Stone Telling Roundtable: Multiple Perceptions
by Julia Rios
This issue is full of loss, betrayal, and misperception, but it is also full of defiance and reclamation. Lisa M. Bradley, Ching-In Chen, Kathrin Köhler, Alex Dally MacFarlane, and Sofia Samatar joined me to explore all of those things.
JR: Alex and Sofia, your poems both deal with the way people have perceived women throughout history, and they make interesting counterpoints. Alex's poem looks at modern historians and paleontologists from the perspective of one of the skeletons they study, while Sofia's poem looks at Abu Tammam, a 9th century CE poet and anthologist, from the perspective of a modern woman. Both of your pieces explore the way these people study and assign roles and traits to women, and both pieces also resonate with sadness and anger over those assignments. What led you to write these pieces from these particular perspectives, and what makes it so important to have the past and present in dialogue?
Sofia Samatar: The speaker in "Snowbound in Hamadan" is trying to see things new, to push past the opposition between "feminism" and "traditional cultures." You know, the idea that a person can't draw strength from both, because they contradict each other so absolutely. The anthology turned out to be a helpful image for the poem, because every anthology is based on a process of selection, and the majority of the material is left out. So the poem's speaker is looking for what didn't make it into Abu Tammam's anthology—the great vague remainder that falls outside a particular masculinist ideal of poetry.
And yes, there is sadness and anger. Part of it comes from being in love with a poetic tradition and then feeling like it's kicking you in the teeth. That's the anger, I think. And then there is sadness and frustration at the thought of the voices you can't be in touch with in the same way, because so few have been preserved. But there's energy too, enormous energy in the speaker by the end of the poem, and a sort of defiance, a refusal to reject a meaningful tradition just because it's not comfortable or easy, but also a refusal just to accept it as it comes. I think that's where your point about the dialogue between the past and the present comes in. Yes, we have to have that dialogue. Especially when we're talking about cultures that are marginalized globally. You don't let go of that. You have to hang on and work with it somehow, if it speaks to you, if it's part of your identity, even if—especially if—there is pressure on you to let it go.
Alex Dally MacFarlane: History is constantly filtered through the gaze of the present, often (and especially until recently) in Western academia through a very narrow gaze: male, white, straight, wealthy. This male gaze has been directed at the past for centuries, distorting excavations and texts, making a mess of the past that historians now must unpick.
Consider: there was a tendency to view any skeleton buried with a weapon as male. (Numerous martial women throughout history would no doubt have a few words to say about this, if they were alive today.) Consider: textile evidence was deemed uninteresting because it was women's work. The stories of women have repeatedly been brushed over in a preference for those of men. It is true that the written record is dominated by men because women were more often illiterate (although not always – see Sapfó, Babylonian women, Nüshu, nuns…), but to assume that this means women's stories are lost is narrow-sighted. Textile evidence – women's work – is just one place where those stories can be found.
In her flawed but immensely valuable book Women's Work: The First 20,000 Years, Elizabeth Wayland Barber discusses the string skirts found in some Scandinavian burials (and attested, in various forms, across Europe). One, found with the fused remains of metal tubes that were attached to the ends of the strings to give them weight, directly inspired the poem. Barber associates the skirts with sex and fertility, which seems quite likely, but where she essentialises the association between womanhood and childbearing, I wanted to go beyond that. While the woman of the poem might wear her skirt in those contexts, I wanted to focus on her wearing it alone, for herself: the skirt as an embodiment of the joy and fear of being a woman, of being her, while the archaeologist assigns it to childbearing and notes the wealth of its metal and suggests that it wasn't very complicated or bright or important.
Of course, I wrote the poem. I am speaking through it: my concerns shape the imagined concerns of a woman living thousands of years ago. It cannot escape being about historiography as much as it is about history. But it is important to me that, in the uneven dialogue between past and present, I strive to locate women and shine a light on them.
JR: Thank you, Sofia and Alex! Ching-In and Kathrin, your poems also deal with women and sadness and anger, but unlike Sofia and Alex, you both explored these feelings in conjunction with romantic relationships. Ching-In, your poem deals with the devastation of war, and a very physical disintegration of people, while Kathrin's deals with a disintegration of the spirit. Both pieces are extremely sharp and painful, and they do not shy away from the horror of oppression and abuse. Why is it important to you to hold such an unflinching gaze on these things? Do you feel your examination of these subjects is in itself an act of reclamation?
Kathrin Köhler: Thank you for asking these questions, Julia. Reading your description of "the art of domesticity" as "the disintegration of the spirit" really affected me. Even though I wrote the poem, seeing this description upset me.
Yes, this unflinching gaze is important because, as Hannah Arendt wrote, we can live without justice but we cannot live without truth. As Sofia and Alex have mentioned, there is great power in defining the canon, in authoring texts and theorizing. Those who control the narrative define reality, they direct its construction. I think looking at the human world for what it is, as we truly create it, is vital. We must share in a common reality in that the human narrative include our commensurate experiences.
Women's reality has been separated from men's and it has been subverted, subsumed, trivialized and disappeared. Jaqueline Bao wrote, "In bearing witness, we carry the burden of the unpleasantry of truths just as we give life to the permanence of the world by establishing a common reality." Many cultures burden women with carrying truth. By silencing women we silence truth. By denying women's experiences we deny truth. This damages everyone.
I think there is a reclamation, or a claiming in the first place, in writing in general, and in writing about domestic abuse and violence in particular – it is the power of naming and of confrontation. Domestic abuse is the elephant in the room. Except we not only pretend it isn't there (or are instructed to pretend), we pretend it isn't an elephant. Which is a strange and complicated acrobatic contortion – women are told that that which they experience doesn't really happen, and that it does but it's not what they think it is. That the abuse I'm describing in the poem is emotional abuse further complicates the problem. We're told abuse is something other than abuse: it's love, or it's just a partner's way of showing affection; it's inevitable, or genetic; it's always been that way and it won't change.
And in many ways that is true, we cannot change a thing unless we understand its form and give it a name. You cannot change what you do not realize exists. From the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities website: Our human world "'will [n]ever be able to survive without men willing to do what Herodotus was the first to undertake consciously—namely, to say what is' (Truth and Politics, 229)." "It takes incredible courage and resolve to do something as simple as tell the truth. … To do so is both selfish (in regard to one's family) and selfless (insofar as one sacrifices oneself to the public need for truth)." But if women can twist themselves up to both believe that abuse doesn't exist and that it does exist but it isn't really abuse, then they also have the strength and courage to tell the truth. They carry the power to bear witness and thereby create a shared reality. Which is the power of the narrative.
This poem actually germinated from the interactions of a couple I visited a few years ago. I noticed what I thought were obvious signs of abuse barely contained beneath a domestic veneer. The person I was with, someone I'm very close to, did not see any signs of abuse at all. In fact, he thought they were a perfectly normal, happy couple. That really threw me. I spent at least a day and a half wondering if I'd made it up, if I might have been projecting or if my view of this couple had been colored by too many tv dramas. I decided I couldn't have made it up. I spoke with two others who knew this couple and their knowledge confirmed my observations and interpretation. The other people I spoke to were women.
The couple who inspired "the art of domesticity" may never know of this poem, she may never know I wrote it for her, but it is here because it happened to her. She is not lost, was not without witness.
Ching-In Chen: What surfaces for me is from the Filipino American writer Carlos Bulosan: "They are even afraid of our songs of love." What Bulosan is referencing is the Kundiman, a Filipino love song tradition which became re-tooled for revolutionary purposes during colonialist times. I became introduced to the Kundiman poetic tradition through an Asian American poets' community, named after this poetic tradition. And this poem, "Love with the Soldier," is part of a series of poems which first arose in conversation to a poem entitled "Kundiman" by founder Sarah Gambito. And Sarah's poem is in conversation with a group of poems written in response to a Kundiman fellow Melissa Roxas' being abducted at gunpoint and held against her will for six days and subject to physical and psychological torture in the Philippines in 2009.
Sarah Gambito's poem begins:
"If I speak for Melissa, I force myself
upon the soldier. I keep him in my schoolhouse
feed him fish and aqua lovely numbers so he forgets
where he is from. He can be
as I am from."
My poem(s) continue here.
What does that act of speaking — that force — look like?
Love and intimacy can also be such a space of fury and violence. For me, it is a way to honor, remember, witness those at the center of that space to hold that gaze. For me, it was important for the poem to shift perspectives — first from the witnesses who are underground to the actual lover of the soldier who is searching for the names swallowed.
I initially followed Sarah's impulse to write the soldier as male, which didn't feel right to me because it felt too easy, something that didn't teach me something I didn't already know, if I look at the poem as a trouble-making entity, something I'm working/troubling through. Having just co-edited The Revolution Starts at Home: Confronting Partner Abuse Within Activist Communities, I was thinking about violence within queer/trans communities so I intentionally gender-bended that character into a woman with power.
If I think of poem as reclamation, poem as public space, poem as re-enactment, poem as a field of actions (possible, already, future), poem of imagined path — an eye, a robot or a machine.
Which one works? Which has a body capable of absorption, cultivation, recovery and use?
JR: Thank you, Kathrin and Ching-In. As Kathrin mentioned, the Jacqueline Bao quotes come from a post on the Hannah Arendt Center blog. If you follow the link, be forewarned that it is a post about torture, which contains images of prisoners being tortured.
Lisa, your article touches on loss and betrayal, romantic love and the power dynamics associated with race and class. Most of all, it delves into the exploration of things not being what they might seem on the surface. You write about gothic country music, and give us in depth looks at two different songs written and performed by a white man from Canada (though a woman does sing the woman's part in "Goose Walking Over My Grave"). In one song terrible things happen to a woman, and in the other, religion and patriotism end up leading to pursuit and peril. Some of the things that have come up in this conversation are the way that people in power choose which stories get told, and the shape of those stories. Many of the poems in this issue present difficult and painful subjects from the perspective of historically underrepresented voices. How do these songs fit in with that concept? Can someone outside of the cultural experience fairly represent those voices? And what is it that makes his music, and these stories so gripping in spite of (or perhaps because of) their problematic aspects?
Lisa M. Bradley: In the Goose song, there are two voices: that of a cognitively impaired man and his lover, a woman. Traditionally, ableism discourages stories about disabled people, unless those stories are "inspirational" or cautionary, even horror. I think there's particular discomfort with broaching mental impairments. To have a story told from the perspective of a cognitively impaired person is thus rare. Furthermore, the idea that handicapped people have sex, period, and that it might merit discussion, is still taboo. Then—as if all that weren't challenging enough—we learn these characters are brother and sister. Few people want to discuss incest, and even those who do discuss it tend to limit the conversation so as to have a clearly defined victim and villain. This song complicates that narrative. Between the disability, sexuality, and incest, this song offers a viewpoint almost never represented.
In the Birdcage song, the narrator spreads a heretical gospel that pits the rural Gullah community against urban religious authorities. The narrator rallies the previously marginalized Gullah into the limelight and their customs are adopted by the majority. But the narrator positions himself as the country folks' spokesperson, and since he distinguishes himself from "people of country persuasion," it's doubtful the Gullah truly get a voice.
In this particular case, I don't know what Munly's experiences are. He doesn't seem to like talking about himself, and he evades questions in interviews. I only know he's Canadian because he's been asked (mostly gently, and by men who seem cowed by his persona), "How can you, a Canadian, make such compelling Southern music?" Munly has explained that he partly grew up in Colorado, where he lives now, and he considers gothic country particular to Denver. So it's not Southern music. But why do so many listeners think of it that way? Our rubrics must be wonky if someone patently NOT southern infiltrates our "southern music" category. I start to wonder: What constitutes "southern"? What gets into that canon? What's already in there and shouldn't be? What have we missed?
By forcing us to question supposedly objective geographical assignations, Munly throws a monkey wrench in the works. Even if he cannot accurately or "fairly" represent others' voices, I believe that interrogation and deconstruction of traditional categories (the works) can make room for hitherto marginalized voices. I think that's valuable.
Munly's certainly not for everybody (is anyone?). What draws me to his music is the apparently un-self-conscious investigation of taboos: incest, disability, racism, homosexuality, addiction, poverty, suicide, castration, prison…if it makes someone uncomfortable, Munly's probably writing about it, and he's not glossing it over, that's for sure. I've felt guilty of thought-crimes since I was a child, so to hear someone belting out the forbidden is such a relief. True, I sometimes cringe when I'm listening, but I think it's worth examining my reactions. And by tackling taboos in both realistic and fantastic modes, Munly blurs even metaphysical boundaries. Which—honestly?—warms the cockles of my little anarchist heart.
JR: The Birdcage song being set in the Gullah community does seem to be indisputably southern. Are the rest of Munly's songs less distinctly located? I'm unfamiliar with his work (though I did listen to the two songs you discuss in your article).
LB: Hard to say. The lyrics aren't always intelligible to me. Even when they are, it's confusing. His song "The Fabulous History of the Churchill Falls Barrel Races", for example, claims to take place in "the southern states of America," but Churchill Falls is actually in Canada. Using dialect and details, Munly conjures an imaginary historical south, I think.
JR: We've talked a bit about erasure, and about things not being what they seem. What is it about poetry that makes it such a good venue for revealing different perceptions and interpretations? Do poets have a specific duty to do that? Why are each of you drawn to poetry as a medium?
ADM: I like the poetic potential for voice — for direct speech or song. Due to the length I tend to work with in poetry (much shorter than my prose), it can be a very precise, very pointed voice, a direct statement or exclamation or confrontation. There's no reason that prose can't be or contain this too, but for me, poetry is a way to whittle down to this direct voice, to make it the only thing — to amplify it by way of having nothing else around it. To make it loud and impossible to ignore.
SS: I agree with what Alex said about voice. Poetry, with its link to song, can be a way of engaging with music and oral traditions. I think prose can do this, too—see Greer Gilman—but with poetry that door is wide open.
I'm also drawn to poetry because it's a great field for experimentation. This has less to do with length than with the expectations that go with the genre. A story or an essay is expected to provide context and show causality in a certain way; poetry isn't held to the same rules. I'm generalizing, of course. But there is a sense in which a poem is a less structured space than a story, right down to the level of the word, or what would be the sentence level in prose. That's true of the poem before you even write it. It's up to you to find out what the structure is going to be. Very challenging, very exciting!
LB: Alex and Sofia have zeroed in on poetry's connection to song, and I agree that's key. The playfulness of rhythm and rhyme, the potential for word play, can disarm us, allowing the poet to deliver unexpected truths. I'm loathe to say, however, that poets are obligated to do any particular kind of work with their art. People need all kinds of poetry, for different times and moods and purposes.
CC: A former teacher of mine, Juan Felipe Herrera, has talked about poetry as a simultaneous sculpture, dance/movement, and music. Of course, depending on your training, your impulses, your inclinations as a reader and writer, you may emphasize one aspect over another. For me, the reason why I'm attracted to creating poetry is because I think that the poem is a field that allows me as a writer/artist to create these kinds of open texts with multiple layers and possibilities.
White space and the page, line breaks, fragments, punctuation as building blocks of visual meaning, laying down lines adjacent, across, in contradiction — all of these create the opportunity to represent multiple experiences in the same space simultaneously.
I'm drawn to the attempt to allow multiples voices to inhabit — fight out — the same space, similar to the mash-up in music. In that way, sometimes I think of choreographing an opera or a play with all its attendant musics and movements. Sharon Bridgforth and her work with theatrical jazz has really helped guide my thinking and my work in this area.
However, I'm also attracted to blurry boundaries — and now I see a lot of prose which uses strategies I think of as poetic (Salvador Plascencia's The People of Paper follows multiple paths in the narrative simultaneously, for instance, or Lily Hoang's Changing is a narrative written from the bottom up, using hexagrams as its organizing principle).
Though I agree with Lisa that I would be loathe to tell a poem it has to do any one thing, I am most drawn to poetry that pushes me to dwell in these kinds of multiple, simultaneous spaces and to really think about the complexity of our humanities (or non-humanities, there's me desiring the blur again).
KK: I feel drawn to writing and reading poetry because it functions on multiple levels of analysis; verse has this wonderful ability to simultaneously mean and evoke and be many things at once, and to put into play the many meanings of words. Poetry can implode themes to a single image and explode an image or a word to reveal the inner workings of the universe. Not unlike subatomic physics, I think.
And all that's important to me because engaging in multiple levels (by bringing in etymology and word association and sound etc) allows the poet to bypass strict interpretations and reveal to the reader these different perceptions and interpretations and possibilities. Like listening with someone else's ear.
Ching-In's response is gorgeous: poetry as physical and musical. Yes! Poetry blurs boundaries because it reminds us there are no boundaries unless we wish to pretend that there are. Language is not static, forms are not static, sound is physical, we are emotional and our language and everything we create, therefore, is too.
JR: Thank you for another fascinating conversation. I always learn several new things through these roundtable discussions, and I'm grateful to all of you for being my teachers this time.