Exercise: Mythtime, mythworld

Their writing exercise for this week, and it’s a tough one:

Write a poem that taps into myth consciousness. Pointers. Not literary myth consciousness, Hera, Zeus, Leda and the swan, that sentimental crap. The myth consciousness of Ghandl’s poems, all the world potentially sentient, stuffed with spirit beings. Awe, wonder, the sacred breaking down the door. To help that happen – no names of any gods or goddesses.

That would be Ghandl of the Qayahl Llaanas, classical Haida mythteller, in Robert Bringhurst’s translation.1 

Tough for students for whom Thor is a Marvel Superhero. I try to get across that the Greek and Norse gods of popular imagination are attenuated forms – you have to go back to Sappho at least, the Homeric hymns, to get a whiff of the sacred those forms were to their makers. Don’t know if I get my point across very well.

I say, when we talk about mythtime in Ghandl, that’s not only a distant past – it’s also just under the skin of this moment. Other cultures call it dreamtime. It’s what people take hallucinogenic drugs to get to. When you wake from a dream supercharged with with meaning – that’s myth consciousness.

Write a poem from that place.

How I put it in an e-mail to a student wanting to retell an Arthurian story:

The key to the assignment is to tap into myth consciousness. The state of mind that finds an enlarged significance in anything it pays close attention to. In Ghandl’s stories that enlarged significance is expressed as spirit beings and metamorphoses – how a bird skin can turn out to be weather, or a wife can be revealed as a cloud. In Greek myths, originally, that enlarged significance got expressed as “Zeus,” or “Aphrodite,” divine beings that embodied something awesome and terrifying – sacred – about being in the world.

But those myths have long since been attenuated, turned to literature, pretty stories. So I think have the Arthurian legends (which are legends, not myths, there’s a difference, though also some overlap). So it might be hard for you to tap into myth consciousness retelling one of those stories, whether or not you use the names.

I’m not going to tell you not to do it though; I’d sort of rather you didn’t retell anyone else’s story, but if you’re keen on this one, it’s not my business to stop you. Do apply this test to your poem though: Does it express wonderment? Not second-hand wonderment, coopted from the story you’re retelling, but your own, discovered in your encounter with the material.

The trick? The emoji on our iPhones, the Pokemon chars they spent a while chasing after, they too’s attenuated forms of that. We’re still after scraps of awe. Some of them are called metaphors.

A sorry nostalgic chase, I say, when leaves, wind, rain, sun, deer 953.

photo-23


1. Around which controversy skirled awhile. Whether Bringhurst had the right to. Whether those who said he didn’t spoke for the whole Haida people or no. I feel tender, tentative, around it all, but from what I can tell, Ghandl knew what he were up to, when he sold and told his stories to John Swanton, an anthropologist committed (unlike most – astonishing) to transcribing the stories he heard word for word. Was Ghandl coerced just the same? His culture was in grave peril. He could have had his stories die with him – perhaps let many to. He also, for reasons we can’t ask him, chose to sow this killing culture with seeds that flourish even today. Though the book‘s out of print.

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A course for winter

One of the two courses I’m teaching winter quarter.


English 214: Introduction to Shakespeare: Page and Stage

To study Shakespeare is to study ourselves. Our language is full of his turns of phrase. His drama informs our drama, our cinema, and our TV shows, from South Park to Game of Thrones to Westworld. We’re going to explore just how current Shakespeare is by putting his plays into action – sometimes from the page (in ear and mind), sometimes on the stage (for eye and ear). Which brings us to the fine print. And it’s important enough to start with some big print. PLEASE TAKE NOTE. This is not your usual GUR. There will be no lectures. There will be no midterm exam. There will be no final exam. There will be a whole lot of discussion; writing, memorization, and recitation assignments; blocking projects; scansion quizzes; and a group performance project worth a big fat chunk of your grade. You’ll be asked to memorize a part and to perform, in character, in front of your peers, although acting ability is not a prerequisite. Do not sign up for this course if you’re not ready to attend every class and to participate actively in all aspects of our work together. If you are so ready, we should have a lot of fun. Our plays: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Twelfth Night, Othello, The Tempest.


The image up top, Djimon Hounsou’s Caliban, in Julie Taymor’s 2010 film of The Tempest. A performance of real dignity and power – Caliban enslaved, not a slave. And it can’t not touch on (press damned hard on, actually) the subjugation of the black body, African, American, by such as Prospero are.

By such as prosper. My hope’s to talk with them about that some.


The class went well last time round. Went great, actually. By the end the group was an organic form, a living animal, thriving under its own power, and mostly I could just attend.

My favourite comment in the evals, Shakespearean in its wit: This class was lit. 

Rape culture / Peace on earth

When the truth comes it comes to the body. My limbs go tense suddenly, electric. Arms ready to punch or flail but there’s no one to punch or flail so they stay still. Thighs and calves tight, prepped, coiled, but what to run from? I’m leaning back on the couch, cat on my lap as I read the news on my laptop, what threat? Why has my attention gone taut? But it has – everything at the periphery has grown larger, brighter. Word for it is hypervigilance. Tears leak from my eye holes.

The trigger is the opening of an article in the NYT:

“Women: tweet me your first assaults,” [Kelly Oxford] wrote on Twitter at 7:48 p.m. “They aren’t just stats. I’ll go first: Old man on city bus grabs my ‘pussy’ and smiles at me, I’m 12.”

Why does this break through me when DT’s own words, I could, with SNL, hold at a distance, laugh off? Because I thought I heard in them his death knell? Because no victim was audible in them? Because here there’s a child?

What’s empathy anyway? Where are its edges?

There’d been signs my empathy was blocked. “Oh, this is good, he’s bound to lose now.” “Yeah but guys just talk like that.” (Do we? really?) “How is this worse that all the other shit he’s said?” (Okay, fair question – incitement to assassination?!) Happens when I don’t want to feel something through, till it breaks through.

Here’s it breaking through:

“I won’t give details, but I was 12, and he went to jail,” Emily Willingham, a writer, posted on Twitter.

and

Sasha Stone, an entertainment journalist, told of being forced to perform oral sex on a man “after he offered me a ride home and then threatened me. I was 14.”

and

Wendy Luxenburg, 45, a hospital administrator in Chicago, recalled being in a Florida department store with her mother: “She was an aisle away. Man walks by me, rubbed by crotch. I was 11.”

and

And the actress Amber Tamblyn wrote on Instagram of being accosted at a nightclub by an ex-boyfriend who grabbed her by the hair and, with his other hand, lifted her by her vagina, bruising her badly, and “carried me, like something he owned, like a piece of trash, out of the club.”

and

“Grabbed from behind on the street. Thought it was my fault because I was wearing a dress,” Lynne Boschee, 50, of Phoenix, wrote on Twitter. “Never told anyone. I was 14.”

I hope this would break my heart and inflame my fury even if nothing such had happened to me. But it did also happen to me, and so I want also to say, it happens to men and boys, too. That’s where the taut limbs and the tears come from. Trauma is an equal-opportunity demon. Gail Sheehy has a good piece in Politico about how Trump is rousing terror and post-traumatic stress in ethnic minorities and vets and LGBTQ folks and their therapists alike.

I’ve been listening tonight, because curative, to Arvo Pärt’s Fratres, and reading John Taggart’s “Peace on Earth”:

To lift to lift up to lift without
effort to sing tene
to relax the circling rays to
stand still that the citizens of my city
may be drawn as with visible
chains to this splendor splendor of coronation
that they may see the shape of
the dance that they may see the lily-flower.

Carol heart’s ease ring of flower’s thought.

To lift up bones in the lily-flower dance
in the flower’s leaf ranged around
leaf splendid
bones and leaves as petals curled around each other.

Peace to you, brother, sister.

Dear Canada Council, love, C.

A grant application I done sent.


Page 1 base textSCRO began after a visit to my father, 84 years old, in California. I wrote many pages in my journal, worries and fears about his health and state of mind, thoughts on our relationship, childhood memories of him. In time I arrived at a base text of 24 handwritten pages, one page for each hour of the day. To the right is the first. Wandering in time and space, thought and feeling, the text comes home time and again to my little house, which my father, co-signing a loan, made me able to buy. “SCRO,” a truncated form of escrow. Also of scroll – one form the poem will take. And the title can’t fail to call to mind scrotum. The poem’s a study of father and son, and whatever manhood is, and continuity and rupture. Scroll and escrow both derive from a Germanic root meaning “shred.”


p 1 600 cropped
Next I distort the handwriting on the photocopier, rocking it up and down as the scan bar moves underneath, gathering in data, losing information, abandoning and reforming context. Poet Tim Gaze coined the term asemic, one a, for unreadable writing that calls your sense-making apparatus into play without letting it resolve on any given meaning. Steinian indeterminacy on the level of the grapheme. I’ve in turn coined the term aasemic, two a’s, the negative negated, for writing you neither can nor cannot read. I want for these texts to hang on the threshold between signal and noise. Why threshold. Because I’m afraid my father’s going to where he’ll be unreachable; unreadable. Because of how hard it is to know each other at the best of times. Because how of hard it is to read yourself, what you even feel, at same. Most of a given moment’s unintelligible. And, something happens when the mind somehow eases anyway into that state of things, just not getting it. These are experiments toward such ease.

SCRO will have two lives, at least. One, a scroll built of 24 aasemic panels like the one above, flown seamlessly together. That will take some time; the base text is written, but the asemic pages need to be re-generated, most or all of them. Then I need to build a mock-up scroll before I begin to approach publishers.

The other is a series of 24 one-minute video-poems. I start with close-up stills from the aasemic panels described above.

While the panels, as wholes, are to be flown into a scroll, the close-up stills drawn from them are enlisted in brief, meditative animations. Chance operations dictate the length of each clip. Why chance. Because letting in the accidents – patterns not of my choosing; patterns I inherit, my father’s kar­ma, my father’s genes – not my choosing or his. And so, given 60 seconds to fill, I take the factors of 60, excepting 1 and 60, which are 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 10, 12, 15, 20, and 30, and choose at random from that sequence how long each still will last. If a given choice pushes my total over 60 seconds, I throw that choice out and I select again. For instance, the stills for 6:00 am are 2, 3, 15, 3, 6, 6, 2, 2, 15, 2, and 4 seconds long. Made this way, each one-minute video gets to a rhythm I’d not have on my own. The world is rhythmic I find if I let it.

I use two freeware programs, GIMP and Audacity, for image and audio editing, and iMovie to compose the video. The last is limited but its limits guide me the way her rhyme scheme does a poet prone to sonnets. The audio track is quiet but integral: ambient sound, household or neighbourly, recorded the hour of the day the asemic page was made.

How will these video poems find a public. Easy to shove them around online of course. But I want to throw them big and severally on gallery walls, let them be embodied again, with persons in their bodies moving among, stopping between a projector and a receiving wall to interrupt my images, occlude my words, to intercede – for what, for whom? From whatever I thought to mean. To join in the play on the edge between real and ideal, material and im.

I picture a large or warrened gallery space, each of the videos set separate, a big one here, small one there. Each cast on its bit of wall, far enough from others for its companion sound to adhere to it. As you move round the space the sounds mix up. Soundtracks spare enough for the mix not to muddy.  The effect would be like that on the mind in meditation – relaxing into the hereness of a shape, sound, texture, mixture thereof you have no name for as it passes.