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Poetry as Event: Belladonna*

By Sina Queyras

SQ: Rachel Levitsky, Belladonna* has been operating out of New York for nearly a decade now, and in that time has hosted the most innovative women writers of our time. Most of these women, save for a few key names, are largely unknown in the larger poetry world. In fact part of your mandate is to give those women who aren’t receiving support a forum, right?

RL: Believe it or not, this August makes 12 years! Our first event was at Bluestockings Women’s Bookstore (changed now to Activist Bookstore, a somewhat different though linked mission) in 1999. The readers were Akilah Oliver and Marcella Durand. Luckily I had a little hand-held cassette recorder and you can listen to it thanks to Penn Sound. This little story feels particularly even fiercely relevant to your question at this time — Akilah Oliver, who would have turned 50 on April 18, 2011, died this past February. Here was a brilliant poet and thinker, whose work and teaching inspired many many of us and would have inspired (and will inspire) many many more. Her performances and writings insist upon and make space toward a public arena of grieving that is unprecedented at least in my reading — along the theoretical lines of Butler and Derrida — a publicly performed poetic of the body. Belladonna* published and will soon reprint her Putterer’s Notebook chapbook a part of a book length manuscript she was editing when she passed.

Yes, Belladonna* has the mission you say — to provide a forum, not merely as redress or compensation but also because we are a community based on conversation and aesthetic desire — we promote this work because we want and need it and the writer who creates it. More and more we refuse to see the made and the maker as separate — we met at a retreat in March and committed ourselves to thinking about “Our Material Lives” as the driving aesthetical and political theme for the coming years. We poets have had issues with facing the REAL. I know I have but now I am 47 and people like me are dying for not having their material realities cared for better. And my job does not insure me though I work very hard and my work seems to be desired and appreciated.

SQ: The real and the material is certainly making itself more physically apparent, I agree. And it seems to me that the work presented at Belladonna* usually had a sense of urgency about it, in response to these issues… I should say that working with you and Erica was a highlight of my time in New York, and that the experience really changed the way I think of readings. The chapbooks, the introductions, these provide context for the poets’ work and those events constituted a kind of master class in innovative feminist poetics for me, and I’m sure others. Post Belladonna* a reading without a discussion seems impossible. Is poetry ultimately a means of physical engagement? Can you ever consider it a passive transmission?

RL: I am fascinated by your notion, here, of passive transmission… sort of like being beamed up Scotty! I think we take in so much visual and intellectual information everyday so anything can ‘get in’ be it poetry advertising or cloud formation — I personally never know what signals I’m receiving that will turn into something else, that I will ‘insist’ upon in writing later on. I just heard the British novelist Tom McCarthy at Pratt Institute describe all writing as reception/transmission, in a talk called “Noise, Signal and Word: How Writing Works.” He quoted heavily from Rilke, Cocteau and Heidegger — a great talk — I being I was of course reminded of Stein who I think says it best in Portraits and Repetition, when she distinguishes between repetition (passive transmission?) and insistence (that which is transmitted turned back, or over, with intent). Repetition, Stein notes, while recalling her Baltimore aunts, is that which happens when listening stops, but insistence is that which can never be done the same twice, so there is a kind of joining of reception and action. And that is what she calls genius — literary action that is in the present. I like this idea because it includes the passive and the active. I hope I haven’t circumvented your question so I will say that I do not like, I don’t give much credence to the liberal and repetitious idea of literary specialness, special interiority that must be removed from the outside world in order to be special genius. I choose to think that Stein’s notion of genius is more public but I am mostly likely wrong about that.

SQ: You said in an email recently that increasingly you were seeing Belladonna* events as books in themselves. Can you comment on that?

RL: Well this goes back to the materiality of maker and made. A lot of the poets that we love are people who make (poet meaning maker) in real time, in an oral or performance modality that is on the edge of criticality because it takes into its construction everything received and thought up to the moment of its making, which is in real time, in front of people who are also part of what is seen and thought. A lot of these poets are activists and action scholars, people like Akilah Oliver, Julie Patton, Cecilia Vicuña, Anne Waldman, Latasha Nevada Diggs, Carla Harryman, Tonya Foster. Recently Cecilia did an event at Dixon Place with us called “Flux Poetics: Writing in Cultural Duality.” She said to me, months before the event, that she was excited about doing it and making a little chaplet with us but that she no longer constructed her work as written compositions to be performed at a later date, that rather, she began to write the day or days leading up to a performance event, engaging her thinking at the moment of performance and how it could be channeled into poetic presentation. So I suggested we construct an open book with space for what would happen in the moment. She wrote three poem-drawings having to do with hand-seeing and then for the performance she expanded this with sound and the wearing of a jeweler’s magnifying headset — so touch and seeing and performance were being joined together with the language/sound doggerel of living in two and between two separate linguistic worlds. It was amazing. Cecilia and Mia Bruner, our intern, sewed pencils onto the books so folks could add.

We’re interested in finding ways to both be in-time and have something representative. Typically, books are more weighted toward reification. But that is problematic for many of the artists we are working with, and for thought that is action focused. I’ll stop here for now.

SQ: Lest we forget that organizers of the Poetic Event are also poets, can we end with a poem from your latest book, Neighbor? (Note, due to limitations of WordPress the poem may appear slightly different in this format.)

shaft/hall/stoop      0305103051030510 030510

HOMELAND

There is a public crisis
war on the others
with the planes
from our store.

Maybe the neighbor
cares but here but ereereh but here
is her baby. beere bereere She sees only
it. Who has made her.

My miracle, she says,
I sing for him here bute but he
is my here but here bute but only
song. That’s something.

I am the neighbor
who calls to the neighbor: Hey!
My window’s broken—
could you lower your voice?

But cannot interrupt
his snoring, for that is
the job of the lover
on his other side.

Can they help it buthere bu the people
in that country heuthere but we bomb.

Can we help it the people
in this one that bombs.
Someone says general strike
now there is a good idea.

Would the singing mother
join the strike. Are the
bombed babies far away
are they able to help it.

Would she strike her child.
In the night does the cat act
like a dog. I suspect I’ve
been up for hours.

The bottle collector’s
fastidious with black
plastic bags, strewn widely
upon the sidewalk.

The bellowing now stopped.
Has she gone away?
Has he stopped drinking?
Did he get a job?

Is it a boy is it a girl.
Is it in the country that bombs
or the one bombed.
Or the other one.

from Neighbor, Rachel Levitsky, UDP 2009

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Posted in Uncategorized on Saturday, April 30th, 2011 by Sina Queyras.