Tuesday, August 23, 2016

On Writing #104 : Geoffrey Young

Geoffrey Young

                        “Writing down that something while it’s making itself up”
                                                                                                —Robert Grenier

So various the acts of writing, so broad the range of voices, so dispersed their points of origin, so specific their raison d’etre…. Poetry cannot be pinned down to a single definition, nor thought of in terms of some hegemonic mode.  And if I say “the poem is a thinking jewel”?  Whether lyric, narrative, imagistic, disjunctive, structural, senseless, pellucid, or opaque; whether brashly contra good taste and grammar or buttoned down with classical ease, a poem should embody the essence of transformative/creative intelligence, also known as sustained invention (sustained attention), a sort of chaos seized from the heart of order (or an order seized from the heart of chaos).

Reality has nothing to do with it.  Words exist.  Let’s not play dumb. They allow the ear, eye and mind to make connections between different semantic layers.  Each word forms the center of a cloud of nuance and connotation, allowing itself to be massaged by whatever signifying hand is present in a given context.  What flattens and superficializes the associative halo is habitual usage.  By pushing back against conditioned usage, and by heightening the connotative charge of words, the poet redefines the boundary of meaning by reclaiming the humanity and fecundity of language on his or her own terms. 

Language is a continuous nominative surface that extends in a sort of topological mediation between self and object, which is to say, between self and world. Along the trail, due to the particularizing aspect of word choice, one’s “story” gets told.  A feeling for the world, both as attribute and insight, as well as a politics and a morality, are present in the language in what may have become a cliché: the mutual identity of form and content.

Poems don’t aspire to the condition of music or they’d play a cornet.  The trap is meaning: words come pre-loaded with signification and history.  Gibberish, no matter how sonic, always suffers from lack of sense.  The Mallarméan poem, held in tweezers and studied for symbolic insight, can be considered an object in itself.  Most writers provide the more traditional “window on the world.”  James Schuyler’s skinny descriptive poems and John Ashbery’s long-lined poems of wandering hyper-cultivated ruminative goofs grow from the same stalk.  Started as scribbles, typed and retyped, they emerge at their best as hood ornaments on Western evolution itself.

Reading should challenge and amuse, it should entertain and illumine.  No one can read everything; no one should even try.  Poetry can be found at every crossroads in the nation, addressing the traffic as it flows.  Because of this, there is no poetry with a capital P.

A writer collaborates with the language, which, marvelously and maddeningly , has a life of its own.  Poets enter the fray with everything  to prove, including adaptability and stamina.  A reader completes the poem, just as a word, a phrase, a feeling, a strong emotion, a story, or a methodology starts the thing in the first place. The innovative poet strives for a multiplicity of readings, is against closure (any boxed-up, formally contrived terminus of possibility).  Meaning inheres in the particulars of word and sequence, in the quality of perception, in the hound dog sound of sense.  It works to build larger units by accretion, and often succeeds.

A poem is an act of belief in the usefulness of art.  Innovative poems have a way of calling into question that art, challenging the nature of belief, putting pressure on the medium of language itself.  But once written, and published, the poem stands on its own, a little or large node of “artificial intelligence” symbolically encoded in a language wrested from its own monstrous life, and waiting to be decoded by a reader who can provide a surrogate heart.

Before settling in Great Barrington, Massachusetts in 1982, Geoffrey Young spent student years in Santa Barbara (UCSB), and Albuquerque (UNM), then lived for two years in Paris (a Fulbright year followed by a six-month stint working for La Galerie Sonnabend).  From 1975-1982 he lived in Berkeley (two sons born).  His small press, The Figures (1975-2005), founded in Berkeley, published more than 135 books of poetry, art writing, and fiction.

His own recent books include Click Here to Forget, Isolate Flecks, 2016;  All the Anarchy I Want, Lonely Woman, 2013;  Dumbstruck, Yawning Abyss, 2013, with paintings by Daniel Heidkamp; and Get On Your Pony & Ride, Non-Fiction, 2012, with paintings by Chie Fueki. A new chapbook of sonnets is imminently forthcoming from above/ground press.

He has directed the Geoffrey Young Gallery for the last 24 years, as well as written catalog essays for a dozen artists.

Friday, August 12, 2016

On Writing #103 : Bruce Whiteman

On Writing
Bruce Whiteman

I am neither young nor old, i.e. I am at that point where no one much notices what writing I do. Young poets deservedly occupy the limelight, or what there is of limelight for poetry in Canada today, they and the revered dead, who occasionally get statues erected to them in Queen's Park, near where the business of provincial governing goes on. The statue of Al Purdy stares at the statue of Edward VII.

Bitterness is to be resisted. What lover of William Carlos Williams's poems doesn't cringe at the thought of his Autobiography, written when he was a crabby, self-pitying old man? Better to get your memoir out of the way when you're still young, like Lautréamont. Then forget about poor Narcissus, his "dim fragrance/And the dim heart of the river."

I began writing poetry out of emotional need: a confessional, a talking cure, a vague aspiration to shrive myself without help from anything or anyone save words and rhythms. It took a long time to figure out that that impulse often made for boring poems, whatever psychoprophylactic benefits it might have had. Sitting on the sunny deck of a summer cottage somewhere north of Toronto in the early 1980s, I decided quite consciously to give up that kind of poetry, and to try to open up my writing to something more encompassing than personal experience and private grief.

So for thirty years I built a long poem in prose and tried to convince myself that this was better, that it made my poems more interesting, less gnarly with unfettered feeling, more prospective, more philosophical, more--dare I say it?--beautiful. With seven books of that poem now in type and an eighth in progress in a notebook, it has not seemed to make much commotion in the world. But as Stephen Rodefer says in a Keats-inspired poem called "Poetry and Sleep," "The universe may turn its head around one/Of these perpetual nights,/And I want to be ready." Probably it won't. Rodefer doubtless had Catullus in mind too: nox est perpetua una dormienda. That's more likely.

Maybe those incredibly productive Victorian novelists spent the greater part of their waking time writing. Most poets don't, though they wander through their days being poets even while they're looking after babies or grocery shopping or walking to the post office or making their frequent visits to the LCBO. I just mean that one is conscious of noise, attentive without even thinking about it to how a phone number tapped into an old-fashioned telephone can sound like a melody, alarmed by birdsong, sometimes painfully immersed in the soundscape, distracted by kids playing audibly in a nearby schoolyard even when their actual words are not discernable. The world speaks and poets listen.

"For Christ's sake, you can read/it all in his poems." That's Rodefer again, this time translating François Villon, the final line of his epitaph, "Cy gist" (Here Lies). It does all get into the poems, things the ear hears and processes: the music of the everyday, the residue of what's been heard.

There's more of course. There's what we retain in our primary auditory cortex of poems we've read throughout our lives, not so much the content as the music: cadences, tessitura, consonance and dissonance, phrasing: emotional alliances, sonic aspirations. And there are dreams, understood not through the contemporary activation-synthesis hypothesis, but by the older and surely lasting view, that dreams are partly the remains of the day, partly the recrudescence of old emotions, and partly creative writing itself (the dream work). And there is childhood, which is emotion and imagery, the pull of what is remembered as well as what is not, source of metaphors that are often more profound than we even know.

Beauty is an unpopular word today, but really, without beauty, what is there to make us go on writing poems? Elaine Scarry has said that beauty demands of us "acts of replication," that is, we experience it and we want to make it again in a different form. Perhaps many things in the world make us want to replicate them, but beauty seems especially crucial for poetry.

On Beauty

The dead are silent, and there is no prayer
to chivy heaven and make our need known there.

Silence begins as the trees end their painful reach,
each branch an indecipherable scribble on the air

where it stops, pointing nowhere, a scratch
on the void. Sometimes

I do lose heart, start to think I am a ghost with
no past to account for me, no body to stop a

hand or bullet. Don't, the heart says
unconvincingly, give up on beauty.

Bruce Whiteman is the author of many books of poetry and cultural history. His last book was entitled Tablature (McGill-Queen's University Press, 2015). He reviews regularly for Canadian Notes & Queries, The Hudson Review, Pleiades and other journals.

Tuesday, August 02, 2016

On Writing #102 : Karl Jirgens

Writing Lives: Writing Lives
Karl Jirgens
I wrote this article in response to a thought-provoking question rob mclennan asked me about the recent interest or “drift” toward poetic or creative biography, which involves innovative or lyric approaches to narrating lives of public figures. Good question, and I’ll do my best to answer, albeit a bit indirectly. But first, a few words about the title of this modest piece. The word “lives” is both noun and verb. And in a way, that’s what shapes the kind of writing that rob wanted me to comment on. Writing about lives requires a kind of double-vision. You see the “thingness” of the life you’ve chosen to write about, but life is kinetic. And writing about a life is a kind of nominative action, both noun and verb. Does this matter much? Maybe yes, because it helps contextualize some of the reasons for a growing  interest in writing about actuality. So, for this literary approach, what’s out there? Well, just recently, biographically based non-fictions include accounts such as Jane Mayer’s Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right, or, John Doe’s Under the Black Sun: A Personal History of L.A. Punk, or, Masha Gessen’s The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin, or, A.J. Somerset’s Arms: The Culture and Credo of the Gun, or, Jason Elliot’s An Unexpected Light: Travels in Afghanistan. There are bio-books on politics, health, black civil rights, environment, Indigeneity, spirituality, murder, royalty, the middle-east, athletes, musicians, film-makers, and the list goes on. Think, Charles Darwin, Rachel Carson, Anne Frank, Primo Levi, Eldridge Cleaver, Truman Capote, Betty Friedan, and so many more. Think, Theodora Kroeber’s Ishi, Last of His Tribe. Or, maybe think of Walter Isaacson on Steve Jobs.

But, let’s take a quick look at several types of non-fiction. Marlene Kadar, in the Encyclopedia of Literature in Canada (U of Toronto Press, 2003), lists related forms that have been named or developed by different writers and thinkers, including “life writing” [Robert Kroetsch], “self-portrait” [Susan Jackel], “life-narrative” [Shirley Neuman], “bio-text” [George Bowering], “autographie” [Madeleine Gagnon], “biofiction” [Regine Robin], or, “filiation” [Gabrielle Fremont] (662). One could add autobiography to the mix. As Kadar, Buss, Jackel, and Neuman, have pointed out there is some porosity in the generic boundaries of autiobiography, and those other related forms. And, there are also cross-overs and blurs between what we typically think of as fictive and non-fictive expression (prose, poetry, or drama). Consider Ondaatje’s Running in the Family, Atwood’s The Journals of Susanna Moodie, bpNichol’s Martyrology, Lepage’s  The Geometry of Miracles, or, Needles and Opium. Literary borders are porous. There are different ways to deliver biography, autobiography, memoirs, letters, diaries, journals, anthropological data, oral testimony, and eye-witness accounts. Each of these approaches has its own characteristics, but it seems to me that the “drift” towards, or interest in non-fictive expression has always been with us. I think of the cave drawings of Altamira depicting successful hunting expeditions, or the love poems of Sappho, or, Niccolò Machiavelli’s advice to a young prince (still a best-seller), and, it seems to me that non-fictive expression has engaged us since our earliest days. Further, I think it should be apparent to most that any biography or bio-text becomes as much a depiction of the author as the subject. Consider Frank Davey’s remarkable How Linda Died, or, When Tish Happens.
Cave drawing from Altamira (c. 35,000 B.C.) [ http://www.oddee.com/item_93915.aspx ]
I’d like to turn the topic inside out, and briefly look at how biographical input enters into fiction. Novels often include disclaimers which insist that all characters depicted are purely fictitious, and any similarity to actuality is purely coincidental. But why include disclaimers, unless there are direct correspondences to actuality? So, we say, “This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or are used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.” But such disclaimers sometimes mean the opposite, and are often included to avoid litigation. Despite disclaimers, fictions still depict actuality. I think of Rudy Wiebe’s question about “Where is the voice coming from?” Inspiration. Expression. Fusion. Meantime, creative life-writing, biographies, autobiographies, and other non-fictional forms, feature a different type of disclaimer; “Although the author and publisher have made every effort to ensure that the information in this book was correct at press time, the author and publisher do not assume and hereby disclaim any liability to any party for any loss, damage, or disruption caused by errors or omissions, whether such errors or omissions result from negligence, accident, or any other cause.” The difference between fictive and non-fictive disclaimers invites some consideration. For example, non-fiction uses many of the same methods as fiction. In non-fiction, information can be inflated, deflated, included, excluded, over-stated, under-stated, and so on. Perhaps you’ve noticed that your memory of your own life works much the same way. You may have exaggerated views of some things, sublimated others, and either revised, or entirely eliminated other events. In many ways, your memory of your past life is a fiction. The border between fiction and non-fiction is permeable and intriguing. It’s where I situate my own writing. I love exploring that liminal zone.

So, why the recent “drift” in interest for non-fictional or biographical writing? Put simply, our interest in actuality trumps our interest in imagined scenarios. Our stories are part of our cultural identity. They are ways of “naming,” “renaming,” or even “un-naming” ourselves, as Barthes put it. But how can we carry out such self-identifying if, as some argue, fiction has exhausted most of its own possibilities? The death of the novel has been repeatedly announced by writers such as José Ortega y Gasset (Decline of the Novel, 1925), Walter Benjamin (Krisis des Romans, 1930). Later, in the same century, the novel’s demise is discussed by Alain Robbe-Grillet, Gore Vidal, Tom Wolfe, Roland Barthes, John Barth, Ronald Sukenick, Zadie Smith, and David Foster Wallace, among others.

In his essay, “Trapped inside the Novel,” Tim Parks affirms David Shields’ contention that any community of readers will consider novels with jaded eyes after being barraged with mass-media sound-bytes or video-bytes depicting “reality” montaged through “quotations, fragments, provocations, moments of lyricism, and melodrama.” Parks states that he feels confined by the literary conventions of novels:

My problem with the grand traditional novel—or rather traditional narrative in general, short stories included—is the vision of character, the constant reinforcement of a fictional selfhood that accumulates meaning through suffering and the overcoming of suffering. At once a palace built of words and a trajectory propelled by syntax, the self connects effortlessly with the past and launches bravely into the future. Challenged, perhaps thwarted by circumstance, it nevertheless survives, with its harvest of bittersweet consolation, and newly acquired knowledge [http://www.nybooks.com/daily/2013/11/07/literature-without-style/].

A quick survey from José Ortega y Gasset to Tim Parks suggests that at least some people feel that the novel has exhausted itself. Other prominent writers disagree, not exactly with that premise, but with the reason for the premise. For example, Salman Rushdie has argued that assumptions concerning the death of the novel are founded in First-World literary assumptions which are not particularly relevant when applied to literature beyond the west. Fair enough. 

We have arrived at 1001 x 1001 ways to re-tell our stories, but the fundamental forms abide, and even the innovations of what has been called “postmodern” can be read as reactions to those older forms, with meaning dependent on earlier literary convention. The unconventional only has meaning when placed beside the conventional. One could say more about form, but what about subject matter? Agreed, you can’t separate the dancer from the dance. Form and subject are integrated. But, too often the material out there seems like yet another psycho-drama, some writer’s invented crisis, created perhaps more to sell books and less for the art of story-telling, designed more for entertainment and less for our instruction, to paraphrase Plato’s and Aristotle’s views in a single clause. So, with a world in crisis, expression that avoids actuality feels escapist, maybe even a little irresponsible. I’ve heard it said that all art is masturbation. Up, down, or down, up, repeat, climax. Some audiences grow leery of reading yet another jerk-off story or poem, while “Rome” is burning. Or, if not Rome, then maybe the rainforests, but you get the “drift.”

So, to return to the growing interest or “drift” towards bio-texts, life-writing, or non-fictions; what’s the draw? Well, maybe non-fiction seems more socially engaged, or “engagé” as Satre put it. When one half of global wealth is in the hands of 62 people (as confirmed by Oxfam Davos), when the sustainability of the planet becomes a daily concern, when questions recur involving the military industrial complex, endless warfare, related “terrorist” events, banking autocracies, global food and pharmaceutical oligarchies, and daily mass-media mind-laundering, then then, maybe it’s time to wake up and smell the non-fiction, have a bit of a reality check-out at the local library or bookstore. I’d be interested in reading a bio-text on Bernie Sanders, for example. Such writing can arise from diverse sources, illuminating disturbing actualities. Anne Frank. Gil Elliot. Romeo Dallaire. Maya Angelou. Gerald Vizenor. Naomi Klein. David Talbot. Anne Applebaum. Timothy Snyder. Evan Osnos. Katherine Boo. It’s impossible to mention so many other important non-fiction or bio-text writers in this short space.

But! To be fair, it’s important to remember that fiction, poetry and drama are often equally “engagé.” Socio-political engagement is one of the fundamentals of drama. It is the raison d’être for satire. There is an inspiring history of socio-politically engaged poetry, fiction and drama. Think of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the Harlem Renaissance, George Orwell, Edward Bond, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Ben Okri, Anne Waldman, José Saramago, Barbara Kingsolver, Ron Silliman, Khaled Hosseini, or Chimanmanda Ngozi Adiche, among so many others. Or, closer to home, think of the Automatists, Carol Bolt, Joy Kogawa, Daphne Marlatt, Nicole Brossard, Barbara Godard, Jeanette Armstrong, Lillian Allen, David Fennario, Dionne Brand, Steve McCaffery, Thomas King, Gail Scott, Erin Mouré, NourbeSe Philip, Tomson Highway, Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm, or Stephen Collis. The list of plays, poems, or tales of Handmaids and others is seemingly endless (and I apologize for the dozens I haven’t included here. Tomorrow, I’ll think of dozens more excellent examples). Nonetheless, why the recent drift in interest towards non-fiction including creative biography and/or autobiography? It might have something to do with a certain vérité, dropping any need for an artificial suspension of disbelief, while disregarding the literary fourth wall, and having the opportunity to walk hand-in hand with a forthright author talking about the actualities of how we how we struggle, live, die, fuck, sustain, and love in this dangerous time.

Karl Jirgens, former Head of the English Dept., at U Windsor, is author of four books (Coach House, Mercury, and ECW Presses). He edited two books, one on painter Jack Bush and another on poet Christopher Dewdney, and an issue of Open Letter. His scholarly and creative pieces are published globally. His research on digital media investigates literature and performance. Jirgens also researches 20thC and WWII genocides, as featured in his novel-in-progress on the Cold War. Since 1979, Jirgens has edited Rampike, an international journal featuring contemporary art, writing and theory. He currently serves as Associate Professor at U Windsor.