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Stone Telling Roundtable: Projection

by Julia Rios

This issue presents a menagerie of poems, many of which refer to animals. Many of the animals seem to exist as projections of ourselves, of obstacles we face, and of feelings we have. Even the poems that aren't about animals seem to involve projection. One of the wonderful aspects of poetry is that it's a form which lends itself so well to metaphor and personification. Neile Graham, Minal Hajratwala, Ishita Basu Mallik, JT Stewart, and Brianna Belle Sulzener joined me to explore this phenomenon.

JR: JT and Minal, you both have taken projection as a call to action, and shown ways we might use it for positive ends. "Weaver" revisits the theme of ancestors, and the importance of remembering cultural roots, while "The Unicorn at the Racetrack" brings us back to the animal theme. Both poems urge us to remember ourselves and break out of unhealthy boundaries. It's easy to get bound up in routine stress and frenzy as the stallion narrator in the first section of "Unicorn" does. The unicorn narrator in the second section and the narrator in "Weaver" both call for the people they're addressing to remember themselves, though, and both poems end with instructions. "Weaver" asks the modern woman to remember, "your home name reads Ashanti" and then urges her, "Dream this into truth." "Unicorn" asks the stallions, "Won't you … break your false orbit, fly?" To what extent can we project our own visions on the world and ourselves? What responsibility do we have when we do project our perceptions outward? Minal, why did you choose to examine this through the metaphor of a racetrack? Were you thinking of a particular group of people as JT was with "Weaver"?

Minal Hajratwala: I'm not so sure the unicorn is an animal, though it wouldn't mind being part of a menagerie. Indeed, that is the traditional view; the oldest written reference to the unicorn is in a Greek bestiary of creatures found in "Indica" (India). Sculptural references are much older and more complex. The unicorn I encounter is cipher, god, project, pure word, a strange concavity in our otherwise convex (supposed) knowledge of the animal/divine/human realms. It may be better grouped with the ancestors than with the frog, bat, etc.

I first uttered the idea of the unicorn at the racetrack while on a panel on South Asian diasporic writing at AWP 2010. A couple of the desi writers in the audience said an agent visiting their MFA program had told them the "South Asian trend" was over and they'd missed it. This outraged me and I said something about how you absolutely cannot time your project to the literary marketplace, because publishing is not a rational business, it is as irrational as a casino—just like the stock market, and we've seen how trying to time the stock market works out. I was already working on my series of unicorn poems by this point, and I said please always remember that your manuscript is a unicorn. So trying to time your manuscript to the market's whims is like taking your unicorn to the racetrack.

As I said it in the convention center room in front of two hundred or so people, the image of the poem arose as well and there was a collective breath and giggle as we watched the unicorn arrive at the racetrack. Its absurdity, its beauty. The later poem is an artifact of that breath.

Your psychocultural reading (stress, unhealthy boundaries, etc.) is another fractal. Once the poem exists, I'm always excited to see its possibilities unfold and multiply like spores. That is what makes a poem diasporic.

I can't believe in projection as a pure, unidirectional act between poet and poem—any more than I can consent to reading as a pure act of projection (though there is clearly projection in any act of reading). Each poem should be agitating in many directions at once, like a flame. This flame results in dancing shadows on a cave wall, yes. But it should always be difficult to say whether a poem is a projection, or a transmogrification of matter to energy, or something that can burn down the house.

JT Stewart: Minal, have you ever heard this:

"When the Lord gave out brains
you thought he said trains
So you missed yours."

Yes – indeed – what I'd like to say to the ethnically / culturally challenged MFA-visiting agents who provoked / evoked your unicorn…

Unicorns … yes. How splendid! How appropriate! Furthermore … unicorns never need passports. Never need GPS. Also I suspect your unicorn could flatten the frog in my poem with one tap of a well-shaped hoof. Moreover I suspect our animals BE mythic – perhaps escaping conventional terms like metaphor and projection…

As for my poem "Weaver" – I want to add a PS to your comment.

Nowadays – who knits / crochets / does tatting? Weaves? Certainly a limited number of women. And certainly not the woman of African descent in the poem who knows very little (if anything) about her African roots – culturally and historically. She needs to create / recreate her past – and in this case the connection between an ancient African kingdom and the beginning of the African liberation movement of colonized counties. Self-liberation demands a knowledge of one's self and a knowledge of one's history.

Thanks again – Minal. Your comments helped me figure out so much more about my own poem than I realized – no doubt one purpose (really big) of this Roundtable.

JR: Neile, your poem takes both projection and animals to interesting new places. The title, "With Bats in Our Belfry, Dear, Earth Water and Sky" uses a commonplace, and usually derogatory phrase, and transforms it into something that reads—to me at least—as a sacred invocation. "Bats in the belfry" is often associated with psychophobia (prejudice against mental illness), but you've taken it into a different context, inserted it into a fantastic landscape of everchanging zoological architecture. This is the first of several subverted expectations; many of the animals could be seen as scary or as pests, but the narrator approaches them with wonder and gentleness, even helping the salmon through the kitchen and into the hall. Why did you choose this particular title, and this landscape? What does the subversion signify to you?

Neile Graham: It's meant to gently undermine the negative connotations of the saying in both in the psychophobic and in the zoophobic senses (and a little to tweak people who use such phrases so casually). To add the affection of "dear," and the gravitas of earth, the blessing of water and the flight of sky to it. Not to dismiss the real pain of illness or how annoying literal bats might be in most human contexts, but also to say that there is more to it than that, there is always more to it than that—which is why I didn't truncate the title at the end of that first phrase. I also leave the fourth element in that series out, which I hope will make some readers realize that I mean the bats to be the fourth element: fire. Flame, that mix of light and darkness that warms and feeds us, that helps keep us alive and feeds our imagination. It inhabits the place we inhabit.

I'm walking at least two tightropes here, trying to talk about illness without either romanticizing or trivializing it, and trying not to totally domesticate the wildness in the creatures—to accept them as themselves. I don't want to de-fang the bears, nor do I want to cage or cuddle them.

I think that every creative person has been accused of having bats in their belfries—and for some those bats often bring deep pain and horror—but sometimes they're the fire that sustains us. And they're what shows us Minal's dancing shadows on a cave wall. They're us watching our unicorns win their solo races on the racetrack only they would or could run. My own deamons (daemons?) have not always been blessings—in fact often quite the opposite—but on the whole, though sometimes terrifying, they have also been blessings. I mean to say that the fire has sometimes burnt me badly, but it has also sometimes given me comfort and it has always kept me alive.

A note about the salmon: they come from an actual dream I had, where a spawning stream ran through our kitchen and my husband and I had to do just this to help the salmon spawn, or they would have died without spawning (if you've ever seen salmon spawn, remember how torn and battered they are from their passage). I don't think at the time my subconscious remembered that salmon = inspiration and wisdom in some Celtic mythology. (Help! Metaphor and projection again!)

This is also a poem for my husband, also a writer, as we're approaching our 30th anniversary. The first draft was written as his birthday present, so in that sense it is very much to celebrate the wildness and surprise still in our domesticated lives.

But, as JT says, I hope our creatures escape conventional terms like metaphor and projection, and run their own races in readers' minds.

JTS: A brief working observation and question:

I think we all have interior landscapes in our work which might have some connection to the word / term menagerie (still mulling this over)…

Minal: Do you know James Thurber's story "The Unicorn in the Garden" (from Fables For Our Time).

Neile: Do you know Randall Jarrell's story The Bat Poet – with illustrations by Maurice Sendak?

NG: Yes, JT, I do know The Bat Poet! Hadn't thought about it in this connection, but should have!

JR: JT, you have two poems featuring fairy tales, and you use them both to explore different facets of the same problem: others projecting their desires on the narrator. In "Kiss Me / Change Me" the narrator compares herself to the Frog Prince, and laments that she is not able to change to suit her lover. "Cinderella Begins Her Memoir" shows us another woman who is constantly trying to be what others want her to be. Both deal with the demands of being perfect, where perfection is an arbitrary state imposed by others. Did you intend these poems to mirror each other, or was it chance? Why did you choose to examine these themes through the lens of fairy tales?

JTS: Ah – yes – where to start my response… perhaps w/ a couple of questions: Perhaps these fairy tales offer meditations on the control freaks in women's lives. Does anyone watch the TV reality series Dance Moms? Does anyone wish that Richard Gere had fallen from Julia Roberts' L.A. fire escape in the closing scene of the film Pretty Woman?

Both poems ("Kiss Me / Change Me" & "Cinderella Begins Her Memoir") have as their center of gravity the shock of recognition. Both speakers have endured the dubious rewards from those who have 'othered' them. Now what? Both women might qualify as the 'bats in the belfry' in Neile's poem – yet in different degrees. Their stories – great opportunity for post-modern treatment and commentary.

Both speakers – victims of pre-ordained circumstances & aesthetics – react in unexpected ways. Their resistance draws me into the position of 'fly on the wall' & makes me (as poet) wonder what will happen next. Or – as one of my former students once said (or told me), 'The setup is everything'…

Why choose fairy tales? They provide the instant recognition of universal stories ('The set-up is everything') plus a great opportunity for post-modern treatments and non-linear commentary. Did I consciously pair these poems? Who knows? I don't believe in coincidences. Yet oppression can have many faces – and in some instances present itself as a 'Prince'!

JR: Following the threads of projection and unhappy relationships, "Returns" examines the disintegration of a relationship from an outsider's perspective, while "The Novice Takes Notes For Going South" does the same thing from an insider's perspective. Both feature unreliable narrators. Brianna, whose voice do you imagine is speaking in "'Returns", and how does their view of Magdalena Salazar compare with your own? Why do you think people tend to project their perceptions on others like that narrator does?

Brianna Belle Sulzener: I see the narrator in "Returns" as someone from Juan and Magdalena's New Mexican neighborhood. They are a voice of the community—identified with that particular space—and their voice reflects that perspective. The narrator believes what she's saying, and her take on Magdalena is authentic. As implied in the question, however, that view need not be my own, nor does it represent the understanding I wish an audience to reach. The reader is meant to respond to the narrator's interpretation, though not necessarily agree with it.

Still, I wouldn't call the narrator unreliable, as they don't deliberately mislead the reader. They're just calling it like they see it—just as Juan and Magdalena do. So your final question about perception really gets to the core of the poem.

Here's my view of Magdalena: experience of Space leads her husband to existential contemplation, and upon returning he finds no meaning in anything—not in capital S Space, nor in his life's smaller, more ordinary spaces, such as his home with his wife (literally), and the spaces in their marriage (figuratively). He perceives these all as entities without innate meaning. Magdalena sees the same entities (their home, the galaxy, their relationship) and yet makes sense of them differently. Symbols have meaning for her, and not for her husband. It's not a matter of right and wrong, but of forcing coherence out of antipodes. In short, it's about the ways people in a relationship process and interpret the same material differently (the universe).

So I admire Magdalena, because her worldview matters to her—so much so that she chooses to leave the relationship rather than compromise that vision. But I admire Juan as well, though not for the same reasons as the narrator. Rather, I respect him for being brave enough to be honest about his metamorphosis, even at the expense of his marriage.

As for your final question—why do you think people tend to project their perceptions on others like that narrator does—hmmm. That's a big one. Most people believe that their perceptions depict some sort of objective reality. The world can be pretty overwhelming—there's just so much going on, all the time, everywhere. It's a lot to assimilate. Perception is a way of ordering and classifying the sublime and the mysterious. It keeps the terror at bay and allows people to feel in control. That feeling, illusory or otherwise, is hugely seductive and, to some extent, necessary. Stranger, then, are those few who manage not to 'project their perceptions on others' and still maintain the integrity of their Weltanschauung.

JR: JT, the narrator in "The Novice…" uses the migratory patterns of ducks as a metaphor for inevitable abandonment, and blames their partner for leaving in the end, saying, "This failure is yours / Yes / This is what I will tell myself…" Does the projection on ducks give the narrator emotional distance in this case? Do we use metaphors to separate ourselves from pain? And in the end, does unfair projection help us sometimes, even if we know it is a lie?

JTS: Intermission – a reflection on the terms given us as guidelines for discussing our work: projection / metaphor / unreliable narrator…

I see how these terms might work for readers (some readers of fiction?), yet I go round in circles when I try to use these terms for explaining my own work. Sorry. Yet feeling sorry for myself – perhaps feeling irritated – won't let me off the hook. So keeping my fingers crossed – I plunge in.

[Translation. This challenge will help me explore my work in different ways & in the process hook me up w/ a favorite imperative of mine: "What is dark in me illumine." – from John Milton's Prologue to Paradise Lost.]

I consider my writer self as a story teller – one who writes narrative poems that turn up in my head as voices w/ stories to tell. These folks give me some phrases – usually their starting lines – & off we go. They speak – I transcribe. The more talkative ones can go on & on – sometimes at great length for pages & pages. W/ some their complexity baffle me ("Novice"). Always they surprise me ("Cinderella"). And sometimes I have to do research to Justify what they say ("Ancestors" and "Weaver"); these poems started themselves during my work as an interpreter in the Seattle Art Museum's galleries – yet surfaced later.

Metaphors: I seldom – if ever – use them to craft or revise poems at least on a conscious level. (And – yes – I can see the value of the term for readers.) Metaphors scare and annoy me. To illustrate – I have a poem that starts this way:

The Trouble
With Being A Poet

is the way the mind
other folks leap
to conclusions
while poets jump
into metaphors

Sometimes the folks in my poems just show up in my favorite coffee shop ("Kiss Me / Change Me"). After transcribing what these folks say – I realize their words may carry some scary below-the-surface hook-ups: addictions / oppression / homicide…

Would you like to encounter the sister (or sistah) from "Kiss Me" on a dark & stormy night?

"Novice" raises questions abt the speaker (who / what / function). The same questions work for the 'notes'. Similarly – where does the poem take place (physical / metaphysical space)? It raises questions about how we tell our own stories – resolve our own dilemmas. One reading could say the ducks represent abandonment. Yet the ducks will return – & they belong to a larger cosmic pattern.

Plato didn't trust the poets. Why should we?

JR: One of the other themes in this issue is ancestry. Ishita and JT, you both explore this theme. Like JT's fairy tale poems, "flood" touches upon the difficulties of imposed expectation, though this time instead of an animal or well-known story, a force of nature is personified. The narrator says, "flood had a mother, too, once, meltmouth polyglot, damned if she did and dammed if she didn't…". "Ancestors" ends with, "They struggled to breathe / They tried to speak / They wanted to dance". Both of these poems seem to deal with change, with the power of what came before, with language and projection. How does language shape us, and how much is our past bound up in our present? Does that shaping carry both curse and blessing?

JTS: Let me start with a story from the past. Once upon a time I taught a sophomore college level interdisciplinary class called EYES ON THE PRIZE: An Exploration of the Civil Rights Movement. My academic partner – a Chinese American scholar – used a phrase that I found illuminating. And still do. In discussing interpretive statements, she'd say, 'Not bad for someone outside the culture.'

We all come from different cultures which we bring with us to our work – this perhaps best illustrated in our uses of animals in our poems. Our animal choices might include: real animals / spirit animals / ancestor animals. We bring them into our work as cultural imperatives. Frequently the animals do more than make us feel better. They save our lives…

Ishita Basu Mallik: The complexities of language and the ambivalent power of history to shape us are pretty much the twin cruxes of this poem, yes. Or: in fact it is a poem about the unknowability of parents. It was partly an exploration of stories from my parents' troubled histories, the way I always picked up the fact that there were a lot of things they could not, but actually perhaps would not, articulate to me, which was why while growing up 'history' seemed a thing that happened to Other People Altogether. My dad ran away, not from a literal flood, but from a small village, and became a scientist; my mother still has not told me which village in now-Bangladesh her family came from.

Other mysteries: the bureaucrat-speak and unglamorisable pain that constitute the usual media aftermath of certain kinds of trauma, personal and community-wide—is that even a real distinction?—above all why does 'flood' insist on sounding like a put-upon babu?—something about my family's tenuous hold on different categories of firm territory? I love what Minal says about shadows dancing on the cave wall, and I think my writing is mostly about the shapes those shadows may or may not be making. I am particularly grappling with a highly anti-narrative silence, at the same time trying to honour that silence as choice, strategy, necessity. With the irreconcilable clash of the language I am born into and the language I was raised into—and maybe "flood" is really the frankenchild of those urges. It feels like visiting the remains of the burnt house—or the flooded plain where the house once stood—and then not taking pictures.

MH: Also, Plato, whose ideas about the shadows (illusions; maya) as well as the structure of The Republic are so very Indian. Except that the Indian system made room for, made holy, the poets.

Also, the sounds of words: In it to win it. Kintu bola no bola.

JR: Thanks to all of you for sharing your words, and exploring their varied interpretations.

Julia Rios writes speculative prose and poetry, and is a regular contributor to the Outer Alliance blog ( She's half-Mexican, but her (fairly dreadful) French is better than her Spanish. She has blue hair and brown eyes, though these things are subject to change without notice. To see more of her work, visit her website at