Friday, April 14, 2017

On Writing #128 : Ryan Eckes



On Writing the Truth
Ryan Eckes

I just re-read Bertolt Brecht’s essay “Writing the Truth: Five Difficulties” (1935), which is about writing under fascism. When I first read it, during Occupy Wall Street, I thought “this is so relevant to our time.” Reading it five years later, after the 2016 US presidential election, I thought “this is so relevant to our time.” You can read a PDF online here. Brecht’s five difficulties are:

1 – The Courage to Write the Truth
2 – The Keenness to Recognize the Truth
3 – The Skill to Manipulate the Truth as a Weapon
4 – The Judgment to Select Those in Whose Hands the Truth Will Be Effective
5 – The Cunning to Spread the Truth Among the Many

For Brecht, truth can be a weapon if a piece of writing illustrates the causes of barbarous conditions. He asks, “how can anyone tell the truth about Fascism, unless he is willing to speak out about capitalism, which brings it forth?” His description of those who aren’t willing calls to mind American liberals who cling uncritically to the Democratic Party: “Those who are against Fascism without being against capitalism, who lament over the barbarism that comes out of barbarism, are like people who wish to eat their veal without slaughtering the calf.” Yes.

In the US, where the working class has no voice in government, the Democratic Party continues to act as a roadblock to social justice. Most large unions forfeit their power to this party; their leaders rarely even mention the word “capitalism”, the very thing that divides and crushes us. Instead, since the election, we hear messages like “stop the normalization of hate”, as if hate hasn’t been normal for the entire brutal existence of the country, as if racism hasn’t been sustained by capitalism. I think writers need to undermine capitalist narratives peddled by liberal institutions however we can. It’s not enough to simply counter right-wing narratives. We need to show the relations between these narratives. Class war is always made invisible. Wars on women, on people of color, on LGBTQ people are always made invisible. So let’s make it visible. I imagine poets, journalists, essayists, fiction writers contributing to an infrastructure of disobedience and solidarity that people are already building.

Because we live in a media-saturated world, Brecht’s 4th and 5th difficulties strike me as most difficult right now—how best to disseminate the truth? Brecht points out an obvious problem: “The writer thinks: I have spoken and those who wish to hear will hear me. In reality he has spoken and those who are able to pay hear him.” Where does our writing exist? In journals? in newspapers? on buses? on walls? on sidewalks? in cafes? in workplaces? in people’s mouths? in people’s ears? What specific audiences do we have in mind, and why?

Vijay Prashad, in an interview with Mark Nowak, defines “socialist writing” as that which comes from listening and interacting with people who are ultimately your audience but not necessarily your customers. Citing Antonio Gramsci, Prashad suggests that socialist writing elaborates on the “common sense” of a people and produces continued conversation and interaction. This model partially addresses the difficulty of spreading the truth. As a poet, I like the idea, and to poets who are used to writing within a community, this idea might sound obvious. But like everyone else, poets’ social circles are often determined by education, class, race. The severe stratification and compartmentalization of society—a society in which our individual identities are sold to us endlessly—makes spreading the truth that much more difficult.

We should work to make sure our writing isn’t always funneled to predictable venues. The internet isn’t as democratizing as we may think, and we cannot rely on its stability and accessibility. We can be imaginative with print and performance. We can be helping to construct a public, feeding networks of solidarity.

Beyond telling the truth, writers have to keep inventing a world we want to see. And we have to keep attempting to live it, especially in the face of despair. Prashad explains why this is so critical:

“One of the things that has become clear to me is that once human beings surrender to the present, the idea of the future wears thin. There is only a present. The present stretches on into infinity. When we say tomorrow, we mean only tomorrow in time, but not in epochal terms. Tomorrow will look like today. The sensation of an endless present greets us each day. Change is never going to come.

That feeling — of futility — is the greatest detriment to the socialist imagination. Socialist writing, to my mind, has to help break that fatalism and create what Arundhati Roy calls ‘a new imagination’ — an imagination of a different kind of world, with different priorities and different sensibilities.”

Practicing this new imagination is necessary to help each other continually overcome the difficulties that Brecht points out, difficulties which won’t disappear.

Lately I’ve also been listening to James Baldwin’s speech “The Artist’s Struggle for Integrity” (1963), which deepens the urgency to identify and articulate the truth. After expressing his distrust of words such as “integrity” and “courage” for their imprecision, Baldwin states that our words are

“attempts made by us all to get to something which is real and which lives behind the words. Whether I like it or not, for example, and no matter what I call myself, I suppose the only word for me, when the chips are down, is that I am an artist. There is such a thing . . . The terrible thing is that the reality behind these words depends ultimately on what the human being (meaning every single one of us) believes to be real. The terrible thing is that the reality behind all these words depends on choices one has got to make, for ever and ever and ever, every day.”

I recommend listening to the whole thing.





Ryan Eckes is a poet who lives in South Philadelphia. His books include Valu-Plus and Old News (Furniture Press 2014, 2011). You can read some of his poems in Tripwire, The Brooklyn Rail, Slow Poetry in America Newsletter, Supplement, Public Pool, Whirlwind and on his blog. He is the recipient of a 2016 Pew Fellowship in the Arts.

Tuesday, April 04, 2017

On Writing #127 : David Peter Clark



On Writing
David Peter Clark

The flute and the flue delineate ignition in patterns hypnotic, a tactful tool welds. Quenched in experience, silly dose stirred, this charm hones in on, rounds, an enchanting inarticulate. It carves the body to suit the loot exed on the map of well-being, and the searching sounds emphatic. It turns on aura, juggling capricious laws. It’s love-drawn of grocery list glyphs and crumples on ideal. Heroic character appeals appear, triumphant over branding’s infections. Fine tuning pitches twiddle severance. It sorts reverence. The smelting of importance from desire melts. Frankly, you get the knack of it splashed. Charges check the calendar for emblazoned strategies, and you check yourselves for cancers. On drama’s scale, oscillation’s gingerly placed while the can can oil leverage. A heart darts its truth about festering pages. A rare tranquil breath
          
gets gifted. Catharsis is used or uses solipsists. Right there, obliteration’s assembly’s made legible, simply put. The purveyors of dialogue’s death get their wish, and the instrument shrapnel’s inhaled. It’s thought it ought not automatically become resistant to becoming automatic. It’s spice wars. There’s the ting that suggests survival’s vial. Drowning, it arranges a bubble bouquet of strange tempo breaths, a bequest of warped light o’r your gazes’ plumes. It’s new skies’ bloom, scaled on a mud sunken contrabass, beating at place. It’s the rhyme of a multiverse, your subliminal face says. When it seems all gone an improvised groan paints the rattle in exhausted hum pipe, to write, to recall, variably, life. The actual lies dormant. Actualize might


David Peter Clark has published two chapbooks, feathereDinosaurs (shuffaloff/Eternal Network, 2012), and Pentacles: A Tunnel Glimpse (BookThug, 2014), and has had writing appear in BafterC, COUGH, Dis-appointment, echolocation, House Organ, Rampike, Touch the Donkey, White Wall Review, and Yellow Field. His first full length book of poems, Spellhas just been launched by Swimmers Group.

Saturday, April 01, 2017

We Who Are About To Die : Gregory Betts

Poet and professor Gregory Betts is the author of 7 books of poetry and the editor of 5 books of experimental Canadian writing. He also wrote the first history of Canadian avant-garde literature called, appropriately, Avant-garde Canadian Literature. His writing has won awards, been widely reviewed and anthologized, and taught in schools and universities across North America and in England. Betts is an activist for the literary community in St. Catharines. Since arriving in 2006 (to teach at Brock University), he has organized a constant series of events, creating a stage for hundreds of the best and most interesting authors from here and around the world. To this end, he is the founding Artistic Director of the Festival of Readers.

Where are you now?
I live in St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada, beneath the escarpment, between two lakes, a river, and many borders.

What are you reading?
I’m reading a lot of Indigenous literature lately (currently Emmanuel Anati’s The Imprint of Man), indulging in novels, and gearing up for another run through bpNichol’s The Martyrology.

What have you discovered lately?
Gerald Vizenor’s notion of “survivance”, which combines survival with resistance. In particular, he developed the idea in relation to the Anishinaabe people overcoming cultural genocide and persisting, which by itself is an act of defiance against colonial domination. I’ve been thinking about survivance more generally, too, as a way of thinking about life as a temporary defiance of death. As we delve deeper into the anthropocene, our species (and planetary) survival becomes an act of defiance. But against what? Ourselves? Death itself? I have been wondering if our survival will depend on a resistance to the temptations of capitalism, if we have the wherewithal to form the necessary allegiances.

Where do you write?
At home. When I can. Where is a place nestled in time.

What are you working on?
I just finished reviewing the proofs of my selected works of Margaret Christakos (due out in April). I am writing the odd poem, but avoiding a bigger project that has already stretched out over 3 years. I’m also revising a manuscript with Gary Barwin, revising a collection of essays with Christian Bök, revising my book on Vancouver avant-gardism, teaching, and developing the Festival of Readers (now in year two!).

Have you anything forthcoming?
My selected poems of Margaret Christakos is primed and ready to go. Nothing else is imminent.

What would you rather be doing?
This spring, I’m delivering academic papers at 3 conferences on 3 very different subjects (Concrete poetry, contemporary Indigenous art, and mid-20th century representations of Louis Riel), giving 2 public lectures (Feminism in the 21st Century for Boys, and something on Leonard Cohen), and developing a new online course on “Contact in Canadian Literature”, which is to say settler representations of Indigenous people and Indigenous representations of settlers. The material I’m working on right now, creatively and as an academic, is varied, challenging, and vital. My noise band broke up, though, so I’d love to get more experimental music into my life. Otherwise, there ain’t no place I’d rather be.


The Point


To know something is to see the point
I see it, over there, free of it. March from the frost of it.


Whenever it points at me
I cower, cover, clear. Pull the world’s space like a sheath around me. Step to silence.


The world machine and its celestial mechanics
The price paid is this telescoping mask. Pace, mine, terris.


The habitually boring
Machine that pushes me deeper into the earth. Laconic regulations.


I recover some aspect of myself
The luck of the rabbit ears.


My point traipses, drags heals
Land evokes ideas outside of gall. Barbarians. Land seizures.


Lumber as a passport, a plinth
On a beach, the horizon wavers. Plodding like diamonds.  I


Gad. Parade. Rove.
Trudge.


The point pins me down
I knock about,


Attack
Taciturnity. Hush.

Friday, March 24, 2017

On Writing #126 : Emily Ursuliak



On Having a Haunted Writing Process
Emily Ursuliak

When I look at all of my major writing projects, both fiction and poetry, I notice one big commonality. They are all based around real people who are no longer around to tell their stories. My writing process has become haunted.

Exploring a character is what interests me the most about writing and there’s something about that exploration being centred around a real person that makes it more intense and intimate. By choosing to write about someone real I enter into a unique kind of relationship with them. I will never be able to meet this person or speak to them, but I have duty to collect everything I can about them to be as true and respectful to them as possible.

For the novel I’m currently working on, about Victorian artist Elizabeth Siddal, there is very little material to be found from her own perspective: one letter she wrote that somehow survived when her husband burnt all of her other correspondence, and her poems and paintings too. But these few slivers are not enough for me to imagine her life. I have to rely on the way others saw her: lovers, friends, family, even enemies. I take their words, and facts laid out by biographers, and try to get a sense of who this woman was. I’m not the first person to be drawn to write about her, but others’ approaches have romanticized her, or allowed the more “famous” men around her to take over the narrative. I want her life to dominate the text with all of the ways it challenged the gender norms of the time and with all the brutal, dark moments that other writers have shied away from.

My first collection of poetry, Throwing the Diamond Hitch, is a lot more personal in that the two main characters of the poems are my granny and her best friend Anne. Both of them were very dear to me when they were still alive. I started reading the travel diary the two of them had written together in 1951 as a way of remembering my granny. Both she and Anne has such a witty, wry way of capturing their adventures and the people they met. My first instinct was that the moments of the diary that really stood out needed to be poems. Why poems and not fiction? I’m not sure, but that’s what my gut told me, so that’s what I did. Writing the poems felt like a way of both honouring my granny and also having a conversation with her, and the challenges of making both her and Anne into a characters were interesting. I had known these two women in real life, but not when they were in their twenties, which is when the trip took place. And while I had all this primary source material to draw from, I don’t think I can ever say that the women that appear in my book are actually Anne and my granny, they’re these strange sort of partial duplicates of them.

I still think about my first literary theory class as an undergraduate. We were learning about Derrida and his concept of différance. Everyone hated Derrida. I felt like I was having this huge eureka moment. His concept around the space between the signifier and the signified in language is something I think about often. For my current work it makes me think about that space between what the “reality” of a person’s life was, and how a writer ends up condensing and translating that into a narrative. We are never really going to be able to write the signified. There’s something really painful about that, but there’s an endless possibility inherent in it too.






Emily Ursuliak’s first book, Throwing the Diamond Hitch, is soon to be released by the University of Calgary Press. She also writes fiction and hosts a literary radio show called Writer’s Block on CJSW 90.9fm.