Thursday, January 20, 2011

North of Invention

A Conversation with Sarah Dowling

Michael Nardone:
Sarah, you've arranged a great group of poets to come down to Philly and New York for North of Invention, a mixture of readings, performances and discussions on poetics. Can you talk about your curation: why these poets? where are there points of correspondence or affinity between them? where are there moments of these poets individually charting out new spaces for practice?

Sarah Dowling:
Our initial idea in planning North of Invention was to feature poets who had not read in the U.S. ever — or at least not ever in the past five years, or at least not on the East Coast in the past five years. As you can imagine, this evolved somewhat as the planning went on. Charles Bernstein, Stephen Motika and I all had particular folks in mind when we set that curatorial constraint, and I'm pleased to say that many from our initial imaginary cohort are indeed featured in the festival. However, we had to balance this ideal with the need to attract an audience, and therefore to have some figures more recognizable to U.S. audiences on our roster. We also wanted to have a good balance of emerging and established writers, writers from across Canada, and writers representing various social and aesthetic contingencies. In the end, some of the poets we had initially wanted to feature also had to withdraw their participation for personal reasons or because conflicts arose in their schedules, so to a large extent the selection of poets depended on chance: who was available in cold, dark January.

In spite of that, I think that there are a lot of points of correspondence and affinity between the various writers we've invited. One thing that really excites me about North of Invention is the degree to which the readings will draw upon performance traditions. I think this is one vector of commonality among the diverse practices represented by the festival. It will be interesting to see how these practices of performance come together: what will it be like when Jordan Scott's performative exploration of the stutter brushes up against Christian Bök's high-energy vocal acrobatics? How will the embodiment dramatized in a.rawlings's collaborations with Maja Jantar seem in the context of M. NourbeSe Philip's work? How will Adeena Karasick's provocative engagements with pop culture resonate in this context? Another way in which we might group some of these writers would be to consider modes of explicit social critique: to return to Karasick's work for a moment, she's in a very different mode than Stephen Collis or Fred Wah or Lisa Robertson, and yet they all espouse passionately political poetics. What we ultimately hope for the festival is that by featuring a diverse array of poets and practices it will generate a conversation about poetry that will have a broad relevance not so much for what it says about Canada or Canadian poetry, but for what it says about contemporary artistic practice writ large.

I know that it was exciting to have a few poets from Philly and New York attend In(ter)ventions last year in Banff. Overall, though, or more often than not, I sense there is this real boundary line, with metaphorical bullet-proof vests on the customs officials, between poets and poetic practice in Canada and the States. As an American who now lives in Canada, I've developed a fascination with individual poets who, over these last fifty years or so, have moved back and forth between Canada and the States and have worked amidst and instigated new writing or swerves in poetic practice on both sides of the border. Then there are these moments of intense site-specific cross-border dialogue on poetry and poetics. I'm thinking of the Vancouver Poetry Conference of 1963 as one great instance. Has there been any discussion of making this a two-way exchange across the border?

I share your sense of that real boundary between Canadian and American poetic communities, as well as your fascination with the individual poets who have found ways to move quite fluidly between them. I think we can see the boundary very clearly when it comes to book publishing: in the U.S., one of the best places to find interesting poetry is through Small Press Distribution, and yet SPD stocks comparatively few Canadian books. My understanding (which may not be entirely correct) is that Canadian publishers lose money by selling their titles through SPD because the taxes are too high. I can't begin to recount the number of times that an American, showing genuine interest in a new Canadian title, has said to me, "So I should be able to order that through SPD, right?" Unfortunately, the answer is very often negative.

I think in this way we're trying to situate North of Invention within the history of what you called "intense site-specific cross-border dialogue on poetry and poetics," and within that, to open up spaces for poetic practices that are less known and more difficult to access. This may come as a surprise, as we will feature some really major authors in our festival. But even in the case of a figure like Nicole Brossard, the awareness of her work in the U.S. is not what we feel it should be, even among the communities one might expect to be most interested in it, because it is very difficult to access texts in translation in the U.S. (to say nothing of texts written in other languages).

The Vancouver Poetry Conference is a great example of a conference that tried to do this kind of work in initiating new dialogue, and one that we even mentioned in our grant proposals! I think we're also trying to build on the links made last year at In(ter)ventions. In addition to our title riffing on Steve McCaffery's North of Intention, there's a nod to Steven Ross Smith's wonderful and ongoing series of conferences in Banff. We don't have any plans for a follow-up conference in Canada or a two-way exchange in that sense, but we definitely hope that North of Invention will contribute to and develop the conversations that have happened, like Vancouver, and that continue to happen, like In(ter)ventions. And what I really hope is that we can initiate more explicit cross-border dialogue through North of Invention's afterlife online at PennSound, in Jacket2, and elsewhere.

Who are some poets doing innovative work that you have come across in the States, ones you might imagine coming for a similar reading series in Canada?

If anyone in Canada would like to do a "South of Invention," with American poets visiting Canada, I think that would be really exciting. What I would imagine as a fruitful avenue for such an undertaking would be to emphasize poetic practices that are in sympathy with, but perhaps less directly related to the concerns of Canadian poets. So I would want to see folks like Jose Felipe Alvergue and Craig Santos Perez, Myung Mi Kim and Anne Tardos. It would also be great to have some movement between fictional and poetic forms, since that has been such an important part of Canadian writing. It would be wonderful to see someone like Renée Gladman prominently featured. And it would be very interesting to have major figures like Rosmarie Waldrop, or Susan Howe as well. Of course, another way to do it would be to invite all the introducers from North of Invention. Nearly all of them are poets, and the critical writers among them are extremely interesting, too. I really like to see series and conferences feature the people who enable and sustain poetic communities, so I'd love to see a conference that prominently features writers like Al Filreis, Jessica Lowenthal, Michelle Taransky, and Erin Gautsche, the people who make the magic happen at the Kelly Writers House.

Along these lines, although I think it would be really exciting to see more international exchanges among poets and writers, it is also important to make space for emergent practices, especially local practices, and to create opportunities for geographically proximate communities to begin new conversations. Having international conferences is great, but the difficulty involved in funding and organizing such conferences can also be viewed as an opportunity to focus attention on what’s happening locally, to think about what can be done for free, and to create communities and conversations around that work.

You mentioned the degree to which many of the poets involved draw upon or extend a tradition of performance. I'm thinking of Erin Moure's talk on poetic influence that began the initial In(ter)ventions conference, and her insistence on the importance of Jerome Rothenberg's work when charting out new poetic practices. And with Rothenberg, always in my mind, is David Antin. In imagining a cross-border counterpart to North of Invention, it's interesting to think of what kind of possible response that an intimate and extensive look at Rothenberg and Antin's event-based or talk-based work might affect in communities of poets throughout Canada.

I really can’t speak to what the specific influence of either Rothenberg or Antin would or could be, but it is certainly interesting to consider various models of talk-based practice and how they play into events like North of Invention, which owe something to the academic conference, something to the poet’s talk (I’m thinking here of Bob Perelman’s Talk series and of the Bay Area in the ‘70s), and something to the other talk-based traditions that you reference above.

A closer precedent for North of Invention is Louis Cabri and Aaron Levy’s PhillyTalks series, which was hosted at the Kelly Writers House starting in 1997, and is archived here. This series put the Kelly Writers House, and indeed Philadelphia itself, on the map for me, as I suspect it did for many Canadians. PhillyTalks differs from many other talk-based practices is that its main point was dialogue: the event in this series took the form of a reading and dialogue, but was preceded by a written conversation between the readers, distributed online one week in advance. This series also used webcasting to allow poets elsewhere to participate. Of course another crucial model is Margaret Christakos’s lecture/reading series Influency, at the University of Toronto, although I’ve never had the pleasure of enrolling in this course myself.

I guess what I’m suggesting in this response, which unfortunately has avoided your question about Antin and Rothenberg almost entirely, is that when it comes to talk-based practices, I’m drawn to curatorial models that emphasize the dialogic, interactive aspects of talking in public. Sometimes you’ll see a writer do this herself, without prompting: I remember a great reading at Temple University about five or six years ago when Erín Moure’s reading made the transformation from the expected read-from-your-latest-book model to an impromptu discourse on twentieth-century Spanish political history, and then to a friendly but rather intense debate with a member of the audience. What I hope will happen at North of Invention and at future events of this sort is that there will be opportunities for that traditional model of the poetry reading as well as opportunities for the idea-sharing that talk-based practices represent, but that dialogue and interactivity will be critical aspects of the overall structure.

One of the great things about the events organized at the Kelly Writers House is how immediately accessible they are. Live discussions are often streamed across the web, and individual listeners or classrooms of students can call or email in to take part in the conversation, no matter where they might be. Will this be the case, too, with North of Invention?

This is certainly our intention, and if everything goes according to plan, the North of Invention events hosted at the Kelly Writers House will be viewable in real time via webcast . Anyone reading this blog right now should be able to open a new window and press play to check out the events. We’ll also be soliciting questions and comments from those joining us via webcast. Anyone watching can write in to and we’ll have a volunteer, Caroline Henze-Gongola, pose these questions during the daytime Q&A sessions and integrate them into the on-site discussion. I really hope that we will have responses from beyond the KWH – it would be great to know that North of Invention was simultaneously happening north and south and east and west of itself.

Sarah Dowling is a poet and a doctoral candidate at the University of Pennsylvania. Her first book, Security Posture, was published by Snare Books in 2009. Her critical work has appeared in GLQ and is forthcoming in Canadian Literature.

Michael Nardone lives in the Northwest Territories, where he is an assistant editor for Jacket2. This spring, he will take part in Dechinta.

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