Category Archives: Poetry

Now’s the Time [Basquiat inspired poem]

nows-the-time-poem-copy

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New English Courses at VIU Explore Diverse Ethnic and Cultural Perspectives

Courses are open to the community through the University’s Love of Learning program

VIU’s English Department is pleased to present three new courses next semester that examine literature from a variety of non-traditional perspectives and mediums. From reconciliation, to post-colonial Caribbean lifestyles and cultures, to the quest for unforgettable journeys, these new courses incorporate a diverse range of perspectives and writing styles, and question people’s assumptions about literature and art.

In a rare and unique opportunity for students and community members, English 332: Topics in Indigenous Literatures will include class visits and public readings from some of the authors studied in class, including Eden Robinson, whose novel Monkey Beach won the BC Book Prize’s Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize. While many of the stories deal with the lasting effects of Canada’s colonial past, they are also about healing, reconciliation and hope. Dr. Paul Watkins will explore these stories through several mediums, including fiction, poetry, art, comics, film and music, and students will participate in a creative intervention project.

“The hope is to open up spaces that challenge the colonization that affects us all, whether we are aware of it or not,” says Watkins.

As students read, watch and listen, they will also Tweet with the hashtag #ENGL332. The readings are sponsored by VIU’s Faculty of Arts and Humanities, the First Nations Studies Program, the Office of Aboriginal Education and Engagement, and the Canada Council for the Arts.

If you’re itching for a little taste of the Caribbean then maybe English 333: Topics in Post-colonial Literature is your course. From Rihanna and Bob Marley, to the dub poetry of Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze and the magical realism of Junot Diaz, English 333 delves into anti-colonial, post-colonial, feminist and queer perspectives expressed through various mediums, including literature, art, music, film and literary theory.

“The Caribbean is on the move, and it moves me,” says Dr. Melissa Stephens. “I see it as a shape-shifting constellation of people and places, politics and art, feeling and intellect. This course will help you grasp the enduring impact of colonial violence, but also, and most importantly, the work of resistance and liberation.”

Finally, adventure seekers will want to check out English 222: Travels in World Literature, during which Dr. Jeannie Martin examines a range of provoking historical travel writing along with popular contemporary works that highlight journeys in search of the romantic, the pastoral and the picturesque.

“Books about travel and tourism are wildly popular these days, but often unwittingly extend the enterprise of imperialism,” says Martin. “This course raises questions about the ethics of presenting the truth of another place and another culture. In this age of globalization, we passport-carrying privileged, viewing the world through the limited lens of our own cultures and experiences, are not the only travellers. Raising questions about who travels, why we travel, and why we write about our travels encourages us to form more complex relationships with other peoples, places and cultures.”

These courses are open to the general public via VIU’s Love of Learning program, which allows community members to take an academic course without the stress of exams or assignments at a discounted rate of only $99 per 3-credit course plus ancillary fees. Pre-requisites will be waived for Love of Learning students.

To learn more, visit the VIU English Department news page.

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MEDIA CONTACT:

Jenn McGarrigle, Communications Officer, Vancouver Island University

P: 250.740.6559 | C: 250.619.6860 | E: jenn.mcgarrigle@viu.ca | T: @VIUNews

Wednesday, November 9, 2016 – 1:45pm

Harmonious Dissonance: in Conversation with George Elliott Clarke

To provide Malahat readers with a context in which to read and more deeply appreciate George Elliott Clarke’s “Othello: By Donation Alphonse François, Marquis de Sade,” a bravura long poem appearing in the magazine’s Summer 2016 issue, I explore with the poet his ambitions and the intent he enacts in the writing of such a profoundly engaging and provocative work. Last year I also recorded George reading a few poems when he visited Vancouver Island University last year, and The Malahat Review has published one of these recordings, “The Testament of Ulysses X.” You may read the full text of this poem or listen to George’s performance of it, recorded while he was the 2015 Ralph Gustafson Distinguished Poet at Vancouver Island University in Nanaimo.

George Elliott Clarke is currently  Canadian Parliamentary Poet Laureate. Towards the end of the interview I asked him, why does the world need poetry? To which he responded:

Hal David and Burt Bacharach: “What the World Needs Now is Love, Sweet Love”? That song comes to mind in thinking about why the world should need poetry. But I will also reiterate my sentiments in the Shad/Q interview: poetry exists in the rhythm of pulse and breath; it is “mind-forged” (Blake) language given vocal (originally) expression in tune with the pace of breath and the beat of the heart. The cadences are related to the sounds conjured by the arrangements of tongue, teeth, lips, and lungs. Poetry is organic technology, a physical art—as much as is dance, save that its calisthenics are performed by abstract characters or organically by the movement of the mouth.  In any event, it is the cheapest art and thus the most portable, for it can be memorized and taught to others. It is the first civilizing art, for it is the basis of scripture, whether inscribed or chanted. It conjoins imagination and emotion; so, for so long as human beings dream, recall, and/or have feelings, they/we will always invent poems.

Read the full interview, here.

In addition,

The Presence of the Past

Winfried Siemerling’s The Black Atlantic Reconsidered and Austin Clarke’s In Your Crib prioritize transatlantic Black perspectives from within national paradigms to explore Black Canadian identity, belonging, and the presence of the past. The two works are quite different: Clarke’s text is an introspective long poem that channels the radical spirits and rhythms of the civil rights movement, and Siemerling’s text is a considerable historical undertaking that reconsiders Canada’s place in the Black Atlantic. However, both texts deepen our understanding of Black writing and radical thinking within a Canadian space that belongs to a larger historic transatlantic nexus.

Click here to read my full review at Canadian Literature.

MaComère’s New Issue Pays Tribute to Dionne Brand

My article, “Listening to a Listening: The Disruptive Jazz Poetics of Dionne Brand’s Ossuaries (a call towards freedom)” is now out in  MaComère’s most recent issue, Volume 14 Numbers 1 & 2 (2013-­‐2014), titled Critical Perspectives on Dionne Brand.

MaComère is the first journal to publish an issue dedicated to providing sustained, critical  focus on Brand’s works.  For over thirty years, Dionne Brand has been testing the capacity of language to address ethical questions of global consequence. Her work spans a wide range of genres, including poetry, prose (novels and short stories), the essay and documentary film. Poet Laureate for the City of Toronto from 2009 to 2012, Brand has won many awards for her writing, including the prestigious Griffin Poetry Prize in 2011 for her narrative poem Ossuaries.

View the Table of Contents, here.

We Can Never Tell the Entire Story of Slavery: In Conversation with M. NourbeSe Philip

The Toronto Review of Books has just published my interview with the renowned poet, M. NourbeSe Philip. In the interview we focus on her work Zong!, and touch on music, improvisation, slavery (including the film 12 Years a Slave), the haunting of modernity, and more!

Read the full interview, here.

Photo by Paul Watkins of M. NourbeSe Philip leading a book-length reading of Zong! on November 29th, 2013.

Soundin’ Canaan (poem, draft)

“In the whole world no poor devil is lynched, no wretched is tortured, in whom I too am not degraded and murdered.”
-Aimé Cesairé

“So what If I write a poem like a song.”
-Lillian Allen

Columbus was no intrepid hero,
He was more an insipid & syphilic-vaquero hearding the “indios” like cargo
& John Hawkins was no Stephen Hawkins or Richard Dawkins,
He was the English-dastard & coward who brought the fist slave ship to the “New World.”
They merely discovered the already discovered.
Hypocrites like John Hammond claiming he discovered Bessie Smith,
Counterfeit prophets racketeering off the backs of blacks, Chinese, Natives, navies, human life for profit.

A collective amnesia still persists: some 20 million Africans loaded on ships, mothers torn from babies,
whipped & sold into slavery. Some Canadians are still unaware that slavery existed in this country.
Slavery, à la Canadian style.
Listen: hear a history of violence, textured & composite.
Listen: hear a literature of Black Canadians— oral, written, & infinitely rich.
Listen: hear whistle blow, porter train riff.
Listen: hear makeshift improvisers providing a needed spiritual lift.

Mattieu da Costa, circa 1605, first African guide & translator to set foot in Canada,
Olivier Le Jeune, taken from Madagascar, first recorded slave purchased at age 8 in Quebec, New France, before it was Canada.
A hundred years later, after she learnt her slave mistress was gonna sell her, Marie-Josèphe Angélique burned down Montreal: they tortured her, hung her, tossed her to the fire, her scattered ashes to the wind, a feminist rebel before radical feminism was drawn.
We must not forget Josiah Henson who helped form the Canaan of Dawn, he inspired Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
We must not forget Harriet Tubman, dubbed “Black Moses,” she led escaped slaves on the underground railroad to its terminus in Chatham.
We must remember John Brown & Osborne Anderson, who accompanied Brown on his raid on Harper’s Ferry; Anderson fled & wrote a pamphlet, history demanded it.
Had help from Mary Ann Shadd, full time editor & first woman publisher of a newspaper in Canada, her history we inherit.
Along with Thomas Peters who helped lead some 1200 blacks from Canada back to Sierra Leone Africa in 1792, a black loyalist & a Yoruba too, he wore a poly-identity become it was cool.
We must remember the great Rufus Rockhead, bootlegger, former porter, who opened the jazz club Rockhead’s Paradise in 1928 in St. Antoine, Montreal.
We must remember John Arthur Robinson who helped form the Order of Sleeping Car Porters &
George V. Garraway who became the first conductor on the Canadian Railway.
We must remember Joe Fortes who taught children to swim while patrolling the beach at English Bay,
there’s a restaurant & a library named after him today.
& Leonard A. Braithwaite, first elected Black Canadian to the Ontario Legislature.
& Stanley Grizzle too, former porter & Canada’s first Black Citizen Judge, civis litigator!
—these are to name, mostly by name, but at least to start to name, some of the historic figures that are part of Canadian history.

Is it true, we be a people without a literature?
Were all of Canada’s early “white” writers performing in blackface?
Murphy’s Black Candle clearly states that racial mixing is a fear in losing the docility of the social body,
the female body, the cult of true womanhood replaced by the cult of the drug.
The fear of the white passive female body becoming possessed.
The body as text, the black pen as sex.
& Haliburton’s Sam Slick was sure some son-of-a-racist-prick.
But this history ain’t just bullshit, we inherit it.

The Canada of many Canaanadas for many Canadians.
In 1834 the mere touching of Canadian soil made the runaway slave free.
The continued exodus & disappearing of borders.
Canada: the North Star, “heaven,” the Underground Railroad starting in the south & heading North to Canaan land, simply follow the Drinking Gourd.
Survivors of the crossing who found Philistines replacing the Egyptians.
The volatility of human borders, escaping fugitive slave law
& hoping to find freedom under the lion’s paw,
forming the Canadian Canaans:
Wilberforce, Dawn, The Refugee Home Society, & Elgin
Escapin’ plantation cottin’ pickin only to find a more subtle racism,
which kept people on the go, poly-identities in motion before postmodernism called it so.
Like Boston King moving from America to Nova Scotia to Sierra Leone then England & back to Sierra Leone; did he ever really feel at home?
Hear Nina Simone singing, “Ain’t got No…”
To be in another place, not here.
Fiction “here” is the transcription of history, reworking tradition,
As Mandela said, “History isn’t born it’s made.”
History: a kind of philosophical lab.
A tidalectical wave crashing back & forth,
into the torn & new of this host country.

Mr. D, in Susanna Moodie’s Roughing It in The Bush notoriously states “there are no ghosts in Canada” because “the country is too new for ghosts.”
But if you put your ear to a tree, or stand still in one place, you’ll realize this land is “hauntological.”
The silences echo with the whispers of ghosts in the corridors of history.
Fighting for survival since arrival is enough to make anyone suicidal.
& where is here really? Here is simply here for those who ended up here, or for those who’ve always been here. To first Nations people the question is absurd.
It’s apparent we exclude all others when we construct a garrison.
Especially when that construction is at the expense of a community.
“We” tore down Africville & bulldozed Hogan’s Alley to make room for a highway.
& they call it urban renewal, more like “Negro” removal.

My education was one of white-faced white-studies effacing my white face with white paint.
If I encountered a black text it was usually as subtext, prefix, or preface to the rest.
As critics we need to flip the script proper with a provisional manuscript
& avoid creating bordered realities like the Gaza strip,
or the whole world really, when you get down to it.

Rather, DJ take us into an “indexical present.”
The DJ as cultural archivist & resistive resident,
Moving the fader, back & forth between diverse cultural realities,
Using beats, rhymes, & counter rhythms like swords.
Poetry working & un/working on the edge,
Like Rakim said: “Standing on shaky grounds too close to the edge,
Let’s see if I know the ledge.”

An edging towards the Just Society.
A tapestry entwined within Trudeau’s notions of a pluralistic & polyethnic society.
For multiculturalism is an exercise in blackness: an acculturation of forms, a creative destruction of old selves into new states.

Canada is an archipelago of blackness:
For whiteness is death & only when we let go of our possessive investment in it, can we truly unravel the shells holding in the outer limits of our outer selves.
Discover: the heteroglot, the polyglot, the polyphonic improvised being who is always a listening being.
Are you listening Canada? Where is H/ear? Or, Where are you from?

Canada can never claim to be a homogenous culture.
So paint phonemes on canvas, over this Canaan land, soundin’ Canada,
Chant, grunt, shout, & sing a callaloo of aquarelles, a gumbo-concoction with rhythms
that be boppin’ & hip-hopin’ on the Canadian kazoo, & find:
George Elliott Clarke sounding Miles Davis with a blues-beaucoup in Blue.
Wayde Compton entwininging Grandmaster Flash in his legba-trickster brew.
Dionne Brand phrasing Coltrane with a jazz text sonically riffing through.
M. NourbeSe Philip turning the echoes of Zong into song with poetry guiding her through.
K’naan taking us through Babylon wavin’ a flag with the force of a million literary reviews.
& these are to name but a few of the artists
improvising consciousnesses in the liminality of contact zones.

Hear: the spirituals & blues augmenting a salacious truth that speaks Canada with a cool icy-blue.
Hear: jazz, the flattened 5th of devil’s music, blowing freely in Canada too.
Hear: funk, r&b, & rock syncopating the electric past into the reclamation of bodies.
Everybody, hear the dub of the duppy, mystics using a West Indian aesthetic to heal the present.
Hear: Hip Hop urban youths speakin’ beats & rhymes—& more than just music—the movement.
Hear: DJs recontextualizing all material, for sonic frequencies are not a fixed phenomenon.

Legein: the layering out, gathering, collecting, reading, the “mix” of the mixedness of all things.
Improvisation: the open-ended possibility for polyglossic polyventiality, for survival.
Speak as a prophet or profess like a professor: it does mean after all, “To declare openly.”
Laurier, MacKenzie King, & Harper aren’t my prime ministers.
Administer a protesting crescendo with a glissando like Oscar Peterson on the piano,
pushing the keys with love.

Sing Canaan, chant it, shout it, play it, pluck it, howl it, honk it, scream it, into pure utterance & possibility—
freely imagine what a truly Just Society could sound like & be.

This poem is in draft stage and covers some of the theory and history surrounding my thesis project, Soundin' Canaan: Music, Resistance, and Citizenship in African Canadian Poetry. The featured image is of Harriet Tubman (far left) with family and friends. I'll be reading part of this poem and discussing my work more generally on Monday, March 10th from 12:30pm - 1:00pm on From The Second Story, a radio program on the University of Guelph's CFRU (93.3 FM).

Soundin’ Canaan in 3 Minutes

Next week I am competing in an event where you have to deliver your thesis in 3 minutes with no more than one basic slide. This is quite a daunting task, and given that my 300+ page thesis (in a draft version currently) covers so much, and given that I don’t really have time to discuss any of the specific poetry in detail, I thought I’d primarily touch on some of the larger themes around music and citizenship. I often get asked, so what’s the gist of your thesis? In 3 minutes it sounds  roughly like this:

I will briefly outline how music and citizenship relate to my thesis project, Soundin’ Canaan: Music, Resistance, and Citizenship in African Canadian Poetry, which is about historical recovery and imagining Canada’s future. Like the image of a needle touching down on the historical record, the past tells us much about where we can go, for as Amiri Baraka states, “The future is always here in the past.” Most Canadians don’t even know slavery existed in Canada, and few are aware of the historical black communities in Canada such as Hogan’s Alley in Vancouver and Africville in Nova Soctia, which thanks to the work of the poets in this thesis hasn’t gone unnoticed: Canada Post, as part of Black history month (2014) commemorated Hogan’s Alley and Africville on a stamp. Soundin’ Canaan (Canada was often referred to as Canaan in spirituals during the black migration to Canada), draws from a cross-fertilization of communicative techniques to examine how citizenship is reexamined by African Canadian poets’ resistive soundings.

Centered on the poetry of M. NourbeSe Philip, George Elliott Clarke, Wayde Compton, Dionne Brand, and rapper K’naan, my dissertation builds on the work of scholars who have admirably mapped and written about African Canadian literature. Uniquely it examines how many African Canadian poets draw from African American and pan-African musical forms (including blues, jazz, hip-hop, reggae, dub, and so on) in order to remap the concept of identity and citizenship. Soundin’ Canaan, addresses the politics and ethics of Canadian multicultural policy and citizenship—focusing on intersections between music and text as a border-crossing praxis. I ask: what does Canadian citizenship sound like, particularly as voiced by African Canadian poets interested in a fluid citizenship that moves, like music, between local and global spaces?

Idealistically, citizenship—like music—is not confined to any single space. While in prison, Nelson Mandela listened to Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” an act Paul Gilroy describes as “The global dimension of diaspora dialogue [made] momentarily visible.” Essentially, music travels across borders, and through such sonic imagining, the value of a global (yet still often regional) citizenship is avowed. My methodology itself is closest to the practice of DJing, which provides a malleable guide to my murky topology: DJs mix multiple records by using various constituent elements of rhythm, timbre, texture, and overall sonic experience. In essence, I ask what happens when you put a mixer and crossfader between several diverse cultural realities?

By looking at citizenship through the lens of music as an often dissonant site (or text) of struggle and identity formation, Soundin’ Canaan demonstrates how music in African Canadian poetry is not solely aesthetic, but a form of social, ethical, and political expression. What happens when those not normally seen as citizens with full rights—the disposable—are brought more into the picture and seen as co-performers of the Canadian remix project? No longer for the elite alone, citizenship is to be universally confirmed for all Canadians.

Canada signified as Canaan represents faith and contradiction for the poets explored in this thesis. Isolation can only create more of the same, and so multiculturalism, reimagings of citizenship and Martin Luther King, Jr. and Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s notions of The Just Society present an opportunity to moderate disorder and fragmentation by embracing difference through fraternity. Much of this thesis is an idealization of what Canadian multiculturalism can aspire to be: a gesturing towards a more equal and free society for all its members.

we’re new h/ear (poem, draft)

I wrote this poem after listening to my baby’s heartbeat on the Doppler fetal monitor. Below the poem is audio of the heartbeat mixed vis-à-vis  my music production, voice, and lyrics.

we’re new h/ear

i heard your heartbeat today, baby.
a fast 180bpm slowed to a steady 160
as you listened to us listening to you
nestled in your echo chamber.

i play buddy holly’s “everyday”
headphones wrapped round mommy’s round belly,
you kick a little more, {your little foot}
everyday it’s a-gettin’ closer.

i wonder what you look like?
can you feel my warm, loving, yet anxious hand
against the walls of your mini-universe,
come what may.

on the news: another war, another shooting, more corruption,
pollution. I question bringing you here.
but then I hear your mommy singing, gently touching her belly
& feel the world—at least ours—is perfect.

besides: we’re all new here.

Photo copyright, Paul Watkins. 

“Poems are bullshit”: Rest in Power, Amiri Baraka

Amiri Baraka, a poet and playwright of incendiary rage and collective insight, who went from Beat poet to Black Nationalist and finally Marxist-Leninist, died today in Newark. He was 79. Among his most known works are the poetry collections The Dead Lecturer and Transbluesency: The Selected Poetry of Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones (1961-1965), his plays Dutchmen and A Black Mass, and his various works on Black music, such as Blues People and Black Music. Along with Ezra Pound, Amiri Baraka remains one of the most controversial and least understood American poets. As M.L. Rosenthal wrote, “No American poet since Pound has come closer to making poetry and politics reciprocal forms of action” (qtd. in Baraka Reader xxi). For Baraka, art was a weapon of revolution. Further, Baraka wrote some of the most insightful works on African American music, appropriately referring to the music as American classical music. His poetry was always musical, for as he states in Blues People, the poem must “swing—from verb to noun.” The “changing same” was his designation of the interplay between tradition and the individual talent in Afro-American music.

His creative writing shows how poetry can move through blues and jazz to black chant and graphic sound. His poem, “In the Tradition,” dedicated to alto saxophonist Arthur Blyth, opens with a slick alliterative line, followed by a quick twist that recalls music as a resistive province to slavery: “Blues walk weeps ragtime / Painting slavery” (Transbluesency 199). “In the Tradition” is an epic poem concerning historical events; like much of Baraka’s work it carefully wields together traditions to assert poetic agency. Baraka’s poem “Black Art” charges forth like a gorilla and  provides an Umwalzung—that is, a revolution—through a complete overturn of prior poetic systems, enacting one of the most ferocious black chants ever to appear on the page. Anti-Semitism aside, which the poem sadly has in abundance, “Black Art” is an improvisatory chant in the form of a free jazz poem. Baraka’s poetic violence disavows lyric voice in favour of a gruffer, more militant poetics: “Poems are bullshit unless they are / teeth or tress or lemons piled / on a step […] Fuck poems […] We want ‘poems that kill.’ / Assassin poems” (Transbluesency 142). While I can’t condone much of the poem’s content, its form, along with Baraka’s opus, altered the course of African American literary culture. It didn’t merely blacken the canon: it blew it into a million pieces.

Baraka is one of the most important poets and music critics of the twentieth century: full stop. The controversy and backlash over his public reading of his poem “Somebody Blew Up America,” as well as some of the homophobic, anti-Semitic, and misogyny of his middle period poems, often overshadow the incredible firebrand prowess and construction of Baraka’s cerebral and polemical thinking. Baraka lived a very tumultuous life and his poetry and social activism reflect that. He showed many young poets—across cultures and generations—that poetry could be a call to arms, as well as a tool to adequately express lived experience. His uncompromising, engaging, and, at times, problematic voice will be missed.

Check out this 2004 piece on why Amiri Baraka matters by poet Saul Williams in Fader.

Check out Baraka reading from “Why’s/Wise”:

 

Works Cited

Baraka, Amiri. Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones Reader. Ed. W.J. Harris. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1991. Print.

—. Transbluesency: The Selected Poems of Amiri Baraka/ LeRoi Jones (1961-1995). Ed.  Paul Vangelisti. New York: Marsilio Publishers, 1995. Print.

Photo of Amiri Baraka from Wikipedia Commons.