28 May 2007

Chap-views #1 & #2

Jeremy Stewart, Indeterminate Accumulation Anti / Ghazals. Prince George: re/cord recordings press, 2006

Si Transken. Un/Ruled Performances. Prince George: Trans/formative Services, 2006.

These two chapbooks could hardly be more contrasting; the construction, the writing, and the community context are worlds apart. Yet, both these texts deserve recognition and both these writers have a crucial role in Prince George literary culture. To generalize, Stewart’s book is avant-garde and specialized, while Transken’s book is activist and accessible. Stewart’s writing is procedural and experimental, while Transken’s is politically grounded and transgressive. Both, I would argue, are of this place and equally integral.

Indeterminate Accumulation Anti / Ghazals began as a compositional experiment. The procedure was to write individual lines (230 of them) and arrange them randomly (drawn from a “gold baseball cap”—as if we’re supposed to believe that!) into the form of ghazals. The chapbook is audacious: 12’ 16’ silver bristol board cover, ring bound in black. It is big, floppy, irrepressible, and in-your-face. The cover doubles (like the doubling of forms: procedural and ghazal) as a flag page:

I was inspired by Jay MillAr’s ESP: Accumulation Sonnets,
by John Cage, & by William S. Burroughs’ cut-ups

& the last line got lost.
Reading is joyful paranoia.

The use of procedural methods in composition has a long history and is not as ‘fringe’ as some might think. The bestselling book in the history of Canadian poetry, Christian Bok’s Eunoia, is a procedural poem. Marjorie Perloff writes about the genre:

“The French Oulipo (Ouvroir de littérature potentielle) has long experimented with procedural or rule-governed poetics, its members creating elaborate numerical constraints that a given text must follow. . . . The poetry of constraint is finally catching on in the English-speaking world, providing an alternative to the self-centred, slack, 'unpoetic' free verse that has become ubiquitous. The cardinal rule of procedural poetics is that the constraint in question is not just a formal device but becomes a thematic property of the poem or fiction.” Perloff1

“Obviously a complex relation exists between the requirements of an outwardly imposed rule and the artist’s inner freedom. Perloff2

In Stewart’s text the tension is between the rules of composition and the accumulated narrative and its paranoid “I”:

I’m a good liar & it’s hard to change
. . .
every night I get paid to turn into a moth
. . .
you & I have birthmarks in common
. . .
I applaud your restraint

The compositional tension in the text radiates from the couplet, the 11 couplet / 23 line (1 title line) ghazal units, and then the overall chance factor which disrupts any linear narrative there may have existed in the first place. What emerges is the power of accumulation knowledge and how the narrative persona is unveiled just as powerfully, perhaps more, through a reader’s process of collection across the disjunctive lines. Taken in small units, narrative is difficult to assemble:

“Shayla was my angel,” said Ashleigh
I don’t repeat—I am repetition

because of a story about a Native American tank commander
why is there an almond in here?

Grammar draws attention to itself here
be the handsomest ghost in the city.

As the text proceeds, themes of writing, geography, philosophy, colloquial language, music, and self-deprecation emerge. A narrative “voice” that is cynical, playful, and iconoclastic unfolds and the “game” of the text falls away to form a sincere and complex utterance.

In an era where poetry languishes in the same old, the procedural is one method in the poetic discipline that disrupts the status quo and renews the language problem for both writer and reader.

The status quo for Si Transken resides the halls of white male power, a more blatant and active oppressive force. Her poems are performances of political resistance against a range of oppressive ideologies she has experienced in her work and study as a social worker. Her chapbook, Un/Ruled Performances, striates the lines between scholarly and activist, academic and creative, artful and street-level engaged.

Poetry can often be seem as disengaged, but for Transken, poetry is an avenue for free expression of the many social divisions and repressive state systems that she experiences every day. A cultural studies project, her poetry ‘reads’ Prince George, Canadian, and world culture as fraught with inequality and hurtful dynamics. For Transken, creativity is not only a chance to bear witness, but is an outlet to cleanse and work out the oppressor in all of us. The poem allows the subject to step outside of themselves, see language as an ideologically-loaded system, and exceed that limit into new possibilities of existence and expression.

What she foregrounds in her poetry more than most is “ethicality” a term she quotes from Arthur Cropley in her introduction. Citing such theorist/teacher/authors as Norman Denzin, Bob Mullaly, and Anna Banks along with the unspoken debt to activist predecessors across disciplines and cultural backgrounds. What Transken believes is that poetry is an important agent for social justice. I believe it too.

It does get her in some trouble though. It is good trouble. Poetry has a peculiar effect on the systems and hallways of power, and often creativity is seen as a freakish and oddly threatening anomaly:

poetry has been a bad habit i tried to be careful
about—like having a schizophrenic child
who might burn the office down if ever let in
to a staff party or let to sit in the hall waiting. (24)

Other trouble: a 2003 reading of her poem “Real Writers," which describes a culturally accepted (/enforced?) vision of the ‘real writer’ as “Anglo middle-aged/ mature male, slightly tortured . . . drug abusing/ alcohol abusing/ woman abusing . . .” (25) caused an Anglo middle-aged male writer to get offended. Imagine that. The poor fellow. Perhaps if he stopped being defensive for a moment, he might learn something.

The poems are playful, observant, and emotionally charged. It is perhaps in the personal emotive that creativity reaches avenues that conventional scholarship can’t. Raymond Williams describes as ‘structures of feeling’, "social experiences in solution, as distinct from other social semantic formations which have been precipitated and are more evidently and more immediately available." He chooses the word "feeling" "to emphasize a distinction from more formal concepts of 'world-view' or 'ideology,'" instead focusing on "specifically affective elements of consciousness," "meanings and values as they are actively lived and felt." (Hendler)

“Many of these ‘outlaw’ emotions have served as a historical base for launching powerful political challenges as evidenced in African-American civil rights, feminist, and queer social movements. Upon close inspection emotions permeate all aspects of social action and social relationships that range from the intensely personal to the outright and in your face political.” (Wells)

Transken’s poems take the emotional and the politically observant into a “spontaneous engagement with the now” (17). A creative social and cultural worker, she is “comfortable with being constantly uncomfortable or at ease with being perpetually in the problematic” (14). She continues to perform the un / rules of being here and now.

There is no graceful way to summarize these two chapbooks together. They are distinct, timely, and originate from those deep wells of creativity. Where chapbooks come from.

21 May 2007

Chap Wrap

The 2nd Annual Prince George Chapbook Fair was a great success; about 40 people came to enjoy the uniquely PG affinity to the making and exchange of chapbooks. Also, the 2nd Annual Barry McKinnon Chapbook Prize was bestowed by a jury consisting of Barry McKinnon (retired CNC instructor, honourary UNBC doctorate, chapbook expert, and award-winning poet) Ken Belford (poet and chapbook maker), Graham Pearce (CNC instructor), and Rob Budde (no one is sure exactly what Rob does but he does it smiling). In a tough decision, the jury decided to split the $250 prize (funded by the UNBC Arts Council) between two deserving chapbooks:

Si Transken’s Un/Ruled Performances

Jeremy Stewart’s Indeterminate Accumulation Anti / Ghazals

Congratulations to the two prize-winners, but also to all the writers who submitted chapbooks; the jury spent a luxurious afternoon enjoying all the chapbooks. Stay tuned for reviews!

14 May 2007

Real Ephemera

I love Prince George but the one thing that I crave that it can’t provide me is used book shopping. Every time I get down to Vancouver now the only thing that redeems the traffic and high-falutin’ tude is McLeod’s Books at Pender and Richards downtown. Last year I had the privilege of spending time with Barry McKinnon there. At one point I picked up a David Philips chapbook and Barry got misty eyed. He told me after a minute that it was the first chapbook he had ever made. Last week when I was down I had the chance to flip through books with bookseller, publisher, and poet Jay Millar. It was great to have a sharp price checker there beside me! I found a signed Scalapino (Considering how exaggerated music is), Charles Bernstein’s A Poetics (my former copy had disappeared with a student a couple years ago), Towards a New American Poetics: Essays and Interviews (with Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, Gary Snyder, Robert Creeley, Robert Bly, and Allen Ginsberg), and a 1978 special issue of Boundary2 on Creeley. Probably the coolest thing I found was a strip of photobooth snapshots. It fell out of a Jerome Rothenberg book Pre-Faces and other Writings:

1. A revolution involves a change in structure; a change in style is not a revolution.

7. A change in vision is a change in form. A change in form is a change of reality.

(Second Series)

1. Revolutions are preceded an accompanied by a breakdown in communication.

4. This breakdown in communication is first articulated by a poet & carried on by other poets.

--from “Revolutionary Propositions” (1966)

Worth spending time with. But the pictures! They were of Roy Kiyooka. There are three frames: one smiling, one somber, one an exaggerated comic appraising look. I asked the store manager if they had Kiyooka’s library and he thought so. The book also had a receipt from the UBC bookstore 1981. So, I am imagining, Kiyooka had slipped a few of these goofy pics in his books to pass along. I have Pacific Windows on my desk along with Creeley and Rothenberg. The intransigent reader and the ephemeral used bookstore of life.

03 May 2007

Caitlin Press launch

Gillan Wigmore and Marita Daschel will be reading at CNC in Rm-1-306 from 7:30-8:30PM on Friday May 11th. Admission is free and refreshments will be served. There will also be books for sale and signing opportunities.