Paul Watkins on Vicuña and bissett: A Poetics of “Meditaysyun”

Spit Temple, Cecilia Vicuña. Trans. Rosa Alcalá. Ugly Duckling Press, 2012.
hungree throat, bill bissett. Talonbooks, 2013.

Review By Paul Watkins 

As literary scholar Charles Bernstein states: “What interests me is a poetry and a poetics that do not edit out so much as edit in: that include multiple conflicting perspectives and types of languages and styles in the same poetic work or […] A poetry—a poetic—that expresses the states of the art as it moves beyond the twentieth century, beyond the modern and postmodern” (2). Cecilia Vicuña’s Spit Temple and bill bissett’s hungree throat are two new poetic works significant not for what they edit out, but for what they edit in. Vicuña and bissett employ an “editing in” that allows for constellations of dialogue within and outside the texts. Edited in are improvised performances, incantatory phrases, chanting, signing, stories, meditations, webs and threads, languages and sounds, mediations, polyphonies, rhythms, silences, and listenings. Spit Temple, and hungree throat in particular, employ phonetic orthography, making poetic orthodoxy more dissonant, blurring the invisible chasm between written and performed spaces—in a way, they improvise their emergent textuality.

Like improvisation in musical practice, Spit Temple and hungree throat embody creative real-time poiesis, risk-taking, and collaboration: as readers we are called to sound these texts, to meditate through and with them and between the languages. Readers might find Walter Mignolo’s concept of “languaging” useful: a “thinking and writing between languages, that moves us away from the idea that language is a fact (e.g., a system of syntactic, semantic and phonetic rules), and [moves us] toward the idea that speech and writing are strategies for orienting and manipulating social domains of interaction” (226). We are learning a new language in bissett’s highly unconventional style, where punctuation, capitalization, font even, has been edited out so the poet’s complex consciousness can be edited in. Equally, Spit Temple, which is an overview of texts and primarily transcriptions from the live, largely improvised, performances of Vicuña, challenges us to listen between the lines as the poet “sings, chants, whispers, navigates a registry of sounds, swiftly moving between languages,” primarily Spanish, English and non-language languages (“Introduction” 11). Indeed, both collections contain resonant— yet difficult—avant-garde poems, but they also include language-systems that take us back to the simple notion that poetic language is there to make. Not present in either text is Auden’s claim that “poetry makes nothing happen,” for Spit Temple and hungree throat are meditative poetic acts of happening where poetry can function as a textiling that connects the past and present together to create a more sustainable—and ethically viable—future (“In Memory of W.B. Yeats”).

Spit Temple, by Chilean troubadour-poet Vicuña, was the first of the two texts I read/sounded. A text replete with dialogues between languages, the earth, and textiles, the selected performance collection provides transcripts and notes for nine “oral performances” that took place between 1995 and 2002; also included are responses and reflections from poets and scholars who have come to witness or understand her work within an English language context. In addition, there is an autobiographical memoir by Vicuña that begins in silence and fills the void with calculated utterance: “I was born in a space of silence” (37), which is echoed later: “WHERE is that silence / between words?” (273). “Edited in” the transcripts are scenographic details, often before the performance proper, as well as Vicuña’s own response to live ambient material, creating a melodic matrix: “so when she sung to me / two matrices / two melodies / were / mixing” (147). The original audience, and extended readers, are addressed directly in the urgency of the now with lines such as, “I’m translating for you on the spot” (279), or “you were listening / perhaps you heard / apparently we are going / to war / wawawawawawawawa (loud lament)” (original emphasis, 282). The overlapping threads of the poem-essays and performance-lectures create, as Alcalá states, “different levels of opacity and unintelligibility, depending on the listener” (21). Like Latin America’s own mestizaje, Vicuña “reflects both the difficult and generative marriage of indigenous and European cultural production” (24). The central metaphor of Spit Temple is weaving, constitutive of a poetic quipu, the Inca textile signifying system, a relative to abaci, hieroglyphics, and other signifying systems.

As Jena Osman maintains in the scholarly compendium to Spit Temple: “Weaving is a good metaphor for etymological empowerment (ancient cultures connect at the root of a word and then spin outward), but the art form is also implicated in modern day commercial oppression (sweatshops)” (289). Vicuña’s poetic craft weaves in concert a vast tapestry of ideas, reworking and resounding them, searching for the space where ideas and cultures intersect and coalesce. Poetry, for Vicuña, like her own political, spiritual and artistic proclivities, tests the borders where meaning is formed in the “about to happen”: “ United by a thread, we form a living quipu: each person is a knot, and the / performance is / what happens between the knots” (99); “Being ‘almost’ a border, an “about to happen” (119); “A poem only becomes poetry when its structure / is made not of words but forces” (121). Poetry is for the feeling, and Spit Temple masterfully articulates “a space / for the invisible tension / be-tweeeen words” (234). Vicuña openly speaks her mind, at times with nuanced humour, while also seriously reflecting on ecological destruction, war and genocide, rooted in her own emergence as a militant performance poet during the 1973 Chilean coup d’état. Having never heard Vicuña read before, I turned to YouTube to find a very soft-spoken poet reciting in a half-whispering, rhythmic voice, challenging us as listeners to attune our senses at the edge between silence and sound—to be more aware of our surroundings. As Vicuña articulates in one of her performances, we are part of the unspun wool, and like poetry, our weaving is always from “pure potential”:

            People say that

unspun wool

contains the power

of the cosmos

because it’s not yet—

it’s nothing you see

it has not been spun

it’s no thing

it’s pure potential (153-4)

Perhaps there is no lucid transition from discussing Vicuña’s work to bissett’s, other than to reemphasize my earlier position that both texts avow the potential for poetry to create, improvise even, new poetic happenings towards more sustainable ways of being. In bissett’s hungree throat that sustainability is practiced through “meditaysyuns” on the various overlapping “hungers” we share: surviving trauma, being and loving in the world, as well as an environmental consciousness accented in the salmon poems. hungree throat is “melodee n atonal n dissonans” (9) as we move through “fragments mooving thru th / fragments” (14), “fragments / mooving thru ragments f rags ment ent nt” (56), uncovering a narrative centered on a relationship spanning ten years between Howard (who manages an organic grocery store) and Brian (who works at an art gallery). The novel-poem presents their various encounters, histories, domesticities, and inner monologues, incorporating both the mundane and mystical, often with a sense of humour, as bissett’s distinctive orthography and visual illuminations propel us through the narrative. Like Vicuña’s text, bissett weaves seemingly disparate elements together to create a sonic-text that emphasizes the malleability of self-identity and tradition, enacting polyphonic dialogue, such as between classical and jazz traditions in an early poem: “n th piano / making th melodees seem beethoven bach gershwin / arlen weill elington strayhorn tatum […] making th melodeez seem inevitabul / roach holiday peterson bartok” (25). Such unconventional poetic orthography is why bissett, known for his “concrete sound” poetry (which in readings include chanting, sound effects, barefoot dancing, and instrument playing), is considered a poetic shaman—active for fifty years on the Canadian scene. Accolades aside, at times I wish I had a recording of hungree throat (hopefully one is in the works) because it was easy to get lost in the inaudibility of the page at times.

Like Spit Temple, hungree throat calls on us to sound the poem; in all honesty, if you don’t read the work aloud you will certainly have difficulty following the narrative. Like Howard and Brian who venture into a new relationship—and later attempt to repair a fractured one—we are dared to work through “linguistik / improbabiliteez” (33) and mediate along with a poem where “ther is no ending 2 bcumming” (41). Although approaching cliché today, there was prescient truth in Marshall McLuhan’s aphorism “the medium is the massage,” as we cross barriers between digital and analogue experiences, over into a space where the long and unconventional narrative of hungree throat enacts its meaning through the imaginative posing of disparate elements. As one poem, “brush up on yr mcluhan / start dewing it now th medium” states: “is th message a long pome big type / is that medium rare or well dun / eye like it veree well dun how abt yu” (144). Here, and throughout bissett’s opus, he works within Ezra Pound’s notion to “compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of a metronome” (“A Retrospect”). The medium welcomes us to chant the poem—at the edges of orality and literacy, in a space that punctuates silence. The various song-like chants in hungree tree are moments where meditative poetics can potentially take us out of the poem and into our shared hopes alongside Brian and Howard:

            hope 4 nothing live within       we live in hope

hope 4 nothing live within        we live in hope

hope 4 nothing live within        we live in hope

hope 4 nothing live within       we live in hope  (“footnotes” 57)

hungree throat   hungree throat

hungree throat   hungree throat

hungree throat   hungree throat

hungree throat   hungree throat


my throat is hungree 4 singing

my throat is hungree 4 eeting

my throat is hungree 4


my throat is hungree 2 b  btween

th flowrs  th rose  n th prfume

nite air (“brians chanting” 104)

There are multiple multimodal chants, utterances and incantations in hungree throat, but the two selected chants (above) underscore that a hungry throat is about living in the moment. hungree throat and Spit Temple are scripts and temples of transformative worship: a tall, yet ineluctable order for the ubiquity of poetry.

Spit Temple and hungree throat are new texts from sage poets who have been making and remaking poetry for some time, constantly inviting us to rethink what a poetry reading is, and more so, how poetry means. Vicuña and bissett’s privileging of orality/aurality and song, repeating vowels and syllables, and language in different contact zones, is reminiscent of The Four Hoursemen’s cacophonous polyphonies. Chanting along with each text, improvising its various meanings, not only challenges the printed logocentric understanding of language, but also asks us to concede that poems, like everything else in life, are ephemeral. Both collections are composed and gathered with an improvisatory spirit. And improvisation is an exciting place to be, as musician Derek Bailey states, “Improvisation is a muddy ditch; it’s where things can grow” (qtd. in Watson 208). So then, why publish these poems in book format—especially since the modus operandi for Vicuña and bissett is the fleeting act of performance? Perhaps, it is as understandable as the poems’ and poets’ desire to be resounded, chanted again, with non-hierarchical ideology, in the muddy ditch of the page. It’s here—between the pages—where our illusions of textual privilege need more dissonance of voice. And so, hear Vicuña softly trumpet the meditative song of a writing that speaks and a speaking that writes:

            so she said to them HUSSHH

and listen

to the sound

of the grass

as we speak

the sound

of the grass

is the poem

we are writing


as we speak




applause and gourd shaking (220-21)


Works Cited

 Alcalá, Rosa. “Introduction.” Spit Temple. New York: Ugly Duckling Press, 2012. Print.

Auden, W.H. “In Memory of W.B. Yeats.” Web.

Bernstein, Charles. A Poetics. Massachusetts: Harvard UP, 1992. Print.

bissett, bill. hungree throat. Vancouver: Talonbooks, 2013.

Mignolo, Walter D. Local Histories/ Global Designs: Coloniality, Subaltern Knowledge, and Border

            Thinking. New Jersey: Princeton UP, 2000. Print.

Pound, Ezra. “A Retrospect.” Pavannes and Divagations. 1918. Modern American Poetry. Web. 6. June. 2013.

Vicuña, Cecilia. Spit Temple. Edited and Translated by Rosa Alcalá. New York: Ugly Duckling Press, 2012. Print.

Watson, Ben. Derek Bailey and the Story of Free Improvisation. London: Verso, 2004. Print.



6136_99395694723_5390277_nPaul Watkins is a SSHRC-supported doctoral candidate in the University of Guelph’s School of English and Theatre Studies, as well as a doctoral fellow with the Improvisation, Community, and Social Practice project. Recently, he has published reviews and articles on multiculturalism, Canadian poetry, jazz and improvisation, film, and hip-hop. His paper on jazz poetics in Dionne Brand’s Ossuaries is forthcoming in a special issue of MaComère. Currently living in Toronto, Paul is working on a collection of poetry entitled Listenings.