The Dancing Banana: Technological Obsolescence as Extinction Event

Adrienne Dodt, Series Contributor

Adrienne’s series “Digital Landscapes” is about navigating hypertext.

I first encountered Jena Osman’s The Periodic Table as Assembled by Dr. Zhivago, Oculist in a New Media class in college around 2003. I returned to TPTAABDZO (hosted on gtrlabs.org) again in 2008-2009 because I wanted to include it in my master’s thesis (though I eventually didn’t), and I took rather extensive notes on it.

Some time later, though I couldn’t say exactly how much later, I was interested in reading TPTAABDZO again. However, when I attempted to access it, I was instead confronted with a dancing banana. It smiled as it moonwalked across the page and shook its little banana rump, as though mocking me.

I tried gtrlabs.org’s home page, and, again, there was that damned banana.

The Periodic Table as Assembled by Dr. Zhivago, Oculist was a digital text in the shape of the periodic table of elements, and each element was a poem. One could read individual poems, combine elements/poems, and subject them to any (or all) of five different processes (“Dissolve,” “Stir,” “Heat,” “Dilute,” and “Centrifuge”) to see text “reactions.” Each of these processes had a “Solution” (that is, what the process did to the text), and, in her descriptions of the processes, some of them had an “Ideal Solution” as well as a “Current Solution.” Even in this very finished stage of the text, there was still this built-in assumption that, given improving technology, she would eventually be able to enact these “Ideal Solutions.”

In 2011, an updated (and the current) version of The Periodic Table as Assembled by Dr. Zhivago, Oculist appeared at jenaosman.com. The text, as far as I can tell, hasn’t changed. The processes, however, are different, including a new process, “Evaporate.” Some of these processes now enact older “Ideal Solutions,” and others are simply different with no relation to a stated “Ideal Solution.” In this way, Osman’s text evolved and attained more desirable traits in the face of threat to its environment.

In researching (a.k.a. “Googling”) The Periodic Table as Assembled by Dr. Zhivago, Oculist, I found an even earlier version from 1997 on SUNY Buffalo’s Electronic Poetry Center. It is a sort of proto- TPTAABDZO: there is an uninteractive image of the periodic table of elements, then text and element boxes. There are a few links which lead to more poems, but the majority of the text is on the main page. It is a lot less hypertextual than today’s version, and there are no processes. It is almost unrecognizable as  TPTAABDZO‘s ancestor.

Last summer, I went to see Stephanie Strickland read at Woodland Pattern Bookstore in Milwaukee. She had a new book out: V: WaveTercets/Losing L’una. Or rather, the new book was an update of her 2002 book, V: WaveSon.nets/Losing L’una. Both versions of the book have two parts that one can access by flipping the book over to read one part then the other. The third part of the book, V, is a digital component to the book, again in both cases. At the reading, I casually picked up the new version and asked Strickland what the difference between WaveTercets and WaveSon.nets was. I was expecting there to be a textual difference. I was surprised when she answered, “Shockwave.” V had been endangered because of the gradual obsoletion of Shockwave. In the updated version of V, it appears as an iPad app. The printed books are only different in one aspect: the sonnets are now cut into tercets instead. The materiality of the written text was altered in order to re-present the overall work in a contemporary digital environment.

Both The Periodic Table as Assembled by Dr. Zhivago, Oculist and V have survived because their authors were able to re-home them. Many other works have not been so fortunate.

Digital technology is, as they say, “rapidly evolving.” A machine can become obsolete in only a few years. Little by little, programs stop updating for an older machine until one day, the machine simply cannot run these programs. The machine becomes a wasteland, still mechanically sound but unable to produce. Websites and software, too, must be consistently maintained and updated in order to avoid obsolescence.

Hardware and software are the environment, and the works themselves are the flora and fauna. Digital literature must adapt (and must be adaptable) in order to survive in a constantly renewable, constantly evolving landscape on the internet. Digital poems must constantly adapt or die, but then there’s the added problem that the new adaptation may itself prove to be incompatible in the future.

Lori Emerson, in her blog post “The Archeological Media Lab as Locavore Thinking Device,” argues that the best way to preserve digital literature is to preserve obsolete machines. Lori Emerson founded the Media Archaeological Lab at the University of Colorado Boulder in 2009, which preserves obsolete technology such as game consoles, electric word processors, and circuit boards. She writes that it’s difficult to preserve “the material specificity” of e-lit that was created in now-obsolete machines and programs.

She believes the solution is to use original hardware/software to run older e-lit as it was originally intended. She argues that while archival projects such as the Electronic Literature Organization (ELO) and Electronic Literature as a Model of Creativity and Innovation in Practice (ELMCIP) preserve older digital texts by translating them into more modern programs as simulations, making them accessible to current computers, the texts are expressed differently because they’re in different forms.

Emerson writes, “In terms of the literature created on these platforms from the past, I would say that a work such as First Screening by bpNichol—created in 1983-1984 using an Apple IIe and the Apple BASIC programming language—is exemplary in that it, like most other early works of e-lit, cannot be understood if we view it only via a media translation.” She goes on to describe First Screening, that one had to physically insert a floppy disk and type command lines, something completely foreign to modern computers. Because this text roamed a different land, much like the dinosaurs, it is ill-suited to contemporary environments.

While the Media Archaeological Lab functions as a sort of museum, sites like the ELO and ELMCIP function as Jurassic Park, minus the rampant predation. Fitter versions of extinct texts are brought to life in contemporary digital environments. Although they are not the original dinosaurs, and their coloring may be slightly off, it is a way to make these megafauna of e-lit history accessible to a wider audience. That is immensely important because what survives depends on human interest. If we restrict these texts to their original, obsolete machines, they will become extinct because eventually, there will be no one familiar enough with the texts to want to preserve them.

In “Acid-Free Bits: Recommendations for Long-Lasting Electronic Literature,” Nick Montfort and Noah Wardrip-Fruin advocate for the preservation of digital texts. They first give four different methods of preservation, including Emerson’s, and the pros and cons for each. (Maintaining obsolete machines, they point out, is “a costly and difficult option.”) While Montfort and Wardrip-Fruin are more open to different methods and different preferences (including the idea that digital lit should go extinct, that it’s an ephemeral medium), they do recommend best practices for keeping various species of digital text thriving. This involves keeping the source code for future re-creation, saving it on many different storage options in case one becomes obsolete, making many copies and making it copyable for others, keeping it open and non-proprietary, and creating programs that are as universal as possible across different operating systems. Essentially, develop programs with less specific environmental needs, store the DNA, propagate widely, and create zoos.

Montfort and Wardrip-Fruin end their essay by promoting The Electronic Literature Organization’s project X-Lit (part of the larger ELO PAD initiative), which serves to give authors the tools for making preservable digital text. In the sequel to this article, “Born-Again Bits,” by Montfort, Wardrip-Fruin, and several others, the authors outline the ELO’s PAD project (Preservation, Archiving, and Dissemination), and they include a more detailed description of the X-Lit project. Another goal of the PAD initiative is to migrate older hypertextual works to suitable contemporary environments through the use of emulators and interpreters. They argue that “migrating” the works into different programs is the way to preserve them, not keep them on the “life support” of old, eroding programs. A text in a dying environment, if it does not migrate, will die unless artificially preserved, and the authors believe it is much better to give a text a new environment rather than expend futile effort in maintaining it within its original environment.

They also contend that the work is not defined by its platform/environment, but that instead, “Complex digital works are a kind of swarm behavior. Individual files, formats, scripts, software environments, and so on, may perish, but suitable replacements may be found that allow the living relationship that is the swarm to continue.” Thus, the digital text is not an individual organism, or a relation between organism and context, but on the text as an entire species. In this way, the overall function of the work matters more than its constituent parts.

I don’t believe that this is truly an either/or proposition. We can have both the originals and the new media translations, and in having both, we can even better preserve both the interest in the texts and the ways in which they were originally intended.

The internet is a curious place where anything can be at once ineradicably permanent and instantly ephemeral. Websites are washed away like sand on a beach. Old platforms become obsolete, rendering digital literature unreadable or inaccessible. On the other hand, the internet is obstinately stained with scandal. Retracted articles that are reposted, screenshots that capture misdeeds, and stolen nude photographs can be pulled up as so many weeds that only grow anew somewhere else. The landscape, then, is cultivated by human interest.

In our digital environment, we are not only losing our art. We are losing our history. Future archaeologists will have little to go on if we do not preserve our digital culture even as it progresses. We obsessively catalog and classify our lives on social media and blogs. We can also do this with our digital texts. If we don’t, the future will only know us by our dancing bananas.

Corrections:

  1. In paragraphs 7-8, I incorrectly titled the online portions of V:WaveSon.nets/Losing L’una and V:WaveTercets/Losing L’una. V is actually the overall title of all the texts while Vniverse is the title of the two online portions of V.
  2. According to a soon-to-be published chapter of a book by Stephanie Strickland, “The Death and Re-Distribution of V” (which she helpfully emailed me), Shockwave wasn’t solely responsible for endangering V. It was also  V:WaveSon.nets/Losing L’una going out of print and the Shockwave Vniverse and Errand Upon Which We Came (an earlier digital version of part of Losing L’una) not longer being accessible through The Iowa Review Web and the Cauldron and Net website, respectively. However, both  Errand Upon Which We Came and  the Shockwave Vniverse are still accessible through Stephanie Strickland’s website: www.stephaniestrickland.com. That is, the previous iterations have been preserved, so the evolutionary steps of this text co-exist today.

Adrienne Dodt

Adrienne Dodt is a poet and essayist. Adrienne’s work can be found in The Body Electric anthology and Fact-Simile, Apothecary, Con/Crescent, and Monkey Puzzle magazines. Ze is a member of The Next Objectivists poetry collective in Chicago. Ze was the Poetry Editor for Bombay Gin magazine in 2008-2009, and ze edited the Next Objectivists’ chapbook Collective Unconsciousnesses in 2011. Adrienne currently teaches English at City Colleges of Chicago.

SRPR Lucia Getsi Reading Series 2015

We hope to see you at SRPR’s annual reading event—Thurs, April 16 (7pm) at Ewing Cultural Center in Bloomington, IL. Readings by Emma Bolden (Winner, 2014 Editors’ Prize Contest), Ewa Chrusciel and Jonah Mixon-Webster. Join us for poetry, community and libations/refreshments! Donations welcome. Free & open to the public.

SRPR Lucia Getsi Reading Series 2015

The Spoon River Poetry Review (SRPR), published through the Illinois State University Publications Unit, announces its annual reading event. The SRPR Lucia Getsi Reading Series will take place on Thursday, April 16th, 7pm, at the historic Ewing Manor in Bloomington. Named for SRPR’s long-time editor and benefactor, Lucia Getsi, the series is co-sponsored by WGLT’s Poetry Radio, ISU’s Creative Writing Program, and ISU’s Department of English. The event features readings by award-winning SRPR poets, followed by a reception with wine and appetizers. This year’s featured poets include Jonah Mixon-Webster, Emma Bolden (Winner, 2014 SRPR Editors’ Prize Contest) and Ewa Chrusciel. Save the date, spread the word, and bring a friend! Free and open to the public. Donations welcome, but not required. For more information about this event or accommodations, contact SRPR at contact@srpr.org.

The Poem as Locus: Walking Through Donald Justice’s “Memory of a Porch”

Angela Narciso Torres, Series Contributor

Angela’s series attempts to explore through her own writing process and that of the other poets the ancient Roman construct of the “genius loci,” a guardian spirit that enlivens a place, igniting and inspiring the creative imagination.

The poet James Galvin has said that the poetry of place is really “a poetry of self-annihilation.” He writes: “the poet of place situates himself in place in order to lose himself in it…The poet replaces self with situation, turning himself, as it were, inside out, so that the center of ‘knowing who you are’ becomes the circumference of uncertainty. The poem as locus mirrors this dynamic, since it is a measured place, possibly with stanzas which has an infinite capacity to contain everything outside it, including the poet.”

If the poem itself is a locus, then it follows from Galvin’s logic that a poet replaces self with poem, losing himself in it in order to find herself. In no other poem is this more apparent for me than in Donald Justice’s “Memory of a Porch,” in which he uses the economy of the stanza (from the Italian word meaning “room”), to affix a childhood memory onto a permanent world. While I would not consider Justice primarily a poet of place in the way James Wright, for instance, has been known for, Justice’s poems are often reminiscent of his childhood Miami. Known for his use of formal elements and of reinventing traditional forms, reading his poems often feels, to me, like visiting rooms from one’s past, at once familiar and strange.

Memory of a Porch

                                 Miami, 1942
What I remember
Is how the wind chime
Commenced to stir
As she spoke of her childhood,
As though the simple
Death of a pet cat,
Buried with flowers,
Had brought to the porch
A rumor of storms
Dying out over
Some dark Atlantic. 
At least I heard
The thing begin–
A thin, skeletal music–
And in the deep silence
Below all memory
The sighing of ferns
Half asleep in their boxes.

“Memory of a Porch” consists of five concise stanzas that alternate between quatrains and tercets. If stanzas are likened to the rooms of a house, then Justice’s first stanza is clearly the entry point, inviting the reader into a personal memory, the memory of, well–a porch. The porch, as we know, is the most public area of a house. An exterior room, it faces the street, inviting neighbors to stop by without feeling as though they have imposed.

As the poem progresses, the speaker invites us on a journey into the most interior of spaces, where deep memory and feeling reside. The first stanza reveals a memory embedded within a memory–the sound of wind chimes coinciding with the memory of a “she” who remains unnamed (one imagines an older relative—aunt, mother, or grandmother—speaking to a child).  The stability of four lines establishes a sense of being grounded, as if to say, “This happened” with the authority and weight of narrative history. The two-beat lines reinforce this certainty, yet the stanza ends with a comma, like a door held open for the reader to proceed to the interior.
This takes us to the second stanza, where the actual memory is recounted, though couched in a conditional clause. The stanza is a tercet, which some have deemed an unstable unit because it lacks the evenly balanced support of a couplet or quatrain.  Here, the function of the tercet, to my mind, is two-fold. First, it reflects the fragile nature of memory; its mutability over time. The memory, a seemingly innocuous childhood event, (the “Death of a pet cat/ buried with flowers”) breaks the two-beat pattern to emphasize the dramatic moment central to the poem. The second function of the uneven tercet is to roll the action forward to the next stanza, heightening tension by increasing the reader’s desire for the predicate of the “as-though” clause.  In a poem where only the subtlest action occurs, this becomes an important source of movement.
The predicate comes in a quatrain, returning to the stability of four two-beat lines. We are back at the porch, but now a darker emotion is introduced: “a rumor of storms/dying out over/ some dark Atlantic.” The gravity of those images stand in contrast with the simple childhood memory preceding it, amplified by the unevenness in stanza length. The heaviness of the metaphor suggests how memory can stir up emotional storms by the sheer act of remembering.  Did the child notice this metaphorical storm in the woman’s face as she recounted the death of her cat?  Does the rumor of storms represent the child’s feeling upon hearing the story, or the adult-child’s, as he recalls the moment? We cannot know this, but can feel certain that the speaker attributes the stirred up chimes to memory’s power to charge the atmosphere with deep emotion.
The third stanza closes with a period, grounding the moment further. The white space that follows is an immense silence, like the lull after a storm. The sense of quiet that Justice achieves with the use of white space can be most appreciated here.  Much happens in this space: reconsideration, followed by a return to the original memory, embodied in the sound of chimes from the first stanza. Here, the speaker qualifies what he remembers. “At least I heard/The thing begin—/a thin skeletal music—”.  Again, the unstable tercet. The speaker defers to memory as reflected by the halting phrases. The use of Dickinsonian long dashes contributes to the sense of trying to recover something lost. In this case, it is a “thin, skeletal music”—fragile as memory.
The white space that follows allows a pause, as one straining to listen. That silence is repaid by an even deeper silence in the last stanza.  “And in the deep silence/ Below all memory/ The sighing of ferns/ Half asleep in their boxes.”  Here we see a solid return to the two-beat line.  The stanza reveals what happens at a level “below all memory,” going to a deeper, darker interiority than the speaker’s own memory of the porch or the woman’s childhood memory.  The use of personification (“The sighing of ferns / Half asleep in their boxes”) rouses a deep, ineffable sense of melancholy and longing.  But more than that, it speaks of how memory transforms our perception of the world, as well as our inner lives, in that instant of remembering.
By using this structure of alternating stanza-shapes, Justice mimics how memories come back to us in waves, waxing and waning like the phases of the moon. What he has fashioned in this poem then is a container for memory, otherwise fleeting and evanescent. That he ends the poem in the box-like quatrain with the image of plant-boxes is no accident. The act of writing this poem, with its deliberate, alternating structure, creates a locus—a holding environment—affixing memory, and thus, the self, onto the glittering, hard objects of a permanent world.

Works Cited

Galvin, James. “The Poetry of Place: James Wright’s, ‘The Secret of Light. ’” http://www.poets.org/poetsorg/text/poetry-place-james-wrights-secret-light

Justice, Donald. “Memory of a Porch.” Collected Poems. New York: Knopf. 2004.

Angela Narciso Torres

Angela Narciso Torres‘s first book of poetry, Blood Orange, won the Willow Books Literature Award for Poetry. Recent work appears in Cimarron Review, Colorado Review, and Cream City Review. A graduate of Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers and the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Angela has received fellowships from the Illinois Arts Council, Ragdale Foundation, and Midwest Writing Center. Born in Brooklyn and raised in Manila, she currently resides in Chicago, where she teaches poetry workshops and serves as a senior poetry editor for RHINO.


Fragmenting Language, An SRPR Found Poem

By Emily R. Johnston, SRPR Blog Contributor

Emily Johnston’s series “Traumatic Emplacement” explores poetics of emplacement, and the simultaneity of dislocation and enmeshment in traumatic poetry.

Comprised of lines from poems in the 39.1 Summer 2014 issue by Chloe Anne Campbell, Bill Edmondson, Clayton Eshleman, Shawn Fawson, John Goodhue, Emily Grelle, Emily Hockaday, Jennifer Schomburg Kanke, Katharyn Howd Machan, T.J. Sandella, and Rachel Jamison Webster (SRPR Illinois Poet).

Inspired by connections I discovered across poems in SRPR 39.1—particularly in terms of imagery, color and sound—I composed this found poem about the traumatic intensity of childbirth. Having never actually given birth myself, I do not know this intensity personally. However, themes of violence and childbirth co-emerged organically as I read the current issue. So I selected, arranged and adapted lines to reflect that co-emergence. As traumatic events (such as childbirth) can produce dissociation, fragmenting memory as well as the language needed for describing the trauma, I tried to capture that dissociative state by presenting partial images that then, quite literally, bleed into the other images around them. This strategy effectively obscures the details of the actual traumatic event (childbirth) and focuses attention instead on the emotional, physiological experience of the traumatic event.

Through the silent snarls of thick blood,
Fertile flesh pitted with bullets that bloom red,
She hears the soft earth harden, shrink, stifle all pulsing.
Fear widens the space around her.
Night folds back into its bruise—
Every color epileptic dark,
A box filled with thousands of years
That burn and burn until the world begins
To gain a hue again, like an old wound.
The corn rises up, the tomatoes redden.
Her birth hole, a tangle of dream thoughts,
Spends eight hours screaming you out of her body.
A circle of twelve dead birds,
Broken bodies, silhouettes,
Strips of light trying to get where they need to be.
Tell no one this is your life.

Emily R. Johnston

Emily is from Boston, San Francisco, Fairbanks, Alaska, and Central Illinois. Holding a Ph.D. in English Studies and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing/Poetry, her work emerges at the intersections of writing studies, social justice pedagogy, trauma theory, film theory, and narrativity. In particular, she researches and publishes on students’ literacy learning in relation to issues of sexualized trauma. She has taught courses in academic writing, public writing, creative writing, gender studies, literature and film, and English as a Second Language. Emily is a Postdoctoral Researcher in Writing Pedagogy at The University of Delaware, and Managing Editor of Spoon River Poetry Review (SRPR).


April 2014 SRPR Lucia Getsi Reading Series Event

All recordings done by Brian Hedgepath, © 2014

Photos by Kirstin Hotelling Zona

IMG_5650Coming to us from New York City, Jesse Nissim (SRPR Editors’ Prize Contest 2013 Winner) is author of four poetry chapbooks. Jesse kicked off SRPR’s Lucia Getsi Reading Series Event on April 10, 2014. Listen to this recording of her reading, which includes “Fire” (Nissim’s contest-winning poem) as well as poems from her full-length collection, Day Cracks between the Bones of a Foot (Furniture Press Books), that deal with her experience of being injured as a dancer—of trying to get inside the body: “Diagram for the Dream of Flight,” the collection’s title poem and “Finale.” Jesse also reads from her more recent collection, Nesting Instincts. These untitled poems are inspired by the economic crisis, ideas of housing and shelter, and represent Jesse’s work with found texts and collage. Her reading concludes with a new poem, “By the Time I Arrived, I Was A Bird.”

 


 

IMG_5713Chicagoan author of four books of poetry, Jason Bredle (SRPR 38.2 Illinois Feature Poet) was a featured poet at SRPR’s Lucia Getsi Reading Series Event on April 10, 2014. Listen (and laugh along!) to this recording of Jason’s humorous reading, which includes “What to Expect,” Doctor Bronson,” “Yellow,” “Dairy of a Werewolf,” “Beating A Dead Horse,” “Stalker,” “Carnival” and “Roman Candle,” among others.

 

 

 

 


 

IMG_5658Author of me and Nina (Alice James Books) and Ph.D Candidate at the University of Missouri Columbia, Monica A. Hand (SRPR 38.2 Contributor) was a featured poet at SRPR’s Lucia Getsi Reading Series Event on April 10, 2014. Listen to Monica’s captivating reading of “Eunice Waymon” and “Black is Beautiful” from me and Nina, as well as some of Monica’s newer work, including “Along the Mississippi,” “Postman,” “The Big House,” “Of No Return,” “Freedom Bondage,” “Director’s Rule,” “Migrants Die As Burning Boat Capsizes” and “Peacock.” Monica says of reading new work publicly, “I don’t think I really hear the poem until I’ve heard it coming back from you.”

 


 

IMG_5685Chicagoan editor, poet and librarian, Jacob Saenz (SRPR 38.2 Contributor) was a featured poet at SRPR’s Lucia Getsi Reading Series Event on April 10, 2014. Listen to this recording of Jacob’s reading, which includes some of his newest work: “In the Time of the Bachelor,” “The Bachelor Makes Dinner,” “The Bachelor Gets Ready to Attend A Wedding,” “Holding Court,” “After the Game,” “The Woman I Love,” “Forged,” “This Never Happened,” “Traviesos” and “Doing Your Dead Father’s Dishes.”

 

 

Glasswater [sic]: an interview with Jacob Bennett

Toby Altman, Series Contributor

Toby’s series “Bodies in Space” is about sustained thinking of the physicality of the body and its relation to poetry. Here, critical essay fractures, moves like poetry.

Jacob Bennett’s new chapbook from Furniture Press Books, Wysihicken [sic], takes its name from a misspelling. If you look at a map of Philadelphia, you’ll find Wissahickon, an astonishing state park which runs through the city’s Northwest neighborhoods. If such a pastoral landscape seems improbable in the heart of Philadelphia, workshop of the world, Bennett’s chapbook demonstrates how the natural is already the political: implicated in violent acts of naming and appropriation, which turn Wysihicken into Wissahickon.

Bennett conducts an archaeology of the park: examining, in tightly constructed poems, its human and natural history. He documents how the poem’s Arcadian setting serves “as microcosom or repository of the foundations of the United States of America. Appropriation and dominion, naming as claiming, domination and change – these are American themes and the themes of this poem.” The park becomes a “petrified directory” for reading, reproducing, and critiquing the cycles of colonial violence which have made and shaped the ‘natural.’ I interviewed Jacob about his chapbook, its politics and its aesthetics, over the month of June, while he prepared for his wedding.

Toby Altman: I’d like to begin by talking about the tradition of romantic landscape writing. Wordsworth, for instance, famously composed while walking, and the rhythm of the footfall insistently frames his poems. We might say that romantic landscape poems rely on the poet’s body—a centripetal presence which organizes the natural. Your poem too begins with the poet’s rhythmic movement through the landscape: “I began composing the first sections of this poem in my head while riding my bike through Wissahickon Creek park in Philadelphia’s northwest quadrant,” you write. But your poem itself effaces this presence; the word ‘I’ is ostentatiously absent from the poem. Talk about your relation to the tradition of landscape poetry: if your poem breaks from that tradition, what is at stake politically and aesthetically in the breaks?

Jacob Bennett: While I had Bishop (“Florida”) and Olson (“Maximus to Gloucester, Letter 27 [Withheld]”) in mind, and not Wordsworth, the connection to that tradition is there. It’s gratifying that you notice the friction between what I was very consciously thinking of as a lyrical tradition of R/romantic landscape writing, on one hand, and the total absence of an ‘I’ in my own poem. It’s an artifice, to be sure, the erasure of my Self as a central filter for sensory input. Because, of course, it IS me walking, splashing, riding, reading, touching, smelling. There were, in early drafts, some ‘I’ references, but at some point I (ahem) decided that, in order to compose something that was bigger than me or my subjective experience of a very beautiful landscape, and my third-hand reader’s experience of a very brutal history, that there should be no center or axis, at least not in the form of a “me as center of everything,” around which the poem might revolve. As far as the lines, which are sometimes short, sometimes long – I’m thinking of your comment about Wordsworth’s peripatetic rhythm – I guess the poem is a specimen of concrete poem, as I was trying to match the lines of the rocks, and the water, and the trails, along which I traveled.

TA: I’m interested in what you say about the shapes of the poem. It seems like the poem is not merely descriptive of a landscape, but also mimetic of it. I wonder if this is true of the poem’s language as well as its shape. The language of the poem is at once austere and heteroglot, impacting geological, industrial and lyric vocabularies. In the Author’s Note, you write, “I realized…there is no way to pin down a place by naming it or telling its story. After all, even bedrock fractures and loses its place.” Talk about the relation that this poem establishes between language and place. Is the groundlessness of place also the groundlessness of language? How do you accommodate one to the other? (I particularly want to hear about the neologisms, like ‘millspins’ and ‘glasswater,’ which are so much a part of the distinctive fabric of this poem).

JB: Yes, I think that’s right, that place and language are, if not groundless, then definitely ungrounded or unstable over time, even if the shifts are unnoticed or so slow as to take ages. The first time I read the ‘misspelled’ name of the Wissahickon that is the poem’s title, it was attended by an editor’s notation indicating the ‘found’ nature of the spelling: [sic]. The sound of the combination—Wysihicken [sic]—echoed in my head for a while before I realized that was the title. And then I realized that the alternate spelling was a perfect carrier of the idea of slippage, as in the sliding of continents over and under each other, and also of the arbitrary nature of spelling and labeling. Sure, today there are geometric shapes on a map that represent the creek, the creek’s protected parkland, the creek’s watershed, but those shapes, and the names applied, have changed and will change. What’s in a name? Well, Wissahickon is a suburban refuge for urban citizens. Wysihicken [sic] is a conglomerate of Dutch colonists, and Lenape tribes, and German Rosicrucian doomsdayers, with tongues that make sounds unfamiliar to, alien to, the English of my own tongue. And I wanted to capture that, the way a spelling can change something so familiar, both in the eye and maybe even in the ear. And, since you mention the neologisms and other diction choices, I should say that I strove for the occasional ‘clumped-up’ compound word, which I saw as mimetic, too, of the clumping of various materials in the forest. I wanted, too, with ‘glasswater,’ to express the very specific look of the still, flat, mirrored surface of the creek on a windless day, but the way it juxtaposed with ‘Ganshewehanna’ (‘noisy water’), the Lenape name for the Dutch-named Schuylkill, was also very attractive to me. So I used a trick I learned from my study of German, and from Truman Capote (‘summeryellow’ he wrote, somewhere, I swear), compounding a new word. Amelia Bentley suggested I get rid of ‘simmering,’ and I agreed. But before striking the word, I looked up the etymology, and discovered that in addition to our received idea of ‘slowly boiling,’ the word has older meanings related to ‘cement.’ That the word holds both these meanings, simultaneously, of movement and stasis, meant that it had to stay. As for the shapes of the poem, there is definitely a mimetic quality to the look of the poem on the page, and that was important to me from early on—I was interested in there being another layer or facet to the language, something that might come through in the layout. Cristophe – as you know, publisher for Furniture Press – made a really great suggestion that I try for something more organic, less ergonomic and clean, than the blocky original layout. So I changed the measurement of the ‘tab’ key, seven hundredths of an inch, rather than half an inch, in order to achieve something more sinuous, less rigid.

TA: We’ve been talking about the ‘groundlessness’ of language and place in your poem. You refuse to treat this as a metaphysical condition; instead, you document the colonial and industrial violence that turns Wysihicken into Wissahickon. I’d like you to talk about the poem’s political strategies: does its mimetic commitment preclude taking a political stance on the violence it documents? Or is mimesis itself urgently political?

JB: I want to go in all the directions in order to answer that! I’ll start by saying that, while I do try to anchor my ‘groundless’ language in the literal as much as possible—historical accounts, geological data—I am very much interested in the metaphysical questions ‘what might be?’ and ‘what might be the nature of that Might Be-ing?’ I am just as likely to think of myself as a staunch materialist as a believer in things unseen. To go ‘way out there,’ and to fuse those parts of my mind, it may be useful to quote NASA: “everything on Earth, everything ever observed with all of our instruments…adds up to less than 5%” of the universe. Ontologically, we’ve got a lot of work to do to “order” the universe, what is likely an impossible goal. It is, though, comforting to the materialist in me to revel in the work of Linnaeus; naming things and categorizing them lends a sense of order, and control, to what is the riot of existence, and I do find great pleasure in naming that red bird with the peaked head feathers, black face feathers, and blood-orange beak: “cardinal.” But, of course, this aspect of mimesis, names as representations, is abjectly political. Look at the ongoing ‘Redskins’ situation. And mimesis as mimicry, too, is political. Look at recent uproar surrounding texts by Jeff Nagy or Josef Kaplan, among others who create or channel personae to some artistic end.  I suppose mimesis is inherently political, if not urgently so, so even if I try to limit or preclude a political stance, I will inevitably fail. Even abstention is a stance, after all. But I think I’ve taken a stance in Wysihicken [sic], at least against violence. Not very courageous, admittedly. I am no panglossian, hopeful for an end of the kind of ethnic violence that occurs in the poem, or and end to a hierarchical view of culture or the attendant colonialism that allows for the violence in the first instance, but I believe in the ‘truth’ of the idea that “butchers and their wives / fatten upon the smell of fog” (where fog is ignorance, distraction, and obfuscation), and I am eager to keep in mind the idea that Earthly paradise is just as appropriate a setting for human atrocity as any other locale. I’m thinking now of Williams’ notion that one might access universal ‘truth’ via “contact” with the locality of one’s actual experience, so while I don’t fool myself or anyone else into thinking that a poem, or a news report, or a trending hashtag, will necessarily repair or prevent atrocity, the acknowledgement of such is important to me. That’s why I love Juliana Spahr’s This Connection of Everyone with Lungs. It is an acknowledgment, down to the molecular level, of such violence. Even if only to say, metaphysically, “this is why we can’t have nice things.” I suppose my overall stance is that affiliation, communion around commonality (wherein tradition or ritual is a kind of mimesis), is good for building a sense of attachment or community, but taken to extremes it becomes divisive and inevitably violent. That’s where a love of cataloging, of that vestigial hierarchy of Linnaeus’, can run into an ethical morass.

TA: I’d like you to talk about how this chapbook fits into your broader projects. It seems, in its mimetic detail and its formal austerity, quite different from some of your other work—I’m thinking for instance of the poems you read at the Penn Book Center in March 2013, which were prose-y, carnivalesque, detailed, lush, and very political. Do those poems share the same politics of mimesis? Or is your politics strategic, responsive to the form and subject of your poems? Better, what’s next?

JB: Oh, yeah, the prose poems (from a manuscript titled seeking blank slate: postcards out of eudaimonia) are a different thing altogether! One of the major differences between eudaimonia and Wysihicken, which I wrote in that order, is that, while political, the ‘postcard poems’ are also very, very personal. I began that series of poems after a particularly difficult breakup, which left me alone in a new city without friends or a network of support, ruing and jealous and self-flagellating. I think, for the first time, I really started to address my own undesirable qualities (the rue and jealousy and self-flagellation, among others) and to write about them, learn from them, maybe rewire my emotional register and behavior a little. And that led to a larger investigation of privilege, my own, as white, male, cis, straight, blonde over blue…I mean, go down the list of American ‘leaders,’ especially early on, and you’ll see some of the biggest bullies and tantrum-throwers, and I was trying to prove to myself that I wasn’t that guy. You know, that I wasn’t Jefferson or Washington, spouting one politically benevolent ideology and doing quite the opposite in the day-to-day. That’s an extreme example, but, I think it makes a point. So, it’s a text that addresses issues both personal and political, and leans, I guess, not toward resignation but maybe reconciliation, with some outbursts along the way. Getting right with the political identity I’ve got, and making sure what I believe and do are in alignment, and trying to adjust as necessary. I was very interested in getting myself into those poems, and—to address the question of broader projects or approach—since I have anxiety about repeating myself, I usually strive for formal and stylistic and tonal shifts between one manuscript and another. Hence the austerity, the mimetic concrete-ness, the “I”-less-ness of Wysihicken. I bet someone could do it, but I can’t even think about writing that poem as first-person lyric! As for next, I’m working more on establishing a practice and facility with translation, specifically of Petr Bezruč, a Czech poet who wrote his major work in just a handful of years at the cusp of the 19th and 20th centuries. There are other original works I’ve got going, but they’re still somewhat nebulous or ill-formed, as ideas and also in many instances as poems. But they are, for the most part, short-ish, kind of like Wysihicken segments, but a lot snarkier. As a way of closing, I’d like to thank you—so much!—for such great, probing questions. Thanks, Toby!!

Toby Altman

Toby Altman is a conceptual poet. His poems have appeared. He is the author of and the recipient of. He currently lives in, where he works as and serves on the editorial board for. For more of his, please visit his and follow him on.

A Rape Poetics of Emplacement

Emily R. Johnston, SRPR Managing Editor

Emily Johnston’s series “Traumatic Emplacement” explores poetics of emplacement, and the simultaneity of dislocation and enmeshment in traumatic poetry.

As a rape survivor, I often wonder about the value of writing about rape in a culture both saturated in and compulsively avoidant of representations of rape. Who benefits? Does the writer? Do others? And if so, how? We often think of writing, particularly writing about traumatic experiences like rape, as an individual (albeit political) act of breaking silence, of telling one’s story. But approaching writing about rape through a poetics of emplacement might help us understand such writing as a public and social act of situating ourselves “in and through language, the earth, and each other; in and through our histories and our blind spots; in and through our protests and complicities” (“About SRPR”). So in this blog entry, I will explore how the language of survivors (and perpetrators) bolsters my own act of telling, just as I hope that my acts of telling will bolster the voices of other survivors.

The fear of recognition, of identifying myself as a rape survivor, often inhibits the production of language about rape in any form whether written, spoken, thought, or heard. Language, ironically, brings me face-to-face with moments where language (a verbal or bodily “No!”) has failed. Language reinvents the wheel with each violation, endowing it with its own particular details, smells, timings, and dynamics. At the same time, language gathers those violations under one inevitable word: rape. Language conveys the heavy surrender to another’s twisted pleasures, the utter abandonment of one for another, the belief that force forces one to choose, to render her body a possession of one doomed love / connection / alliance / institutional dependence after another.

Many millions endure rape on a daily basis: curious teenagers; battered wives; wrong-place / wrong-time inmates; children; slaves; trafficked adolescent girls; sex workers; church members; prisoners of war; military active-duty, members, personnel. So where do the words go when they’re not heard, not asked for, ignored, used against, bludgeoned out? Who listens to the “please don’t do this,” the whispered “fuck you,” or the throat choking on semen? Where is the linguistic revenge? If not now, when do we speak?

In each others’ stories, we hear our own anguish, anger, and terror at the darkening rooms or the lightening spaces, the next morning: the tousled beds, the cold linoleum floors, the gutters where this happens. We revisit the raw skin, stubbed-out cigarettes, twisted condoms, spots of blood. Language throws us back there, at the same time as our healing bodies sit in the same light that once ruined us forever and has, somehow, kept us alive.

Once, I had a dream: A bleacher full of faceless women, blurred out by rape and battery. Faceless, they had no mouths to speak, but their stories were alive inside them as they turned, in unison, to face me walking toward them, to join them.

Together, our faces returned as we heard each other say what happened. “Darkness, a pit, potatoes, and the War was over.”[1] “I remember feeling sick, an overwhelming sense of guilt.” “His bars were made of metal. I can’t break free.” The water was still running in the bathroom sink. He said I didn’t turn it off when I got up to pee in the middle of the night. The steady “shhhhhhh” of the running faucet as he pushed himself into my asshole, barely awake after the fight the night before. “Was he going to kill me? Had he already done it?” “The sweet birds sing for you. Good morning, blackness. Good afternoon, stillness. Goodnight, silence.” “Enter, the earthen ground is rough.” “How much more can I cry? First love– his hands so sure. I wish I could believe it was just a dream. I want to go back, back before. I just need him to listen.”[2] Poetry emplaces you into me, me into you. Language shows how rape displaces responsibility onto the violated, away from the violator. He is heading off to work, another party; to fathering, partnering, counseling, preaching, trafficking, warring, defending his country.

What is the language of perpetrators? Survivor poetry attempts to slough off the burden of guilt, anger, “if only.” The yellow stars, the ghettos, cattle cars. “She put out signals,” so many say. “I forced myself on her in her own bed. I remember she was crying, a flashback from her father raping her. My hormones were going insane. I asked her to finish me off.” “I don’t remember what happened, I never asked her. I didn’t want to know. But I know I got off.” “You like it in the ass, don’t ya,” he said after he finished, lifting a dirty towel from the floor and wiping himself off. “I was horny. I ignored her. I did it. An erect dick has no conscience.” “Most girls don’t really understand how guys are. Women have to be careful. We never talk about what happened.” “Enthusiastic consent!” “Well she never said no. I could see how she froze up with fear, but it wasn’t rape. She keeps saying she’s fine, but I went and partied with the other girls instead.” “She was 16 with huge tits. I just had to touch her. I knew I could never be with her.” Language of denial, language of selfishness, language of power and control. “The bizarre intimacy with the man who raped me. No place anymore. They just don’t give a fuck. They get off on knowing.”[3]

 


[1] From Nava Semel’s And the Rat Laughed (pg. 61).

[2] These quoted passages have been lifted / adapted from survivor testimonies on Escaping Hades: A Rape and Sexual Abuse Survivor’s Site at http://www.pandys.org/escapinghades/index2.html.

[3] These quoted passages have been lifted / adapted from perpetrator testimonies in “The ‘Reddit Rape Thread’: Insights Into the Minds of Perpetrators” by stavvers and can be found at http://stavvers.wordpress.com/2012/07/28/the-reddit-rape-thread-insights-into-the-minds-of-perpetrators/.

Consisting of Different Measures: the Content of The Virgin Muse

Rob Koehler, Series Contributor

This series examines the first teaching anthology of poetry in English to reflect on teachers’ reasons for directing students to read poetry.

In my last post, I considered the pedagogical thinking that underlay the first teaching anthology of English poetry, The Virgin Muse. In the book’s preface, the compiler, James Greenwood, argued that his textbook was designed to teach students to understand the technical and formal aspects of poetry as opposed to critical or analytical reading. This post will take Greenwood at his word and examine the poetry included in his anthology and the two appendices he included for reference purposes in order to discover what we can learn about Greenwood’s methods of compilation and annotation and whether they matched his prefatory remarks.

The Virgin Muse is made up of 126 selections from 32 different authors; the collection contains two predominant forms of versification, heroic couplets and blank verse.  Greenwood includes examples of poems using other forms of versification, particularly irregular odes and common meter, but the book is not organized to make these distinctions clear. Instead, poems seem to follow one another indiscriminately or, at least, without a particularly prominent interest in their versification.

The book, in fact, seems to have no single overall organizational system; poems neither ordered by title or author nor by theme, topic, or year of composition or publication.  What seems clear is that Greenwood had no overall scheme to which he was adhering in the ordering of the poetry. His two appendices, one for explanatory end notes for difficult passages and the other a glossary of hard words, shows a similar lack of organization and preparation. Although the first is supposed to annotate difficult “places”, assumedly difficult lines or passages, it instead serves as a series of notes giving explanations of classical names and locations that are referenced in poems throughout the collection. In several places, it duplicates the work done by the glossary because both offer similar glosses of the same word. At no point do the end notes explain a series of lines, offer assistance in understanding figurative language, or otherwise give an explanation of a particularly difficult section in a text. All of this suggests that Greenwood likely had no overall system for organizing and annotating his collection.

However, if the entire collection does not manifest a strong unifying system that clarifies Greenwood’s priorities, glimpses of a systematic purpose—beyond that claimed by Greenwood in his preface—appear when examining individual poems in the collection.  For example, Greenwood shows a clear interest in poetic imitation and parody, including two passages from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and their equivalents in imitations written by John Dryden. He also includes two accounts of the tale of Baucis and Philemon, one translated from Ovid by John Dryden and the other a parody of the tale by Jonathan Swift.  Although a teacher might use these varying examples to discuss versification, it seems more likely that questions about poetic adaptation and imitation would also be of interest to both teachers and students.  Similar questions might arise based on Greenwood’s choice to place excerpts discussing the same event or describing the same human attribute.  For example, he places two descriptions of the descent into hell next to one another, one by John Dryden and the other by Edmund Spenser; he also places two descriptions of fame next to one another, one by John Sheffield and the other by Dryden.  These again would seem to implicitly suggest the possibility of comparison on a level beyond the technical, especially since several of these pairs were written using the same form of versification.

Thus, though no overall scheme of organization—whether based on versification or some other system—is apparent in the collection, it seems that Greenwood did have some sense of pedagogical possibility beyond merely teaching students the technical and formal aspects of poetry. Why these possibilities were not more explicitly expressed draws back again to the question of how this book might have been used in the classroom.  Perhaps the basic cause of the lack of structure is that Greenwood expected the book to be read topically, with teachers selecting passages for reading and students following along, rather than read through from beginning to end as a whole. If this were the case, Greenwood’s lack of overall organization would make sense because that imposed structure would not necessarily reflect the realities of classroom use.

My observation brings us again to the contested terrain of the classroom and the moment at which the plans of this textbook’s compiler and his vision of possible pedagogical purposes met the lived realities of pedagogical practice. These two posts have considered these questions from the perspective of the compiler and teacher; in my final piece, I want to turn to the students that were considered the audience for The Virgin Muse, examining how we might understand the purpose and structure of this book for those who would have learned from it.

Rob Koehler

Rob Koehler is a second year doctoral student in English at New York University and has an abiding interest in the processes and peculiarities of teaching reading, especially reading literature of all sorts, in the classroom.  He blogs at Reading.Text.Book.History. on all things related to education, textbooks, and reading.


“their words make this possible”: A Roundtable Discussion of Poetics of Emplacement with poets from Women Write Resistance: Poets Resist Gender Violence

Emily Johnston (Sr. Editorial Assistant) & Women Write Resistance

Emily Johnston’s series “Traumatic Emplacement” explores poetics of emplacement, and the simultaneity of dislocation and enmeshment in traumatic poetry.

In Emily Johnston’s previous blog post, “Traumatic Emplacement: Poetry Emplaces Violence,” she talks about pedagogical strategies for teaching trauma and poetry in relation to one another. Specifically, she writes about teaching with Women Write Resistance: Poets Resist Gender Violence, an anthology of poems about gender violence in the United States by more than 100 North American women poets. That blog post helped to establish a relationship between SRPR, Laura Madeline Wiseman (the anthology’s editor), and several of the poets featured in the anthology, which prompted them to dialogue more about connections they see among teaching, resistance poetry, and SRPR’s poetics of emplacement. This roundtable blog is a result of that dialogue—hopefully one of many more results to come.

Emily Johnston: Spoon River Poetry Review defines poetics of emplacement as “writing that reveals the borders of our comfort zones as sites of connection rather than irreconcilable difference.” Speak about your experiences in teaching poetry that explores issues of gender violence and resistance. How have these pedagogical moments created connections, even as they moved the borders of such comfort zones? In your answer, also discuss texts that foster such exploration of a poetics of emplacement.

Jehanne Dubrow: One of the poems that I often teach (particularly to students in the introductory creative writing classroom) is Rita Dove’s “Adolescence II.” It’s a poem that explores gender violence through a set of terrifying images, which students often describe as “trippy” or “fantastical.”  Initially, students struggle with moments like “Then they come, the three seal men with eyes as round / As dinner plates and eyelashes like sharpened tines” and “I clutch at the ragged holes / They leave behind, here at the edge of darkness.”

This is a text that tends to divide the classroom along gender lines. Male students often reject the idea that the speaker in the poem has constructed a beautiful-grotesque idiom—surreal and alienating—as testimony to a violence she has experienced. They want to label the poem a dream or hallucination, rather than imagine that the narrative of a girl trapped with menacing men might be real.  Meanwhile, female students will frequently edge toward a cautious, nervous reading of the poem:  has something terrible been done to this young woman?

The poem doesn’t offer up its answers easily, which in turn teaches the students about the relationship between form and content. Poems about gender violence may appear to speak with difficulty, may stutter or stumble, may be forced to find a new language to communicate experience, and to reflect how violence simultaneously urges us toward silence and speech.

Emily Johnston: I can definitely hear, in your description of students’ responses dividing along gender lines, how Dove’s poem reveals the borders of our comfort zones and how those borders themselves are often divided along gender lines. My teaching experience has also revealed how female students often feel hypervigilant about protecting women’s bodies from an ever-present threat of violence, while male students often feel hypervigilant about safeguarding male identities as “protectors” and “providers,” which can make recognizing men’s pervasive violence against women nearly impossible for them.     

Lisa Lewis: This semester I am using Women Write Resistance in an advanced undergraduate poetry writing class.  I wish I could say it was easy to cross that border from the poems about gender violence to my students, who have mostly grown up in Oklahoma.  I have to find new patience and new questions to ask whenever the topic of discussion is one of those concerns that are held as if paralyzed in amber—visible, but untouchable—by the prevailing majority views here: gender, race, class.  The moments one hopes for, when a woman might, for instance, experience herself in the presence of enough empathic support to speak with understanding about the poem, or herself in its context, are fleeting, often hardly discernible.  One learns to identify small signs.  Students try to catch my eye when someone dismisses or denies on sexist grounds they dare not call “sexist.”  They’re not ready to fight, but they mean to encourage me.  That’s how bad it can be here: women still smile constantly—not convincingly—to buy their right to live in relative peace among people who want them to present themselves as living a perfect life.  What their eyes say is unsmiling, guarded.  I look to their eyes, the look in their eyes.

That’s why those of us who teach poetry—feminist poetry, any good poetry at all—in areas like this are doing such necessary work, if apparently uncommon ourselves.  Even in the face of discouragement, connection does happen.  Young women can find a way to escape what harms them.  They can make art that will open to them a way to speak, and then to act, to save themselves and others.  It is a lifelong process for us all—to recognize, to write, to push forward into action.

Emily Johnston: Thank you so much, Lisa, for your inspiring vision of teaching poetry as activist work, particularly in a global moment when so-called social advancements (technologies, economies, etc.) threaten connection at every turn.

Laura Madeline Wiseman: One text I’ve taught is Anne Sexton’s Transformations, a collection introductory poetry students seem to be able to approach because they feel they can grasp the content. Having a text in common—Sleeping Beauty, Rumpelstiltskin, Twelve Dancing Princesses and it’s various contemporary depictions in Disney, cartoons, children’s books, toys, contemporary flicks, etc.—and whether or not the students have read Grimm, allows most to connect on the level of story and then to move to other questions such as delivery, craft, allusions, form, and interpretation. Some students stay there, in the retellings and the craft, not probing into interpretation, why Sexton might portray Sleeping Beauty’s father in a given light, while others question the imagery and word choice, asking, “Is this poem about incest?” It is these questions that move the edges of border zones and allow the class to connect on various ways to read poetry.

Another tool I bring into the classroom to help students grapple with larger issues of gender violence and its representation in literature is the Power and Control Wheel, asking students to find examples (e.g. emotional abuse, using children, making her think she’s crazy) in a text that illustrates the ways in which an abuser maintains control before resorting to physical and sexual abuse. It’s always a powerful discussion because students examine the edges of their knowledge of what constitutes family violence and what it means to the reader of poetry and literature. Students are often shocked to compile the examples abusers use to maintain power, a process and discussion that gives them the opportunity to rethink their interpretations of texts such as The Twilight Series, Jane Smiley’s One Thousand Acers, Joy Castro’s The Truth Book, and Sexton’s Transformations.

Emily Johnston: Yes! I too find the Power & Control Wheel helpful for teaching students to think about gender violence as a manifestation of power and control. I’d be interested in talking more about “what it means to the reader of poetry and literature.” Perhaps a future blog topic…

Grace Bauer: I like this word “emplacement” as a descriptor for that transformative thing that poetry can do. Poetry doesn’t just give us information about an experience, but can also recreate experience in a way that allows the reader to enter into it, even if that experience is beyond the scope of their own lives. As a teacher, I’ve seen this happen many times – especially with undergraduates who may be new(er) to poetry that deals with violence or controversial issues.

The poems that first come to mind are not about gender violence, per se, but an aspect of (some) women’s experience that tends to polarize – namely, abortion. Most students will readily identify themselves as pro-something or anti-something on this issue, but then we’ll read poems by Anne Sexton and Lucille Clifton and Gwendolyn Brooks – and I’ll ask “Are these anti-abortion poems or pro-choice poems?” and most of the students will recognize that they are neither, that the poems don’t so much take sides on this highly politicized issue as put you inside the speaker’s mind, the woman’s dilemma, the can’t win of this particular hard choice.

I also think of books that focus on large-scale violent events — like Brian Turner’s Here Bullet (about the war in Iraq) or Bob Hicok’s Words For Empty, Words For Full (largely about the Virginia Tech shootings). Students have read about these events, they have watched reports on the news, but many of them will say that the poems do a better job of conveying what the lived experience must have felt like, even better than the graphic images they may have seen on the big or little screen.

Students — all readers — know that gender violence exists. We know – intellectually – that it’s a terrible thing, but poems like those in Women Write Resistance can take us inside that experience. “Emplace” us there. And, hopefully, elicit empathy. And further resistance.

Emily Johnston: So well said, Grace. Healing—especially from such an isolating trauma as abortion—becomes possible when others bear witness to our lived experiences.

Monica Wendel: As a professor of composition and creative writing, my course load is primarily English 101 and 102 classes. It’s the class where, among other things, you learn to read in a new way – not just for answers, but for understanding, nuance, and analysis.

It is also the case that resisting gender violence also involves a different way of reading: a different way of reading catcalls and whistles; a different way of reading Huffington Post articles on war; a different way of reading sexual assault prevention tips; a different way of reading advertisements for children’s toys.

In a perfect world, one act would lead quite simply to the other. Analyzing literature would lead to analyzing the world around us, and vice versa. However, any piece of writing that treats women as fully-formed, dimensional characters, capable of independent thought and action, is writing that discomforts a large number of my students. Before students can explore issues of gender violence and resistance, my challenge is for them to acknowledge that gender violence exists, period.

We dive down “into the wreck,” as Adrienne Rich says, or trace the fairy tales and nightmares embodied in Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man.” We find the diamond “in a knot of flame,” as Audre Lorde writes.

I have no idea if, or how, these pedagogical moments create connections or move the borders of comfort zones, but they are necessary in order for students to look at all characters as human, first and foremost. As Henrick Ibsen said, “Whatever I have written has been without any conscious thought of making propaganda. … I am not even quite clear as to just what this women’s rights movement really is. To me it has seemed a problem of humanity in general.”

Emily Johnston: The theme of reading keeps surfacing in our conversation here. Before students become ready to accept the deep roots of patriarchy that continue to anchor our political, economic, medical, and educational systems (in addition to countless other social institutions), they need to understand the central role that reading (texts, body language, media, casual conversations, etc.) can play in transforming the world.

Tyler Mills: I’ve had productive conversations about gender violence and resistance in workshop when teaching the poetry of Sylvia Plath. After asking students “what they know” about Plath’s life—her famous tragic ending—and letting them talk it out for a minute or two, I urge them instead to think about how Plath’s work functions on the level of motif, metaphor, even mid-twentieth century artifact. This might seem like a no-brainer, but it is really hard to get students to make this switch. “Irreconcilable differences” that many students initially bring to a poem such as “Lady Lazarus” (statements about how “messed up” the poem is, how “depressed” the poet must have been, even how she must “hate men”) begin dissolving. Students start analyzing the terrifying imagery rather than assessing it as something “other” to their experience in the world. It is when we acknowledge the well-known details of Plath’s life, and talk about what Confessionalism was and meant for a core group of writers like her in the mid-twentieth century, that we can instead turn to the speaker as a persona: one very much like the personae that speak from the position of the lyric “I” in many other poems that deal with violence. Acknowledging the life but then choosing to focus on the art shows students how brilliant a poet Plath was—a genius, really. She deserves to be taught that way rather than to have students hunt for her “head in the oven.” I like talking about Confessionalism in relation to (and in tension with) Louise Glück’s essay, “Against Sincerity” (Proofs and Theories). And the next time I teach Plath, I’d like to also assign B.K. Fischer’s fascinating contribution to the Los Angeles Review of Books “Poet’s Roundtable on Person and Persona” from this past October: “Proximity, Proxy, Practice.”

Emily Johnston: Again, the theme of reading surfaces—here, as a means of moving from othering to connecting.

Rosemary Winslow: Teaching a junior level course to majors from every discipline at the university last spring, I noted a sea change in greater understanding of the experiences of gendered cultural forces.  The evidence was most marked in responses to Adrienne Rich’s essay, “When We Dead Awaken.”  To my great surprise, and counter to my experiences of previous decades, students understood, with palpable compassion, the violence to the self as Rich considers having no place or voice for a female self.  One young man wrote in an essay of his own that he identified with Rich’s position as he and other men now have to forge their own identities in the economic and social domains.  He and other men, along with the women in the class, were highly vocal–often horrified–on reading poetry expressing gender violence. The women and the men in the class spoke frequently of the damaging acts recounted in such poems, offering at the same time ways the actions of characters in poems could have made a fine and loving relationship.  The poems opened up gender forces to view for response, discussion, understanding, change.  Poets whose work surmounted sheer violence with expressions of love and strong positive action were especially highly valued–Audre Lourde’s “Coal” and “Black Mother Woman” were favorites. Other poems that conveyed women’s strength and power included Adrienne Rich’s essay named above and “Diving into the Wreck” and “Power.”

Emily Johnston: Rosemary, what a hopeful message! I think that one of our biggest challenges—not just as poets and teachers, but as human beings—is finding ways to face violence with compassion; to allow violence to open us to recognizing our inevitable, irreversible connections with one another. I’m thinking especially of Judith Butler’s call for interdependence as the basis for global community in Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence.

Jennifer Perrine: “Course, Interrupted”: For nearly ten years, I’ve taught at least one course on poetry every semester. In these classes, poems that explore and resist gender violence often appear, but not because I assign them.  I don’t ask students to write about particular issues, and yet students write poems about gender violence every semester, every year. Perhaps some students feel safe writing about gender violence because they know that I also direct and teach in the women’s and gender studies program at our university. Mostly, though, I suspect they recognize, as Richard Hugo put it, that the “creative-writing class may be one of the last places you can go where your life still matters,” so they share truths from their lives in a way they might not in other spaces.

When students write these poems, the rest of us are often pushed to a learning edge where we must reckon with a reality we’ve ignored, forgotten, or never recognized in the first place. Though some of us may have once believed our lives were not affected by gender violence, we are now touched by it, by this person who sits beside us for three hours each week. When one person dares to resist gender violence by breaking the silence around it, our classroom community always changes. We still read, write, and talk about poetry, but now we also question gendered assumptions, roles, and systems. We ask how poetry can be a form of witness, action, and resistance. One brave student writes a poem, and we all come to understand that the work of our class is not only to learn about poetry, but also to respond to the reality of violence in the lives of those around us with care, support, respect, and—dare I say it?—love.

Emily Johnston: Say it, sister… love!

Sarah Chavez: It was a first year rhetoric and inquiry class focused on the topic of American identity. For that particular day we read Lucille Clifton’s shapeshifter poems, a series about a young girl being molested by her father. The usually talkative students were quiet, squirmy, refusing eye contact. The resistance in the room was palpable.

They had no trouble talking about the graphic violence in Fight Club, no qualms about the joblessness, depression, and naked vulnerability in Philip Levine’s poetry, but this pushed their comfort level. Clearly a line had been crossed. Finally, a male student blurted out, “I just don’t understand what this has to do with American identity.” A chorus of “yeahs” erupted, vehement head nodding. His outburst broke the silence perfectly. It invited the question, what makes something American? That was safer to focus on.

“Because it happened in the U.S.?” someone said.

“Because the writer is American?”

“Sure,” one student said, “but who wants to talk about this stuff? No one.”

Another responded, “I guess, maybe, that’s what it’s about though, that the little girl can’t tell anyone.”

“Yeah,” said another. “It’s ‘the poem the little girl breathes / into her pillow” because “there is no one to hear.’”

Exactly, I said. But now you’ve heard.

That is poetry’s power. Our classroom transformed into a place of witness. For at least half an hour, the students considered the trauma and sexual violation of one person as inextricably connected to our collective consciousness as a nation. It is impossible to truly teach witness, but we must create spaces where it is invited. I am deeply grateful for poetry like Clifton’s, as I am for Laure-Anne Bosselaar, Rigoberto Gonzalez, and so many others; their words make this possible.

Emily Johnston: What strikes me too, Sarah, is how even a student’s initial declaration, “I just don’t understand how this is relevant,” is both evidence of a pervasive, impermeable boundary around some new thing students encounter in the classroom (in this case, Clifton’s poetry), AND of a simultaneous desire and need to push beyond that boundary.

Thank you so much, Jehanne, Lisa, Madeline, Grace, Monica, Tyler, Rosemary, Jennifer, and Sarah. Your words have brought up some vital points about our roles and responsibilities as writers and teachers of poetry. I look forward to continuing our dialogue!

Emily R. Johnston is a Doctoral student in English at Illinois State University, and she is a Senior Editorial Assistant of SRPR. Emily earned her MFA from the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Her creative and critical work appears in Antipodes: A Global Journal of Australian/New Zealand Literature, The Fourth River, and Dos Passos Review, among others. Emily eventually hopes to build “Therapy House” where victims of violence can explore arts, movement, and collaborative activities as tools for recovery.

Rosemary Winslow lives in Washington, D.C., and teaches at The Catholic University of America. Her book Green Bodies expressed and grappled with the complexities of love in troubled families, and sought understanding, forgiveness, and compassion for the wide circle of humankind. She has taught in shelters for women, and now enjoys yoga, hiking, swimming, kayaking, and singing in a choir.

Tyler Mills is the author of Tongue Lyre, which won the 2011 Crab Orchard Series in Poetry First Book Award (SIU Press, 2013). Her poems have received magazine awards from the Crab Orchard Review, Gulf Coast, and Third Coast. A graduate of the MFA program in creative writing at the University of Maryland, she is currently pursuing a PhD in the Program for Writers at the University of Illinois-Chicago.

Sarah A. Chavez is a mestíza born and raised in the California Central Valley completing her PhD in poetry and Ethnic Studies from the University of Nebraska – Lincoln. Her work can be found in various publications such as Not Somewhere Else But Here: A Contemporary Anthology of Women and Place, the journals North American Review, The Fourth River, and others. Her chapbook All Day, Talking is forthcoming from dancing girl press in summer 2014.

Jennifer Perrine is the author of The Body Is No Machine (New Issues), winner of the 2008 Devil’s Kitchen Reading Award in Poetry, and In the Human Zoo (University of Utah Press), recipient of the 2010 Agha Shahid Ali Poetry Prize. In 2014, she will serve as a member of the U.S. Arts and Culture Delegation to Cuba. Perrine teaches in the English department and directs the Women’s and Gender Studies program at Drake University.

Grace Bauer’s newest book of poems is Nowhere All At Once, just out from Stephen F. Austin State University Press. Her previous books include Retreats & Recognitions, Beholding Eye, and The Women At The Well, as well as four chapbooks, most recently, Café Culture, from Imaginary Friend Press.

Monica Wendel is the author of No Apocalypse (Georgetown Review Press, 2013) and the chapbooks Pioneer (Thrush Press, forthcoming June 2014) and Call it a Window (Midwest Writing Center, 2012). She is assistant professor of composition and creative writing at St. Thomas Aquinas College.

Jehanne Dubrow is the author of four poetry collections, including most recently Red Army Red and Stateside. Her fifth book of poems, The Arranged Marriage, will be published in 2015. She is the Director of the Rose O’Neill Literary House and an Associate Professor of creative writing at Washington College.

Lisa Lewis’ books are The Unbeliever, Silent Treatment, Vivisect, and Burned House with Swimming Pool, as well as a chapbook titled Story Box. She was the 2011 recipient of a National Endowment of the Arts Fellowship. She directs the creative writing program at Oklahoma State University and serves as poetry editor of the Cimarron Review.

Laura Madeline Wiseman’s books are Some Fatal Effects of Curiosity and Disobedience, Queen of the Platform, and Sprung. She is also the author of the collaborative book Intimates and Fools with artist Sally Deskins, two letterpress books, and eight chapbooks, including Spindrift. She is the editor of Women Write Resistance: Poets Resist Gender Violence. www.lauramadelinewiseman.com