by Bethann Garramon Merkle
In weaving together contrasting memories, archived photographs, and contemporary fashion fetishes, Spring Ulmer stitches a narrative in which humanity’s closet is rifled through. “I am interested in how clothes fit us or don’t. I like to be able, for instance, to hide in my clothes,” she discloses.
Ulmer begins with fairly tranquil vignettes which share a fashion-as-identity theme; clothing is what makes the people on Ulmer’s pages vivid. After “trying on a few outfits,” Ulmer trades out a silk dress for her father’s sweatshirts plus pants with dragging cuffs. Her reverie accelerates into an imaginary triste with a rustically dressed Italian farmer she fancies from an old photograph. It is a subtle, mundane, romantic episode that doesn’t actually happen, though, thanks to Ulmer’s vivid prose, you can almost believe the encounter is real.
Ulmer walks an imaginary donkey down the pictured road, envisioning a liaison comes to be. In the vision, she writes, “My farmer lifts his arms and shakes off his coat…the ripped armpits endear me. He covers us both with it as we recline onto the cold, slightly damp ground.” Fixated on the photograph of her fellow and his companions’ clothing, Ulmer muses, “I find their unfitted wear beseeching. I want them in these ill-fitting suits, enjoying their outing, looking so ephemeral.”
And then, she drops you off an emotional cliff.
Abruptly, you land in the milieu of Spring Ulmer’s meditations on torture, slaughter, and the severity of so many human relationships. Epitomizing these nightmarish circumstances is her preoccupation with the ‘Made in the USA’ chairs that are used for controlling violent inmates (at prisons and mental institutions alike) and also for force feeding prisoners of war attempting hunger strikes. Driven to see for herself, Ulmer seeks out the retired military officer-turned county sheriff who makes these chairs in his basement workshop. In a poignant-yet-bile-inducing noninterview, Ulmer asks him:
“…the same questions I am asking myself about the roles we play in other peoples’ suffering, because I can’t sit in my room fearing that people are being tortured and not do something. I’m not sure I believe in a just war.”
Essay snippets reflect on lynching films, an array of war atrocities, and occasional rest stops near Ulmer’s non-reproductive status. Piled in amongst these recurrent themes are snapshots of a circus elephant deliberately fed cyanide-laced carrots, shod with copper shoes, and publicly electrocuted; a pet pig starving itself after being separated from its lifelong companion, an autistic boy anguished over the mutual loss; mass graves in Rwanda.
Ulmer builds jagged teetering stacks, bleak discomfiting moments of social unrest and individual trauma and tragedy layered upon each other. Through it all, Ulmer compels the reader – by herself unflinchingly facing a web of contemplation – to concede how powerless words are. Powerless in the face of tragedy. In the face of terror. In the face of blind violent patriotism. In the face of radioactive waste – waste tallied as much in sickened humans as in stores of nuclear byproducts.
Although she resists this impotence, trying to perpetuate the notion that ‘the pen is mightier than the sword,’ Ulmer struggles mightily. Candidly. And, she fails. Fails to convince herself, never mind the reader, that words can change, that words can compel justice, that words can conjure empathy where only suspicion exists.
And yet, she advocates writing. Doggedly. In particular, Ulmer carries on a one-way correspondence with Jumah, a Guantanamo Bay detainee. In one of her many officially refused never-reached-the-prisoner letters, she maintains, “…my not writing would imply that writing doesn’t matter, and I cannot stand such a thought. Even if what I write is simply a record of barbarism […], it is still a record.”
In the wake of the walking-nightmare tone that dominates most of the book, Ulmer’s final chapter, “The age of numbing,” comes as the kind of relief she may be seeking. It is here, with the reader immobilized by the relentless desecration of decency Ulmer has exposed, that her parents’ role in the narrative becomes explicit. Throughout the book it seems Ulmer’s parents are equivalent to her dragon-and-pheasant emblazoned mug – moments of mundanity sprinkled in, not as respite, but to remind the reader that, yes, this whole wide world weighs down, even on the most ordinary souls.
However, in her final chapter, Ulmer’s parents evolve into a metaphor which reunites with the Walter Benjamin quote which prefaces her book: “There is no difference between a human life and a word.” If humans and words are no different, and words are powerless, where then does that leave Ulmer in her grieving and atrocity-grappling? Like her memory of her father, she, too is working “like a madman, hauling stone here and there, hammering, sawing.” And yet, as she says of her own mother, within Ulmer’s text “there’s something in her manic energy these days, though, that isn’t always practical.”
Ulmer’s book was published in 2009. That year, Barack Obama became a Nobel Laureate and president of the United States; Slumdog Millionaire won Golden Globe and Academy Awards; countries on every continent declared recessions. Bombings, assassinations, and powerful storms and tsunamis rocked the world. The Iraq war was not over.
Yes, the events leading up to The Age of Virtual Reproduction were grim. And yet, political and pop cultural events since have demonstrated the power of people and words to make change, which is why Ulmer’s concern about impracticality will likely stand out to contemporary readers. Although bleak events dominate the news, there may be more practical reasons to hope for change. Since 2009, diplomatic relations have been re-established with Cuba. Massive protests around the globe have demonstrated extensive citizen backlash against financial inequities in the US, corrupt governments, and other injustices. And, in keeping with Ulmer’s penchant for moments of mundane relief, since her book was published, Lady Gaga and Will and Kate became household names, and “Gangnam Style” reached 1 billion views on YouTube (the first such video ever). Still terrible things keep happening, including enough suicide bombings and mass shootings that these awful incidents have lost some of their urgency and claim to noteworthiness. 115 men are still imprisoned in Guantanamo. Garment factory collapses in southeast Asia graphically demonstrate how ugly fashion can be.
Through it all, words have had the last word, despite Ulmer’s articulate well-founded doubts about the efficacy of writing. Social media is traded on the New York Stock Exchange. WikiLeaks caused a massive whistleblower uproar, Edward Snowden leaked extensive US state secrets and went into exile in Russia, and Pope Francis continues shocking and thrilling the world with edicts and encyclicals.
We swim in a vast sea of words. According to one study cited by Forbes magazine in 2012, the average adult can read and comprehend 300 words per minute. Another, cited by The New York Times in 2009, reports we absorb 34 gigabytes of content (some 100,000 words) every day. At more than 5.5 hours of reading every day devoted to processing the horror and opportunities surrounding us, that’s no minor time commitment.
In the face of all this tragedy, joy, and banality, perhaps it is worth reinterpreting Ulmer (and the Benjamin quote she starts with). If a few of those daily reading hours were devoted to provocative witness prose like Ulmer’s, perhaps we readers would find words and humans are interchangeable because their very presence is power.
Essay Press: $13.95
Heather Lang: You open your conversation with Patricia Smith on her book, Blood Dazzler, with an observation: “The metaphoric correlation between woman and weather is introduced in the first poem (‘every woman begins as weather’) and revisited regularly throughout the book.” Can you talk a bit about some of the themes that reoccur throughout the eighty interviews conducted within Uncoverage: Asking After Recent Poetry? Which reoccurrences did you anticipate, and which were less expected?
H.L. Hix: I was trying to address each poet with respect for her/his individuality, and to ask after each book with attention to its uniqueness, not to ask uniform questions; and the poets were being interviewed separately, so they weren’t consciously working together. In that sense, all the recurring themes were unanticipated! Maybe their being unplanned makes them even more revealing. In any case, there they all are.
So, for example, in that same Patricia Smith interview, she gives concise and forceful formulation of a capacity poetry has, that I think many of us want to draw on. “Throughout the book,” she says about Blood Dazzler, “I try not to put those affected directly and those not affected directly into different camps; in a tragedy as far-reaching as Katrina, no experience can be discounted.” Smith’s statement reminds me of Wisława Szymborska’s declaration, near the end of her Nobel acceptance speech, that “… in the language of poetry, where every word is weighed, nothing is usual or normal. Not a single stone and not a single cloud above it. Not a single day and not a single night after it. And above all, not a single existence, not anyone’s existence in this world.” A number of the interviewees explicitly make that same recognition: that heightened attention inclines, and inclines us, toward equality and respect and justice.
HL: In your interview with Mark Nowak on his Shut Up Shut Down, you mention that the “juxtaposition of voices in these poems, as represented graphically by contrasting bold, italic and plain text, creates a kind of dialogue.” This observation is intriguing to me particularly within the context of Uncoverage, a collection of interviews. May we explore the larger dialogue within your new book? In other words, what can we learn from the juxtapositions between these diverse conversations?
HLH: Thank you for asking that. It’s exactly my hope: that, although each conversation occurred on its own, putting them together, which each reader will do for herself, creates a conversation.
The juxtapositions themselves are accidental, in the sense that the interviews are arranged alphabetically, rather than by an “intentional” ordering principle such as perceived thematic commonality. Yet the juxtapositions create spark after spark of illumination. For instance, if I reflect on your question by looking at the Nowak interview along with the one that follows it, the interview of dg nanouk okpik, I notice that both Nowak and okpik are concerned to speak of and with a people, without speaking for them. Nowak declares that working people “are always front and center in my work, as well as the first audiences for its reception. Their voices are writ in bold (literally).” To me, that resonates quite richly with okpik’s will to “lend witness to the existence of my family and what changes are happening on the earth today,” her sense that “I cannot speak for my people, but I can document one account as if it is a voice from many views.”
I hope that the larger dialogue you observe in the book does indicate, even though of course it can’t replicate, the scale and breadth of the capacious conversation that is contemporary poetry.
HL: Within the genre of interview, what can we learn from what has gone unspoken?
HLH: What a beautiful and important question! To me, one element of the interview’s force is its capacity for doubling the unspoken, for matching the unspoken in the questions with the unspoken in the answers. And that element itself has a double aspect. Something might be unspoken because it is shared already by interviewer and interviewee, or it might be unspoken because it is not being shared by one with the other. In either case, though, the unspoken animates the interview.
The poets in Uncoverage seem to me consistently alert to the unspoken. I think of such moments as Jennifer Moxley’s insight that “lyric makes real the response to the social conversation for which there is no space or permission; it is the voice of the silenced interlocutor.” Or Andrew Joron’s description of sound and silence as “locked in a mutually conditioning embrace.”
HL: In your conversation with Shane Book on Ceiling of Sticks, you ask, “What is the difference for you between a first-person narrator speaking from an essentially public space (a space more others’ than his own) and such a narrator speaking from an essentially private space?” Can you talk a bit about Uncoverage in this context of public versus private spaces? Within which do you feel these interviews were conducted, and did this change from interview to interview?
HLH: In response to this question I’ll cheat, and try to have it both ways. I’m working at this very moment on an essay that takes issue with Peter Singer’s influential article “Famine, Affluence, and Morality,” in which he tries to argue by analogy from an instance of private responsibility (saving a drowning child) to one of public responsibility (ending a famine such as the 1971 Bengal famine that was occurring when he was writing his article). I’m arguing that reconciling public space and private space takes more work than Singer recognizes: he falls for a mistake neoliberalism pushes us toward, a mistake Wendy Brown calls “depoliticization.” I hope that Uncoverage does not fall for that mistake. There are plenty of parties who seek from poetry an Eden of depoliticization, but the poets I speak with in Uncoverage are working hard to construct and sustain a more salubrious relationship between public and private spaces.
HL: At what point did you realize that these conversations would become a collection, and how did you know when the collection was complete?
HLH: I knew from the start that I wanted them to become a collection, and I knew the approximate scale, because the project had a very particular starting point and framing question.
The very first sentence of the foreword to the first edition of Richard Howard’s essay collection Alone with America, first published in 1969, makes an astonishing claim: “In the forty-one studies which follow,” Howard says, “an accounting is made of [all] American poets who, with the publication of at least two volumes, have come into a characteristic and—as I see it—consequential identity since the time, say, of the Korean War.” Howard purported to survey contemporary American poetry comprehensively. Since Howard’s moment, though, enough has changed that no one attentive to contemporary poetry could believe that, of the countless poets at work today, 41 and only 41 are “consequential.” We know we can’t survey poetry today in the way Howard clearly thought he could survey it then. So what can we do now, about poetry? What should we do? That’s what the collection as a whole tries to ask.
Alone with America vividly manifests certain premises of a poetic world now long gone: it projects a perceived transparency about and continuity within a singular tradition, implies a sense of clarity about uniform standards of quality applicable to all poetry, and assumes uncompromised correspondence between the quality of a body of work and the mechanisms that establish a poet’s reputation (prestige of publisher and of university affiliation, connection to others with similarly prestigious publishers and universities, prizes and awards received, and so on). It contains not a single name of a poet who was not at the time widely represented in anthologies and by reviews. Those features make the book into a period piece, by today’s standards wrong in the most obvious ways: e.g., its table of contents includes 41 poets, of whom 35 are male, and all 41 white.
Howard thought it possible to identify and consider all the poets who were poets in his time and place: “these poets,” he says in his foreword, “are, simply, what is there.” Poetry for him is a strictly limited domain, so a survey incorporates everything in that domain. Now, though, it is impossible even to identify, much less to consider, all the poets who are poets, so any attempt to survey the landscape in our poetic world has to be on different terms than Howard’s survey. Howard thought he could complete the survey; he thought he had completed it. Now one must recognize that it is not possible to complete the task.
Uncoverage is after an approach to the survey that acknowledges a plurality Howard didn’t recognize. So I have contrasted this project to Alone with America in at least two ways. To signify that Uncoverage is an inquiry rather than an exposition, it is composed of interviews rather than essays: rather than delivering my words in regard to the poetry discussed here, I have asked the poets for theirs. To signify the limitlessness of the field, Uncoverage approximates a doubling of Howard’s number of subjects, 80 in place of his 41. The doubling does not achieve coverage of all the “consequential” work being done: instead, it symbolizes the impossibility of covering all the consequential work being done. The work about which these interviews were conducted is all of it consequential, but (far from exhausting the consequential poetry being written today) it only suggests how much consequential work there is, how inexhaustibly rich is the domain of contemporary poetry.
HL: I have to ask. What was your most self-indulgent interview or question?
HLH: If we were conducting this interview face-to-face, rather than by email, the transcription of my response would begin with [laughter] in brackets. Guilty laughter: I’ve been caught out! But as a form of self-justification, let me start with an anecdote.
My long friendship with the artist Adriane Herman began when we were both teaching at the Kansas City Art Institute. Once, when she and I were both in a student crit, I challenged the student with a question about whether some aspect or other of his work was self-indulgent, in response to which, rather than waiting for the student’s response, Adriane challenged me right back: “What’s wrong with self-indulgence?” Her question exposed me then, but now I’ll take cover under it. In an important sense, the whole project of Uncoverage is self-indulgent: I got to have virtual conversations with a bunch of very smart people about a bunch of profoundly consequential books. It’s almost like getting to live out Socrates’ fantasy, at the end of the Apology, of the afterlife as an endless conversation with those he admires. What could be more self-indulgent?
That said, let me fess up in the way your question means to make me. One of the interviews that comes immediately to mind for me as blatantly self-indulgent on my part is the interview of Chelsey Minnis. Her book Poemland (like the one that preceded it, Bad Bad), expresses, as my opening question to her confesses, a lot of things that “I would say about poetry and life, except that I’m too chicken.” But Chelsey wasn’t too chicken to say them, so the interview gives me a way to tag along behind her, even without my having mustered the same courage she did.
HL: Which interviews inspired you in your own poetry? For example, were there any interviews after which you rushed back to your own creative work in a moment of sudden insight or discovery?
HLH: I would describe the kind of inspiration I find in the book not so much “local” as “global.” By that I just mean that what has happened is not primarily that a few of the interviews gave me ideas for particular poems, but that the whole collection, all the interviews together, issues a reminder about the range of poetry. These poets show vividly that poetry can do many different things, not only one thing, so they give me reason to ask myself (and they suggest ways to ask myself) whether my poetry is doing what it wants to do rather than what someone else wants it to do.
HL: Looking outside of Uncoverage, which interviewers do you follow or enjoy? How have they inspired you, and what have you learned from them?
HLH: My love of the interview started early. In grad school I happened on a used copy of William Packard’s collection of “craft interviews” from the New York Quarterly: it was dated even then, but it was very exciting to me. As were the old Paris Review interviews. Terribly mainstream and old-school in comparison to my current interests, but I wasn’t in a creative writing program, so in poetry I was having to find things on my own, and everything felt like a revelation.
Nowadays, I follow interviewers who lead me to work I didn’t know about before, and who create openings for me into that work. The editor who nurtured Uncoverage into print, Andy Fitch, is a colleague here where I teach, and a dynamo who does a lot of things, but one of those things is interviewing. He’s done a huge collection of interviews called Sixty Morning Talks, and co-edited a collection called The Letter Machine Book of Interviews. He’s got a quirky sensibility that leads him to pose interesting questions that elicit interesting responses from his interviewees, and he’s looking around: his interviews have drawn my attention to a lot of poets whose work I might not have known to read otherwise. Another friend, Philip Metres, is also an interviewer I follow, for some of the same reasons. He, too, is looking around, taking me to work I might not have learned about if he hadn’t shown it to me.
In addition to following certain interviewers, I also follow certain venues for interviews. The website called The Conversant, for example, consistently posts interesting interviews of interesting writers, faster than I can keep up. Jacket2 also hosts interviews that I make a point of attending to, though there, too, I can’t keep up. I’m plenty ambivalent about digital technology, but one glory of the internet is that the number of sites for interviews is endless. Women’s Quarterly Conversation, Mosaic, and on and on.
And of course one very important such venue is the publisher of Uncoverage, Essay Press. In their series of free digital books and chapbooks, they’re creating an extensive and probing conversation around contemporary poetry.
HL: You’re a prolific writer and curator of literature. On top of your commitments with both the University of Wyoming and Fairleigh Dickinson University, how do you decide where to dedicate your time and energies? How do you choose your literary projects, and what’s next?
HLH: As a stay against the supersaturation by “information” with which we (each and all) are threatened, I believe in the importance of the curatorial role, though I find the role of curator much more exhausting than the role of writer. And I wish I were smarter and more efficient in that decision-making process you ask about. In both roles, I’m too much the “kid in a candy store,” flitting after whatever catches my attention, with the result that I waste a lot of time starting things I never finish because I get distracted by some tempting new project. If I would actually completed everything I started, then I would be prolific!
Thanks for the chance, though, to mention what’s next. I’ve just started looking for a publisher for the latest curatorial project, called Counterclaims. In it, poets and scholars from various points of view take issue with the now-overly-familiar claims that “poetry makes nothing happen” and that there is “no poetry after Auschwitz,” proposing other ways of thinking about poetry and its purposes and powers.
My next writing project is a poetry book called American Anger, due out in February 2016. It tries to think through (sing through? shout down?) the belligerence that stands at the origin, and pervades the history, of the U.S. Readers will decide for themselves whether it has any weight, but the writing of it certainly felt urgent and necessary.
Heather Lang is a poet, literary critic, essayist, and adjunct professor. She serves as an editor for The Literary Review and for Petite Hound Press. www.heatherlangwrites.com
By Tim Etzkorn
Jennifer Kwon Dobbs’ chapbook, “Notes from a Missing Person,” reflects on Dobbs’ search for her South Korean birth mother. The story resonated in a special way for me. Presently, I live in South Korea, and her images of hunching Halmeonies, or grandmothers, scowling ajummas, or middle-aged women, her notes written in 한굴, or Korean, her scenes of barbecue grills filled with burning meat and blackened garlic, and her implications of exclusion made for a text that modeled my reality. At the core though, this chapbook is about far more than Korea and far more than Dobbs’ experience searching for her birth mother. “Notes from a Missing Person” is a text of exploration and confrontation; it takes on the pain that accompanies a turbid past. Even for those of us who don’t have a background as fraught as Dobbs’, the chap still plunges into our hearts and provides a moving exposé of how we write fiction to understand that which we do not know, how our bodies contain our history, and how we seek knowledge as a form of healing.
“Notes from a Missing Person” recounts Dobbs’ search for her Korean birth mother across political, geographic, and cultural borders, but the text seeks therapy as much as it looks for answers. Dobbs initially at least pursues healing by way of imagination; she creates stories to explain her heritage. Naturally, these tales fall short and Dobbs must turn to her body as a familial palimpsest and her homeland as a cultural tome to unearth her past.
Outwardly, “Notes from a Missing Person” falls into two camps: one of storytelling and one of healing. Dobbs makes this apparent early. She announces her wish to “[T]alk back to that void,” as if she were setting out on an oral tale exploring unfathomable myth. Dobbs then bands this mystery together with a sense of the corporeal, saying “[T]hese notes seek to suture space and shift perspective.” Like a good poet, Dobbs chooses her words with great intention. She wishes to put incomplete information together with missing parts, but she also seeks to suture space, hemming air and emptiness back together; getting at the bodily, suture denotes the medical – stitching and sewing parts of the body to make them whole again. Dobbs isn’t simply working to understand her past; she yearns to complete her self, to rectify rifts left open by a lifetime of not knowing about her history.
Rapidly, we become aware that paper can only take Dobbs so far. Artists and therapists may know that expressive therapy has marked and cathartic results, but Dobbs intensely wants physical contact with her real life mother. Only this can fill in the gaps that her imagination has failed to patch. She realizes, “I can’t write my way to Mother. She is not this page.” Dobbs strives to suture with her pen, but a stitch made of fiction will not hold up. She needs something tangible, something fleshly to penetrate. Dobb’s discovers that her notes promulgate the problem:
Each word I write distances Omma further just as I try to bring her closer
[…] My mother is missing. I am missing […] In her image, I want to touch
myself as no one can touch me to find her, as no one can touch me—gently
and with the hunger of a child search and writing her mother’s body from
what she knows of her own.
Dobbs’ words make her aware of the emptiness that stems from knowing nothing about her mother. Fictionalizing what may be true about her past only reveals the huge gap between what she does not know and what may be real.
As long as her mother is missing, Dobbs feels that her past is missing. If her past is missing, she cannot fully understand her present and thus she is not fully there: “What is this reality that is always a phantom […] It’s a fiction that haunts where the body should’ve been, a story that strikes out for a body with memory’s force.” As Dobbs owns her lack of knowledge about herself she becomes increasingly obsessed with the physical. She knows flesh will provide a degree of knowing that stories and notes cannot.
Turning to her body, and eventually the country of her birth, helps Dobbs with her search, though she continues to confront issues of identity. She faces a double-bind of outsider status. In the U.S., Dobbs is a minority and feels the tension of being a racial outsider. In Korea, Dobbs is a cultural outsider. She is what is called a giyopo, a non-Korean Korean. She is neither fluent in the language nor the customs. Visiting the adoption agency that sent her to the U.S., western adoptee parents-to-be see her and assume she is Korean: “In the agency’s kitchen, I wash breakfast plates in the sink. A middle-aged couple enters and says to each other, ‘she must be one of the birth mothers. Look at how young she is,’” Their assumption of her goes no further than her skin. Later, joining with adoptee friends and a beef barbecue restaurant, she fails the restaurant staff at being the Korean that she racially is:
Yet I’m remembering the sweet smoke of a Hongdae restaurant, adoptee
friends shouting “Geonbae!” and shooting soju, bulgogi spread like a
blackening skirt because no one’s paying attention, the scowling ajumma
running over with scissors and tongs. Hungry, I watch her balance, cut and
arrange the strips, as if her hands know the weight of the meat, the intensity
of the fire; or she’s annoyed that we’re drunk and burning our food because
we don’t know what to do. We’re trying.
“Because we don’t know what to do.” Dobbs’ line ripples like a boulder dropped in a duck pond. She and her friends can’t know what to do because they are Korean by birth only. Much like the adoptee parents-to-be, the ajumma’s judgment goes as far as her skin. She looks Korean, so she should act Korean. The balancing, cutting, and placing of the meat should be as natural to her as it is to the scowling middle-aged woman, and when it’s not, she is deemed an outsider.
Nonetheless, Dobbs discovers that in searching her body and her homeland, she finds healing that paper will not reveal. That’s not to say her imaginative exploration has been for naught; her writing moved her journey forward, maybe even made it possible, and she has sutured some of her space. She can offer up her notes as a result:
You can weigh [the work’s] awkward heft in your hands, cut it with
scissors, drop the painted strips into a steel bucket and strike a match. Lean
toward the flames—paper hissing as it curls, blackens and ashes—to see the
words return to their source.
Much like the ajumma cutting and weighing beef, Dobbs cuts and weighs her work. The meat fed her body; her writing fed her search, but now, its purpose has been served; she can sacrifice it. She concludes by turning the text onto the readers. She invites us to lean in, to cut up our own fictions and burn them so as to seek answers in our body as well as in our pens.
Tim Etzkorn completed his Master’s in English Literature from the University of Wyoming. He has taught composition, literature, and ESL/EFL. At present he teaches EFL in South Korea.