Notes on Territory

The title of this year’s spring symposium at Naropa was Territory ?, and these are my notes and thoughts on the presentations. Unfortunately, I was only able to attend the panel and missed the reading. I will have to find each of the poets’ works to read in print, if I am to inflect the critical presentation with their poetic expressions.

The purpose of the symposium was to investigate writing on territory and borders, and as Bhanu Kapil said in her introduction, especially the feeling in the body just before crossing. Kapil noted the absence of voices, such as poets from the southwest who could speak directly to urgent immigration issues. There are so many voices missing. Heavy duty for those poets on the mic.

Talking about territories or nations (or even communities, in the sense of something that one can belong or not belong to) limits possibility, and Sueyeun Juliette Lee says it also gives substance. Nations and races are confabulations, fictions we perpetuate through our participation. She was talking about Korea, which for her is like flying a kite: the body longs for flight and is confronted by its limitation. ?

Kass Fleisher eschewed directly addressing territory ? and, instead, talked about trauma writing–trauma being a subject, itself, that crosses borders. She began by referencing findings from neuroscience as it relates to trauma writing and insisted that we are going to have to start listening to the neurologist ?, but she asked if the scientists will have to listen to poets. In her language (directed at an audience of poets) I heard force and authority, specifically the compulsion to comply with scientific authority.

She quoted a recent essay by Barry Lopez on the trauma of sexual abuse. One sentence described the rapist evoking, in the act of rape, the compulsion to comply with medical authority. The similarity in tone was a coincidence but an interesting one.

Cognitive poetics is a school of literary study that uses tools from cognitive science as a means to study literature, and it entails the shared vocabulary Fleisher asked for (cognitive/poetic). This is a rich field of study, and I was glad to hear Fleisher reference neuroscience in her talk.

However, as writers, I believe what we bring to the table is our ability (even response-ability) to challenge and undermine scientific-medical authority. I listen to neurologists with the same skepticism I have for phrenologists.

Science, though, was not the main topic of Fleisher’s talk. Her main argument was that trauma writing makes use of syntax free ? language, the very language of experimental poetics. The only way to invoke the aesthetic of trauma is to break out of syntax. She read another passage from Lopez’s essay where syntax seemed to fall apart and the language became non-aesthetic ?. Learning to read experimental poetry, she said, enables one to write (and read) trauma without aestheticizing violence.

Craig Santos Perez was like a (cool) high school social studies teacher, except that he covered something that is never taught in high school: the history of the unincorporated territories of the United States. He had to break it down, and he did. Unincorporated territories, such as Guam, are considered foreign in a domestic sense ?. Certain rights are extended to the people of these territories but many rights are withheld, and all rights can be revoked by Congress. Nothing is guaranteed. He included some historical information about Colorado and Sand Creek Massacre, as well. Behind him, slides displayed the expansion of the US from 1789-1959: a growing monster, murderous and rapacious. The map Perez displayed is similar to this one that shows the expansion of slavery as the US grew.

How to tell without violating? Juliana Spahr has tried various methods, including not using the names of nations and instead using terms such as: here or spaces or an island in the Pacific ? or an island in the Atlantic ?. She confessed (and it really felt like a confession) to using Hawaiian words acquired from bilingual dictionaries or words from internet sites in her poetry. As Spahr listed her many failed [sic] attempts to tell without violating, it became clear that she was in earnest about writing ethically. She said that writing about the wholesome smell of fresh turned soil only replicates the lies of the ruling class. What is important is the price of grain and the cost of labor.

I was reminded of another writer who had sat on the same stage at the Summer Writing Program when I was a Naropa student. In 2007, Indira Ganesan gave one of the most memorable lectures I had the chance to attend. Her talk wasn’t a finished product but an engagement with the unfinished writing process. Ganesan was vulnerable and honest, demonstrating the qualities necessary to sit down and write.

Spahr exhibited that kind of vulnerability on this panel. She spoke openly about regrets concerning her poetry. In her own opinion, none of her methods had been particularly effective. In some cases, she even considered herself a transgressor. However, what I heard was a poet trying and trying again to get it right. Writing is failure standing up. ?

Last year I attended the Symposium on Violence and Community, also co-curated by Michelle Naka Pierce and Bhanu Kapil. This new tradition at Naropa continues to confront difficult matters with creative thought and critical poetics.

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