Coming Round the Mountain

Whoever is responsible for making time fly needs to go for drug screening. Where did my two weeks go?

The highlight of the break for me was In(ter)ventions: Literary Practice at the Edge, a conference of experimental and digital writing at the Banff Centre. It was really exciting to see all the things that people are doing with language and new media. I met an artist/writer called Jen Bervin who sews over existing texts– the act of sewing is a postitive feminine gesture that throws the text not under erasure into negative space…. the original logocentric act of inscription strangely undone and then redone. Maria Damon and Adeena Karasick did a wonderful collaboration together called Schmata Schma’ata. There were lots of machine boys there doing cool machine boy things in that wonderful way that they do. Christian Bok is trying to design a virus whose DNA will form a beautiful poem. And when the DNA splits (to reproduce) the RNA strand that it attracts should form a poem that answers the original one. (The base pairs are coded against other letters– so it is essentially Christian’s job to choose a coding that will make the poem work.) He wants to send it into outer space so that long after the human race is gone, some vestige of our intelligence will remain coded into the DNA of this virus. More transcendent than immanent, but cute anyway.

Wonderful evening readings as well. Highlights: Fred Wah, Charles Bernstein, JR Carpenter.

I read on the opening night with Nick Montfort and Chris Funkhauser. Steven Smith really had me working! I was also given spots that were originally meant for Caroline Bergvall and Daphne Marlatt– so I had some big shoes to fill. I spoke in the morning with Nick Montfort, who showed a computer program called ppg256 that generates poetry using text he’s input, along syntactical guidelines he’s set up, but that is otherwise random.

Tensions did emerge between an smart and charming but un-self-consciously gendered ways of working, and a way of working that takes bodies and their histories into consideration.A lot of the feminists in the room were taken aback by the lack of body consciousness among some of their peers. There was a contingent of bright younger women from Calgary who got feisty about it. Check out Claire Lacey’s blog: www. I did a poetic dialogue between Butterfly and Pinkerton to try to poke at some of these issues.

The anxiety that was already in the room got exacerabated when, during the panel on digitial media, Kenneth Goldsmith asked a rather mean question about why the work presented looked so dated, why it wasn’t on the cutting edge. He should know better. The question periods were really short, and it was hard enough as it was to get beneath the surface of anything. That question just put all the panelists on the defensive in a way that I thought was really unrproductive.

Erin Moure gave a very useful talk about translation and the necessity of attending to the sounds and context of non-English languages. JR Carpenter showed a piece called “The Cape” which tells the story of her childhood in transit between Nova Scotia and New York in digital form, using maps, black and white illustrations and captions that tell the story in text when you roll your mouse over the images and maps. What makes JR’s work so remarkable is the way in which it re-imagines and re-spatializes storytelling form. Visually, “The Cape” has a photocopy/zine aesthetic—there is something very charmingly textual—dare I say papery about it. It doesn’t emphasize its own “digitalness” but maintains the DIY look of zine aesthetics. This work, and some of her other projects that actively involve other writers, really open the possibility for collective writing in digital forms that I find incredibly exciting.

Lance Olson showed this very unsettling short film called “Submission”, a recut of a film made by Theo Van Gogh (the great grandson of Vincent Van Gogh’s brother, also called Theo Van Gogh) in collaboration with with a Muslim woman called Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Olsen has written a novel about the film and the murder of Van Gogh by a Muslim man called Mohammed Bouyeri. He briefly contextualized the film, but not enough for this audience member at least to realize that he was showing it in quotation marks. The film’s politics of representation are unsettling– lots of images of a woman with a veil over her face, but her body naked, images of lovers killed in their sleep, a long slow shot of a woman’s naked leg with blood running down it. Olsen is interested in interrogating the repressions of contemporary society, and examining the layers of cultural readings that lead Bouyeri to shoot and decapitate Van Gogh. This was a presentation that really begged for an after-discussion, some of which is taking place now, productively, on the Poetactics blog.

The first day was a tough one, then, for all the questions laid on the table around the ethics of digital and experimental practices, the circulating nature of subjective agency, and tensions having to do with embodied experience, without a lot of time to think and talk these things through. It was still wonderful, though, for the sheer volume and variety of work we got to see/hear/witness.

The next day, we began with the Collaborations panel, which I moderated. Jen Bervin spoke about her piece on the Mississippi: Historically, the Mississippi has been a moveable river, with a constantly shifting geography. 20th century attempts to fix and contain its path, she suggests, have lead to highly destructive geographic and meteorological consequences. Her work explores the idea of the river with a long, painstakingly constructed textile/sequines piece that snakes along the ceiling of the gallery. D. Kimm, a performance artist and cultural organizer from Montreal spoke about her organizing work, and the way in which she draws different performance communities together in Montreal.

I read Daphne Marlatt’s paper on her behalf because she could not be with us. Then Fred Wah spoke about the Hi-bridi-tea project he worked on with Haruko Okano some years ago. All four speakers engaged from beginning point of their own embodied experience. That seemed to be what was necessary to shift that sense of unease troubled the first day. For me, the question of self-location is be key—which is funny because that is an absolutely humanist gesture. I think I am ok with that.

Erin changed the subject of the New Formalities panel to “Huh? Modalities?” which was hilarious and smart. Fred gave a brilliant evening reading from Sentenced to Light– the “Pop Goes the Neighbourhood” collab he did with Henry Tsang. And Bernstein gave an incredible reading beginning with “In the Middle of the Way” and ending with some poems for his daughter that were so devastating and sad. The body and experience still matter, but our technologies are making the body and experience in ways that are very different from the ways our parents experienced them. The big question that the conference opened up for me is how it is possible to have a knowledge—as self or as collectivity—in the current configuration, in which our communication is mediated in newly specific ways through digital media, new telephone technologies, as well as older forms—film, video…. and writing. Process poetry, Flarf, Oulipo and Dada have much teach us about what we send and receive digitally. When the computer randomly generates poetry and we still receive meaning, where is that meaning generated? How are we to understand that/those generative sites in relation to for the specificities of embodied experience—for Charles Bernstein after the loss of his daughter, for Lance Olsen after the murder of Theo Van Gogh, for Ayan Hirsi Ali, for young feminists in a still-patriarchal world, for Maria Damon and Adeena Karasick finding new, strong voices in collaboration? I think that some of the cultural work done by earlier conferences in the 90s could be productively brought back to the table—It’s a Cultural Thing, and Writing Through Race.

I had a great talk with JR Carpenter a few nights ago about the relationship between computer languages and other second languages. Computer language is always hidden when it is working—the browser does the translation. Is there a relationship between computer languages and non-English languages in an English-speaking context? What would it mean to bring those languages to the surface of our attention? How might one engage creative translation practice like that of Erin Moure or Oana Avasilichioaei in relation to computer language? Are computer languages languages of privilege or languages of marginalization—what is their relationship to contemporary forms of power? I once heard Andrew Klobucar say that in contemporary society tech support fill the same social position we used to give to priests.

I had a week at the Leighton Studios after the residency, which is just now wrapping up. I had a beautiful quiet cabin the the woods, with a wide bank of windows, beyond which all I could see were trees and wandering elk. I’ve made some headway with my novel. I didn’t miss the Olympic mayhem one bit, except perhaps for feeling a tinge of guilt at not staying to witness what some of my fellow citizens, who could not leave, had to withstand. I’m glad that the W2 Real Vancouver Writers Series, Short Range Poetic Device, and super-laureate Brad Cran were there holding off the forces of repression.

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