Plugging Into the Current: The Immediacies of Daphne Marlatt’s Writing

I had a flurry of activity about a month ago. I prepared a talk for a poet’s society with which I was engaged for a couple of months to serve as a sort of “dress rehearsal” for a talk at a conference I had a hand in planning. My talk was about SPLAB‘s 20 year bioregional cultural investigation. In that talk for the Cascadian Zen conference, using slide-show images as prompts for improvising about SPLAB’s work and findings since 2012, I brought up SPLAB’s poetics. How can I articulate that? An old post from this site, Writing or Re-Writing from 2013 further developed the tradition of spontaneous composition fostered by many of the poets I have written about many times over the years and I leaned on that for CZ.

So, to be reconnected with Daphne Marlatt (who I interviewed January 11, 2014) at the February 14-15, 2020, Cascadian Zen conference at Seattle U, was a delight and reminded me of the power of her poetry and her perceptions. Having been a founding member of one of the most influential movements in Canadian poetry (TISH) and linked to West Coast poets of the Organic/Projective/The Practice of Outside tradition (Robert Duncan, Charles Olson, Denise Levertov, Robert Creeley, Robin Blaser and others) she has a good bead on what Cascadian Zen might be and her presentation was clearly the highlight of a conference that had much to offer. Her understanding of place, the indigenous culture here, the power of poetry ESPECIALLY the outsider traditions of the New American Poetry, the prophetic nature of the first two waves of feminism and the benefits of decades of engagement with Vajrayana Buddhism were woven in with her own poetry acting as a spice within the stew of her talk.  I wrote an American Sentence based on something she said:

2.15.2020 — Daphne Marlatt knows the start of every good poem’s a current.

RiveringSo, I went back to the Marlatt book that I got right AFTER I had done that January 2014 interview. That book is Rivering and I loved this sampler of her work as well as the book’s closing essay “Afterword: Immediacies of Writing.” Some notes on that essay:

“So here, at the beginning of my writing, was a basic dualism between my woman’s body and then-inherited place in the world, and a male-engendered poetic and grasp of that world.” (She touched on this during our January 2014 interview.)

She notes in prose “the appeal of the rhythmic run of a sentence, the way a thought will grow, extending itself through rhythmic variation, syntactic possibility, and melodic association to branch out into extended meaning — as if a sentence might embrace the multiplicities of an immediate world/whatever is local to it.”

After discussing some of her 1960s mentors (mentioned above), the social movements of period between the 60s and 80s: “civil rights, anti-war, feminist, and later post-colonial and lesbian/gay rights” she mentions aural history, intertextuality, etymologies and how poetry for her “has never been a form of reportage. Composition, the act of putting words together, is full of immediacies. There is always edge, the edge a poem rides in its coming into form out of the inchoate, the formless.” All these things are fascinating (& validating) to me. I am reminded of Barry McKinnon, another brilliant BC poet who notes that William Carlos Williams once said that “each poem you write should be a summary of your life up until that point” and not only does that resonate with me, but comparing one’s outside life to one’s inner and one’s personal mythology is always a rich ground for investigation. This was true for me in a huge way at the Cascadian Zen conference (& the short-lived engagement with the poet’s society) and a reminder that it is our shadow dance with others (& the pain which often accompanies that) that allows the greatest self-knowledge.

Finally this long quote from Marlatt’s essay:

“In its coming into words (the immediate act of composition), a poem will generate a current, a charge as it develops. This current pulls into it material that may simply be flotsam (surface float) or may further the current, twist and merge with it. Writing — not the fingers on the keyboard or the pencil (yes, their rhythms and movements too) so much as listening, listening in the echo chamber language operates in charged thinking. Hearing other / alter(ing) even errant possibilities of connection both phonemic and semantic levels, on memory levels (resonating phrases from others’ work through time, all points of contact in the resonating web of language that is our medium for thought.”

Listening to the charged language of thinking for the current. Wow. This is consistent with a little trick of Jack Kerouac’s Michael McClure once taught at the old SPLAB called alluvials. That is, when one gets stuck while writing (spontaneous composition, of course) go up a line, or a few lines, or to the start of the poem being written and re-read it and the current is found again. One can continue. (It is a good feeling to get back on track. Like finding the stock path again when bushwhacking.) Not sure if this works in the 19th draft school of poetry composition, nor in traditional North American MFA (workshop) poetry, but I’ve never found a home there anyway.

Bravo Daphne Marlatt. We’ll need this in the interdependent future, which of course, is now. Or as she says in the poem in Rivering entitled “In the current”

Daphne Marlatt will lead a breakout session at the Cascadia Poetry Festival, April-30-May 2, 2021, San Juan Island on:

“The processional aspect of the world”: some pointers from Robin Blaser on writing now”

This will be a session that talks about what might be involved in writing our actual present. It will begin with a brief talk that unfolds from the above phrase taken from Blaser’s germinal essay, “The Fire.” This session begins with the question: how write out of both the personal and the so-much-larger than personal in our crisis-riven time? It will include a reading from one of his serial “Image-Nation” poems. There will be time for discussion of these ideas and how they might be relevant to one’s own writing practice in the present. If further time allows, there will be a prompt for an on-the-spot writing session. Registration is open: and info is here:

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A Time Before Slaughter/Pig War: & Other Songs of Cascadia

The tenth anniversary edition of A Time Before Slaughter is coming out on April 11 with a launch at Open Books. My publisher, Apprentice House, is adding a whole separate book to the new edition, Pig War: & Other Songs of Cascadia. Today I answered questions for the press to help enable marketing efforts. Here is that questionnaire:

February 26, 2020
Pig War/ A Time Before Slaughter

AH: What inspired you to write A Time Before Slaughter and Pig War: & Other Songs of Cascadia?

peN: Reading Paterson by William Carlos Williams and The Maximus Poems by Charles Olson showed me that the history of a small town was the micro-history of the U.S. with all of the larger themes of colonialism, white supremacy and ecocide illustrated in examples from that local history. Then, learning about bioregionalism and how that provides a deep ecopoetics foundation for a poetry project motivated me to learn about and re-enact in experimental lyric (serial form) poetry some of the history of Cascadia, including the Pig War of San Juan Island.

AH: Have you always wanted to be a writer/poet?

peN: No. I was a broadcaster for 26 years and knew at age 13 I wanted to be in radio. But halfway through that career, reading poetry as bedtime stories to my older daughter Rebecca Rose helped me see the power of the New American Poetry and made me want to practice. Also, interviewing poets like Allen Ginsberg, Michael McClure, Diane di Prima and many others gave me the ideas and examples of commitment that provided early inspiration.

AH: How is A Time Before Slaughter/Pig War different from your other poems/writing?

peN: ATBS/PW&OSoC is very much a re-enactment of bioregional history in serial, experimental lyric (projective) verse. There is a commitment to researching the history of this bioregion and using that as raw material for poetry.

AH: What is a benefit to learning about history through poetry rather than other forms of writing?

peN: It’s not as dry because poetry (when noetic) is a method of learning as valid as any other discipline. It affects the reader/listener in a way that rhetoric cannot. Serial form allows themes to be developed and re-stated from different angles to illustrate issues in the way Emily Dickinson suggested “tell the truth but tell it slant.” History done in poetry has no other agenda than to tell the truth as best as the poet can discern it in the moment rather than to prove a point or win an argument or buttress a need for cultural dominance.

AH: Why do you think it is important for people to read poetry?

peN: Poetry that is noetic, is a method of learning as valid as any other discipline and it impacts the reader/listener on a different level than rhetoric. It makes space for the reader/listener, invites them in to be a co-creator in creating meaning. Rhetoric does not do that and much poetry today is rhythmic rhetoric. And almost every other form of communication, public speech, political speech, corporate propaganda, tweets, are all rhetorical propaganda and attempt to communicate to the smallest part of ourselves. Poetry goes much deeper than that and is satisfying to read because of that, when it is done well.

AH: Has your book sparked any new interests or passions? Is there anything you learned through your writing process?

peN: Oh yes. I have learned so much about history, so much about my own story, my own personal mythology because (in part) I live by the notion of William Carlos Williams that each poem should be a summary of a poet’s life up to that point. My own personal myth, in relation to the material I engage, gives me perception into my own issues and how they dance with the cultural issues as experienced through the history of this bioregion. I also agree with Charles Olson who said that “people don’t change, they only stand more revealed. I likewise.” Olson also said the content changes when you write projectively and so one’s own issues, one’s own personal mythology becomes more clean (& more revealed) when one has a discipline in writing projectively.

AH: What do each of the titles mean?

peN: A Time Before Slaughter suggests that there was a time, and there could be a future time, in which human beings lived as if we understood the inherent interconnection of all living things. In fact, extra suffering is the only outcome for not living as part of an inter-connected whole and daily we see the suffering of the very planetary biosphere that sustains life at this time. So, in reviewing the culture of the last people who lived here sustainably (& through the WWII experience of incarcerated Japanese-Americans) we can learn how to live sustainably in the future, deeply understanding place and taking our cues from it and from the marginalized groups and the critters who have made this place their home.

Pig War: & Other Songs of Cascadia is centered around the Pig War, which happened on San Juan Island (1859-1872) and in which the only casualty was a pig. Why is this one of the few war opportunities the U.S. did not pursue? Is it something in the soil of this bioregion that gives compassion and non- violence a better chance than in other bioregions in North America? Also, the fact that our bioregion, Cascadia, involves two sovereign nations (and many indigenous nations) is an important distinction.

AH: Can you tell us more about the poetry organizations you are involved in?

peN: SPLAB (Seattle Poetics LAB) The Seattle Poetics LAB (SPLAB) works to reestablish poetry as a method for knowing self & place by engaging poets, writers and artists bioregionally in Cascadia to build community through shared experience of the spoken & written word.

SPLAB supports:

  • Poetry as a noetic practice allied with outsider traditions.
  • A poetry of witness, deeply rooted to place.
  • Organic form in all of its manifestations, open, discerning and aware of/responsible to the interconnectivity of life.
  • A visionary poetics that embodies our place on the edge of a continent.

AH: What is the difference between Epic poetry versus regular poetry? What made you decide to write in the epic style?

peN: I prefer the term “serial.” Serial form allows for themes to be explored, re-explored from a different angle and to develop “provisional conclusions” that are always open, always ready to be revised and stated with more precision, creating a mosaic in language that can communicate on a much deeper level than rhetoric and most conventional poetry. It enables the prophetic voice because it taps into energy sources that are the source of the prophecy. Writing projectively and in serial form are method to engage the prophetic voice in the “practice of outside” and seriality has been for me the most open of all literary practices. I am convinced it is a soul-building practice.

AH: Are you working on anything else?

peN: Yes, A series of daily 17 syllable poems (see the Apprentice House book American Sentences.) A series of prose sonnets, Sonetos de Cascadia. An ongoing series of interviews, American Prophets: Interviews 1994-2012. The Cascadia Poetry Festival, part of a 20 year bioregional cultural investigation. I have a book of postcard poems culled from the 13th year of PoPo: The August Poetry Postcard Fest and we are registering poets for year 14. I have several unpublished manuscripts and working on healing a pressing health issue.

AH: Can you tell us about your Cascadia bioregional cultural investigation?

peN: It started in 2012 with the first Cascadia Poetry Festival and we’ve conducted 6 such fests and are producing the 7th in May 2020. I’m also doing interviews with poets, indigenous leaders and whole-systems activists, mostly from Cascadia, about the nature of this bioregion as a place where water (in the Buddhist tradition) illustrates a model of being in the world by taking no shape, being pliable, but also being strong enough to split rock. That water is ever-present here, often falling from above, either as rain, or down from a higher place, provides a daily model for the surrender to larger forces.

AH: Thus far, what has been your greatest success in your career?

peN: Seeing my daughter Rebecca Rose become a successful journalist and journalism professor at Columbia University feels like the best thing I have ever done. Winning the Robin Blaser award from The Capilano Review was special, given that prophets are never accepted in their home town and that review is in Vancouver, BC. Finding myself living on the edge of Lake Washington, being able to write every day, partnered with a remarkable human raising another daughter free from a soul-sucking corporate job seems like the best possible validation for me. May it continue.

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Interview with Shin Yu Pai (Ensō)

Shin Yu Pai‘s new book, Ensō is categorized as a künstlerroman, an artist’s novel, a class of bildungsroman or apprentice novel, that deals with the maturation of a young artist. Yet this is not fiction, it’s autobiographical poetry and prose. Ensō is a symbol usually drawn in one or two calligraphic strokes to symbolize absolute enlightenment, strength, elegance, the universe and mood, the void. So, these two things make a rather potent starting point for the latest book by a Seattle poet and former Poet Laureate of Redmond, Washington. The book is Ensō published by Entre Rios Books. We caught up with Shin Yu Pai at her Lichton Springs (Seattle) home on February 6, 2020, and here is the audio.

In the first segment Shin Yu discussed the ensō, the Japanese word for the circle, often associated with Zen and enlightenment and how this new book for her is about a certain cycle of completion in the development of my work, a more solo effort than the collaborations in which she has engaged. She also discussed her ongoing regular practice and being inspired by and writing about the Tadao Ando Gallery at the Art Institute of Chicago. Listen to Part 1 – 14:40:

In the second segment,she read the poem “stillness,” discussed a regular haiku practice, read some examples and then read a poem about her Mother, Noko Pai. She also discussed her Mother’s artistry and their relationship. Listen to Part 2 – 13:38:

In the third segment, she discussed the ekphrastic nature of her work, read a poem for Wolfgang Laib, her love of the work of James Turrell and other projects she’s been involved with that center around art. Listen to Part 3 – 13:01:

In the fourth segment she discussed balancing mothering and a writing practice, getting a Netra Basti treatment in the Ayurvedic tradition and how being pregnant for her had much in common with being a writer. Listen to Part 4 – 15:29:

In the final segment Shin Yu discussed being the Poet Laureate of Redmond, the concessions a poet must make in such a position, a hate crime that happened in that town during her tenure and the title chapter of Ensō. Listen to Part 5 – 13:22:

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