Speaking to poetry with poetry: The background to my experimental response to Third-Millennium Heart by Ursula Andkjær Olsen

I have, in recent months, been reading and responding to poetry with increasing frequency here on roughghosts. I hesitate to say review, perhaps because I lack the vocabulary to classify and analyze poetry in a learned fashion. That is, to speak to other poets about poetry—a task that tends to achieve little more than ensure that poetic appreciation remains a closed circle.

Do not pass Go, do not expect to enjoy poetry on its own terms alone. (Everyone knows collecting $200 is too much to hope for in this particular game.)

I have collected a few books about reading and writing poetry  with the thought that they might enhance my critical appreciation, but they remain unread, perhaps for the same reason that I decided not to study Literature at university. I am afraid of wringing all the pleasure out of the experience of reading with too much analysis.

And so, I have been content to respond, with a measure of innocent ignorance, to the work I read. Gut level. Which is fine, until I venture into the realm of experimental poetry where, in contrast to experimental literatures of other sorts, my response seems lacking. At least to me.

Enter Third-Millennium Heart, the ambitious epic cycle of poems by Danish poet Ursula Andkjær Olsen. This work which, in my reading, traces the evolution of a post-human cyborg being, or state of being, is a glorious evocation of the power of language. Through Katrine Øgaard Jensen’s inventive, sensitive translation, we are held captive by a demanding chimeric voice, witnesses to the realization of a possible future reality which, unlike the mechanistic hive-mind typically associated with cyborg imagery, envisions a hive-heart existence.

Or, that’s how I think of it at the moment. It doesn’t really matter.  The true joy is in the experience of this series of poems. And when reading it, I simply knew I would want to respond. But prose analysis seemed inadequate, insufficient. I wanted to write in reaction to Olsen’s poetry. To answer poetry with poetry. Keep it minimal. Close to the heart, if you will.

Without question, the work of my friend Daniela Cascella, and in particular her recent book Singed, was essential to shaping my approach. It is unmediated, equivocal, open-ended.

Possibly the only way to fully respond to poetry.

My experimental review/response to Third-Millennium Heart can be found at Minor Literature[s]. The text opens as a PDF; I invite you to read it and welcome feedback.

Third Millennium Heart is a joint publication of Action Books and Broken Dimanche Press.

Losing my story (or my capacity to tell it)

For the longest time I have entertained a writing project. Memoirish, I described it. I put time and money aside to facilitate this activity. I’ve been going through the money, but have little to show for my time. It has been more than a year since I’ve written anything serious of a personal nature beyond a few small prose pieces or random blog posts. I’ve written about writing and not writing and all manner of writerly insecurity. I regularly hear from people who, much to my surprise, enjoy what I do write, appreciate what I share. Yesterday, after submitting an overdue review, for better or worse, I told myself that I must finally get serious about trying to pull together a more significant effort.

Yet, I woke up today fearing that I can no longer tell my story. The only story I have to tell and I cannot share it. The cost is too great.I don’t know how others do it. Detail their personal lives, their vulnerabilities, their victories. Perhaps there is a part of ego that has no filter, a point of pride that longs to disclose. But that’s not me. In real life, I’ve come to understand that my existence can only begin to affect some measure of authenticity if I refrain from attempting to have full expression of all that I am. All that I have been. It’s one thing to write. I have published a few raw and honest pieces that have been well received, that can be searched online, and I am happy with each one. And here at home, for the past three years, I have been more intentionally out and involved in LGBTQ and affirming spaces in a way I never dared before. However, more often than not, I’m left feeling defeated. It’s all okay, it seems, until I try to have my voice heard. My history validated. My pain respected.

I would to dream that writing could heal the loss and grief I carry. Yet, too much loss and too little gain makes for a story no one would want to read. Life stories are supposed to show recovery, strength, hope. But that’s wishful thinking. Real life itself just goes on. I am afraid that attempting to write now would only reveal the anger and despair that I can’t get past.

This is not to say that there have not been many positives in recent years. I’ve a network of good friends across the globe. I’ve travelled to some amazing places. I still love writing—reviewing, interviewing, and editing. I am producing work that I am truly proud of. And I’m not ashamed of who I am. But I think I have reached the limit of what I want to explore on a deeply personal level in writing.

Perhaps some stories are better left untold. Some transmythologies are better left uncontested. And some lives are more coherently lived by keeping the closet doors at least partially closed.

This weekend I realized that, in no uncertain terms, it is one thing to be “accepted” as long as you don’t talk about yourself, or your life, in any way that others do not want to hear. This simple truth has finally extinguished my intention to continue this memoirish fantasy.

I wish I was a poet.

Sometimes I think poetry offers the only hope that one could touch the truth but keep the self intact.

On another way of seeing and remembering Calcutta: A link to my photo essay at Sultan’s Seal

Before I went to Kolkata last month, my strongest visual image of the city was not informed by guide books, travel websites, or National Geographic features. Rather, it was Naveen Kishore’s haunting black and white photographs of his hometown that captured my imagination. I remember, in particular, a darkened residential street—Calcutta, at night—quiet and empty. What would it be like to be there?

Naveen Kishore’s photographs on display at the Seagull Books store.

And, of course, I arrived to what seemed a circus of noise, colour and crowds. It wasn’t until I began to pull out my phone as I navigated the streets of Bhowanipore, that I began to see the neighbourhood in which I was staying. Even when I had my proper camera with me, I continued to use my phone, for the built in GPS as much as for the ease of uploading and sharing photos along the way.

But I knew that I would want to do more. Photographs have increasingly become part of my creative process. And when I use them in concert with words, I feel liberated to edit and manipulate them as much as I edit and manipulate language to express myself. The images that accompany my recent essay for RIC Journal were processed to heighten the colour and dreamlike quality I wanted to achieve with the text. The photographs that comprise the piece that has just been published at Youssef Rakha’s Sultan’s Seal website are entirely different in style and intent.

Youssef Rakha is an Egyptian novelist, journalist, and very fine photographer. Over the years he has provided a home for photo essays by a number of excellent photographers and photojournalists. My humble contribution is entirely personal, again a reflection of my time in Calcutta, this time in black and white. The ordinary and the extraordinary. Twenty-four images—sometimes detailed, sometimes stark—and a simple text. And that special magic that only be conveyed with black and white (and all the shades of grey).

You can find my piece, Calcutta in Grey here. With much gratitude to Youssef for putting it together so beautifully.

Brief notes on returning home from travel and a link to my photo essay at RIC: Journal

Kolkata is not a place that inspires indifference. It has been almost exactly one month since I left it behind, and yet my thoughts and imagination are still occupied by the city, the people I met, and the experiences I had.

Now that I’m home, with the endless winter so very slowly melting away, I am once again confronting that familiar heaviness that weighs me down and reminds me how hollow and lonely life here can be. Perhaps it is this perennial inability to fit in that drives the restless traveller on. I don’t know.

In the meantime, I’d like to share a photo essay, just published at the wonderful RIC:Journal. This is, in words an images, an attempt to hold my first encounter with India close just a little longer.

You can find my piece here. With gratitude to Saudamini Deo.

Ferries, trains and yellow cabs: Navigating Kolkata in good company

I headed to India without any clear expectations about what I might find in Kolkata. The trip seemed to arrive much faster than I could prepare myself. But just as well. I like to approach a place with an open mind, content to inhabit a small corner, tracing and retracing pathways until they become, for the moment, familiar. I anticipated a fair degree of wandering, alone and unguided. However, as fortune would have it, nearly every day I was out with a friend or acquaintance, for a walk, coffee, or a meal. The opportunity to see fragments of the city through the eyes of others—life-time residents and more recent arrivals, regular visitors and newcomers—opened up varied angles and perspectives I would never have glimpsed as a lone, foreign observer.

A kaleidoscopic view of a kaleidoscopic city.

Love it, hate it, or a complicated mix somewhere in between, it is difficult to imagine Kolkata leaving anyone indifferent. I suppose one could sit still or tread carefully from one established tourist venue to another, but quite honestly it is a city that, despite initial appearances, is more welcoming and safer to move through than one might imagine. It invites personal engagement.On my own, walking remained my default mode of locomotion and, over the course of two weeks I came to know a couple of routes well, especially the stretch of Sarat Bose Road, from my home-stay to Minto Park, a diverse, commercial street. The only public transport I would entertain was the Metro, the aged but determined subway line running across the city from north to south. There was a station close by and one morning I squashed myself into a crowded car to travel north to meet a friend outside the Central station. Together we wandered through the book-lined roads and alleys of the College Street area before joining her husband to enjoy cold coffee at the legendary Indian Coffee House which has, over the past seventy-five years, served as an important gathering place for leading intellectual, cultural and political figures.

Kolkata, at least in the older central part of the city, is conspicuous in its absence of a cluster of gleaming high-rises and commercial office towers. It appears to the outsider like an accidental city. Yet it was once the centre of an empire. Scratch the surface and a cosmopolitan quality still lingers. It has a rich artistic and cultural heritage, but the weight of history and ghosts of the past are tangible. The scars of years of decline and neglect mar the surface.

Layers of existence and subsistence share the same spaces in a manner unimaginable in other major cities. Sidewalk vendors and luxury hotels. Modern buildings beside crumbling ruins. It is a place where anyone with a burner and a pot, a few shoemaking tools, or a pair of scissors can set up business. No one is swept off the street, tucked away out of sight. A dynamic urban ecosystem exists here. At once vibrant and decaying, often side by side. As a friend of mine said, there is a place for everyone in Kolkata: “there is food for every budget. There’s space for every fatigued body and there is transport for every pocket.”

My final weekend in the city was spent in the company of this same friend who had come up from Bangalore for a few days. Together we rode ferries, hired tricycle rickshaws, and experienced the prickly hospitality (or hostility) of an assortment of Yellow Cab drivers. We started out on Saturday morning with a ride across the Hooghly River to Howrah where a rickshaw driver carried us up to the railway station. There we bought platform tickets and my friend shared his enthusiasm for train travel. He led me through a third tier A/C car, insisting that I must, at some point, experience India by rail. (I’m not quite yet confident to attempt that on my own, but challenge registered, and accepted.)

We made several more transits across the river on Saturday, with a longer ride between the Dakshineswar Kali temple and Belur Math on Sunday. These passages introduced an entirely different space and pace. The Hooghly is a wide, languid, opaque green waterway. After the sensory crush of the city, time seems suspended, but even here echoes of the past persist. A mix of magic and sadness.

My friend and I covered a lot of ground over two days, in kilometres and in conversation. At his insistence my experience of Kolkata included small pleasures I would not have otherwise entertained—water from unripened coconuts, delicious fresh squeezed sugar cane juice, and peanuts and puffed rice served in bags crafted from folded newspaper. And his personal perspective on the intersection of municipal grandeur and deterioration helped me begin to frame what I’d observed during my sojourn. A walk after dark through B. B. D. Bagh (Dalhousie Square), the seat of the provincial government and central business district, was a powerful experience, inspiring and haunting in equal measure.

And what would a trip to Kolkata be, in the end, without cab rides? Yellow cabs, even.

And so I left the city carrying the intensity of the place—its mass of contradictions—as a kind of thickened stew that will take time to sift through and clarify. Calcutta. Kolkata.

I remember jammed roadways. Taxis—yellow, white and, Uber. An endless chorus of bleating car horns. Brightly coloured buses jammed with passengers. Three wheeled auto-rickshaws scooting by. Bicycles and motorcycles, sometimes with a single passenger, but more often couples, even families—father driving, mother behind sitting side saddle in a sari, and a youngster on the handlebars—typically all without helmets. The whimsical magic of the Seagull Books office, the enthusiasm of the students at the school, the ambitious and inspiring Peaceworks project. Ngūgī wa Thiong’o in conversation at the Victoria Memorial, under the open sky, surrounded by that monument to colonial glory. Towering tombs, and stalls overflowing with books. The century-old residence where I stayed and my eager, affable host, Nandu.

Coffee. Conversation. Friends.

Until we meet again.

Sifting through my experiences in Kolkata: Leading a class at the Seagull School of Publishing

I’m home from India and slowly recovering from jet lag and food poisoning. It’s the latter, acquired, most likely, on my last evening, that is really dragging the transition out—blurring the kilometres between there and here. In a strange way, the exhaustion and muscle fatigue feels like a metaphorical and physical rinsing of Kolkata out of my system.

It won’t work. I’ve been infected. By the city—and a country—that I want to return to and explore further.

For the moment though, a little distance is required so I can review, focus, and calibrate the experiences of the past two weeks. Then I can begin to weave it into words. I anticipate essays, interviews, and other projects to emerge in the coming months.  But for now, back to this space, roughghosts, to share a little more of my visit over the next few posts.

I did not travel overseas until I was in my mid-fifties. Not having had the opportunity when I was younger, I think I’d become resigned to the notion that it was something I’d never be able to afford. It is, strangely, loss that has made it possible. I live very modestly, I travel alone, and the internet has opened up a network of people to connect with across the globe. So I never feel lonely when I arrive in a strange place. Perhaps I travel to escape the loneliness of home.

My decision to go to Kolkata was spontaneous. It arose out of a chat with Naveen Kishore, the publisher of Seagull Books, sometime last fall. His enthusiastic response to my idle comment that “someday” I would visit, set my plans in motion. And, while an opportunity to see the store and office and meet the staff was the draw, and Ngūgī wa Thiong’o’s planned appearance in the city determined my timing, I ended up with so much more, not only from the Seagull experience but through my exploration of the city on my own and with friends.Rather than attempting to craft a whirlwind tour through a number of Indian centres, I opted to stay in place for two weeks. Cost and available time were the primary limiting factors, but I tend to prefer to be able to exist in a city for a while if I can, rather than dash through. It was a fortuitous decision. Calcutta is not only extremely affordable, but it takes at least a week to begin to learn how to “see” the city, and that has nothing at all to do with getting around or visiting tourist sites. It was only toward the end of my visit that I was beginning to appreciate how deeply my time in Kolkata stands to inform my understanding of Seagull, not just the publishing venture, but the entire Foundation for the Arts. I still need time to reflect and follow up with further conversations before I’ll be ready to write any major essays.

However, there is more. I headed to India with the idea that I would spend time engaging with my endless memoir project—reading, writing, reflecting. Yet I worried that left alone with my own literary ambitions I might be exposed to myself as a fraud. Despite my successes and accomplishments over the past few years, I still struggle with self-esteem. I feel old. Late. Writers that emerge in mid-life or later are a relative rarity in this world that celebrates the promise of the young—the 30 under 30, 40 under 40—and undervalues the possibility of those of us for whom life and circumstance have delayed entry into the creative literary environment.My anxiety was increased with the prospect of giving a presentation at the Seagull School of Publishing. When, Naveen suggested I could do “a session” with the students, I assumed he meant drop in, talk for twenty minutes or something. No stranger to public speaking, facilitation, or educational settings, I have always talked about subjects with which I had some degree of knowledge—developmental projects, brain injury, even bird feeding—but when Assistant Editor, Sayoni Ghosh, advised me that they wanted me to talk about my career (“career”??) in writing, editing, blogging, and online publishing I was taken aback. And the details? I would be leading a masterclass running from 10:30 to 1:30 with a fifteen-minute break for tea at noon.

Excuse me? What of my so-called career could I stretch into three hours?

Yet, as I started to create an outline for this effort, a strange thing happened. I knew that I had always been a naturally strong writer, something that had served me well in academic, professional, and volunteer settings since college, but I hadn’t fully appreciated the extent to which I’d been writing, editing and designing newsletters, publications, and even detailed annual reports for years—typically without the technical resources that should have been employed in the circumstances. My early efforts at one job were produced on a Smith-Corona typewriter with a simple word processing function that allowed me to print out blocks of text (and several different heads that could be exchanged for varying the font style). These blocks were then cut and carefully taped onto 11×17 inch sheets of coloured paper, photocopied and folded to produce eight-page monthly newsletters that, for the era, looked as good as professionally printed products. I fussed to avoid any telltale shadows, took care not to repeat themes or designs. In a later position, I would eventually move on to Microsoft Publisher, working under-resourced on top of my regular job responsibilities to create promotional, educational, and fundraising documents that my not-for-profit employer refused to invest in adequately. Why? Because I could not abide by the amateurish materials they had relied on before I arrived.

The difference today is that I am finally engaged in projects that are personally and creatively rewarding. I have learned to call myself a writer. Perhaps I will someday believe it.In the meantime, on the morning of February 14th, my date with masterclass destiny arrived. The previous day the students had spent the morning with German translator and musician Wieland Hoban, who has translated a number of works for Seagull, most proudly Correspondence: Ingeborg Bachmann and Paul Celan. That afternoon they’d enjoyed the warm wit and wisdom of Kenyan literary giant, Ngūgī wa Thiong’o—a session I’d also been invited to attend.

And then me. No pressure, eh?

Although my carefully created Powerpoint presentation—primarily photographic images and links to websites—baffled me and was abandoned, three hours passed easily with lively discussions of online publishing, blogging, and writing critical reviews. My intention was to promote the idea that in today’s environment, creative engagement is possible, easier and more rewarding than ever, and that it is never too late, even if one’s life or career goes sideways as life and work realities can. To that end I did briefly share my story, my gender-distracted diversions and delays that interfered with my earlier creative writing ambitions for so long. I hoped to help the students to appreciate the truly international nature of a literary community (or circles of communities) that exist and how actively engaging in that world opens opportunities on personal and professional levels no matter “when” or “where” one might be.

In keeping with the spirit at the core of a project like Seagull which started very simply, expanding slowly and organically over time, I also wanted to talk about very small indie publishing efforts. So I told them about my friend John Trefry and Inside the Castle, and how a desire to get his own first book into print has grown into a spirited little publisher, still a singular enterprise out of his own Lawrence, Kansas home, but boasting an impressive roster of authors and published titles. And to illustrate that limited resources should not restrict quality or design, I brought along a copy of Douglas Luman’s The F Text. Much to my surprise and pleasure, one of the students fell in love with it and worried that she wasn’t sure she could obtain a copy. So I gave her mine. And signed it. Which was weird, but cool.

Yesterday the same budding editor contacted me to let me know that she had written about my class for the Students’ blog on the Seagull School webpage! I feel an odd mixture of embarrassment and pride. And relief that my session was of value to the students. I’m also insanely excited that Mihika created a little erasure poem out of an excerpt from my piece, Your Body Will Betray You. What a gift!

Leading a masterclass like this is the last situation I ever expected to find myself in, and I would wager I am the real beneficiary of the opportunity. Gradually I’m learning to believe that others believe that I have something to offer.

One of the many, many precious gifts I am bringing home from Kolkata.

Out on the streets of Kolkata: A little exploration

While my first twenty-four hours or so in the City of Joy were intense—a mixture of everything and nothing I’d imagined—I now, just over halfway through my stay, greet each day with a blend of ease and exhilaration. How quickly one slips into the rhythms, growing accustomed to the roar of traffic and bleating horns. With each venture out, I have found myself fitting into the flow, making my way through the congestion to explore the city. Every time I emerge from my residence out onto Sarat Bose Road, I am filled with a sense of enthusiasm about where my wandering will take me. I have kicked around by myself in strange towns and cities, from Alice Springs to Cape Town, but none as intensely engaging as Kolkata.

Of course, this is a city that refuses to stand by idly. It commands a degree of attention whenever you step out on to the streets, and I do mean on to the streets; one navigates the roadways on and off the sidewalks as need be, and crosses any significant intersection with caution. In some places, smartly dressed traffic controllers aid the safe passage across busy thoroughfares, but only to some effect. I’ve learned to line myself up with other pedestrians and rely on their instincts. But even those only go so far. I’ve seen one man so busy on his cellphone that a van backed up into him. Only slightly startled, he quickly regained his balance and continued both his journey up the side of the road and his conversation without skipping a beat.

Some seem to engage with the roadways with uncanny confidence. Naveen Kishore, the esteemed publisher of Seagull Books, for example, appears to command the unceasing stream of traffic on S.P Mukerghee like Moses parting the Red Sea. Making the same crossing on route between the Seagull School of Publishing and the offices with their newest editor, a recent arrival from Goa, is a more tenuous exercise. We get half way across and crouch in the middle until an opening appears. On my own, I’ve been known to go out of my way to effect an easier passage, perhaps with lights, which is, even then, not a guaranteed free pass.

On my first weekend in Kolkata I began to explore. On Saturday, after a day spent mostly indoors working, I took the advice of one of the three men who tend to affairs at the residence where I’m staying that I should go to Minto Park. A little oasis in the middle of a noisy city, with a hectic corridor and a high level overpass running along one end, this space, maintained by the adjacent Belle Vue Hospital, is dominated by a large rectangular pond, lined with palm trees, a pathway and shallow green space. Once inside, all thoughts and memory of the boisterous mayhem of the roadways is, I want to say, not simply forgotten, but almost erased. One remembers the solitude and serenity, not the noise. Returning again almost a week later I noticed that, although the city sounds are acute when you first enter the park, they are all quickly reduced to a distant background murmur once you begin to walk around the pond. Or so it seems. In memory, only stillness remains.

The following day’s random explorations led me to the Victoria Memorial Hall, the grand marble edifice and surrounding gardens constructed in the early 1900s to honour the memory of the Queen. On a Sunday, the building and grounds were overflowing with visitors—local families out for the day, others bussed in from afar—squeezing through the passageways of the hall and spilling out onto the grounds. The colourful splash of bright saris added to the spectacle played out amid such formal colonial sensibilities. Hardly a day for actually absorbing any of the contents of the museum itself, I found it the perfect space for people watching. The relaxed mood of the milling crowds caused me to reflect on how much more fractious such a mass of human beings might be at home. (Mind you, this observation preceded my rush our ride on the Metro.) I have since returned to the Victoria Memorial for a very different evening event on the premises, one with entirely different intention and tone.

But that’s for another post.

Monday was the day for a couple of classic Calcutta experiences. I met up with a fellow book blogger, Chelsea McGill who has lived in the city for five years now and is a passionate defender of its charms, at the famous Flury’s—the tea shop and bakery dating from the 1920s that endeavours to maintain all the elements of Imperial elegance. The location, Park Street, is for the reluctant tourist, the most comforting of spaces I’ve encountered so far, where colonial meets modern architecture and business establishments are opened by courteous doormen. But it does blunt a measure of the in-your-face experience that, for me, makes this city so unique. Until, that is, one slips into the South Park Street Cemetery.

No more than a mark on a map for me before I entered the lush, high-walled enclosure, the place caught me completely off guard. Beneath a tall canopy of greenery, rows of aged-darkened, weather-beaten graves, crypts, mausoleums and obelisks mark the final destination of the British officials, traders, and civil servants drawn to the city in the early years of the East India Company. The inscriptions speak to the men, women and children whose sojourns were cut short by illness and other inclemencies of the tropical environment, as well as those who survived to make the mark in the expanding empire. The grandiosity of the structures is almost overpowering. The weight of the souls resting so far from their home shores is tangible in the hot spring air. The history contained in these stones is palpable. And lingering behind it all, the ghosts of more recent years: the criminals who once used the cemetery as a hideout and the homeless who sought refuge from the elements in the columned structures before the area became a protected heritage site. On the day we were there, I’d say that romance was in the air, evidenced by the many couples making out behind the sepulchres.

Finally, after enjoying my first experience of tea served by a street vendor in a tiny clay cup, I made my way back to my residence. Feeling the heat and the grime settling into my pores, and facing an endless steam of rush hour traffic—cars, buses, taxis, motorcycles, bicycles, the occasional rickshaw driver, and even a horse—I discovered that the streets are elastic. They shrink and stretch with one’s energy and fatigue accordingly.The street I’ve walked the most and know the best, serviceable more than spectacular for the experience, can seem absolutely endless at the end of a good, but tiring day.

So, that was Monday. The flavour of my time in Kolkata  again shifted greatly over the next few days. I had the most remarkable and inspiring opportunity to meet and listen to one of the preeminent literary greats of our time, an experience made even more powerful by its placement here, and now, in the City of Joy.

But more about that later. My notebooks are filling up faster than my ability to transform my observations into posts (and fight with the vagaries of composing on an iPad). More soon.