Poems including history

I asked Robert Sullivan at a recent reading about the role of history in his poems. He replied, “I’m making a genre argument that historians are, like poets, imaginative writers; that poetry is also well equipped for these conversations; and that the historical can also be personal.” (I suspect those semicolons are all mine, but I’ll save my comments on orality for another day.) I admire his point—accounts of the past are never neutral and there’s no reason they need to be prose. The “poem containing history,” though (Ezra Pound’s phrase), is usually epic or long poetry. The brevity of lyric requires different modes of argument. Even in a lyric sequence with narrative elements, any tale is full of skips, blanks, recursions; metaphor and music have their own logic and can’t always accommodate names, dates, and other factual details.

So how can a lyric poem contain history? When in “Indian Cartography” Deborah Miranda remaps California, she embeds a narrative of colonization in her list of place names: “Tuolomne, / Salinas, Los Angeles, Paso Robles, / Ventura, Santa Barbara, Saticoy, / Tehachapi.” The displacement suffered by her family is the very ground of the poem, the landscape she assumes, and her poem constitutes an imaginative return to those waters, that earth. Words themselves, their textures and etymologies, widen a poem’s field. That’s also true in “The Day Lady Died” by Frank O’Hara, with its train times and brand names. The speaker grabs “an ugly NEW WORLD WRITING to see what the poets / in Ghana are doing these days” and suddenly race is in the poem, many lines before Billie Holiday sings. Think even of Emily Dickinson’s “Publication – is the Auction / Of the Mind of Man –.” The first word sends you in one direction, chasing after the agoraphobic belle of Amherst, but this is a politically astute New Englander writing in the middle of the nineteenth century. After images of auctions and whiteness, she concludes her four quatrains with the ringing imperative: “reduce no Human Spirit / To Disgrace of Price –.” Of course she’s thinking about abolition. It’s tricky; I say she’s condemning slavery but you could also accuse her of using that vast, terrible trauma as a metaphor for her own situation. That’s one risk of opening a newspaper inside your stanzas. Your poem can gain power, or the world can shrink absurdly.

There are stories inside words themselves, but collage and direct quotation are also important strategies; visual elements such as typefaces, margins, and gaps can signal temporal and spatial shifts; titles, dedications, and notes can carry some of the burden of context. Within the lines, verb tenses and pronouns also involve highly-charged decisions. The poet is always in the poem somewhere, but how far inside the frame does she stand? In one of Robert Sullivan’s sequences about Captain Cook, “For the Ocean of Kiwa” in the book Voice Carried My Family, he represents the Polynesian members of Cook’s various crews, beginning well inside the frame. Addressing one of those men, Mai, Sullivan protests, “I just can’t take the middle of your throat. / Who would I pay for the privilege?” (28). Nevertheless, he keeps stepping back, out of the picture. That anxious “I” appears only once in the following poem, and by the next, the first person pronouns belong to those Polynesian crew members, speaking in the present tense.

When fictionalizing a real person’s voice in a poem, I think it’s best to acknowledge the transgression as Sullivan does. However, when I brought up that issue on Wom-po, The Discussion of Women’s Poetry List, a couple of writers, Eve Rifkah and Pat Valdata, explained why they disagreed. Valdata wrote, “if you have no personal connection to the people involved then it seems self-serving to make the poem about your own life and your own issues” (Fri, 18 Mar 2011 16:40:26). Many problems unfold from our contrasting views: what stories does a person own? Are there tales a privileged European-American like me should never presume to tell? Is there an extra burden on poetry as a genre (as opposed to, say, historical fiction)—is it inevitably personal? And anyone writing history as lyric has to decide what her goals are, what kind of experience she wants her readers and listeners to have. A poem engaging the past can provoke, evoke, give answers, or leave disturbing questions hanging in the silence.

Addressing history in a poem is one way of constructing a community. The affiliation is through time rather than, or as well as, across space. Some might say that cross-temporal community can’t exist because one side of the conversation is always already over. I talk to dead poets all the time, though, and their poems are complex enough to present new answers. And I recently heard a similar point made by digital archivists who are trying to change the ownership of history by making original documents available online—letters, maps, early printed texts, often in nineteenth-century Maori. One of them said at the end of his presentation, almost as an aside, that he often felt guided by the tupuna; his ancestors collaborate in the project. Some documents pop up just as you need them; others hide, or the computer breaks down. “You know they want you to tell the story,” he said, smiling, “because they allow you to.”

Metaphors for Community

Is there a word for this? I visualize a pale field crisscrossed by radiating lines, each representing some affiliation or influence. This web is speckled with nodes or tangled places where a great many lines converge, and of course the pattern isn’t fixed. Some nodes keep darkening, gathering power, pulling more threads through their hubs. Is that what I’m thinking of, those maps in airline magazines, full of red curves that indicate routes? In any case, the nodes in my imaginary model are people, and the busiest ones are the network-builders: editors, teachers, organizers of reading series, and also the less obviously powerful people who just persistently stay in conversation with other writers and readers.

That’s a variation on the familiar web/weaving/net metaphor, and it has become a cliché because it really is a helpful way to imagine the bonds in a social group. The tighter and denser the connections, the stronger the fabric. Images of mixture are another option: the melting pot or alloy versus the salad, quilt, choir, family, or sedimentary rock. The latter seem better figures for community because they preserve a sense of the individuals who comprise the whole. However, I was just reading an unpublished article by Victoria University scholar Heidi Thomson about Keats’ letters—how he seeks to create co-presence through his writing, an intimacy that can seem intensely physical even though it’s made of words. She highlights his portmanteau word “interassimulate.” The word suggests that as friends interact, they assimilate and simulate. Sympathies, interests, values converge.

On Monday I attended a lecture and a reading by Robert Sullivan. He discussed the figure that obsesses him: spirals in three dimensions, “two points connected in a curvilinear fashion.” He pointed out the ubiquity of spirals in far-flung artistic traditions, though Maori and Celtic versions are particularly important to him, and noted that the curves seem closer if you look down on the spiral from above. His poetry circles back spirally through the literary past and the history of his ancestors, demonstrating community with his family and teachers through time. Like my web-that-I-can’t-name-in-a-word, the spiral, too, keeps moving.

I’m puzzling over metaphors because I’m puzzling over structures. Arguments are linear, but writing about a community for an essay or book chapter, I want a way of organizing my thoughts that simulates the complicated interdependence of the elements in my case study. I don’t want to focus narrowly on one poet, or a pair of them, because communities contain multiple nodes. I could describe the network from multiple angles, but where do the actual poems come in? Communities aren’t of literary interest unless they germinate poems people want to read and hear, but individual pieces rarely encapsulate what a community is about and it can be hard to see the very fine silks of connection between them. Can an essay resemble a net or a spiral and still be a clear and useful bit of teaching/reporting/talking?

“heaviness of the cave, the hive”

In Bill Manhire’s poem “Kevin,” “the cave, the hive” is an imagined space: maybe the far origin of voices on the radio; maybe the room around you as you listen in the dark; maybe the old-fashioned cabinet housing mysterious machinery. In any case it’s dim, enclosed, and haunted. I first heard “Kevin” at a City Gallery reading shortly after the recent earthquake in Christchurch. The full text is here, along with a discussion by Alan Riach. Riach didn’t have the information Manhire provided at the reading—that his friend Kevin suffered from multiple sclerosis and was losing his vision—and I find the poem a little darker than Riach does, but his account of its compassion and resonance sounds right to me. “Kevin” is agnostic about what happens when the lights go out, suggesting, as it turns from terror to consolation, that “Eventually we shall all go / into the dark furniture of the radio.”

I chose the phrase as a blog title because it sounds good (slant-rhyme of buzzing v’s); because I love the poem; and because I’m working out the relations between place, poetry, and a sense of community, and the words “cave” and “hive” conjoin different ways of understanding lyric space. One suggests solitary hibernation and the other crowded industry—introspection versus connection and collaboration.

It also seemed apt because Bill Manhire is such a force in literary Wellington. I came here to study twenty-first-century poetic communities of various kinds, but the particular draw at Victoria University is the International Institute of Modern Letters, a creative writing program founded and directed by Manhire. He was the country’s first poet laureate; he ran an influential workshop long before the IIML was organized; and he’s been particularly resourceful about nurturing New Zealand literature and raising its international profile. Many of the nation’s best younger poets have some connection to the institute. Timing, location, and other factors contribute to its success, but Manhire seems responsible for a lot: the structure of courses and degree programs; strong hiring and selective admissions; canniness about fundraising, university politics, and literary markets; and dedication to fostering a sense of writing community that extends, for many, well past graduation.

Manhire created this poetic hive but in the caves of his poems, sociability is suspicious. When not wandering through a national park and thinking, “please God / no more Americans” (“Global Track”), he’s describing Wellington coolly as “full of distant figures on the street.” He’s companionable about isolation, if that makes sense, as when he writes “I live at the edge of the universe,/ like everybody else” (“Milky Way Bar”). The neighbors are always noisy and his frequent use of the second person creates intimacy on the scale of a letter or murmured conversation. What I’d say about them for now is that they’re porous but not sociable, except in the way that every published poem is a potential instrument of connection.

Meanwhile, Manhire just auctioned off a yet-to-be-written poem to benefit the children in Christchurch. Some IIML grads have new books out, including Chris Tse, who read at a launch party yesterday in the library’s center for Maori and Pasifika studies. The institute’s latest newsletter includes links to news on National Poetry Day and the value of solitude. And here I am in a closed office above Kelburn Parade with blog retention issues, because I can’t decide whether “poetic community” is an oxymoron or something I need, and whether poetry can be a cave and a hive at once.

Framing the House

The first poem I hear performed in Aotearoa New Zealand is by a loud Australian Spoken Word guy. He’s ginger-bearded, ruddy, wearing hiking boots and a hat he stole in Nepal. His poem, “Behemoth,” begins with a wordless roar. I recognize the cast that follows, more or less, from other open mics I’ve attended in the States: there are comic rhymes, plainspoken elegies, sexy daring poems, and clever thoughtful ones. A silver-haired woman reads with crisp elocution, but others mumble into their beards. Some have memorized their work. I stare at a sooty-clothed Hamlet because, backlit by sunny windows, I could swear his ears are pointed, but I must have Weta Workshop’s latex-lobed elves on the brain. People of diverse ages, races, and fashion sensibilities listen appreciatively.

It is Sunday February 20th, exactly a month after I arrived in Wellington to inhabit the role of Fulbright Senior Scholar for a season. It is less than two days before the 6.3 quake that devastates Christchurch. I have been drinking tea with poets, poring through the university library, and establishing an internet connection, finding the supermarket, and consoling my teary kids about their new schools. Suddenly I have three interesting readings to attend in one week: this one at the Ballroom Cafe in Newtown; a meeting of the New Zealand Poetry Society at the Thistle Inn in Thorndon; and “Poets in the City,” a splashy event at the City Gallery including poets laureate and other popular and well-known writers.

During a ten-minute intermission talk buzzes cheerfully up to the exposed rafters. I chat with the friendly strangers at my table: a Kiwi sculptor, a New England poet-photographer, and an antinuclear activist from Bolivia. The blackboard menu lists kumara soup and other items that suggest I may be in a foreign country. I order bruschetta and a local pilsner.

The main event, “Nga Ngaru Mai I te Moana Nui A Kiwa: Waves from the Pacific,” is convened in Maori by poet and storyteller Moira Wairama. A band of three male singers and musicians, The Whanau (“family”), occupies a window seat; the three other poets are women who know each other from Writer’s Block, a cross-genre Wellington workshop for Maori and Pacific writers. Their hour-long performance is an enactment of community. Poems alternate with songs in a prearranged flow; no one grandstands or tells anecdotes; the members of the group clearly know and enjoy one another’s work. I don’t realize until afterwards how differently arranged this reading is than others I have attended. Instead of one poet reading several pieces in a closed program, the focus moves from person to person, highlighting the conversation between different authors’ work.

I’ve known for a long time that I don’t know how much I don’t know, but this event drives that knowledge home. I’m sure I’m supposed to recognize “special guest Pikihuia” but I can only make wild surmises. Maraea Rakuraku delivers feisty poems about mispronunciations of her name, which I suspect I’m mispronouncing (I’m double-checking the spelling now). Alice Te Punga Somerville, a new colleague of mine at Victoria University (I’m the one who’s new), delivers a poem called “The measure of a man’s worth.” It’s full of references I have to look up later and ends with a hot local controversy: the Waitangi Day opening of a new wharewaka on the waterfront, without the waka it was built to showcase, because, as Alice puts it,

our ocean-going navigating vessels
will not fit
the whare you’ve built to house them

I’m listening to her pronouns, the mixture of languages, the tone that is both factually plain and sharply pointed. Community is defined by the social scientists I’ve been reading as a function of geographic proximity; relationships that generate social capital; member participation in defining norms; and frequent, substantive communication. Often nostalgic, even mythic, “community” sometimes seems to preclude difference and dissent. Certainly it is characterized more than anything by a “we-feeling,” a subjective experience of belonging. I have been warmly welcomed, and in some sense poets are always my tribe, but I barely speak the language and have a lot more reading and listening to do. This virtual space makes a pretty flimsy whare, but I hope it will be big enough to house some thinking about poetry and community in and beyond Wellington—why writers forge or join groups and institutions, how those networks interact with other groups, and the inclusions and exclusions implied by poems themselves.