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The Tales You Tell

It feels like this month has had a lot of a certain kind of thing.  The thing itself is, if not actually hard to name or even describe, well, let’s just say that trying to name it or even describe it ends up being problematic in ways that have entirely to do with the nature of the thing.  But examples.  The examples are maybe not as hard.

Like with a recent piece in the Times Literary Supplement, about a certain hubbub around a certain poem:

The July/August issue of Poetry carried a poem by Michael Dickman called “Scholls Ferry Rd”.  A Twitter user called Hana Shapiro, who describes herself as Japanese-American, posted a tweet on June 25 to say that reading Mr Dickman’s poem put her into a state of “absolute shock”.  Ms Shapiro “had to put the magazine down”.  The shock was caused by the word “negress”, spoken in the poem (affectionately) by an elderly woman of diminishing faculties.  It is followed by the word “Hawaiian”, which seems also to have shocked Ms Shapiro, and the line “A river of Japanese businessmen cross in front of the car”.

Ms Shapiro’s tweet (at the time of writing she had 141 followers) caused a different form of trauma among Mr Share’s employers [Mr Share being the editor, at the time, of Poetry], the immensely wealthy Poetry Foundation.  On June 27, they issued a statement:

“This poem centers whiteness and employs racist language, which is hurtful and wrong.  We published this poem because we read it as an indictment of racism within white families; this was a mistake.  We clearly have more work to do in considering how poems center certain voices and affect our readers.  We regret not taking serious action sooner to interrogate the editorial process, and we apologize.”

In the ominous warning that followed – “changes in the magazine’s structure and process are imminent” – Mr Share read an invitation to present himself at reception at the nearest re-education camp.  The sans-culottes of the moronic inferno posted “WE DID IT!” and moved on.

Michael Dickman was, coincidentally, mentioned here last week, in the context of the US National Poetry Library, which named him among “America’s most exciting contemporary poets”.  That kind of accolade won’t help if you commit an offence against certain notions of linguistic usage, even in a work of nuanced literary expression.

We hear a lot about safe spaces; it appears that the imagination is no longer one of them.

At its highest point, criticism of poetry is guided by T. S. Eliot’s suggestion of what a serious literary community ought to be engaged in: “The common pursuit of true judgment and the correction of taste”.  Otherwise, why bother?  This is what Harriet Monroe founded Poetry for.

Looking especially (though not only) at the way in which TLS chooses to tell you about what might have been problematic in the poem:

The shock was caused by the word “negress”, spoken in the poem (affectionately) by an elderly woman of diminishing faculties. It is followed by the word “Hawaiian”, which seems also to have shocked Ms Shapiro, and the line “A river of Japanese businessmen cross in front of the car”.

And then reading those words in the poem itself, in terms of what comes before, after and around, and then, and then, and then, coming back to realize that TLS neglected to mention any of that before, after, and around.  All of it.  You wonder why they neglected to mention it, or allude to it, or even allude to the idea that there might be more to allude to.

You wonder at how, instead, they did not neglect to mention that Hana Shapiro had 141 Twitter followers, and but that Michael Dickman is considered one of “America’s most exciting contemporary poets”.  How they did not neglect to opine (or rather, to state unequivocally, as if fact), that the term “negress” was spoken affectionately.  How they did not neglect to opine (likewise) about the sans-culottes of the moronic inferno.  And you wonder too, at how they did not neglect to foreground for all of us, in terms of power imbalances, that Mr Share’s employers are immensely wealthy (meaning of course, if implicitly, that poor Mr Share is not...).

You wonder but really you don’t.

*

Listen.  This is the problem.  This is why people, people who are hurting right now, for whom some things are far more real and brutal and everyday than your lovely and abstracted talk of the highest point of criticism, of what a serious literary community ought to be engaged in, of taste and art and history (if only this were just art; if only this were actually history, in the sense of being over and done with, rather than present in the everywhere of every day)...  This is why these people, this is how these people know that you don’t actually, actually see them.

Worse.  This is how we know, too, that you can’t even tell, you don’t even care to understand, that we see you.

We see you not seeing us.

Whereas you can’t even tell that we are here.  That we are right here in the room.  That we can see all the ways in which you tell the story.

And don’t.


[nightingaleshiraz] [?]
[Santo Spirito, Firenze]
[domenica 26 luglio 2020 ore 12:08:02] []

“You are the stuff that fills you...”

Watching my old creative writing professor—old as in former, mind!—have a conversation with Andy Kesson at A Bit Lit on everything from negative capability to happily-myopic translation.

The idea of using translation as a (part of one’s) creative practice.

The idea of doing translation when you’re not fluent in any other languages.

The idea of translating poetry from a language you don’t read/speak, to a language you do.  (And that’s okay, that’s kind of the joy, in part, of being a translator for me...)

The Buddhist concept of emptiness, and the way that might tie into literary concepts of negative capability.  About writers, or humans, being in doubt.  The author always needs to be in doubt about things.

The literary idea of humans being in doubt.

The interdependence of being (Indra’s Net).

In each knot where the ropes of the net meet, there is a jewel, which reflects every other jewel, in every other part of the net...

And so you are always determined by [your] relationship to what is around you...(Everything as part of everything else.)

The idea of the author as a bucket, into which things get thrown...

That this is one way of thinking about things, but there are other ways.

The idea that you’re a producer of meanings, not a controller of meanings...

The idea that the writer is an arranger of words, more than a creator of words.

The idea/paradox of being read, as scholars or as writers, because we’re (seen as being) people who know stuff.  When really, the reason we’re writing, the engine or the chassis upon which everything rests—upon which everything depends for the drive—has to do with not knowing stuff.

Here I think of Baldwin.  (When you are standing in the pulpit, you must sound as though you know what you’re talking about.  When you’re writing, you’re trying to find out something which you don’t know.)  I think of Didion of course (I write entirely to find out...), and of Sontag (I create myself...).  And I think of Geoff Dyer, on Sontag (and on others): Their writings [...] were less the product of accumulated knowledge than active records of how knowledge and understanding had been acquired or was in the process of being acquired.

Then, the way poetry can come into this...  The reading (and writing) of it:

You know the old kind of cliché of someone saying, “I read the poem and the poem, it said what I could not say...”?  That kind of business of poetry being a vehicle for exploring or articulating what is already known...?  I’m good with all that, of course, it’s not either–or.  But I kind of like the idea that when you read, you come across things that you could never have thought.

Also, you know, when you’re creating...  I [sometimes] get to the end of a poem [...] and I kind of go, “Oh good lord!  I had no idea that was going to happen...!”

Here I think again of Baldwin.  (The whole language of writing for me is finding out what you don’t want to know, what you don’t want to find out.  But something forces you to anyway.)  And I think too, of the unthought known (in good ways, bad ways, and difficult ways).  Also of Wallace Stevens:

While there is nothing automatic about [a] poem, nevertheless it has an automatic aspect in the sense that it is what I wanted it to be without knowing before it was written what I wanted it to be, even though I knew before it was written what I wanted to do.

(Things that you could never have thought.)

Later, the idea of failed or discarded—or anyway abandoned—poems.  What if you made a book out of such poems?  How do you know such a book would then, as a whole, be a failure?

Here I think of a Met exhibition from a few years ago, something about unfinished paintings...  I go off and find it.

Anthony van Dyck | Self-Portrait from The Iconography | Credit:
The Metropolitan Museum of Art (Bequest of Mary Stillman Harkness, 1950), licensed under CC0 1.0 Universal

If something doesn’t meet the expectations that you have for it [...], the thing “failed.”  [But it also] created something different...

A little later, on translation again, the idea that there’s only ever going to be one version of, let’s say, Shakespeare’s Hamlet in English (though as we find out, this isn’t strictly the case for Hamlet...), but every time Hamlet is translated into Catalan and German and all the rest of it...  There are potentially millions of other Hamlets in the world.  The idea that it’s those multiple versions that are more interesting.  And not even individually, but in their very multiplicity.  In what is made from their manyness...

Here I think of that issue of McSweeneys that Carlotta bought and that we cooed over years ago, the one in which they did translations of translations...  Something like that? (Later I go find it.  And yes, something exactly like that.)

The idea of opening up dialogue in a world which tells us that dialogue requires fluency.

Here I think (given perhaps, some days we are in...), of opening up the right-to-be-heard (or freedom-of-expression, or control-over-the-discourse, or whatever), in a world which tells us that that right (or that freedom, or that access to that control) requires a certain kind of legitimacy...  One that is, by default, available to the few, rather than the many.

I think too, of something someone said the other day, in a workshop on the use of research in poetry.  The question of which documents “we consider worthy,” and which documents we don’t consider worthy.  (Also, which documents we don’t consider as “documents”...  Which documents we don’t consider at all.)

Later still, the idea of removing literacy from your engagement with a poem, from the very process by which you engage with a poem.

Here I think of how, early on in my time in Italy, I wasn’t quite fluent yet in Italian...  And yet, because of how much I loved the language—loved playing in it—I knew I would be.  And yet (and so), I was already lamenting, dreading in advance, the loss that this would create for me, in terms of what I had then, at the time.  What Italian sounds like, when you do not (have to) process it.

When it is pure sound.

Here in turn, I think of that essay in The Brooklyn Rail, that marks out the tent-pegs of poetry and prose, in terms of the difference between denotative and connotative meaning.  How poetry aspires, like Pater’s art to music, to a pure kind of connotation.  Some poetry, anyway.

I think too, of Emily Dickinson’s dashes.

And then I think: How do those get translated into other languages?  How do they not?  (And how was that “not” different from the “not” of how they got translated / didn’t, into the English of the printed page?)

And through it all, I’m thinking of Van Gogh, and a series of paintings he worked on towards the end, after prints by Millet as well as the works of Delacroix and Rembrandt:  All these copies after his artistic idols contained a strong interpretive element that made them into highly original artworks in their own right.  Indeed van Gogh himself called them “translations.”  As he put it in a letter to Theo from November 1889:

You’ve brought me great pleasure sending me those Millets; I’m working on them with zeal.  Never seeing any real art had made me slack, but this has reawakened me. [...] You’ll see; it seems to me that painting from Millet’s drawings is more like translating them into another language than copying them.

Vincent van Gogh | Evening (after Millet) | Credit: Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

...and in another letter, from January 1890:

The more I think about it, the more I feel justified in trying to reproduce some of Millet’s pieces that he himself did not have time to paint in oil.  And then again, working either from his drawings or his wood engravings is not purely and simply copying.  It’s more like translating his black and white chiaroscuro impressions into another language—the language of color.

Vincent van Gogh | Snow-Covered Field with a Harrow (after Millet) | Credit: Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

Towards the end, the idea of misreading and mishearing as something creative. Of a book of poems coming out of me not understanding stuff.

What happens when words are dropped out...  Having lots of gaps, again, misunderstanding and maybe filling in the gaps...

The idea of forcing the imagination to engage with this sensory gappiness.

The idea of what happens when we read poetry and inhabit it in our bodies.

And finally, in terms of what the word “literature” can mean...  The idea of / the difference between “literature” (as something that feels more academic and static—a bunch of books on shelves, etc.), and the world of just, well, reading-and-writing.

The idea then, of what literature means to me.  This idea of reading-and-writing.  This absolute privilege.  This planet that I live on.  This.


[nightingaleshiraz] [?]
[Santo Spirito, Firenze]
[giovedì 16 luglio 2020 ore 18:07:28] []