Berkeley Talks transcript: Poetry and the Senses: ‘Emergency is not separate from us’

[Music: “Silver Lanyard” by Blue Dot Sessions]

Podcast intro: This is Berkeley Talks, a Berkeley News podcast from the Office of Communications and Public Affairs that features lectures and conversations at UC Berkeley. You can subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you listen. Also, check out our other podcast, Fiat Vox, about the people and research at Berkeley. You can find all of our podcast episodes with transcripts and photos at news.berkeley.edu/podcasts.

Julia Bryan-Wilson: Hello and good evening, welcome. I’m Julia Bryan-Wilson, the Doris and Clarence Malo professor in the history of art and also the director of the Arts Research Center. And I want to say thank you all for coming on this very dazzlingly cold February evening. Before I begin, I wanna acknowledge that this event and every event on campus at UC Berkeley takes place on the unceded territory of the Ohlone people and I wish to pay respectful tribute to this land as their ancestral home. This evening is a launch celebration for Poetry and the Senses. A new collaboration between the UC Berkeley Arts Research Center and The Engaging The Senses Foundation, a nonprofit organization, which is dedicated to illuminating the intersection of art and mindfulness. Thanks to the largest grant ever received in the 20-year history of the Arts Research Center, this initiative is allowing us to pursue in a sustained and multifaceted way, questions about the world, making possibilities of poetry.

Over the course of the next two years, we will be bringing poets, both well-known and under-known poetry to campus, as well as hosting a fellows working group, who will together, be organizing a festival and a publication. Those things will be unveiled in the fall. And I will say a little bit more about the fellows shortly. But first let me extend my deepest gratitude to The Engaging The Senses Foundation and to its CEO Mona Abadir for her vision, her generosity, her energy and her tenacity in helping make this extremely exciting partnership happen. Thank you Mona, thank you.

I also wanna give a special thanks to Natalia Brizuela, one of my most cherished colleagues on campus, she is professor of Spanish and Portuguese as well as film and media studies. And she worked very hard as the acting director of ARC last year to help imagine what this initiative might look like and it was a very collaborative process. But with all collaborations of course, there’s often one person who kind of special catalyst and I really wanna acknowledge the intellectual labor of Natalia and seeing this come to fruition. I’d also like to acknowledge the incredible hard work and creativity of both Lauren Pearson, my associate director, and Laurie Macfee, who I am delighted to announce is the new program director for this entire project. And who is the absolute perfect person to lead it because she has an extensive background in both publishing and in writing poetry herself. It is an absolute dream team. And Laurie, where are you? Just thank you. Thank you Laurie. You’re amazing.

And I wanna point you to some upcoming events that are sponsored by Poetry and the Senses, we have these beautifully designed cards. They are, I guess the word really is technically pink, but I wanna think of a more poetic word for it. Maybe a deep magenta or something. Any case it has poetry events. And then you can see on the back, this is our launch event as you know. Denise Smith and Patricia Smith are speaking on Monday, March 16, as part of the A+D Mondays. That will be truly amazing. I really recommend you put that on your calendar. And then on April 22nd, the U.S. poet Laureate, Joy Harjo will be with us. That’s actually Earth Day and she will be reading at the David Brower Center and also in conversation with UC Berkeley professor of native studies, Beth Piatote. Thrilling, absolutely thrilling.

And speaking of Beth, I want to say a few words, she’s one of the fellows in our new working group that I want to say a little bit about that, which is at the core of this initiative, is the idea, that we should have something that brings together poets in the community as well as a kind of non-hierarchical group of people on campus interested in poetry in its most kind of capacious definition. And one of the visions that we had for this was that we would fund generously resource a group with no exact directive but just bring together people interested in thinking about poetry and its political possibilities to kind of come up with whatever they want to come up with. And part of the sort of, I guess special chemistry that we’re hoping emerges will come from the very fact that it isn’t professors leading students, it’s two undergraduates, two graduate students, two latter ranked faculty and then two people also from the community who may or may not have an affiliation with UC Berkeley. I actually don’t know of any other such working group, not just at Berkeley but really anywhere in the world that has precisely this formation. And I’m very proud of it. And I have to say that I think the first group that we’ve picked is so exceptional and outstanding and I’m just delighted and thrilled to see what you guys come up with.

And I would like to just have all of the fellows who might be in this room just stand and say your name. We have bios of all of them online and there will be hopefully some kind of publication that emerges. So you get to learn more about them as this initiative moves forward.

We decided to organize the two-year initiative in its first two years around themes. The theme this year is emergency and I’ll just read a little bit about that prompt ’cause I think it will help also, maybe shape the conversation that will take place today, which is how does poetry help us think through and within crisis? The word emergency implies urgency, sudden harm, life threatening violence and extreme circumstances. But embedded within it is the word emergence, suggesting rebirth and new beginnings. How can we understand moments of emergency as catalysts for renewal, as ruptures that signal massive if painful change? And I think that it’s really important to think about poetry as a kind of resource in times of great turmoil and as a resource that might not only feed one personally, but also generate new kinds of networks or be somewhat outward facing. So before I introduce this evening’s three speakers, I finally wanna extend my very heartfelt gratitude to Carroll Christman, assistant Dean for Development. And especially to the Dean of Arts and Humanities, Tony Cascardi, for all they did to shepherd this partnership so deftly. And I would love to invite Tony to come and say a few words.

Tony Cascardi: I promise not to stand between you and the poets for very, very long. But I do wanna say some words of very warm welcome, words of congratulations to the Arts Research Center and words of very profound thanks to Mona and to The Engaging The Senses Foundation. The Arts Research Center in its title and in much of the work it does is designed to bring out the ways in which art is research, and the ways in which art is investigation and finding, and discovering, and making real the things that it finds and discovers. But in some ways calling art research does not do it sufficient justice because it is much more than research. And so I’m delighted that the Arts Research Center has taken its name and its charged very broadly and is working actively as this series so wonderfully shows to present the ways in which art is actually a form of engagement with the world.

And so I understand Engaging The Senses to be at least about two things. One is about an invitation to us to engage our senses through poetry, to be sensorially and sensibly aware through poetry, but also to bring that to bear on the world in an active, ethical and responsible way. And so I think this event this evening and this series is really quite a wonderful marriage of the broad mission of the Arts Research Center and the purpose of The Engaging The Senses Foundation in this Poetry and the Senses. I wanna say tremendous thank you to Julia, to Natalia, to Lauren and Laurie, to Carrol Christman, who have been absolutely instrumental in bringing this about. But perhaps above all, again, to Mona for what began as a series of open-ended, exploratory conversations that were quite fascinating at every stage along the way. And that your collaboration and conspiracy in this wonderful event have been incredibly valuable. So thank you all very much.

Julia Bryan-Wilson: So I know this is a lot of preamble, but now I’m introducing our speakers tonight and I just wanna say that one of the things that we conceived of this event doing was really just to bring people that we especially wanted to hear, together. There wasn’t a really super intellectual agenda in case you’re all wondering like what brings… A fascinating curated selection. I really just, myself and Lauren and Laurie just thought, like who are three great people who we would love to have just come and lend their words to this celebratory event. And these three people are absolutely fantastic and all of them do have, I think very important things to say about poetry as a resource, as I was saying. So I’ll do these introductions and then they will each speak in turn and then followed by a conversation and then we will have a lovely reception, and I hope you stay for that.

Indira Allegra uses writing, performance, sculpture and installation to think about memory and memorialization. Her work has been featured in exhibitions at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, the Center for Craft, Creativity and Design and the Museum of Arts and Design, which recently named her the winner of it’s Burke Prize, a very prestigious award, for an artist under the age of 40, whose work engages in craft techniques. Allegra is a former Lambda Literary fellow whose writing has been widely anthologized and her photography will be featured in the upcoming exhibition Histories of Dance, which I am curating, at Mosby in Sao Paolo, Brazil. Just earlier today someone misheard me and thought it was mysteries of dance, which I now I wanna change the title of the show. Mysteries, but it’s actually called Histories of Dance.

Chiyuma Elliott is assistant professor of African American studies here at Berkeley, where she’s an indispensable colleague, who also serves, on that Poetry and the Senses advisory board. A former Stegner fellow at Stanford. Her poems have appeared in journals such as the African American Review, Callaloo, and the Notre Dame Review. She’s received fellowships from the American Philosophical Society, the James Irvine Foundation and the Vermont Studio Center. And she has published three books of poetry, “At Most,” “Vigil” and “California Winter League.” And she co-edited the volume, African American Poetic Responses to Faulkner.

Lyn Hejiniam teaches in the English department at Berkeley. I think this is in fact her very last semester. She is retiring and I do not think it is overstating the case to say that she is perhaps best described as a living legend here and everywhere. Her academic work is addressed principally to modernist, postmodern and contemporary poetry and poetics with a particular interest in avant-garde movements and the social practices they entail. She’s the author of over 25 volumes of poetry and critical prose, the most recent of which are Positions of The Sun and Tribunal, both from 2019. So please join me in welcoming Indira.

Indira Allegra: Good evening. As a woman of Cherokee, African and Irish descent, it’s important to me to ask if there’s anyone who is California native in the room. I’m a guest in your homelands. Okay, indigenous to California? Also two. I am a guest in your homelands.

During global climate crisis, we need more writing in and through water. This is the perspective through which we must contextualize ourselves. The downward squint into saltwater mysteries or the movement of light across the surface of freshwater above. Emergency is not separate from us. We have to partner it. We must find ways in our mythologies and in our language to partner disaster. Embedded in the word disaster are clues. The Greeks crafted the word aster and exhaled the meaning star into it. How generous to suggest we think about navigation between bright islands when met with disaster. Islands above and below. Asters are after all, also the purple daisy used to treat lung ailments. The kind of asthma you might have in a densely polluted metropolis. The kind of bronchitis you might have if you were sleeping rough and couldn’t get out of the cold. Or the fever you might flush with without a dry place to go in a flooded coastal city.

We are the flood and the flooded both. We need to develop organs of proprioception to live with the storm and the rising tide. We need to develop bodies which can maintain an awareness of our position when submerged. To adjust ourselves or navigate salt water and freshwater environments without the aid of rafts, boats, or bridges. Embedded in the word disaster are clues. While this invokes a rendering of something apart from another, it also carries the meaning of utterly. Disaster then calls us to be utterly starlike in our response to crisis. Using the moment to move, to navigate between relations, to circulate continuously between islands of care. In a time of global climate upheaval, we need more storytelling which learns from communities who have been partnering crisis for generations. Disaster as it turns out, is nothing new. And as some people need content warnings, so do you know that there are references to poverty, sexual violence, and kind of how the global spill impacts us internally.

So if you need to take a breather, feel free to do so. I’m not offended.

Waterborne for Mamie Hall and Clifford Jones. Ma was born pretty but pretty with black. Son was sick from the water. Nurse was too blonde to see sick, said son was too black to be sick, too black to be bathed in freshwater. Ma was sick to carry her son so pretty with black into town. Too pretty for fever, for prayer to cover. Her son was still water in Georgia. Drum for uncle Carl. Blue muscle in the intertidal zone your tongue is lacquered cold with mother of pearl, lips soaked with gray horizon. I press my face against the still line of your mouth, submerged in salt water, your body split against the rock where you remain bonded. Mother’s blues.

Your uncle Butch never talked to me, but when mama asked him to check on the house night she was working, he pulled out a fresh pack of cigarettes from his shirt pocket smack in the bottom, while toe hilling his shoes off one after the other. I used to hate that. He never asked me if he could sit there rubbing his smoke from the new ports into my bedside chair. I used to love that chair. It was a nicest thing mom had ever got for me. Wooden arm rest and pink with those tiny red dots pressed into the upholstery, used to look like sweet little apples to me. Butch never asked if I needed his shit talk from the garbage plan, falling up my cushion late too, late at night when mom was away caring for someone else’s babies, I’d hear the screen door opening to the weather outside. That’s an awful sound. Like a child crying softly on her hinges and then the keys in the door and his footsteps up the stairs to my room.

You never need, you need to know your uncle Butch never asked me nothing. He’d say how hard it was for a working class man to be respected and push that awful smoke through his wide nose outside my bedroom window. Used to say how old I was or used to say I was old enough to learn how to respect a man and then arch onto the roof of the porch below. He never asked me nothing. I never asked for nothing. And Yami never really understood that. You’ve been with a man yet dear? You don’t have to tell me, it hurts though, don’t it? It hurts so bad it feels like there’s no room for two people in it. No, just one big pain pressed up against the underside of your throat, keeping you from crying out like you want to. I never said nothing. My blood came down that June he visited me. Your Gammy left me a box of Kotex on my bedside chair early one morning before heading out the house. She had taped a note saying “it’s the pain we inherit from the sin of Eve.” Imperfect blue cursive like the old folks used to do.

Seem like I was raised more by those notes than by the woman who wrote them. What I never understood though was how an apple dropped before the birth of Christ made me responsible for all of that suffering. Come on in. You’re okay? Gulf for the who you forgot. You drill deep water until Twilight broke but would not stay to skim the rising oil. Instead you had me gazing at the cold moon, spinning in your mouth. Rough promises that cratered me later. Your fist gripping hair, I’d left unbraided for you. Black willow grazing the banks of my shoulders rung thick, which cicadas beyond our window calling me off the ledge of a child, neither one of us had planned.

So for this poem landfall, I’d like to acknowledge my partner Kimi Mojica who has taught me very generously a lot about the Philippinex and Philippinex American experience. And this particular piece emerged from the grief that I experienced watching Hurricane Yolanda, which was really, it was a super typhoon hit the Island in 2013.

Landfall.

One. The child never left the water. He passed from his mother into November, pawing through window panes when Yolanda swept the house. Neighbors said it was a wave, a high as a coconut tree that pulled mother and Lynn and baby into a river, rushing through the middle of Tacloban City. There were no bridges to cross them. Just the salty blur of newspaper print wept into the current to tell about it. There was no birthday for Baby Malicio, only the damn push of his mother’s body against his feet, squeezing the crown of his head into water confetti with landfill.

Two. Yolanda made two countries of the Philippines, one looking for fresh water above and one filled with flood children below. Malicio never left the water. His mother stayed on with the freshwater people and left Yolanda to nurse him, her milk soured with landslide. He became her flood child, her silent blue lipped baby. His face was upturned into a storm releasing corrugated roofs into the sky like kites. Her current gripped him faster over the rooftops of cars parked along the river bottom and past green fingered banana trees snapping above his feet. With winds that strong, nothing stays tethered to earth for long.

Three. Those born to earth belong fully to their freshwater mothers, but when one passes through their mother into Yolanda, it is Yolanda who carries the child. They say when Malicio was swept into Yolanda’s body, he never really died because he was never really born in the first place. Born babies passed through their mothers to earth, coughing and shivering from cold floodwater children continue dreaming in the warm water. They say that floodwater dreams are felt but not seen, heard, but not spoken about in freshwater languages. Malicio’s dreams searched past the splintered remains of wooden houses as humid clouds muffling freshwater calls for help. Malicio’s dreams swelled across the countryside as houses eviscerated of high chairs, canned foods and storm soaked mattresses. His belly cord caught something sharp, sinking him deeper into Yolanda’s body where he dreamt the quake of fatal stampedes for rice and then the smell of what rots in still water but the time for still water had not yet come.

Four. The body count could not be finished. Anneline folded her palm across her face. She had no bags for the dead. Where her house had stood she found instead her brother’s neck uprooted from shoulders he’d watched carry rice so many times before. Beside him was Martha, her skirt washed above the line of a prosthetic lake she hadn’t been able to swim with. They made blankets together for the baby. Anneline stepped closer. But onto the shock of gray fingers curled out from beneath a wooden door. She teetered sideways to find the path impassable with the arms and legs of her neighbors stiffened into a mute panic rising from the mud.

Five. Freshwater people cover death with what they can find.

Six. When Yolanda laid a house to the ground, the horizon could not be seen behind it. She gave only a dark rain for a grave Island unable to outpace the rise of water up the stairs. She foresook the freshwater people to gather her chosen floodwater children into the folds of her humid skirt. Malicio was a powerful dreamer. The pitch and role of his prophecies would prove useful to her in the seasons ahead. Thank you.

Chiyuma Elliott: So this year Tommy Orange’s novel, There There, is the Berkeley common reading experience selection. So we’ve been talking about gun violence a lot on campus. One of the subjects that Orange’s novel tackles is gun violence. And this is resonating with a lot of us for a lot of different reasons. And I think it also connects to the theme of the first poetry in the census grant year, which is emergency.

The first poem I’m gonna read tonight is a kind of quiet black lives matter poem dedicated to Sandra Bland who died in police custody in 2015 after a traffic stop. I wrote it after reading the beauty of a social problem and I wrote it to test Walter Ben Michael’s claim about how postmodern photographs can work as social protest by doing the opposite of what we expect. Michael’s writes this: “We usually think that political art is supposed to attach itself to the world, showing us the victims of some dreadful abuse and reaching out to its viewers. And we’ve tended to see art that doesn’t reach out in this way as a political or even conservative, passionate perhaps about beauty but indifferent to suffering.”

So this is a poem I wrote in response. It’s called “Tomorrow I will look at paintings.”

And if one is of a river, I will think of something else. If one is of a cup, I will think of something else. If they are behind glass, I will reflect in that flat surface. So many days I say this to God: “In the end, please don’t let me be wrong about you.” If they are behind glass, if bored guards by their slouching say we must stay at least 18 inches apart. If by glass you mean centrifuge and if by tomorrow you mean tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow and also goodbye I will look at paintings like the man who wrote this in a calm box after the bombings at a mosque. I could not even speak loudly there. I’m gonna read a bunch of poems from my first book.

This one’s called “On Skipping a Funeral.”

They made a fire, but I did not venture 17 miles by land and six by water could learn reflection began at length, left off, wrote for the sake of covering paper. Woods are all you see I did not venture. Had my wish prevailed, barrel of cheap lines, pot of tamarinds but nevermind. I own, I love myself quite clear from pain. I would not have hesitated but for want of practice.

My uncle Jim was murdered in 2000 along with his girlfriend and her daughter and an older couple. Jim was collateral damage in a botched extortion scheme. He died in his sleep and the others were not so lucky. It took me about 10 years before I could even start to write poems about this. Each week, almost 700 people in the U.S. die from gun violence. A lot of people, a lot of families wrestling with the long reverb of violence and of preventable death.

This poem is called “Family Portrait Number Two.”

Elsie says the dead talk in riddles. They push objects across a table, like a jar of jam or a set of keys. Jim’s fond of ashes. Elsie says he’s sorry for a lot of things like opening the windows when he knew I was cold, joking that he’d cook up my pet rabbits with fresh parsley from the garden and some other things I’d prefer not to mention. Elsie doesn’t say it, but I was unkind. I stole his lighters and when my mom asked, I blamed him for everything. The broken mug, the carpet stain, even the holes in the wall under the dartboard. Elsie says, Jim’s handing her a gold watch, a dove, two pieces of red paper, which mean tell your mom, I’m sorry for leaving. Lucky families, those without ghosts. Even if the psychic has kind eyes and liver-spotted hands when I’m dead, I won’t talk.

Alstroemeria.

How could we have thought Bohemia was dead? James Alstroemeria, sunflower status buttons, the card from the florist fell out and that’s what it said. Like the catacombs where the graves just say Peter a baker or Thomas a teacher. My uncle is a constellation of flowers set on a bored bookshelf, please remember. So my first year in college, actually my first week in college, my first class I went to in college, we got assigned the Epic of Gilgamesh to read that night, right and come back ready to talk about it. And I’m not just for the shock of that, but also just because it’s an amazing, amazing book. Like it’s just stayed with me. So in it after Enkidu dies, his best friend, Gilgamesh, literally goes into the wilderness. He goes into the woods. And my parents did that, they went off grid for a year and they built my cousin Aaron a house in the mountains in Mendocino County by his dad’s old cabin. They camped out in a tent most of that time and they used solar power and a generator and they pumped water up from the river.

My mom’s one luxury item that she brought was the piano. She brought her piano, they drove it in the back of a pickup truck and they put it in Jim’s old cabin. There’s almost no cell phone reception out there with a full battery, right. You can maybe talk for five minutes depending on where you’re standing. And so most of our conversations that whole year, they were about really practical things, right. Like, “Hi, we’re snowed in,” “Can you please pay your sister’s tuition bill?”, stuff like that. But this one time my mom called me and it was, she was totally out of the blue and she just called because she was sick of using the outhouse and she needed to vent about it. She called and the first thing she said was, “I just wanna be able to go pee without a chipmunk looking at me.”

And so I just, I always find myself wondering like, what was Gilgamesh is chipmunk moment in the woods? You know, he had one, you know, he had one, right? Like you can be in grief and you can have all this stuff and there’s still a chipmunk looking at you through like the little knot holes in the door. Yeah, life, right.

This poem is called “Cleaning Out the House.”

You know how the old house looks, brass handles on the desk by the window. On the desk of box of paper. I stood there, beware of dancing was the idea I got beware of daylight thick as smoke. I don’t know why it made me awfully ashamed. I found 12 pocket knives yesterday and almost as many toy cars. The marbles I’ve put in jars by the kitchen window, the clothes in black trash bags that wallow and shine on the couch like fat seals. What mountains have you found in your wandering? Have you seen the old desk reflected in a flat blue surface of an Alpine Lake? It’s hinges still Creek like tall pine trees in a high wind.

When I dust it off, clouds appear under my hand. A bond with epaulets. Is there a word for the feeling in your head when the pressure drops? When a cold front comes like an opened drain in the sink of the city? I’m dusting barometers, mulling the pure complexity of atmosphere, gray sky, red curtains, the open belly of a fish. Because a baggie of keys did me in, teeth grinding my hands full of nothing because a trunk full of souvenirs and uniforms did me in. A bunch of old metals I’ll have to send back or burry and the dirt will spit them all out again. The rain will pelt the garnets up to the surface, but this time no one will yell at me for finding them and pinning them on Rex’s collar. I won’t always be alone. Soon the house will wake up with crumbs in its eyes.

This one’s called “Family Portrait Number Three.”

I would wander after school before anything much was expected of me through this scrub oaks on the hills, so the smell of dirt clods and dry grass, the ocean sound of stocks rubbing against each other means something. This is my hand. This is my ring on my middle finger. This is what love will convince you to do. Buy rings for yourself and sit still in the shade of an old oak to think about it. The sound of the grass is like the white noise of ocean on my stereo and this one patch of light is like my bedside lamp when the rest of the house is dark. I love the way some floors change color when they get wet. I used to hike through the trees to an exposed spot on the ridge, a chunk of rock jotting up out of the grass like a spaceship. I’d scrambled to the top and pour the contents of my thermos over it. Watched the lichen go acid yellow, acid green and the rock itself turn into wood or blood leaf or obsidian. I traced the outlines of fossil fish, their delicate ribs and fins, the whirls of shells, the whirls of plants and the grass kept saying this was all ocean and I’d say, I know, I know.

Blood tastes like the ocean. I tried to imagine everything underwater, myself underwater. When I got the phone call, I felt smaller. I watched my hand shake, the pencil tried to make letters and numbers. I thought, if my ribs held fast in rock, my kneecaps locked like shells. I thought of the red spatter on the curtains by the bed. What would they do with the curtains? Put everything in water. Look at the ring glinting on your hand as if through murky water. Hike to the top of a hill and lie down under an oak tree in dirt that’s soft as water. The grass says everything was once underwater, it is again. This next poem is called Vineland. The ocean is a road, we rode it for grapes. The ocean is a road, we carved a sharp white scene in it. Saved the malt and bread scanned for land and thought of Wells. The ocean is a road for Queens of Whalebone, ponds of walrus tusk. When we get there, we’ll trip trade as thin red strip of cloth for hide.

The last poem I’m gonna read tonight was inspired by an American still life of food painted during the civil war. The painting and the poem are both called “Still Life With Game Champagne and Vegetables.” I love that title. The painting’s amazing. Oh yeah, so here’s the poem.

If there’s a point, it ends with the quail’s head resting on a bunch of radishes. Here’s champagne, black bottle, gold foil. Here’s cauliflower, the same dull white as some of the breast feathers. You’re taught not to leave things out like this. Pathogens will creep up from the skin in two hours, taught the rhythms of a body breaking down on a table, which if it’s wood, should be cleaned periodically, one part bleach to 16 of water. There are so many ways to arrange the dead, this way and you’re meant to feel hungry. Thanks.

Lyn Hejinian: I’m gonna read from a book that’s in 15 books. Each one is quite long and I’m gonna read from just part of one of them. The book is called A Border Comedy. It was written in the late 1990s before the term border evokes such horror and tragedy as the word now evokes. And I’ll say more about what the border in this particular book was in my imagination but what it was does not preclude what it has become. And I wanted to start by reading a line from a poem called “The Song of the Border Guard” by Robert Duncan.

The English department is honored to be hosting the poet Farid Matuk who’s sitting over here as this year’s Holloway lecturer in poetry and poetics. And he reminded me of this line or pair of lines couplet.

The borderlines of sense in the morning light are naked as a line of poetry in a war. A story of our time would be hard to confess if confession is what it would take and hard to declare knowing it lived a winded creature having the unstable identity of anything and the steady state of the psyche producing it always in the present tense. Perhaps because of some paradoxical relationship that dreams have to experience the contents of a dream having already been experienced but being experienced in dreams as never before experienced. Which prevents dreams from being finished and keeps life and dream looping their links and rattling their chains to frighten us with invasions. But here you come now with a cauliflower, well outside it, what is it? Snows unless I’ve just doubting the light.

But here you come now with the mail, I too am keeping to my routine. Just varying it enough to keep it out of view going to different postal clerks to conceal the number of letters I send or to different checkout clerks. So the frequency of my trips to the market will go unobserved. Like a flight of stairs winding down to the cellar where the tellers said to set in a spread of gossip, pressing her own case with some stories of her own of a divine erotic bird who once shared her many anxieties, scattered seed and pecked the ants that tickled her knees to keep her from laughing. And it was for that one day that she cut off his head that she plucked him and turned him to soup, soup or soot.

There are different versions, some mild, some vicious, some lewd and many of the details there just pass around the time through which we wait, pour in stories. Events coming to us nowadays already shot through with explanation, which we cannot report as our own, but then the inexplicable, the about nothing which we’ve allowed might give us our story, which we won’t fuck up but think and leave continuous. As the story goes, Joe Barnett maybe sharing a home with Peter McHale, but she isn’t about to share her life with him. Then Peter introduces her to his adorable little boy. She’s glad to be alive and glad to have lived, but both Zara Thrustra and the ugliest man keep repeating more, more so she adds pins. That’s normal. If you’re a storyteller, your audience tells most of the story.

I told one in which I described a high school in New York whose principal kept the two headed goat that every year before Thanksgiving she would take the best math students to see and some woman hearing my story said afterwards, I know that school, a cousin of mine went to it and I expressed surprise. I’d made up that school, but so had she. Then we drifted apart as lovers might after realizing the wild inappropriateness of the ways they’ve confided in each other. Since none of the points reached in this book require that we adopt one view of sentences, scenes of reason rather than another.

Some sentences such as “Now that the lake is empty, it’s light and the geese are galloping away with it,” make sense, but are not of this world. Some such as we’ve inspected wedding sites and hospitalized the paralegal, but no one can immigrate life’s bread introduce a new usage transmutating into the transitive, the intransitive verb to immigrate. The possibility of creating new verbs often excite sentences. Without a thought of how there are mushrooms, indeed mushrooms, yes, and angels. Angels too as the earth and air come together, others may laugh, but soon they’ll have rain in their shoes. One looks up, reading is a mild form of writing one and one book and book. One reader, what are you reading? One reader, I am reading the essays of Montaigne.

Book one. He says, we can only improve ourselves in times like these by walking backwards.

Book two. Let’s suppress the slightly theatrical element in this.

Book three. And now that God put off the bulls disguise. One reader, the head thoughts monitor, the heart minds pathos, the genitals minds beauty and thoughts measure in the hands and feet. One reader, whoever wrote this book could hardly read.

Book four. Well, as they say in Bulgaria, if you wish to drown, do not torture yourself with shallow water.

Book five. Nobody has ever claimed that the private eye novel has to be realistic to seem realistic. One reader that’s eye E.Y.E for I, letter I. One reader continuing, the detective goes into hospitals, bars, brothels, morgues, girls schools and consulates anywhere there are people.

Book six. As lovely air says at the beginning of love and at its end lovers are embarrassed to be left alone. Along comes a new reader, fork up, mouth open, eat and don’t speak, fork down, mouth closed chew then fork up, speak and don’t eat mouth. Dear old reader not waving in the air, fork not waving in the air.

Book seven. There is no feast without cruelty.

The eighth book is a good fiction and it begins as good fictions do. Slowly the Morningstar brings back the shining day. Observer gazing into a baby buggy. An infant two or three months old will smile at even half a painted dummy face if that half face has at least two clearly defined points or circles for eyes.

Book nine. The hero asks a woman why the groan, the gesture, the mutilated forehead, the old river. Woman, I see that you have a swirling gate. Water is often a medium for transformation. Reader, often and old tales, a goose personifying persuasion waddles at Love’s side through scenes of seduction.

Book 10. In this tale, a woman discloses that it is her own seduction of her own husband that aroused her interest in seduction. That prolongation, that extension of change. Yes, says the hero if you do something, then you have something and 100% is all of it.

Book 11. Totality, but it’s irrevocably dark. Reader, he’s gone totally blind.

Book 12. An incitement to the reader the guilty. Reader interrupting but not apologetic. Writer, I’m not confessing. Book 12, continued toward a conclusion. Beside the bell, beside the bed, sorry, beside the bed, a crowded bookcase and on the floor sex toys. Reader, yes, the perceptible patterns of agreed upon good energetically compete for the same plots of time and space.

Book 13. We get ahead with our work, doing no harm to the neighbors, but there’s always a pinch at the end. Sentimentalist a hiatus. Realist, no, nothing is so irritating as an interruption since it calls attention to the horizon limiting the power of reason. Sentimentalist consciousness is antithesis of reason. Ironist, a contemporary sentimentalist. There is nothing in this world I require more than to be interrupted by the inexpressible in a story. Reader, as events shrink into anecdotes, we come to a point, much past mid point.

Book 14. The day has been hot, the wind dry, but the evening light now is blue and still the hillsides are steep. The Adobe motel sits on a slope midway between a peak and a river, night air sways the branches of an Aspen. Overhanging the corner of the building are canvas chairs, creak toes to the sky, our feet resting on the top bar of the balcony railing, our mere silhouettes and beyond them are flooding swallows shadows. I remove a minute net from the wine glass. Writer, this is all in defense of our story. Reader, and of the room in which we first read it with faded water stains on the wallpaper and to daddy long legs on the curtain at the window beyond which the blue black Oak leaves quietly tripped with fog. It is day and night both and we are alive.

Book 15. Who could sustain that burden, who’d succeed. Thank you.

Julia Bryan-Wilson: Thank you all three so much. We have like 25 decadent minutes to just talk about poetry. I’d like to first invite the panelists if they have comments for each other or questions that would be one way to begin. I have a request of Lyn: You said that you would talk about a border, border comedy. If you would talk about what you meant by border more.

Lyn Hejiniam: If the origin of this concept of the border, mine came in a conversation with some students here at Berkeley and one of them said, the proper position for a poet to inhabit is the margins. And I said, no, we don’t wanna be marginalized. We wanna be right in the middle, right along the border between things.

So I thought of the border as ultimately as all the spaces into which things can arrive and all those spaces in which having arrived in this zone, zone of encounter say we are completely confused. Like a border between two nations or suddenly the money you have in your pocket is not the currency that works, the words you have are not the words that are spoken and also the borders between species, between genders, between people, like the space between you and me. There’s a border right there and we’re in it right now talking with each other. And all kinds of changes happen in this border zone.

So ultimately, I thought of this as a work of constant change and metamorphosis. And in the current context, I’m thinking of a term that the late poet Lesley Scallot Pino used in a work, but prior to that in a conversation with me in which she referred to continual conceptual rebellion. Which is that you will not stay still for the powers of the status quo, neo-liberalism, the powers of violence, the power of fascism, the power of bigotry that you keep moving. So the borders zone was like this is the zone of perpetual change and perpetual moving. Yeah, yeah. Thank you for asking.

Julia Bryan-Wilson: I had to ask, because I mean, you also, you look at that amazing teaser, right? You’re like, “Well, so everything that’s happened since then has just enlarged my sense of this.”

Lyn Hejiniam: Yeah, I mean the border as a realm of possibility. I mean that vision that I had in the late 90s was fairly utopian or at least a zone of promise. And now it’s become a zone of like wrenching destruction and misery and injustice.

Julia Bryan-Wilson: Indira, how about you — border?

Indira Allegra: Well, hello. I don’t know that we can speak of borders anymore. I think we can speak of membranes, which the nature of a membrane is to constantly be kind of importing and exporting. I mean internally it could be waste or oxygen, but it could be currency, it could be drugs, it could be trafficking of all kinds, you know, yeah, but I think membrane is the framework that I use for it for sure, yeah.

Lyn Hejiniam: Yeah, it’s like a more organic and also like ubiquitous presence. What about you?

Chiyuma Elliott: See, I like asking the questions, not having to answer them. Yeah, borders. So this past year I’ve been working on this scholarly book and I’ve made this conscious effort to turn poetry brain off, right. So that’s like creating, that’s like a very personal kind of border, like, “Okay, brain, don’t make poems right now.” And that’s worked somewhat but what disrupted that border for me was actually thinking about the big and small border crossing events in my life. I knew that the next collection, like the next group of that I was gonna try to write or at least I thought I knew it was gonna be about moving to the U.S. from Sweden where I was born. When I was really small and I thought about, you know, there are all these black American ex-pats in Sweden and a whole bunch of folks that are still there.

And so I started wondering a few years ago, what if we hadn’t come back, right. I mean, I say back just because my sense of myself as belonging here, but there’s also this different kind of sense in a different story. So when I think about borders that’s on my mind and it’s been on my mind recently just thinking about writing poems. And so I thought that that was what I was gonna be thinking about these sort of international borders and the kind of really amazing privilege that I’ve had to cross them in the ways that I have.

And also the things that I know as a result or have had available to me. I had a pretty utopian experience as a very small brown person in Sweden. Everybody treated me like I was the most beautiful creature because I didn’t look like many people there, you know. The folks who stayed had a different experience of blackness there. Sometimes that, but sometimes also more difficult. So that’s something that that I’ve been wrestling with, borders membranes, all of this. For whatever reason then I just, I wrote down when you were reading, but here you come now with a cauliflower. That’s what happens, right. We’re thinking about all these really important things and then all of a sudden something utterly quotidian like crashes in and it’s the thing that needs to happen.

So when I’m thinking about borders too, they’re always these sort of really local things, weird kind of beautiful experiences. My mom swears that she doesn’t speak Swedish. One of the conditions of my parents being there was that they took language lessons, you know, and she swears she doesn’t speak Swedish but the first time I took her into an IKEA, it was like… Talk about the border cross or the whatever it was, that was just, it was, she was apparently. Okay, so do people speak Swedish in here? I only know food words. Apparently IKEA is really funny if you speak Swedish, like the names of products and things. Like she was just pointing at stuff and laughing and telling jokes to herself in Swedish. And my sister and I are looking at her like, who are you? Like what just happened? Yeah, it’s like my mom.

So the border means like my mom all of a sudden standing there in IKEA, pointing at the toilet brush and then explaining to us later through this fits of laughter. Like why it looks like a sitcom character from way back when and how funny it is and stuff like, yeah, like apparently it’s, yeah. And this is from a woman who swears she doesn’t speak Swedish, right. So, yeah. So it’s the toilet brush, it’s the cauliflower. Like it’s those things, right that just make those transits really real.

Will you both talk about who matters to you, like in your writing, like what’s, who set you flowing? I wanna know that. I know that answer’s always different depending on when you ask a writer, but who set you flowing?

Indira Allegra: I mean, I have in my studio a space that’s full of like books and images to kind of honor creative lineages that I feel like I’m working in or aspire to work in. I mean, of course Baldwin is there. Italo Calvino’s like Impossible Cities is also there too. Yeah, I mean there’s so many. I mean for folks who are living, I mean, I feel like the, the God of small things is like something like a book that I come back to over and over again, you know. And it’s designed for that anyway that kind of repetition. And I feel like it takes a lot of endurance to return whether you’re editing something or trying to make an object or to perform in a space, you know. So I feel like texts like that give me the encouragement or strength to be able to, yeah, to do that.

Lyn Hejiniam: That’s a really impossible question, I feel. I mean I know that you felt it was an impossible question too. I was invited to contribute to a volume which I think is like almost done now in production somewhere. Precisely that question right about like your sources, your origins and I have come to fervently embrace the ubiquity of context and the interconnecting of everything. So I can’t single out a single source, it depends on the context in which it would be named. The context itself is a source. It’s like the cauliflower. I mean, I really liked that you picked up on that because I mean, part of my teaching at Berkeley that at the grad level there’s been various iterations of a research seminar.

The last phrase of which and is and the writing of everyday life, late capitalism and the writing of everyday life, allegorical boat moments and the writing of everyday life that turned a language and the writing of everyday life. And in a way like I think I would take your comment about it, I don’t think we can talk about borders anymore even in a different direction from the one you did and think about the ways in which the quotidian everyday life is kind of borderless. It’s everything everywhere, everyone’s in it, we’re all flowing in and out of it and it has nothing to do with nationalism. It has nothing to do with ethnicities. It has nothing to do with gender, it’s like the medium in which all this life, species, ants, dandelion fluff, it’s all this like circulating. So that I would say that was my would be like what I just look around and the dictionary, it’s got so many words in it. Dictionary’s great. Just open it, you don’t know what to say next. Then you just say, berating of the times, got it.

Chiyuma Elliott: I was remembering… so I loved the phone book as a little kid. We don’t have them anymore, right. Like these massive things, but it was so fascinating. Like my sister and I had this game where we would try, like we had, we had a little timer, like, and we’d try to find the best name and we’d compete, right. So we’d have like three minutes to find a really good name and then we’d like face off and like whoever had the best name won that round and we just fit like the sounds of names and I was for whatever, like yesterday just walking through the house or something, I just remembered Porcelain McCorquodale and I Googled her and I can’t find her. I’m wondering did I make Porcelain McCorquodale up? Did I cheat? Yeah, like lists and stuff.

Yeah, I mean just totally, so yeah, the dictionary. I was, when I was a kid, I was super shy and I actually so much so that my mom had to go into school one time because I refused to give an oral report. I was in fourth grade and I was just like, no, it’s not gonna happen. And I didn’t give the oral report cause I was just freaking me out too much. The next, like two years later or something, we had to do these biography, like presentation things and my dad being, you know the hippie brought black nationalist guy he was like, you should read Malcolm X’s autobiography. And I was like, okay. And it broke something totally open for me. And like him copying the dictionary that I was just like, Oh, you and me. I’m like, yeah, that’s so awesome. Yeah, dictionaries.

Indira Allegra: And actually what I wanna say is what, because anyone can read a book, but that’s different from having the impulse to create a piece of writing. And I think what gets me moving is that it’s like there’s all this information that we have in our bodies, right? And so much of what we experience is sometimes difficult to put language to. And so it’s like this desire to find a kind of language which will make the unutterable utterable. And sometimes that is through poetry. And then sometimes that’s through movement or jazz or whatever the case may be. But I think that’s the core impulse really. You know, it’s like something in your body is trembling at a pace that you have to find a way to keep up with. So yeah.

Lyn Hejiniam: What do you guys think about, so I have like a most beloved colleague in the English department and the other day I confess at a bar, he said that the highest value for him is reason, and we were talking about David Hume, in like 18th century philosophy at the time and that’s how it erupted. And I went home and the guy really impresses me and I thought about this and I thought about reason and then I thought, but he’s a scholar of poetry. What’s someone who is treasuring reason doing as a scholar, like a brilliant, he’s a brilliant reader of poetry. And so yesterday I asked him like that question and he said, reason is always at work in poetry, but I’m not sure I agree with that. It seems like irreason is working in poetry too. Like what you’re talking about Indira, when there’s that, just that throbbing of life energy and it’s certainly not rationality. It has its reasons. But I don’t know, what do you think.

Chiyuma Elliott: I love it when poems pretend to be logical and when they take on like just really steal the sort of the rhythms and the structures of arguments, but they’re actually not arguing. And I also love it when poems argue like through images and they don’t stack their arguments in the way that it would be easy to trace, like oh, I see this reason is, this is how this works. And I love it when the kind of reason that’s operative operates, like it goes across the span of an entire book or multiple books. I think our colleague Cecil. That’s what I think. I think he’s embarked on this project of basically like redefining metaphor over like six books. It’s just crazy, like every time I’d see a new thing, I’m like, what! You did that! It just like swerves on me, I absolutely love it. I think I believe in reason, but maybe I have some of your same hesitation about thinking that’s the, or kind of the goal or something.

Lyn Hejiniam: Yeah, I mean, we live right now in a very unreasonable time. And I don’t mean unreason. I don’t mean that kind of unreason is an art but someday this surpasses reason and excites it, makes you want to think.

Indira Allegra: I think when things are unreasonable, it’s humbling and that’s a good practice to return to. I think that to expect something or work to be reasonable all the time sort of presupposes a kind of that it has to be successful or functional. And maybe it’s really radical to write something that isn’t functional within a capitalist framework. And to be open to, and you know, artists talk about this all the time around how we work with failure and how we think about it and you know, failure is like a co-conspirator in the production of the work. So I’m unconvinced that yeah, that reason is what we need all the time.

Julia Bryan-Wilson: I’m wondering if there’s questions from the audience. Yeah. I think there’s a mic coming around, if you could wait.

Audience 1: Hi, my name is Roman. Speaking of cauliflowers, 10 years ago, Lyn Heijinian you went to Tijuana to give a reading at a semi-abandoned warehouse and a lot of poets that were living in Los Angeles, Mexico poets, some of them we crossed the border to see you at that reading. And after the reading, which was lovely, you gave away a lot of books by you to the audience and by other members of the audience. I just wanted to bring this very particular experience of crossing borders. And I don’t know if this would add up at all, anything to this conversation, but I was just wondering if you remember, how was that, that moment for you?

Lyn Hejiniam: I remember it very vividly, yeah. It was a great experience for me. Yeah, thanks for bringing that up.

Julia Bryan-Wilson: While people are collecting their thoughts, I will mention that this room, the Morrison Library is one of the few spaces, possibly the only space on this campus where that is paper- and book-based, not screen and laptop based. And I was curious if you know, how you write, do you write on what’s your relationship as you write to the page versus the laptop? Do you still treasure the scrawled note? You know, where I’m just curious about the tactility of your process I guess. This is for all three of you.

Indira Allegra: Yeah, it’s not gonna be the answer that people want, but whatever. I think a lot of my writing, my best writing is in correspondence to other people, which means that I have to look at my like WhatsApp and my Instagram dms and my text messages and then they’re always like phrases there that then I can be like, “Now I’m gonna work on this.” But I don’t know that sitting, yeah. It seems very unfulfilling to sit by myself and then to kind of like pull the writing out. I’m in correspondence with someone who’s like living or past or you know, as a family member. And so, yeah, that’s where I’m at.

Chiyuma Elliott: For me, this changed when I went to an MFA program because I actually had to write faster than I had before. Before that I just always wrote on. Well, so I had this fear of getting attached or dependent on any particular writing thing. So I would change my writing implements. I changed the surface, but at that point before going to that first writing residency I was only writing on these yellow legal notepads. You know, and I wrote everything longhand. And then when I had all these deadlines then I had to start producing poems fast, I switched over to using my laptop because I just, it was I’d still sometimes, and I do now, I use everything in composing, but then I needed the speed I needed to be able to change things fast and not have to and basically I didn’t, I needed not to have to give in line out or something just because I had to produce so much work. So I think that was a really amazing experience. Already like it made sense for my practice to change things, but that was a radical shift that I’m glad I make. I sometimes not composed, but I will type out versions of some poems on my mom’s old typewriter that she took with her to Sweden and brought back, you know, this really, really old manual typewriter. I just I love the bite of the little keys into the paper. There’s something really beautiful about that. Yeah.

Lyn Hejiniam: Yeah, I grew up in a typewriter age. I was in a show, a Gertrude Stein Exhibit at the SFMOMA and a woman was there with two children young-ish, like maybe five and seven. And there was a vitrine with notebooks and the woman said, look, children, those are called notebooks. People used to use them. I’m sure pretty much everyone in this room has notebooks and still uses notebooks. I don’t think they’re quite as prediluvian as that woman thought. But I do most of my writing on a computer now, but really it’s just because it’s a super fast typewriter. So picking up on what Chi says, but I do, I read a lot and I have notebooks and I take notes on reading that some of which will then get transferred into you know, what I would call scholarly writing. And so I’m into literary writing. But I so miss the real dedication to the tactility that I’ve pretty much, when I got a computer I started drawing a lot and just being able to make marks on paper and then marks with pencils and with ink and then with little brushes and there’s all kinds of things you can do when you have paper. And I don’t take any of it particularly seriously. I mean I don’t think it’s garbage but it certainly not art.

Julia Bryan-Wilson: I see one question here then we will I think have our reception.

Audience 2: Well this is a more of a comment than a question really. Thank you for the wonderful readings and comments, everybody. I was really particularly struck by Indira, your comments about our bodies are sort of married to disaster really. And this of course has been true historically for some people more than others, but going forward into the future, your last poem almost changed birth itself through. Just so you know, a really intense poetics of disaster. I really just want to tell you that I am extremely moved by that and it’s helped me kind of think through what poetics is in this period of time and poetics that’s really grounded in the body in that profound sense that you mentioned. Thank you.

Indira Allegra: Thank you. Thank you.

Julia Bryan-Wilson: Well, what a beautiful way to conclude. Thank you again to our speakers and thank you to Mona. Once again, cheers.

[Music: “Silver Lanyard” by Blue Dot Sessions]

Podcast outro: You’ve been listening to Berkeley Talks, Berkeley News podcast from the Office of Communications and Public Affairs that features lectures and conversations at UC Berkeley. You can find more talks with transcripts at news.berkeley.edu/podcasts.