Writing Exercise: Erasure, Interference, Noise, Distraction

Last exercise for my advanced creative non-fiction workshop. We’ve been reading Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s Guantánamo Diary – riddled with redaction marks a government that couldn’t find him guilty of a damn thing, yet could not for 14 years see him to be innocent, saw fit to strike his voice through w/.

An ex on the eloquence of silence; on wrenching eloquence out of silencing.


First, to remind you of the assignment for your fourth and final essay, it’s

a text that incorporates erasure, interference, noise, or distraction. You can put a text of your own (it must be written for this course) under erasure like this or like this: ████. You can take another’s text and put it under erasure to elicit new meanings from it. You can do an audio essay and overlay a second track that makes your voice difficult or impossible to hear at key junctures. You can compose a hypertext that instead of offering a linear reading becomes a garden of forking paths. The possibilities are myriad. Crucial though is that your essay draw erasure, distortion, noise, or distraction into its formal body. In this way it becomes a study of how we make meaning at all.

For this exercise, make a first experiment towards that essay. No more than one page – if it’s on paper at all. I can’t imagine all the possibilities for you here. I can only say, I’m looking for language, written or spoken, that gets interfered with somehow, visually or aurally, in a way that sheds light on how we go about making meaning. (The redaction marks in Slahi’s book, included the way they are, do that, yes? How does Slahi insist on what he means, his humanity, when he’s shut up – imprisoned, silenced? He cracks jokes. He answers absurdity with absurdity. He writes, and gets his writing out there, replete with the redaction bars that speak his silencing.)

Learn too from examples posted – Johnson, Phillips, Bervin, Foer, Strickland, Wave Books. Ask yourself too, what’s missing from these examples that I wish were here? What could you add to this assemblage of interferences?

You could go entirely paperly, erase and/or illuminate a text, your own or another’s. If you erase someone else’s text, be sure to credit the source, and sure your work upon it’s transformative. You need not confine yourself to negation; consider illumination, á là Phillips; hands-on cutting or tearing, á là Foer; other ways of turning gap and omission into a sort of presence.

You need not pin yourself to paper either. I’m open to audio essays, hypertext essays, multimedia enterprises. Interference, noise, distraction can take the form – as we said today – of static, crowd noise, a robotic voice intoning “redacted,” many many things. (The MTA’s “mind the gap” comes to mind.) Our roundtables next week will be a chance to think through options.

I’d like to take these in Thursday, but if you are working off the page, and would like till next Tuesday to make that happen, I can give you till then.


I’m curious what they’ll come up with. It’s been a curious class, invented one week, enacted the next. Improvisatory. Creating a world one step ahead of what you see. I don’t mean I am, we are.

An answer to a killing

Writ by my dear friend Barbara Nickel:

Sometimes I have loved the peacefulness of an ordinary Sunday. It is like standing in a newly planted garden after a warm rain. You can feel the silent and invisible life. All it needs from you is that you take care not to trample it.  

That’s John Ames, Congregationalist minister, narrator of Marilynne Robinson’s novel Gilead.

I love John Ames as I’ve never loved a fictional character; I sat at his feet and listened to his gentle voice. Not one to push himself to the front of a crowd and trumpet his views, John Ames; approaching death, he wants his sermons burned. (“The deacons could arrange it. There are enough to make a good fire. I’m thinking here of hot dogs and marshmallows, something to celebrate the first snow.”) I wish his voice haunting the ear of the gunman in Quebec before he fired at the praying men. You take care not to trample. The silent and invisible life of prayer, care not to trample, the three-year-old with his father at prayer.

Care is not to trample. Her whole post here.

Trump and the Diamond Sutra (II)

A sickness is spreading, here and now, and fucking hell.

Three gunmen opened fire in a mosque in Quebec City during evening prayers on Sunday, reportedly killing at least five people, according to the mosque’s president, Mohamed Yangui. Around 40 people were reportedly inside the Quebec City Islamic Cultural Center (Centre Culturel Islamique de Québec) when the gunmen opened fire.

Police say they arrested two people and aren’t ruling out the possibility of a third person being involved. Officials confirmed there were multiple fatalities but won’t specify how many.

Bodhisattva means a long view. Innumerable beings, innumerable worlds, and it ain’t you saving them anyway. But this – what are you going to do?

My country is burning, my other country is burning, the world is burning, the top of head is burning, here, now. And here I am grading? Somehow I am.

What the fuck is this world.

Calling my congressman does not feel sufficient. Waving a sign in a crowd does not feel sufficient. Okay nothing feels sufficient. Calling and waving do not feel me. What does then. You don’t do that, those, what are you going to do?


Sorry for the jargon folks. The Four Bodhisattva Vows, as I first learned them, and still most to heart know them –

Sentient beings are numberless, I vow to save them.
Desires are inexhaustible, I vow to put an end to them.
Dharma gates are boundless, I vow to enter them.
Buddha’s way is unattainable, I vow to master it.

Bodhisattva = enlightening being. One who puts her enlightenments aside indefinitely, even if that’s forevers, to further the enlightenment of all the others.

My Q, and it burns, is how’s it function in this present sitch. Cuz DT, that whole coterie, they sentient beings too. They can sign executive orders, definitive evidence of sentience. Save them too? Sheeeeee-it.


Don’t believe in hell as a later place. It’s where they are now.

Trump and the Diamond Sutra (I)

Worst case seems to be our case. Men of great sudden power – worldly power, outer power, power a manifestly decrepit political process has bestowed on them – are telling the media they are enemy and should just shut up. Are reinstituting torture at secret sites overseas. Are abhorring abortion abroad to placate a domestic audience though that jacks up illegal unsafe abortions in the Third World, and deaths by. Are waving threats of no-more-money at cities havening immigrants doing work few else want to and their DACA children, some my own very students. Oh if I keep listing I’ll never be done. The Constitution, frail bulwark, cries to think what comes next.

I’m not a marcher. Don’t like slogans, crowds, group thought. Guess I could suspend that, and may, for the import of opposing. Cuz this is real real bad.

Want to know what inner power is. Have started reading the Diamond Sutra again, Red Pine’s translation, thought I touched something in these lines:

After crossing his legs and adjusting his body, he turned his awareness to what was before him.

At the start of the sutra. Don’t feel qualified to comment on them, but what I hear is, the Buddha is in a body. And wholly in it. He needs to attend to it and knows it. Maybe his knee hurts, so he adjusts. He was out in the city begging for his one meal, walking barefoot, he’s an old guy by now, maybe his knee or his insole hurts. He adjusts his body. Doesn’t blame anyone for his discomfort, just does what he can to lessen it, and moves along. No arrogance.

No blame. Turns his care to what needs looking after – what was before him. Is human, not a god, not omniscient, it takes a choice and a turn to locate his mind here, in mindfulness. But he can, and because he’s love, he does.

What answer does this offer to Trump, at the apparent dawn of proto-fascism in a capital empty of competent political opposition? I think maybe none.

Nor am I helping the petitioners, demonstrators, agitators, and such, whom I admire lots and am glad for greatly but find I am not one of, much.

The only answer I know to the sickness of outer power is cultivation of inner power. I have not heard a resonant response to the ill spreading among us anywhere except in buddhadharma. Which I don’t understand, and tells me nothing specific about how to act.

And, too, I reject quietism.

Thus astray, as I dive into the Diamond Sutra, I may post a few of my misprisions here. Will share by tweet in case lonely sleepless sad POTUS eavesdrops.


NEXT DAY. This post started to turn to crap. Had I had a beer too many? (Been through a breakup, second time round with the same o so lovely heartful hurted beloved, some beers is cheery to me.) Maybe I just lost the bead.

“Group thought,” that’s out, everything I’ve heard about the Women’s Marches, they were astonishing harmonious various, true response, right action.

“I have not heard …,” that out. Soon as I said it, started hearing fierce meaningful responses all over. L. in Portland sent this from HuffPo on ethnographic blogging, its quilting of irreducibly multiple voices, as resistance to the One Voice of the State. Adam Gopnik’s annoying fondness for the sleek epigram has transmuted under a new pressure to become a majestic voice of true opposition. He wrote this in the New Yorker, from which a taste:

Whenever there is an authoritarian coup rooted in an irrational ideology, well-meaning people insist that it can’t persist because the results are going to be so obviously bad for the people who believe in it, whether it’s the theocratic revolution in Iran or the first truly autocratic Administration in America. Tragically, terribly, this is never the way it works. There is no political cost for Trump in being seen to be incompetent, impulsive, shallow, inconsistent, and contemptuous of truth and reason. Those are his politics. This is how he achieved power. His base loves craziness, incompetence, and contempt for reason because sanity, competence, and the patient accumulation of evidence are things that allow educated people to pretend that they are superior. Resentment comes before reason.

And this in the Sun, which arrived today, its dawn offering

Let America Be America Again
Langston Hughes

Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America was never America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed –
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

(It was never America to me.)

Ironies multiply and compound. The whole poem here.

Could be said, these are buddhadharma, yo? A sutra‘s what stitches you up.

I just – I just – I don’t know how to turn acts of mind, poems and posts, to act acts. I want to knock a government down. What use, following my breath?

John Berger, 1927-2017

And now John Berger gone. Who’s had more power and sway over my grown mind than any other. A whole man, upstanding.

This from his essay on the Chauvet Cave:

We have no word for this darkness. It is not night and it is not ignorance. From time to time we all cross this darkness, seeing everything: so much everything that we can distinguish nothing. You know it, Marisa, better than I. It’s the interior from which everything came.

The meaning there is, nothing is lost. And yet what a loss.

His love for the world shone in the care of the balance of each syllable.

Not a word he wrote was not about, in, and of, intimacy.

 

Living in the fever

Yeah. This is what has me worried. Liberal democracy may not be the stable plateau we’ve liked to think. May be prone to “deconsolidation” under pressure from anti-democratic forces. Forces we’ve been witness to, in recent days, right here at home.

According to an article in today’s NYT, two researchers, Yascha Mounk and Roberto Stefan Foa, have devised a sort of early-warning system for modern democracies. The system has three factors that they say together can tell you whether a democracy is under stress.

The first factor was public support: How important do citizens think it is for their country to remain democratic? The second was public openness to nondemocratic forms of government, such as military rule. And the third factor was whether “antisystem parties and movements” – political parties and other major players whose core message is that the current system is illegitimate – were gaining support.

If support for democracy was falling while the other two measures were rising, the researchers marked that country “deconsolidating.” And they found that deconsolidation was the political equivalent of a low-grade fever that arrives the day before a full-blown case of the flu….

Venezuela, for instance, enjoyed the highest possible scores on Freedom House’s measures of political rights and democracy in the 1980s. But those democratic practices were not deeply rooted. During that apparent period of stability, Venezuela already scored as deconsolidating on the Mounk-Foa test.

And look at Venezuela now. It’s a shit-show. Poland likewise seemed a robust democracy when it joined the European Union, but showed at the time worrisome signs of deconsolidation – and is now is seeing the rise of anti-system parties and its democratic institutions under attack.

When the test’s applied to democracies of this moment – it don’t look good.

Across numerous countries, including Australia, Britain, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Sweden and the United States, the percentage of people who say it is “essential” to live in a democracy has plummeted, and it is especially low among younger generations.

Support for autocratic alternatives is rising, too. Drawing on data from the European and World Values Surveys, the researchers found that the share of Americans who say that army rule would be a “good” or “very good” thing had risen to 1 in 6 in 2014, compared with 1 in 16 in 1995.

There’s more in the article, check it out. I’m doing the test here sans data, but you don’t really need me to do the math, right?

  1. A significant number of Americans appear willing to curtail the constitutionally protected freedoms of other Americans (citizens or no).
  2. They voted for a man who boasted repeatedly of his intention to erode or ignore democratic norms.
  3. A man who is the quintessential anti-system candidate.

The fever, we in it, people.

Safety pin note

Been so much dismal storm around safety pins, their moral meaning and weight, that wearing one, which was meant to mean

I’m with you and will help you out if you need me to if I can—

is at risk of meaning instead

I have taken a position in the debate over safety pins!

Goddamn. If anyone decides to kill off all the liberals, it won’t take a pogrom, it’ll only take putting us all in a room, and an invitation: “Talk to each other.”

That said. I’m wearing one and it’s sharpening my attention. Same as the precepts I took should (that’s another post). And I’m bothered by a small encounter and want to think and feel it through here.


I’m at Elizabeth Station, nice beer store / watering hole. Got an IPA I’m ready to buy, standing in line, and right beside me is a tasting going on – beers from my favourite brewery in the world. Unibroue, out of rural Quebec, they do the awesomest Belgians. (And you know, I’m tired to the bone of being American, suddenly keen to get my Canadian on. Quebecois, moi – vraiment? )

And K so, I’m not the best at breaking into ongoing conversations – I’m pretty damn bloody socially awkward, it’s been given me to know, on this point and others. That known, truth be told, I’m not at this point too aware of the guy presently tasting. He’s sipping from his taster glass, he’s not presently talking to dress shirt Unibroue dude. I step up

—Oh, are you doing a tasting?

And the spiel begins. Aged in cognac barrels, whatever. Pretty quick I can feel that the guy to my right, previous taster, is a bit put out. I’m not sure what it is exactly – strained smile? awkward stance? – but you’d sense it, too. Here’s where I take a few more visible facts of him in. Latino, thin well-trimmed beard, short, stocky, muscular. A smile that looks like it’s used to being friendly but just went to being thin and pained.

Okay. I’m in the middle of a micro-aggression I done. Even sweeter? I’m wearing the GD safety pin.

I want out. And am quadruply trapped: In the checkout line. At the tasting table. Wearing the GD the safety pin. Took the effing Buddhist precepts.

Quadruply stuck in a triangle of mutual misapprehension. I come up with

—Wasn’t Unibroue bought by Heineken or something?

—Sleeman’s. And they were bought by Sapporo. And they let Unibroue pretty much do their own thing. The Japanese can’t even pronounce the names of our beers.

That, from me, got a head tilt. A small thing, but the safety pin sent it to me, and I meant it as apology to the friend I didn’t make beside me, and I could see it got the message across the other spar of the triangle. The invitation to collaborate in an us-and-them, I’d turned down. Unibroue dude stumbled over his words a bit for a minute or two, till I bid him adieu.

Don’t wish him ill. He wanted to make connection in the how he knew to. Should be said, he sorely mangled the names of the beers he was pouring, Fin du mondeTrois pistoles.

Wanted, as I left, to find the friend I didn’t make, make eye contact, anything, but couldn’t. Liberal friends, conservative friends if I have any, we live in dukkha. Just gotta suck it up.


Did I break into an ongoing conversation cluelessly? I can do that. And that does happen all the time, esp. where beer is drunk. More to the point, did I feel licensed to because the man in the thin well kept beard wasn’t white?

I’m pretty self-aware, when I have time to reflect and introspect, and when I look in, I don’t find any sign of that. That a blind spot? Can’t, by definition, know.

If I’m honest about all the grubby factors that go on in male dominance calculi, our height difference was more likely a factor. But even that – not so much. He seems to me in memory grounded, muscular, sound in his frame, also open, friendly. The gorilla dog in me felt not threatening not threatened.

I can’t find a dominance intention in me. But maybe some cluelessness as to his sitch. Really the question here is, did he feel shoved aside, because I was white, and Unibroue dude was white, and he was not?

And here we are, that awful term and awfuller thing, white privilege. I don’t want it, don’t feel I have it, feel continually inadequate, but appear to be given it. At least that’s what I take from the body language and pained smile of the friend I didn’t make – something was not right for him and I was involved in it.

Tried, after I’d bought my beer, to catch his eye, make a connection – something to atone for what felt wrong and unfinished to me – and could not.

Atonement, that’s another post.


Last thought, a thread left stray above. One of the things we’re in here, with the election of Sad Trump, is a change in the chess game of the gestalt of masculinity. (Chess comes to me as trope because you can look to be losing badly – as I’ve felt we, who want to be voices of enlightenment and kindness, are – only to turn it round, wow, whew.)

I hope we’re seeing an old sense of manhood in its vital death throes. Not, please no, a victorious fascistic resurgence. (Fascist surges have never been victorious, long run; there’s comfort there.) But masculinity will not itself be extinguished. It needs to metamorphose. So I’m going to here if I need to be in my small way (10,000 hits in 2+ years is hardly more than a smudge) open, even at risk of being heterodox, about what that metamorphosis might ask. Of men, of all. Love to you friends.