March 02, 2011

Palimpsest 1

“Palimpsest i.e. a parchment from which one writing has been erased to make room for another.” H.D.

In a letter, a recent heartfelt iteration of the old dilemma:

my question/concern for you, david, is a selfish one

lately i have been unable to write because i am unsure of poetry’s significance outside of the    “community” and i want what i spend my time doing to be socially/politically engaged.

why do i spend so much of my physical, mental and emotional energy on poetry, when it often seems that this energy would be better spent directly engaging the issues poetry talks about/around? is my engagement in poetry a sign of cynicism and escapism? am i running on bad faith?

so i guess my question for you, david, is how do you deal with these questions on your end? how do you think of poetry’s capacity to reach people besides poets and to maybe try to do something in the world?

Alli Warren to David Brazil

And David writes a generous letter back, saying, among many other things, “I have no fixed answers… on any of the questions you raise, which are after all the questions—only ongoing conversations, speculations, hopes.”

If you’d like to read their entire exchange, see Thom Donovan’s “Other Letters.”

Bill Viola, in “The Eye of the Heart,” the hour-long BBC documentary about his life & work (filmed, produced and directed by Mark Kidel) responds to these questions about when he was studying at Syracuse University. He says, “When I think back on that time, I have to say that there was a very strong interplay between political, social activism and artistic exploration. Those two things were, in my mind anyway, part of the same process. I didn’t think of them as at odds with each other. It was the Vietnam Era. Political protest, in my generation, was, you know, kind of, part of daily life practically, and that was my kind of coming of age in a political sense.”

“I think the turning point for me was when I did a Room for St. John of the Cross in 1983.”

“my works are first and foremost made for myself. They come from questions that arise from my own experience…. ” Bill Viola, Reasons for knocking at an Empty House

Practical. A part of daily life.

Comments (15)

  • Nathan Johnson says:

    Just Manny being ‘Manny’ instead of being a real person.

  • Manny Cartola says:

    sure, steve.

  • steve farmer says:

    it appears as if someone found a can of Troll-Be-Gone. whew. anyway, i found david and alli’s exchange pointedly inspiring. anyone who knows these young artists, or their work (both their writing and their yes, work, in the local writing community), could not misread it. nor their day jobs. and thanks for the post, Norma, for sharing a piece referencing the rare few who take the distinctively nuanced and difficult political act of not acting/lashing out at the tormentor even under the most extreme circumstances, but of stepping courageously aside from/out of the dualist, circular trap of hate, no matter how horrific the conditions. for me, that kind of courage makes the word “political,” just, well, fade away.

  • PS

    I also loved that piece with the water and the fire and the breathing, sinking and rising body (that was installed at the Saltpetrière in Paris).

    And thanks for sending me to David & Alli’s wonderful exchange!

  • Dear Norma,

    Thank you so much for mentioning Bill Viola. I did not know about that documentary. I still consider I Do Not Know What It Is I Am Like to be one of the most powerful works of our time, in any medium.


  • Steve Benson says:

    Oops. I meant “thinkages,” but I was too thick to catch it, before I posted.

  • Steve Benson says:

    I don’t quite comprehend the distinction between poet and activist or why we might need one and I can’t seem to get myself to read all of the discussion back and forth on that. It’s a little too academic for me, I guess, in one sense or another.

    But I was very grateful to find the links in this terse, kind and open-handed post of yours, Norma. Thanks a million. I had no idea there was so much revelatory Bill Viola on line, nor that I could read an actual letter from David Brazil to someone other than myself on line (no, I don’t think there are any letters to me on line, that’s not what I meant . . . ). Linkages proliferate thickages. Anyway, gotta watch this morning’s Democracy Now before it’s tomorrow, and get to bed.

  • Manoel O. Audaz says:

    Here’s a question then: would you have to go around declaring how much your poetry is political if you felt confident that it truly was? It is these hypocrities who talk a big game about politics and how everything is political yet seem to be the closest to the sidelines. I think the whole point about St. John of the Cross confirms this and you all are missing the point of the original post here. Here is a guy who was flogged and whipped daily but instead chose to write love poems… highly aesthetical love poems at that!

    Take Neruda, who was highly influenced by ST. John. His poems are gorgeous, sensual, full of love. But he let’s his poetry still be beautiful. Here is a poet who was exiled from his country, who was basically toe-to-toe with dictators yet where is his poetry OVERTLY political? where does it place politics over artistry? Nowhere that I am aware. He doesn’t need to tell himself, as Alli and David seem to have to, that it is political. They wouldn’t need to tell themselves this if something about their wasn’t political enough? They’d already know.

    Manny Cartola

  • Manoel O. Audaz says:

    OH Brother,

    I love poetry. I love poets. I love reading poetry, talking about it, analyzing it, or not analyzing it and enjoying it.

    I do not, or did not, or did not intend to create a dichotomy between poets and activists.

    My point is simple, and directed towards certain cliques that make it their practice to politicize their poetry, rather than actually getting involved in politics in a more direct mode. People who think taking a dump about themselves in free-verse at a local coffee shop is as effective as, say, getting involved with an activist organization are sorely misguided. There is a difference between saying and doing… in spite of J.L. Austin and all that. You, dear reader, and I both know it, no matter how much theorizing about poetry we may do to justify our being lazy and our fear of actually joining people “in the field of action” rather than in the bourgeois daycares of our creative writing departments.

    Chris Cobb: Please re-read what I said. I did say poetry is a political act. Even not writing poetry, even and especially inaction is an act that is ethico-political. Please re-read and you’ll find I am in agreeance with you. Yet imagine if they really did run for senate? Say like Al Franken who was an artists that originally used politically-infused satire? There is an example for you. Perhaps he felt his comedy wasn’t enough and sought more direct means… or no?

    Brent Cunningham: Why so perturbed? Listen carefully: I didn’t make an activist-versus-poet divide, you did. I was talking specifically of the obvious inneffectiveness of specific types of “hyper-politicized” poetry (and neo-avant gardist art in general, for that matter), specifically the anti-aesthetic strains of identity-poetry and art. Art and poetry that is too much a “statement” and too little craft, too little artistry, too little Art. Poetry that is too much about the theory that informs and ends up being inneffectual. Those artists who politicize their art so as to cover up lack of craft. Take Neruda for instance. A beliver that poetry should be right in there, read aloud to the proletariat and to revolutionaries. He himself often got right out and read his poems! Take that for instance! Now, compare that to this modish, cliquish, academic poetry of our time which has alot to say about idenity and politics, a lot to say about how everything is “political” yet uses this very statement as an excuse, insisting that their insular academic culture is in fact a political act. You miss my point entirely! I’m saying that it isn’t, firstly poetic enough, and secondly it isn’t political enough! It isn’t active enough! When one acknowledges that writing a poem is a political act then why not intesify that act? Why must it be ONLY about the identity politics they learned in their bourgeois English departments? Why can’t they, with all the more freedom than San Juan de la Cruz, to go out in the world’s injustice, and make their poetry a truly political act? Simply because the poetry of our time is either bourgeois baby-boomers collecting tenure or it is SF or NY tweenies who are too comfortable with their degrees to engage with oppressed people and use their talents as writers and artists to engage! What I am saying, if you get the gist, is that it is all good and swell to just say “everything is political action” but this we already know.

  • Vance Maverick says:

    I’ve been thinking about this post since reading it last night, and I’m glad I waited till it had stirred up some action. I don’t blame poets for not saving the world, since I’m not a poet and I don’t save the world either. But the world does need saving, which means we should all at least be thinking about how what we mainly do (work, or comment on blogs) relates to what really needs doing instead.

    But I would like to ask the poster why she chose the title “Palimpsest”. Superficially, it seems like a formal word — reflecting a preoccupation with the text and its physicality, rather than with the message. Would an activist care whether the manifesto was written on a fresh sheet, or one from which an earlier manifesto had been erased, or just scrawled over the old manifesto with a bigger marker?

    (I was also going to ask why such a normal definition of “palimpsest” (Googling, I see it verbatim in a dictionary of 1860) was credited to HD. But there’s at least a formalist answer to this — HD was copying out the old words on fresh paper, as a palimpsest is the inscription of fresh words over old.)

  • These are tough questions but I go for the easy answer. Which is that everything I write which is poetry belongs to the people and I am making freedom in language, for the people (myself included).

    Language is our commons.

    (camille roy)

  • Hey Manny,

    Let me get this straight – you hate poets and think they are all cowards? What? What the hell’s wrong with you? Maybe you don’t like a particular poem or poet but whether you realize it or not – the very act of writing poetry is a political act. The urge to create and to think and make things is a political act – especially in a culture based on hyper-consumerism.

    Maybe you don’t care for student publications. Fair enough….and maybe you don’t like the frustrating process of coming up with ideas because some will work and some won’t….and admittedly poets are not the best editors of their own work – but hey – not everyone who picks up a guitar turns into Jimi Hendrix. Likewise for all the activists doing “real” politics by attending rallies – how many of them are going to turn into Malcolm X, or as you put it, will end up “running for Senate?” I have been to hundreds of rallies and protests and not a single person I met ever ran for Senate…but does that make their expressions of protest any less valid?

    It’s too easy to condemn an artist or poet and it’s worthwhile to examine where that voice comes from. It is always easier to criticize others than to make something yourself. Try it. It’s harder than you might think.

    Bad poem, great song:

    This is the end
    Beautiful friend
    This is the end
    My only friend, the end

    Of our elaborate plans, the end
    Of everything that stands, the end
    No safety or surprise, the end
    I’ll never look into your eyes…again

    Can you picture what will be
    So limitless and free
    Desperately in need…of some…stranger’s hand
    In a…desperate land

  • “…make room for another.” Over time and globally, there’s been no shortage of the poet / artist / musician / dancer / filmmaker, etc activist, some who may hold office or posts, but are also in the trenches: that is-in the streets, in classrooms and in community working as fulcrums of resistance and change. The necessity to respond by all means including in experimental work in sometimes rarified company drives the culture into progressive thought, social and political action.

    In beginning her column with questions and a few examples, Norma opens a view that examines and erases these divides between activism and the work of artmaking. A multiplicity of response is necessary.

  • Brent Cunningham says:

    Perhaps, Manny, you would have a larger platform if you made a more realistic, and better informed, distinction than the one you’re making between “activists” (who apparently are always politically effective, un-cliquish, uncowardly and free of navel-gazing), and their polar opposites the poets. I really don’t know what activist circles you’re running in if you think the folks “running for senate” are doing fabulous, untainted, always consequential, and unbourgeois work.

    I fear Manny’s bombast will discourage people from talking about the exchange between Alli and David, and the Viola connection, with the subtlety it deserves. To me, in David’s letter, as in Alli’s question, a degree of anxiety over the kinds of things Manny bludgeons with generalities is, in fact, quite properly present: what to do, what choices to make as beings social AND political AND artistic, how to have good effects, and really what are “effects” in the first place? The serious activists, admirably and sometimes gloriously, are, yes, often out there seeking to make changes around specific issues, but in their fight over this or that cause can also sometimes lose sight of the picture from other vantages–it’s possible, for instance, that taking resources from one disadvantaged group and giving them to another can look, if you aren’t considering it creatively enough, like a victory. Maybe poetry doesn’t fill that “critical thinking” role in terms of its actual social presence and visibility, but to me artistic thinking in general is pretty essential. And I’d vehemently remind people making the poet/activist division that they’re largely the same folks anyways: poets have always been on the barricades (there’s lots of hours in the day, plus sometimes lots of time to kill up on those barricades), and meanwhile all effective activists have the ability to pull back and think philosophically & artistically, even poetically, about their issues in ways that can feed back, practically, into strategies and tactics of resistance.

    Those are just the utterly functionalist arguments. David has yet another angle on it, one that’s worth actual and careful consideration. “We will not have the political [reality] we need until we can meaningfully renovate our social being,” he writes. Any chance we can restart the conversation there?

  • Manoel O. Audaz says:

    Listen I know that everything is political… no action can really escape the tinge of that ethico-political dimension… or at least the ethical dimension. But I do wish I had a larger platform or soapbox to let people know this: publishing poems in small college journals isn’t going to save the world, getting an MFA in creative writing-poetry isn’t the same thing as running for senate. I know Shelley’s old dictum about the legislation of the world through poetry, but let’s face it, it was a tad hyperbolic even for its time when there was more truth to it than there is now.

    When I think about these poets who think they are doing something radical by going up to a poetryslam and taking a dump about their identity as a construct or whatever I think of them really as cowards. If you want to get political politicize your action in life. Go to a protest… get out there and do something. Don’t stare out your window thinking about poetry and how it is political, writing crap-verse or “Avant-garde” experimental poems that nobody-I MEAN NOBODY-gives a damn about outside of your little bay area poetry clique. It is a parody of politics to write “experimental” poetry or whatever and think you are changing something. The real fact is that you are too lazy, too boboist, too bourgeois to actually get out in the streets and stand up for something. A poet busy “examining” the social constructions and syntax of political lah blah blah is a joke no activist takes seriously. It is pathetic, frankly.

    I’ve always thought poets to be, honestly, real jerks who do all this mess of theoretical gymnastics to inform their weak poetry as politicized but fail to participate in the political process in more direct ways. They spend time de-mystifying art whilst the right-wingers run the actual show in the political center stage. I think of these college-ish “poets” as real nonces who really politicize their so-called art because they are too cowardly, too insulated to confront politics directly. !

    -manny cartola

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