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.


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).


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.


Failing amidst an army

In conversation with a dear friend recently, she was describing the desire to fail more, which to me sounds like the reciprocal impulse of bravery, a position that makes risk-taking possible. The future may come as we imagine it, or it may come otherwise, but there is only life as it is already if we do nothing. I was reminded of our conversation as I read through the final episode of Juliana Spahr and David Buuck’s An Army of Lovers (2013). Set in five parts, each perhaps related to the others, the central characters wonder at the futility of artistic creation, knowing that music cannot cure disease, that poetry cannot stop the warming of the climate and that performance art cannot end the practice of torture. The book ends with a glorious, extended call to act none-the-less, specifically in collaboration, despite the fact that circumstances may remain unchanged—because in the acting there is an electricity that is transmitted amongst us.

“We want art that makes us wet and driven, driven to flail and whelp and court failures in our impulse to action, again and again, failing with ever more grace and cunning, until futility becomes the magic that when dissolved beneath the tongue of all those ready to bark leads to ever more fruitful inquiries, for our bodies are bored by answers, which is why we wish to striate and rejuvenate the questions, even if in our questioning some of us are led to then ask how might we refuse this, refuse all of this” (139).

And I was reminded of my dear friend and how much I want to fail with her again. That thing between us is its own kind of life, and we can tend to that as a political gesture, encouraging each other to believe that music or poetry or performance can come to bear on the world outside of our intimate connection. Even if it can’t. Or, not in the ways we imagine it.


Sovereignties and Colonialisms


Today, the third major conference of the Critical Ethnic Studies Association opens in Toronto at York University. Entitled Sovereignties and Colonialisms: Resisting Racism, Extraction and Dispossession, the conference “aims to critique settler colonialism and white supremacy; challenge colonial gender binaries; examine genealogies of anti-Black racism and colonial racial formations; and think about resistance and oppression transnationally, in ways that challenge western hegemony and the travels of racist and colonial methods.” So many amazing minds have gathered to talk about sovereignty and colonialism from a range of perspectives and across a breadth of topics. The full schedule can be accessed here.

On Friday morning, 10:45-12:00 in room ACE 003, I will be participating in a panel called Art, Literature and Representations of Indigeneity with Sean Kennedy (CUNY), who will be speaking about “Indigeneity, Desire, and Refusal: Reconfiguring Literary Studies for Decolonization,” and Katherine Starks (Independent), who will be speaking about “A Holistic Approach to Gregory Scofield’s I Knew Two Métis Women.” I will be talking about the National Gallery of Canada’s Sakahàn: International Indigenous Art exhibition, testing some ideas about the decolonizing potential of cultural institutions, especially ones so closely tied (financially and ideologically) to the Canadian state. (This presentation at CESA is an edited version of a paper I gave in April as part of the University of Toronto’s 5th Annual Graduate English Conference: Memory, Memorialization, and Forgetting.)

The way that Indigenous identification functioned in the context of Sakahàn was not only a claim of being from a place since time immemorial; it also marked an inextricable connection to experiences of colonization. Considering Canada’s colonial history, Sakahàn was aptly situated at the country’s national gallery, an institution which has often acted as a mechanism of colonial subjugation by way of its perpetuation of Eurocentric art-historical values and subsequent omission of artworks and narratives that emerge from other cultural traditions. Unsurprisingly, many of the works within the exhibition were themselves acts of resistance to the gruesome inheritance of colonization and expressions of the ongoing struggles against it.

Theoretically, the exhibition was a gesture of solidarity with the decolonial work that is our living responsibility. And yet, the NGC undid at least some of this work through a repeated gesture: disclaimers that formally distanced the gallery from the politics of the work on display. Focusing on the appearance of the disclaimer directly next to the didactic panel for Nadia Myre’s work For those who cannot speak: the land, the water, the animals and the future generations (2013), I will discuss the responsibilities of curators and institutions in presenting work that directly engages decolonial politics within a colonial context.

Does the presentation of Myre’s work, in and of itself, constitute a moment of cultural self-determination, despite the presence of the disclaimer? Or does the disclaimer in some way neuter the decolonial potential of the work as displayed at the National Gallery?


Weak Dialectics

I am frustrated at the lack of generosity our electronic conversations compel. I am frustrated, in general, that there seems to be a social value to asserting the shortcomings of another’s ideas rather than trying to translate between one way of knowing and another, in order to engage the ideas of another with as much integrity as possible. I’m so fucking mad that we don’t want to have our ideas changed more than we want to induce shame in others. It’s so fucking boring. We are boring.

But thank goodness for reading. I came upon these words is Laura Broadbent’s Interviews (2014), which are drawn from a posthumous interview with Jean Rhys (the text is reconfigured from Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea [1966] and Good Morning Midnight [1939]):

The audience rocks with laughter
at the exhausted, collapsing woman.
It’s so easy to make a person
who hasn’t got anything
seem wrong.

It’s always like that.
When you are tottering,
somebody peculiarly well qualified
comes along and shoves you down.
And stamps on you.

And I think, at least these feelings are real. This is what literature gives me, this is what poetry reveals.