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.

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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.

Everywhere Is Aleatory: Chance Operations Where You Ain’t Expecting

A proposal on aleatory poetics to go soon to a conference. Developed in collaboration with poets Stephanie Bolster and Barbara Nickel.


Dice. A coin toss. Yarrow sticks and the I Ching. Newspaper cuttings in a brown paper bag. N+7. Google Translate. There are countless ways to get chance or near-chance into the poem. Many are provocative – seem, indeed, meant to provoke. Tristan Tzara, for instance, must have provoked his first readers, as he still does undergrads the world round, when he assures you that, having cut words from a newspaper article, tossed them in a paper bag, drawn them out blind, and glued them down in the order drawn, you’ll have proven yourself “an infinitely original author of charming sensibility, … though unappreciated by the vulgar herd.” Shock, mischief, irony – maybe a little elitism, even once the irony’s accounted for. But this much seems clear: the aleatory strain in avant-garde poetry shares in the sensationalism of its century.

Without casting any aspersion on these forms of the aleatory – what is complacency for if not to be nettled – our panel will consider the aleatory in some quieter forms. Three poets will discuss projects underway in which accident is drawn into the inception, creation, or operation of the poem far enough for it to be pervasively marked by chance, though the text that results may not look aleatory in the usual ways.

Aleatory practice opens a route around the tyrant ego – a tap into the unconscious, the world spirit, the Duende, wherever you want to say poems come from – and in these projects, such practice is compounded with other methods of bypassing intention or self-expression. So we’ll investigate edges where the aleatory meets the documentary, the prosodic, the projective. Research practices where fact-checking with Google Street View yields news that transforms a poem, or a night at the theatre offers a missing link in a project that had started to close down its parameters. Divination practices in which one glance back at an abandoned house uncovers a sonnet’s path or the holy pages of ancestors are torn into new and pleasing jumbles. Visual poems where the fall of a leaf or how a torn page expresses as photocopy noise can’t be predicted or where the speed of a gesture produces spatial forms the poet feels as accidental.

When contingency is spoken of in documentary, prosodic, or projective practices, it’s usually treated as adventitious, and soon naturalized to the old story of the solitary poet expressing a coherent inmost self. Our notion is that such practices are, or at least can be, quietly more chaosy than that. The aleatory has a gift to give, a way round the demanding demeaning ego, and this panel asks whether the gift functions only in the noise and lights of a blowout surprise party, or whether it may be as quiet as a friend saying to another, Hey, I thought maybe you’d like this. Contingency in the poem as friendship not showdown.

One more for Elise Partridge

Hello friends. A three-way conversation between Barbara Nickel, Stephanie Bolster, and myself on the life and work of our loved friend Elise Partridge has now gone live at the Winnipeg Review. It’s to be found here.

And, if you’re curious, I wrote a bit about the challenge and wonderment of the conversation itself here. You can read some more about Elise herself here. And Barb’s wonderful blog is here. Steph doesn’t have a blog but here’s her publisher’s page here. Enjoy, please, do.


I hope Elise’s spirit won’t mind me appending this.

I was invited to a celebration of Rosh Hashanah tonight and we were asked as part of our lovely evening to express an intention for the year to come. Mine was, to be more patient with others and myself. What’s this have to do with Elise? She wasn’t especially patient with herself or others. In fact I loved her impatience, it was was wise, it was holy! At least when she was skewering someone’s pretensions it was, very.

But my impatience is most often crap. (And that, that’s impatience with impatience. Yeah baby gotcha.) And I’ve just now started sitting zazen again, after years off the cushion, and I’m feeling what a difference it makes to be okay with not getting it exactly right all the time. And a little bit more patient with me, I’m a little more so with some other, too. Does seem to go that way.

Came as this a few ago

TD 90V - imageKshanti paramita = the perfection of patience, or patience beyond patience. Patience so sunk in itself you might not recognize it as patience. That was Elise, too. Barb, Steph, tell me, wasn’t it?

On playing well with others (I)

Hard to be a person. Hard to be one with other people. And yet how rich and how rich. I’m sounding like a self help book back cover. Kill me now? Or not. I’m thinking this, after a hard mother’s day (not having one of those right now) as I reflect on a couple of recent collaborations that have me (lord let me always write from just here) at the edge of my game.

One, a three-way conversation to be published in honour of a close friend who has passed. With me in it my two dearest friends in the world. And we have made each other nuts in the doing of it. E-mail conversations about our e-mail conversations about how to draft our draft of our rough draft. They all deferral and demurral, and I (this is deeply gendered of course) all irritation and eruption.

No one’s fault and no one’s foul. We each have a lovely fluid friendship with each the other. And those rare times we three are together, it takes an hour to choose a restaurant for dinner, and sitting there we are more three two-way friendships at one table, than one threesome.

So take three writers, each with their own way of working, each on their own arc of mourning, each vexed by the tricky work of plucking, from their private grief, what they’re ready to risk to say publicly. And each has well worn paths to the doors of each the other – ways of speaking and being together – shared language gesture and understanding – to which the third’s not privy, nor need she or he be.

The project could have been done by any one pair of us with some hardness and some tears and many walks back and forth along one of those footpaths. But we are three and every passage from one door to another has had to be done in the gaze of and for the understanding of a third. What were we thinking when we said yes to this?

Misunderstandings, hurt feelings, intemperate ventings (that would be me), bendings over backwards not to offend, lost gists, broken threads. Tensions, bumps, bruises, gaps. And always our unfinished work of mourning ready to gush hotly up through the fissures.

And yet – this is the point I’ve been headed for – no worry ever that the friendship was in danger. That ground has felt solid as a sky of stars.


The fruit of our work, of being our lumpy selves together, it’s going to be quite something. A lot more true honest real and fierce an honouring of our friend than the usual celebratory fluff you see at about this point after someone’s passed. If I do say so ourselves.

We find in good friends the parents our parents however they may have wished to couldn’t be for us. The “good enough mother” I read about in Winnicott I found in the flesh in these two. They’ve raised me up – what Pound said, m’elevasti. Much of what’s good in me, they’re to thank for.

89R scrap 1

One, lovelykind, wrote after I apologized for another grump. “Chris, no wonder Mother’s Day’s hard. A friend posted on FB yesterday, ‘Hugging everyone for whom today is a kick in the face.’”

After a day I couldn’t cry it’s that that gets me. My heart feels kicked in the face. Though I know “heart” is a dumbass metaphor and “Mother’s Day” a marketing contraption.

I wanted to write about collaboration in teaching, as well, but this post feels full, so I’ll save that for another.

The image atop is, leaves from from my red osier dogwood yesterday afternoon – thank you red osier dogwood god – plucked and scanned, for I said I was about total translation here, and that means translate the moment of translation, and one moment as I made some marks that afternoon was, leaves blowing out back there blowing into mind. So I went out and picked some fer yehs.