Notes: Fences, Stop Signs, Shifters, or, the Conditions of Community

June 2015

Recently in a workshop at Bard College with this year's  Language and Thinking faculty, we did some reading and writing around selections from several texts: Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, James Gleick’s Chaos: The Making of a New Science, Fanny Howe’s “Bewilderment,” and in the group I was in, Verlyn Klinkenborg’s Several Short Sentences About Writing, among other things. At the same time, I was thinking about all the ongoing crises here and around the globe, including those in the poetry world around Kenny Goldsmith’s performance of a reworking of Michael Brown’s autopsy report at the Interrupt 3 Conference at Brown and even more immediately Vanessa Place’s tweeting in Blackface of Gone With the Wind. All of this was reaching a crescendo on Facebook and elsewhere in social media in the experimental poetry scene in the U.S., just as I was leaving California. In New York before bed, I had begun reading Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts. The question hovering over our thinking and writing in the workshop at Bard was what needs to be the case for things to be otherwise.

Last year watching the British crime drama Broadchurch, I found myself pleasured by the cinematic fetish of West Bay’s cliffs in Dorset—straw- colored and sheared to the sea, up against a panoramic sky, the sort of visual pageant infrequently found on American TV. The diegetic sound offered a counterpoint. Words were spoken, conversations occurred between characters; what did he say?  We understood none of it. What was it? Rewind. Listen. Hit play. Rewind. Listening. Disciplining ourselves, learning to hear English spoken otherwise.   “Otherwise” implicates a perspective. 

In the course of explaining how scientific revolution shifts the "historical perspective of the community that experiences it," Thomas Kuhn describes a psychological experiment. Subjects were shown a series of cards, including anomalous versions—a black four of hearts for example. Many people “without any awareness of trouble” articulated what they saw according to existing conceptual categories, for example, identifying the card as either a four of hearts or spades. Over time, some subjects experienced hesitation and an “awareness of anomaly,” eventually registering the discrepancy in the card while others “were never able to make the requisite adjustment of their categories" (Preface, 63-4).

Describe [something] you couldn’t recognize for what it was as it was happening… (Longabucco)

The first time I read at Small Press Traffic (SPT) back in the late 80s or early 1990s, I was in my mid-to-late 20s and SPT was in a white building on the corner of 24th and Guerrero.  C was there, though he would come to hate and stop going to these events. As soon as someone discovered that he was not a poet or artist, that person would begin to drift, eventually turning away.

Wearing a ribbed long-sleeved shirt in tawny yellow, I nervously perused books for sale.  The shirt fit like a clich√©. In my memory, Kevin Killian found me in stacks, like the library, though SPT had, I think, nothing of the sort, the books displayed on ledges hip high, facing out at you. I remember he said something kind, made me feel welcomed. Strangely, I don’t recall what I read, but that I read with Jean Day whose work I was unfamiliar with, whose language is chilled marble. Now having excavated some of the history of that present (of which I knew nothing then), I realize, the audience, there to hear Jean, would have disliked, frankly, disparaged whatever I had read. Too embodied. The subject had not been cut-out. Poor subject. She didn’t even know it. Double b(l)ind.

You must have something to give in the economy of the field.

You must make yourself vulnerable.

You must espouse a recognizably radical politics.

You will attend many readings and say something positive to the author afterwards.

You must be fortified.

You should appear to be comfortable.

You will recognize that you are deeply uncomfortable.

We will not always say hello or be sociable.

We will feel our power and superiority over others.

We will feel brutalized by our disempowerment, so many silent cuts.

We will feel inside this community, held.

We will always feel outside this community.

We will be pleased to be included.

We will feel the sting of our exclusion.

We will try to be inclusive.

We will not discuss our feeling.

They will commit violence in the name of overturning it.

They will take up more time and space because they can.

They will disagree.

I will still need fellowship.

I will experience moments of startling depth and connection.

I will be sick to my stomach.

I sometimes wonder about the healthiness of participating in this community.

I am on the edge

 given the histories of you and you— (Rankine 140)

Look at the subjects. Look at who is refusing the subjects. The individual who is at the center of an author function can only stutter I I I I I I.  On the periphery are those whose mouths should be shut. Who should not have opened their mouths he said he knew where her mouth had been and it had been all over. “Who do you think you are, saying I to me?” (140). She called out a fact. And because this fact had a story—that the avant-garde in poetry has a history of white supremacy—and because he has been trying to keep the facts in order in line in his line of vision this speaker who is she was called a mouth.  Look at the pronouns.  He deleted his post.  But there were witnesses.

“Every scientist [poet] who turned to chaos [language, or contrarily, marked experience, the body] early had a story to tell of discouragement or open hostility” (Gleick).

Every scientist/poet who turned over the rock of white gendered supremacy anytime had stories of virulent hostility.  Threats. Words and their histories. Let us conduct autopsies on the practices and languages that are being used and by whom. Who describes my death? Calls for a mouth to be shut, uses a body.  In other words,  


Look at the street sign Jim Crow Rd.

[Photo: Jim Crow Rd. by Michael David Murphy
printed in Citizen]

Look at a world collapsing inside.

Look at the stop sign whose face that never reads Stop! has been turned away.

Look at the back of the stop sign all grey, or is that white?

Look at the shadow of the stop sign. It looks like a lollipop or the sign of a hanged man.

Look at the white houses with their black roofs.

Look at the white car in the driveway.

Look at how the white houses stand out against a blue sky.

Look at the white space against the black type.

Look at how the trees are dark against the glare of whiteness.

Look at the stain on the edge between the blue-black road and the yellowing grass.

Look at how you can’t see what the name of the crossroads is.

Look at the fence deep in the background.

In her latest book, The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson describes how during a book tour for The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning, a well-known playwright comments on her pregnancy asking her “how did you handle working on all this dark material [sadism, masochism, cruelty, violence, and so on] in your condition?” Nelson explains “the old patrician white guy …call[s] the lady speaker back to her body, so that no one misses the spectacle of that wild oxymoron, the pregnant woman who thinks. Which is really just a pumped-up version of that more general oxymoron, a woman who thinks” (91).


Writers, Verlyn Klinkenborg says, must authorize themselves. “No matter who you are” (37).  This is a claim that provides permission; in fact, is an imperative. I wonder about imperatives. I wonder about I’s who authorize themselves. Yet permissions are powerful. I know the necessity of authorizing oneself.  One needs a commons.  Step out onto the stage of this blog.

I’s and their authority cut all kinds of ways.  My I’s too. Foucault reminds us an author is subject to punishment. The author function provides a means for controlling the bewildering energy of a text. It puts up fences. An obsolete definition of the word authorize, the Oxford English Dictionary, says is “to vouch for the truth or reality” and yet, Rankine also cautions, “all our fevered history won’t instill insight” (142); however, "that man who is forced each day to snatch his manhood, his identity, out of the fire of human cruelty that rages to destroy it….achieves his own authority, and that is unshakable” (Rankine 126).

What is the space between I and I and you and we and they. What’d he say? What’d I just say? Say it again so I can hear we can hear       between

in  world of differences
                   who's there?

collective life              alive in the gaps

powers of departure

processes of becoming



Longabucco, Matt. Workshop at Bard College June 6, 2015
Gleik, James. “Revolution.” Chaos: Making a New Science. New York: Penguin, 2008.
Kuhn, Thomas. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.
Klinkenborg, Verlyn. Several Short Sentences About Writing. New York: Vintage, 2013.
Nelson, Maggie. The Argonauts. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press. 2015.
Rankine, Claudia. Citizen: an American Lyric. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2014.
Thanks to Matt Longabucco for the writing prompts that generated much of the work in this piece.

No comments: