Friday, August 29, 2008

Elizabeth Bachinsky reads K. Silem Mohammad

The Nose To, the Tens No, the Not Ens, the Sent On, the S o n n e t

"…she is very capricious; one cannot summon or foresee her; she comes as happiness comes, hands filled with an achievement that is already in flower."

~ Rainer Maria Rilke, on rhyme.

K. Silem Mohammad is currently at work on Sonnagrams, a collection of poems in which the poet translates Shakespeare's sonnets, line by line, into anagrams. The procedure goes something like this: the poet plugs a line of Shakespeare's verse into an online anagram generator, the results of which serve as a sort of smorgasbord of poetic possibilities from which the poet sculpts a new line—and another and another until the poet has built a new sonnet. In this case, the new poem is complicated by an adherence to the metrical structure of the original sonnet (tricky!), although, admittedly, the poet is willing to break the rules, as it were, and drop a letter down a line or two for the sake of sense. The resultant poems look like this:

Overwhelm the Hot Depth of the Hush Muff

Unwholesome leather flagpoles gross me out;
I never may endure their bulging mass.
Abjection hatches random nests of doubt
When I am reading Newsweek in the grass.

Intense coyotes way hopped up on meth
(Mere formalists by virtue of their hats)
Cannot but shudder at the thought of death,
Although they dwell at Watergate with rats.

Those photogenic walruses are still
Unfocused in their smooth immunity
To styrofoam protrusions of the will,
And oft enough outwitted by a bee.

Are London bedbugs thought to be that tall,
That Mammoth Jack must huff to drub them all?


[Sonnet 44 ("If the dull substance of my flesh were thought")]

It's a task suited to poets with a penchant for meter and patterns and puzzles and it's the sort of task that could probably drive a person crazy. I can relate. A few years ago I translated T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land, as well as a number of other canonized poems, in a similar manner. So, for the sake of comparison, for the sake of spookiness—here's my version of Milton's "On His Blindness" from my first book of poetry, Curio (BookThug, 2005).

She Is Blond Sin

Dim, nephritic, yet single (whoosh!)
She's a dandy kid. Why film her drear wilt and
Tease the wanton hidden clit? Oh had I that
Molten loadstone rebel—gum my thighs. She is down
To her panties. Revere her knees. Tada my
Darling! In time he ruts her cunt. My curt
Deus ex machina
goads both girl and Delt. Today
Only I partake in neither—devout—but
Soon that rumour (not greed) plies me. Don't
Fight. She's a Norse beast. Now I stroke her.
Baby my every limb seeks this state…hide, eh? His
Deep kiss taunts singly. Ding! Had I shod a bi
Dancer (post Streisand) taut and low—oh
Woo! What a dish! And to yell nasty verse!

(John Milton, "On His Blindness")

This was the first poem I ever "anagrammed" and after writing it I felt as though I'd reached into Milton's grave and poked the poor guy in the eye. It felt so irreverent, so freed. Which is, of course, why I continued to longer procedural projects. But the job was arduous. At the time, the Internet wasn't so speedy as it is now, so I did it all by hand. I tried to maintain as close a mimetic structure to the original poems as possible, and I was firm with myself; I wasn't allowed to carry letters on to following lines. After all, if a computer could come up with 500 alternatives for "April is the cruelest month, breeding" then surely I could come up with one. But no matter what nuances of craft there are between Mohammad's procedure and mine, it's the similarity of the end result that strikes me as simply wonderful.

Why wonderful? Because it's as if we are two scientists who have chosen to conduct the same experiment, unbeknownst to one another, and have arrived at similar results. In a way, this proves the procedure is sound; that a sense of fun, diligence, and irreverence can lead to some formally interesting work. And I don't use the word work lightly. The types of constraint-based poems Mohammad is invested in here are hard, hard work, not to mention there's something reassuringly plebian about the end product. Anyone with the inclination can write these kinds of poems and come up with similar results. There's nothing rarified about them and, so long as you are willing to leave your performer's look-at-me-desire-for-recognition-of-virtuosity at the door, the poems require a poet abandon persona and allow procedure to take centre stage.

Mohammad writes:

The sonnagram feels full of intriguing possibilities to me right now, as it is poised at an interestingly liminal point between traditionally formal and experimentally procedural conceptions of constraint. The elements of "chance" and "intentionality" (in Jackson Mac Low's sense of the words) are balanced, or held in tension with each other, so that the act of composition simultaneously involves a submission on my part to the felicities of the arbitrary linguistic draw, and an indulgence in a more traditional version of "craft."

I'm quite happy to take this statement further and say I don't see much difference at all between traditional forms of constraint-based writing and emergent traditions. Craft is craft is craft. Poets writing today have a particularly large pool from which to draw the elements of their work, and I think they write best who draw deep and draw often. Do I think projects like K. Silem Mohammad's Sonnagrams will remain as Shakespeare's sonnets have remained? Somehow, I doubt it. But perhaps that's part of the charm of the anagram. They're slippery. They want to mutate. Just when you think you've got one nailed to the page, it turns on you and slips away.
-Elizabeth BachinsKy, Vancouver 2008

Elizabeth Bachinsky is the author of Curio and Home of Sudden Service, which was nominated for a Governor General's Award for Poetry in 2006. Her third book of poetry is forthcoming with Nightwood Editions, Spring 2009. She lives in Vancouver.


Amanda said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Amanda said...

this is fascinating and inspiring. i want to try this & suspect it must be quite difficult to do as fine a job these two have done. i have Curio and look forward to K. Silem Mohammad's collection very much. what's particularly exciting to me is the notion of influence and whether or not the resultant poems still seem to carry echoes of the originals, which these ones do, while at the same time being unique and in a completely different voice. i love anything that contributes to the on-going conversation...thanks for posting.

Matt Rader said...

Surely there is a difference between traditional form and emergent form. Perhaps not from the perspective of craft--as in, yes both traditional forms and newly invented forms are primarily about invention, yes they both require an attention to aesthetics that is minute and mechanical--but certainly in terms of how those forms interact with history and aesthetic markets (to borrow from John Dewey). This is not a statement of judgment on the merits of either approach. I just think the lumping together does each a disservice.

Lemon Hound said...

Thanks for the comments, those here, and those via email. I'm not sure Liz is lumping anything together here, but I'll let her speak for herself.

Otherwise, yes, the dialog will continue. Stay tuned.

Matt Rader said...

She says, "I don't see much difference at all between traditional constraint-based writing and emergent-traditions."

How else to describe this statement. Knowing Liz well, I think this is a rhetorical assertion meant to position her critique of this work in a particular light: one that sees commonality between these modes of writing. I agree with her.

But her rhetoric goes too far.
(Liz, this is what you get for buying me lunch!)

Liz Bachinsky said...

ha ha. you guys are funny.

yes, matt, what I should have added is that, although I don't see much difference in the act of *writing* within traditional or emergent forms, the act of deciding which craft to board, of course, makes a world of difference. here, I'm simply trying to encourage poets to board as many as possible. you know me...

Lemon Hound said...

Her rhetoric goes too far? Really?

Well, that's a bit of a scolding.

Thanks for the great post Liz.

Go further I say.

angela said...

Great discussion! I read Kasey's piece first because of happenstance links. I've used this technique before and am enamored with it. I'm one of those geeks in the poetry science lab who loves tinkering with experiments, mixing random chemicals together just to see what happens. Sometimes you get a gorgeous fireworks display; other times, a dull thud.

It can become obsessive. You find yourself seeing anagrams in everything, like the scene in "A Brilliant Mind" where Russell Crowe as Nash starts seeing the words on magazine pages rising off the pages and reassembling themselves into coded messages. It's a bit like the ancient ritual of drinking tea, then reading the leaves at the bottom of the cup.

I want what Kasey describes as "a tonic barrage of verbal sensations just this side of any conceptual premise or telos."

"Remember this: A kiss is just a kiss,"
except when
"Jesus! Bikes rise; sharks maim tits!"

Lemon Hound said...

thanks for the visit and comment, and the anagram of kiss...i think that conceptual work does operate this way, as i'm sure formal poetry does. looking for those tight fits to keep the meter running...

obsessive? absolutely.