Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Making the world differently visible

Work on most long-term writing project has phases that result from how the writer works and how the project needs the writer to work.  I began work on the manuscript that was to become Visible Cities because I wanted to introduce Veronica's photographs to an audience.  The project had a humble beginning:  I wrote poems inspired by a handful of photographs and attempted to get them published; The New Quarterly published two based on black and white photographs.  Then two things happened.  First, when we premiered them at Ken Probert's memorial reading, Paul Wilson suggested that if we kept photographing and writing until we had about 40 poems based on 40 photographs, the manuscript could become a book.  Second, I got hooked.  Especially if you are busy, as I was the last three years in the English Department at U of R, there isn't time for inspiration (whatever that is) to fall in your lap.  There's no lap to fall into:  you are on the run.  But a photograph could occupy my mind's eye until I figured out a way into it and I could write a draft.  Then I could make the draft a little better.  And a little better.  Ekphrasis is helpful that way:  an image you love and that makes you curious can prompt you to take the small steps that will eventually result in a poem.

Any poetry project also have a rhythm of its own.  You write what Tracy Hamon calls "rogue poems" about the photograph of a bridge and the photograph of a railroad car that someone has covered with brilliant graffiti.  Then you add a poem about the painted door in a downtown back lane in Saskatoon.  You're not even thinking of how they go together.  There's an odd purity and focus to this.  Each time you sit down to draft or revise, you are thinking only of this singular challenge before you:  this poem.  Eventually you have enough poems that you start to see how themes or concerns or kinds of images have created clusters that will become the sections of the book. And then you fill these out more deliberately.  Among Adorno's often puzzling pronouncements about aesthetics, is this:  the artist tries to make a painting or a piece of music or a poem that is this equivalent of itself.  I take him to mean that each artist has an idea of what each work should eventually become, but that, being mortal, and working within the limitations of our medium, we only approach those ideals.  This is a many-layered process that sometimes seems to start over and over, while never quite arriving.  Does "close" count in horseshoes, hand grenades, and poetry?

But what I'm curious about right now, because we launch today, is that lovely golden era between having a much-corrected set of page proofs and having your book in the hands of readers.  After editing, editing, editing, proofing, proofing,proofing, two things happen--two contradictory things happen at the same time.  First, you've seen these words so often that you now feel they are simply junk.  Second--and simultaneously--you think this work is probably pretty good--this last impression supported by how much energy your publishers are putting into producing the book:  design, advertising, covers, blurbs.

But once you are ready to "go public" with the work, the questions that have plagued you all along come back.  What do you think you are doing?  When you think about the words on the page, this is a very private question.  But for some reason, at this historical moment, that question resonates even more loudly:  what are you doing in a time when children are being murdered in schools and women are opening up about the amount of sexual harassment and abuse they have endured?  What are you doing writing and publishing poetry in Trumptime:  when facts and truth are under every kind of pressure, when a dishonest president has surrounded himself with hawkish yes-people?  When North Korea offers to talk but Trump appoints a foreign secretary who will shut down such talks?  When the data we generate on "social media"--what could sound more benign--is used by powerful companies to manipulate the way we vote?  When democracy itself is under pressure?  When Russia and Korea and possibly Iran have military motives that are completely unpredictable?  Frankly, I haven't felt as frightened about world order, about freedom and democracy since childhood"duck and cover" nuclear bomb drills, Watergate, or the Vietnam War.

Here's some of what I do know about what I am trying to do.  In a time when the world is ever more complex--who thought twenty years ago of having their private lives under the scrutiny of a company that wanted to influence their vote?--people often turn to "fundamentalisms."  I put the word in plural and then in scare quotes because I don't care whether your fundamental, unquestioned belief is in Sharia law or your right to carry a gun.  The world is too complicated for such visceral simplifications.  Poetry short-circuits this simplistic and nostalgic way of thinking because it struggles toward complexity. It wants its audience to have an intriguing experience, not come to a certain conclusion.   It wants a radical kind of openness.  It wants to ask important questions but doesn't want to offer answers, but to encourage that questioning way of mind--to find pleasure in turning those questions over in the mind.  Jane Hirshfield writes "Great art, we might say, is thought that has been concentrated....honed and shaped by a silky attention brought to bear on the recalcitrant matter of earth and of life.  We seek in art the elusive intensity by which it knows" (Nine Gates 5). I doubt that a member of the NRA is going to show up at our launch ripe for conversation.  and I doubt I've made what Hirshfield calls great art.  But there is simply something to be said for keeping certain ways of thinking alive.

Veronica has added another dimension to poetry by letting me respond to her wonderful photographs.  Visible Cities, as the title suggests, is about seeing.  Her photographs remind us to look at the built environment, not just use it to navigate while we move between one place and another.  What humans create in cities can be pretty amazing.  It can also chill and frighten us.  But her photographs add another dimension to the ways of being--seeing and thinking--that are so important now.

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