To translate the translator

Third and last of the aleatory proposals is mine. Strikes me as dullest of the three. Buzz goes, buzz buzz. And with that ringing encomium – read on.


I’ll present on Overject, an exercise in total translation – trans­lation that holds every verbal and visual trace that can be caught of how a poem refracts as it passes through its translator. The project performs various manipulations on its source text, a minor mediocre didactic Old English poem, to investigate the role of the translator’s impurities and opacities in the activity of translation. While the project may not appear classically aleatory, it turns out to encounter and depend on accident at every turn.

SI 3 (89R) - text - newMost of the poems are hand-written, and contingency hangs on the inscription of each character. I set each one down fast, too fast for thought, and a second time just as fast. Then meticulously I ink in the spaces left open between the two passes. The gangly pseudo-graffiti that results is a gestural translation of the scribe’s stately calligraphy. The practice may not be aleatory, strictly speaking, for no random element from outside the poet has been introduced. But although the forms are laid down by my own hand, I experience them to appear from outside my will intention and control. I decide the process, as the aleatory poet decides to roll the dice, then submit to the results. And I take from the practice all the joy and constraint, freedom and burden, the aleatory is famed to offer.

FT 3 (89V)My work with my materials – leaves paper cellophane – also has aleatory respects. Leaves first entered the poem by accident at the corner of my eye, a dogwood in the wind out my window. I picked some and dropped them on a page and that became a thing. Their placement as masks over semantic translations is a mix of chance and design: they fall as they will, then I get to nudge them around, but a little. Meanwhile, most images, after they’re drawn and before I scan them, are put at risk, torn on all sides. What course the tear takes is not altogether up to me. Nor can I say which parts of the tear line will appear, and which will stay invisible, when I take the scrap to my scanner. Lines of scanner noise that become hills and clouds, the very lay of the land.

Questions I expect to address or at least brush on: How do aleatory practices intersect with proprioceptive elements (the embodied gesture) and objectivist concerns (the thing­liness of the poem)? Burroughs said that all writing is cutups – is there a meaningful sense in which all writing is aleatory? Does a practice count as aleatory when the random factor comes from the poet herself or himself? What sympathies exist between the drive to the aleatory and longings among our poets for the organic, the spontaneous, the irrational, the impersonal?


Yeah whatevs. To come soon, student blogs. Some are striding into readiness, a few yes are trudging, a couple have fleeted there. Links to those last, anon.

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Confessions of a random researcher

Another guest post on the place of chance in poetic practice, this by Stephanie Bolster, another longtime coconspirator. And need I even say dear friend.


Being a guilt-prone perfectionist (she writes) may make for a strong work ethic, but it rarely makes for strong poetry. It’s when I give up – stare out the window, leaf through a book, check e-mail, scroll through Facebook for five minutes before starting my writing commitment – that I find the living stuff. Someone mentions a poem by George Oppen which, when Googled and read, opens up a universe and suddenly I’m writing and remembering a lake I can’t remember if I swam in with a friend to whom I haven’t spoken in years, but who will call my parents just days after I’ve written her into the poem. Or, more prosaically, a truck rattles past, laden with construction equipment destined for the new development at the end of the street, where a forest was, and the rebuilding of New Orleans post-Katrina, about which I’ve been writing for the past few years, is a little more tangible. Coincidence is my gold star.

Disappointment, too. Knowing a little kindles the imagination more than knowing a lot. What scholars didn’t find when seeking evidence that the site of Vermeer’s “The Little Street” actually existed gave me a found poem. Although I’ve described my research methodology convincingly enough to get a research-creation grant for a trip through old zoos in Western Europe, what I found was rarely what I said I sought. W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz led me to the Nocturama in the Antwerp Zoo, but wasn’t the fact that it was closed for renovations more Sebaldian than a glimpse of some eyes in darkness? In Jersey, they were an aye-aye’s eyes that met mine in the five panicked minutes when I thought I’d been locked into that nocturnal hut for the night. That zoo I went to because the writer Gerald Durrell built it humanely exists in a poem as that moment only.

When the Wikipedia article on the Chernobyl disaster’s remark – “This page may be too long to read and navigate comfortably. Please consider splitting content into sub-articles and/or condensing it.” – becomes advice for the poem about Chernobyl and Katrina and Robert Polidori’s photographs of both places I might not be writing about had an exhibition of his work not happened when and where it did, I’m on the right track.


Aside, Steph mentioned, in an email this morning, she’d got a Google alert of this Polidori photograph up for auction. And remarked, though she’s not going to bid, how “the language used to describe the painting is problematic in ways I want to write about.” Dude, check that language out. Graced. Captured. Romanticizing (unironically). Hell, in that writeup, dwell is problematic. Artworld assholes. Not, Steph, to pluck your thunder.


I’ll discuss (Steph again), with readings from recent work, how following the contingencies of live and virtual research has formed my poems. What happens when a poem’s image of a bare field and going-nowhere driveway in New Orleans – seen onscreen a year or two earlier after Googling the address of one of Polidori’s ruined rooms – gets displaced on Google Street View by a street of fresh houses? The poem as process takes on a new life, its own, not mine. Is following accident, distraction, disappointment, always the poem’s true course?


Stephanie Bolster is the author of four books of poetry, the first of which, White Stone: The Alice Poems, won the Governor General’s and the Gerald Lampert Awards in 1998. Her latest book, A Page from the Wonders of Life on Earth, was a finalist for the Pat Lowther Award. Editor of The Best Canadian Poetry in English 2008 and co-editor of Penned: Zoo Poems, she was born in Vancouver and teaches creative writing at Concordia University in Montréal, where she also coordinates the writing program.

Divination: Every poem a hundred small contingencies

A few days hunkered at home. Having been scissed and stitched inside am recuperant. But’ve had it in me to assemble a panel on chance operations in contemporary poetic practice. Here’s a propose and very fine, as guest post, from Barbara Nickel. (I’ll pepper in some links rhizome-style.) (Why when I say that do I think of Psy.)


I’ll present on projects from Consider the Ear, my poetry manuscript-in-progress being written in the village of Yarrow, British Columbia. My presentation will consist of a collage of mini-talks and readings, each led off with a guiding central image. I’ve listed below a series of points and paths that will circle or lead to or away from each image. I’ll select – possibly randomly (e.g., strips of paper from an envelope) – these points for each image and expand upon them at lengths to be determined by the presentation’s time limit.


Yarrow

The story of my choosing to live in Yarrow by meeting Lois in her garden.

Yarrow, Achillea millefolium, its stalks used for centuries in I Ching divination practices (involving numbers of changing or unchanging lines), its profuse growth along the dyke by my house and Lois’s in a village named after it.

Dykes, places of growth for yarrow, built by my Mennonite ancestors in the Vistula Delta and coincidentally also in Yarrow.


Torn page

Old books on Mennonite theology written by Mennonite men are taken from a pastor’s library after his death to a thrift shop where Lois is employed.

A random meeting of the three poets of this panel in a graduate poetry workshop at UBC in 1992, how one of them years later begins a blog, “The Art of Compost,” in which he describes a poetry exercise called “Torn Page.”

My “Torn Page (‘(old men)no books’)” project as “divinations twice over” (Patton), written in a room of Lois’s house.


Witch hazel

A witch hazel treeHamamelis, planted by the former owners, growing right outside my home in Yarrow, blooming every January.

Witch hazel twigs commonly used as divining rods (for ground water, buried metal, gemstones, oil, gravesites), the conflict in naming between the Latin Virgula Divina (divine rod) and the German Glück rüt (luck rod).

[Can I just say? About that last link? Bad form, to speak to a link? I just got me some fat insight as to where my students’ bad writing comes from. Portentous dialogue & crappy plotting.] [That was CP not Barb.]

Heaney’s description of water diviner as “figure who represents pure technique” in poetry in his essay “Feeling into Words” (Finders Keepers), mentioned in an e-mail by Stephanie, another of this panel’s three poets, also met at UBC in 1992.


A death in January

The story of “Witch Hazel” sonnet, where its path intersects above paths.


Abandoned house

A random decision on a road trip to take an old, forgotten highway instead of the usual route.

A random glance back at an abandoned house not seen previously anywhere or time.

The curious story of a sonnet, “Saskatoon to Coaldale, July, Highway,” written in Lois’s house.


Ear

The ear (in rhyme and metre and “verbal texture” (Heaney)) as divining rod in the projects chosen for discussion.


Questions that grow from the mini-talks, to be explored in the presentation:

What tension grows from the roots of “divining rod” – in Latin, “divine,” in German “luck”?

In other words, in each of the poems and the paths and intersections of paths leading up to them, what is the balance of miracle and luck, divination and design?


Next to come [CP here again] the random differently undertaken by Stephanie Bolster.


BarbNickel3Barbara Nickel is the author of two books of poetry, The Gladys Elegies and Domain, and the recently published A Boy Asked the Wind, illustrated by Gillian Newland. She has received numerous awards, including the Pat Lowther Award, and her poems have appeared in such publications as The Walrus and Poetry Ireland Review. Visit her website at barbaranickel.ca. Also check out that witch hazel.

Stray thoughts on aleatory poetics and conceptual poetry

Thinking about aleatory poetics, that is, chance operations, the acrobatics one does to get will or self or intent out of the way. Whether that’s rolling the dice, or opening a silence to ambient sounds, or transcribing a day’s traffic reports.

Well the thought was this. “Let the universe compose the part of the poem proper to it.” A relief not to have to express yourself!

Thought that came a bit later was, “The trick is telling what part’s proper to it and what part’s proper to you.”

Then I found I wanted to put “it” and “you” in just those scare quotes. Where does the one end and the other begin?

Cage might not have needed his cageyness, nor Heidegger all that wildering swirliness, had he trusted the emptiness more wholly.

Like I’m one to talk. Whimpering about my achy gut.


My other wonder’s about the the title Against Expression that Craig Dworkin (for whom I feel true affection) and Kenneth Goldsmith (with whom I feel true amusement) gave their anthology of conceptual poetry.

Could be argued that in it, expression isn’t opposed there so much as front-loaded – the expression’s in the inception, the inceptive idea, then the rest is allowed to unfold either deterministically or chancewise, which is fine and fun and sometimes beautiful and very often a vital corrective to a navel-gazing aesthetic consensus. And it lets the cosmos show its chops.

But it’s still expression. And it tends to be an expression of will and intellect and even a kind of control and mastery – at least it has a sort of coolness to it often that suggests, I master the inception, I need not master the rest. I, poet, watchmaker god. 

I dunno. I’m just thinking out loud here. I’m drawn to these practices and offput by them too. They offer a way out of the nutshell of the self. But it seems a way of intellect and will, coolness and mastery, wit and a kind of Classicism, and for all that their productions, some of them, turn me crazily on, I’m shut out in the end by the paucity of impulse in them.

They seem the place where the animal in us goes to die. Seem to renounce rather than transform what in us pisses fucks and shits. Am I wrong? Have I missed it?


I want a poetry that weds the animal to the angel in us, the algae to the nebula, not one that subs the higher for the lower (Classicism) or the other way round (Romanticism). Christ I’m sounding like Rilke kill me now.


The aleatory, in our poetry, may be our spontaneity externalized.

Final projects: Risa

Risa devised a really neat composting practice she’ll summarize below. But first one of the poems resultant:

MURDER

Water the piece I
visit. Such that I
could be alone. I
want to develop
the thought of you
before I start.

You were the same this
time. None of those
modifiers used
before. Each decade
they drive me to
murder.

One thing I really like here is how each sentence or fragment feels both a great distance from, and intimately bound up in, its neighbours. That a poem can be both fragmentary and whole (see, for instance, Creeley’s Pieces). And the fierce enjambments enact the same paradox line-by-line — each line both broken and intact. And the process by which the poem was generated is remarkably close to invisible.

Risa’s account of the process, with some abridgement:

Choose a word you’d like to end your poem or paragraph with. Google search the word (for example, “murder”). Scroll to the end of the first page of results and find the last substantive word in the last search result (for example, “decades”). Note that word down (so you now have a list with two words on it, in our example “murder” and “decades”). Repeat the process, using the second word as your search term, and adding your third word to the list (for example, “each”). Continue until you have around 15 words or get bored. Then compose a poem that uses each word, either in the order they were found in, or in the reverse order (as in our example).

The words Risa used to compose “Murder” are boldfaced above.