Poetry, Spring

Mongrel Cry: The Possibilities of Mongrel Poetics

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By Kenji C. Liu

Often, to write about something in English is to attempt to circumscribe it, to make of it a describable thing. So when asked to write something about “mongrel poetics” I wasn’t sure how to do so and I’m still not sure. But that’s fine. So let’s start this by saying outright that this is a tentative tract about something that has existed, changed, and continues to mutate. This is a strategic bracketing that will necessarily need to be unbracketed.

By now, many poets who spend time on the internet have probably noticed the Boston Review’s series on racism in US avant-garde poetics and the anti-racist/anti-colonial poetry manifestos of the Mongrel Coalition Against Gringpo (MCAG). Both are critiques of the self-centered longevity of racism and white privilege in US avant-garde (and certainly other kinds of) poetry, whose most recent and tiring manifestation was seen in Kenneth Goldsmith’s performance of Michael Brown’s autopsy, a white appropriation of Brown’s corpse.

The basics of the Boston Review conversation can be found online, so no need for me to repeat what has already been knowledgeably said. What I really want to look at is MCAG, or rather the possibilities their manifestos open up. Of the MCAG’s messages, these can be found at their website, Twitter feed, and Harriet the blog.

MCAG employs the strategic use of high intensity critique to interesting effect. In my view, it’s a recognition that more polite forms of engagement often go unheard. Politeness and respectability are the entry fees to middle-class whiteness, preconditions one must meet before whiteness deigns to listen. It’s a privileged refusal to listen unless the other submits to civilized (colonial) terms of conversation. MCAG is a refusal of that refusal, as well as a firm, sharp poke into the nest.

What might “mongrel poetics” look like? Is there a connection to feminist avant-garde poet Mina Loy and her poem “Anglo-Mongrels and the Rose”? Perhaps. Loy’s manifestos and don’t-fence-me-in life seems to echo a found-familial relationship with MCAG. Elizabeth A. Frost, in her chapter “Crisis in Consciousness: Mina Loy’s “‘Anglo-Mongrels and the Rose’” in The Feminist Avant-Garde in American Poetry, describes “Loy’s mongrel poetics [as an attempt] to breed feminist politics from racist and patriarchal rhetoric…. [a]dopting overwriting to mock.” There seems to be a lineage here of some kind.

Like much of Loy’s writings, some avant-garde poetics takes as its task the interruption of dominant and oppressive language and institutions through the innovation of language interventions. The practitioners of these interventions often have feminist, anti-racist, and/or queer commitments—for example, Myung Mi Kim or Bhanu Kapil. For an excellent scholarly consideration on this topic, see Nest and Strangers: On Asian American Women Poets (2015, Kelsey Street Press).

What I appreciate about MCAG is that they open a space for a kind of non-prescriptive ferocity for anyone who wishes to take it up for themselves. In a recent panel called “Mongrel Poetiks” at CalArts &Now 2015 conference, the four presenters were extremely varied in their approaches, ranging from trauma release-based exorcism to vibrant academic mic drops. Whether gentle or militant in tone, this ferocity is immersed in anti-racist, anti-colonial politics.

Of course, there are those who are put off by MCAG. The problem with the way whiteness generally “reads” anti-racist tracts, no matter what the tone, is that it takes everything as a personal attack rather understanding itself within a system of institutionalized ugliness. So no matter how nuanced the analysis presented, whiteness whispers “you’re being called a horrible human being” and the conversation is over. This then allows everything from basic defensiveness (assertion of personal innocence or goodness) to refusing to be outraged that a black man is shot and killed every 28 hours. Meanwhile, the rest of us are trying to have actual substantive conversations.

So rather than the question of whether the MCAG is right or wrong in its approach or whether their critique is somehow a personal attack, how about a more interesting question? Assuming we believe racism, colonialism, and other oppressions should end (one should never assume), what does a “mongrel poetics” call for in our writing? If we hold ourselves accountable to an unjust system that impacts everyone asymmetrically—in many cases, through various kinds of death—how must our poetics change and erupt? Can we radically push language and form without losing ourselves in post-modern relativity and irrelevance? To riff off of Bhanu Kapil, can our writing generate, in whatever way possible, a deep “mongrel cry?”

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kenjicliu

Kenji C. Liu‘s writing appears in The American Poetry Review, The Los Angeles Review, The Pinch, Asian American Literary Review, Barrow Street Journal, CURA, RHINO, Split This Rock’s poem of the week series, and several anthologies. A recipient of fellowships from Kundiman, VONA/Voices, Djerassi Resident Artist Program, and Community of Writers at SV, he holds an MA in Cultural Anthropology and Social Transformation.

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Poetry, Review, Spring

To Attend to the Fleeting Moment: Judy Halebsky’s Tree Line

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Reviewed by Leah Silvieus

Judy Halebsky’s newest poetry collection, Tree Line (New Issues Poetry and Prose, 2014), evokes the sense of a moving meditation on the possibilities of distance. As a tree line inhabits the liminal zone of climate, Halebsky’s poems move within liminal zones of nature, language and human relationships. Drawing on traditions of Japanese literature and modern collage, Halebsky uses juxtaposition to reveal connections among seemingly disparate ideas, time periods and languages.

“This contrast or juxtaposition is central to the art of haiku. It allows for a space between what is written in the poem and what is evoked by the poem,” Halebsky says in an interview with Dominican University of California where she currently teaches. “With the season marker and nature-based images of the poem, the haiku address the human condition of fragility in a transient world. We are subject to the natural world, the forces of nature, and the ever-fleeting condition of life. A haiku calls us to attend to this fleeting moment.”[1]

Or, as Halebsky writes in In “Motel 6”: “haiku isn’t 5-7-5 / it’s two images that crash together / to make a third.” Halebsky remains keenly observant of the living world while acknowledging its brevity with sensitive detachment. In a poem written after Jack Gilbert’s “Failing and Flying,” she writes, “we lie so close your heart beats through my ribs / we walk scarred / we love only with what we can bear to lose.” Gilbert’s original poem weaves together a meditation on a fading relationship and the Icarus and Daedalus myth. In the stunning last line of “Failing and Flying,” Gilbert writes, “I believe Icarus was not failing as he fell, / but just coming to the end of his triumph.” Like Gilbert, Halebsky explores moments of sorrow, grief and separation by slowing down their collisions and divisions to reveal the beauty inherent in their juxtapositions and negative spaces.

She writes, for example, in “Li Po Loved Two Things”: “Basho looking down over the falls / in another country / hundreds of years later / picking flowers for Li Po.” In this image, we are aware of both the distance and the kinship between these two poets who are unified across languages and geography by the simple gesture of picking flowers, of gift giving. It is the chronological, geographic, and linguistic distance between the two poets that makes possible this gift, Halebsky seems to suggest, and perhaps distance that makes connection possible at all.

In “Space, Gap, Interval, Distance” she writes:

        間ma
        written as the sun
        coming through the gate

as what we leave open
between us
so the spirits    when they come
will have a place to land.

Yo-Yo Ma, quoting the violinist Isaac Stern, once said in an interview [2] that music happens between the notes. The same effect is present here in Halebsky’s work. It is Halebsky’s delicate handling of the inherent brevity of life, connection, and language that lends her work its profundity. Tree Line rewards multiple readings as each continues to reveal more expansively the music that lives within the poems’, and our own, fleeting moments.

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[1] Halebsky, Judy. “Judy Halebsky.” Dominican University of California. Dominican.edu, n.d. Web.1 May 2015.

[2] Ma, Yo-Yo. “Music Happens Between the Notes,” Interview by Krista Tippett. On Being.org. On Being, 4 September 2014.Web. 1 May 2015.

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Leah Silvieus

Leah Silvieus

Leah Silvieus is a poet and interdisciplinary artist whose work has been featured at the O, Miami Poetry Festival and at the Asian American Women Artists Association in San Francisco. She also has received grants and fellowships from Fulbright, Kundiman, US Poets in Mexico, and the Voices of Our Nation Arts Foundation. Her writing has been featured in Asian American Poetry & WritingCURAThe Collagist, and diode, among others. Currently, she divides her time between Florida and New York where she works in the yacht hospitality industry. You can visit her athttp://leahsilvieus.wordpress.com/

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