Saturday, April 30, 2011

"Textual Telephone": Melanie Bell on Susan Holbrook and Nicole Markotić's "Q & A"

Is it worth the portage? Maple or hickory-smoked? Are you serious? Which is worse? You and what army?

Sift words into his package. My apple OR hickey OR most. You're so serious. I changed the Ors. U an I warm the real, open the how.

Oh, Anne's Anne. How's your moist O-ply pummelling? Fresh ground pepper, swift dints in your whisper cage? You're the serious one, pesto change-O. O and O worm the roll, owe the ooh.

O + A = A. How's your math?
Opala! Melt freshly ground Swift into John Cage. Pepper with whistles and serious Presto! To change: O – O = O.

Q + A = A. Who's your moth?
Op art! Freshet swift over Cajun ground. O whippoorwill pest! No means no means no. Oh.

Q & A + whose mouth? Apart.

I met Susan Holbrook at Coach House and Snare Books' 2009 Fall launch in Montreal, where she had the room in hysterics with a witty Oulipo (or “foulipo”) rewrite of tampon instructions:

Take a deep Brecht and relapse . . . . Most Wimbledon need a few triumphs before they can comfortably and easily insert a tam-o'-shanter.

Holbrook's latest poetry collection, Joy Is So Exhausting, is full of such clever, perceptive pieces. “Nursery”, the final long poem, is a compilation of thoughts jotted down by Holbrook while nursing her infant daughter, and merits special note for its melding of Holbrook's typical innovation with true tenderness. Many of the poems, like “Insert” (the tampon poem), engage with various source texts in some form of recombinant practice or translation. Federico Garcia Lorca's poetry is translated based on a combination of meaning and sound. Letters between Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thomson are transcribed with deliberate misreadings (“I am practicing lejibibity, do you recognise it”). News headlines are recombined in Sudoku puzzle format (“Same vote issue sex free on proposes Harper marriage”). Many of Holbrook's poems are worthy of critical attention, but I was particularly struck by “Q & A”, written in collaboration with writer Nicole Markotić. In what resembles a game of textual telephone, Holbrook begins with a series of questions, Markotić translates them based on sound, and on they go through six iterations. The first few lines of each begin this post.

Holbrook's initial stream of questions, peppered with the language of commercialism (“How would you like an all-expenses-paid trip to sunny Cozumel, Mexico?”), makes for delightful play. The addressee shifts back and forth, from intimate to customer to “a handsome mister cat”. Stream of consciousness? It seems more likely that Holbrook was deliberate in crafting consecutive queries that are irreverently irrelevant.

Through the iterations, questions become declarations, letters, snatches of other languages, algebra, and answers:
Are you serious? / You're so serious.
How long does it have to be? / Long: it has to be long.
Why me? / That's why.

There is continuous, and continually playful, conversation here. The diction remains colloquial, with statements and questions aimed outward. There is enough call and response to feel engaged and enough nonsense and shifting to feel like an eavesdropper who hasn't quite caught on. As a reader, it becomes hard to distinguish the two poets' voices. The tone is at once confident and startlingly disjunctive.

Holbrook notes the revelations of self that were part of this process of translation:

“One would think the 'mistaken hearing' of this homolinguistic process would produce text in a fairly arbitrary way. Reading the exchange a few months later, it was clear to us that our psychological preoccupations had determined our hearing; obvious in our 'nonsense' text were intimations of my imminent coming out, Nicole's grief over her father's death, my consolations.” (Prismatic Publics 46)

Indeed, some of the lines sparked by these personal concerns—“But do you see through the Y I gay?”; “Long: it has to be long”—are among the most affecting in a sequence where entertainment is the primary effect.

Collaborative variations on translation are smokin' these days, with Erin Moure and Oana Avasilichioaei's Expeditions of a Chimaera and poet and critic team Emily Carr and Erin Wunker's interlinked Sonnets project. Who else wants to try some?

Works Cited

Eichhorn, Kate, and Heather Milne, Eds. Prismatic Publics: Innovative Canadian Women's Poetry and Poetics. Toronto: Coach House, 2009.

Holbrook, Susan. Joy Is So Exhausting. Toronto: Coach House Books, 2009.


Melanie Bell is a former managing editor of Matrix magazine, graduate of the University of New Brunswick's Renaissance College program, and almost-graduate of Concordia's Creative Writing MA program. Her poetry has appeared in Grain, The Fiddlehead, CV2, and various other publications. She and her book collection live here and there, currently in Montreal.

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