Claudia Rankine's Citizen: An American Lyric

In October Emily Abendroth and I were at a Bard meeting and we shared a room at a YMCA camp in the Catskills when the trees around us had reached their zenith of flame and color. Emily had brought along a copy of Claudia Rankine's book Citizen: An American Lyric. Its opening immediately engages:

When you are alone and too tired even to turn on any of your devices, you let yourself linger in a past stacked among your pillows. Usually you are nestled under blankets and the house is empty. Sometimes the moon is missing and beyond the windows the low, gray ceiling seems approachable. Its dark light dims in degrees depending on the density of clouds and you fall back into that which gets reconstructed as metaphor (5).

Hailing the reader with its deployment of the second person, the writing subtly and fairly rapidly shifts away from what might first appear to be a luxurious, even narcissistic meditation--"you let yourself linger"--to a series of traumatic anecdotes, conversations, and experiences. For example:

At the end of a brief phone conversation, you tell the manager you are speaking with that you will come by his office to sign the form. When you arrive and announce yourself, he blurts out, I didn't know you were black!

I didn't mean to say that, he then says.

Aloud, you say.

What? he asks.

You didn't mean to say that aloud.

Your transaction goes swiftly after that (44).

The rain this morning pours from the gutters and everywhere else it is lost in the trees. You need your glasses to single out what you know is there because doubt is inexorable; you put on your glasses. The trees, their bark, their leaves, even the dead ones, are more vibrant wet. Yes, and its raining. Each moment is like this--before it can be known, categorized as similar to another thing and dismissed, it has to be experienced, it has to be seen. What did he just say? Did she really just say that? Did I hear what I think I heard? Did that just come out of my mouth, his mouth, your mouth? The moment stinks. Still you want to stop looking at the trees. You want to walk out and stand among them. And as light as the rain seems, it still rains down on you (9).

A friend argues that Americans battle between the "historical self" and the "self self." By this she means you mostly interact as friends with mutual interest and, for the most part, compatible personalities; however, sometimes your historical selves, her white self and your black self, or your white self and her black self, arrive with the full force of your American positioning. Then you are standing face-to-face in seconds that wipe the affable smiles right from your mouths. What did you say? Instantaneously your attachment seems fragile, tenuous, subject to any transgression of your historical self. And though your joined personal histories are supposed to save you from the misunderstandings, they usually cause you to understand all too well what is meant (14).

While the poetry sometimes makes use of the third and on occasion first person "I" narration, Rankine's writing powerfully employs the second person to convey discrete, individual experiences that are also all too frighteningly frequent, and therefore common, in common, shared by many. While the particulars of an encounter revealing racism at work may vary in their specific details, the shape of these encounters, what they reveal is markedly the same--namely,what it is like to live in a thoroughly racialized and racist society.

At the close of her book, Rankine thanks a large number of people who "generously shared their stories" (169), suggesting that her research and writing process included consulting friends and colleagues and incorporating their experiences into the text. The second person renders these stories in such a way that the reader is interpellated and implicated; emphatically the you of the text is at once discretely singular and plural.

from "Stop-and-Frisk"
a script for Situation video created in collaboration with John Lucas:

I knew whatever was in front of me was happening and then the police vehicle came to a screeching halt in front of me like they were setting up a blockade. Everywhere were flashes, a siren sounding and a stretched-out roar. Get on the ground. Get on the ground now. Then I just knew.

And you are not the guy and still you fit the description because there is only one guy who is always the guy fitting the description  (105).

The subtitle of Rankine's book is "An American Lyric." 

While any subject, any "I," is a subject of shattering, and the lyric itself is predicated on this split subjectivity--the "I" of any poem always a discursive construction--Rankine's writing in Citizen marks the myriad spoken and unspoken, overt and covert constructed ways race and racism traverse, shape, and undergird our relations.  Her careful deployment of pronouns reveals the emptiness of the "I" who cannot see others, or the discrepant fissure in social relations in which a black American "I" is read by others as a you, nameless, less than human, an indistinguishable object. At the same time, the collective you marks the communal--in all of its potential beauty and many horrors. I guess what I mean to say is Claudia Rankine elaborates the plenitude and the abyss every pronoun marks, demonstrating the ways race is a force of "undoing" and "doing" in a thoroughly racialized society, a democracy founded and foundering on its historically problematic construction of citizenship.

When a man says "I can't breathe," who does not hear the "I," see the human being struggling to breathe? What is it that some people see when they look at a black man or woman? Darren Wilson described Michael Brown as “look[ing] like a demon” or "Hulk Hogan" (McCoy).

Claudia Rankine's book Citizen exposes the ugly truth at the heart of the histories of citizens and citizenship.

For every citizen there is a non-citizen, an other that makes possible the category of "citizen." From The Oxford English Dictionary:

  •  An inhabitant of a city or town; esp. one possessing civic rights and privileges, a burgess or freeman of a city
  •  A legally recognized subject or national of a state, commonwealth, or other polity, either native or naturalized, having certain rights, privileges, or duties.

The writing throughout Citizen moves with a quiet, deliberative pace, one that is adept at suddenly turning a corner and revealing the precipice, one that the reader realizes is never suddenly there, but rather always present, if sometimes, less conspicuous.

Sometimes "I" is supposed to hold what is not there until it is. Then what is comes apart the closer you are to it.

This makes the first person a symbol for something.

The pronoun barely holding the person together  (71).

I couldn't put this book down. I want to hold this book up in the air.

McCoy, Terrence. "Darren Wilson Explains Why He killed Michael Brown."  The Washington Post, 25 November 2014.

Rankine, Claudia. Citizen: An American Lyric. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2014.


Celebrating Brandon Brown!

A Hearty Congratulations to the Bay Area's own Brandon Brown who recently received a National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowship!

Brandon Brown is the author of four books of poetry, most recently Top 40 (Roof) and the forthcoming Shadow Lanka (Big Lucks).  His poetry and prose have appeared recently or will appear soon in Open Space, Art Practical, Maggy, Elderly, Berkeley Poetry Review, and Where Eagles Dare.  He is an editor at Krupskaya, occasionally publishes small press materials under the imprint OMG!, and helps curate the Heart’s Desire reading series at the Bay Area Public School.

I have always admired the way Brandon's writing moves across multiple linguistic registers from pop culture to the classics. It does so with wit and linguistic and rhetorical flair. It is capable of bragging and being humble simultaneously. In its crossing and ability to register feeling, capaciously and often with a punch, his writing reminds me of Frank O'Hara's. 

You believe the writing when it claims: "Dunno, but I do feel these feelings and feel torn apart" (The Poems of Gaius Valerius Catullus 156).

Here is section 50 from Brandon's poem "Sparrow" in The Poems of Gaius Valerius Catullus from Krupskaya:

Dear God, it's me, Catullus, except this time I'm talking to you as a virgin, in stanzas of three glyconics followed by a pherecratean, a metrical system found in the work of Anacreon (6th century BCE). Each stanza observes synaphaea, or 'fastening together,' and each glyconic ends with a syllable that is long. Halfway through the poem I start to talk about your name, and how powerful you are, and how you're the moon and the vegetables I eat and are really old, and sui generis, so spritely, so gentle.

And section 29:

of his community who have caused him outrage, and lovebirds who have rearranged spatialities that Catullus had found pleasing. I have belabored this because it gives me an opportunity to talk about the process of translation in this book called The Poems of Gaius Valerius Catullus. Translation as I understand it involves a preceding writing, a proceeding writing--in between is the body that translates. The preceding writing is absorbed by the body of the translator in the act of reading. And when the translator writes something down which proceeds from the act of reading and the preceding writing, that is called "translation." However, far from idealizing repetition, this translation

So many sections of this poem hang in medias res, inviting the reader to turn the page. Get the book to find out where the next section takes you.

Brandon has kindly shared with us the poem he submitted to the NEA Committee. Enjoy!



from The Contemporary Step by Isabelle Garron, Translated from the French by Eléna Rivera

..the woman without writing would advance

—such is the trap     . right up to preferring an accident
                                                                                           --Isabelle Garron

I am happy to offer xpoetics readers a  winter gift from Eléna Rivera who has finished translating Isabelle Garron's The Contemporary Step originally published by Éditions Flammarion, Paris, 2007. Rivera is now at work translating Garron's Corps Fut.

Isabelle Garron

Isabelle Garron is a poet, critic and associate professor at Institute Mines Telecom. She has published three volumes of poetry at Flammarion: Face devant contre, 2002 (translated by Sarah Riggs and published by Litmus Press as Face Before Against, 2008); Qu'il Faille, 2007; and Corps fut, 2011). She is currently working on a translation of Way by Leslie Scalapino with the poet and editor Tracy Grinnell, and wrote an essay  "des cercles au crayon,” for a new anthology of Anne Marie Albiach's complete work "Cinq le choeur” just published by Flammarion. 

Elena Rivera

Eléna Rivera won the 2010 Robert Fagles prize for her translation of Bernard Noël's The Rest of the Voyage (Graywolf Press, 2011) and is a recipient of a 2010 National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship in Translation. She has also translated three of Isabelle Baladine Howald’s books, Parting Movement, Constantly Prevented (Oystercatcher Press, 2014) Secret of Breath (Burning Deck, 2009) and The Pain of Returning (Mindmade Books 2012).


Saidenberg and Cain Presented by Robert Glück for Small Press Traffic

During this 40th anniversary year, Small Press Traffic has asked former SPT Executive Directors to curate readings with writers they find compelling. On November 16th, Bob Glück featured Jocelyn Saidenberg and Amina Cain. Each of these two writers read riveting work, Saidenberg from her new book Dead Letter (Roof Books 2014) and Cain from Creature (Dorothy 2013). As they read, the entire audience seemed to be holding their breath. Jocelyn's and Amina's work, each distinct, share an exquisiteness of line, timbre, tone, pacing. One feels the spaces and weight of what has been left out. It is a pleasure to share Bob's introduction and a small portion from Amina's and Jocelyn's new books.
Bob Gluck

 Introduction from Robert Gluck:
When I was asked to curate an event here at SPT, it seemed to be very natural to ask Jocelyn and Amina.  I am an ardent fan of Jocelyn’s new book, Dead Letter, which makes various kinds of engagements with Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener, as I am of her previous books, Mortal City, Cusp, Negativity and Shipwreck.  For Dead Letter I wrote this blurb: 
What if I prefer not to write myself legibly?  What if I decline yes, no, and all other locations?  What if going forward equals believing in the prison of legibility?  Then disbelief becomes its own mysticism and speech becomes an oracle from the other side of the limit.  This figure without form in Jocelyn Saidenberg’s Dead Letter has the empty voice of negative space.  Bartleby is the White Whale’s gabby cousin!--translating the deep shadow of an expanding empire into the deeper shadow of a contracting one.  Was there ever more fertile aporia or truer Valentine?—that is, founded so purely on loss?

So, then, I liked the idea of pairing a writer who is also one of my dearest friends with a writer I had never met.  One day at my house Jocelyn handed me a book that had lived in a stack of books for some time and she advised me to read it.  That was Creature by Amina Cain.  I did read it and it really melted my butter.  I felt at once that I am Amina’s ideal reader--I wish I could read twenty books by her, but there is only one more, I Go to Some Hollow.  Amina is a kind of corn-fed Maurice Blanchot.  Her writing is about being alive, and so it can go in any direction in each next sentence.   “What do you want from this city,” my friend asked me on the way home.  “Nothing, just to live in it.”  Just to live is by no means a simple wish, it is a wish that tangles one in recognitions and inner critics.  I love her prose for its declarative sentences that seem to be continuously beginning, and for the overall sense of writing from a kind of negative space.  “Not knowing what is good for anyone, I start writing.”

Jocelyn Saidenberg and her dog Pony

An excerpt from "Witness or My Sheep Return" from Jocelyn Saidenberg's Dead Letter:
I could not enter what existing already, that already living, but my entrance, by entering, made it, makes it continually and ever changing. It's the steadfast yet temporarily shadow gathered to our impersonal atmosphere, the not yet, if never, as experienced. And what does happen to arrive, that is our error and errancy, whose failure most generally. How enter the never intended, the not born from my yet encountered endless, whose unaccounted? To put words on that horizon then, and through indirection find out.

My errancy falls in an alien language who speaks the weather of strangeness. In touching, being touched by what, we dwell within the possible of shadows in my unfrequented wood as a loss yet to lose.

I am still looking for nothing in particular but am less than singular without. You find me and you welcome my arrival in what was there, already, whatever strangeness, difference or otherwise. To reckon this now untamed and inraptured within the wilderness through which I wander, ecstatic. I am a being becoming a full stop, in open sky, arresting, scattering the nut and its shell. For I'd populate these wilds with whatever instinct, receptive semination, to gather rather than form. It's the formlessness that speaks myself, negligent in intention, as grass or stone or atmosphere, arrived like a seed on the wind. Come from without and coming otherwise lost, fall through the cleft, birdborne.

The doing of not doing. How I see and am seen to be being and the doing of the not doing, all a doing, for we are of various beings. I am your orchard, your garden to wander through. Increase the fragrance of flourishing, and prune what you please, I prosper by it, and am yours, for I bloom the better.

To review and in short, I arrived at my attorney's office where I remained, doing masses, then less, then doing nothing. My attorney tried to do something about me doing nothing, that is, he tried. At last I am taken to prison where he visits twice. I am found therein sleeping with kings and counsellors.

I didn't mean to mean, didn't assume to mean otherwise the unthought, formless promise, starved of all attachment, for there was no pause of digestion. As instinct I kiss this and this grows in unreason, sprouts in tending what is no longer hidden and hiding.

If to sleep at the dusk where our ship had wrecked, wrong ship and wrong love, wrecked in our vast Atlantic, scattered seeds at the bottom of the sea. I am as weather shadow cloud and as weather shadow cloud I am this everlasting dusk, this elsewise that you find me, love, ever wrong, ever ours. Be ever the weather shadow cloud, be ever, be everlastingly returned, called back.

Listen, I keep to wander, to how weather wanders, shadows and clouds. If one into the other, the possible of each the other endlessly. Let my body become wind bewildering the twilight between us now. My forehead touches the wall, darkened by inwardness by shadow, above the tufted grass, uncarpeted fields, resting here (81-83).

Amina Cain

from Amina Cain's "The Sleeve of My Coat" from her book Creature:
We have gotten into the habit of inviting other couples to our house to play cards, and once they are here they stay for a long time. I am always surprised by it. At five A.M. one would expect to be in bed, sleeping. They relax here, maybe too much. It might be that they feel relaxed by how close we are to the ocean.
    In the afternoons everything happens that can't happen at night. Time. Food. A toy horse that races across the living room floor when my neighbor comes to visit with her children. We sit on the terrace ever so tensely. Almost transparent, like the tip of a plant.
     For a long time I couldn't get settled in life. I remember this constantly. I think about it on the terrace. I would see a dog and think it was a cat. Then something got bigger. My personality.
     In between visits from the couples, and the neighbor and her children, my husband and I work in our studies. My husband's study is filled with tropical plants, which he keeps warm in the winters with fluorescent lights. My study is filled with books and dust. I like working when I know he is also working. I hear him watering his plants, and smoking. Sometimes I'm extremely frustrated when I write, and other moments I am extremely scared. I never knew it was possible to be scared while working on a story.
     One night in my study I felt I was supposed to write about our house. I had never before seen our house as a strange thing. I looked at the clothes in my closet. I knew that this was writing, to look at those clothes. Later, when the couples arrived, I was distant from them.
     Tonight it seems like fall, but it isn't. In the kitchen my husband is making a very involved salad. We sit talking about our work, and eating, and I drip olive oil onto my blouse, accidentally.
     "Your race is flushed," my husband says.
     Something croaks loudly at the window, startling me.
     I will never write a novel. I will never write about the couples. I will know the couples. I will know myself.
     "What's wrong?" my husband asks.
     "There's always someone here. When am I supposed to write?"
     After dinner I go into one of the rooms of the house. Sitting in a chair, an antique, I feel--enormous. My personality. Mixed with fall.
     My husband is calling me from somewhere upstairs. It sounds as if he is in the hallway. I get interested in my own breath, which doesn't happen very often. The curtain moves, and I like the way it matches something in side me. But I know that a curtain shouldn't match me and that I shouldn't like it.

Morning arrives and I drag myself out of bed hours after my husband has gotten up. The room is cold and airy, but I don't care: today there's something nice about it. I want to air out my mind. I find a pair of pale yellow tights in one of the drawers of the dresser.
     "You idiot," I say to them.
     But I go outside wearing the yellow tights all the same and find my neighbor's daughter playing with a huge stuffed animal on our terrace.
     "What's that?" I ask.
     "A rhinoceros, " says Sylvie. She's wearing a black leotard and tutu, and grabbing onto the banister she pulls herself along it. She doesn't look like she's dancing, but she does seem to be enjoying herself.
     I ask her, because I do want to know, "Is that dancing?" and she says that it is, that she learned it the day before in her ballet class. "It's not dancing, " I tell her and she doesn't respond. Just like with the couples, I'm surprised at how long this "dancing" can go on, but I try to stay present.
     It's the kind of morning that's more like an evening it's so dark outside. A newspaper blows along the street. I feel something towards it. A tree limb sways up and down in the breeze.
     Outside I can see my past. Here is where I stood with a friend and talked about a movie. Here is the exact moment I knew I wanted to write. Here's the bed I slept in with someone I once loved. Here is the weather when I had bronchitis. Here is the emotion when I said goodbye.
     That night I drink five glasses of wine, even though I usually only drink one. With five glasses of wine, I begin to admire my life. All these attractive couples are around me. How did it happen?
     "I made lentil soup," I hear one of the men say, as he deals cards around a table. It makes me realize I have no idea what the couples do when they are not at our house.
     There is my husband. He's been with the same couple all night. I begin to admire him, the way the couple is very easily in his presence. I am usually rigid, and though many couples approach me, I have a hard time allowing them to stay. I make my excuses and go out to the terrace. I look down at the grass. Inevitably a couple comes and sits with me quietly. This is the kind of couple I am most suited for.
     When we try to sleep that night my husband is like a dog or a cat, and I am unsettled by it.
     "A couple came upstairs," he says.
     "After you had five glasses of wine."
      "What did they do up here?"
      He paws at the darkness. "They wanted to see your study."
     "What did they think about it?"
      "They said they felt at home."

The next day it's warm again, as it should be. The ocean is calm and it looks as if a shark will come out of it. Then my neighbor appears.
     "What's wrong?" she asks.
     "When I look at you I see a character from a book."
     "I am not a character."
      "You are. An annoying one."
     She doesn't leave. The water moves through its waves. "It's you who looks like a character."
    "Which one?"
     "The one who---." She stops. "Dies."
     At home I ask my husband, "Where's our neighbor's husband?" I am sitting in his study among his tropical plants. There are so many of them. One plant blocks out the couple.
     "I think he left."
      The couples and my neighbor and her children, I write in my notebook.
     "What are you writing?" my husband asks me.
     "It's too new to share."
      "Are you worried she's lonely?"
      "No. Will you play some music? Something pretty."
      He plays something stressful.
      I like having to wear tights under my dress. It's because of something inside me. Their hair
blowing back lightly from their faces. You'll never understand how angry I am. Today the plants are like a painting. It's not a cry to writing, it's a cry to a future novel. Always ignoring her. People have fucked in here. Here is a novel in which---I know them in a certain kind of way. Sylvie has picked up a rhinoceros and is hitting it against a wall.
     "You're writing in my study."
      "Is it okay?"
      "Of course, you're my wife."
      "When the couple's in my study, can I be here?"
     "Don't you want to be in your study with them, to make sure they don't mess anything up?" (55-60).



Miranda Mellis and Emily Abendroth at Carville Annex Press in San Francisco

October 19, 2014

It was a sunny afternoon out in the Avenues at 4037 Judah.  This was my first time at Carville Annex Press, a small but inviting two story space, run by Katherine and Sarah Fontaine. You can find out more about them, by visiting their web site here: Carville Annex Press.

Both Emily Abendroth and Miranda Mellis were in the city visiting from elsewhere, Philadelphia in Emily's case, and Olympia, Washington in Miranda's, and it was a treat and such an engaging pleasure to have these two writers in conversation. Not only are the two friends, but their work communicates shared concerns across genre lines.  They structured their reading to open up a space of dialogue; each read from her own work and then posed questions to the other, often reading an excerpt from the other's work. This proved to be generative, complex, and richly engaging for the intimate audience, everyone leaning forward as on occasion Emily and Miranda competed with the sound of the N car outside, their dark silhouettes like cut-outs against the backdrop of a sheer white curtain in front of an open window full of afternoon light. What follows includes excerpts from their readings, questions and some comments. You will get a sense of the high bar these two powerful writers set for themselves, each other, and their readers.

Emily started things off by reading some new work which examines surveillance, probing how it is oppressive but within which or under it, people continue to find wiggle room. Abendroth referenced the work of Cassie Thorton and her project, "The Poets Security Force," about which you can find out more here at Cassie's website. I think Abendroth participated in this project, coming together with others to explore in what ways one is secure or insecure, in what ways one colludes with and resists regimes of surveillance, among other things.

One of the lines I jotted down from Emily's piece includes: "It looked like it had what you needed and then it needled you." This is classic Abendroth, a line that is incisive but emerges in language that initially hides the about-face it is about to perform. I wish I had written down more from these pieces, but I got lost in the pleasure of sheer attention and listening. Keep reading and below you'll discover excerpts from Emily's writing.
Miranda read an excerpt from a fabulous piece that takes the form of a fake review of a novel that doesn't exist.  Here's the first section of it:

The Snail
Reviewed by Miranda Mellis


But do we have the doctrine which Kafka’s parables interpret and which K.’s postures and the
gestures of his animals clarify?
–– Walter Benjamin, “Franz Kafka”


The Snail is a novel composed collaboratively by an anonymous collective whose stated intent is to transmit that doctrine which, Walter Benjamin speculated, Kafka’s parables intimated. The reader is immersed in an aether, a Kafkaesque medium that dissolves anthropocentric defense mechanisms. However, self-forgetting absorption is not to be found in this dissolution, for there is no singular plot to unearth. The book is not plot-driven so much as plot-flown, plot-crawled, plot-swum, plot-migrated. One begins to feel it directly after a short prologue introduces the non-human narrator and
invites us to hold the book up to a mirror to learn her name

ehT lianS

 Though she is ostensibly the main narrator, ehT lianS occasionally and even suddenly goes dormant. When this happens the pages start to exfoliate language until all that is left are the blank pages, glimmering here and there with traces of ehT lianS silvery, iconoclastic departure. As ehT lianS recedes like eyestalks, the under-plots of The Snail take over. The first under-plot opens on a critic in a small studio apartment, also reading The Snail in an enormous horsehair bed. The bed takes up almost the whole chapter as well as the whole apartment. After an eighteen-page ekphrasis of the bed,
with no attention paid whatsoever to anything else about the setting, we realize that the bed is history itself, where reason has been sleeping, where the state, too, has been dreaming. The critic underlines a sentence: “What is the state dreaming?” Here you must turn the book to the side, for the interval of the state’s dream is written in long horizontals so far into the gutters of the book that you have to break its spine to read it. The critic breaks the book open and pages containing the dreams of the state fall out onto the floor.
The state’s dream begins with fear and end with walls. It begins with tigers and ends with riot police. It begins with ulcerous fighting great apes and ends with gang-raping soldiers. It begins with the hippocampus and ends with automata. It begins in a womb and ends in a cage. It begins with myth and ends in space-time. It begins with numbers and ends with letters. It begins with songs and ends with signatures. It begins with names and ends with lists. It begins with slaves and ends with slaves. It begins with snails and ends with snails. It begins under water and ends under water.
When she finishes reading the state’s dreams, the critic falls asleep exhausted and dreams herself that she is searching for the authors of The Snail. As she loses consciousness the pages thin out and turn to vapor. The next chapter begins inside the critic’s mind, where she is dreaming that she has commissioned Detective Vic Deet, a moon-pale private eye, to find the authors of The Snail. During an interview with Mandaug of the Quarrel Sea, who ehT lianS claims knows who wrote The Snail,
Detective Vic Deet begins to feel his human identity dissolving. As she observes Deet’s dissolution in the dream, the critic too feels her identity dissolving. She tries to wake up to halt this liquefaction but cannot. The reader, in turn, begins to feel wildly empty. The crescent of narrative slides to black. We read that the grasses on the mountains have turned brown, the cities are flooding, and the trees have caught fire. The text very suddenly and literally fades. The reader is about to throw the book in terror, when, waking up, the critic glances out at the church windows outside her window and sees
‘the virgin’. From window to window the critic and the virgin lather each other in light. The reader is suddenly also flooded with light, and comprehension. She spills beyond domestic frames becoming a lace prism, casting a rainbow as long and large as Alice. She turns the page and a seven-foot, letter-pressed gatefold on thick, birch-white paper unfolds. On every page is written the following text in red ink:



You can read the whole thing soon as it is forthcoming in 2015 in Black Box--A Record of Catastrophe.
Miranda then read two of Emily's exclosures from her book ]exclosures[ from Ahsahta Press. Here is Exclosure ]23[.

Can we possibly farm out and replace our prior provisional shelters--which are currently sweltering, buckling under the weight and sting of favors that no one asked for, but neither can they ignore

Having been equipped with automatic doorframes that see fit to permanently evict their very residents, who form now an incensed and fugitive public forced to tuck in their shirttails and to underwrite the social relations of their own domination

Handing over one disprized but notarized signature after the next in which the text of informed consent is always more accurately represented as the penmanship of misapprehended coercion

In blurred captivity.       In close proximity.      In the concrete streets of urban heat islands.
                                                        grief defiled

For this, my love, is living like snarling.
This is a globalized Arlington mortuary.
The nancy snouts of the glaciers receding trancelike
before the feast days of lonely manufacturing.

The formerly open tractlands standing now triply refinanced
advancing in speculative columns of glum figures
minus the ligaments of animate tissue

"Eventually, Sedakial" her voice issues by way of reply,"one realizes that there probably only exist relations and nothing else."
"And that this singular, unaccompanied wealth is either a source of great optimism or tremendous despair. Or perhaps rather it is always there, always querulous, a sort of careless and mind-vexing prism through which the two dueling emotions become inextricably and endlessly paired, occurring with nary a hair of space between them."
Parrying--with scarce a pause--between enervation and devastation."
Miranda also read from Emily's essay "The Anticipated Commons versus the Currently Inhabited One," a brief excerpt from which is offered here:
A lot of the research, organizing, and writing work that I've been involved in over the past half-dozen years has revolved specifically around prisons and mass incarceration, as they function in correlation with state regimes of punishment and control n the broadest sense of those terms. My own thinking in relation to models of counter-power and transformative tactics of resistance has at times been deeply animated by the recent resurgence of interest--within various leftist intellectual, activist and artistic circles--in the concept of "the (public) commons." In the words of anti-prison activist Layne Mullet, at its best and most provocational, "the commons changes the way we think about care work and social reproduction from an individual to a collective responsibility...[It] is a direct challenge to the state and to capital (or, at least, it makes the price of expropriation much higher)." From this standpoint, "communing" as an active and actively fought for verb is a collaborative, politicized effort of both mutual aid and direct confrontation with those forces of subjugation that would preclude all movement toward community self-determination. In this sense, the language of "the commons" is primarily anticipatory; it speaks for a world in which we don't yet live, but which we could at a minimum wish to...could labor and struggle to even.
Without question, I share with others this anticipatory desire; however, when I think of the current U.S. carceral state and the spiraling disciplinary and militarist powers it represents, I feel like the overwhelming enormity of its presence also forces us to contend with a very different form of "shared experience" (albeit one which is by no means equally shared) that marks today's landscapes. In other words, we are obliged to account for this dystopic, but altogether realistic, observation that an all-too-sizeable component of our "common" contemporary condition in this country revolves around the pervasive escalation of unparalleled prison construction and mass incarceration as but one predominant element within a violent, punitive and colonizing state. It is an element so grotesquely enlarged that at this point it has a hand in shaping nearly every dynamic of our social, cultural, and physical environments with or without our recognition of its doing so.
Miranda then posed the following question:
In "The Anticipated Commons Versus the Currently Inhabited One," you note a contradiction that bears on, on the one hand orientations and praxes that desire prefiguration and reclamation of commons, and on the other conditions that currently exclude and make impossible even the barest sliver of commons for so many. You talk about the commons as a world in which we don't yet live, and then raise mass incarceration as "an element so grotesquely enlarged that...it has a hand in shaping nearly every dynamic of our social, cultural, and physical environments with or without our recognition of its doing so." Your words starkly point up the negative image of the commons as not just privatization or private property, but as prison. In the face of this, you insist that contemporary poetics must sound out "the catastrophic...reverberations of living in a society that has effectively criminalized our most basic characteristics of livelihood and requirements for existence (our youth, our old aged, our poverty, our needs for housing or a doctor's appointment, our hunger) and instead fed them back to us as dangerous behavior and/or unsustainable, unassuageable demands." You go on to say that its crucial to see and evaluate how deep "has been the appropriation of these sentiments and this vocabulary even from and amongst us struggling to resist, reject, and arrest such logics." In a related observation, Alan Ginsberg put it this way half a century ago: "Almost all our language has been taxed by war." You quote George Jackson who writes, "The Present, due to its staggering complexities, is almost as conjectural as the past."
Can you talk more about this contradiction, and if you feel like it, about the re-siting, or reorientation from an anticipated, prefigured, "coming commons" towards an orientation to the present, as, as George Jackson put it, "conjectural" and also as the interval, or space-time, form which to ask, as you later do, "What happens if we very seriously and daily seek to hold our very preservation as a "commons" rather than as an individual stake?" How does our experience of the passage of time relate to our political imagination?
And so, a discussion ensued, followed by Emily in response to Miranda's work. Emily graciously sent in her comments and ruminations about her discussion with Miranda, post-event. What follows comes from Emily's pen:
I was particularly drawn to this passage in Miranda’s “The Snail,” a fictional review:

The critic underlines a sentence: “What is the state dreaming?” Here you must turn the book to the side, for the interval of the state’s dream is written in long horizontals so far into the gutters of the book that you have to break its spine to read it. The critic breaks the book open and pages containing the dreams of the state fall out onto the floor.
The state’s dream begins with fear and end with walls. It begins with tigers and ends with riot police. It begins with ulcerous fighting great apes and ends with gangraping soldiers. It begins with the hippocampus and ends with automata. It begins in a womb and ends in a cage. It begins with myth and ends in space-time. It begins with numbers and ends with letters. It begins with songs and ends with signatures. It begins with names and ends with lists. It begins with slaves and ends with slaves. It begins with snails and ends with snails. It begins under water and ends under water.

In general, I always love the imaginative use that Miranda’s work makes of the hallucinatory or the dream state as a space for the revelation of subterranean desires and forces, at both the individual and institutional level. I’m also struck by how many of her stories dabble in or feature divinatory and prophetic practices, which her diverse characters labor to activate to their own various uses – in the hope of anticipating or understanding both their present and future circumstances. Given that Miranda and I’s conversation together on Sunday was so rooted in questions regarding contemporary conditions and future possibilities (as well as how those two time/space/conceptual sites dance around one another in tempering, rupturing, pollinating, and caustic ways), I was particularly excited to hear Miranda say more about how those prophetic impulses and excursions function in her literary work.

 I.e. What can the state’s dream potentially tell us about the lived, and all too vibrantly awake, state’s nightmare?

 I appreciated how the state’s dream reveals its failure of imagination, even at the deepest unconscious level – the slow registering for the reader of just how many times the state begins and ends in the same space, the same practices – even when, as is so frequently the case, those features are the last things you personally might want to begin and end with (i.e. with oppressive, manipulative force) – or, in Miranda’s words, with “slavery” and “underwater”. Here, I associate “underwater” with the phenomenon of ears clogged, soggy, and drowning, as opposed to with fertile hydroponics or flourishing reefs, etc.

I was also drawn to how the passage above simultaneously works with and disrupts notions of causality and sequence at nearly every single turn of phrase, bringing to bear both parallelism and incongruity, both intended results and constant unpredictability.

Or, as Miranda so beautifully writes elsewhere: “not plot-driven so much as plot-flown, plot-crawled, plot-swum, plot-migrated.”
I really appreciated Miranda’s observations at the Carville Annex concerning how her work operates not via “secret” or “hidden” subplots/sub-narratives, but rather with all the threads and forces openly present on the surface of the page, constantly complicating and cross-influencing and re-shaping one another.

 It made me think of this theater device that my friend, the performer and puppeteer Beth Nixon, created for one of her shows, “Is Enough, Enough?” that I found distinctly striking. A central prop in Nixon’s piece is the “Meanwhile Closet” - a double-door cabinet housing dozens of discrete compartments whose enclosed contents importantly interrupt and transform the primary actions taking place to the character on stage. Through this rather ingenious and deceptively simple physical construction, it becomes possible for Beth to uniquely evoke the multiplicity of landscapes and often conflicting alignments of identity that each one of us is compelled to negotiate and inhabit at any given time. The conventional (and non-life reflecting) idea of a single unbroken narrative arc is consistently disturbed throughout this piece and both the actor and viewer are forced to contend (as we do daily, but not so often theatrically) with the reality that our lives and bodies are not merely only our own, but are both affected and enriched by the larger historical events and social/cultural currents we occupy.

I think Miranda’s fiction always asks that of us as well – performing as a kind of “meanwhile novel” – in ways that I, as a reader, can’t get enough of.
If it’s useful to have, as part of my first question, I was also reading back to those present on Sunday this sentence that Miranda had written to me as we were thinking about this event in advance – a sentence which really grabbed me with a considerable power and staying force.

I feel like the concerns propelling both of us as writers so overlap...the wanting to use the writing somehow to show not just the pain of what people do to survive, but also, somehow, through juxtaposition, through parataxis, allegory, and ciphers, to delegitimate/show the illegitimacy of the determining/overdetermining authority structures we object to and oppose---not just as wrong and oppressive, but also as delusional and ultimately without basis or justification in any honest metaphysics...”

 At the time I responded to that important prod/reminder with:

 “I love this sentence of yours - "not just as wrong and oppressive, but also as delusional and ultimately without basis or justification in any honest metaphysics..."

I also think so much of both our work struggles in that realm of what Judith Butler would articulate as 'agency within a field of constraint' - how to cultivate that, multiply it, but also not be delusional about its possibilities and limits either. And when the writing practice has to honor and plumb and sound those out and when its whole goal is to exhaustively try to blow them to smithereens.”

When I got home that evening (really to Robin’s home, which she was so generously lending and opening up a room of), I peered into Miranda’s The Revisionist, which I hadn’t read in years, and was startled by how much it’s first sentence condensed in a single gorgeous space a number of the questions my own current in-progress essay on surveillance is trying to explore:
“My last assignment was to conduct surveillance of the weather and report that everything was fine.”
--Emily Abendroth
Of course, this all merely brushes just one of the many surfaces of this rich encounter between two, to my mind, literary rock stars.  You can find Emily and Miranda's books here at Small Press Distribution.


Rachel Zolf in San Francisco

Yesterday afternoon at ATA on Valencia at 21st in San Francisco, SMALL PRESS TRAFFIC presented RACHEL ZOLF with special guests  SIRAMA BAJO, DAVID BUUCK and ERIKA STAITI.  The afternoon included a film, reading, and polyvocal performance from Janey’s Arcadia (Coach House, 2014), "an aversive, conversive reckoning with the ongoing errors of Canadian settler-colonialism."

Here's how Coach House describes Janey's Arcadia:

Janey's Arcadia restages Canada's colonial appropriations in a carnivalesque cacophony of accented speech, weather, violence, foliage and carnality. Rachel Zolf assembles a pirate score of glitch-ridden settler narratives, primarily from Manitoba. Clashing voices squall across time, flashing pornographic signs that the colonial catastrophe continues with each brutal scrubbing of Indigenous knowledges and settler responsibility. Unsettling the Arcadian promise of a new pure home, this poetry asks whose bodies are consumed as fuel, and whose glitched subjectivities dirty up received narratives of supremacy and vanishing. Subversive, aversive, conversive, Janey's Arcadia propels the reader toward necessary ethical encounter.

In her introduction, Samantha Giles, at Rachel's request, discussed her own background which includes Chickasaw, an ancestry cloaked in silence within the history of Giles' family. This is something a number of us can attest too. My family's Mic'mac ancestry was, until my maternal grandmother's death, a rumored but tabooed subject. I bring this up as Zolf's work engages with questions of erasure, misrecognition, denials and repressions, personal, communal, social, political. How to excavate these histories and in what languages articulated by what subjects are questions at the heart of her project. Janey's Arcadia followed Zolf's work on Neighbor Procedure and her visit to Israel and Palestine.

Erika Staiti and Rachel Zolf

Zolf's event began with her reading from her book, accompanied by David Buuck, who worked the overhead projector, displaying multiple, palimpsested layers from a variety of texts and images, including the one on the book's cover.  This sliding performance of layered images/texts/words accompanied Zolf's resonant, guttural, lyrical, sonically textured languages, which include among others, Cree, French, Gaelic, Scot's English, Red River twang, and the linguistic cacophony created by "errors of recognition" within the Optical Character Recognition software (OCR) Zolf used for obtaining digital copies of historical documents and texts.

Rachel then invited the audience to have a discussion. She shared some of her process, asked us if we felt as if we were settlers and wondered what feelings were evoked by the work. This last question, for me, proved provocative as there was so much to take-in in the rich performance. I found myself sonically pleasured, and I supposed troubled, as well as interested by the contextual resonance of images and text moving on the screen. For example, at one point an image of an 1886 pamphlet entitled "What Women Say of the Canadian Northwest" was juxtaposed/overlaid with a text that included a sentence that read something like, "if any woman should be so audacious...the board....will grind her to dust....!). Where affect is in the midst of so much going on is difficult to pinpoint. There's a great deal to explore here--where affect is in a piece, how it is evoked, mobilized, beyond stock strategies and with complexity, how and when it is experienced (immediately, upon solitary reading, belatedly, etc.,)  by an audience member or reader--these are all engaging questions. What form has to do with all of this is also live. Zolf shared her own earlier engagement with formalism in the tradition of Russian formalism and her current interest in mobilizing affect.

Sirama Bajo and Erika Staiti

This discussion was followed by the showing of a short film Zolf has worked on with a number of collaborators. The film includes footage marked with the Canadian National Film Board's (NFB) watermark and includes the running time log or signature. The footage includes this material because Zolf appropriated it as it was too expensive to purchase the rights. Rachel explained how she likes having these features as part of the film since they markedly declare who owns the gaze. After the film, we moved outside onto the sidewalk on Valencia for a reading which included a polyvocal performance of the poem and the names of indigenous women murdered in Canada. Here Zolf was joined by Erika Staiti, David Buuck, and Sirama Bajo. Passersby stopped to listen, walked through the performance, pulled their BMWs out of the adjacent parking spot. The twilight was lit by the many upscale neon lights to be found on Valencia these days. The performers' voices struggled against the ambient sound of urban night life as the humid day began to unwind. Bajo closed the event with an indigenous song, her beautiful voice rising powerfully above the street sounds around her.  

David Buuck, Sirama Bajo and Rachel Zolf

If you weren't there, that's too bad. Zolf gave us much to think about and feel; we had the chance to talk together, an opportunity always built on the foundation of provocations and risk, and in this case, exhilaration.


Videos Now online for 2014 Small Press Traffic White & Victor Scalapino Memorial Lectures

Simone White & Divya Victor

Now you can listen to and watch these two amazing Leslie Scalapino Memorial Lectures online at PennSound: