University of Auckland Symposium: “Short Takes on Long Poems”, 28-30 March, 2012
You can read detailed abstracts of all the papers delivered at this symposium here: http://www.nzepc.auckland.ac.nz/features/short-takes/symposium.asp
Friday 30 March. 9 am Coffee.
9.30-10.30 am session 6. worlds apart. Chair: Hilary Chung.
Ella O’Keefe. Bush Cosmology: John Anderson’s “non-Euclidean Eucalypt” in the forest set out like the night.
Australian poet John Anderson’s book-length poem the forest set out like the night explores the landscape of Melbourne and surrounding areas in Victoria. Anderson works to suggest there are multiple ways to read and know a place; as a collection of images or sensory impressions, as scientific data or as a series of dream-derived symbols. Crucial to his poetry is an acknowledgement of the history of Australian land, the colonial invasion of Australia, and its effects on our lived lives. Thus Anderson’s poem registers spatial and conceptual difference in its form as well as its content. Lines and eucalypts both resist Euclidean symmetry:
Compare a gum forest at night to a European forest.
The gum forest. Space condensed. Opens out.
The Black Forest closes in.
In «Reading the Country» (1984), critic Stephen Muecke notes the persistence in linguistics of linear metaphors of trees and roots as a way of defining the origins of a language, and the problems this poses in the study of Aboriginal languages, histories and literature. Muecke, like Anderson, favours a rhizomatic approach suggesting that if a tree remains, it should be viewed from above, “with roots and branches fanning out in all directions [...] the roots having no more of the ‘origin’ about them than the leaves.” I want to extend this thought in light of Anderson’s “non-Euclidean Eucalypt” and the possibilities it opens up for new modes of perception and formal composition.
While listening to this excellent piece, I wrote the first rough draft of a poem:
Poem Beginning with a line by John Anderson
It is the time of clarity, noon,
when one creature recognises another.
A banker sees a policeman as his brother.
A street sweeper leans against his broom.
The ants are my friends, also a rabbit.
The Jindyworobaks come to mind.
No European models — they’re unkind,
and plunge us into war; horrible habit.
But our language comes from Europe: Latin,
Greek, Germanic, Indo-European roots.
In the pre-dawn chill, magic things happen.
An animal that never reads books eats boots
and leaves quickly. Dawn breeze, leaves
fall. Cut wheat stands in sheaves.
David Howard: Learning to sing Dead Man Blues.
It started with a 1950s photograph of a teenage Arlie Russell, daughter of the then American ambassador to New Zealand, tramping with Ken Findlay in the Richmond ranges. The photograph fell from a book bought at Smiths Bookshop in Christchurch. I traced Arlie and discovered that she was now Arlie Hochschild, prominent author, academic and advisor to Al Gore. Arlie and I corresponded about how the photograph came to be taken and her experience of New Zealand. She described the men here as beery and inarticulate. This summoned up for me the ghost of Vincent O’Sullivan’s character Butcher, and also my childhood experiences of returned servicemen, and I began to hear the tone a poem set here in the 1950s might take.
Around the same time, the composer Brina Jez invited me to collaborate with her on a commission she had received for a multimedia installation in Slovenia. I supplied, in the form of a recorded reading by two actors, my early attempt to explore a beery inarticulate returned serviceman, the kind of figure whom Arlie was surrounded by during her time here.
The text I will present, “Dead Man Blues”, is a distillate of these processes across time and media, looking always at the effect of one artist’s work on another and the density of connection our digital highways encourage.
Lucas Klein: Ideogrammic Methods: The Space of Writing and Tradition in Contemporary Chinese Long Poetry.
When the Chinese poetry tradition is compared with the traditions of poetry in the West, essentialist views have often noted China’s lack of the epic as a genre — and yet American modernist Ezra Pound based the “ideogrammic method” upon which he built his collage epic Cantos on his understanding of the Chinese written character. Can this disjunction be rectified in the long poems of contemporary Chinese poets? Looking at the long and serial poems of Yang Lian (b. 1955) and Xi Chuan (b. 1963), both of whose work exists in conscious dialogue with Pound, I propose to engage with the symposium’s quest to locate the contemporary long poem in space defined (for my purposes) in and between tradition and writing.
Specifically, I will look at the ways in which Yang Lian’s Yi (a poem of sixty-four sections based on the «Book of Changes» [«I Ching» or «Yijing»], named with a character of his own invention) and Xi Chuan’s «Thirty Historical Reflections» (a sequence that has grown beyond just thirty) read the Chinese past through a Poundian-inspired poetics to simultaneously create and question a new tradition of world literature. Given that time (and space) will be limited, I will focus on the luminous details and ideogrammic moments of Yang Lian’s and Xi Chuan’s poetries, dismantling the epic to the constituent ideogrammic basis upon which it has been built.
10.30 am Morning tea
11.00-11.45 am session 7. beating the erasure machine. Chair: Selina Tusitala Marsh
Jack Ross: Digitising Leicester Kyle.
Leicester Kyle (1937-2006) spent the last seven or so years of his life living in the tiny hamlet of Millerton, on the west coast of New Zealand’s South Island, where he wrote some of his most important poetry. A priest, poet, and radical environmentalist, Kyle held ecological concerns that seem even more relevant now than they did during his lifetime. Nor has his literary work yet reached all of the audiences it was intended for. In association with my co-literary executor, David Howard, I’ve set up a website to publicize his work and (hopefully, in the fullness of time) make his collected writings accessible online. You can find more details here:
Jessica Wilkinson: Marionette: Animating the Hidden Subject through Textual Play: a study of Marion Davies
In this talk-performance, I discuss and read from my long poem and poetic-biography of early cinema actress Marion Davies, who was the lover of media tycoon William Randolph Hearst. In my opinion, Marion’s silencing by the early cinema screen was strangely metaphoric for her being silenced by Hearst, who largely controlled her career and (as much as he could) her actions in public.
While there are countless biographies, factual and fictional, of Hearst, there are very few accounts of Marion Davies’ life. Indeed, in some of Hearst’s biographies, she is barely mentioned despite being a prominent figure in his life. As a woman who lived the prime of her life in the early 20th century on the Great White Way (itself an erasure machine), Marion Davies is waiting to be spoken. Rachel Blau DuPlessis says in «The Pink Guitar» that such a gap in discourse cannot simply be “filled by a mechanism of reversal”; rather, we must “pull into textuality […] the elements of its almost effaced stories in all their residual, fragmentary quality.”
«Marionette», then, is an attempt to pull together the stutters, fragments and strings of Marion’s story.
Jessica Wilkinson’s paper avoided focussing on Orson Welles’s movie «Citizen Kane», and the long campaign waged by Hearst to have the movie blacklisted because he took the movie’s portrayal of Marion Davies as a cruel parody. I asked her why not, and she said:
John, in such a short performance it’s hard to cover all bases when it comes to providing biographical or background details. Further, as most people understand, «Citizen Kane» features an offensive and inaccurate representation of Marion Davies, even though Orson Welles repeatedly denied that his character “Susan Alexander” was Marion in disguise (he even wrote the forward to Marion’s autobiography, «The Times We Had…» in an attempt to make up for the offense he caused).
One thing that annoys me when I say I am writing on Hearst and Marion, is that people say “Oh, that’s «Citizen Kane», isn't it?” In the film, “Susan Alexander” is a drunk, talentless and lonely opera singer; Marion was a talented comedienne, a pre-Lucille Ball Lucille Ball, and she had many many friends who adored her. But it is a complicated story, as Hearst did not want to see the audience laugh at her, so he hindered her career in some ways. Furthermore, “Kane” and “Alexander” have a poor relationship, and Hearst and Marion, despite all the obstacles and scandals, deeply loved one another and continued their affair for 30-plus years. «Citizen Kane» is a small subject within «marionette», the longer work, and of course in the short compass of my Auckland paper I had little time to spend on all that.
But my point is not to dwell on inaccuracy after inaccuracy. I am, rather, interested in locating the true spirit and voice of a misrepresented Marion, however impossible that might be.
The thoughtful engagement with a brave and largely misunderstood human being is one of the high points of Jessica’s paper. But — a personal worry — one of the poems read out by Ms Wilkinson in Davies’ voice copied her stammer. Most people who have suffered a stammer or stutter would be dismayed at this. Perhaps the decision to act out the stammer could have been given some more thoughtful consideration, though no doubt I am over-reacting to what is, for me, a personal matter.
Robert Sullivan and John Adams: Grey interstices: a two-voice acting out of Governor Grey’s dealings with Maori chiefs.
We plan to recreate and perhaps remix the statements of Governor George Grey and selected Maori rangatira or chiefs in order to disturb, briefly, strategically, the narrative that is Grey’s legacy to poetry in Aotearoa New Zealand. In the first preface of Polynesian Mythology and Ancient Traditional History of the New Zealand Race as Furnished by their Priests and Chiefs (1885), Grey explains his motives for collecting and translating examples of Maori oral tradition and turning them into literary and anthropological texts:
I found that these chiefs, either in their speeches to me, or in their letters, frequently quoted, in explanation of their views and intentions, fragments of ancient poems or proverbs, or made allusions which rested on an ancient system of mythology; and although it was clear that the most important parts of their communications were embodied in these figurative forms, the interpreters were quite at fault. […] Clearly, however, I could not, as Governor of the country, permit so close a veil to remain drawn between myself and the aged and influential chiefs, whom it was my duty to secure, and with whom it was necessary that I should hold the most unrestricted intercourse. Only one thing could, under such circumstances, be done, and that was to acquaint myself with the ancient language of the country, to collect its traditional poems and legends, to induce their priests to impart to me their mythology, and to study their proverbs.
Our symposium venue, Old Government House, built in 1856, was part of the British government precinct that included New Zealand’s first parliament behind the present High Court site in Waterloo Quadrant, and the Albert military barracks in the university grounds, until the capital was moved to Wellington in 1865 during Grey’s second governorship. It was the Governor’s Auckland residence during the Taranaki War and the invasion of the Waikato in 1863. We want to examine the interstices of this position, relating it to the difficulty that indigenous language poetics has experienced in getting itself heard in New Zealand poetry given the decline in numbers of fluent Maori language speakers. There are direct connections between long and short form Maori poetic texts collected by Grey, the declining fortunes of his chiefly informants, and the improving fortunes of the imperial colony once headquartered in this very building.
12.00-12.30 pm session 8. fold and wrap. Chair: Lisa Samuels.
Rachel’s summing-up for this symposium is available here separately as Part Six of this series of notes.
Rachel Blau DuPlessis. Practice, practise, praxis
An informative, probing and detailed discussion by a current practitioner of the long poem, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, from Temple University in the USA, and special guest at this symposium, whose long poem «Drafts» has been the focus of a number of issues of «Jacket» magazine, and has appeared in many other venues.
12.40 pm Pick up brown bag lunch and move off to Waiheke Ferry Terminal, junction of Quay St and Queen (20 min walk or catch downtown bus on Symonds St)
2.00 pm Ferry to Waiheke Island ($35 return, own cost), bus or minibus to Oneroa Beach.
3.30-5.30 pm Long Beach Walk Poem Collaboration All Welcome. Come and help write Aotearoa NZ’s longest beach poem ever. Coordinator: Selina Tusitala Marsh.
Notes: Oneroa Beach: a kilometre long half-moon beach facing East. A chill wind blew off the bay, which I was soon grateful for.
The beach was divided into ten 100-metre zones, the poets and friends into ten teams of a few people each provided with rakes, brooms and hoes, and at 3:30 p.m. we began inscribing poems — or random poem-like fragments and phrases — into the fine grey packed sand. Organiser John Newtown had cleverly arranged for the tide to go out during the afternoon, not in, so our handiwork was able to survive the elements until midnight.
Pam Brown, David Howard and I hoed and scraped until we were tired and sweating, and eventually filled in our 100 metres of beach with a string of poetic phrases: “Spot-welded islands — Chartreuse, the color only monks can see — open ended…” but our stretch of beach was not quite filled, so a dozen ellipsis points were added. They seemed to fit the open-ended theme.
At five p.m. we all gathered at the starting point, the northern end of the beach, and sipped a celebratory champagne.
The crowd of us — fifty or so people — walked the length of the beach, filming and photographing our deathless words and phrases for posterity and talking our heads off.
Had we written the longest poem in the world? I think so.
Most of us gathered soon after for a celebratory pizza and vino at Stephano’s Pizzeria,18 Hamilton Rd, Surfdale, Waiheke Island. I had a great time.
University of Auckland Symposium: “Short Takes on Long Poems”, 28-30 March, 2012. You can read detailed abstracts of all the papers delivered at this symposium here: http://www.nzepc.auckland.ac.nz/features/short-takes/symposium.asp