Wednesday, December 17, 2003

BANJO: Poets Talking
issue #3

©2003 by Carol Mirakove
& Kaia Sand

To contact the editor:


Carol Mirakove is the author of Occupied (Kelsey Street Press, 2004), and two chapbooks, temporary tattoos (BabySelf Press, 2002) and WALL (ixnay, 1999). She is a founding member of the subpress collective. Carol has lived and participated in poetry communities in Washington, DC, Los Angeles, and New York. She currently lives in Brooklyn.

Kaia Sand co-edits the Tangent with Jules Boykoff, a zine of politics and the arts; co-curates the _In Your Ear_ poetry series in Washington DC; and teaches at St. Mary's College of Maryland. Most recently, poems appear in Bivouac, Kenning, Lipstick 11, Antennae, and Anomaly. A book of poems Interval is forthcoming with Edge Books.


The following conversation transpired between Kaia Sand and Carol Mirakove on Saturday afternoon, November 15, 2003, on the beach of Point Lookout in Southern Maryland. Kaia had organized an event the previous day called "Women in the Avant-Garde" at St. Mary's College, in which Carol, Laura Elrick, Heather Fuller, Kristin Prevallet, and Deborah Richards engaged a panel/dialogue with approximately 75 people, including Kaia's students, colleagues, and members of the St. Mary's community, and poets from DC and NYC. We are delighted to extend this conversation, to cross-pollinate the ideas addressed this weekend, with Banjo readers, especially as we both harbor great affection for the Philly scene (the Philly Sound!).


Carol Mirakove: In designing the "Women in the Avant-Garde" panel, what did you hope the five of us to relay to your students and to the community about our work?

Kaia Sand: I chose the term "avant garde" over "experimental" because "avant-garde" implies the social side of the work. There are a lot of ways to pitch in with an avant-garde movement--this is an inclusive frame. So many artists have shown us that if you want to extend what's possible, you need to build the ground to walk on--and that's collective action. Such ground is established by chapbooks, readings, meetings ... If, on the other hand, one strives to be an author who works individually and is lauded and published by HarperCollins, one is striving, generally speaking, to gain acceptance from social elites who uphold established conventions. One simply succumbs.

CM: The event was great, because we all just came together with our ideas, without planning what we might say, and a rich dialogue ensued within the mere space of an hour. You asked the five of us to simply introduce who we are, what we're thinking about in poetry. And even I --knowing these writers well, myself-- I was surprised and delighted to hear such provocative concerns.

Laura stated an interest in a history-Literature (capital-L) nexus; how/where within that nexus might her poems live?

Heather spoke about trauma, in our lives and relationships; about trauma as a force within the text.

I claimed an interest in ourselves as vulnerable and valuable individuals, and how that assertion might be explored in poetry.

Kristin spoke about language as a living, organic force, using a paper clip as a metaphor for language, which she animated by explaining that the possibilities for a paper clip might reach fruition when we realize that we can unbend the paper clip and reconfigure it in myriad forms, for myriad purposes.

Deborah introduced ideas about the facade in texts and in society, speaking about DVDs and their "extras," such as outtakes, and deleted scenes. These extras, she explained, are supposed to make us feel as though we are granted behind-the-scene access, that we can see more "true" and imperfect aspects of the product (the film), but actually, the extras become part of the product. In the end, they serve to reinforce the credibility of the product, influencing -- manipulating, perhaps -- our analyses of these products, or objects (Debord's "spectacle").

(( Think of Deborah's theory of the facade as applied to media. ))

From here, the audience was quick and eager to develop a discussion, which was exciting.

KS: A member of the audience asked how you achieve authenticity in your voice. With all five of you, I think of authenticity in terms of spirit, which is evident in the choices you make. I'm worn down by artists and intellectuals who spend their time protecting their status. Jules [Boykoff] and I recently saw a scholar position Socrates as a dissenting citizen -- gadfly -- and when asked about modern-day 'gadflies,' he failed to name one. He couldn't name a single dissenting intellectual! And I ask, what is he protecting? Lots, but it doesn't matter. Our egos can be so debilitating to the cultural and political work before us. By inviting you and Laura and Heather, and Kristin and Deborah, I wanted to be surrounded by poets who are committed to art, who are committed to a vision of social justice, who know that too much work needs to be done to fuss about protecting one's status.

CM: Michael Glaser, the Division Head of Arts and Letters at St. Mary's, asked us how we negotiate accessibility and alienation with regard to our readers.

I think there is a pragmatic answer to this problem, which centers on one question, for writer and reader: What does the text value? I think if we approach a text as such, none should be unapproachable. If a poem seems impenetrable, we can say for sure that the text values spatial choreography, and how language occupies a landscape, or environment (e.g., the page). In identifying qualities of a poem, we can easily navigate its values. Of course this goes for people, too.

Further, I think it's useful to regard poems as social structures. As such, we can ask ourselves what utopia might look like. For my utopia, I think of the Zapatistas in Chiapas [Mexico] and how they avoid hierarchy in their self-governance. I think about how they take the time to make decisions by consensus. I think about this as it regards a poem's construction of meaning, its epistemology. I'd like to render the epistemological path as open as possible, requiring the least amount of formulaic or prescribed knowledge. We all walk around with numerous instances of such knowledge, and the idea is not to do away with that, but rather to have it as flexible as possible, as porous, so that it might integrate and change. Recall the images Kristin's living, organic language. Of course this goes for people, too.

Deborah talked about the seduction of a text, and how that seduction of language might lure us in, as readers, to find sense. I think that's absolutely right and true; and I think that when that seduction is absent, we can ask what a text values in order to respect it, and understand it on its own terms, so that we can read a wide range of work.

How do you answer this question?

KS: Michael, the man who asked that question, asked me to read a poem at an anti-war forum last spring, and I surprised myself by easily saying no. I couldn't put a poem to use as such--at least not at that moment. Perhaps I was aware that my poem would fail to rouse an audience, as it would need to do. That realization forced me to think a little about how I see my poetry right now. At any rate, I wrote a speech for the event.

I see my poetry as a way of knowing: this word will follow that word in ways that surprise me. I embrace Heather's idea that we come to consciousness through poetry.

What becomes important to me, in terms of audience and accessibility, is a willingness to move between forms and genres, so that I don't have to break the back of my poetry when, perhaps, prose, maybe a speech, is a more apt form. But certainly, this does not mean that poetry can't be put to a use, and it definitely does not bar one from, in fact, extending the poetry to such audiences as those gathered at the anti-war forum. I'm very proud of poets who read their poems on the battlefields of the Spanish Civil War. Or of Mark Nowak reading his poems in Minnesota union halls.

In fact, it is important that we consider how to extend poetry to various audiences without shaping to poetry to the somewhat baffling notions of "accessibility." Diversity of taste disallows any work from mattering to everyone. The models of accessibility that are often presented are not convincing. I am wary of people saying you need to talk down to an audience. When you give people some tools for reading work, they can engage all kinds of complexity. The complexity of thought, conversation, humor, swells up in communities all around us, rural as well as urban; so many people have an affinity for startling, critical, innovative uses of language. This idea that there's one kind of accessibility--and that it comes in declarative sentences broken into lines that communicate an epiphany or some kind of lyric-narrative moment--is troublesome. I agree with Kristin Prevallet who calls "intellectual analysis" " an act of defiance."

So, instead of thinking, "hmmm. what I can I write so I won't alienate people if they, by chance, show up for a poetry reading?" Jules and I have been considering lately how to extend the poem to an audience--a different way of thinking about audience than perhaps I used to picture. We currently live in a rural area full of interesting people who live on a peninsula that's been literally shaped by the Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay, but that's also been shaped by power struggles and displacement. Language matters here.

Kristin Prevallet's documentary poetics has been really important to our thinking on this. And Heriberto Yepez's Context Poetry--his essay in Tripwire was essential. And, as well, an artist named John "Eddie" Welch's sign murals, whose signs are in the Visionary Arts Museum in Baltimore right now. He has attempted to teach history through colorful signs for 75 years, now, most recently in Newport News, Virginia. So, Jules and I are engaged in a project locating signs around St. Mary's County. One thing we've tried most recently is adding signs to high-density sign clusters. Right next to signs hawking Christmas bazaars or declaring Bingo night are our signs that ask, "Who owns the wealth?" and reminding people that "Cheney is Scary." One of our signs, "Where is the dead/end of our imperialist fiasco," was pried down in less than two hours, but other signs--such as "Bush / Cheney in '04--Four more Wars!--have endured.

CM: As an aside, I was thinking last night about the unknown, and feeling stupefied at the observation that apparently the unknown is more frightening to us than the world we know today, which is rife with slavery and staggering, worldwide injustice. How is that the case? It's a baffling comment on the human condition.

KS: That's such a clarifying observation. We can fall so short of envisioning a possible future. I've been reading a little Herbert Marcuse lately, and he writes about--I'll quote him here--art evoking "the words, the images, the music of another reality, of another order repelled by the existing one and yet alive in memory and anticipation, alive in what happens to men and women, and in their rebellion against it." Art creates possibilities. This is the new consciousness I think of relating to what Heather mentioned.

CM: In meeting here, this weekend, we are continuing conversations that have been taking place regarding poetry and society. We both took part in one such meeting in Philadelphia at Slought Foundation ("The Social Mark," February 28-March 2, 2003).

KS: And there are so many important conversations occurring about poetry, society, politics--such as the recent Empire meeting in Philadelphia. We're collectively summoning our courage. A challenge in my thinking is how our conversations engage politics and engage poetry. How can we continue talking about poetry without being prescriptive and manifesto-shrunken? At the same time--although when we talk about politics, we are acknowledging that we are all artists, so we can inform our consciousnesses for our art in this way--a challenge is also to not avoid talking about poetry in the midst of this, because that avoidance marginalizes the poetry. My own entry into these wonderful conversations is, as of yet, shaky. As much as I value the social, the collective, my some of the individualized-frontier-Westerner-conditioning stultifies me. Alas!

CM: I agree, that intersection is very difficult to realize. Further, one of my lowlights of the year was seeing a documentary on The Weather Underground at Film Forum this past spring. For 90 minutes I witnessed numerous accounts of reportedly effective activism; they were an impressive group in achieving what they set out to do, destroying government property while not hurting people. Watching the film, I felt very inspired, until I realized, I'm not sure what they actually affected. The U.S. stayed in Vietnam until it was good and ready to leave. I think that The Weather Underground did lend some energy and support to the Civil rights movement. But still, it seems impossible to gauge what is truly effective activism. And to gauge activism in poetry is all the more impossible.

Is energy, is community-building, enough? Maybe. That's probably, finally, not a useful question; probably the better way to think of this is in your terms, of extending what is possible. And I do think our efforts do affect our cultural climates, which seems critical.

I was really glad that Kristin introduced herself as a culture worker, a term that she tells us comes from Cornel West. From that, Buck Downs asked us each how we, in our jobs, act as culture workers. The array of responses was really wonderful.

Laura, who has worked at a social services organization in Harlem, has written directly to her co-workers and English-language students in her book sKincerity.

Deborah initiates projects with her students in which they write in public spaces such as bulletin boards. She also speaks of displacement as a black woman from England, an experience which we (and her students) in the U.S. don't have pre-conceived notions about. We don't know what she's "supposed" to think, or feel, as she writes in her book Last One Out.

Kristin engages poetry with her students as a conduit. She offers language as an organic, living, dynamic force that they shape, collectively, which she evidences in her Scratch Sides.

Heather writes through her current experiences as an emergency veterinary worker, performing triage. Heather has incorporated her relationships with people in the Community for Creative Non-Violence, a shelter in DC that houses u to 1,350 people.

in perhaps this is a rescue fantasy, especially in her placards, and in her series "for Perrault Daniels," in Dovecote. Heather has consistently worked in traumatic environments, and her practice as a language artist equips her with skills to approach these situations.

My concern, working in technology, is focused on the practice and promotion of abstract thinking, which is something that my friend Mike Porter points out is increasingly absent from our education. The industry of software development and systems administration is ripe for exploring abstract thinking, because we deal with systems, and how things are built, and how one entity affects many others. What is a unit of meaning? How do we manage those units? What are our fundamental assumptions? How do we extend what is possible? It's a real shame, and dangerous, that we abandon abstract thinking, because that diminishes our ability to analyze and criticize forces like the media.

Also, I like to use leverage geek-speak to discuss our political realities, e.g., "it's looking like Bush's hard drive has crashed." I think we can use bad humor to examine our social situations, to render them accessible in bridging gaps.

You, Kaia, not only act as a culture worker yourself in the classroom, but you got your students to engage culture work too! I read in the St. Mary's College newspaper, Point News, that you had your students read Heriberto Yepez's essay, "Context Poetry," in Yedda Morrison and David Buuck's Tripwire, and had them affect the St. Mary's environment in their own ways. Can you talk about that project?

KS: Sure. These students attempted to add poetry to the campus's common space--I called it poetry fieldwork. One group of students painted trees. They painted "climb" by assigning one letter to each tree near a heavy-traffic path. Hurricane Isabel knocked down the "c" tree, though, editing the word down to "Limb." And most recently, someone--the myths of who are rampant--made like an FBI hack and redacted the letters with white paint. Other students installed duck decoys with the sign "I Quack for Bush" in the center of the campus pond. These students hoped to incite destruction of their sign--Yepez discusses how destruction is an important aspect of a poem placed in public space--or the installation of new signs, and eventually a new sign did replace theirs, in which the ducks announced "I Quack for Queers." This time, the message was less ambiguous, because the sign was adorned with rainbows and pink triangles). All the projects had people talking, discussion the strange language cropping up, and the article you refer to was, well, skeptical, curious, slightly dismissive. All this fired up my students, but it helped them--and helped me—value antagonism, negative reception.

CM: Can you elaborate on "negative reception"?

KS: If we want people to notice language, and people react in a negative way, we are getting them to think. Some of my students were upset by these negative reactions. But then they began to see--and I began to see--how much more energizing "feeling upset" could be (in terms of art, conversations). Passive-yet-positive reactions can be dead ends (but, oh, they can feel so much better!). Working with this particular group of students has fomented my thinking on the importance of tension and friction blended into exciting and more positive interactions with poetry. Because this all invigorates our cultural moment. I'm intrigued by how a room full of people can disagree so passionately about poetry. Everyone's staking a claim, and in that mix, we keep art going. I picture the way a crowd can pass a body at a concert--and I saw a photo last week of the crowds who successfully revolted against their government in Georgia (in Eastern Europe) passing a celebrating man above their heads--as this way we keep art moving, present.

No laurels to rest on in culture work!

CM: On that note, I am compelled to note that a great joy of this weekend has been interacting with a student body and a whole community who have been truly engaged with the poetry you offer! I think there were 150 people at our reading on Friday night, and they seemed genuinely happy to listen to us for more than 2 hours (again, on a Friday night!). It was truly an honor for me to meet people who had read my work with such enthusiasm. Your students rave about you, and I think that your approach to dialog is significant culture work, Kaia, because you make these ideas safe and approachable to them. I know that you and Michael Glaser have expressed different ideas about poetry throughout your relationship, yet at the end of the weekend, he encouraged me to keep doing what I'm doing. And really, the whole impetus behind culture work is to bridge these gaps, to achieve respect and understanding for our various language arts and use.


This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?