Considerations

The Word As Bait

As a child learning to write, these lessons in script were also the cultivation of a graphomaniac impulse. I would discover the shape of a word and I would write it over and over again, a long list of conjuring things into being, the world taking shape around me by virtue of writing it into existence. Of course, not actually making the world, but making my understanding of it. And still, to this day, this is how I lure meaning from experience and observation, how the struggle to precisely name the electricity of living is imperfectly resolved: in the translation to language, in the passage from hand onto page.

Although I write primarily for some semblance of emotional and intellectual order, what was first adopted as a survival strategy has become a professional tactic: my writing practice prefigured the central methodology of my curatorial practice. When I look at art, I need language to know what I see, to understand what I feel. Texts—essays, dialogues, incendiary screeds—oftentimes accompany the exhibitions I make. I do not intend them to function as explanation machines, but maybe the writing can encourage a slowness in contemplation. Curating is an opportunity to contribute to discussions around aesthetic and performative strategies that address the complexity of shared social spaces. My hope is to use language to linger in this process of self-reflexivity, the imperative incumbent upon myself foremost.

If writing is bait for my own construction of meaning, then maybe the word can be bait for yours.

Compositionally, my predilection towards language structures the way I propose relationships between the components of an exhibition, where I am less concerned with history than I am with poetry and dialogue. The strategies I use to arrange objects in space I have learned from those I use to organize ideas on the page—synonyms for the sea do not make a poem (or, not necessarily), and neither does a collection of objects, whatever material or thematic repetition they may perform together, make an exhibition. As the poet and activist Jackie Wang has said, to create a space for the imagination is to create a container for the un-containing and un-leashing of desire. The container should facilitate generative encounters and provide a ground on which energizing and magical experiences can take place. For me, the art is always in what happens during the encounter, for writing is first and foremost ENERGY and CONNECTIVE TISSUE—a relation. Its not the textual objects but the bond that matter.” [1] A concern for language has taught me to pay attention to the spaces between things, to pay attention to the invisible but felt relation. Although all exhibitions ask to be read by their audience, by prioritizing strange intimacies and interruption I think a different kind of reading becomes possible—less about the right kind of scholarship, more about promiscuous curiosity. What is the bond that is being made through encounter? I cannot predict it, though I work to generate it.

The Iof the exhibition is an assemblage of the artistsworks, spatial conditions and social context, a kind of collective thinking that tends toward narrative. But the Iis unruly and speaks out against itself. It continues to talk after my back is turned, rewriting itself through encounters with its audience. If my first job as a curator is to compose, to write, then the reciprocal expectation is to heed the dialogue that rises, to find myself reading the traces that remain. My earliest impulses to write brought the world into existence. What is brought into existence now, or what I hope I am doing through this cultural work, is to encourage what might be delicate to come into the form of something more robust, giving ideas material form so that they make take root in others. And we will be bonded.

[1] Wang, Jackie. “Aliens as a Form-of-life: Imagining the Avant-Garde.” In The Force of What’s Possible: Writers on Accessibility & the Avant-Garde, eds. Lily Hoang & Joshua Marie Wilkinson, 325. Lebanon: Nightboat Books, 2013.

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Considerations

A Specific Poetic Literacy

In Susan Howe’s The Spontaneous Telepathy of Archives (2014), she quotes Robert Duncan on the specific capacities and compulsions of poetry:

The secret of the poetic art lies in the keeping of time, to keep time designing or discovering lines of melodic coherence. Counting the measures, marking them off, calculating the sequences; the whole intensified in the poet’s sense of its limitation…one image may recall another, finding depth in the resounding (17).

Which she later follows with her own theory:

Poetry has no proof nor plan nor evidence by decree of in any other way. From somewhere in the twilight realm of sound a spirit of belief flares up at the point where meaning stops and the unreality of what seems most real floods over us (63).

Where they first seem to counter each other—Duncan’s suggestion of poetry as order, Howe’s claim that the poetic moves against imposed logics—they come to echo each other in their measurement of poetry’s force residing in its capacity to mirror in a way that exceeds the image itself. For Duncan and Howe, the reflection engendered through the poetic use of language is somehow greater than the thing it describes.

This more than cannot be for the poet alone: to read these texts means to apprehend both an appearance of an event and a performance of it, where correlation does not strictly hold. To read poetry, on these terms, means to feel the space between the thing itself and the effects of contact with it. The intuition of this discrepancy must be a reason why, to write. The apprehension of this discrepancy is, then, a specific poetic literacy.

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Considerations

Speak, Call, Respond and Tell: guest post by Caitlin Saltmarche.

This spring, I participated in a writing workshop led by Eva-Lynn Jagoe entitled Forms of Critical Writing. Each week, the ten of us would respond to the same prompts, share our ideas and offer each other feedback. The pace of it meant that we were sharing drafts—a vulnerable position to strike. But the pace of it meant that we were constantly writing—a strength-building exercise. Over the course of it, I was charmed. By the range of responses to the prompts we were offered. By the kindness with which we approached each other. By the slow reveal and, at other times, the continued obstruction of our selves in the writing we shared. For our final meeting, we read aloud to each other and one of my classmates, Caitlin Saltmarche, delivered a gorgeous reflection on the whole endeavour, which I am posting below with her permission. This is one attempt to enlarge the container that holds our words, that wants to nourish them despite our constant failure at translating electricity into static shapes.

***

I think I entered this course with a certain question on my mind. It was:

Is there a form of writing possible that is—at one and the same time—an intense listening, an instance of thought in motion, and a way of showing something worthwhile? The answer I came up with is no, no, there is not.

This failure was a good lesson in and of itself. However, I also feel as though I’ve learned another thing or two along this bumpy winding pathway we’ve been bushwacking together.

I can’t imagine that everyone in this room has had such an experience in the flesh, of bushwacking—of making one’s way through dense woods by cutting at undergrowth and branches—it’s a hell of a lot of work, and usually those right behind the trailblazers up front get cut up quite a bit from the flying uncaught branches as they swing back to seek the most petty form of revenge that plants seem to be capable of.

We’ve taken turns leading the way and following, and turns getting hit with one another’s branches. I hope, for my part, that I haven’t caused any scars as collateral damage from my at-times completely inchoate attempts at writing something meaningful.

To commemorate this experience we’ve shared, I’d like to try my hand at sharing some of the things I’ve learned along the way. To do so, I have to return to my very first piece of writing for this course, and in this re-visitation, I will alter some things and add some things and perhaps take quite a few things out.

I do this with a view to what I am now able to see as the common project of my recent works of writing—a project that has made itself known through the themes of speaking and telling and saying, responding and calling and even shooting guns—that is, those forms of communication adopted between two or more individuals, two or more selves, selves within a single person, and even between different parts of the brain, which amounts to the trilling of several distinct destinies. 

Trilling—like the sounds that birds make, quavering and de-harmonizing and re-harmonizing. What humans do, too.

To hear these destinies independently together may allow for several things to occur. An understanding of what empowers the self, and what disempowers it. An understanding of how disharmony and failure may lead to the creation of new and quite profound truths.

Nietzsche once wrote, “Our true experiences are not garrulous. They could not communicate themselves if they wanted to: they lack words. We have already grown beyond whatever we have words for.”

What I see here is a built in and structural failure between language, on the one hand, and what needs to be yet what cannot be expressed, on the other. This is what Lacan’s late project points to as well, when he calls the subject split or divided. ‘I do not think’ or ‘I am not,’ is his strange though not entirely incomprehensible binary. Rather than becoming trapped in Descartes’s all-to-familiar causal nexus, ‘I think therefore I am,’ we have this either-or situation to contend with: ‘I am being’ or ‘I am thinking’ but not ever both at once.

The second thing I see here, in Nietzsche’s final sentence of the quotation cited above: “We have already grown beyond whatever we have words for,” is that a certain capaciousness is called for. A roomy container or containment to allow certain things to happen. We need a larger container—we need, that is, to do more with words, to be committed to the growth of words and their interactions, and also to be committed to forever failing in this endeavour.

This might sound like I’m some kind of word-utopian, but I’m not.

It’s only to point out that playing is important and it’s sometimes very serious work. There’s a lot at stake here.

On that note, I’d like to (finally) return to the piece I alluded to, and play around a little bit, for a very short while, in a semi-serious way.

Speak, call, respond and tell.

Let’s go, again, by way of examples:

1. call and response.

When I think of call, I think first of drinking and dialing, or that string of self-propagating embarrassments that unite us all in the great ocean of regret. Like all of those calls you made to the first person you thought you were in love with, during your first year of university—having found someone to talk with about ideas and thinking that this opportunity would never pass you by again. The 3 a.m. tri-weekly assaults, or however many times a week you were getting slogger-headed with your classmates.

How could an absurd, semi-conscious call such as this possibly be responded to?

I first and foremost affirm and maintain that a hang up is a response, and so has to be counted among the numerous other inappropriate responses, a category to which all responses fit in this delicate and indecent situation.

In our calls, we sometimes ask the impossible. We ask a friend, lover, or even a stranger, to enter into our world, to intuit our most tender or broken places, in order to help stitch things right again—this is an impossible demand.

On the other hand, sometimes our calls are completely reasonable, as when we go to the doctor with some tediously recognizable malady, and she writes us a script, and in seven-nine days the sore throat goes away.

In our responses to calls, something else perhaps emerges. When I think about my life, I have given half-assed responses to calls, tired or in a foul mood, or preferring to go back to my book rather than admit I don’t have the answer to your call. On the order of response, there may be well-intentioned and mal-intentioned responses, self-serving responses, exponentially more troubled calls in response to our call, earth-shattering and abusive responses, inspired and inspiring responses, or no response at all.

Like the drinking and dialing, sometimes we don’t even know what we’re asking for when we make a call, and I want to argue the case for the lack of response, in this case, and in many.

—and I won’t call it non-relationality, just a shifted-relationality, which compels the one making that call to create and recreate their language container, to become greater, more capacious, and more willing to really relate,

which means to listen, and to hear the trilling of all the different voices. Not only his/her/their own.

2. speaking and telling.

When you tell, you usually have to tell something. More often than not, you tell someone something. So if you don’t have a thing to tell, there’s no real reason for speaking. You can speak without telling anyone anything—but to tell, you need something to say, and someone to witness it.

You can tell on someone, (and I’m sure somewhere someone’s come up with an ethics of the snitch, but that’s not our business today)—or you can tell someone off. You can tell someone to do something, or not to do something, or to do you. You can tell the truth, tell a lie, tell tales, or tell bedtime stories.

Speak, on the other hand, is a kind of imperative: “Speak!” Hamlet’s posse demands to the Ghost of King Hamlet the father. And he does speak. So that Hamlet may act.

But if we really get into it, we’d have to admit that Hamlet’s father truly speaks and says nothing—for when the ghost finally does speak up, he says “I am forbid / To tell the secrets of my prison-house”

Again, we have a response that is the lack of a response.

Don’t tell. I cannot tell.

I will keep the secret.

To tell someone something is to reveal something. Through the experience of confession, perhaps it is the attempt to free up desire—to get it out of you, to make it real, by enchaining it in words. And yet,

as always,

as soon as it is spoken, something is fixed, made rigid and dead, and the desire, forever unchained, moves on.

Is whatever we tell bound to be a failure?

Again, the demand arises—as it always does and, as usual, in some of the strangest and most unforeseen places—to shape and reshape our language, to make a more and more capacious container,

and to enjoy all these failures,

and these new ways of relating,

which allow for that certain, specific, dead gorgeous, soul-shattering, trilling.

I began this piece stating that I would share what I’ve learned along the way.

—as the sediment, the broken twigs and gritty sand, slowly makes its way and finds its resting place on the floor of a too-long shaken and agitated mind, the clearer vision is precisely this: I relate to my language in new ways because of you. That however much we try to avoid admitting it, we’re always and forever writing for one another. I fell in love with this group—which is the only reason why I wrote. No response required.

***

Caitlin can be reached at saltmarche [at] gmail.com.

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Considerations

That Writing Takes Advantage

Marguerite Duras, naming the referents and compulsions and privileges of writing, in an essay entitled “The Death of a Young British Pilot”:

Emotions of that order, very subtle, very profound, very carnal, and essential, and completely unpredictable, can hatch entire lives in a body. That’s what writing is. It’s the pace of the written word passing through your body. Crossing it. That’s where one starts to talk about those emotions that are hard to say, that are so foreign, and yet that suddenly grab hold of you…I write because of the good fortune I have to get mixed up in everything, with everything; the good fortune to be in this battlefield, in this theatre devoid of war, in the enlargement of this reflection.

My own writing process often feels dire. It is difficult, emotionally strained work when trying to shape ideas so as to share them with others, and it is desperate work when trying to process the intensity and despair and joy of living for myself—how else to make sense of this thing called living? I adore the work as I resent it, and I’m grateful that this is the way for me, through language. So it is good to be reminded that this labour is actually living itself, a kind of living possible only in the luxury of having access to the silent, still places of contemplation, to observe the charge of experience as it ricochets through the cellular networks of flesh.

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Considerations

Curriculum Notes (Pato/Moure)

Cut from many different chapters within Chus Pato’s and Erín Moure’s Secession/Insecession (2009/2014), some notes toward a theory of poetry (in a summer where I’ve set a curriculum to understand that form of language):

Moure: “Fiction allows us to inhabit the mind of another without urgency, increasing capacities for empathy and reducing the need for cognitive closure. Poems, being ambiguous, activate cells in more areas of the frontal cortex” (30).

Pato: “I speak of the impossible coincidence of languages and world, of the fracture in which the I of a poet is constituted, of how the poem is an emotive-cognitive writing that touches the world, of how a poem is a passion of language” (51-53).

Pato: “It could be that poet is one whose disposition coincides with the identity of a given language. The identity of a given language, any language, utters the world but its declarations don’t converge with the world.

Perhaps (psychology?) being a poet means assuming the caesura, constituting oneself in secession, in the very impossibility that languages might link words and things. A poet asserts I     I is a deserted site, a silence, a cut, a distance” (119).

Moure: “I hesitate to say anything about poetry except: it is a conversation we speak into, an our consanguinity in words (material effect) matters” (120).

Pato: “In a poem objects don’t exist, nor emotions, nor feelings, only words that are the irremediable absence of the aesthetic they provoke” (125).

Moure: “Poetry, it is said by this me which is not me, is a conversation, or a texture like a shawl and each one of us weaves our own particular corner, or the bit where we gently hold its edge, aware that others are pulling gently as well on the surface of the textile, contributing their own gesture to the whole. And none of us produce this whole, not on our own, not with our friends alone. None of us are this whole nor can any of us speak for this whole that is poetry, we can only bring our hands’ work into the conversation, and raise not just our voice but our ears to it, to listen,

as listening affects the bones inside the ear and the balance of fluids inside certain membranes

listening alters the cells” (148).

Moure: “And so what if poems are cryptic, this protest just annoys me, poems activate more areas of the human cortex than do non-ambiguous speech, they bring excedent light and hormonal energy into the dark matter of the frontal cortex; where we read literature we equip our brains to deal with ‘ambiguous speech’. We realize the ambiguity of all speech, all mouths opening, and where in the mouth the accent is. Location, fear, passions, humidity” (150).

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Considerations

The Coming Revenge

In Bhanu Kapil’s Ban en Banlieue (2015), she wonders:

To what degree are creative acts antidotes to the desire for cultural or institutional revenge (91)?

Kapil is writing the story of a race riot through a collection of images. Or scenes. Where the voice that tells the story seeps through into the Ban that portends to hold the collection together. It is a story told through averted vision. For the multiple Bans of the novel, there is the text as some sort of permanent marking around what is otherwise a nothing, a negation. The writing is an act of refusal, but there is not yet revenge. I believe that is still to come. I believe it—the creative act—is not an antidote, not entirely. Though something is made possible, which might just be revenge itself.

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