Ashes: A Journey to Self-Love

The Department of Africana Studies’ Rites and Reason Theatre invites you to it’s upcoming production: 
 
ASHES: A Journey to Self-Love
ChoreoDrama by Zoё Flowers with vignettes co-written by Sherri Pullum and directed by Lily Mengesha, PhD’18
 
ASHES investigates abuse and healing among Women of Color through a collection of monologues, poems and vignettes chronicled in Flowers’ novel, “From Ashes To Angel’s Dust: A Journey Through Womanhood” and includes experiences with racism, body image and self-love. ASHES speaks to everyone especially those silenced by violence, oppression, homophobia, shame or the impulse to please.
 
Performance Dates:
March 2 & 3, 20187:00PM
March 4, 2018 – 3:00PM with Folkthought 
 
 
FREE and Open to the Everyone. 
No tickets or RSVPs necessary- Doors open 15 minutes before start time.  
 
For more information, email africana_studies@brown.edu or call (401) 863-3137.
 
Hope to see you there!
 
Best,
Daryl Polk, Student Assistant 
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Class Notes Feb 13

As a reader, it is necessary to give thought to the writer’s imagined reality before attempting to find meaning in the words. … As readers, it is our job to suspend our immediate and instinctive search for meaning and realize that words don’t really have inherent meaning; their meaning is given by the writer (or speaker). I don’t think poetry always explains itself, but it does question the reality that we make for ourselves.
—Alanna

“I can take the language for what it is and comprehend it in a much more complex way. In terms of poetics, ASL is able to convey so much more feeling than the english language and makes all translations feel inadequate.” —Jasmine

Intent & impact

“I think a more specific definition of “open text” goes something like this: a text that intentionally plays with forms and conventions to challenge social constructs. … While not explicit, Hejinian seems to view this intentionality as a prerequisite to a lack of closure– even from the title of her work, we see that openness must be chosen, through an active “rejection” of closure. …

I believe intentionality is at the crux of the debate. Even if we do not come to an agreement about intentionality in experimentalism in class, perhaps it at least provides a starting point for many of the questions that we have asked ourselves or been asked by our readings this week– Are all black poets experimental? Are all poems by black poets experimental? (different questions, in my opinion) Should all auto-generated (or randomly generated) work be considered experimental, or what auto-generated work can be considered experimental? Does the poet have to be “experimenting” for their identity or poems to be “experimental”? Can a poet “experiment” without their work being “experimental” (a question raised briefly by Shockley, 11)? Can a reader be experimental without the work being such?” —Moie

“This, I want to postulate, is what experimental poetics could be—a heightened anxiety of influence, to a point where Frankenstein-ly experimentation is the only way out of a white western rabbit hole, to do something so outside the usual that it is disconnected from the oppressive predecessors. To open up the English language to new heights, to veer from historically oppressive uses of this language, and to try to improve what language means in the modern day.” —Arie

“As a result, when I think of experimental poetry, I think of a release. I think of a revolutionary way of telling a story, of engaging a reader, of speaking one’s truth.” —Peter

“Experimental poetics might be that which outrightly rejects a form that parades as universal, that which defies a tradition that hypes itself up as obligatory standard.” —Isiah

“I am reflecting on what types of difficult texts we are taught to value in an educational system and culture defined by hegemonic control. Of course, white, male artists who wrote for white audiences are dominant. There are also aesthetic patterns in canonical texts: predictable difficulty is celebrated while unpredictable difficultly is excluded.

… Given the troubling implications of categories and rigid aesthetics, I am considering how we can best approach texts that are not only difficult, but also unpredictable and distinct from other poetic forms. What frameworks of thought might we use to approach these texts? Is it possible to approach a text without a framework? Will a combination of frameworks might allow a poem space for multiplicity? Is there a violence to constructing a thesis on the meaning of a text?” —Marielle

“But who has total control and authority over their texts? The nuances of identity seem to be beyond the scope of Hejinian’s essay. …  An open text actively opens up interpretations, destabilizes the power relations between persons and texts where the persons are traditionally assumed to be actively manipulating the passive texts.” —My

Appropriation

“All it takes for something beautiful to become violent is a new context. … At the same time, Amiri Baraka puts forth a powerful argument for the importance of context, and lifting quotes out of context, even credited, risks erasing the very specificity of context that Baraka is speaking for. … 

I wrote down the lines I wrote down because they sparked a thought of my own. These thoughts were not necessarily deep and not necessarily linear, but determined which fragments I pulled up by the roots to examine and keep. I want to think more about this process of creating fragments for myself- is it a powerful way to engage in conversation, or is it a violent way to appropriate language for my own white mind?

The idea of an open text is inviting but can also feel, depending on the positionality of the reader, like a dissection or an extraction.” —Talia

 

“Works spoken from their own culture are by necessity difficult.”

Difficult for whom? The author being difficult is necessary because it challenges the standard.

  • No singular truth / “correct” reading of a poem
  • Authority of interpretation
  • Limitations of understanding / access to poem (when you’re struggling with a text)
  • CONTEXT IS EVERYTHING
  • Feeling as a way of knowing
    • Not as filler, feelings that engage with the text
  • What does a poem sound like? Read it out loud / watch a performance?
  • Poetics: repetition
  • What is the poem responding to / in relation to structurally?
  • Who is the poet?
  • What does this remind you of?

 

Expressive Language – Amiri Baraka

  • Specificity gives culture it’s use; a result of context
  • Context is social, of which economic is currently largest part
    • *the current language of culture derives from economics: production, value, worth, capital, etc.
  • “Then words, like their users, have a hegemony.”
  • “Words’ meanings, but also the rhythm and syntax that frame and propel their concatenation, seek their culture as the final reference for what they are describing of the world.”
  • “And all cultures communicate exactly what they have, a powerful motley of experience.”

Renegade Poetics, Introduction

  • what do we mean by “black aesthetic”?
    • risks of essentializing / parochialism
    • imposed or organic?
    • orality, musicality, overt celebration of black heroes & history
    • CONTEXT IS EVERYTHING
  • “aesthetics are not universal, but culturally specific” (4)
  • “to recognize and insist upon the validity of an African American culture that emcompases not only the retentions of the African cultures from which the enslaved population was drawn, but also the unique culture that the enslaved developed out of the conditions and imperatives of their lives in the U.S.” (4)
  • a theory of African American literature
    • cultural context in meaning and operation of literary language (6)
    • foreground literary structure and form as the evidence cultural specificity (6)
    • what is excluded?
  • writerly texts vs speakerly texts
  • redefinition of “black aesthetics” to be descriptive not prescriptive (7)
    • plural
    • “describes the subjectivity of the African American writer–that is, the subjectivity produced by the experience of identifying or being interpolated as ‘black’ in the U.S.–actively working out a poetics in the context of a racist society.” (9)
    • contingent and must be contextualized
    • “othering” (9)
  • experimental attempts to “coax from the available tools of language something that is felt to have been excluded, repressed, or rendered impossible” (10)
    • Mullen: “I would define innovation as explorative and interrogative, an open-ended investigation into the possibilities of language, the aesthetic and expressive, intellectual and transformative possibilities of language.” (10)
  • Does it take something more or different for Black poets to be understood as experimental poets?” (13) or is “simply being Black” avant-garde?
    • essentialist?
    • Moten: “To say that Blackness is intrinsically experimental is not the same thing as to say that Black folks are intrinsically experimental” (13)
    • being read and heard (and seen / constructed as being) “black” functions as a constraint on artists
    • who is it that’s understanding black as experimental? self-determined or othered and exoticized?
    • Hunt’s oppositional poetics

Rejection of Closure

  • open vs closed texts
  • failure of language to encompass or represent
  • qualities of an open text: ambiguity, unfixed, incomplete, (distinct) infinitude [vs. universality], form to differentiate but not contain;
  • “The essential question here concerns the writer’s subject position.”
  • modes of an open text: repetition, generative, non-authoritarian, foregrounds process, resists fixity, reduction, and commodification, non-linear, repetition, atemporality, aporias, constraints, disruptive of established symbolic order
  • language as a pattern-system

Baraka & Hejinian

  • talk about music and form (active, constructed, multiple, responsive, generative)
  • hegemony of language (Baraka: “final dictation of words over their users”; Hejinian: “Language discovers what one might know, which in turn is always less than what language might say.”)
  • Baraka: “Words’ meanings, but also the rhythm and syntax that frame and propel their concatenation, seek their culture as the final reference for what they are describing of the world … But for every item in the world, there are a multiplicity of definitions that fit. And every word we use could mean something else.” with Hejinian: “…words are not equal to the world, that a blur of displacement, a type of parallax, exists in the relation between things (events, ideas, objects) and the words for them–a displacement producing a gap.” CRT’s: differend
    • *experimental poetry inhabits that gap rather than trying to close it, tries to open it
  • Language as desire. Desire for knowledge, for culture. Male and female, white and non-white. Male / white desire is dominating, dangerous, distorted, possessive, violent. Rankine’s “right of access.”
    • *inaccessibility as a mode of poets of color resisting white supremacy?
    • universality vs. specificity / context
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Shattering the Wine Glass

“Form is not a fixture but an activity.” 

A good friend of mine will still occasionally pseudo-mock me for my seemingly unjustified genre jump into poetry that occurred only about a year ago. Granted, her light ridicule isn’t entirely unfounded. I entered Brown as a devout and adamant fiction writer, a fascination I still certainly hold. That being said, my relationship to poetry then was simultaneously less friendly and entirely more miniscule. In retrospect, it isn’t that difficult to parse out the reason for my indifference: I found poetry to be entirely inaccessible.

It was a genre constantly constrained by form and metre, held captive by tightly-wound, naturalistic imagery, and rarely inspired any semblance of resonance in me as a reader. It wasn’t until I began to read more contemporary poetry, particularly work by poets of color, that I realized that my experience with the genre had almost entirely been limited to the Robert Burns and the Robert Louis Stevensons of the world. I had only ever been exposed to more “classical” poetry—and yes I am aware of the ways in which that broad classification fails. By that, I only mean to say that I only knew the poetic works of those writers that I was taught, which meant older poetry that was often lauded in part for its finely tuned form and structure.

My point here is not some grand vilification of this particular tradition—even if I do have certain opinions about it—but rather to say that I never found resonance in this work. And this was primarily due to the form itself. In the rare moments that I contemplated poetry years ago, none of my attempts manifested in structured metre or static rhyme scheme and, as a result, I felt that I was writing bad poetry. And while I was most likely writing bad poetry, seeing as I was a somewhat boring adolescent with unrefined angst, the fact remains that for an overwhelming majority of my life, I believed I failed as a poet because I failed the form.

It wasn’t until I began reading more contemporary poetry by writers of color that I began to realize that maybe—just maybe—the poetic inclinations I always fell into weren’t as illegitimate as I had so haphazardly believed. And whatever opinions you might have about more contemporary poetry written by younger poets—so-called millennial poetry—my discovery of poets like Rupi Kaur, Melissa Lozada-Olvia, and Sarah Kay allowed me to understand that what I had to say and the ways in which I wanted to structure that on paper were no less legitimate because I didn’t find the standard stanza as powerful.

So in terms of defining experimental poetics, all that I can definitively say is that I believe it was experimental poetry that inspired me to write some of my own. Experimental poetics might be that which outrightly rejects a form that parades as universal, that which defies a tradition that hypes itself up as obligatory standard. And while I’m sure my view and definition of experimental poetics will become more nuanced as I embark on reading and writing more of it, I take comfort in that my writing need no longer be confined by a glass if I don’t want it to be and that others, like Lyn Hejinian, also consider form to be malleable rather than tempered.

Works Cited 

[1] Hejinian, Lyn. ‘The Rejection of Closure.’ Poetry Foundation. Accessed February 12, 2018. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/articles/69401/the-rejection-of-closure.

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The Open Text and Floralegium

Floralegium:

  • From Latin Flos (flowers) and legere (to gather). Literally a collection of flowers.
  • A compilation of excerpts from other writings.
  • A tool used in monastic reading. Dogmatic florilegia, compiled from the 5th century onwards, have survived. They were often drawn up to establish the orthodoxy or heterodoxy of the theologian. In the later Middle Ages florilegia became preaching tools.
  • All it takes for something beautiful to become violent is a new context.

I thought about the practice of floralegia as I collected quotes for my reading journal this week. Lifting quotes from their context struck me as both powerful and potentially violent. Powerful, because it seems in once sense the ultimate way to engage with a text in a way that Lyn Hejinian might offer as the opposite of closure (“however pleasurable its effects, closure is a fiction, one of the amenities that falsehood and fantasy provide”). At the same time, Amiri Baraka puts forth a powerful argument for the importance of context, and lifting quotes out of context, even credited, risks erasing the very specificity of context that Baraka is speaking for.

The process of collecting quotes also struck me as a somewhat self-centered one- I wrote down the lines I wrote down because they sparked a thought of my own. These thoughts were not necessarily deep and not necessarily linear, but determined which fragments I pulled up by the roots to examine and keep. I want to think more about this process of creating fragments for myself- is it a powerful way to engage in conversation, or is it a violent way to appropriate language for my own white mind?

The idea of an open text is inviting but can also feel, depending on the positionality of the reader, like a dissection or an extraction.

Amiri Baraka maybe provides a way out of this reading conundrum. He writes- “Very soon after the first generations of Afro-Americans mastered this language, they invented white people called Abolitionists.” I love this quote because it is the ultimate decentering of whiteness and expression of how language, even the supremacist language of English, can be taken and remade. I want to use this quote as a model of how to read a text and be invented by it- that is changed through decentering. And I’m curious how the gathering of floralegia can either contribute to or hamper this process.

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The agential text

For this week, I was particularly taken by Lyn Hejinian’s writing on the moves of a ‘closed’ versus ‘open’ text in The Rejection of Closure. Her essay reminisces of Roland Barthes’s Death of the Author, employing general, universalizing terms such as ‘the writer’ or the ‘the text’. Hejinian’s essay, much like Barthes’s, calls attention towards the plurality of the text, and specifically, in Hejinian’s essay, an ‘open text’. Like the ‘Author’ Barthes’s essay, the ‘writer’ of Hejinian’s text is ambiguous (but of course, they hold ‘universal’ identities), challenging equally abstract ‘principles’, Hejinian writes,

‘The writer relinquishes total control and challenges authority as a principle and control as a motive. The ‘open text’ often emphasizes or foregrounds process, either the process of the original composition or of subsequent compositions by readers, and thus resists the cultural tendencies that seek to identify and fix material and turn it into a product; that is, it resists reduction and commodification.’[1]

But who has total control and authority over their texts? The nuances of identity seem to be beyond the scope of Hejinian’s essay. Rejection of Closure approaches writing through a very idyllic framework that functions well in a theoretical vacuum. However, contextualized against the current systems of racial oppressions in the US, the essay’s argument is very universalizing. The lack of racial consideration is an ongoing project (within and without the world of literature) that oppresses those who deviates from the universal whiteness, as Wang writes in Thinking Its Presence,

‘Given the importance of race and racialization in the formation and history in these United States, one could argue that for American poets, white or minority, to ignore such fundamental sociopolitical issues consistently and broadly over time constitutes serious acts of omission.’ [2]

However, while Hejinian’s writing seems focused on the formal quality of the text and language, detached from a body and identity, I thought that her treatment of the text as an agential thing was a very though-provoking move. Hejinian writes that ‘form is not a fixture but an activity,’ which suggests that the form has a certain vitality. An open text actively opens up interpretations, destabilizes the power relations between persons and texts where the persons are traditionally assumed to be actively manipulating the passive texts. I am at once reminded of Bernstein’s writing on dance and thing—thing (the text) ‘hails’ the person (reader) and, in response, the person enters into a dance with the thing. The dance is a convergence of texts, the text-thing and the text-person, which begets new interpretations. As Bernstein posits, aptly, ‘when a thing makes a human body a ‘thing among things,’ it upsets the boundary between person and object’[3].

 

Work cited

[1] Hejinian, Lyn. ‘The Rejection of Closure.’ Poetry Foundation. Accessed February 12, 2018. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/articles/69401/the-rejection-of-closure.

[2] Dorothy Wang, Thinking Its Presence: Form, Race, And Subjectivity In Contemporary Asian American Poetry (Stanford University Press, 2015), 36.

[3] Bernstein, ‘Dances with Things: Material Culture and the Performance of Race,’ Social Text 27, no. 4 101 (2009): 70, doi:10.1215/01642472-2009-055.

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Julius Caesar: Who gets to be “difficult”?

I attended a student production of Julius Caesar this weekend and was reminded of how difficult and foreign the language of Shakespeare is to my ears. I found myself struggling to keep up with the archaic phrases and to make sense of the performers’ monologues. After reading the Charles Bersteinn piece on difficult poems, I am reflecting on what types of difficult texts we are taught to value in an educational system and culture defined by hegemonic control. Of course, white, male artists who wrote for white audiences are dominant. There are also aesthetic patterns in canonical texts: predictable difficulty is celebrated while unpredictable difficultly is excluded. Shakespeare is difficult, but academics have developed a standard toolkit for analyzing iambic pentameter and considering the arch of a classical dramatic scene. The same types of difficult yet defined aesthetics characterize the avant-garde poetics, which value divergence from typical forms of writing only when they fit and established molds of strangeness. This pattern suggests a popularity of aesthetics that are inaccessible to most, but legible to a few with access to rubrics for how to read them. As Hejinian suggests, the exclusive power to define categories in aesthetics mirrors and reifies the centrality of categorical logic to the Kyriarchy.

Given the troubling implications of categories and rigid aesthetics, I am considering how we can best approach texts that are not only difficult, but also unpredictable and distinct from other poetic forms. What frameworks of thought might we use to approach these texts? Is it possible to approach a text without a framework? Will a combination of frameworks might allow a poem space for multiplicity? Is there a violence to constructing a thesis on the meaning of a text?

The Caesar production also sparked questions about reclamation of language and the limits of form. The production featured all female / gender non-conforming actors and many actors of color in a narrative that is traditionally about the jealousy and violence of white men. This casting changed my perception and understanding of the words, generating a new meaning for the text. There were moments when the feminine dimensions of rage and grief were brilliantly embodied. As Amiri Baraka states: “Words have users, but users also have words.” But ultimately, the performance depended on Shakespeare’s language and themes of violence and royalty written for a white, European audience. I left the production wondering if a radical performance of an oppressive canonical text is an act of reclamation, or one that reintegrates artists into this canon. How far can users mold the meaning and context of their words? Hejinian writes that “form is not a fixture, but an activity” suggesting a malleability of form to serve its users purpose. But artists have choices between various forms, and some forms more fixed and anchored to histories of oppression than others. What are the strings attached to working in forms tied to oppression? What is required to cut them? 

 

 

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freeing myself

Creative response: goo.gl/Wc5iEC

Whenever I think of poetry, I like to think of it as a gateway for me to explore the more creative side of me – one that’s ready to test boundaries and create ways to express myself that other realms of writing don’t allow me to. In doing so, I wrote a short poem to exemplify what I understand to be experimental poetics. Through its message and form, I believe it to challenge the boundaries of traditional poetry. Through the way that (at least I hope) it engages with the reader and describes a process as strenuous as the writing process, I hope to convey a unique sense of freedom – a sense of freedom that is very hard for me to feel as a Black man writing poetry. When I am able to explore the confines of a language and act on the many ways in which subtleties can enhance the experience, I am truly free. Moreover, I hope, through the poem’s creation, to explain and shed light on how I interact with experimental poetic writing.

As a result, when I think of experimental poetry, I think of a release. I think of a revolutionary way of telling a story, of engaging a reader, of speaking one’s truth. One way of doing this is through creating an open text, one in which there are many different interpretations as to what is being said, and there isn’t always a 1:1 relationship to a word and its meaning, as Heijinian puts it. In “Expressive Language”, Amira Baraka, in explaining the importance of speech and methods of delivery as a form of preserving culture and as a form of explaining the circumstances of one’s life at a certain point, has shown me what experimental poetry focuses on. As poetry focuses more and more on the feeling of the reader, the form and delivery of the poem, and is reflective of the context and the process under which the poem was created, it becomes more and more experimental. Thus, my poem represents a true example of how I interact with and create experimental poetry.

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