Land like a big wet sponge.
Poet and publisher Joel Dailey is the author of Lower 48 (1999) and My Psychic Dogs My Life (2008), both from Lavender Ink. Since the mid-70s, he has published numerous chapbooks with small presses, including Surprised by French Fries (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2011), How to Wallpaper Like a Pro (Unarmed, 2007), Biopic (Igneus Press, 1999), Audience, Ambience, Ambulance (Blank Gun Press, 1999), and Mars, 1953 (Rumba Press, 1979). His magazine publications are too many to mention, but let’s just say they include Rolling Stone, Exquisite Corpse, Fuck, and New American Writing.
For many years Dailey has been an influential and generous presence in the New Orleans poetry community and far beyond. Through his long-running and iconoclastic magazine, Fell Swoop: The All Bohemian Revue*, he has published countless poets as well as many single-author issues by the likes of Ted Berrigan, Aram Saroyan Keith Abbott, Bill Berkson, and Richard Martin.
As for Dailey’s own poetry, Hank Lazer praises Lower 48 as “an energetic, humorous, edgy successor to Allen Ginsberg’s “America” in which “Dailey wanders this world of manipulative consumerism resisting its hold with his blazing stun-guns of outrage, paranoia, passion, and comedy, leaving a laminated America del Norte in his wake.”
And in My Psychic Dogs My Life, Kevin Killian “feel[s] the New Orleans gris-gris emanating from this book like candyfloss” and “the magic of a true trickster substituting words and ideas like dice in a shell game, conjuring spells on the unprepared.”
Samples of Dailey’s gris-gris can be found here, here, and here.
The following interview was conducted in one fell swoop, so to speak, on February 26, 2012.
* Subscription to the print-only Fell Swoop is $15 (USD) for three issues per year:
Fell Swoop / PO Box 740158 / New Orleans, LA / 70174 / USA
Camille Martin: Thanks, Joel, for sitting down with me in our respective cities of New Orleans and Toronto for this interview.
Some of your earliest poetry publications were in Rolling Stone, which you later collected into a chapbook, Not on the Cover. Before I knew that about you, I didn’t realize Rolling Stone was a haven for poetry. What was it like publishing there? Please tell me they paid you in concert tickets and coke bashes.
[“The Rolling Stone poems had to be brief, quick and clever….writing for this market was actually good exercise for me at that time.”]
Joel Dailey: Back in 1978 I was living in West Los Angeles working at a “literary” bookstore in Santa Monica called Intellectuals and Liars. At that time Rolling Stone was a newsprint weekly, publishing short poems between and among record reviews in the back pages of each issue. I don’t recall how or who but someone tipped me off that Charles Perry did the poetry editing out of the San Francisco office. So I sent off a batch of short poems and he took a couple. I later found out that Perry would have the accepted poems typeset and thumbtacked them all to a bulletin board. When an issue was nearly ready to go to print, he’d look for spaces in the record review section, and the poems which fit the openings were published. RS paid a modest sum upon publication, but I was convinced that hundreds of thousands of readers were having their lives changed by my little ditties hopping out of my typewriter. The RS poems had to be brief, quick and clever….writing for this market was actually good exercise for me at that time, as a writer I mean. How to say something deliberate and humorous, perhaps, was a challenge, and many of the ideas came right out of my journals from that time. To this day, my crisp journal entries, my habitual (yet another bad habit?) collecting of language sticks and stems, often leads to poems—or they become integral parts of poems. I still have the ten or so back issues of RS in which my poems can be found. The chapbook you mention is long out of print………..
CM: But thankfully not your long-overdue first book of poetry, Lower 48 (1999), nor My Psychic Dogs My Life (2008).
You’ve also published a plethora of chapbooks since 1975. The fifteen chaps of yours that grace the shelves of my left field poetry collection are gems of pop-culture mashup, cynical (and sometimes not-so-cynical) advice to the lovelorn, and other timeless matters. The earliest that I have is Positions, published by Morgan Press in 1976—a beauty of a little book.
Morgan Press and the others that have published your chapbooks read like a who’s who of renegade small presses from the 70s to the present: to name only a handful, Pentagram, Shockbox, Rumba Train, Blank Gun, Semiquasi, Lavender Ink, and of course your own self-styled “All Bohemian Revue,” the justly infamous Fell Swoop.
There’s a whiff of samizdat—or at least underground basement operation—about the small press culture and especially these chaps. Please describe your affinity for chapbooks, which you’ve made into a kind of art form in your oeuvre, and your experience publishing them with the small presses that you’ve worked with over the years.
[“I got a small printing press one Christmas and began printing The Garfield Gazette . . . I’d leave copies on the neighbors’ front porches.”]
JD: You’re probably the one person besides me who thinks Lower 48 was overdue…..When I was growing up the kinds of jobs I imagined one day having all had to do with communication: I wanted to be a radio announcer, a journalist, a teacher. I got a small printing press one Christmas and began printing The Garfield Gazette, a three or four page newspaper. My mom still has a few issues salted away. I’d leave copies on the neighbors’ front porches. So this yearning to communicate was strong within me. I got onto poetry via Rod McKuen during my adolescent years and began writing. When the quality improved years later, 1975 saw my first chapbook, Exploring Another Leg, issued from Pentagram. Some of those deep-image poems appeared in magazines, but I had the feeling that them appearing separately diminished their impact. I needed to group them, the best of them, and fashion a chapbook—which I did, and the ms. hit Mike Tarachow at the right moment; he was very excited and had to publish it. Bless him.
Jack Spicer of course had the great idea that individual poems were better in a field of work; his notion of writing books (or chapbooks) instead of single poems was a valuable insight and very different from the workshop idea of penning the immortal poem, the one that will get you into The Greatest Hits of Am Po…..I’ve reveled in obscurity my whole writing life, and publishing with presses that were close to the ground, or even underground, well, they were a fit for my work, which is chafing at the margins, and now satirically attacks mainstream media, Am “culture” (when I hear the word ‘culture,’ I reach for the remote), and Am Poetry itself….I’m comfortable standing at the edge of the crowd rather than being engulfed in the thick of it.
CM: I hope someday we’ll be treated to the greatest hits from The Garfield Gazette!
I know that the work of Ted Berrigan was important to you early on. What was it about Berrigan’s work that affected you? What other poets were early influences? If you were to write your bildungsroman, would you describe any poetic epiphanies?
[“We met Ted and Alice at the train station with a cold Pepsi (we had read The Sonnets, noting Ted’s favorite liquid) and he began talking and chain smoking….”]
JD: Don’t hold your breath for seeing issues of The Garfield Gazette! I spent my junior year abroad at the University of Nottingham. At the time I was writing but I thought I was going to become an English professor with a Phd in Literature and the Nottingham year was, I thought, a necessary stepping stone in my envisioned academic career—but I was wrong about that….I met Philip Jenkins, a fellow student, a Welshman, at school there and he was heavily into the New York School and got me reading those poets, as well as the Black Mountain gang. Then we learned Ted Berrigan and the pregnant Alice Notley were at Essex for the year where Ted was teaching. Jenks took over the fledgling Literary Society and used its budgeted funds to bring this barbarian Ted Berrigan to read and give a lecture. We met Ted and Alice at the train station with a cold Pepsi (we had read The Sonnets, noting Ted’s favorite liquid) and he began talking and chain smoking….What he had to say in his non-stop fashion was beyond interesting. I had stopped attending classes at the university; I was disenchanted with the academick path I once sought and didn’t know what to do next…..Ted came on like gangbusters. His American accent, his bearing, his sureness in the idea that serving Poetry and living Poetry was not only the right choice, but the only choice—that devotion—all of that impressed me and guided me. Plus, at his reading he read great stuff; his works were terrific! Meeting him there on foreign soil changed my life for the better. I’ve never doubted that. Ted’s works have a lot to teach writers, and I’m delighted to see his Collected Poems and now his Selected Poems published so that a new generation has access to his work.
CM: Surprised by French Fries (haven’t we all been?) is a terrific chapbook hot off the Ugly Duckling Presse. The poems are by turns irreverent (“no ideas but in socks”), enlightened (“The earflaps are detachable so shutup.org”), and disturbed (“The previous owner may be previously disturbed”). Do you think of your poetry as holding up a mirror to media-saturated baby boomers and Gen-X? If we recognize ourselves in that mirror, should we be afraid? Very afraid?
Or do you think of it as helping us to chuckle through the sobbing?
[“How to be boring in a new way is not my goal. The language has to be up to something….”]
JD: I think we should all be terrified every second. Hiding under the bed as a matter of course can become a way of life, an indoor sport. Humor has always been an effective instrument and the definition of satire is humor with a point or at the point of a sword. I like to think that a reader of my work is immediately thrown off-balance by the poem not reading like his or her concept of what a poem is, or what it can do. For me, poetry has got to be entertaining and I set that standard for my own little creations, my windup monsters unleashed on unsuspecting readers of any generation. Milton Berle, that great standup slam poet, once said, “Laughter is an instant vacation…” I agree with him. Another great poet of our time whose works I treasure and admire, Anselm Hollo, once told me that for him if Language Poets didn’t have a sense of humor on display in their works it was a problem because then all you have is this dry, unending language flow. How to be boring in a new way is not my goal. The language has to be up to something…. I often surprise myself with the zingers that line up in my works….they are often pulled from my journal in which I record all manner of language bits, from magazine covers, tv news broadcasts, things I hear people say, to offbeat or common phrases I discover in student papers. The language surrounding us and creating our agreed-upon “reality” is rich, and out of that language pipe, I fashion poems. Ideally, the poems create an experience themselves instead of narrating past experiences—reading the poem is itself a fresh experience……
CM: Your poetry has been unflagging in its satirical edginess—to pick up on Berle, it has been an uninterrupted vacation. Has your writing changed from the time you started publishing around the mid-70s leading up to your most recent book, My Psychic Dog My Life, published by Lavender Ink, and beyond? Have you become more inclined, like a good Strangelove subject, to stop worrying and love the detritus of mass-pop-culture (please don’t reach for the remote just yet)? Or less?
[“. . . beneath this entertainment surface, there’s a critical, satirical message that happens without my completely controlling and engineering it . . .”]
JD: Recently a girlfriend of mine from the 70s when I was starting out with writing, recently she contacted me after no contact for 30+ years to say I ruined her life and she was dispatching a team of professional assassins to “take me out…” (just kidding). Actually, she was cleaning out her attic and stumbled upon a box of my letters, poems I’d written, etc. She was going to throw it all away but then thought better, found and emailed me, and sent this box, a literal and figurative blast from the past.. In exchange I sent her some recent books. She was astonished by how the 2011 scribblings were so different from the 1975 works—but she said many of the same elements were visible in the later works that she knew from the early, young man poems. Yes, a line of development (and hopefully, improvement) is clear as it is in many poets’ work if you get to see all of it. My poems from the 70s were more serious, but then I was also writing comical prose poems, and the Rolling Stone poems were lighter in tone. The surface of my writing now is fast in pace, humorous often by way of juxtaposition, but beneath this entertainment surface, there’s a critical, satirical message that happens without my completely controlling and engineering it. The message shows up, and I hope it’s heard or understood, understand?
CM: And the message is all the more effective, I think, because, as you say, you don’t completely control and engineer it, which is as good a segue as any to my next question.
Something you told me years ago about writing and editing has stayed with me, a twist on Kerouac: “First thought, best thought—unless it’s not.” I like the way this alerts us not to take the dictums of the legendaries too categorically. With all the manifestos and -isms stirring up the history of poetry, is there a danger in taking poetic camps and icons too seriously?
[“My entire life I’ve yearned, especially at night, to one day become an ism and finally amount to something….”]
JD: Wait a sec, Camille—this question’s a lob, a telegraphed fastball right down the middle of the dinner plate…..I adore the movements and the isms….My entire life I’ve yearned, especially at night, to one day become an ism and finally amount to something….I liked Actualism, actually, a movement out of Iowa City (of all places!) in the 70s—which was a tongue-in-cheek goof, sort of, on isms and movements. The interested reader can find an informative essay on Actualism by Dave Morice on Andrei Codrescu’s website. Who’s to say the Surrealists weren’t kidding? Marcel DuChamp was—or wasn’t he? Writers of the NY School never really fancied themselves a school at all, but it’s facile to refer to them in that way. Same with The Language School or Black Mountain (which really was a school, sort of, with a campus and a towering giant named Charles Olson) These are individual writers whose work deserves individual attention (in varying degrees)….I believe there’s a real danger in taking everything too seriously—and for a poet, taking him/herself too seriously? That is a disaster, as it shows up in self-inflated, self-important, self-serving (that’s a good dose of self, no?) poetry which isn’t worth reading….I’m a cardcarrying member of the infamous Post Contemporary School—wanna see my badge?
CM: That’s tempting, Joel, let’s talk.
You have now published more than a hundred issues of the intrepid Fell Swoop, which takes its cue from the great mimeographed zines of the 60s such as Ed Sanders’ Fuck You: A Magazine of the Arts. That makes it one of the longest-running small press magazines on earth. Ever. And it’s the only one I know that, like a box of Cracker Jacks on crack, includes the occasional plastic utensil to surprise and delight the unsuspecting subscriber.
the “None of the Talent, Half the Brain” issue
What’s the history of the Swoop? If there’s a secret to its longevity, does it come in a convenient, easy-to-swallow capsule? And do we dare to hope that it will never, ever, bow out gracefully?
[“Our stated mission is to destroy American Literature . . .”]
JD: It’s really a newsletter for the Insane or the Inane; it’s a bad habit and I’ll probably go blind from keeping at it….I’ve vowed to quit producing the Swoop dozens of times, but always returned to do another issue. I enjoy making the issues and sending them out….I guess when I stop enjoying the process, I’ll quit it. Our stated mission is to destroy American Literature, with a spotlight on Am Po, but truly Am Po is proving adept at destroying itself; it’s fraught with self involved careerists who are churning out Real Drivel (as opposed to Unreal Drivel, which might be more interesting)—and getting rewarded for it, as they slime trail along their “career paths” to Hooterville….
[“. . . the magazine was born the summer Ted Berrigan died, in the early 80s. My reaction to his death was to create something.”]
History? The right Reverend Richard Martin has been a contributor to every general issue; he is also our Resident Historian, a non-paying and rather cramped position….the magazine was born the summer Ted Berrigan died, in the early 80s. My reaction to his death was to create something, and so the Swooper was birthed and has continued these many years, publishing hundreds of engaging and worthwhile writers—including you, Camille…..
CM: It has been a privilege to contribute to the Swoop’s worthy cause of general mayhem.
Speaking of mayhem of a different sort, you and your family were greatly affected by Hurricane Katrina. Your home was flooded and you were displaced for months. I’ll never forget when you Fed-Exed your house key to me from your Pennsylvania home-away-from-home, so that I could sneak back into New Orleans, still under mandatory evacuation, and check up on your two cats.
In post-apocalyptic New Orleans, there was a point when Fell Swoop aficionados wondered whether the magazine would survive the disruption and continue to inject us with an antidote of impertinent chutzpah on a semi-regular basis. Après le deluge, what has given you the grit to forge ahead with your magazine, your poetry, and life in general?
A related question: In My Psychic Dogs My Life, there’s a section written under the sign of Katrina, “My Evacuation.” Whereas some poetry inspired by that muse-bitch takes a more lyrical, somber approach, in your work there seems to be a continuum in your absurdist take on the horrors-that-be—no doubt reflecting the nonstop flow of sense-defying news, pre- and post-K, in the (un)real world from which you draw your poetic raw materials. Was it difficult writing after Katrina, or was it—so to speak—cathartic?
[“It was a lot of work mixed with truckloads of Uncertainty, but, hell, the terms of existence bleed Uncertainty—”]
JD: Katrina spawned a lot of things: reconstruction, displacement, suicides, divorces, widespread fraud—and I have to tell you, HK “inspired” a lot of terrible poetry. Of course HK affected me personally, as you point out, but in terms of my writing, it added a layer, another post-apocalyptic level. We literally started over here and did without numerous comforts people take for granted. There was no mail delivery in Orleans Parish for weeks, so the Swoop rented a po box in nearby Metairie in order to receive and send dispatches; we published an issue with Joe Brainard’s adapted and adopted beloved comic character Nancy on the cover screaming “Help!” We’re the better for having experienced HK I think; the city is stronger and making a comeback. It was a lot of work mixed with truckloads of Uncertainty, but, hell, the terms of existence bleed Uncertainty—we foolishly convince ourselves that we’re secure. Olson’s warning comes to mind, “Beware of Permanence!” Part of returning to the ‘normalcy’ of my life after HK was getting back to writing; the hurricane changed many things but not my continued and continuous absurdist view of the world and peddling it through new poems.
the historic Nancy issue
CM: Are there any top-secret projects in the wings that you’d like to spill to WikiLeaks?
[“We just released The Human Bond by Clark Coolidge, a single author issue. This is Clark’s recent James Bond sonnets—not to be missed.”]
JD: I wish I had a top secret or a top hat project to give you and your readers a scoop, but o and alas. We just released The Human Bond by Clark Coolidge, a single author issue. This is Clark’s recent James Bond sonnets—not to be missed. He is a very interesting writer whose work I obviously value, a writer who’s sort of flying beneath the radar, but his work pushes limits and buttons and it does and has been doing so since the 60s. Another recent single author number is The ABC Of Duck, by a creature named Duck Martian, an alphabetical work; this feathered fowl definitely knows his ABC’s. So interesting material is still being created, and Fell Swoop is proud to offer these works to an adoring public……
CM: Rightly so.
I’ve known you for a long time, Joel, yet the marrow of your being remains a mystery to me. My Psychic Dogs My Life opens with a devastating autobiographical exposé:
A little about my life
Please help your fans understand: who’s the real Joel Dailey? Who or what will we encounter under the layers of shrinkwrap?
[“We’re all walking (or crawling) contradictions…..”]
JD: You make me chuckle, Camille….What’s inside your shrinkwrap? I looked up the meaning of my first name once; Joel was defined as “lover of literature,” and that’s true, I am. I often teach British Lit. Survey; the Romantic Age is my favorite period. I love Shakespeare’s tragedies. My two daughters grew up hearing, “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child!” I can leer like Lear. My tastes in fiction tend to be conventional (Jane Austen is the berries, as Al Capone might have said) rather than experimental or just plain old mental. We’re all walking (or crawling) contradictions…..It’s like my Uncle Walt was fond of observing, “Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes….” In point of measurable fact, I’m an extra-large——
CM: Thank you for sharing, Joel.
For our readers: Below is a bonus package of Dailey chapbooks. Click on any one to get the gallery view.
I photo-shopped the above image of myself because I’ve never taken such a staged picture of myself. And I’ve never really experienced an identity crisis of nationality since immigrating from the United States to Canada. But I have been thinking about nationality lately. When I was living in the United States, I never described myself as an American poet. And these days, a full-fledged citizen of Canada and a resident for almost five years, I don’t generally refer to myself as a Canadian poet. I’ve long harboured a fantasy of belonging to a city-state, and when I was in the United States, I referred to myself as a New Orleans poet, just as now, in Canada, I call myself a Toronto poet.
I’ve had a love-hate relationship with both the United States and Canada. Canada: health care system rocks, winter sucks. United States: Obama rocks (most of the time); Homeland Security, the Patriot Act, and Total Information Awareness (remember that short-lived megalomanic agency?) suck. In New Orleans, at the height of terrorist paranoia and duct tape frenzy, I was threatened with arrest for taking photographs, on public ground, of well-known monumental sculptures in front of a bank. That sucked.
But my identity was never very dependent on nationality. Especially since Desert Storm, I haven’t self-identified as American, but I have always defined myself in part as Cajun. For me, the local or marginal identity, determined by patterns of settlement, wins out over the relatively artificial boundaries of nationhood. Even so, although I consider myself Cajun, not only by virtue of my father being Cajun but also because I was steeped in Cajun culture since birth, I was at the same time always looking over the shoulders of the culture, to an extent experiencing it vicariously. In Cajun country, I’m a Cajun and something of an alien. And now I live in Canada as a Canadian citizen.
Canada’s identity has historically been shaped, in part, by its conscientious differentiation from the cultural behemoth south of the 49th parallel: to generalize, collectivism over individualism, peaceful resolution over escalation and violent enforcement, diplomacy and compromise over chauvinism and autocracy. However, even though I’m more sympathetic to such professed Canadian ideals, I don’t feel a strong desire to differentiate my poetry by nationality. In matters of culture (not so much pop culture, in which a certain amount of American hegemony is guaranteed by television, film, and commercial culture), I’m all for cross-pollination. I’ve been influenced by poets from the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Ireland, France, Japan, Hungary, Iran, Australia, Portugal, Ancient Greece, Finland . . . and the list goes on.
Yet the reality is that Canadian government grants do not generally encourage reading venues to invite American poets (though this might be relaxing a little). Customs duties and taxes ensure that one is far less likely to find American poets on the shelves of Canadian bookstores. And vice versa, I hasten to add. Some American poets I knew were hard-pressed to name a single Canadian poet. I plead guilty to having been fairly ignorant, with some exceptions, of Canadian poetry before my move here. And I continue to bridge the knowledge and appreciation gap.
Another reality is the anthology by nationhood. The anthology of Canadian poetry is a recurring staple in the poetry publishing world and a vexed one because of issues of inclusion and exclusion (a nature of the anthology beast) as these issues collide with issues of ethnicity and political borders. To see how complex the issue can become, read George Elliotte Clarke’s essay “Must All Blackness Be American?: Locating Canada in Borden’s ‘Tightrope Time,’ or Nationalizing Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic.”
I’ve yet to see the hybrid American-Canadian anthology. Have I truly crossed the border poetically when I’m included in a Canadian anthology? I was recently featured in a Canadian online magazine, ditch, as a Canadian poet. There I was, in the inner circle along with the true-blooded Canadians, born under the loving gaze of Queen Elizabeth. Never having switched countries before, this was a new experience. I felt as though my mask of Canadian-ness might slip off at any moment and I would be revealed as a poser.
So am I a Canadian poet? I remember the first grant that I got, two years after moving to Canada as a Permanent Resident—a Work-in-Progress grant from the Ontario Arts Council. A couple of my Canadian poet friends expressed surprise that I was officially qualified to apply for such a grant. Obviously, for granting purposes, I was as Canadian as the true children of the True North.
What about my poetry – is there anything “Canadian” (however that might be defined) about it? A good deal of my poetry stems from my experience in the moment, wherever I happen to be: walking through downtown New Orleans, riding the Métro in Paris, or sitting in my Canadian apartment gazing at Canadian clouds drifting across the northern skies. As soon as I moved up here, my surroundings crept into my poems: ice and snow, especially, but also street scenes and people.
As my new book, Sonnets, which was written entirely in Canada funded by a grant from the Ontario Arts Council, is collected in libraries in Canada and the United States, it’s interesting to note that Canadian libraries use the classification for a Canadian poet, and American libraries use the classification for an American poet. That’s fine by me—I’m happy to be claimed by both countries.
And what do/should I call myself? Am I a hyphenated Canadian? I’ve read a bit about the dilemma of immigrants regarding whether or not to hyphenate the old and the new countries: Somali-Canadian, for example. And some bemoan perceived racial overtones in the tendency to hyphenating all but native-English-speaking immigrants of European descent. “British-Canadian” and “American-Canadian” are less frequently heard expressions than, say, Pakistani-Canadian. And “American expat” is heard more frequently than “Chinese expat.” I hyphenated myself once recently—American-Canadian—for a bio, just to try it on for size. It felt odd. First, to me the hyphenation implies that one is retaining a connection to the cultural heritage from the country of origin, which doesn’t ring true to me. Maybe Cajun-Canadian would be more accurate. Also, there’s a part of me—the part that made me want to move here—that wanted to be just “Canadian.”
I don’t think that I can give a straight or easy answer to the question of whether or not am—or feel—Canadian. “Canadian” to an immigrant might not be a fact so much as an assumed identity. Facts: I was born in El Dorado, Arkansas; I’ve lived most of my life in Louisiana; I came to Canada as a Permanent Resident in October 2005; I’ve lived in Toronto for almost five years; I’m now a Canadian citizen as well as an American citizen; my ancestors were Acadians in present-day Nova Scotia, then Acadie (and, interesting sidenote, until a generation or so ago, there were still older Cajun folk in Louisiana who referred—not without a tinge of disdain—to “les Américains” and who retained a distant memory of the Mi’kmaqs).
I’m ambivalent regarding a sense of national belonging as an American or a Canadian. No doubt part of that lack of nationalistic pride or fervour stems from my friendship with anarchists in New Orleans and France for many years and my interest in anarchist critique, historically, of the nation-state. I’ve never been the patriotic type.
But I do identify ethnically as a Cajun. And since making my recent “pilgrimages” to Nova Scotia, the land of my French ancestors, I’ve come to feel a sense of closeness to the people living in the remaining Acadian towns and villages of southwestern Nova Scotia, such as West Pubnico and Church Point. Talking with the Acadian descendants in Nova Scotia, I sometimes had the eerie feeling that I had been teleported to rural south-central Louisiana. It wasn’t only the French names and language, it was the gregariousness, the unreserved joking, the welcoming of strangers, the nicknames, the proclivity for satirical mimicry and for storytelling, the close-knit community.
I suppose I am something of a poser. I pose as a Canadian poet for grants because I can legitimately do so—I have for several years now qualified for grants issued by the governments of Canada, Ontario, and Toronto. And I’m extremely grateful for the privilege to live in a country where the government actually encourages the arts. When I first moved to Canada, I was fascinated by the new currency (loonies and toonies: cool) and by something in very small print on the twenty-dollar bill that still jolts me into an awareness of Canadian difference. I was accustomed to symbols of authority, monotheism, and divine providence on American paper currency. On the Canadian twenty-dollar bill, I saw images of sculptures by Bill Reid, a Canadian artist depicting aspects of the Haida culture of Canada’s northwest coast and, in tiny print, the words of French-Canadian poet Gabrielle Roy: “Could we ever know each other in the slightest without the arts?”
Some might shrug and say, “lip service”—especially considering recent budget cuts to the arts in Canada. Nonetheless, that statement as well as the generous granting system (generous especially when compared to comparable government funding in the United States) tends to create an atmosphere in which the arts are valued.
So as far as the government is concerned, I’m Canadian. And I pose as a Canadian poet for anthologies with the rationale that most of the poetry that I’m writing is born in Canada (does that make my poetic progeny second-generation Canadian?).
I also pose as an American poet because, after all, my poetic lineage is largely and undeniably American since I wasn’t exposed to much Canadian poetry when I started writing poetry in earnest. And besides, my American/Southern accent is hard to hide. Try as I might to switch to “zed” and to learn the subtleties of interjecting “eh” in conversation, I’m not sure I’ll ever pass the Canadian shibboleth.
And aware as I am of subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) manifestations of anti-Americanism, I trust that most people involved in the arts are enlightened enough not to harbour irrational prejudices against those Americans who have decided, for whatever reason, to leave the United States and embrace Canada. Surely attitudes have changed since the time when a Czech-Canadian painter was denied a grant by the Canada Council of the Arts because, as he was told by the panel, his work wasn’t “Canadian” enough. Following that rejection, he didn’t change his style but if you look closely, he has subtly worked into some of his paintings a maple leaf, as if to say with wry humour, ok, now is my work Canadian enough? Nonetheless, a Canadian press not long ago turned down a manuscript of mine because it was deemed to be “too American.” Is there a lingering bias against Canadian poets born in the United States? Does this reflect cultural protectionism, and if so, is there any place for this in decisions about grants and publications?
The 49th parallel isn’t meaningless—of course, Canadian poetry has its own heritage, lineages, traditions, schools, tendencies, and so on. I’ve noticed a more prevalent concern with political issues—ecology, feminism, poverty, diversity—in both mainstream and avant verse. And there is an ongoing fascination among many Canadian poets, especially of the experimental persuasion, with conceptual poetry: oulipian gestures seem to thrive here among certain poets and readers. Molly Peacock, in her forward to Open Field: 30 Contemporary Canadian Poets, notes another difference and gives the following advice for Americans reading that anthology:
“Don’t panic if each poem doesn’t start with a bang. While American poets train for the high-diving board, jackknifing into the deep end of the pool, Canadian poets presume that readers will let them wade out until their feet no longer touch bottom. So if you are used to the fast splash of the American poem, a Canadian poem may seem as interminable as a raga is to the listeners of a pop song. In other words, you may feel yourself wondering when these poets will get to their points. In fact, there will probably be several points; Canadian time is time unwinding, not time in a flash.” (xiv)
I could say something similar (though probably not as eloquently as Molly) about some American poetry. Nonetheless, broad strokes are useful for conceptualizing cultural difference. And Sina Queyras has some trenchant observations, in her introduction to that anthology, of some of the characteristics and tendencies in Canadian poetry, especially regarding attitudes toward nature. Such anthologies, designed to introduce Americans to Canadian work that deserves to be appreciated, are needed to bridge the gap of ignorance on the part of American readers. That kind of cultural exchange can only be a healthy thing.
The cultural differences between Canada and the United States are also reflected in daily life, and I can’t write an essay about being an American poet in Canada without commenting on such differences that I immediately became aware of when I set foot in Toronto in February 2004 to get a feel for the city where I wanted to relocate. Observing the advertising in the streets and subways, I noticed that the atmosphere of crass commercialism and materialism to which I was accustomed was a little toned down, and public service billboards were more frequent. The lack of racial tension on the streets was a refreshing change from the charged and often angry atmosphere in New Orleans, a city that still carries the baggage of historical racism. The rude, sexist comments by men in urban American streets were simply non-existent here. Once, as I was emerging from a Toronto subway station, a young man called out to me, smiling, “Looking good tonight!” It was sweetly appreciative; I smiled back.
And I felt relatively safe in Toronto. I remember walking after dark with another woman to a poetry reading soon after I moved here. She decided to take a short cut through a park. I was terrified. “Are you sure it’s safe?” I asked. She just laughed and kept walking. I followed, looking around warily. I don’t think she realized the extent to which people in New Orleans are regularly mugged and even killed in parks. Tourists wandering into New Orleans’ famous parks and cemeteries are easy targets. “Another tourist shot in Armstrong Park” became an unfortunate cliche. New Orleans remains the murder capital of the United States—an extreme example, perhaps, but all major American cities struggle with similar kinds of problems—poverty, crime, racism, poor education, extreme divisions of wealth and poverty, and the ill-effects of decades of unaffordable or unavailable health care and other social services. Canadian cities struggle with some of these issues as well, but generally speaking, the problems are not as extreme as in the United States.
I’m thrilled to be living in Canada, and I have come to love Toronto. I live downtown, in the heart of Old Toronto, in a cooperative apartment complex. The building is owned by a non-profit corporation; thus there is no landlord charging exorbitant rent while neglecting repairs. When I first moved here, I felt like Mary Tyler Moore in Minneapolis, ecstatically tossing her hat into the air (if you’ll pardon the American pop culture reference). After experiencing the demoralization of life in New Orleans, pre- and post-Katrina, I was elated to live in a city and a country with a different social ethos.
As happy as I am to be here, I suppose I will continue to side-step the issue of Canadian-ness by simply saying that I’m a Toronto poet or to be even more neutral that I’m a poet based in Toronto. But I will also say that living in Canada has been extraordinarily good for me, and I wish I’d moved here years ago. I love many aspects of this country like I never loved the United States. I’ve come to admire many Canadian poets whose work I was never exposed to before I moved here. I’m here to stay.
Am I masking, through my ambivalence, a secret desire to be Canadian, cut and dried, strong and free? No doubt. Part of me likes the idea of being Canadian. But I also know that the issues of nationality, ethnicity, and identity are a lot more complicated, for those born in Canada as well.
My eyes are blue-green. Some days I see them as blue, other days as green. I can talk about the genetics of the colour, the lineage of ancestors from whom I inherited either colour, the factors that influence the colour that I perceive on a given day (such as the clothes I’m wearing, or my lover describing them as blue). I can talk a lot about those things. But deciding which side of the colour fence I’m on is just not something I’m very passionate about.
Below, a blue flag floating on the water at Bayou Sauvage, a wildlife refuge a few miles to the east of New Orleans, photographed during a canoe trip in 2001. The refuge was severely damaged by Katrina from salt water intrusion and wind.
PS: Following this gallery is a an excerpt from “Fat Tuesday’s Heterotopic Splash,” a piece that I wrote for Streetnotes: Cross-Cultural Poetics and revised for this post.
HERE’S A LINK TO THE SECOND GALLERY
Fat Tuesday’s Heterotopic Splash
Mardi Gras in New Orleans contains multitudes, and one of the best places to appreciate its polymorphic revelries is the French Quarter on Fat Tuesday. You only need to avoid most parts of Bourbon Street and the sophomoric guys on balconies coaxing young women on the street below to bare their breasts for the price of a few dangled beads of glittering plastic. A few steps away, a heterotopic paradise opens up: two walking parades (the Society of St. Anne and the Krewe of Kosmic Debris) and the Bourbon Street Awards, a mostly gay costume contest, fill the streets of the Vieux Carré with explosions of color and fantasy.
Here, desires are set loose in a spectrum of attitudes ranging from sublime to ridiculous, mundane to bizarre, deadpan to satirical, erotic to bo-peepish—and everything in between. Some costumes mimic or satirize the familiar pop idol, while others celebrate unrecognizable life forms. The parades feature no overriding theme, but instead invite individuals and groups to explore uncharted and prismatic identities through masking. Categorical sexual identities are drained and then re-envisioned, suggesting a plethora of newly-invented gender cocktails.
In the great street theater of Mardi Gras, privacy is banished, and the public space reigns. Normal conventions of public encounters, such as averting one’s gaze from the approaching stranger (at a distance of eight to ten feet, according to a study in Manhattan) or avoiding unnecessary verbal exchanges, are tossed out. One calls out to the other (“Hey, Pink Showgirl!” “Over here, Mirror Man!”) and the other obliges with a smile and a wave, or poses with dignified or exuberant theatrics.
Exhibitionism and voyeurism are the symbiotic soul of this communal promenade, where it might be considered impolite not to stare at the phantasmagory of characters passing by or to show off your own alterity that you might normally keep carefully veiled. The revellers perform their freakishness to satisfy narcissistic urges and to give delight to the gazer; gazers stare for their own pleasure and for the gratification of the performer. Thus a spirit of cooperation flourishes in the theatrical dialogue as chance conjunctions of identities suggest odd or outright bizarre narratives. Carnival in the French Quarter revels in incompatible sites: it is the epitome of the celebratory heterotopia.
After the well-practised street cleaners and dump trucks roll into action to clear the roads of debris at the stroke of midnight, only questions remain. Are the identities unleashed through this carnivalesque mining of the psyche more true to the self than the groggy, hungover shadow that awakens on Ash Wednesday to a sadly diminished and color-drained universe? Where did the fantastical self that flourished yesterday scurry off to? And when will it re-emerge?
Non-meat food offerings embellish the altars and are usually given to the poor at the end of the celebration. Bread offerings are often baked into shapes of carpenters’ tools such as ladders or saws, but this altar keeps it simple and efficient with a loaf of Sunbeam bread. The beads of moisture condensed inside the plastic bag are a typical phenomenon in subtropical New Orleans, which can be warm and muggy even in mid-March.
During the day, people knelt at the altar and prayed. In the second picture, the woman might appear to be reverently bowing her head, but she was actually dismantling the altar at the end of the day: many of the food offerings have been removed, but the rows of candles remain.
The adoption of Sicilian traditions by African Americans in New Orleans is not an unusual type of cultural phenomenon: the blurring of cultural and religious boundaries is the rule rather than the exception in southern Louisiana, which has historically attracted settlers from all over the world looking for opportunities in spite of the prevalence of diseases and natural disasters, and forcibly brought people from Africa as slaves. For many, survival meant mutual aid within their ethnic communities and interdependence among their diverse neighbours.
Louisiana’s “cultural gumbo” is not a cliché for nothing. Louisiana, especially along the Mississippi Delta, was—and is—a mixture of Spanish, French, African-American, Irish, Italian, Native American, Croatian, Cajun, Creole, German, Czech, Hungarian, British, Isleño (from the Canary Islands), Filipino, Mexican, Cuban, Guatemalan, Chinese, Vietnamese, Laotian, Thai, and more.
As a result of intermingling among ethnic and national groups in Louisiana, Germans along the Côte des Allemands, for example, became more French, translating their names from Zweig to Labranche, and from Troxler to Trosclair. Many of the original Louisiana Germans came from the Alsace region, which partly accounts for the ease with which they shared customs with Louisiana’s French. Some Louisiana Germans have become so distanced over time from their origins that they believe their ancestry to be Cajun or French Creole.
African-Americans intermingled and intermarried with French Creoles, Cajuns, Italians, and Native Americans, among others, and survivals of these blends among blacks can be seen in the French Creole language, St. Joseph’s Day altars, Zydeco music, and the customs of the Mardi Gras Indians.
It would be hard to find a group not influenced by black African and Caribbean culture in Louisiana. And the whole world, late in the twentieth century, tried to become Cajun by eating crawfish and dancing to Beausoleil.
Some groups in Louisiana seem to have had more permeable boundaries than others. Croatians, many of whom developed the oyster industry, created relatively close-knit communities with a tendency to preserve their own cultural heritage and not to mingle their customs with those of other groups.
And generally speaking, in the early settlement of North America, French colonists were more likely than British to intermingle their customs and blood with other groups. When I was researching Acadian culture in Nova Scotia, I discovered the extent to which the Acadians and the Mi’kmaqs, for example, had developed a close and interdependent relationship. One manifestation of the friendship between the two groups was of course their not-infrequent intermarriage. Another striking example of the degree to which both groups let down their boundaries was the syncretistic nature of a spring celebration that evolved: the return of the geese came to be celebrated in a hybrid feast blending Easter rituals with the Mi’kmaq Festival of Dreams and Riddles. I can imagine the consternation of the priests.
From the beginning of their settlement in Louisiana, the Cajuns continued to synthesize the customs that they brought from Acadia with the customs they found in their adopted land. A study of Cajun music, for example, shows influences from hillbilly music, blues, and Texas swing. If the Cajuns were viewed by the rest of the United States as unique and isolated, it was only by comparison with that amorphous category called the “mainstream.”
Throughout much of the first half of the twentieth century, the United States government instituted a policy of assimilation of the Cajuns in Louisiana, and until the late 1960s, many aspects of their culture were finally succumbing to decades of this unenlightened approach. Without a boost from the schools, the French language in Louisiana would probably soon have died out, for mine was the first generation of Cajuns, generally speaking, whose first language wasn’t French and who were increasingly unable to speak in the mother tongue of their parents and grandparents. With the advent of CODOFIL (Council for the Development of French in Louisiana), a more enlightened view of Cajun culture and heritage has permeated the curricula of primary and secondary schools of Acadiana, where Francophone teachers from France and Quebec have been hired to teach children the language of their parents.
Ironically, the movement for the preservation of the Cajun heritage threatened to turn a living culture into ossified museum artifacts. Cajun historical villages such as Vermillionville and Acadian Village recreated for visitors “typical” life in nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Cajun communities, and people flocked to south Louisiana to experience “authentic” Cajun culture. Some forms of historical reflection, however informed or uninformed or misinformed, however laden with stereotypes or invested in historical accuracy, can contribute to the dying of a culture if there is an impetus to petrify it into some notion of its past–especially a past purified of other influences–instead of allowing it to grow, breath, change, and, most importantly, transform and renew itself from contact with other cultures.
One of the consequences of the policy of assimilation was an overall feeling of inferiority on the part of the Cajun people, a conviction that their culture was backwards and their French language less correct that that of their distant Parisian cousins. But pride is not without its pitfalls—pride in some notion of Cajun-ness, of a Cajun purity that never was and never will be. From the moment that the Acadians set foot on the shores of what is now Nova Scotia, they were influenced by the Mi’kmaqs and by the British, with whom they traded and fought. From the time that they settled along the bayous and swamps of the Atchafalaya Basin in Louisiana, they gathered still more influences in their vocabulary, food, customs, stories. Like any migrating group, they brought with and they borrowed from. Purity is an attitude that bears no resemblance to the infinitely re-folded layers of human culture.
At places like this in New Orleans, it’s easy to feel as though you’ve crossed some invisible line and stepped into one of those parallel universes that string theorists talk about. The pennies and cockroach carcasses on the floor paved with bricks inscribed with “THANKS TO ST. ROCH” were sprinkled there by a movie director in the eighth dimension or a tour guide in the eleventh, to make the the place more convincingly reproduce the “authentic” dimension.
But no, it’s as real (or unreal) as the old ladies in Baton Rouge that I used to see praying to the statue of Huey P. Long on the grounds of the state capitol. And that reality is suspended in liminal space, trapped in a time capsule that seems as though it will always bear a close resemblance to whatever age in which its seal is broken.
I imagine sometimes that I feel nostalgic about living in New Orleans, especially when I rummage through my photographs, but really it’s mostly sadness that I feel, not a yearning to be there. St. Roch Chapel got about five feet of water. My neighbourhood was lucky. The area of Carrollton where I lived got only about two feet. I know many people whose homes were destroyed or heavily damaged.
But I didn’t leave New Orleans because of Katrina. Katrina only delayed my move to Toronto. There was a sickness at the heart of the city that caused me seriously to re-think living there. I could walk down my street and point to places where serious crimes had occurred: murder, rape, car-jacking, armed robbery. The racial tension was thick. Poverty, endemic. Public schools and other services, chronically underfunded.
I could easily turn this into a rant about the problems of New Orleans, pre- or post-Katrina. But I started off talking about the chapel. The tradition of placing a replica of one’s healed body part in a shrine or temple is at least as old as the ancient Greeks. There must be a lineage, a thread of tradition, that could be traced from those times all the way to St. Roch Chapel. Across the ages, the appeal to deities to be healed is ubiquitous. I suspect no one will ever put a replica of the city in the chapel, thanking god or saint for healing it. It’s a city whose inertia–whatever the cause–renders it in a state of constant deferral, steeped in nostalgia for what it perhaps never even was. When I think of the song “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?” I can imagine it sung only in New Orleans. It’s when I was living there that I missed it.