, recent first books by graduates Sarah Leavitt, Gurjinder Basran, Ayelet Tsabari and Janie Chang have attracted international attention.

The combination of lyric prose and poetic sensibilities rooted in the book-length narrative of Bloodroot was liberating. Intriguing. It allowed me to move freely and associatively between my idea-questing side and my intuitive, emotive, lyric, imagistic side. I literally felt my mind arcing back and forth between left and right hemispheres while writing it. In this form, I learned, as I had in poetry, to give as much presence and resonance to the scored space (un-inscribed space on the page) as the inscribed space. Learned how to always save a seat for the reader. Readers of Bloodroot often tell me that, of all my books, upon opening this book they were stopped in their tracks and read it straight through (even while sitting in their car).

“We scrutinize one another through the eye of language. We’re more interested in what’s been left out than what’s been put in for as language is inevitably incomplete, so is story.”



Between 1998 and 2010, I wrote Breathing the Page – Reading the Act of Writing (2010) and further investigated this associative yet conceptual style.

Then I began writing Oscar of Between while in London in 2007. Upon seeing an exhibit on the invention of camouflage during the First World War, the narrator identifies herself as a person of between, takes the alternate name Oscar and begins to reflect on how camouflage has morphed into an array of strategies of deceptions, spins and cover-ups: how strategies that once unified people in the “theatre” of war are now creating endemic fear, isolation, and increasing random violence in our contemporary “theatre” of public life.

With Oscar, my narrative position was no longer one of writing from the margin but one of writing as “a person of between,” — between genre, gender, social identities and methodologies of perception. An aside: for nearly 20 years poetry juries didn’t think my writing was poetry; nonfiction juries didn’t think it was nonfiction. It wasn’t until a new jury for exploratory writing was created that I finally was awarded a grant.

Since then I have increasingly found resonance with writers and readers of between. These writers and readers are diverse in every respect. We don’t constitute a community, yet there is a growing recognition, respect. Sometimes this extends to reading one another work, supporting one another professionally, but more often it’s a subtle connection that quietly sustains me.

Where is my poet self now? When I give a reading, audience members frequently refer to my writing as poetry. When addressed as a writer in public or print, I am most often referred to as “the poet.” This continues to surprise me, yet not entirely. I still think like a poet but not within our contemporary use of a form that, for me, can incline too easily toward precious artifact or a theory-poetic discourse among a few.

I’ve been publishing excerpt from Oscar of Between along with an excerpt from a guest writer or artist each month. Readers post their responses, riffs and critical reflections with a link to their own writing. As readers claim their seats, they provoke and elate me. It seems to me now, as I write this essay, that with my loss of community, I have become more interested in communing with the betweenesses that constitute our lives.

In Oscar’s daily life, when encountering someone, it goes like this: some address her as a male; some address her as a female; some begin with one and then switch (sometimes apologetically) to the other; some identify Oscar as lesbian and their face hardens, or, opens into a momentary glance of arousal; some know they don’t know and openly scrutinize; some decide female but stare perplexedly at her now-sans-breast-chest; some are bemused by, drawn or relate to her androgyny; for some none of this matters. On days turbulent with unpredictable reactions, Oscar longs for the simplicity of camouflage. Yet has no instinct for it. It would only put her at odds with who Oscar is, as Oscar notes in Part 12:

Then she brightens. Oscar – person of between – notices another response from others of between.



Oscar of Between





Betsy Warland has published 11 books of poetry, creative nonfiction, and mixed-genre. Her Canadian bestselling book, Breathing the Page ­– Reading the Act of Writing (Cormorant Books, 2010), is comprised of 24 essays that investigate the materials with which writers work as well as essays that investigate her observations about the forces writers encounter, during the act of writing, that reside beneath the language of craft. Recently, Betsy has created Oscar’s Salon on her website http://www.betsywarland.com/. In this lively 3-way online exchange, she publishes excerpts from her work-in-progress, Oscar of Between, alongside excerpts from Guest Writers’ and Artists’ work, and readers’ comments, riffs, creative writing and critical thought.

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Jerome Rothenberg–Secular Jewish Culture / Radical Poetic Practice

October 18th, 2013 margento No comments

Notes for a conference with that title, organized by Charles Bernstein in  2004


Every time I appear in a Jewish anthology – except those of my own devising – something goes wrong.  Lines are omitted or placed out of sequence, prose is set as verse or verse as prose, and footnotes are used that represent an editor’s imagining of what a word might mean or a place-name represent.  I believe that the God of the Jews has something to do with this – a punishment for my deliberate withdrawal from Him or Her or It.  Or else, to be more Jewish about it in the manner of a writer whom I admire and have sometimes drawn from, it is as if one of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s imps or demons had been there to gum up my works – not when I’m being a Jew on my own terms but when I give in to temptation and let myself be part of somebody else’s order or communion.[1]

I will speak, then, in my own terms (on my own grounds), though with continuing doubts as to whether there is any particular “radical poetic practice” that can be viewed as distinctively Jewish.  That isn’t to say that there aren’t plenty of Jews (however defined) who have been active in avant-garde (or twentieth- and twenty-first-century) poetics, still less to deny that by this time many  – perhaps too many – Jewish poets have actively engaged in a Jewish version of identity writing, though I don’t think that that’s what “radical practice” is intended to mean in the present context.  I would also say, in my own case at least, that I would be willing to construct a connection between aspects of traditional Jewish linguistic practice (much of it religious or mystical rather than secular) and current forms of poetic (i.e. language) experimentation.  I have in fact done this at some length, along with a proposition that Jewish history has been marked as well by an ongoing and more obvious resistance, by the Great Refusal, as I once put it, to the lie of church and state.  (I would include here synagogue as well – at least for some of us.)  That resistance may not have been secular in the first instance, but it carried the mark of outsider or outrider traditions (to use Anne Waldman’s word); or that was how it felt to me when I first turned to it.

It was in the sense of such an outsiderness – and placing it clearly in “this most Christian of worlds” – that Marina Tsvetayeva spoke of all poets as Jews – much like Norman Mailer’s “White Negro” of the 1950s.  That was in her poem “Poem of the End,” later quoted by Paul Celan in the cyrillic epigraph to his own poem “Und mit dem Buch aus Tarussa” and by me in A Big Jewish Book, where it became a central proposition of the stand I was then taking.[2] My argument here wasn’t for some kind of Jewish exclusiveness but toward a recognition that such resistances existed both there and elsewhere and that my address, in Tsvetayeva’s sense, was to “all poets” or to all poets who share the outrider stance or to all, poets and others, who resist the rule of totalizing states and constrictive religions.  I saw myself – then as now – not writing in a specifically Jewish context for a Jewish audience as such, but opening the Jewish mysteries to all who wanted them.  And I dramatized some of that in the dream that opens A Big Jewish Book, that ends with Kafka’s remarkable question & answer: “What have I in common with Jews?  I have hardly anything in common with myself …”

That last, of course, is an extraordinarily Jewish statement.[3]



Having gotten this far by way of introduction, I want to say something of how I came to be here, and to launch a few other comments, in no particular order but as they came to me while writing.

Like Louis Zukofsky and Charles Reznikoff, among other children of Jewish immigrants, my first language (to the age of three or four) was Yiddish.  (I learned later from reading T.S. Eliot, who I know had me in mind, that this disqualified me as a poet within the English mainstream [& probably out of it as well], and I came to take that as a challenge and an opportunity.)  My parents (unlike Zukofsky’s) were avowedly secular, from late adolescence on, but my mother’s mother, who lived with us from a month or two before my birth, was an orthodox Jew, though the relations between her and them were never less than cordial.  The outside world – in street and school – was emphatically secular, extending even to the Jewish school where I would go most afternoons for Yiddish lessons.  I had no problem with my grandmother’s love of God, though as the terror of the Holocaust came back to her – two of her sons and their families having vanished by then – I heard it rather as an argument – an interrogation & rebuke – that came into her nightly prayers.  For myself the experience of the war – viewed fitfully but at an easy childhood distance – brought out, with regard to that, my first poetic stirrings and what Tristan Tzara, in an earlier war, had spoken of “not [as] the beginnings of an art, but of a disgust.”  Such in a nutshell was the story of my early turn to poetry.

I grew up knowing a little about Jewish religion and lore but almost nothing about Jewish mysticism (the richest source for a poetics, as I later found).  What came to me at some time in my teens was what I felt to be a need for poetry and for the intensities & disgust that brought the poetry I knew to life.  At a still later point – I don’t know just when – I was surprised to find something like that intensity in the language of religion – more likely in pagan and Christian sources, I then thought, than in Jewish ones.  It soon seemed to me that I wanted to steal that language and to make it my own.[4] In doing so I meant to shift the field from religion to poetry, while not denying but even emphasizing the origins of what I took as poetry in areas of religious languaging and ritual.  The transfer here, as the Dada poet Richard Huelsenbeck once pointed out for his own borrowings and deformations, was from the misbelievers to the disbelievers of religion.  I wanted to stand here firmly with the disbelievers.

The involvement with Jewish materials as such came about when it had to, coterminous with Technicians of the Sacred (in 1968) and with a need I felt then “to explore ancestral sources of my own,” most specifically and deliberately (I wrote & would write again) “in the world of Jewish mystics, thieves, & madmen.”  That project – experimental through & through – began for me with Poland/1931, continued with a Big Jewish Book (as Jewish anthology or assemblage), and returned in Khurbn, Gematria, and 14 Stations (holocaust poems using modified aleatoric procedures).  (Even so, I would remind you, I was producing a still larger body of poetry and poetry gatherings that wasn’t part of my Jewish experiment as such.)  The intention throughout was not so much to discover or exploit identity (in the ethnic/tribal sense) but to put identity into doubt or question.

For this I applied or meant to apply the full range of modernist techniques and procedures to identity thematics, taking the resultant work, if it’s right to say so, as itself  a form of romantic/modernist irony.[5] In that sense too I saw what I was doing as the continuation of an aborted Jewish/Yiddish poetry in another language (American or English rather than Yiddish) and by every means at my disposal.  Once into it I also found that I could draw from procedures and imageries imbedded in traditional Jewish sources.  This was true in particular with gematria (mystical Jewish numerology), which I adapted and secularized as a processual form of composition, culminating in the book-length poem Gematria (from Sun & Moon Press[6]) and 14 Stations (gematria turned to memorialization of the Holocaust).  But Poland/1931, my first experiment with a constructed Jewish poetry, is also full of fragments (verbal and visual) appropriated from traditional sources.[7]

I’ve been involved, then, with a secularization of the mystical and supernatural, a project which I share with others going back to at least the eighteenth century, but with twists & turns of my own & reflective also of the time in which we’ve lived.  What this involves is the transfer of a body of work and language from religion to poetry & from poetry to the domain of Huelsenbeck’s disbelievers.  My effort – but hardly mine alone – has been to open the field of poetry into areas of poesis (oral and written, sacred and secular) that have not had an adequate accounting.  In so doing it was our intention to hold onto the energy & ferocity/intensity that we found there but without the “mind-forg’d manacles” of orthodox religious thought.

For me the process went beyond my engagement with Jewish sources, and before I assembled A Big Jewish Book I had already assembled “a big Indian book” (Shaking the Pumpkin) and before that “a big human book” (Technicians of the Sacred).  [I would, still later, do the same with Christian & Buddhist imageries.]  In those non-Jewish gatherings, the act of assemblage or construction was similar but my position was different in that I couldn’t be thought of as writing from within the subject or with myself identified as subject.  A Big Jewish Book, then, was an experiment along the lines of the other anthologies but with myself as a participatory subject in a shared subjectivity.  With an awareness of all of that, I set out to explore what was possible at extremis & with no holds barred.  I thought of myself as operating through a secular/poetic consciousness that set the content & form of the sacred against that of the not-so-sacred, the heretical, the heterodox, the blasphemous, & certainly the secular as such.

But even in A Big Jewish Book or Poland/1931 – a plunge into a constructed world based on real witnessings & documents as “data-clusters” (Ed Sanders’ term in his argument for an “investigative poetry”) – if I were to play it from within, I had to perform some part of it in costume, which I did in fact with the additional aid of photographs & films, something I would never have done in the Indian instance.  Similarly, when I was writing, or rather performing, That Dada Strain, I costumed myself again – in imitation this time of Hugo Ball & Tristan Tzara (a.k.a. Sammy Rosenstock) – but that was still another kind of identity poetics that would get us too far afield if I stopped to speak about it here.

There was a time, then, when I became concerned with “the jewish poem” as such and even wondered – in light of Tsvetayeva – where I might, if I continued, place its final boundaries.  (“Jewish-American” was of far less concern to me than “Jewish,” which in itself was international in scope.)  In the Pre-Face to A Big Jewish Book, I even made a list of  Jewish “topics & conflicts/tensions,” with the caveat that many of these were not unique to Jews although the history of the Jews might – up to a point – offer an exemplary instance.  I presented these as characteristics that still held me to the Jewish work, as follows:   .


a sense of exile both as cosmic principle (exile of God from God, etc.) & as the Jewish fate, experienced as the alienation of group & individual, so that the myth (gnostic or orthodox) is never only symbol but history, experience, as well;


from which there comes a distancing from nature & from God (infinite, ineffable), but countered in turn by a poesis older than the Jews, still based on namings, on an imaging of faces, bodies, powers, a working out of possibilities (but principally, the female side of God – Shekinah/Shekhina – as herself in exile) evaded by orthodoxy, now returning to astound us;


or, projected into language, a sense (in Edmond Jabès’s phrase) of being “exiled in the word” – a conflict, as I read it, with a text, a web of letters, which can capture, captivate, can force the mind toward abstract pattern or, conversely, toward the framing, raising, of an endless, truly Jewish “book of questions”;


&, finally, the Jews identified as mental rebels, who refuse consensus, thus become – even when bound to their own Law, or in the face of “holocaust,” etc. – the model for the Great Refusal to the lie of Church & State.


[And I concluded]:  . . .  it’s from such a model – however obscured by intervening degradations from poesis, impulse to conform, etc. – that I would understand the Russian poet Marina Tsvetayeva’s dictum that “all poets are Jews.”


Two points to end it, and then, if I may, a poem.


There is also a curious way in which Jewish writers – contrary to Harold Bloom, say – have had an advantage, a leg up, as poets and as long as they maintained their sense of otherness, even as a counterpoint to the hominess they may have sought in the language that surrounds them & is nevertheless, for all of us, a place of exile.  As my brother-in-arms Pierre Joris has written, in defense of a “nomadic poetics”: “It is only when constantly aware that the writer is not ‘at home’ in language (or anywhere else, for that matter) that any real and critical engagement with the enemy forces is possible.”  It is then too that the strongest engagements with language qua poetry take place.

The context for such remarks is of course diasporic/dispersed, and it’s in the condition of diaspora – not exclusively but largely – that our poetics (Jewish & not so Jewish) has been constructed.  That has led me, in the course of preparing this talk, to wonder about the state of Israel and the emergence of a Jewish homeland – whether the connection between Jews & an exilic/nomadic/diasporic poetics isn’t by now distressingly anachronistic.  To say “all poets are Jews” in an Israeli-Palestinian context in which Jews are the privileged insiders, is something quite different from Tsvetayeva’s 1926 context “in this most Christian of worlds” and gives me the acute sense that history has somehow overwhelmed us.

I think that I may pursue this at a later point but for now it seems to me enough simply to have said it.




To conclude, then, I’ll read a poem from Poland/1931, that speaks both to the persistence of Jews in history & to my bewilderment at being called on as an expert in this kind of forum.  (The irony is even more obvious today than when I wrote it.)




The Connoisseur of Jews

if there were locomotives to ride home on

& no jews

there would still be jews & locomotives

just as there are jews & oranges

& jews & jars

there would still be someone to write the jewish poem

others to write their mothers’ names in light­ –

just as others, born angry

have the moon’s face burnt onto their arms

& don’t complain

my love, my lady, be a connoisseur of jews

the fur across your lap

was shedding

on the sheet were hairs

the first jew to come to you is mad

the train pulls into lodz

he calls you

by your polish name

then he tells the other passengers a story

there are jews & there are alphabets

he tells them

but there are also jewish alphabets

just as there are jewish locomotives

& jewish hair

& just as there are some with jewish fingers

such men are jews

just as other men are not jews

not mad

don’t call you by your polish name

or ride the train to lodz

if there are men who ride the train to lodz

there are still jews

just as there are still oranges

& jars

there is still someone to write the jewish poem

others to write their mothers’ names in light

[1]  Made-up footnotes in Norton Anthology of Jewish-American Literature; prose changed to verse in Princeton University Library Chronicle (Jewish-American issue, gathered by C.K. Williams); poem truncated & missing part added to another poem, in Steven J. Rubin, Telling and Remembering: A Century of American Jewish Poetry.


[2] Right here, in an aside, I pointed out: “Of course – conversely – all Jews aren’t poets.”

[3] For the full text, see above, page 000.

[4] Thus William Carlos Williams, when I met him as a student at City College: Seize the language! Smash it to hell! You have a right to it!

[5] My first deliberate attempt at writing “the Jewish poem” was a mix I created by bringing together structures from Gertrude Stein’s serial poem “Dates” with mystically-loaded and sexually-charged vocabulary from Isaac Bashevis Singer’s novel Satan in Goray.

[6] The final version, Gematria Complete, was published years later (in 2009) by Marick Press.

[7] And even here, let me add, I was not alone, but entered a discourse with poets I had known or was soon to meet, like David Meltzer, Nathaniel Tarn, Jack Hirschman, Edmond Jabès, and even (from our one meeting) Paul Celan; or others, important to me at different times, like Robert Kelly and Robert Duncan.   In addition the totalizing impulse of Technicians of the Sacred and, later, Poems for the Millennium, may itself have been part of a secular Jewish thrust, something, as Charles Bernstein has suggested, that could even have influenced a similar tendency in Ezra Pound and others still more obviously outside the Jewish context.


from Jerome Rothenberg, Poetics & Polemics 1980-2005. University of Alabama Press, 2008, contributed by the author to The Poetries & Communities Project


Jerome Rothenberg is an internationally known poet, translator, performance artist, and anthologist with over eighty books of poetry and essays.  His anthologies include Technicians of the Sacred, Shaking the Pumpkin, and the three-volume Poems for the Millennium.  He has been the recipient of many honors, including an American Book Award, two PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Literary Awards, and two PEN Center USA West Translation Awards.

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david antin–tuning

October 14th, 2013 margento No comments


when roys daughter died we held a memorial at the center for music

experiment     the memorial readings and performances by poets and artists

and musicians     was an attempt to offer some fellowship to roy and marie

who were in a state of shock over the terrible accident     it was held in the

late afternoon in the long somber wooden shed that had once housed a marine

officers bowling alley     been refurbished with a black ceiling much redwood

stripping and a mauve carpet to serve as the university art gallery and then

turned over to the music department in the middle seventies     the readings

proceeded quietly one after another without interruption for long introductions

and the last piece on the program was a composition by pauline oliveras

pauline was working with a small performance group at the time and its

young men and women were scattered informally around the room     pauline

came to the center of the gallery to tell us how to perform the piece     we were

all to rise and form a large single circle joining hands with our nearest

neighbors     to listen until we heard a tone we felt like tuning to     to try to tune to it and when we were satisfied with our tuning     we could fall silent and

listen     choose another tone and try to tune to it     and go on like this  listening and tuning and falling silent as long as we wished until we felt that we

were through     i was holding hands with a carefully dressed young history

professor and a smart looking dark haired woman from a travel agency in la jolla

i listened for a while and could make out several humming tones coming

from various places about the room     i could hear the history professor clear

his throat and start to hum a tone in the middle of the baritone register     i

thought i would join him there and my partner on the left opened a lovely mezzo just above us     around the room soft surges of sound floated up

while others stayed suspended or died away to be succeeded by still others in

fifths  and octaves lightly spiked by onsets and decays that underlined the

simple harmonies that filled the space     at one point a high clear soprano tone

floated out across the room and  i  saw the history professor start to cry     i

squeezed his hand and tried to join a high tenor almost beyond my range     the

history professor nodded and joined us there     our dark haired neighbor to the

left opened a flute like tone a fifth above us     all around the room people were

crying and smiling and singing in waves of sound that throbbed and swelled and

ebbed and climbed and ebbed and peaked and dropped away into a silence that

lasted until pauline thanked everyone because the piece was over


david antin

from tuning, 1984

for margento’s poetries & communities project


David Antin has published over ten books of poetry, including the talk-poem books Talking and Talking at the Boundaries along with other texts: a novel, an autobiography, and a conversation with Charles Bernstein.  His book of essays, Radical Coherence: Selected Essays on Art and Literature (2011) collects over forty years of looking at, and thinking about, innovative art.

He has received numerous honors and awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship and a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities.  He received the PEN Los Angeles Award for Poetry in 1984.

How Long Is the Present: Selected Talk Poems, edited by Stephen Fredman & scheduled for publication by the University of New Mexico Press in 2014.

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G.C. Waldrep–Poetics Statement

October 14th, 2013 margento No comments


(rough draft)

I don’t know how else to say this:  my poems are my poetics.  I only know what I am doing (to the extent that I do) in the poem, in the context and purview of an actual poem.  Everything else is diagnostic and conjectural, like reading tea leaves or entrails.  I can always stop what I am doing and turn and look back at my poems, and try to understand better what they were always/already doing.  Though one risks turning to stone.

Composing a poem is, for me, like tuning a radio to a station, and then copying down–quite literally (I have even learned how to tune myself to that frequency at will, although I don’t control the clarity of the reception:  sometimes it’s just, or mostly, static coming through).  I almost never know where a poem is going more than a line or two ahead—if that.  Part of the thrill of composition is watching something obtain from nothing; it is the Making aspect, little fathers that we are.

I’ve been thinking lately—while reading my colleague Harold Schweizer’s excellent On Waiting (Routledge, 2008)—about duration, poetry-as-duration, the poem as a captive moment, a captive (or-ating) intelligence.  As Charles Simic writes in “The Truth of Poetry” (in Dime-Store Alchemy, his homage to Joseph Cornell), “A toy is a trap for dreamers.  The true toy is a poetic object.”  The poem is captivating but also captive in time, simultaneously, even as the reader’s experience of the both is both subject to and evades time.  The question, as Simic restates it on Cornell’s behalf, is “How to construct a vehicle of reverie, an object that would enrich the imagination of the viewer [or reader] and keep him company forever.”

Or:  the poem as itself a unit of measurement, of empathy, of experience, of apprehension.


The idea of poetics as community interests me, but I don’t really understand the communities poetry creates, or convokes.  I’ve said before that the arts are one of the few ways we know of through which the living talk to the dead, or vice versa:  our poems talk to their poems.  Thus I think poems have their own “community,” their own affinities and circles… which are not always human, not always about us.  Sometimes it’s about the dead, or those who haven’t come yet.

Another problem I run into—when discussing anything like my “poetics”—is how much to cue my theology, as a Christian of a particular tradition or persuasion.  I wouldn’t ever say that theology undergirds the poetry, but it most definitely (even essentially) undergirds me. And since I started writing poetry just after I made that religious commitment, my development in the art has paralleled, and been inextricably intertwined with, my faith.

The particular language of my religious commitment is quite orthodox and, I think, would prove offensive to some readers, who I hope can find things to value in the poetry even if they do not recognize and/or share some of the work’s philosophical underpinnings.  And of course it’s not like I am thinking rationally about theology when I am composing a poem.

“To write poems,” the Finnish poet Gösta Ågren maintains, “is to encroach upon / oneself, to see / if one is alive.”


Poetry is like entering a room someone or something has just left.  Maybe it’s a homey sitting room, a fire crackling in the grate, inviting; maybe it’s a sumptuously-appointed hall.  Either way, you’re the only one there.  There was music playing, but it’s quiet now.  You’ve missed someone or something important by minutes, perhaps even seconds.  The telephone has just been ringing—somehow you know this—and you pick it up, just in time to hear click.

All poets, then, are messianic:  or rather, all poems.  Still waiting for something that may have already moved on, or may yet still abide, immanent.  Only:  we remain in bodies.  One must occupy somehow.  As men and women we may experience a lively expectation, but the poem, caged in language, knows only the precinct of its cage.  Each poem inhabits its own version of Plato’s cave.

The poem exists as incarnation-in-language, if such a thing were possible.  (The flesh of language, the word made flesh, minuscule, untransubstantiated.)  It bodies-forth in language, it achieves a particular synthesis of spirit & substance and we call “poetry.”  But it cannot save man because, unlike Christ, it cannot die and rise again from death on our behalf.


“The difficulties begin when you understand what it is that the soul will not permit the hand to make,” Philip Guston (of all people) once wrote.

Existentialism, as a system—a belief system, a philosophical system, ultimately as the basis for literature or literary criticism—is quite simply theology with the Theos amputated.  It asks the same questions.  Without the presence of God, it becomes the original Ourobourous, eating its own tail as it goes, turning endless violent circles.  (This is precisely why Stevens, unable to believe himself but intensely interested in the formal requirements of philosophy, posited art as the “necessary fiction” that must take God’s place.)

Reading Maurice Blanchot always proves a chore because, though he is perhaps the most spiritual of the postmodern French critics (save Levinas), he remains entrapped in this web of signification vs. non-signification.  Language has form; indeed, it is form; but in the context of an intolerable, irreducible nothingness—a void of ultimate meaning to which one can only respond with inarticulate “feeling,” of which “madness” and “dread” are two key, inescapable components.

Because we as Christians do not believe that language—the drive towards language, towards form more generally, towards making-in-language, making-in-form—occurs within a larger context of the void, of existentially meaningless (or at least existentially inaccessible) endeavor.  We believe it takes place inside a larger context which is God, and God’s plan for the world through Christ.  One can, as Jabès and Celan did, identify God with the void—a god of absence, God-as-divine-Absence.  But this is a cruel parody, or perversion.

It is not that I as a Christian writer am not asking the same basic questions:  I am, and I tend to agree with the first page of each of Blanchot’s literary essays.  But without God or Christ the thought captures itself:  becomes, if not paralyzed or immobilized, then at least tragically fixed—it declines to precisely a vicious circle (the title of one of his key books).  I find myself venturing further into each of Blanchot’s essays as a succession of negations, I mean on my part:  no this is not true; no this generalization is not valid, nor are the consequential hypotheses Blanchot draws from it.  The vicious circle tightens to a point, a singularity.

Which is neither poetry’s office nor its chief tendency.  René Char:  “However long its tether, poetry wounds itself in our hands as we are wounded, in turn, by its escapings.”


And then there is music, which was my first passionate love in the arts.  I trained as a singer and sometime–conductor, specializing in the early repertoire (European music up through 1650 or so):  plainchant, yes, but also the great works of Renaissance polyphony.

I think polyphony creates, or convokes, great architectures:  of mind, of spirit.  For me, singing or conducting in 6- (or 8-, or 12-) part harmony, especially polyphonic harmony, gave the feeling of walking through a vast, provisionally bounded space.  Orchestral symphonies have the same effect:  it’s not hard to imagine any great symphony, from Mahler to Sibelius, as convoking a palace in the mind.  But for me vocal polyphony is different.  Vocal polyphony forges a connection in the voice—in the body, that emerges from the body—voices, in the plural—with the Object of that polyphony.  A room with a view, as it were.

To be sure, the architectures convoked by medieval or Renaissance polyphony or the more rustic shape-note hymns are usually religious, that is to say, didactic.  But I think all language is didactic, in the sense that every poem says “Touch here. Feel here.

“Meaning” is never quite the question in music, even when an accompanying text bears explicit, verbal witness.  (The architects of the Reformation understood this, and feared it.)

When I think about the construction of a poem, I think about the architecture it convokes:  I think about the room or rooms, the means of ingress or egress, the metaphorical light.  I also think about the polyphonic qualities of the voice.  The mansion, the music of Eliot’s “The Waste Land” is very different real estate from the architecture of, say, C.D. Wright’s Deepstep Come Shining, though they are both palaces I like to visit on a regular basis.


The question, in postmodernity, in our exigent moment, is what is still possible.

To what extent is poetry itself a theology of expectation? And just what sort of expectation are we talking about?  Paul Celan’s poems are not only discrete in their wounds (the wounds they tear in language, the wounds language tears in experience, into the white page) but in that they seem to gesture, to yearn towards an outside they neither believe in nor permit.

There are many kinds of music a poem can make.  Only some of them are audible.

The poem knows what it must not believe in.  It communicates in those terms, and those terms alone.

“Extreme clarity is a mystery,” Mahmoud Darwish maintains.

Nothing is a retreat from anything, anymore.


All of which is to suggest that Jack Spicer remains important to me, more as goad than guide.  The difference between my practice and Spicer’s is that I not only believe there is an Outside, and that it speaks to and through us, I believe it also has a Name—a Source.

“The word of God is not commandment but correspondence,” Edmond Jabès writes.  “Every work cancels the dark.”  We are frangible, fallible creatures—hence Spicer’s bitter, pointed pun on logos, “Low-ghost.”

The thing is, a living faith—like a living art—exfoliates.  The discourse alters in the speaking, as the poems do, in the making.  Whitman broke the lilac blossoms from their stems because the body is never the same body twice.

We can’t vanquish time, but we can step outside of it, for a little while.  Literature is one way.  The mind, the fact of God is another.  Art goes on before us, to make a place for us in Time, as Christ goes on before us to make a place for us in Eternity.


Addendum to inform into the above


Good morning,

Oh, so the focus has to be on community.  (Rereads original anthology prospectus:  there it is.  Whoops.)  Well, that is more difficult, for me.  I’m totally unsure, as I say, what sort of true “community” invokes, convokes, or evokes.  And, as someone who lives in a pretty vital hands-on religious community, I confess I’m somewhat suspicious of virtual communities:  I mean, the idea of such.  They’re real, but whatever they may be, they’re totally different from other, flesh-and-blood forms of community.  (I actually address this in a paragraph or so in the interview I just completed with Ilya K[aminsky] and Katie Towler.)

I don’t think I can say much more about community qua poetry or poetry qua community at this point.  Although some of my church community brethren have asked to read my writing, and I have even sat down with a few of them and gone over it with them (most are dairy farmers; the more postmodern/allusive styles and forms my work takes are new to them), they are satisfied to know that I am a poet.  It is not our point of primary, or even secondary (or tertiary!), connection, any more than I connect with my dairy farmer brethren in terms of their dairying or my plumber friend in terms of his plumbing.

And as for poetry communities, I try not to invest too deeply in them.  For one thing, I believe my primary investment, emotionally and spiritually, should be in the church.  For another thing, my work doesn’t lend itself well to any particular “group” or “school” at this point–I’ve noticed it’s too rich and lyrical for many of the avant-garde/innovative poetry group/cliques, while of course it’s way too oblique for any group that values “accessibility” or emphasizes narrative or the confessional.

So I make friends where I can–allies, if you will–here and there, a diverse & eclectic group.  Ilya, of course.  Dana Levin.  Dan Beachy-Quick.  John Gallaher.  Joshua Marie Wilkinson.  These are some folks I feel close to, personally and aesthetically.  Interestingly, almost none of the people I feel close to in this sense are close to each other (though most of them know each other; American poetry is a small world).  They participate in other relationships, other matrices of association.

In terms of readership, one writes for the ideal reader, always.  My work is very intensely personal and imagines a single reader on the other end, if it imagines a reader at all.  An intimate relationship, 1:1 while the poem lasts.  That is, a community of 2.  Precisely and (almost) without exception.

Poems talk to other poems, but that’s something different.  It is not a human economy, and I don’t pretend to understand it, though I like to watch.

I am going to print out the other things you sent and read.  On first glance they look wonderful.  (On second glance, we are all dead, but that’s another story.  grin)

Travel safely,


G.C. Waldrep is the author of four poetry collections, most recently Archicembalo (2009), winner of the Dorset Prize, Your Father on the Train of Ghosts (2011), a collaboration with the poet John Gallaher, and Disclamor (2007). His work has appeared widely in journals, including Poetry, Ploughshares, APR, New American Writing, Boulevard, New England Review, Threepenny Review, Harper’s, and Tin House, as well as in The Best American Poetry 2010 and Postmodern American Poetry:  A Norton Anthology (2nd edition). He has received a Gertrude Stein Award for Innovative Writing, two Pushcart Prizes, multiple fellowships from The MacDowell Colony, and a 2007 NEA Fellowship in Literature. He has co-edited two anthologies: Homage to Paul Celan (with Ilya Kaminsky, 2011) and The Arcadia Project: North American Postmodern Pastoral (with Joshua Corey,, 2012). Since 2007 he has lived in Lewisburg, Pa., where he teaches at Bucknell University, edits the journal West Branch, and serves as Editor-at-Large for The Kenyon Review.

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POETRIES & COMMUNITIES Project–General Argument

October 14th, 2013 margento Comments off


Does the community around us need poetry or poets?  Community—singular, as in local, or global as well—or rather plural, as we are part of or in touch with so many matrices crossing all kinds of social, linguistic, cultural, and geographical divides?  But going back to the first question, are poetry and poets one and the same thing in that respect—or, in other words, is the poets’ poetry the poetry that communities around them ‘consume’, identify with, enjoy or employ for (any of) the meanwhile marginalized and ‘secularized’ versions of the functions that poetry ‘normally’ had in ‘traditional’/‘pre-contact’/pre-(post)modern communities?

In a 1996 article significantly titled “Why American Poetry Is Not American Literature,” Joseph Harrington argued that (one of) the (main) reason(s) why not only the general public, but cultural critics as well are not currently interested in poetry is no other than the fact that the modernists themselves worked so hard at the beginning of the 20th century towards an elitist poetry shunning popularity and mass preferences.  Is there any prospect of change at the beginning of the 3rd millennium?  In his 2006 essay, “American Poetry in the New Century,” John Barr deplored the isolation of contemporary professional poets living in closed literary circles and MFA programs and their lack of touch with the wider life beyond the academia.  A new poetry, he argued, will most likely come not from formal experimentation and innovation (as it did at the turn of the 20th century), but from a new kind of experience.  Which, one could rightfully wonder, means living the life of 21st century transnational, multicultural and multilingual/inter-language or ‘translational’ communities, the life of a (virtual or actual) traveler across intersecting or migrating communities?

If poets know that, to paraphrase Dana Gioia, (their) poetry can matter within and to the communities around them and the cultures thereof, then they should be able to express and explain, in Jay Parini’s words, why poetry matters, and consequently, in what relevant ways it does (or should) inform and portray the community.

Or, why it fails to do so, for that matter.

The Poetries & Communities Project plans to testify on how contemporary poets relate to such issues and how they and their poetries (are) (re)shape(d) on multiple levels (by) the new experience of living in more and more diverse locales, contexts, perspectives, and therefore communities, in a globalized and transnational world.


The Poetries and Communities Project is curated by Visiting Scholar Chris Tanasescu (MARGENTO) at University of Ottawa and is affiliated to the Friday Circle directed by Poet-Professor Seymour Mayne in the University of Ottawa’s Creative Writing Program.



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The views and opinions expressed on this web site are solely those of the original contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of Chris Tanasescu (margento), the University of Ottawa, and/or any/all contributors to this site.

Categories: Poetries & Communities Project Tags:

POETRIES & COMMUNITIES Project–Submission Guidelines

October 14th, 2013 margento Comments off


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

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

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)?

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

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

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

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?

‘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?

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?

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?

Categories: Poetries & Communities Project Tags:

Concentric Circles–Page Hill Starzinger Interviewed by David Baker

October 14th, 2013 margento Comments off

Concentric Circles:  Page Hill Starzinger


David Baker:  You are a poet and you are a business woman.  You’ve been living since 1980 in the East Village of Manhattan, but before we explore the present, I wonder if you could say a little bit about your origins—your father and mother, your family, your schooling, your beginnings.  We are each a community already, aren’t we?  Did you, in college, write poems?  Did your father’s work in law or political science affect your own sense of yourself or others?

Page Starzinger:  I grew up cloistered in a small Vermont town—one general store (Dan & Whit’s), one inn, one post office, four churches—across the river from an Ivy League college (Dartmouth) in the middle of the woods.  First grade was a public school in London, but mostly I was in school in Vermont except for three years in high school in Troy NY (where I remember a hybrid class on poetry/painting, a Patti Smith concert and a semester in Ojai, CA).  My father taught political science; my mother drew, etched, fashioned papier mache marionettes, wrote poetry on a little cranberry Olivetti Underwood Lettra 33, tucked in its own leather case.

I spent time studying her books on Arp, Paul Klee, Chagall and other idiosyncratic European modernists who were inspired by dream imagery, and other surrealist elements, “collaging” together different crazy-patch subjects.

We would visit Boston, and Mom took us to the Museum of Fine Arts, and to Design Research on Brattle Street in Cambridge, which was opened by a former partner of the modernist Walter Gropius—a landmark store that mixed Noguchi lamps with no-name Bolivian sweaters, and influenced the founders of Crate & Barrel and Design Within Reach. Finally, college at Wesleyan University, which has a polyphonic arts scene. I didn’t write any poetry there; I was quite lost.

DB:  Can you give me a bit of a collage poem, one of your earlier ones?

PS:  Here are the first two sections of a five-part poem that focuses on deviations of power that infest and deteriorate community andculture, often in ironic and hilarious ways that you just couldn’t make up.  The Ivory Coast, a producer of lubricants, builds a full-size copy of a St Peter’s, one of the holiest Catholic sites.

Alpha Protein


In the world of gift

you can’t have your cake

unless you eat it. —Hyde)



a curve on any

developable surface



as long as preload

is not exceeded,

bolts will not              come loose



ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast, August 19—

Toxic cocktail             laced with

dumped in


by Greek-owned tanker          Panamanian flag

leased by the  London            branch of

a Swiss            with a fiscal in


high concentrations         you can no longer smell

because it paralyzes

your nervous system


this, in a republic

boasting a full-sized replica of St Peter’s in Rome

consecrated by the Pope


gift bestowed but     At present, travel

is ill-advised. Police can be excitable

armed elements are

under influence of Keys to the economy:

oil industry and

active chemical industry        specializing in lubricants


DB:  That’s so beautifully complex.  You integrate the pieces into your collage-poem but also expose them as pieces.  The phrasing is fractured in places, interwoven in places.  It’s like looking at a three-dimensional version of language where politics and etymology mix, and where the personal and cultural mix.

After college you moved to Manhattan, where you began a career in fashion and editing; you worked for 12 years with Vogue magazine, and I know you traveled.  What about those years and that work has stayed with you?

PS:  My grandmother sent me a subscription to WWD, the daily fashion rag-trade newspaper, when I was a teenager, and my mother always got Vogue.  So when a friend’s father, the writer William Zinsser (On Writing Well), recommended applying for a job at Conde Nast (which owns Vogue), I was hopeful, but not at all sure what I was in for.  My first job was fact checking the Fashion Copy Editor’s work, and this taught me focus, to a certain extent, but what I really enjoyed was writing captions for the big center-of-the-magazine fashion spreads photographed by everyone from Helmut Newton to Patrick Demarchelier:  I liked being absorbed in the visuals, decoding the conversation and messaging, and jumping from one story to the next.

Here are the first two parts of a three-section poem that speaks about emotional paralysis through visual cues, and referencing the work of several artists: Louise Nevelson, who resurrected discarded and cast-off objects—street remnants and scraps—into heavenly assemblages; Sol Lewitt whose deceptively simple line drawings are designed to be perishable—created, erased, and recreated elsewhere based on guidelines that can be executed by anyone. “The man” is Derrida.


1.  Unshelter

I can’t open the door and even if I draw a doormat

on the floor, I can’t break out.  Keep low:  underneath,


I see the sill, my slice of.  Thin enough for a Cantor’s turtle

—no shell—which spends its life motionless, buried


in sand, surfacing twice a day for one breath each.  I

could whittle myself into fiction.  Sol


Lewitt’s breakthrough Wall Drawings—sketched

from ceiling to floor—like modern cave art


—are made to be painted over.  What is

left behind?  Lewitt sketched diagrams.  The turtle lays eggs.  Me?—


the Chinese would say, swallow nesting on a curtain.

In L.A.:  set of box springs


on freeway shoulder.  Man says, unshelter oneself.

Don’t limit oneself to words when there are sentences.


2.  Cast-Off

The hummingbird sings outside your office

—little quick chirps—

like a chipmunk.  This delights you.

Louise Nevelson, in Dawn’s Wedding Feast, 1959


painted stacked wooden crates filled with street finds—

shutters, hubs, chess pieces—all-white.  Absolved.  And you,


who see:  the jambs, the archvolt, the panic bar,

the peephole. You put your fingers on my right arm and said

I’ll find you.


DB:  After Vogue you worked in a number of other positions, but notably for Estee Lauder and now for more than a decade with Aveda.  You are the creative director for copy at Aveda.  I think that means you are the head writer and the director of the other writers.  Does that work affect your poems?

PS: Aveda is a beauty company with a mission to care for the world we live in.  They are committed to doing this in a variety of ways—including tracing ingredients back to each farm and community to ensure integrity of formulation and fair treatment of workers.  So there are real stories about community to investigate and communicate—usually from far-flung countries, Morocco, Australia, Brazil.  On January 16th, I’m traveling to tiny villages in Nepal to see our partnership with indigenous peoples in forest communities who are hand crafting our gift paper from sustainable lokta bark.  Around Annapurna, these locations are some of the poorest in the world.

DB: It will be fascinating to see how your trip to Nepal may affect your poems, or even show up in your poems, don’t you think?  But you didn’t say much about how your work at Aveda has affected your poems.  Or maybe it doesn’t?

PS:  Writing about indigenous and local communities—suffused with ancient, rural rituals—for over ten years now for Aveda, the company keeps me focused on “the other.”  We source our argan oil—for skin care—from Morocco, and that was a touch point for this poem:

New York Pastoral

I occupy the periphery

(somewhere to watch)—

teetering on long thin thorny limbs


like Tamri goats who scamper up Argan trees for leaves and nuts

stripping them bare


:  a border of relief, this; the guards deliver

take-out Chinese or drugstore supplies;

they live places


I don’t know; they seem to come out of the orange fog



over the city.  I wish you were around

the corner; closer, I mean,

knowing there is only


so much closeness one can take—to be happy:

but, if you lived here, you could catch


snow flakes tumbling through ceiling grates

in subway tunnels:

so odd and white in the darkness


and you could hear masses of birds singing:  so few trees

clustered at the concrete edge.  Things are more intense


on the perimeter

:  like longing, or a tree.  I love

this place so, but you aren’t here, and so


something’s always missing

although I talk to you all the time.  Do you hear me?


Today, I tell you that the wood and nuts of the Argan tree

are burnt for cooking

deep roots prevent erosion,


and the Sahara is creeping nearer.  Old love

is about wanting someone else


to be happy.  I want you near me.

Argania spinosa?



DB:  You started writing poems again, after more than twenty years of silence, around 2004.  What inspired or prompted your return to poetry?  What were you looking for?  And what were those early poems like?  Short and terse?  Or were they, like your recent poems, sometimes longer and polyphonic?

PS:  I realized I had succumbed to insecurities, which didn’t please me, and I also started having a small sense of fatality.  It was Louis Auchincloss who said, “A man can spend his whole existence never learning the simple lesson that he has only one life and that if he fails to do what he wants with it, nobody else really cares.”  The poems were caught in my throat, very small and spare, yes, terse.  I could barely get them out.  Then I chiseled them down to bone.

DB:  Would you show me a chiseled one—again, one of the earlier ones where you started this technique?


Cutting Board

I did not always recognize the pleasure—

but it is unavoidable:

the slice. The way he bends into it.

Briefly. Then leaves.


I am full of wanting.


The sheer physicality of it


questions: you know what they are.


I shall not miss him is a lie.


DB:  I see what you mean.  It is lean and tight.  I like its clarities, but compared to your newer poems it’s also more blunted, less chewy or elliptical or layered.

So let’s talk about your poems now.  You have been writing with real seriousness for the past five years, and your poems have appeared in many important magazines, especially magazines that are noted for their appreciation of innovative writers—like Volt, Conduit, the Denver Quarterly, Fence, and others.  Could you talk a little about your process of writing a poem?  I know it is unusual, and complex, and seems to require a sense of plurality, a kind of communal imagination.  But talk about your process.  Where does an idea come from?  How do you prepare to write a poem?

PS:  I clip every day—even in Blaine, Minnesota, where I spend two weeks every month for Aveda, I drive half an hour to get a New York Times.  That paper, and the New York Review of Books.  Whatever catches my eye I save, underline, investigate further online. I store these in vanilla folders, and date them.  They hang together in themes.  They spark ideas, as well as visits to galleries and museums, which feed into the general themes, or initiate subjects.  Sometimes I catch myself thinking the clipping won’t be of interest—but if I edit too much I find the folders then aren’t that surprising. It’s really following my instincts and trusting that there is something there.

DB:  You clip like a researcher.  I’d like to see some of your clippings, and a list of what you clip, and a little discussion of why you chose those pieces.

PS:  December 30, 2010 from NY Times:

  1. Mexico City Journal: Bare-Bones Approach Lets a City Embrace Winter

. . . His home, like nearly every building in this megalopolis of 20 million people, has no central heating. And because concrete is the dominant building material, winter here means a indoor existence with temperatures not far from freezing. . . Deep in the country’s Aztec roots, there is admiration for submitting to the elements. . . “We’re always struggling with what Mexico really is,” Mr. Gallo said. ”It’s a slight disconnect between the image and the reality of living in a city that has a mountain climate.” . . .For many Mexicans, though, the lack of heat has less to do with protecting the environment than with accepting it. Mr. Gallo said that while Americans try to fix the cold, Mexicans rely on fatalism as a means of coping, a sense “that this is how it’s supposed to be.” Mr Sandoval offered another take: “The weather is something you participate in,” he said. “It’s something you’re part of.”  Mr. Aridjis, the poet, agreed. During a tour of his book-filled, ice-box of a home, he said he sometimes found ice crystals in the shower, but he also fondly recalled a rhythm of writing by temperature. He would work for several hours until the chill consumed him, then he would step outside to soak in the warming rays of a winter sun.”

Of interest here is submission, acceptance, habit, disconnect between image and reality, cultural and philosophical differences in relating to weather, the concept of participation with a natural element.  I struggle with accepting what “is,” and sitting with it—especially internal weather i.e. emotions; understanding and appreciating reality rather than dream worlds.  I attempt to substitute new habits for old as rituals are either/both comfort and crutch.  Participating in life—rather than passively allowing something to unfold—being engaged rather than invisible—is another subject.

2. New Look for Mecca: Gargantuan and Gaudy.

JIDDA, Saudi Arabia – It is an architectural absurdity. Just south of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, the Muslim world’s holiest site, a kitsch rendition of London’s Big Ben is nearing completion. Called the Royal Mecca Clock Tower, it will be one of the tallest buildings in the world, the centerpiece of a complex that is housing a gargantuan shopping mall, an 800-room hotel and a prayer hall for several thousand people. . . decorated with Arabic inscriptions and topped by a crescent-shape spire in what feels like a cynical nod to Islam’s architectural past. To make room for it, the Saudi government bulldozed an 18th-century Ottoman fortress and the hill it stood on. . . The closer to the mosque, the more expensive the apartments. . . dividing the holy city of Mecca—and the pilgrimage experience—along highly visible class lines, with the rich sealed inside exclusive air-conditioned high-rises encircling the Grand Mosque, and the poor pushed increasingly to the periphery. . . deforming what was by all accounts a fairly diverse and unstratified city. . . Like the luxury boxes that encircle most sports stadiums, the apartments will allow the wealthy to peer directly down at the main event from the comfort of their suites without having to mix with the ordinary rabble. . . Many people told me that the intensity of the experience of standing in the mosque’s courtyard has a lot to do with its relationship to the surrounding mountains. Most of these represent sacred sites in their own right and their looming presence imbues the space with a powerful sense of intimacy. But that experience, too, is certain to be lessened with the addition of each new tower, which blots out another part of the view.

This one seems to me a counterpoint to the Mexico City article, hermetically sealing off rather than embracing the elements—of nature and spirit; the destructive capabilities of religion and faith dovetailing with governmental purpose to disrupt cultural fabric.  I struggle with hibernating or retreating so I tend to notice other instances. I know that many people find calm and clarity in religious belief, and I am also aware of how it operates as a powerhouse, like a corporation, and undermines the equity it builds.

DB:  In her new book, Unoriginal Genius, Marjorie Perloff discusses the “unoriginal” language of recent experimental poetry, language taken from the internet, from citations, all the prior language that makes overt, or self-conscious, the fact that all language is inheritance, always already having been used before our use.  There is no original utterance.  Would you show a poem with pieces of your clippings, and talk about how you execute such things?

PS:  In talking with my boyfriend about living together, I struggled with what to do, what loss. Falling, it seemed sometimes. I explored my folders of clips and pulled what resonated with this contradictory feeling of ecstasy, fear and flight. First, a New York Times article about how a river’s waterfall allows the current to return to a normal flow, correcting itself in order to erase itself.  Falls are paradoxical places. Here things fall apart, literally shattered, and then righted, restored, albeit differently, beautifully.  The process is powerful, you feel present. I researched Victoria Falls, beginning with Wikipedia, and discovered how it has a black basalt edge, the river plummets in a single vertical drop to create the largest falls in the world (if not the highest or widest). The African name translates as “the smoke that thunders.”  An article about Leonardo de Vinci, the ingenious inventor, painter, and engineer spoke about how he wrote right to left, looking at things from a different perch. Sublime. I dug into Oxford dictionary to route around in the definition. All these pieces worked together in the first two sections of the poem. In other sections, I mixed in pieces of conversation.

Lyms of

Rim of light.  Crawling to the black

basalt edge.  I’ll say the wrong

thing and move in with him.  Falls are the river’s way

of getting back to normal.  Simultaneously a mistake

and correction:  in order to erase itself.  At the rift between

the water’s force and its path. (The physical industry of it.)

What causes the smoke to rise so high

out of water, the Kololo asked.  (About Victoria.)  So

Leonardo wrote backwards, right to left

using the left hand without punctuation.  So


limb means border

all be but lyms of blissidnes

when you face limits

rip them


Sub up to = limen lintel

Hee on the wings of cherub rode

towering. arch. and


(in quest of

, or


9.  Astray,

b. as pred.?

Quantum pop.                         Loss


DB: Can you say more about word origins?  About your interest in word evolution?  That’s a central motif in your new poems.  The meaning of your poems seems somehow about how poems mean.

PS:  I’m interested in the substrates and shallows and coves that lie under or behind.  I probably would like spelunking, if I didn’t feel claustrophobic.  Ruins of towns—or investigations of fantasies like Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities—interest me as well. You can’t really dig around in these, unless you are an archaeologist or geologist or biographer/critic. Oxford English Dictionary makes the histories, many obsolete, immediate—unfolding each word on the page back in time through their conflicting and dovetailing evolutions. Their new Thesaurus traces the meanings back. I like focusing small, on one word; within, flies out a macrocosm of life.

DB:  I see how you find clippings, phrases, information.  But now, how do you find the form of your poems?  They are frequently splayed and opened, rather than more traditionally formal.  I see, as you mentioned earlier, how some of your formal imagination derives from the visual arts.   Can you show part of a poem and talk about the formal decisions?

PS:  My first answer is that the form of my poem develops instinctively.  It is a physical reaction to the subject and emotion, not intellectualized.  My second answer is that there is usually a repeated grid at work underneath, a matter of containment—of the odd, multifaceted pieces.  In earlier poems it was evident—numbered couplets—as in this poem based on the work of painter Robert Ryman, who also establishes order with a grid:

Series #22 (white)

Oil and gesso on canvas   Robert Ryman, 2004


As if it were still the 17th century, when conscious

just entered the English language, meaning secret and shameful:



the whitewash of brushstrokes over black.  It was like erasing

to put white over it, Ryman says, but gives no hint of what—



everything we have words for is dead.

No wonder, Nietzche said, I forget; so it repeats, like a series



of couplets:  In Hebrew darkness is not unrelated to childlessness.

Alone:  this is not a choice.  It’s a compulsion.  Last night . . .


Most recently the forms of organization—of controlling the chaos—are more complicated and organic (even eaten away)—maybe “fractal” is the right word. A new poem has divided itself into four sections of ten lines each, holey and ragged like an old sock.  The line breaks and puddles of erasure occur naturally like a crack opens along a fault line or a spill of bleach whitens darkness.

DB:  That’s fascinating.  I know it’s not finished, but would you show me a little of this new poem, still in progress, to show to fractal quality?



there?  Me.  But some bifurcation early on

makes the sense of

yours truly

unseen, indistinct, fleeting. . .


(don’t you like that: 1606 antecedent for



Can you challenge that pattern?


If I’m paying you all the money, can’t you fix it.


Meanwhile, in Delhi, 60% live

in makeshift homes

without clean water.

In Japan,

the Paper Church and  Curtain House

are loved.



1598.  Obs. Not in the field of vision.


Reminds me of apocryphal.


It’s being able to claim what you need


DB:  Which visual artists mean the most to you?  Why?  What do you take from them into your own poems?

PS:  Visual artists that excavate strata, recover the lost and overlooked, and recompose them, often within boxes or grids that contain fear and fantasy.  Joseph Cornell, Louise Nevelson, and many outsiders like Henry Darger.  Also performance artists like Cuban-American Ana Mendieta, who especially early on, focused on violence against the female body.  She typically carved her imprint into sand or mud or meadow, and maybe this is part of the inspiration for the form of my poetry. Sigmar Polke applies clumps or droplets of ancient substances or mass-produced fabrics—soaked in lacquer—to the canvases in juxtaposition with sketched figures. His fingerprints might be visible through a film of deliberately applied dust. He applies arsenic or lavender oil—precious or toxic substances—that alchemically change color or texture; violet turns gold as it dries in the sun.  He works with materials that shine or sheen or shimmer: “I am trying to create another light, one that comes from reflective surfaces. Like celestial light, it gives the indication of new supernatural things.” I like this quote best: “A finished painting is an impression of millions of impressions.”

DB:  Is that how you think of your poems—as a verbal impression of millions of impressions?  Certainly that fits with your technique of collage and clippings.  So how do your experiences in fashion and business—your work with Vogue or Aveda—provide impressions for your poems?

PS:  I don’t find that my work at Vogue or Aveda animates my poetry because the use of language, and thinking, is very different.  I try to distinguish between the two:  focusing on editing at work, and writing at home.  Even though Aveda is non-corporate in some ways, it may heighten my interest in the ways in which power can be a positive—and negative—force.

DB:  You write about power in your poems, no doubt.  Does poetry have a power of its own?  Is it powerless or powerful, or is that irrelevant?

PS:  I think that poetry can be extraordinarily powerful; it slips in between thoughts to upend the status quo. I have heard Merwin say that poetry is part of all of us, children sing when they are young, and chant; yet it is pretty much wrung out of us. I wish, too, that it had more support, in school, say, to begin with. I think it is a great opportunity for restoring equanimity and kindness.

DB:  Many poets today find their vocations inside the academy.  You often take part in workshops and conferences, and you give readings, but you are more outside the field than many of your colleagues.  Still, you’re in good company.  I think of T. S. Eliot, Marianne Moore, or more recently Alice Notley or Amy Clampitt, major poets who were or are not part of an academic setting.  How does it feel to you to be “outside,” or do you think about that?

PS:  Concentric circles form a target, and I often feel like I should be working my way inside to some goal or point that I’m missing. On the other hand, being outside is familiar, and crisscrossed with worn paths that form offbeat trajectories with surprising views. I’m sometimes afraid that absorbing too much of a well-traveled approach could be stifling.  There are so many talented teachers to learn from in academia—I’d like to work with a hand-picked group: it would be fun to organize your own private masters’ program.

DB:  The poems you’ve included here so far have been culturally wide, their subjects ranging from politics to language itself.  How about things more close to home?  Do you use collage or clipping techniques even in your more personal poems?

PS:  Yes, very much so. Here’s a love poem, collaged with bits from a conversation with a friend, and a newspaper account of the celebration—and giddiness—after Hamas militants blew holes in the corrugated-iron border fence at Rafah in January 2008, after a long blockade by Israel.


There’s the village my friend calls

un lieu-dit or also called place,

a village without administration,

that’s us, you and me:

no boundaries.  Think how

Hamas blew a hole in the wall dividing

Egypt from Gaza, so donkeys and bicycles

could finally cart back bags of flour, cases of Coca-cola,

chocolate and antacid.  This is an opening,

love.  It calls for defiance and every

last stubborn cell of yours

is up for the fight—that’s what I think.  And you?

I know you like the tea kettle just so

on the burner.  Here, look:  Ala Shawa

and his wife, Hana, walking through the dirt

into Egypt, her hair fashionably streaked.

Adel al-Mighraky, smoking a Malimbo,

We were like birds in a cage.  This is giddiness,

and mayhem.  Don’t think about it too hard.

And please don’t seal the breach.


DB:  Do you think you have a community or company of fellow artists?  How do you perceive of the community of poets?  Is poetry communal, at heart, or solitary?

PS:  For me, poetry is solitary; it’s always surprising to me to find community when I am reading or visiting poets or taking workshops. I can only say good things about the people I meet in travels or at Bread Loaf, Kenyon Review Workshops, and Provincetown Fine Art Center. They are passionate and supportive and talented—and they’ll challenge you, and help you grow, if you ask for it.  Their kindness is truly remarkable.

DB:  Poetry is solitary, but language is communal.  How do you see your poems extending into the future?  What connections would you like to make with your poems?

PS:  I would like my poetry to mean something for someone, or some people. That would be a great gift.


Page Hill Starzinger lives in downtown Manhattan, and has worked for 30 years in New York as Copy Director at Vogue and Estee Lauder and is currently Creative Director for Copy at Aveda.  Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Colorado Review, Denver Quarterly, Fence, Kenyon Review, Pleiades, Literary Imagination, Volt, and many others.  “Series #22 (white)” by Page Hill Starzinger was chosen by Tomaz Salamun for a broadside created by The Center for Book Arts, NYC, in 2008.  Her chapbook, Un-Shelter, selected by Mary Jo Bang as winner of the Noemi Contest, was published in 2009, and her first book, Vestigial, came out in August 2013 as winner of the Barrow Street Poetry Prize.

Among David Baker’s fourteen books are his most recent poetry collection, Never-Ending Birds (2009, W. W. Norton), winner of the 2011 Theodore Roethke Memorial Poetry Prize, and Talk Poetry: Poems and Interviews with Nine American Poets (2012, Arkansas).  This latest title is cosponsored by The Kenyon Review and gathers Baker’s KROnline interviews with a number of important poets.  For his work, Baker has been awarded fellowships and grants from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, National Endowment for the Arts, Poetry Society of America, Ohio Arts Council, Society of Midland Authors, and others.  He currently serves as Professor of English at Denison University where he holds the Thomas B. Fordham Chair of Creative Writing.

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