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.


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