Jordan Abel and Renée Saklikar in Conversation: Accumulation as a Political Act

Daniel Zomparelli (DZ): I read both of your books consecutively (The Place of Scraps (Talonbooks, 2013) by Jordan Abel and children of air india (Harbour Publishing, 2013) by Renée Saklikar), and in my opinion the books had similar themes. They both take a tragedy, differing in scale obviously, and the poet interjects into these tragedies to create a moment of questioning and thoughtfulness. It reminded me of how poetry can successfully bring about discussions on very serious real-world concerns. I was wondering if you could each speak to what you were hoping to achieve in writing these books?

Renée Saklikar (RS): I love the idea of Daniel reading The Place of Scraps and children of air india, consecutively. I see the works in communion, correspondence with each other…

The idea of interjection, within individual pain that is situated inside of, outside of historical/public trauma is embodied, yes, in my work – for instance in its sub-title, “un/authorized exhibits and interjections”, and in those poems which function as interjections; and I sense, perhaps, [a similarity] in Jordan’s work through the act of erasure.

My hope for children of air india, which by the way comes to me only now, after the fact of writing it, is that readers/listeners will view it as a site of query, of contemplation: what does it mean to lose someone to murder, on both a micro-level, that is, on a personal level, but also within a macro-context, within a public event. In terms of The Place of Scraps, the trauma would seem to be ongoing, multi-generational, many layered, although I offer those descriptors tentatively, with respect, with head bowed to my colleague, Jordan, for response …

Jordan Abel (JA): When I originally began writing The Place of Scraps, my intention was to find out what was possible with erasure texts and to find a textual way to explore my heritage. Later on, I found that I did indeed have goals for the manuscript. Mostly, I wanted the book to be a catalyst for dialogue on the complicated relationship between the First Nations peoples of BC and anthropology. But there was another goal in there too. I wanted to open up that discussion in an honest way. For me, the only honest way to write about the impact of Marius Barbeau was to use Barbeau’s writing itself. The particular kind of colonial displacement that The Place of Scraps revolves around is unpopular at best. Many of the readings that I encountered about Barbeau focused on his contributions to the developing field of anthropology. However, there were a few that focused on the unique complications that Barbeau brought to the surface. The Place of Scraps, like children of air india, uses interjection as a poetic technique to create a space for dialogue and contemplation.

RS: It is a great moment, for me, to contemplate this: “the only honest way to write about the impact of Marius Barbeau was to use Barbeau’s writing itself.” And to think further on interjection as method. I am thinking of Jordan’s embodiment of interjection when in the act of performing/reading from The Place of Scraps: his body’s stance, hand gestures, papers read then deposited, cast aside, the way the discarded papers/scraps fall, the cadence of the words, which read and sound at once objectivist and also intensely lyric.

The utilization of a subject/object text is integral to how I managed to find a way into the narrative that is Air India / Canada, what M. NourbeSe Philip terms, “stories that cannot be told/must be told”. I wonder, Jordan, if, in embarking on erasure texts as method, you found that the subject (“Indian / Indun / In dios history” // Barbeau // Anthropology // the “I” of the poet-narrartor) was also the object, as in a thing to be studied, theorized, catalogued, described, talked about?

It is only afterward, now that children of air india is in this book form, that I look back to such source texts for my own embarkation, which include both Edward Said’s “Orientalism” and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s “Can the SubAltern Speak?” And in those texts I see the inner workings of my impetus. I wonder, Jordan, if, in addition to Barbeau, there were other “muse texts” that guided your erasure practice? Or, perhaps the guide was your own work, teaching you what to do?

JA: I’m very interested by your ideas about the subject/object and objectification. To answer your question, I definitely found that the “Indian” as described by Barbeau was objectified in the same way as the totem poles that Barbeau removed from their places of origin. In Barbeau’s case, this objectification was not subtle but a visible extension of his academic training as an anthropologist. Barbeau was comfortable using the same anthropological process to study and catalog totem poles and to study and catalog First Nations peoples.

I find it so compelling that the utilization of the subject/object text was a way into the narrative of Air India / Canada, because I too felt that the subject/object relationship was my entry point into The Place of Scraps. I had originally approached Barbeau’s work with the expectation of learning more about the Nisga’a people, but, in many ways, I ended up learning more about Barbeau’s understanding of the First Nations people of the Pacific Northwest. Barbeau thought of many of the totem poles and potlatch items as treasures to be saved, to be preserved. In his book Totem Poles, he writes of the “Noble Savage of the Northern Jungle” in very similar terms of preservation. As Sarah Dowling wrote in an essay about Philip’s Zong!, “what kind of personhood remains for slaves  whose existence was recorded alongside limes, china, silk and other commodities”? A similar question could be asked about the First Nations peoples of the Pacific Northwest. What kind of personhood remains for First Nations peoples whose lives and culture were basically synonymous with the totem poles and potlatch items that Barbeau sold to museums? One could also ask what kind of personhood remains for the victims of Air India Flight 182 when the bodies of victims and the wreckage of the aircraft are treated as synonymous exhibits?

In regards to muse texts, I definitely find that my writing is constantly being guided by the work of others. When I was writing The Place of Scraps, my process was directly inspired by Barbeau’s writing. As many of the poems were erasures, Barbeau’s words were always at the forefront of every thought I had about the book. I even wrote sections of the book that were inspired directly by the books that Barbeau was reading. In section “2a” of The Place of Scraps, all of the commentary that surrounds the central text is constructed from cut-ups of books by Marcel Mauss, John Linton Myres, Augustus Pitt Rivers, Franz Boas, and Edward Sapir.

In fact, the moments when I was reading the works that inspired Barbeau were the moments when I felt the most connected to Barbeau. I had only intended to find a way to represent Barbeau’s thought process, but discovered that I had something else in common with him.

While writing the book, I definitely looked to other writers for inspiration, and I found several books that helped me shape The Place of ScrapsZong! by M. NourbeSe Philip, Eunoia by Christian Bök, Nox by Anne Carson, and Day by Kenneth Goldsmith.

I’m very interested by how, after children of air india became a book, you were able to look back on your writing process. I often find myself wondering exactly what inspired me to choose the direction that the book ended up following. For me, I think erasure was a reaction to a moment of pure frustration. I felt unable to access the richness of the intersection between my life and Barbeau’s text. And, as a result, I felt an overwhelming desire to silence Barbeau’s interpretation of history. That, of course, began with me erasing parts of his writing, which was a process that I attempted to continue throughout the rest of the project.

I was wondering, once you found your way into the Air India / Canada narrative, what processes sustained your writing?

RS: What sustained the writing of children of air india: prayer, although I don’t really know what I mean by that word. Also, a kind of distilled rage. Also, love. Also, just the act of being inside the archive: the touch and feel of documents, the shredding of those documents. One whole stream that accompanied the writing was the creation of mixed media (paper, shredded paper, scotched taped mounds of paper on paper, redactions, etc) and then the photographing/documentation of the documents. A small selection of these pieces are now part of the book, transmuted via Carleton Wilson’s typography and book design. There was also a kind of fetishized daily reading of various texts: first iteration of the children poems, it was E. Dickinson every morning and C. Reznikoff every evening.

DZ: Missing information or redacted information is a great connection between both of your texts. Erasure, obviously, is a technique being used, but looking for details in the blank spaces is what makes both of your books so wonderful to read and re-read. Erasure always brings about hesitancy, for me, in writing. In both of your projects, where did you find the most hesitancy in erasing text? Renée, could you speak to the process of erasure in your text, or was this not a process you used?

RS: Yes, this morning, re-reading The Place of Scraps, I was struck by what I think of as Jordan’s “discipline of erasure” – what it must take to find the courage to create space, to take away text, to let the un/speakable remain. For children of air india, redaction is the poem, in a sense. Philip Metres in Abu Ghraib Arias speaks of what I referenced earlier in this discussion, about M. NourbeSe Philip writing “the story that can’t be told but must be told.” It took me years to understand how the work of children of air india might “make it be there” (Michael Turner, “To show, to give, to make it be there”):

“Write the names all the way through. Write them down. / In writing there is redaction, redact. / That is the burning that is the body” (children of air india 13).

Deep into the writing of the work, I was led to murder. The murder of my own text. Originally, the poems were individually dedicated to the dead, with the names of the dead as a central part of the text. Also, the names of those who planted the bombs. Also, the names of the officials who investigated and so on. Also, the names of my own family. And then, as if compelled, in some kind of trance, I took it all out. Then, I became quite ill. Still recovering. It is always about the body.

What accretes, what is documented, what is regarded as important, profoundly relates to a given power structure. So, then, to mess with that. To erase, to create space for that great budding silence in The Place of Scraps and to, in effect, cross-examine silence, as in children of air india.

To appropriate the appropriator via parataxis. Juxtaposition of diction and narrative voice: the prose poem voice of the narrator, Poet v Marius Barbeau.

JA: Renée, I keep thinking about this line: “redaction is the poem.” When I read and reread children of air india, I always linger on the missing pieces. The book returns, over and over, to moments that are redacted. Subtraction and silence are at the core of this experience, and, like you say, “redaction is the poem.”

Throughout the writing of The Place of Scraps, I always had a strong urge to keep the book focused on erasure. I had allowed myself to reflect on other forms and methodologies, but all of those forms lacked something. I even tried writing parts of The Place of Scraps as individual glosas. I was determined to use Barbeau’s words, and the glosa was a traditional way to merge the writing of two authors. But that fizzled after a few failed attempts.

At many points in the project’s lifespan, I had people tell me that erasure was interesting for a few poems, but that it would be in my best interest to diversify my techniques. For me, those comments came from people who fundamentally misunderstood how and why I was using erasure to write this project. The act of reducing, cutting, curating and, ultimately, constructing a representation of Barbeau to suit my own purposes was a commentary on Barbeau’s anthropological methodologies.

For me, erasure is the poem. There is no book without it.

I mentioned this briefly at the Virginia Woolf Conference. Somewhere along the way, I realized that I had no choice but to see how far I could take erasure in The Place of Scraps, which lead me towards thinking about how far I could take found text as the primary source for my writing. I wanted to know if it was sustainable for me, and, so far, that seems to be the case. It is precisely that formal innovation that is simultaneously infuriating for some, and the only reason to read my work for others.

Renée, I was wondering if there were ever moments where redaction wasn’t central to children of air india? Or if the project has always been tied together by the pieces that are missing?

RS: Jordan, yes, there were long moments (over two years!) where the text was written as if a formal(ist) elegy sequence with each “memorial” poem personified and that persona addressed; sometimes even as “thou.” I destroyed most of those in a grief-rage process that I still do not fully understand, perhaps it was a mimic-gesture of a destruction process engaged in years earlier, that of my father’s diaries. I then wrote a poem sequence, pretty much en toto in my head, as epistolary to my father’s ghost. I believe his absence/presence, along with the many others, inhabits the text of children of air india. I say this as a statement of the literal-imaginative. Most of these “lost” persona poems had individual dedications where the names of the Beloved were indicated. These were “real life” names and fictional names. Once all these persona poems were removed, once the ghost presence of my father was allowed to wander within the text in its own medium of disappearance, I began again. And as I think I may have mentioned here in our discussion, I then murdered my own text, by redacting those names that were most loved.

DZ: Do these poems that you are writing or un-writing feel complete to you, or will they ever be complete? Does the printing of the book mean that these poems are now static for you both?

RS: For children of air india, there is a sense of being able to at least let go of the responsibility of staying open as a medium for the voices. Although I say that tentatively, full of doubt. I’m mulling over the connection between mysticism and “Marxism” – working through in a haphazard way just what I mean by those words – something to do with spirit and materialism, with longing and with history. There’s that scene in John Le Carre’s The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, where the hero/anti-hero (Leman?) asks Liz, the doomed love interest about her beliefs and she says, “history,” and he groans. I might have that all wrong. The scene is just one of many I seem destined to carry around, oh, I dunno, forever? This is the great trial and gift of being, you know, S-L-O-W and porous in a fast, hard world.

children of air india is the first “completed” sequence from thecanadaproject. So, yes, in one sense, it does feel that the thing produced as a book is “done.” However, each poem, when read, or contemplated, or taken out of its whole cloth, never feels finished, and the sounds seem fluid and likable at any moment to flee, to shape-shift, to deny whatever structure or form the poet, timorous!, might wish for the poem. I really like and am also terrified by this word, “static.” The poems in children of air india, as in much of the Air India archive, seem to emit there own sonar. This keeps the work alive, regardless of publication. The idea of when a poem or a book of poems is complete interests me a great deal, as it links to on-going preoccupations about when a poem begins, what constitutes a poem as opposed to any other kind of text or experience. The boundaries of text versus experience is a mystery to me.

In reading and in re-reading The Place of Scraps, the use and presence of space, silence, address, (as in personification), the lyric, the materiality of language, the gesture toward song, the song itself, all these work in ways that astonish. The length of the book seems to be very important, and I wonder if Jordan was under any pressure or request to curtain length, to make the book shorter? When I listen to Jordan’s performance of the poems there is this sense of text being both celebrated and undermined.

JA: For me, The Place of Scraps is constantly being rewritten. Every time I read the book, I think about the words that I erased from Barbeau’s writing and if I would erase the same words today. Sometimes the answer is yes. Sometimes the answer is no. I suspect readers ask themselves similar questions.

If you were writing the book, what would you keep? What would you erase? All of the raw materials for rewriting and reconfiguring the book are there. The Place of Scraps could have been a thousand different books, but it just happened to be this one particular permutation.

There were points, however, throughout the publication process where I was not sure what the published length of the book would be. When I had written the manuscript, I decided to write exactly what I wanted and tried not to worry about the production details. Once Talon acquired the book, and when we began to talk about production, the issue of length came up. The primary concern was that — for the book to be published the way I intended — Talon would have to double the page count and to increase the width to allow for some of my sprawling page designs. The idea at the time was that The Place of Scraps could be printed on both sides of the page. After all, pieces of the book had appeared before in magazines where this had been the case and that seemed to work. However, the reading process in those cases was undeniably altered. There was no longer a clear relationship between the source text and the erasures. That spacial connection between pages ultimately seemed to inform how the book was read.

After talking it through with Talon, we all eventually decided that preserving the relationship between the source text and the erasures was an essential component of the book, and that The Place of Scraps should be published on one side of the page just like the original manuscript. In the end, I think it’s very fortunate that Talon believed in the book enough to consider publishing it this way.

That being said, there were a few pieces in The Place of Scraps that I felt as though someone may ask me to cut. Early in the writing process, I had a number of people reading individual poems from the book. Some of those poems (like “The pole transported to Toronto,” “The silhouette of a pole on the short of Nass River,” and “A feud over this pole”) seemed to stand well on their own. However, there was also a group of poems (“The myth of the Dragon-Fly,” “Myth explaining some of the crests,” and “Removal of the Sakau’wan pole from Nass River”) that seemed to be difficult for readers. The most common response that I got to the second group of poems was that these poems weren’t as good as some of the poems in the first group. There was something off about them. They didn’t have that same sharpness about them. I wasn’t sure what to do about this feedback at first. For some, the poems in the second group seemed to be evidence that the erasure process could only be sustained for so long. My feeling was that these pieces played vital roles in the collection as a whole. Ultimately, though, the poems made it into the book and I think the book is stronger with them than without them.

Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I feel similarly in terms of letting go. It’s a great relief to no longer be inhabiting a space where I feel responsible for “staying open as a medium for the voices.” There were a great many voices in The Place of Scraps. And it was only after I finished writing the book that I realized how difficult it was to enter into that cognitive state each day. But, like you said, sometimes it feels as though “each poem, when read, or contemplated, or taken out of its whole cloth, never feels finished.”

_____
author photoJordan Abel is a Nisga’a writer from Vancouver. His chapbooks have been published by JackPine Press and Above/Ground Press, and his work has appeared in numerous magazines and journals across Canada, including Prairie Fire, CV2, andCanadian Literature. Abel’s first book, The Place of Scraps, was published recently by Talonbooks.

R Saklikar author photo credit A TsabariRenée Sarojini Saklikar writes thecanadaproject, a life-long poem chronicle that includes poetry, fiction, and essays. Work from thecanadaproject appears in literary journals, newspapers, and anthologies, including The Vancouver Review,GeistPoetry is DeadSubTerrain, Arc Poetry Magazine ,The Georgia Straight and Ryga, a journal of provocations. The first completed series from thecanadaproject is a book length poem, children of air india, (Nightwood Editions, 2013) about the bombing of Air India Flight 182. You can find out more about Renée’s work at thecanadaproject.wordpress.com.

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