Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Bill Howe's Dickinson translations

It's been awhile since the S(W)OP partay, but I've been meaning to comment on Bill's Emily Dickinson translations... You all know I've been trying to figure out how to deal with this issue of violence that a poem (and poet) commits in its reconfiguration of materials taken from the world -- I think Chris was also talking about this in his presentation today, the question of what to filter out (the violence involved in choosing and/or rewriting history)... Anyway, after going to the translation lecture, I realized a lot of what I've been doing to "tribute" or "honor" the texts I'm rewriting is based on the same ethical dilemma many translators face. That is, while I'm not translating between languages, I do feel like I'm translating between texts. I suppose the only difference is that I often translate texts that are not (in my opinion) effectively communicating what they mean to communicate (or could communicate with a little tweaking :).

SO -- back to Bill. After the reading he talked about his rewriting of Dickinson's poems as translations "from English to English," at which point I was like "yes!" Then I started to think about how (or whether) Bill "honored" Dickinson's intent -- and I think I said this in class, but Bill's performance of the translations emphasized a lilting rhythm that echoed the iambic meter of Dickinson's poems. In other words, while Bill's translations weren't in iambic pentameter (I don't think), his reading of them emphasized a ghost of that meter. It was lovely. And I appreciated Bill's process more because it added that extra layer -- a conversation between the "new" and "old" texts.

A Performance Review of Rodrigo Toscano's "Collapsible Poetics Theater"

A Performance Review of Rodrigo Toscano's "Collapsible Poetics Theater"

Jade Hudson

After having read Toscano's "Collapsible Poetics Theater" for my book review, since which I have worked on with Rodrigo himself, I was eager to see a performance of it. During the Latino/Latina festival, my wish came true. However, the performances were much different than I had expected. When on the stage, the pieces change drastically. It will be the task of this short essay to examine how the performance of these pieces altered them.
When reading the book, I hadn't really thought about what Rodrigo's holding up the side of the stage would look like. Yet, in the first performance, when he came out and did this, it was interesting to see the franticness of this action. I immediately began thinking of the wall as an unbearable weight: Rodrigo put his back against it, suggesting that it was falling. There were also elements of Atlas coming into the piece. There seemed to be a jumping and picking of golden apples.
When it came time for Rodrigo to be the scarecrow, I realized a difference in this as well. While reading, I had not realized the importance of body positioning. The scarecrow is a figure manipulated by other entities. This is important, as a scarecrow isn't just a pair of clothes and straw: it is suggestive of a person.
Later, when I saw all four figures on stage with arms locked, I realized that bodies and positions of bodies were even more crucial. There were four interlocked entities struggling for their own way while succumbing to the directions of others. None of them were able to move either way. For my review revision, I further considered that the extent of bodily function and a desire to move beyond the limitations of the body suggested what was a greater theme of inflexibility.
In a sense, the movement of these figures on stage became an alternate text. The poetry in the book, as Toscano told me, is not meant to act as mere poetry. He desired for me to call it "poetic activity." With this in mind, it is especially easy, upon reflection, to see the movements of bodies to be crucial to the work.
The third piece, "Ecco Strato Static," was one that I wrote about in my review. How it differed from the other pieces, was in its immobility. I realized after the performance that this was the piece in the book I understood most. This is likely because it is more book based. But then, I thought, what was the purpose of its being acted? My answer to this question is that there was a need for the conversation to be witnessed. In other words, there was an absurdity in no movement. Moreover, even an immobility was highly suggestive.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Michelle Boisseau's Reading April 23

On Thursday evening while the sun was still up and Miami University students were still lounged in lawns enjoying an unusually pleasantly warm day, Michelle Boisseau’s performed many poems from her new book A Sunday in God-Years in Leonard Theater. She began her reading evoking the sweet fresh smells of the spring day with her poem “Birthday” which Michelle explained is “about a day like today”. Although not all the poems were like the pleasant budding spring day we enjoyed many engaged a fresh view of the poet’s world through their nature imagery. Hardly any of her poems escaped without a naturalist image. Even her poem “The Sad Book of Fun” which Boisseau with a humorous tone described as “sorta a view of the Bush Administration” didn’t escape without a “sunset” in the opening line. Boisseau’s commentary between poems made the reading quite enjoyable. She had a wonderful sense of humor that was both dry and witty but managed to honor the hard work of her poems and never was apologetic. Boisseau poems were frequently funny and she read them carefully without manipulating the tone of her written words.

Her long piece “A Reckoning” received many of these introductions that maintained seriousness rather than so much humor to honor their subject matter. In these poems, Boisseau raises questions about identity and her own feelings of guilt by confronting her ancestors’ participation in slavery. The poems are haunted by the voices Boisseau attributed to her ancestors and even by those they afflicted. Boisseau had just finished reading a poem that is in completely Gibson’s, a runaway slave, point of view of his recapture, when she explained her approach to mitigating the speakers of her poem. Through her poem Gibson she recognizes her part in speaking for a person who was already oppressed in his own time. Her poem “Gibson” confronts the problem of speaking for another when one of her poem’s speakers, Gibson, confronts his author by saying “though you try to puppet me/ what happened to me is not/ for you to know.”

Boisseau shared that she was once from Cincinnati and now lived near the border of Kansas and Missouri. One of the last poems Boisseau read was “Across the Borderlands, the Wind”. To introduce the poem, Boisseau discussed her hometown Cincinnati as a borderland, claiming that to her growing up “Columbus always seemed safe, because you’re surrounded by other Ohioans”. Although, her introduction was light hearted the poem is quite serious about it’s subject matter. Occasionally though she let in a little humor like when she writes “By war, treaty, algebra and surveyors in knee britches.” Her line starts off so serious with war then the poet smartly leaves of with the silly surveyors just doing their job in knee britches. For Boisseau the issue of boundaries is a curious one and one worth pondering as I did in the following days of her reading.

Michelle Boisseau

In her latest book, A Sunday in God-Years, Michelle Boisseau writes of her family’s personal legacy in the Southern tobacco plantation and slave trade of Pre-Civil War Virginia. Though there are short digressions, her work is mainly concerned with genealogy and her ancestors’ direct involvement with the trafficking of human beings. Perhaps most interestingly, she plays with monologue and point of view, writing from both the persona of an escaped slave a distant relative actually owned in 1834 and the point of view of various Boisseaus of yesteryear.
Due to her overt abolitionist stance and the guilt she seems to feel for her family’s transgressions, much of the work comes across as a sort of lyrical tirade with a painfully self-aware Boisseau at the center of the shame. She quite literally seeks to embody the voices of centuries past and in doing so, manages to shoulder the moral responsibilities for the Boisseau bloodline. But why are we, the audience, meant to care about the poet’s familial ties to the antebellum South? Why should we relate to her guilt and grief? Would a confessional reading of Boisseau provide insight as to the value and merit of what is perhaps shortsighted work when it comes to a topic that historically takes itself very seriously?
Confessional poetry is characterized by its intimate, personal, and often, embarrassing, ties to the poet’s life. Typically frank and full of self-loathing, this genre addresses difficult subject matters (such as mental illness, suicide, sexuality, and relationships) and chaotic cognitive patterns. Confessional poetry, could, on an extremely basic level, be described as the poetic airing of dirty laundry.
In the poem, “The Subscriber,” Boisseau writes from the point of view of the aforementioned relative who has just violently assaulted a man whom he has mistaken for his runaway slave:

…I’m on him and he’s hollering, Mercy,
Mercy as my cane snaps across his back,
my foot greets his head. When I go to turn
him over, his arm feels too beefy, too slack
the skin around his neck

This violent recollection is reminiscent of a confessional passage, yet it is a persona that Boisseau has created based on some historical documents she has discovered in her genealogical endeavors. While this scene did not occur (that we know of) and is therefore not personally connected to Boisseau’s immediate life, she positions herself as an extension of her predecessor. We are therefore able to glimpse Boisseau’s remorse and emotions surrounding slavery through the retelling of this scene. She is, after all a sharer of the Boisseau surname and the medium through which this tale is told.
The slave owner-Boisseau most likely would not feel remorse for his case of mistaken identity, yet at the end of the poem, he stands wistfully back to reflect rather ambiguously on his misguided attack. While he does not overtly condemn his own brash behavior, he certainly doesn’t overtly respect or revere it either:

…Something like
Gibson’s coat. Two boys loading lumber in a cart
catch me looking around and style
themselves reading the grain in a board.
Sleeping in the day. This one was a laggard.

While the last passage is open for interpretation, one thing is for certain: Boisseau serves as mediator and manipulator of history.
In tingeing the historical with her personal belief system and writing of infamously “confessional” topics, Boisseau writes from a confessional perspective. While this personal involvement is what might be analyzed as an unjust rewriting and thus redirecting of the past, it may serve as more of a poetic vehicle for the personal airing of grief and the long-suffered implications of patriotism and the ways in which the past informs the present in terms of both national and personal identity. Boisseau may deviate substantially from the tradition of confessional poetry on the surface, but at the root of the poetry is the inherent desire to confess to sins she has committed through association with distant relatives. This, in turn, renders her “confessional by association,” allowing for audience acceptance of the domestic nature of her work.

Boisseau's Reading

After attending Michelle Boisseau’s reading of work from “A Sunday in God-Years” one of the most interesting aspects of her poetry was her combination of theology and history. While theology may be self-explanatory with the title, the history is a little bit more intriguing. Boisseau often references her own personal relatives (usually greatly extended) and from this creates stories that entertain a “wholesome remembrance of the past.” While Boisseau’s poetry is heavily weighted in the past, she also appears to have taken a critical look at the present and the future. One of her poems includes a reference to 9/11 in which she states “the future isn’t what it used to be.” Boisseau’s inclusion of history is interesting in respect to her choice of titles. “A Sunday in God-Years” was meant to be in regards to a “universe transpiring in a nodding nap in God’s mind.” I feel that perhaps Boisseau’s uses this metaphor of “a universe” in order to express her ideas about the past and her wariness about the present and future. By including “Sunday” and “God” she is also able to attach her themes of theology which run through many of her poems.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Poetry Manifesto

Joe Hess/ Poetry Manifesto/ 4-10-09

Grey Lamp:
a name of “function”, given a descendent of a lost race,
who lives in a time lost of function.
This time is a beginning

imagined to be void of function;
in our imagined time
“They Lion grow.” -Philip Levine

The Good Stuff!
The space (metaphorically speaking) between a poet’s creation of textual artifice and the audience’s sudden sense of the poet voice(or other) textually processing human emotion, for my purposes here—what happens in that space is the good stuff!
However, how much of the good stuff in a poem is the artifice of creative control, and how much is emotional honesty, without the reins of personal design?

Does the poet’s human fear of permanent silence, finally outweigh the poet’s self-censoring craftsmanship in the name of control?
Is the poet finally forced to face, process, and produce from exposure to loss--
suddenly knowing
suddenly having
loss simultaneously.

A poem is
unannounced, yet observed
outside its time and place,
clarifying the blurring of an
overrated melody

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Sasha Steensen's The Method

Method is a life. A valuable child corrupted, animal at times, an apathetic old man. In this way, Method is “his own his/ And no one else’s,” but he isn’t always. Rather, he begins as The Method, an ancient manuscript written by Archimedes and having something to do with infinitesimals, a lever, and the center of gravity. In other words, Method is an object until Sasha Steensen comes along, gives him a heart in her latest.

In MORROW-HEARTED METHOD DREAMS, The Method is introduced as a beached whale, “stuck and nudged/ into each side / by curious vacationers.” Recently awakened, he recalls fragments of a life seemingly dreamt.

Ganging to remember

how he ate stars

how his liver escaped out his anus

and the sun rose through his genitals

Here, The Method remembers himself as the mathematician’s manuscript, an object with human parts. And so continues the first half of Steensen’s book in its attempt to relate the history of a living text. The Method is made into a “he,” a character-object with memories and emotions but without agency. Left to the will of others, the Method is written on, abducted, stolen from, corrupted, and eventually made indifferent.

While The Method’s history is not necessarily presented in chronological order, Steensen’s characterization of Method as both child and man suggests that the the object-as-character moves through time. UNDER THE LEA OF THE SPANKER describes the relationship between the Method and his early master, how “Archimedes took the Method to his knee/ until his bottom half resembled a raging fire.” Similarly, he is stolen from a museum by a “nightly visitant” who “lifts his teddy bear from his grip, gently.” However, as the Method is exposed to the violence of genocide, war, and present-day “methods/ of torture,” he is morphed from a child into a dangerous animal-man, “slinking down some alley/ back to some second century, licking his chops.” In this way, Steensen equates the creation of an object to the creation of an identity.

In THE FUTURE OF AN ILLUSION, this equation is complicated when The Method becomes Method, a character created by Sasha Steensen. Surprisingly, Steensen acknowledges the complication, shifts from verse to prose and suggests, “Perhaps I could use my own words just this once and make Method mouth what I desire.” In the same poem we learn that “Method had to eat his relatives during a long winter lost in the mountains...used his own pages to kindle the fire.” Here, Method seemingly scraps his identity in order to survive. However, the following section beginning “There is no reason to return home” suggests “memory becomes a cord connecting us to this house, feeding us, and we recognize that we will probably die here.” Perhaps this is why, in METHOD INTERVIEWS A MONK, the Method asks, “What tools are used for the Liturgy of the Catechumens?” and the monk responds, “The asterisk and the disc, the spoon, the spear, and the oblation.” Despite the history separating Method from his original creator, Archimedes and his symbols resurface every now and then.

Steensen's assertion of this eternal, umbilical connection to “home” is a seeming comfort until it becomes clear Archimedes would turn in his grave if he saw Method today. In his old age, Method is lazy and apathetic. “From his beach blanket, he sees great distances of lives, a mass of withering lintels & wattles & lemmings. Luckily, the tide rises and pulls it all under. He rolls over, sunning his other side.” Method, “scratching himself slowly in solemn spots,” is “rotten and stinking up the world’s libraries” while his master has become the powerless one. In this way, Steensen equates the relationship between creator and object to that of parent and child, and, despite her assertion that “Everyone insists that I will write about pregnancy, but I won’t,” implicates herself as a parent hesitant to cut the cord.

That Method is the child becomes clear in STRANGER AT THE GATES which describes a relationship between master and servant that ends in bitterness.

I say what you want me to say.

I say how brave.

I say how clever.

I say how we went together


How you loved me.

How we became a we

and I died and you lived on

restored and pretty.

Here, “I” begins as the servant, object, or identity to be instructed by “you” and ends as the disempowered creator who is no longer able to influence her creation. Accordingly, in WEST EATS MEAT, Method becomes “Master Method,” a monster unrecognizable to “We” who end up eating his carcass. And so we are left to wonder how we might protect our creations if we do not recognize them as our own. The separation must happen, though, as is suggested by Method’s beheading in ME THEE ODES.

He is himself about the ground,

rolling and wild

with his




And while bits of Method’s past or past lives might filter through from time to time, his connection to those fragments is never completely restored. In THIS PLAIN PLACE Method empathizes with a bandicoot searching its empty pouch.

He understood the animal’s sorrow

to find plainly and without denial

emptiness where a relation ought to be

Just as Method cannot simply have his hair follicles transplanted in order to restore his “old self,” and just as a rag baby is no substitute for “her bare foot from the inside,” The Method is irreplaceable.