Thursday, April 30, 2009

poetry whores

these people are my heroes. its almost like the punk cabaret / burlesque poetry readings i have been imagining. brothel poetry, oh yes.


more here

Wednesday, April 29, 2009


Over the next month or so posting will only happen at irregular intervals. Once June happens, i'll try to return to a multiple-posts-per-week updating schedule, but for now i'm busy writing about dead women in various literatures and preparing for exams. Anyways, here is an excerpt from a presentation i did on Erin Mouré's Sheep's Vigil by a Fervent Person:

... Mouré describes her textual adventure as “trans-e-lation” rather than “translation”. Critic Sheila Hyland says that “In this case the e=extra. [Mouré] is translating, but she is doing more.” Mouré is adapting the poem into the cityscape of 21st century Toronto, and replacing the experience of Alberto Caeiro with that of Eirin-with-an-extra-I Moure. Charles Barbour explains that Mouré actively and deliberately dislocates the poem’s original context, translating, trans-e-lating, or transcreatingPessoa's lines on a solitary male shepherd living amidst the pastoral simplicity of the Portuguese countryside, from the perspective of a displaced female nomad temporarily residing amidst the historically layered and culturally dense urban landscape of twenty-first century Toronto.” But, “Even while explicitly in the process of "trans-e-lating" the language of another, Moure constantly endeavors to recall the immediacy of experience-its elated, ephemeral, transient, and finally ungraspable quality. Experience is always singular and discrete, specific to particular contexts, and yet, paradoxically, is also always artificial and borrowed, articulated through the voice of another.”

In Sheep’s Vigil by a Fervent Person, Mouré reproduces the structure, devices, and atmosphere of the original poem, if not the exact words or situations. Mouré describes this translation as “faithful, but different” (“Hi, Fidelity!”). She further explains that “the idiom in the target language had to be resolutely Canadian but also a little old-fashioned, a little quaint from a 21st-century perspective (as Caeiro's Portuguese, it is said, was a little curious and simple as well)” (“Hi, Fidelity!”). While Mouré calls this her “simple book,” there is a high level of complexity; Barbour points out that she engages many kinds of word games, of which he says “While extremely clever, such word games-repetitions, reversals, recitations, and paradoxes-must, I think, also be taken very seriously. They must be read not merely as rhetorical manoeuvers, but also as tragically doomed efforts to overcome the insuperable divide between language and experience, semiotics and phenomena, words and things. Poetry has the painful task not of completing, but of repeatedly enacting the very impossibility of this gesture.” Language is in a state of flux, and so cannot capture experience in a permanent way. Words can only ever represent the material world, and even then only in a transitory way.

Take, for instance, the translation of the Portuguese word coisa. Throughout the English translation, this word appears as English thing, French chose, or untranslated. On page 73, Mouré writes “I’m stuck with human language / which gives coisas personalities, and imposes names on choses.” And on page 99, “Things have no meaning, they have existence. / Things are the one hidden meaning of things. / It’s kind of fun. / That’s why I call them coisas, or choses.” This multilingual complexity is Mouré’s; it is not present in the original Portuguese text. By using coisa and chose for “thing”, Mouré returns to a focus on language that is emblematic of much of her other poetry; signifier does not equal signified – an object is not its name, it is an object. Caeiro also emphasizes this point, but without the layering of languages that Mouré employs. This multiplicity of languages might also represent the multicultural city of Toronto by capturing some of the non-English sounds that might exist in the poem's neighbourhood.

Mouré explains that her practice of translation is really one of reading: “A practice of reading is always embodied. A translation always translates a reading practice enacted on a text, not simply "an original text." And reading practices are codifications/decodifications that are historically and culturally determined. As such, a work, in the course of translation, provokes an inscription of the reader/translator's embodiment (as site of cultural production but also of resistances: to normative sexual definitions, to contemporary notions of urban life, etc.) into the translated text. Whether or not this is acknowledged” (“Hi, Fidelity!”). Translation is not a precise science; because language and culture both change, the act of translation is located in a specific time and place. Trans-e-lation is about recreating the context, rather than the text.

Barbour, Charles. “Beyond can be our model.” Canadian Literature, 176 (2003): 172 -174. Literature Online. York U Lib., Toronto. 23 April 2009.
Hyland, Sheila. Rev. of Sheep’s Vigil by a Fervent Person by Eirin Moure. The Antigonish Review, 134. 23 April 2009.
Mouré, Erin. “Hi, Fidelity! or Translating Fernando Pessoa: Felicity was Ever My Aim.” 22 April 2009.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009


MoMA has up some neat audio clips of the one hundredth anniversity celebration of the Founding and Manifesto of Futurism which was on Feb. 20, 2009.

This is Charles Bernstein reading excerpts from the Manifesto (note: there is no video, only audio):

He really does a fantastic job.

Now there is a lot from futurism that just scares me. i have been reading a lot of post-WWII lit recently (check out Mavis Gallant's short story "The Latehomecomer"). Much of that literature focuses on the impossibility of forgetting the past, the impossibility of "going back" to a time before the horrors of the Holocaust and the war. History, much of this literature suggests, is a burden we cannot escape. Even if we could escape it, would it be wise? "Those who do not learn from history" etc. Even while some try to deny events, try to rewrite history, it is still influencing the present. The Futurists were extremists and products of their era, I suppose. But burning museums and libraries brings up visions of totalitarian oppression in its many incarnations over the past 100 years, over the past millennium. What knowledge lost?

But there is something kind of appealing about erasing the past through destruction. And something ironic about celebrating the 100th anniversary of Futurism.

More on MoMA's site.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

just a short note on proto-feminism

So this isn't exactly about poetry, but i feel the need to say that Christine de Pizan was an awesome lady. i'm reading The Book of the City of Ladies (1405) for my Medieval Women's Writing course, and it is a nice change from earlier writers who always apologize for being female. Christine, while a woman of her time, believed very firmly that women should be educated and deserved recognition for their work. By "a woman of her time" i mean that she still adhered to notions of women's physical frailty and emphasized virginity as the ideal state of women, closely followed by marriage.

It is this line that really stood out:
... God formed the body of woman from one of [Adam's] ribs, signifying that she should stand at his side as a companion and never lie at his feet like a slave ...
That's a pretty advanced notion for the early 15th century. i'm still reading the first part of the book, but her project thus far has been refuting philosophers and writers who have insisted on women's inherent vice, stupidity, and subordinate position to man. Although she claims a visionary experience, one interesting feature of her writing is that as a woman, she feels she has the authority to write about women (other women writers tended to rely on "heavenly authority" as justification for their texts). She makes no excuse or apology for her knowledge and ability.

It is not always easy to study medieval women writers because of the humility topos; actually i find some of them rather infuriating (i realize that it's unfair of me to feel this way). Christine is refreshing, and i am enjoying her much more than say, Hildegard of Bingen - another very smart lady who was a Christian visionary and wrote as such.

Back to the books.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Please can i have some Mouré?

i'm preparing for a presentation on Sheep's Vigil by a Fervent Person and stumbled across this video:

i really love how Erin Mouré reads; she's so animated and lively. Enjoy.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Playing with Muse & Drudge

Muse & Drudge was wonderful. Simply. Wonderful. It practically pulsed with rhythm. i felt like it was a really quick read - the text propelled down the page. And Mullen's language is very playful; exuberant even.
tomboy girl with cowboy boots
takes coy bow in prom gown
your orange California suits
you riding into sundown
This has got to be one of my favourite stanzas, mostly because it sounds an awful lot like me (i wore cowboy boots with my prom dress). The language here is fanastic - tomboy/cowboy/coy bow.

Along with the text, i read a couple of critical articles by Mullen. i was struck by her accusation of minority writing being pigeonholed in "Poetry and Identity": there are avant garde writers, and coloured writers, but anthologists and critics tend to ignore avant garde writers of colour. i can understand the problem: anthologies and critics both categorize writing. There is a taxonomy inherent in collections of writing, and people who cross cateogories are difficult to include. When reading a text for the first time, unless its anthologized, i tend not to know much about the author until afterwards. But anthologies have a huge impact on what poets are taught, which are given a place in the cannon. So how can we avoid this kind of rigid separation of "types" of writers? Very few writers are "only" feminist, or experiemental, or anything at all. Do anthologies, by their very nature, undermine our understanding of an author's complexity - both personal & textual?

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Matter of Influence

Finished reading misled today, and Harryette Mullen's Muse and Drudge yesterday. Thoughts are forming, and posts will come. Until then, here is a response i wrote to Meredith Quartermain's beautiful book Matter for Influency 5: A Toronto Poetry Salon - a course i took in the fall run by Margaret Christakos. Other writings by some of the brilliant people in the course can be found here.

“Each word, a theory of everything”: the theory of thesauri was alien to me. To be accurate, I was unacquainted with Roget’s organizational principles applied to language. It didn’t matter – Matter still commun(icat)ed: with me, but also with something I read recently: The Ledger by Robert Kroetsch. There is redefinition here.  A revivification of old texts, a re(de)fining of old records. Kroetsch writes about the archaeology of writing: discovery of objects, speculation about said objects, creation of a story, or a multiplicity of stories. The Ledger is a history of a ledger; it is also an interpretation, a dictionary, and a story about some people. Multiplicity of Matter: also an interpretation, a dictionary, and a ledger of sorts? I allege it is (ooh, bad!). I think about this eating cold pizza at three in the morning. Think about my mother saying “pizza at this hour?! What’s the matter with you!?” Mothers matter.

My favorite Matter is 12, which says “Each word, a theory of everything”. Language power. Abstractions. Language as fluid: dynamic, changing, forceful. The ability of language to erode. Also, the power of language to create rivers, birth streams. I picture language as a river system – you can map it, temporarily. The scop (OE) was “shaper”, a power held only by wordsmiths and gods. He “unlocked his word-hoard”, his treasure (thesaurus). The organizing principle (theory). Thesaurus as holy book. Followers of the prophet Roget; dare I say “old-fashioned”? New thesauri claiming better principles, clearer structure. Division into thesaurian sects. My mind roves. Does it matter? This poem clarifies the Matter for me; seeing the fluid in the images – “Ripple of Chinese / in the street. Zag of a saw” – the curve of motion illustrates the connection between the waves of words. Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle – to know one thing is to not know another.  You can know the position or the momentum of a given particle, never both. You can never completely define matter. Language is matter, clearly. Or maybe it is the space between particles. Theory: to theorize, you need language. Everything is a theory of words.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Permanent constructedness

i finally finished reading My Life yesterday (only a week or so after i was supposed to have read it - not bad). i'm itching to go through it again, though there is certainly not time enough for that.

As i read i was thinking about autobiography, and the decisions an author must make about how to construct their* life story. What events are included? Not included? Does the author try to construct a factual account (through interviews, old home movies, photographs, etc) or rely on personal memory. There is a tendency to construct history as narrative, and that is as true for personal history as for other kinds. Lyn Hejinian explodes that narrative impulse. She also acknowledges the arbitrariness of autobiography (the title of this post is a phrase from the book) by deciding on a structure before writing: the first edition of the book had 37 paragraphs, each with 37 sentences - one for each year of the author's life. The second edition increased those numbers to 45, with the author adding 8 sentences to each of the sections, and then writing 8 more sections. My Life has the potential to be a lifelong poem, constantly being updated and expanded. Yet, like all autobiography, it will never keep up with the writer, can never account for her death. This structure emphasizes that.

Repetition in My Life occurs frequently, and with variations (much like music, actually). As far as i could discern there was nothing mathematical about the repetition, but it pointed towards acts of memory: certain themes would appear frequently, fade into the background, and reappear changed, while other themes would be prominent for a while and then disappear entirely. For instance, a line like "I wrote my name in all of his books" (might not be exact, sorry, i don't have the text with me) would appear in one section to refer to a boyfriend, and in another to refer to the writer's father. This makes the reader question association -- who is the intended recipient of "his"? The ambiguity of reference makes it clear that full understanding, that exact relation, is impossible to achieve. Reality is constructed by the writer; language is the medium of that construction. Hejinian is aware, and makes her reader aware, of the dependence we have on language to explain, and thus shape, experience.

The poetry also refuses to participate in the intense confessional aspect of autobiography. Yes, there are intimate details within the text, but they are not decoded and explained for the reader. How particular events and people contribute to the shape of the author's life is unspecified. Which makes the poetry richer for re-entry; i have a feeling it will read very differently a second time around -- especially when it comes to noticing subtler reoccurring images and phrases.

Hejinian never lets the reader forget that the book is a construction -- its refusal to conform to expectations (linearity! narrative!) and the beauty of the language ("a pause, a rose, something on paper") combine to make an intriguing read.

*i have decided to use plural "their" instead of "his/her", "his or her", "his", or "her". It's how i roll.

A history lesson

Last Monday, i had a presentation on the troubadours & trouvères for my Medieval Women's Writing course - this Monday, i am supposed to submit a paper on said presentation. Hence my reappearance in the blogosphere. The troubadours and trouvères are really interesting, though. So i'll share some of my thoughts

The troubadours were medieval poets who are perhaps most associated with Southern France, though there were also troubadours in Italy & Spain. They wrote in the language of Old Occitan - a Romance language thought to be closer to vulgar Latin than Old French. These poets were not wandering minstrels, but rather nobles who wrote songs to send to one another; these songs were often picked up by minstrels, and so it is important not to think of the troubadour poetry as private correspondence. Many of the songs were hugely popular, in fact. A rough time frame puts the troubadours working between 1100-1300. The troubadours are widely credited for popularizing fixed forms of poetry in which set patterns of rhyme, length, & stanza composition must be adhered to. Though their subject matter was primarily courtly, troubadours wrote in many different genres, the most common being the canso (love song), the tenso (debate poem about love or ethics), and the sirvènte (satire). These particular genres did not have fixed forms (except the tenso, which required stanzas to alternate between two voices, each presenting one side of an argument), but, to give an indication of the complexity the troubadours were capable of, the sestina was also a troubadour form.

The trouvères were followers of the troubadours, largely based in Northern France and writing in Old French. Perhaps the best known now is Chrètien de Troyes, although he is remembered for his Arthurian Romances rather than for his trouvère poetry. The trouvères also broke out of the nobility, opening the genres up to a bourgeois audience. The poetic forms of the trouvères were much more rigid and codified, because by the point they emerged (slightly after the troubadours) there had been treatises written on the specific genres & structures that "good" poems should follow - the most influential treatise being the "Leys d'amor" ("Laws of Love") setting out the rules for participation in the Floral Games at Toulouse, a poetry competition meant to encourage the writing of troubadour poetry.

For both the troubadours and the trouvères, some manuscripts survive complete with musical notation. Others have room for notation, but it was never filled in, suggesting that one scribe would record the lyrics, another the music. There are some CD recordings of modern ensembles playing troubadour music, but i couldn't find a good link to post (at least, none that didn't require paying a subscription fee for access).

Interestingly enough, while i had an easy time finding books about both the troubadours and the trouvères, it is very hard to find good definitions of the troubadour genres - even in books claiming to be introductions to the troubadours. Authors throw around terms like canso without specifying what a canso is. This was very frustrating, as these Old Occitan terms aren't in English literary dictionaries (i checked 3). Although they are defined on good ol' Wikipedia, that's hardly a source i can cite. So i turned to a French dictionary of poetic terms. Voila! Problem solved - at least for me. It's a good thing i can read French, otherwise i'd be in trouble for this paper.

So although troubadours have had a huge impact on the development of English lit, it is hard to find the really basic information on them needed to enter into their work. Why? Well, my theory is that troubadours were once considered canon, so authors don't feel the need to elaborate on, or even define, key terms because they expect that anyone reading the troubadours will have access to this knowledge - perhaps through a professor. But the troubadours aren't generally taught as part of English literary history - at least not in any course i took. So the literature is lagging behind reality. This really hammers home the necessity of academic writers defining their terms instead of assuming a shared base of common knowledge. Actually, i think most literary critics would benefit from the same lesson; part of the reason why so many people people are so afraid of poetry is that they see words they don't really understand (avant garde! post-modern! parataxis!) and therefore believe that special training is required to access the poetry itself.

Speaking of terms, there is a term for female troubadours - trobairitz - although not one for female trouvères. There are known females working in both traditions, and while the exact numbers are disputed, for the time period it is considerable that the work of more than 20 different trobairitz survives. What i dislike is that some critics claim that while the writing of the male troubadours that dealt with courtly love was intended as a game, the trobairitz are more emotionally honest and their feelings more authentic. Because, you know, women cannot engage in games when love is at stake. Never mind that they are writing in the same forms, and that they use the same conventions. Oh no. Women writers are logging their own experience. Always.

Sometimes i just want to smack the people who write that way. It undermines the intelligence of the female writer, assuming that they cannot participate in a tradition of imaginative creativity, or perhaps that they wouldn't want to. People treat women's literature of most periods this way, although since the confessional poets of the 1950s, the tendency to look for "emotional authenticity" in poetry is pretty universal, regardless of the author's gender. i wonder, though, is it really necessary to tie literature up with its author that way? It would be interesting to do a study of criticism to see a breakdown of how often and in what periods critics look for emotional honesty in the writing of women versus in the writing of men. And really, is "authenticity" or "honesty" even something a reader should try to discover? How much can a text stand apart from its writer?

someone is a Bad, Bad, Blogger...

...and she is me. to make it up to you, the Internet, here is a treat:

Amanda Palmer "Leeds United" Music Video from Amanda Palmer on Vimeo.

Not strictly on topic, i'm aware. But Amanda Fucking Palmer is (one of) my hero(es). <3

More poetry to come.

Sunday, April 5, 2009


So. Turns out i'm busier than i thought. The promised Holbrook/Hejinian post will have to wait while I prepare a talk on the troubadours for tomorrow.

In the meanwhile, if you're looking for something to do, why not listen to some Gertrude Stein?

Ta ta for now, the Internet!

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Currently Reading

i began reading Susan Holbrook's misled last week (oh my, is it next week already?), but had to interrupt my reading to start Lyn Hejinian's My Life which needs to be read for my class tomorrow. These two texts play off of each other in interesting ways -- on a surface level, i have noticed both books have are "thirsty". As in, the word "thirsty" seems to arise many times. More fruitful analysis will follow, perhaps this weekend.

i had heard about misled in a lecture by Margaret Christakos, and read more about it in Nicole Markotic's article "To All the (Cow) Girls I've Loved, Before" in Open Letter. Knowing about a text before reading it is often unfair to the text because it creates expectations. From what i had heard about misled i was expecting a text about lesbianism, a non-linear text, a text difficult to enter. Well it is about lesbianism, it is non-linear, but it is also incredibly warm, open, even blunt. And sexy. This is a book of poetry that can make a reader feel all hot and bothered. Not was i was expecting, but better. This is why i often wish that i can come to each book of poetry blank -- no knowledge of author or content or style before i enter the pages. So impressions can be formed freely, without presumptions colouring my perception. Unfortunately, that's just not going to happen. At least not often. And having a bit of info about a book means i'm far more likely to pick it up to read for fun. Random selection from a shelf tends to yeild random results. Which i just don't have time for these days. Back to the books.