“holding each other up”: A Review of Katherena Vermette’s The Break

Katherena Vermette’s The Break is a devastatingly beautiful novel that depicts the bonds between the women of an extended Indigenous family. With warp and weft, Vermette weaves together the voices of numerous intergenerational women to tell their personal stories as they deal with the enduring after-effects of trauma. The prose is sparse, yet dense (“Stella blinks a tear”), as the narrative takes a bare-knuckles approach to cut a jagged truth. Like her stunning poetic debut, North End Love Songs (2012), The Break deftly crafts Vermette’s complex relationship to Winnipeg’s North End. A surface reading concerns the mystery surrounding the sexual assault of a thirteen-year-old Métis girl vis-à-vis the police procedural that unfolds as a result of the crime: “Aboriginal female. Blood loss. Signs of sexual assault.” But the novel is far more complex than this, using numerous viewpoints to reveal the complicated sociopolitical conditions that produce violence and racism, and that cause harm to people, especially women, in Indigenous communities.

Click here to read my full review at Canadian Literature.

“I am Om”

Occasionally, I perform under the DJ Techné moniker. My latest track, “I am Om,” is about finding inner peace in a world that often feels disconnected and sick. The vocal clips are from Alice Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders (from Coltrane’s Om), the Dalai Lama, Louis Armstrong, and MLK. It is available for free download, here, or have a listen below:

“The Gathering of Nations” Anthem

I was fortunate to take part in recording and mixing the audio portion of Marlene Rice’s (Hwiem’) “The Gathering of Nations” Anthem at VIU’s Cowichan campus. The video work is done by my colleague Jay Ruzesky in the Creative Writing department. It is a song that welcomes students to learn and it is performed in the Hul’qumi’num language. As Marlene Rice puts it:

This song teaches us respect for our family and our friends. It says “speak your mind, and keep your mind strong.” Our communities want to bring our generations together. We need to always think about the elders of the past and the teachings they provide and bring to the present day that will give strength to our youth. We can take a look at our young people and look at the elders of the past and form a vision of bringing them together so they can survive in this world.

Feel free to share.

Hogan’s Alley Remixed: Learning through Wayde Compton’s Poetics

Tomorrow, Friday, November 25, you are invited to step into Hogan’s Alley, Vancouver’s historic neighbourhood and a focal point of Black culture prior to its destruction in the late 1960s. I will be delivering the final Arts and Humanities Colloquium for the term, entitled Hogan’s Alley Remixed: Learning through Wayde Compton’s Poetics. 

My talk will look at the work of Vancouver-born poet, essayist, DJ, and historian Wayde Compton, whose collection, Performance Bond, explores the destruction of Hogan’s AlleyCompton incorporates hip-hop and turntable poetics in his piece to recover the past and effectively blend such histories into the present.

The presentation will mix images, sound, and text. VIU student and bassist Darin Nicolle will provide some bass accompaniment during the presentation and there will be an opening performance piece on mashup culture. 

The presentation is from 10-11:30 a.m. at Malaspina Theatre (on the Nanaimo VIU campus). The sessions are free to attend. Please join us at 9:30 am for coffee, tea, cookies, and conversation in the theatre lobby.

Press:

Nanaimo Bulletin: Vancouver Island University lecture examines poet Wayde Compton’s work

The Navigator: Exploring historic Vancouver’s Hogan’s Alley through Wayde Compton’s eyes

Image Credit: RACHEL STERN / The News Bulletin

 

Special Issue of Critical Studies in Improvisation on Hip-Hop is Now Live

Cyphers: Hip-Hop and Improvisation

Vol 10, No 1

Edited by Paul Watkins and Rebecca Caines

To cypher is to rap, break, beatbox tightly together in a circle where each person just might get a moment in the spotlight. To cypher is to borrow and to lend, to playfully freewheel through whilst taking an exacting care for each word and carefully considering all the sounds, meanings, and interpretations. It is to fight back, to borrow, to steal, to represent, and to collaborate, whilst suddenly—surprisingly—at times aggressively claiming your own voice, your own right to speak. A cypher is a gathering of rappers, beatboxers, and/or breakers in a circle, extemporaneously making music together. In recent years, the cypher has also grown to include the crowd and spectators who are integral to maintaining the energy of a given cypher. In a cypher, one emcee will rap about a certain topic, which is quickly taken up or flipped by another emcee who plays off the prior words and themes. Each artist takes his or her respective turn, much like in a jazz solo. Cyphers flow freely between diverse performers who improvise their words, sounds, or movements to create a complex matrix of sharing. The circle can go on continuously, as long as emcees, beatboxers, dancers, and the crowd keep the fluidity of the cypher going. The cypher is welcoming and thus models a pedagogy that is inclusive and improvisational in nature.

This issue of Critical Studies in Improvisation/ Études critiques en improvisation aims to act as a cypher, engaging with the embodied practice of locally specific yet globally implicated hip-hop, as we consider the cypher as a metaphor for the complexities of critically thinking about improvisation more broadly. Appropriately, our theme of “Cyphers” attracted a wide range of analyses with many points of intersection. Our final selection ranges from discussions with historically significant scholars and practitioners in hip-hop and Black expressive culture to newer texts at the intersections between hip-hop and other art forms, as well as those tracing the improvisatory affects of hip-hop across cultural and technological boundaries.

Each paper in this issue addresses specific responses to the improvisatory impulse in hip-hop. We start the issue with a number of interviews. We are honoured that George Lipsitz agreed to interview Tricia Rose for this issue, bringing two significant scholars in Black Studies into conversation. This interview emphasizes Rose’s vital contributions to the field of hip-hop scholarship and addresses the broader importance of improvisatory Black expressive cultural practices as “sites and sources of knowledges, as repositories of collective memory, as sights of moral instruction, as ways of calling communities into being through interaction and through performance.” Rebecca Caines’ interview with leading Canadian hip-hop researcher Charity Marsh focuses on Marsh’s creation and leadership of the Interactive Media and Performance Labs in Saskatchewan as an innovative, exploratory space for disenfranchised communities to meet and learn about themselves through hip-hop practices. In conversation with Vancouver-based poet/scholar/DJ Wayde Compton, Paul Watkins addresses Compton’s work on history, identity, and race, exploring the idea of improvising Blackness from within both local (BC) and transnational contexts. This audio interview is then remixed a number of times to allow the conversation to interact with Compton’s readings of his own poetry and with a number of different music samples. Watkins then continues this exploration of critically engaged approaches to artistic practice with his review of Flying Lotus’s (aka FlyLo, born Steven Ellison) 2014 release, “You’re Dead!

Jesse Stewart examines the form of “jazz-rap” that emerged in the 1980s and ’90s. He charts the use of improvisational jazz forms in this type of hip-hop music and perceives this act as a kind of cultural memory practice that “mobilizes the musical past in the service of a socially progressive cultural politics of difference.” Niel Scobie addresses dissonance and “noise” in improvisation and in hip-hop music, with special attention to the music of Public Enemy. For Scobie, “anti-musical” aesthetics allow the group to create lineage with the “discordant cries” of African-American past practices whilst developing a potent improvisatory musical urgency and a call to arms.

Both Marcel Swiboda and Mark Campbell address technological mediation in hip-hop practices. Swiboda addresses “the break,” developing a new critical history of electronic tools for beatmaking to supplement existing scholarship, which has tended to focus more on the use of turntables for isolating and manipulating the breakbeat. Swiboda suggests that technological and material histories of improvisatory beatmaking practices can be “technologically driven, idiomatically specific vernacular modes of critical knowledge practice” and can also bear an “intimate link to improvisatory practices.” Campbell, on the other hand, focuses on current digital DJ practices. His ethnographic project is to discover how newer digital interfaces affect younger DJs in live performance and in radio settings. He argues that digital DJ interfaces might represent “ways to continue to humanize technology as a subversive afrosonic activity, while evolving the practice of DJing.”

See the full editorial and issue, here.


Critical Studies in Improvisation / Études critiques en improvisation is generously supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (through both its Major Collaborative Research Initiatives and Aid to Scholarly Journals programs) and by the University of Guelph Library.

When Voices Intertwine (Book Review)

Robert Bringhurst is often described as a modern-day renaissance man. Few writers could navigate fields as diverse as poetry, translation, typography, cultural history, and philosophy as interwoven vocations. Through an adherence to polyphony as a mode of deep ecological thinking, Bringhurst works to make accessible the wisdom of poets and thinkers past, from Sophocles to Haida mythtellers Ghandl and Skaay.

As Bringhurst puts it, “when two voices intertwine, the space they occupy gets larger, and the mind gets larger with it”; no wonder poet Denis Lee calls him “a man of massive simple-mindedness.” Bringhurst has a way of chiselling complex thinking down to that part of being that ineluctably binds all living matter together. Bringhurst’s ontological approach is more aligned with ancient Greece than the modern academy, which is why editors Brent Wood and Mark Dickinson make clear that he doesn’t neatly fit within the “twenty-first century university’s rubric of knowledge production and transmission.” As such, Bringhurst is most comfortable in the role of an independent public thinker, bound by neither institution nor strict cultural protocol, which has irked some of his critics.

Click here to read my full review at Canadian Literature.

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,

Some Notes Towards the (im)Possible: 3D Printing a Turntable

3D printing, which is also known as additive manufacturing (AM), uses successive layers of material under computer control to create 3D objects. The technological sphere of 3D printing is a space that excites futurists, scientists, engineers, inventors, pragmatists, and digital humanists. Given the relative infancy of this technology, it remains a truly improvisatory space where ample play (and a fair dosage of frustration) unfold in the process of creating and printing 3D objects.

Improvisation is the force by which we maintain the human, and yet it also foreshadows where the technocratic future will take us as we head further onto the ledge of the possible, or as jazz artist and creative icon Sun Ra writes, the impossible: “The possible has been tried and failed; now I want to try the impossible” (qtd. in Szwed 192). It is in imagining the impossible that we can create futures that at one time seemed only imaginable. There are concerns that 3D printing—which futurologist Jeremy Rifkin refers to as a third industrial revolution, following the production line—could replace the work of people, among a list of other concerns, such as unhealthy air emissions, a reliance on plastics, gun control loopholes, and 3D printed drugs. While these concerns need to be taken seriously, what I find particularly exciting about 3D printing is its relative accessibility, affordability, and the potential to inspire users to view themselves as creators and innovators.

In terms of pedagogy, 3D printing has enormous potential, and by introducing the technology into schools we can shift the paradigm of how young people view innovation and manufacturing. That is, we can get young people to see themselves as innovators, scientists, and futurists from an early age. The DJ in me sees a continuous loop of remixed potential, as users can control their own manufacturing as they see fit, printing household goods and responding to the enormous crisis of climate change by making conscious decisions to use biodegradable PLA plastic filament in printers like the MakerBot.

At the Innovation lab at the VIU Cowichan campus, we’ve printed a number of 3D printed prosthetic hands, which speaks to the massive potential of the emergent technology of 3D printing. Organizations like the Open Hand Project and Enabling the Future are reminders that technology can greatly improve the lives of those who are missing hands and arms and it can do so at a fraction of the cost. While 3D printers are not cheap (starting at around $1000), the material (filament) to print objects is incredibly inexpensive, which can lead to thousands in savings in terms of prosthetics or other printed objects such as instruments.

Case in point: Schools could print 3D ukuleles for less than half the cost of a traditional ukulele and have students assemble them, simultaneously learning two crafts. Working with the 3D printers at the Innovation lab at Vancouver Island University’s Cowichan campus presented an opportunity to print a hand-cranked turntable using an existing template—an appropriate meeting of the old world dialoging with the new. During the process, working alongside my work-op student Sam, who is truly an equal collaborator (and the creator of the video below), we utilized two 3D printers: MakerBot 3D and Lulzbot TAZ. You learn as you go, as there were challenging moments where printing suddenly stopped midpoint, or where we hadn’t heated the bed properly, or where we chose the wrong filament for printing. Through trial and error, and by making slight modifications along the way, we successfully printed a hand cranked 3D vinyl player.

Below is a video showcasing the process that eventually led to the finished and functional model. The fact that the completed player contains different colours than in the time lapse video speaks to the challenges of correctly printing a larger and multipart 3D object (especially when you are learning the technology). The video also puts a number of objects into juxtaposed conversation. For example, in the second part of the video we’ve chosen the backdrop of a pond with moving water to contrast the mechanical movements in the first part. You might also notice other objects that function as visual metaphor, such as a biography on inventor Alexander Graham Bell, or Pierre Bourdieu’s The Field of Cultural Production.

The choice of the Billie Holiday record was twofold: one, the record was already scratched up and so the further damage our sewing needle stylus would inflict would be fine; and two, its initial pre-digital recording and iconic sound provides a useful reflective space to think about how recording technologies and musical performance borrow from the past while suggesting new ways forward. That is: the past and the present are constantly speaking to one another. In addition, the music in the video, which I composed under my DJ Techné alias, is mixed, cut, scratched, distressed, mashed, and recontextualized largely from fragments of different Louis Armstrong recordings (taken from vinyl in real time), and functions like the Poundian maxim to “make it new.”

While these juxtapositions create some cognitive dissonance, they suggest that experimentation is about finding new ways to understand the social contexts of cultural practice and production in relation to new technologies. At its best, 3D printing and other forms of digital engagement can help us understand technologically based learning, and provide critical tools for pedagogues both within and outside the walls of academia. While the final result is a 3D turntable that looks far better than it sounds, it is important to remember that it sounds at all. It sounds a kind of way forward, which for us, involves an echoing back as we decide where we want to go next. We hope you enjoy the video.



Works Cited

Szwed, John. Space is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra. New York: Pantheon, 1997.
Print.

Special thanks to George Farris and Sally Carpentier for their technical support and encouragement through the process.

Ph.D. Professor. Writer. Musician. A space for riffings on film, literature, and music.