Pomp and Intertext

Cultural Commentary by Erica Eller

Tag: Poetry

Demystifying Poetry


It’s the tail-end of poetry month and I’ve decided to go off on a rant about poetry discourse. In America, people often assume that poetry can’t possibly be popular. Maybe if they came to Turkey, they’d change their minds. Here, people graffiti the walls with lines of Nazim Hikmet. But a shift is taking place in and around America. Just north of the border, Canada’s Rupi Kaur has shown us how huge Instagram followings for poetry can lead to book contracts. We also live in an era when pop-icons can hand-pick their own poets. Beyoncé collaborated with poet Warsan Shire to include spoken lines of poetry throughout her album Lemonade. Suddenly, it’s as if poetry can become something more than an isolated bookish art. Poetry loves new media, poetry loves sound recording, poetry loves the stage.

This month, year, decade, I’ve come across some efforts to legitimize poetry. Joshua Johnson’s podcast 1A recently aired a segment titled, “How do you know if a poem is good?” He invited guests Kevin Young, the poetry editor for the New Yorker, Tracy K. Smith, the 22nd U.S. Poet Laureate, Matthew Zapruder, the editor for poetry publisher Wave Books, and Danez Smith, the Lambda Literary Award for Gay Poetry winner to discuss.

No, a love of poetry is not akin to an odd fetish or a closeted drug addiction.

The questions were framed as if to give rise to a series of confessions: Who was your first? What got you into it? Why do you like this? Teetering towards … Aren’t you embarrassed by it? No, a love of poetry is not akin to an odd fetish or a closeted drug addiction. We don’t have to stigmatize it as such. We don’t have to hide it, nor are we obligated to represent all readers of poetry, when it is a highly personal form of art. I’ll be the first to admit it: I like poetry. Specifically, I like my own taste in poetry. Just like music, this is not a homogeneous art.

There’s a sense that poetry is not taught correctly and that if it were to be taught correctly, it would miraculously become popular. So typical. Blame the teacher. Can you tell I was a teacher? In the podcast, the guests suggest that teachers have kept poetry removed from our daily lives, forgetting that we use lines of poetry at funerals and weddings. Do we, though? The last few weddings I attended mostly involved impromptu toasts or roasts. If poetry classes were designed with the assumption that all of the students would become future poets, the same way engineering teachers see their students as future engineers, these doubts towards its relevance might disappear. But we can’t blame this on the teachers themselves. They are underpaid, overworked. No brilliant insider’s view of an “everyday” style of teaching poetry is any less offensive than an average teacher’s assumption that poetry might actually be removed from people’s daily lives. Developing a clever strand of poetry-lite is just condescending.

When prodded about the merit of poetry for laypersons, Tracy K. Smith says people simply have to “feel” poems to get them. But she follows this up with a more thorough explanation: it involves listening to the sounds of words, identifying how the poet used them, and connecting to their meaning. Kevin Young defended his role at the New Yorker, which Johnson calls an “upper-echelon” establishment, by saying that he would read the New Yorker poems in Kansas as a child. He calls the New Yorker (surprisingly) “democratic.” These are cases in the podcast when the poets didn’t want to bite on the bait. At least Young later asserts that we do bring our own framework to poetry when we identify its meaning. Going one step further, this suggests that a highly developed reader like Young will likely have a different impression of a poem than a non-reader of poetry. It is, to an extent, an acquired taste.

I don’t think poetry has to be “democratic” for people to like it. Zapruder’s comment that there’s a poem for everyone made sense to me because it implied that such a poem is NOT a poem for everyone else. I like Emily Dickinson’s riddles. I like Susan Howe’s esoteric cut-ups of Puritan speech morphology. I also like the biting decolonizing polemics of Amiri Baraka’s rhythmic poems. These are filled with clever wit and wordplay, and I like finding their layers of meaning. I didn’t attend an ivy-league university. That wasn’t a pre-requisite for liking poetry.

Poetry asks us to tune in with our mental powers, just as much as our feelings. We are linguistic creatures, and poetry recognizes this aspect of our nature. Poetry is a mixture of oral and written forms. It stands in this in-between zone of contemporaneous performance and studied composition. It combines high and low diction. It is the parasitic jester of all verbal and linguistic possibilities in the world. It is not a static art form, and it cannot be codified, either. Poetry is a malleable beast.

Intellectualism is not a crime!

Matthew Zapruder’s recent book, Why Poetry, also takes on the challenge to demystify poetry. I like that he refutes the notion that poems deceive. Again, I found myself adding a personal addendum to his point. It is as if he’s saying: poems don’t deceive; straight-talking politicians do. He also describes an in-between dreamlike state induced by poems, and he celebrates their material form, as language. Although its premise involves making poetry accessible to lay-readers, the entire book was like a easy-going fireside chat of the very same lectures on poetry that emphasize rhyme, meter, syllable stresses, metaphor, image, enjambment, etc, that these poets are blaming for “elitism.” Why can’t we just admit that poets are elitist in a sense, and that intellectualism is not a crime!

I don’t see why we’re picking a fight with the many possible tools that comprise the craft anyway, just to make the art more easy to approach or digest. These are tools that have developed over time, and just because they involve unfamiliar terminology, like “iambic pentameter,” doesn’t mean we have to negate their worth. Poetry offers a centuries-old tradition that may carry a lot of academic baggage, but it is not sealed off from time. I think the most important thing to emphasize when “demystifying poetry” is that it is a thriving art with longstanding traditions in all parts of the world, and the traditions and innovations of poetry are still unfolding. Poetry doesn’t belong to the dead, it belongs to the living.


Ethics of a Cloud-net: Cecilia Vicuña’s “Spit Temple”

Spit Temple

Spit Temple by Cecilia Vicuña 

“la semilla es la memoria”

I encountered Cecilia Vicuña’s work through a book entitled Spit Temple published in 2012 by Ugly Duckling Presse. Cecilia Vicuña is a Chilean poet who lived and read and wrote in New York and South America and she is still alive, but this book is kind of a retrospective of her life’s work. It compiles a useful introduction, her own retelling of her life’s events, transcriptions of her performances, and responses to these performances written by her colleagues.

Responses to her work emphasize the ceremonial quandary of disorientation it presents to bystanders. Their bafflement is directly a result of the expectation that poetic art will remain fixed in the convention of the poetic reading, a predictable zone of non-event, inconsequence, and segregation from history. Vicuña’s audience produces a perplexed response directly to the sound, language, and ceremony of her work that alters the expected frame of historic reason. By staging contemporaneous artistic ceremonies as forms of remembrance, when she is called to, she has improvised with the historical fold in which she finds herself. Always emphasizing the natural atmosphere, material composition and the properties of flow, permeability, and the sonic construction of event, she culls us back into our surroundings. This sensory imprint is otherwise lost amongst the perpetual spectacular framing of historic vision in the production of news. And this news perhaps engenders commoditized, abstracted relationships to being (at least this is my less than thinly veiled Benjaminian influenced analysis). Woven thread is a vital metaphor within her work. It reminds us of the spun fabrications of the stories we hear everywhere around us. Hearsay becomes paradigmatic; it casts a wide net. The untold story of the uncanny movement of mist that rises up at the base of a waterfall – this is a story lost amidst the concerns of an industrialized society. And she brings it back to us.

“At my Aunt Lola’s house I first heard that “vis de tarro,” Violetta Parra’s “tin voice.” I had never heard such a dissonant, inharmonious, howl-like sound. It pierced me. In an instant, I recognized the true speech and sound of Chile. The ancestral memory suppressed by official culture was in that sound. From then on she became my compass” (52)

“At some point, I began tying the audience with threads, or tying myself to the audience. Who is performing: the poet, or the audience? United by a thread, we form a living quipu: each person is a knot, and the performance is what happens between the knots” (99)

The contributors in this book share stories about the way that her work felt to experience in person. Impacting for its enchanting ability to loom in indeterminate registers, witnesses seemed engaged with her voice and words through their sheer curiosity. These people aren’t sure how to categorize it in relation to the institutions of a ‘literary arts’ performance. Therefore, in addition to compiling the work itself, this book shares the testimonials of her fellow poets and authors who were there to witness it. Her poetry is thus framed as a form of ephemera created by a living breathing person instead of a body of work in a taxonomy of authors’ names. Bringing the work back towards the oral tradition, the hearsay and the commentary of bystanders presents her work in the traditional fold it already adheres to.

Lately, the only time I’ve been inspired to write was after I read this book. Here, I practice a form of praise that follows no generic conventions, but I try to search for the source of the personal connection I feel to her work. It is an homage to her sound, ceremony, and silence, that I’ve only encountered and imagined by reading about it on the pages of this book.

How do I write an homage to Cecilia Vicuña without merely tracing the places in her work that feel like familiar footpaths for me, individually? What does this enchanting Chilean woman poet have to do with me? I think there may be a lot of things to say about this. We can’t simply dismiss such a profound Chilean poet after what our country did there, and who better to make us realize the simultaneous differences and intertwinings that bind us to one another in a knot. Nor can we dismiss the fact that Chilean poetry that is vitally significant to us. We must THINK: September 11th is twice-over an important date in Cecilia Vicuña’s life. These are significant historical events that she returns us to when she talks about the multidirectional waterfall. One side is pouring down so heavily, but the other is lifting up to the sky in the form of ascending mist. Mist, she writes, is the semen of the forest that gives birth to the streams. This turns us on our heads. Vicuña’s Chilean ties bind us to a flip-side mirror.

“Charles / Olson / said / memory is the future / because you will / remember in future tense / you will remember / whatever you did / and others did / and others will do / that is the change / think think / of / the killers / a desperate call for connection / think of / their / memory / think of their memory” (194-195)

I feel, narcissistic as I am, that Cecilia Vicuña was published just for me. Her work was edited into a book that was mysteriously presented to me by a publisher who I already trust for having introduced me to the work of Eugene Ostashevsky and Marosa di Gorgio: Ugly Duckling Presse. But why just for me? This is what is hard to explain, because it’s not really true. The enthusiasm I feel says less about me than it says about the work, which creates personal bonds with its readers.

I’m grateful since parts of Cecilia Vicuña’s writing validate the underrepresented parts of myself. In her relation to her work, I am still European, but we must understand how the Americas have transformed what is European, and though my contours of my diverse regional European roots have been sanded away by the chisel that is whiteness. Reading her work, I recall my nomadic origins. She helps me to remember these traces across time and memory and that even I, too, am an immigrant held hostage in the English language. The improvisational sounds, for example, that I used to make on the piano, I didn’t know their origins, either; threads from invisible sources. Perhaps natural processes are a more potent source than calling out to my ancestry. I have no homeland but the place I am in. I am a facet of the weather. This is what Cecilia Vicuña’s work brings us back to: the state of flux we are in. She reminds us in a political and an environmental and a oral traditional sense how memory is woven into our present. She reminds us how vital voice and its sound is for changing the political context of our public space, whether or not it is simply a room full of readers of poetry. With her voice as a sound on a sidewalk, she can pour a glass of milk to remember those who died from the paint they put in the milk. The paint they put in the milk. The paint they put in the milk. The paint. She reminds us by letting the words loop around again.

“The Colectivo de Acciones de Arte (C.A.D.A.) in Chile invited me to participate in a  project caled Para No Morir de Hambre en el Arte (To not Die of Hunger in the Arts) that would be realized simultaneously in Santiago, Toronto, and Bogotá. At the time Bogotá was enduring el crimen lechero (the milk crime) where merchants added paint to milk in order to increase profits, resulting in the death of 1,920 children. And the government was doing nothing about it. Around the city, I announced on posters the spilling of a glass of milk in front of the Quinta de Simón Bolivar. Twelve people attended. I spilled a glass of white paint on the sidewalk and wrote the poem on the pavement” (82)

How compelling is it that deuda is a theme that binds us? This bind is really important for me. We must think about the relationship between the state of debt the U.S. has imposed upon countries like Argentina as well as its own citizens with student loan debt, mortgages, and credit.

I admire Cecilia Vicuña’s courage. For her perhaps it is not so much an act of defiance, but a necessary courage. How do I express the beauty of this kind of courage and the gratitude I feel?

“I was to perform in Santiago, but I was afraid to sing. Urban poets don’t sing in Chile. A centuries-old prohibition weighed on me. Plus, my 100-year-old grandmother, the Diaguita opera singer, was in the audience! So I turned off the lights and began to sing from the back room. Afterwards, my grandma said, ‘Mijita, don’t turn off the lights, it’s very scary.’” (93)

She understands the environment in a way I can understand. She writes of the cold rainforest of Chile, like the one we have in the Pacific Northwest in the Puget Sound. She writes of the clods of dirt at a construction zone that buried an illegal immigrant named Luis Goméz. She repeats his name. When his brother came to ask for him, no one knew where he was. They guessed it might be a certain hole and they found his crushed body inside that hole, when they excavated the rubble there. She writes about the environment of the wheat fields of Illinois that remind me of the wheat fields of Idaho with their shimmering grasses. She reminds us of the memory contained in a seed that can only be preserved by keeping it alive. This is vial information with which we must confront the reality of the Monsanto Corporation. She knows the environment and she reminds me that I know it too, and we have shared similar spaces, and perhaps potential roles. We are allies, and therefore she pulls me back into the fold.

“La Selva Fria, which is the cold rainforest – it’s extremely cool. And it’s extremely misty with these huge immense magnificent trees, so its a completely different idea of the rainforest, a rainforest where it is eternally cool.”

“80 percent / of seeds / available a century ago / now extinct / extinct / extinct / extinct / extinct / and now I speak of other forms  of extinction / People wanted to know how this music / of the seeds / how the seeds’ song / began for me / it began on a hot / summer / day” (205)

Who else makes us realize that seeds, a glass of milk, the fog, and yarn are each profound politically revolutionary concepts? She breaks these words down into transformable parts, finding seeds in the word morphologies she uses. She returns the language to natural processes. This is thinking towards an ethics of a cloud-net, as she says. She also brings back the languages of natives found in books written by ethnographers.

“I suggested to Salvador Allende that we initiate a collective work to green Chile, a movement to gather, study and love seeds. Allende laughed and said ‘Chile is not ready.’ Still, I gathered and sped the seeds, and distributed them to shanty towns when they became saplings” (63)

“then / Barbara [Tedlock] comes / and in her book / she mentions / one word / which I may pronounce badly in Maya / which is K’ij / K’ij is day / but from this word / two words are derived / K’ijilabal / maybe I say it wrong / And K’igiloxic / maybe I say it wrong / which is to day love / hmmm / which means prayer” (163)

“Suddenly, I had no translator, so I began to improvise in a mixture of English, Quechua, and Spanish. The borders between the written and the oral began to shift. That day at Barnard College, there were two students with long hair in the audience, one with blonde hair, one with black. I invited them to join in. In Aymara, “allqa,” the union of black and white, is the transformation of the world—the movement in which one begins to become the other.” (97)

“The true performance is that of our species on Earth: the way we cause suffering to others, the way we warm the atmosphere or cause other species to disappear. I cover myself with clouds to feel like the Earth feels” (98)

Going back to Luis the illegal immigrant who was covered up in a hole in New York, she writes that New York is made of holes. I would like to draw a parallel between this incident of man-made processes, with a similar incident that occurred in my family’s construction business when I was growing up. A 300 lb. man who worked for our family company for many years named Virgil Rose was buried alive when one of the trench of a water main construction site caved in. He remained completely immersed underground for about 5 minutes in total. My dad was able to unbury him somehow. The difference between these two incidents? Yes, this is an important question. What is the difference between saving an old family friend and forgetting about an unknown immigrant? The difference is the fact that we, someone, everyone at that site, should have known him. We should know each other.

“And somebody had the hunch / I believe it was his brother / that he might be in the there / so they started to dig a hole / and there he was / he was crushed like a little mummy / a little body / inside the hole / So this is for Luis Gómez” (166)

She maps out the environmentalists, ethnologists, and poets who we must read. Like any valid work of literature, her book is not only an artistic performance, it is a reading list.

“Now I wish to tell you / a sort of not yet poem— / it’s about Lola Kiepja / Lola Kiepja / was a Selk’nam woman / and the Selk’nam / were the first / disappeared / in Chile, that is to say, / they were a whole people / made to disappear (…) in 1966 / she started to record songs / for Anne Chapman / and she loved la máquina” (129-131)

When I read about Cecilia Vicuña’s performances, her words and actions unbury me from a different site, a state of slumber, from a numbness that someone once told me is a disease the shamans in Chile call espantosa. Her language breathes air into my lungs with signals, strings, and bodily metaphors for concha the pussy, the conch shell, the the shape of our ear, we listen for the interconnectivity she brings to us from the Americas, ancient, present, and future.

“rain and clouds / are the law of moderation / first the trees go / and then / coolness is gone / coolness is gone / so because of that they say / mist / is the semen / of the mountains / where the streams are born / mist is the semen of the forest / where coolness / is born” (176-177)

This is a love letter pretending to be a list of thoughts I have brainstormed before I write my love letter to the poet Cecilia Vicuña, but it is the real love letter, as well.

Read more of her work in the book, itself: