When I was younger, I used to go fishing. Once, I caught one this big.
I’d shop for lures at the hardware store, jabbing at the gelatinous, stretchy gobs in every shade of neon (like my shoelaces, as this was the ‘80s), mostly careful to avoid the hooks. I remember eyeing the jigs, trying to imagine what they would look like away from the florescent lights, away from the air and the smell of the key cutting machine and paint and sawdust. Standing there, I’d see them spinning underwater in the kind of warped light I knew from swimming pools, where I’d dare friends to bare-eyed below-the-surface staring contests. I’d wonder if any sock-eyed, steel-mouthed sturgeon would ever fall for them.
Lures are cheap knockoffs of haute couture minnows and insects. They’re prêt-à-porter instruments of war wearing parade day costumes replete with all the razzle dazzle of glittering tails, festoons of acrylic hair, and bulging, unseeing gazes.
Just as a lure designer prepares these creations for terrain alien to his own, so too does a poet engage in an act of translation: precisely seeing the textures and movements of words in both ordinary and extraordinary contexts. The imprecision of language is its joy. Think of how many ways we qualify ‘funny’: funny-sad, funny-strange, funny-stupid, funny-ha ha.
Poetry, like humour, is (name)called subjective: if you don’t like it or get it, it’s not for you. It’s vastly easier to opt out of poetry than to disengage with a mall store clerk. In fact, I’ve been taking notes at the Gap for tips on how advocate strongly in the face of disinterest.
Most poets I know at some point start, “I have an idea for a poem:”
“…I’m going to write about divorce sales on Craigslist—everything half-off. Five hundred for the set, willing to separate the pieces.” Or,
“…I’ve been thinking about an installation piece called “Poetry.” When you walk inside, you’re handed a barista apron, there’s a line out the door, your cell phone starts buzzing and it’s your landlord and your rent is late and your neighbor’s been complaining again about the train of funny people you have over.”
“…I’m working on an installation piece called “Poetry.” When you walk inside, you’re squeezed into a mock turtleneck, feel a crushing and sudden despair, and ardent desire for black coffee and clove cigarettes.”
“…I’m working on something about how shame is the essential part of dating. Looking at your reflection in the mirror to see yourself as someone else might before heading out to meet that person, and having your internal voice taken over by the cable TV lady who narrates side-effect warnings for anti-depressants with names like Uplivia: ‘Side effects of marrying this person may include never knowing how they really feel.’”
These are the things we say to each other.
When I was a graduate student, my roommate Dave Hickey said, “So many of the poets I know are funny. So many of their poems are not.” He’s right. There are lots of poems about the rapture at finding a dead bird, falling out of love, and sunflowers in various states of erectness. But where is the humor? In my own work, I’ve written about laughing and funny bones, about counterfeiters coining funny money, and I’ve included a joke or two in my recent collection, but it’s not something I do often. Instead of having a gag-reflex of one-liners when reality chokes me up, I am gag-conscious: I don’t like myself as much when I fall for cheekiness or clever language games.
There’s an ugliness I see in jokes (along the lines of Hegel’s discussion of subjective humor) that is at ideological odds to the poetic sublime. Also, some of my resistance to writing jokes is well-placed. I used to be in a comedy troupe that performed for children – that’s not a joke – and my co-actors couldn’t always tell when I was intentionally funny or just stumbling into laughs. I can’t even always tell. Jokes make me uncomfortable because they nudge our center of what’s acceptable, a little this way or that, or broaden the circumference of normalcy—all potentially good things—but most operate by disarming our intellect.
The most recent joke at my expense was seeing myself in a dressing room mirror designed to shoot back a taller, skinnier version. “Seeing is believing,” the Uplivia lady reassures.
I hate being the object of practical jokes and surprise parties; I love that National Poetry Month kicks off with April Fool’s Day. My father-in-law is a trove of stories about practical jokes in boarding school. One involves a bear skin rug, a coat rack, and reanimation. Lynne Tillman, a writer and person I am wild about, wrote a fantastic story about a joke called “Dear Ollie,” included in Someday This Will Be Funny. A group of roommates play a dinner party prank that tilts on the edge of going too far. Reading it, I was reminded of sitting with friends around a backyard fire pit a few years ago. Egged on by the summer night, the wood smoke, by nostalgia, we’d all told the usual stories of summer camp gone awry, like wrapping cellophane over the toilet bowl, dropping a sleeping friend’s hand into a bowl of warm water, unleashing a garter snake in the salad. That sort of thing. Someone among us began to tell one that started with all of the usual trappings: there was a cabin, they were young and bored, it was nighttime. The boys, and they were boys at the time, waited until one of their cabin-mates fell asleep. They tackled him and dragged him outside on his bunk mattress. I was sure I knew where this was going. There’d be an outhouse, a wedged door. There’d be a girl, or worse yet, group of girls, waiting for him. There’d be drugs or booze and someone left holding the bag. Even when you’re certain about where something is going, there’s still a lot of possibilities.
They took the boy, duct taped his hands. Duct taped his mouth. Taped him to the mattress. Carried him to a rowboat, dropped him supine (mattress and all) into its bottom, and pushed it off the dock. He was found the next morning.
Think of him there in that boat for hours.
Does the story change if I add that he was found alive?
I am, in fact, working on a poem about these kinds of concerns called “Stupid funny,” but I haven’t told anyone about it. My draft for “Stupid funny” begins with Wittgenstein’s lecture note from 1946: “If people did not sometimes do silly things, nothing intelligent would ever get done.”
Some of “Stupid funny” is based on a game I’ve been playing for years with my husband where we toss out ideas for skits that belonged in the Monty Python and Saturday Night Live episodes of our youth. Some is based on uncomfortable observations, like the fact that most locker room bodies would be less at home in Porky’s, and more at home in Dick Wolfian morgues.
When I wrap it up, I’m going to get to work on an installation piece called “Poetry.” You go inside and when you come out the person next in line says, “So?” And you are speechless. All you can do is point. And sometimes, rarely, laugh.
Charmaine Cadeau was born in Toronto, Canada. Her full-length poetry collections include Placeholder (Brick Books, 2013) and What You Used to Wear (Goose Lane, 2004). She is an assistant professor of English at High Point University where she teaches writing and literature. She is the editor of Apogee Magazine, and co-director of the Community Writing Center in High Point.
Monday, July 21, 2014
Friday, July 11, 2014
On Writing: Born of That Nothing
It is not the captain declining to be saved
on the sinking ship, who may just want to ride his shame
out of sight. She is at the brink of never being hurt again
but pauses to say, All of us. Every blade of grass.
—Laura Fargas, “Kuan Yin”
Are you familiar with the terror in the night—it's been called Old Hag syndrome, or sleep paralysis— that uncanny hypnogogic event when one hears an intruder, usually a woman, speaking low in the darkened room, and one attempts to rise, to call out, but is unable to do so for the feeling of being held down, bolted to the bed. I have friends in Newfoundland who've repeatedly known The Hag. Artist Michael Pittman painted her, a painting I bought, a painting that gives those that view it the creeps. Two weeks ago The Hag came calling for me.
Yes, I was frightened, even, for half a minute, terrified. And absolutely, fully alive in that same half minute, alive to what Don McKay and others call wilderness, the thing we can never own. Of such infinite complexity is our living, and at times so utterly terrifying; yet deep in the folds of darker experience, craning toward what is mysterious, frightening and unnamable, language and consciousness will sometimes sharpen, fully desirous. What is happening? What is that?
I love this capacity of ours, to observe the ten thousand things of the sensual world in their strange fluctuation, to watch as things flicker, ever so lightly, reflected in that house of mirrors we call mind and language, to feel things' expression in that other funhouse we call the body. No matter our fear, no matter the cost, there is within us a complex craning out of semi-darkness, a complex groping for connection, for words.
Of course we can't attend to everything all the time, can many times lose touch with the words that are being almost constantly generated out of absence into presence, only to fall, unnoticed, once more into absence. And anyway, one needs to rest, to practice a kind of holy indifference to the generative world, to step away from time to time in order to actively empty the mind. But our groping—our listening for, finding and grappling with words—this I love, this is what moves me to write.
The sheer beauty of the enterprise moves me.
I was raised in feminism and stand opposed to most systems and constructions of patriarchy. Like George Orwell, in part I write because there is some lie I wish to expose. The socialized Ego generates patriarchy's lies ad nauseum, lies about Women, Men, Nature, Power and Love. It is important for me to distinguish the words formed out of the lies of patriarchy from the words out of the void, out of absence. "The void is not something created by patriarchy, or racism, or capitalism," wrote Adrienne Rich. "It will not fade away with any of them. It is part of every woman. “The dark core,” Virginia Woolf named it, writing of her mother. The dark core. It is beyond personality; beyond who loves us or hates us. . .The void is the creatrix, the matrix. It is not mere hollowness and anarchy. But in women it has been identified with lovelessness, barrenness, sterility. . . We are not supposed to go down into the darkness of the core. Yet, if we can risk it, the something born of that nothing is the beginning of our truth."
To have the courage to go down repeatedly into the darkness, listening: this is my writing practice, and in truth it has become, with age, my Way.
I do what Simon says.
But the voice, quick and muffled,
gives some orders
which are not Simon's.
Simon I try to please.
It is necessary, and right, too, but
there is the doubt if
Simon has said, or has not.
Did Simon say, Do that, or
did that come Simonless
from the quick voice, the soft
instruction? Perhaps a bad mistake.
If Simon has not said it,
what then? Jumbled together: Live. Die;
which was authentic Simon? Go. Come.
Distinguish, Simon says.
Beth Follett [photo credit: Stan Dragland] is the publisher, editor and all of Pedlar Press, acclaimed Canadian literary publishing house now located in St John's NL. Her own publications include Tell It Slant (Coach House Books, 2001), Bone Hinged (paperplates/espresso, 2010), YesNo (a Fieldnotes Chapbook, 2011) and the forthcoming A Thinking Woman Sleeps With Monsters (Apt.9, 2014). Surely one day she will finish her novel-in-progress, thus far a nine-year labour of love.
Monday, July 07, 2014
MITSUMI ELEC. CO. LTD.: keyboard poems by Eric Schmaltz
Published by above/ground press, 2014.
Every time I flip through Eric Schmaltz’s debut chapbook, I remind myself not to review it. Clearly, this impulse is acting out of self-preservation. I’m borderline illiterate when it comes to the intentions and disciplines of visual poetry but that alone cannot discount the number of times I’ve leafed through MITSUMI ELEC. CO. LTD.: keyboard poems. So, here goes.
Despite the retro-futurist product information and disclaimer that are reprinted on the inside jacket, there’s something endearingly primitive about these keyboard poems. Although composed of symbols and shapes of rigid construction, their inevitably varied ink absorption gives Schmaltz’s stampings a humane texture. Take the cover image, for example, which ekes out a path through minuscule, modulated typeface to create a moving cascade as opposed to a flat grid.
If my description sounds akin to topography, there’s enough evidence on these pages to support it. Keystrokes spatially construct disorder – scenes that handily reimagine Microsoft’s warning of “undesired operations” – in conversation with images of pristine organization. Think the erratic busywork of bees and the diligent geometry of their nests, side by side. My perspective often embraces the bird’s eye view, looking from above at Schmaltz’s architecture and trail-markings. Visually leaping this divide brings to mind descriptors that nations tend to encamp on (civilized, developing), and how these terms attempt to fragment a singular worldview. Even without that runaway stream-of-conscious, I sense abandonment from both terrains:
Aforementioned user text only furthers the case for a lost civilization, obscured within a hand-scrawled grid or visible in stacked windows that tower like condos over Toronto’s waterfront. Perhaps I’m meeting some of these keyboard poems more than halfway, seeing the below example’s words squeezed into a fist of clay and blotted by what looks like slabs of continent. Can you see the faint ink blemishes on the northern hemisphere, like rocky tundra? Maybe you can’t, as it’s entirely possible these vaguely post-apocalyptic signs of desertion reside with me alone. Still, the steady contrast between sterile geometric surveys and these grimier details beg a social commentary next to an aesthetic one.
above/ground press has reproduced these black ink poems stark enough to capture rogue smudges that dab and destabilize from the outer limits of the frame. And although the saturated effect doesn’t lend a deeper sense of narrative, page by page, it does have a serendipitous effect on the chapbook’s sequence, as poems leave a discernible ghost image on the backside, often merging in complimentary ways:
In constructing space, I suspect there’s a parallel between navigating visual poetry and jazz; how placement of concrete expression reverberates the channels of interplay around it. Alas, today I’ll stick to talking about only one art form I shouldn’t. Schmaltz’s poems toy with notions of structure and decay that are readily interpretable and, in some cases, quite frame-able.
Fifteen Problems by Noah Eli Gordon
Images by Sommer Browning
Published by above/ground press, 2014.
“First world problems” is a term I’ve never cared for. It might quiet someone’s idle complaints but there’s a sense of entitlement lurking its comic intentions that I’ve never felt comfortable with. What’s worse is hearing my reading voice shout it throughout Noah Eli Gordon’s Fifteen Problems as though obnoxiously summing up a mystery before it's solved.
It isn’t Gordon’s fault. His suite of anecdotes doesn’t condescend privilege so much as call attention to dualistic ways of identifying and nurturing a problem. (Is a situation confusing or in need of a decision? Then it must be a problem!) Each of these fifteen paragraphs unfurl like a mini Rubik’s Cube, endowed with layers that compound, undo or desensitize the perceived importance of a given scenario. As the following example suggests, the problem can be subjective, fickle and perhaps totally illusory, but everything else hinges on finding it:
She writes a stunningly accurate review praising the reclusive novelist’s long-awaited new book. Upon its publication, a key sentence of the review contains an error of omission that, while minor, reverses her intended meaning, rendering the piece as a damning take on the book. Still, there is near universal agreement as to her review’s stunning accuracy. The problem is, as any good narrator knows, accuracy is never stunning.
These tales of situational irony and simple misfortune carry no prescribed form besides succinctness, so it’s a wonder to note the recurring trace of uncertainty – some grey area of impartiality – that these clean sentences harbour. Sometimes I’m convinced “The Problem” is the reader’s to solve, as even the ones I do not fully understand invite an obsessive re-reading. (Those who find themselves stuck can also look for hints in Sommer Browning’s charming sketches.)
That these curious case studies aren't looking to be solved in the conventional sense keeps Fifteen Problems wily and unpredictable. Some aim for remotely clever zingers while others gleefully tangle in the yarn. Let’s take a look at the stakes behind two problems:
He kissed his third cousin once, in the rain, under a canopy of branches and kudzu, on a Wednesday afternoon. Incidentally, today is also Wednesday. I like to think of it as the third day of the week. The problem is it’s the fourth.
First, there were a lot of gods. Then there was one, but a lot of ones. Can I tell you that what I most admire about the arachnid is the mechanics of so many legs in motion? After a while, the problem adds up to something infinite. And then, then there’s just us counting it.
As with the latter example, I find Fifteen Problems more compelling when it subverts the tangibility of these tribulations to probe deeper habitual thought patterns. Why do we marginalize small dramas from the rest of our daily lives? At what moment does a situation turn into a problem, and how do we react to that labeling? All of Gordon’s discrepancies, as breadcrumbs toward irrelevance or irrelevant in and of themselves, outline “the problem” as a shape-shifting character - like fate. And just like fate, there are moments in Fifteen Problems where the clout of conflict evaporates like a mirage, leaving each reader’s best interpretation of truth.
Monday, June 30, 2014
Sitting with the IPad, tracing the outlines of the Louisiana coastline I am flooded with frustration and desire: I want this coastline. That is, I want to place the coastline into the text of the poem, into the public discourse, I want to put it in sight. Because it is largely invisible and vanishing.
I pick up the stylus and trace the tiny islets of the birdfoot delta, the endless cuts through the marsh made by fishing fleets, shrimpers, oil and gas drilling operations, pleasure boaters and anglers: the fragmented coast is fractal in its complexity. This is what it looked like in 2000.
You can see where we are from where we’ve come: this is the birdfoot delta in 1937.
My tracing task would have been quite a bit easier if I had started well before I was born. Though the destruction had already begun with the building up of levees that prevented flooding, prevented the silting up of the coast, prevented the land from remaking itself in the face of tides, currents, hurricanes, human traffic, and the natural compression of the soil.
From 1932 to 2000, Louisiana lost 1,900 square miles of land, or the state of Delaware. Of course, we think, Delaware is tiny in the scope of the continent. And it is. So is the island of Manhattan, which is equal in scope the amount of land lost every year from Louisiana’s coast. So, what if Delaware just disappeared, or Manhattan?
The Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority has sought to sue the oil and gas companies that have been the agents of so much of the land loss, having cut 10,000 miles of canals and pipelines through Louisiana’s coastal lands. Though of course Bobby Jindal is fighting tooth and nail to protect the interests of the oil and gas companies, patrons of his political ambitions.
Is it possible to bring urgency to the back page news item, the flickering story on the nightly news?
It is hot here in Syracuse, mid-summer, and I’ve just moved from Louisiana where this project has its origin. Fans blowing, windows open, I move the stylus ceaselessly over the touchscreen, shifting view as I complete a section. It takes most of the week to complete the tracing, then go back to enlarge the view and smooth out what I’ve done, before finally uploading it to the computer. —Then what?
Documentary poetics affords me a way into a poetic project from which I have a complicated distance. Though I lived in Louisiana for eleven years and came to love this landscape in all its mutability, I am no native. Indeed, my politics, my atheism, my ethics with respect to community and the ecosystems I am indebted to are marginal ones in Louisiana. I sometimes feel the people of this state are loving the land to death. And they do love it. Hunting and fishing are central activities of the culture, even as fishing is also central to the economy of the state. Louisianans can’t wait to get out on the water, out to the coast, or the deer lease, or the fishing camp.
Fox news gets a lot of play in Louisiana to no good effect. People are fearful: jobs jobs jobs is the mantra, and I get that. People need livelihoods. But the preservation of the status quo in the local economy—mainly extractive, as well as chemical refining and production, commercial fishing, and tourism—is dependent upon industries that are forces of terrible injury to the coastline and the human environment, to say nothing of all the other-than-humans we are intricately bound up with. And this is true across the planet, notably in that great middle section of the United States, producing soy beans, corn, cattle, pigs, and chickens, factory farms spewing out “product,” tainted product at that, for our consumption along with a toxic stew of waste, which then makes its way into the Mississippi.
The Mississippi River has built its sprawling delta again and again, shifting from site to site as the silt it once freely spilled over the coast built up the land around it and forced the river elsewhere. If we abandoned the levees along its banks, the river would flow through the Atchafalaya Basin and begin again further west from where its present outlet south of New Orleans lies. The Mississippi River drains the entire middle part of the United States, lying between the Rocky Mountains and the Appalachians. Everything we put down the sink, the toilet, every drug we ingest, all the pesticides and fertilizers we put into the garden or onto crops, the antibiotics that go into the feed of the animals we raise for slaughter, their manure, it all ends in the Gulf.
Anger doesn’t help, especially an outsider’s anger. Who am I to judge? I, too, drive a car, heat my house in winter, cool my house in summer. Affluent, I buy into an organic CSA, drive a hybrid, recycle, pat myself on the back, knowing, even so, I as fully complicit in the causes and consequences as any other consumer.
Louisiana is beautiful—its coast a startling, fertile realm of bottomland forests ceding ground to prairie, to marsh, to la prairie tremblant, flotant marsh in which the tall rushes and grass make the wet appear solid at first glance—and it is vanishing. Its children poorly educated, it poor barely noticed let alone supported toward productive, healthy lives. The coast erodes, and chemical companies pour their refuse accidentally and illicitly into the water supply. Texas Brine has created a sinkhole on Bayou Corne so large it has swallowed a community and is still growing. The folks whose homes fall within the “safety zone” of the innumerable chemical plants hope for the best, expect nothing good. The community of Reveilleville had to be relocated and its buildings demolished after a vinyl chloride accident in the 1980’s. In the 1990’s the Mossville community, suffering unprecedented disease, the groundwater even now still threatened by liquid toxic leachate, and the area imperiled by contaminated fish, vegetables, and fruit, fought for and finally received relocation away from the PVC plants surrounding it. In 2003 yet another toxic plume of vinyl chloride forced the relocation of a community near Plaquemine, a crisis discovered when miscarriages there become epidemic. —The narrative quickly becomes numbing.
Documentary poetics allows me, an outsider, to write my way into this beautiful, vanishing world without anger, without falling prey to the temptation to preach. Documentary poetics allows grief into the poem without bathos or sentimentality or feigned authority. Sometimes, a picture is worth a thousand words.
 This piece first appeared in The Volta “Trash” Issue, Fall 2013.
Pleth, a collaboration with j hastain (Unlikely Books 2013), (em)bodied bliss (Moria Books 2013), Gaze (Black Radish Books 2010) and Tender Box, A Wunderkammer (Lavender Ink 2007). A fifth book of poems will be published by Lavender Ink (2014). She has also published six chapbooks (Dusie Kollektiv, above / ground press, and Shirt Pocket Press). Her collaborative chapbook thrown, text by j hastain with Reed's collages, won the 2013 Smoking Glue Gun contest and will appear in 2014. An essay on Claudia Rankine’s The Provenance of Beauty: A South Bronx Travelogue appears in American Letters and Commentary. She is Co-Publisher of Black Radish Books.
Tuesday, June 17, 2014
Half flings, stridence, and visual timber
I listened to Viggo Mortensen all day not so long ago, his poetry, accompanied with Buckethead’s music, a wry, often intense, aural presence to other writing I was doing. The day had all sorts of distractions – movement in the house, other things that had to be done, the etceteras of the daily. It also rained all day that day, pitched also, as an ambient sound, was liquid dripping into the basement cistern. At times I appreciated the slow visual pleasure of melting snow pooling along the street and twisting into the drainholes. I enjoyed the rush of wind and water. There are frequencies I attune myself to, others I try to avoid, but typically, sound backgrounds to visual experiences; I have never really thought too much about the impact of sound on my writing, though I know sound is constant.
By evening of that day, the street outside looked wet in the dark. I’d seen the guys changing the streetlight bulbs a day earlier; the streetlights have a softer glow. I was on my way to the coffee shop down the street to listen to music. I’d heard separate members of the local group play on other occasions, but not as a group. And there was a singer from Montreal in town who I’d heard was good. As I went out the door, I felt I was stacking my day with sound experiences, putting them to the forefront, so to speak. I was looking forward to the outing; this particular coffee shop is a go-to spot; its shape seemed ideal for a good acoustic performance, and I knew I’d see folks I know and enjoy hanging out with. Uncharacteristically, I’d been in all day – it’s a rare rainy day that I don’t spend part of it walking or hiking outside.
I was not mistaken about the enjoying the evening. I was mistaken about the streets being wet. I noticed what was missing visually, but didn’t note consciously the absence of the sound of water. I noticed the street was reflective; the water had become polished black ice; the pools of water had drained hours ago. The street was slick. I minced my way to the coffee shop, tentative when I would have moved at a fairly quick pace, hands out for balance, aware of how the body will fail you and also support you if you fall– the proof of this my casted left wrist-- my wrist had probably saved my back and my legs when I was striding confidently over unnoticed black ice. I heard the snap of my wrist before I really registered that I’d fallen. When I stood up my eyes hurt with small pink and white dots – and there was no sound. This was temporary.
The coffee shop is long and narrow; block glass next to the back door; a broad window at the front with a windowsill that hosts plants; an ‘old’ cash register in the corner. Walls brick. The front window had a curtain over it; the evening was videotaped. The tables were full; I took a seat at the bar with my notebook. There was some writing I wanted to finish; background sound I have always been able to tune out, or tune into. I watched the musicians play, the movements of the bow on the violin, the characteristic expressions of intensity and joy on the faces of the performers, the measured breaths and movements of feet, hands, and body. I registered the sound of the music, the transitions of the jig, and if I applied some effort, could focus on notes of one instrument as opposed to the whole.
Not too long ago, my son was given a bell. It was his third bell; just before coming back from a road trip to Minas Basin, Nova Scotia two years ago, a friend gave him an immense Zen bell for the drive home. Would the sound change, my son asked, if we open the windows when we drive? Would others hear it, driving? I could barely put a couple of words together after being surrounded by the incessant ringing, sonorous as it had at first seemed. It is a 12 hour drive. His second bell was given in a spurt of nostalgia, I think, a bell that had been part of a home. It had sat at a front door, screwed tightly into the brick. This bell was enthusiastically rung many times until it vanished, as loud things sometimes do, in a house. The third large bell appeared near magically, as things do when other things vanish in a house – and one morning, certainly before the neighborhood gathered themselves to prepare for the day, and certainly before most kids were ready to go off to school, or daycare, the street was shattered open by the sound of the bell in the backyard and my son’s penetrating and exuberant voice bellowing: “CLUBHOUSE MEETING!!!” This was followed by about 20 vigorous shakes of the bell. I was wordless, although my neighbours were not similarly struck dumb.
It got me thinking about how the volume in this house has increased since my son’s birth, and how quiet it used to be here, and in this neighborhood. When I write, I write with ambient sounds -- creaks of the house, the whirr of the dryer, the chatter of birds outside, the rumble of wheels, and bellows of enthusiasm, as kids go to school or home in wagons, on foot, and on bikes. I write in my head, sort of mapping, when I’m outside, on a hike or just walking, taking note, attending– in all the ways that word is charged – to what is around me, including the sounds of movement – trees, leaves, birds, water, the sounds of response and echo, the sounds of pause. So I have an ear, or two, and the sounds get included, contribute to, visual experience. When someone reads their writing, I appreciate the how the voice, in its pauses, frequencies, and emphases, affects the way the sound of the words might illuminate something otherwise hidden. But I rarely read my writing out loud when I’m writing it.
I am enjoying the music at the coffee shop. Folks are tapping their hands, feet, moving their bodies to the harmonies. The music changes from a Swedish ballad to a fast jig, and I am distracted from the words I’d started to jot down by a flash of blue. It’s a lone dancer with a blue hat; she’s up in front suddenly, lending movement to a room moving in subtle ways – and then everyone is clapping, her hands are over her head as she twirls, the sound is enthusiastic and so --- a young woman moves past me toward the back of the coffee shop. She has a guide, but I move to the side to give them both space.
The sound man sits alone – so how does he hear language, see the words…or does he feel them, reverberating, and adjust accordingly with buttons and dials, the microphone? The singer comments that two of her songs are similar in sound – it’s an obvious surprise – and it happens. I notice repetition sometimes when looking at different pieces of my own writing, and in the writing of others – as if the words had encountered each other before – even the blocking of words can be repetitive, as though something more concise formed before, and is still forming. Sometimes, if I notice it, I leave it, let the accident happen. Other times, being more deliberate, I disrupt things, change direction: sounds clash, words get sharp, edgy, until I don’t want to listen, or read it. There’s some discomfort. I try to do the same thing with how I place words, how they cluster, or vanish, or bump into each other acoustically, even when separated by their own visual formations.
Behind the stage is the bands’ banner. Ferns unfurling, textile and tactile. The kinetics of writing leaves behind, near reveals, the tactility of language—in rhythm, visual imprint and reverberation. Words intersect on the page and inform one another. The performer can take the words and enact them, sound them, give them movement.
I think in pictures and spaces and physical forms. I think in a kinetic way, too. I sentence sound to the back of my mind; I preference the visual and shaped/ly in writing but am coming to see that I’ve often been using sound to shape. I was talking with a friend, a sound/performance poet about a long piece I’ve been working on, and while we were chatting over the phone, he asked me if I had read it out to myself. Pause. No, I said. It is a multi-voice piece, oddly enough, and meant to be performed by voices other than mine. The piece as a whole evolved as a voicing; it seemed the best way to get into the text in the writing of it, the best way to describe formulations, or reformulations, of memory and history, the best way to get at fluctuation and curvature. It is written deliberately; made up of discrete visual chunks which, when voiced, or depending on how they’re voiced, relate to one another in obvious and sometimes surprising ways. But they have form. They suggest. If words could be physical, tangible blocks that I could touch and move and push…I would move them into place with my fingers. And yet, I’m realizing that I’ve ventured into a sound landscape as a visual landscape in the writing. And I move through it – movement is important.
As I write this, I’m listening to Mortensen and Buckethead. My cast came off today; it was a hairline break of the radius; I imagine what that looks like without asking to see the X-ray. I walked home from the hospital, paying attention to the skidding clouds, that the birds are having a bit of trouble, half flung. I think the wind got in my ear because it’s humming.
Chris Turnbull lives in Kemptville, Ontario. In 2010, above/ground press published a chapbook of her visual and multi-performative piece, continua. Thuja Press published her chapbook Shingles in 2001. Her poetry has been published in The Volta, Ottawater, Convergences, How2, ditch, Dusie, Open Letter, Dandelion, and experiment-o (Angelhouse Press), among others. Occasionally, she has written poetry reviews and interviews. Her sometimes small press mag, rout/e, has more recently become an ongoing footpress project involving placing poems on trails, including pieces from Monty Reid, George Bowering, rob mclennan, derek beaulieu, Amanda Earl, Pearl Pirie, Angela Rawlings (http://scalar.usc.edu/works/stroboscope-magazine/issue-1), Steven Ward, and Jamie Reid.