Sunday, October 26, 2008

Margaret Christakos notes toward an essay on

As I mentioned earlier, Margaret Christakos was in Montreal to read at the Coach House/Snare book launch last weekend. She closed the show with aplomb, but it was the longer reading the following day at the Simone de Beauvoir Institute that really allowed readers to get a sense of Christakos larger project, a grand poetic that unsettles ideas of domesticity, subjectivity, desire, communication, lyric...

Christakos is one of those poets who seems to remain under the critical radar or, as someone said at the reading, a poet who seems engaged with and "writing for the next generation..." even though she is in fact using tools and tactics very much of the moment. In her last collection, Sooner, she proved that she is a master of the recombinant text, creating bitingly satirical and luminous collages of either self-generated, or google-generated material. I've discussed Christakos before, never at great enough length or in great enough detail. She is also a generous community-minded spirit who sees her work as singular, but plugged into a larger network of poetry and cultural work. She is community minded, and concerned with fostering poetic discussion. To that end she has been running the Influency series out of the U of T's Continuing Education department and causing quite a buzz (take a look at the line-up for Influency 3!). This poetry workshop asks eight poets to encounter and respond to the work of eight other poets and brings the discussion of these poets, as well as the poets themselves, to the classroom. Pedagogically brilliant. And even more brilliant is the idea that these poets not simply bring what they know to the table but that they themselves reach out of their usual frame of reference.
Not only is this series interesting for the poetry it introduces students to, and for the conversation between the poets themselves, but for the way it illustrates reading practices.

Christakos is also a great reader of her work in terms of her presentation of it performatively and in her discussion of it. Those up for poetry at 12:30 on a Monday and who managed to make it to the Simon deBeauvoir Institute were treated to a good hour of text, from both from Sooner and What Stirs, Christakos new book. What Stirs traces the notion of the "latch" both literally and figuratively as a sense of connection between mother and child, between reader and text, self and other, subject and referent, door and lock, and so on.

Christakos describes her own work as employing strategic word pairings harvested from the internet and elsewhere, to construct "forceful collages." The indeterminate narrator undoes, or troubles lyric expectations. The latter isn't perhaps news anymore (Hejinian, Howe, Moure, Robertson, Zolf, Riley, and so on), nor are Christakos methods of troubling lyric, but what she does with all of that certainly is original and effective. Thematically What Stirs operates, as I stated, as an exploration of the word "latch" and its many implications, most importantly the notion of entitlement and comfort. Grace Jones comes to mind here, her strangely haunting disco hit from the early 1980s in terms of our endless desire for comfort and capacity for entitlement. What if what we have is enough, Christakos asks. What if we are sated? Why are our fists still out for more?

One of the powerful forces at work in Christakos is the complicated representations of motherhood and domesticity. I talked about this in my essay on Canadian poetry for the Gulf Coast Review, but Christakos is the most inventive "domestic" poet I've ever encountered (other than perhaps Elizabeth Treadwell, post on her to come). Here we see a poet/mother figure who traces desire textually/linguistically/and literally through her texts such as "News & Now," "Mumsy," and "Used:"
Be a letdown Always match Cleverly
match the gaunt Be up up
vain All the cleverly the punk
bowtie with some nice elbows Zesty

Almost gaunt.
The desiring mother with her nursery rhymes and status as President of the Frank Sinatra fan club serve as markers here, the text using the tropes of mother/child expectations: the repetitions that soothe and the differences that surprise and offer pleasure. Throughout the text Christakos returns to latch, turning and turning the word on its head, so that we see the "maternal subject negotiating her desire to resist the suction of the 'latch'" through costuming in poems such as "My Attache Case," for example, the usual shopping tropes in "Visual Splendour Coupons," and "Lost ('Immortal')" There is a lot of fun in this text. Very subversive fun. "Turret Door," had me laughing out loud:She
She lifted the hyphen dash and entered the turret door, while the lady and I waited below.
SheHe'll dash on fine initially, then he pulls off and pops himself back on with a shallow dash.
SheThe pink one has a hyphen dash for the lid and would look real cute on a chain.
SheSo they think because there is a hyphen dash you push under a flange a bear could not watch you once and figure the whole thing out.
SheI will have to come up with some sort of hyphen dash.
SheI admit that I am an addict.
SheDash hooking is my life.
The latch becomes what we click down, attempt to hold in place, rely on, undo and do. Finally we see the very structures of language, letters latching one to the other, piercing and clicking our own tongues.

I thought that Sooner showed the poet at the top of her game, but What Stirs is an even more concise exploration of similar themes and a lesson in the possibility and power unleashed in innovative poetic craft. What is the difference between this and flarf? That would (and I think will) be an intriguing discussion for I think the efficacy and power of that mode should not be underestimated. These are rigorously honed syntactical and etymological machines. Anyone who thinks that feminism or motherhood isn't sexy, simply hasn't read Christakos. She pushes the envelope here in her willingness to offer up details of the body and its yearnings as much as she is instructing us on the practices of using found text.
If the geese thought they'd still have time
they were wrong

A bonk on the wing is better
than sewer rats for lunch

The way to San Jose is aquiver
with few and fewer friends

Ba ba ba ba ba ba-ba bah-
Anyone engaged in recombinant or google sculpting must contend with Christakos. And she has set the bar high. The only aspect of this poetry that frustrates is the fact that encountering it without the benefit of discussion can be so unproductive. But I think that the lack of critical engagement with such texts is the problem ultimately, not the texts themselves. Having sat in on a lecture on collage in the art department the other day clarified for me that absolute desert of poetic discourse. Where might one hear a similar lecture on the use of collage in poetry, for example? Ah yes,

(In the interest of time I'm posting this in progress. Samples of poems to be added. Meanwhile you can see two Christakos poems on an earlier post, and recent poems appear on Ditch. In a few weeks there will also be a guest reading of a Christakos poem.)


Liz Bachinsky said...

I think margaret is a brilliant poet. I always look forward to her new books and what stirs is probably my favorite yet. I enjoy her humour, accessibility, and invention (particularly the sculptural qualities of the work). And there's nothing standoffish about her poetry. It draws you in to the domestic in a truly engaging manner that doesn't seem self-indulgent or self-pitying...even seriously harrowing collections like excessive love prosthesis have the particular tang of real artistry. I feel as if I can always trust her voice to take me somewhere interesting and insightful. I guess that's when I know I'm reading real poetry, when the trust enters in. love her work.

Lemon Hound said...

Thanks Liz. Seriously harrowing indeed.

q. said...

Doesn't it seem interesting that she's a Canadian poet? Her work doesn't exactly fit in with the meek propriety of a lot of Canadian poetry. (I mean this in a good way: she hasn't let much get in the way of writing what she wants, it seems.) But, also, I don't think this kind of Canadian writing (if it even is a "kind") is bad--just that if one's writing differs from this approach it may be met with knit brows and misunderstanding.

But "outsider" isn't exactly the correct word for her work either, as you've seemed to hint at. She has surmounted the obscurity that a lot of queer writers face, I think; perhaps this is thanks in part to being open to diverse readership and having insight into things like human connection and motherhood. But then again she doesn't completely separate queerness from mothering, which is encouraging.

I agree that she's under the radar. I've wanted to read her work with some theoretical help, but I haven't been able to find it, really. Not in academic journals or elsewhere. Upsetting, since I'd really like to have a dialogue about it.

I say this as someone who's never met her in person. I missed a reading she gave in my area a while ago. I know I'll hear her read sometime. In the meantime I'm excited to read What Stirs.

Lemon Hound said...

Actually, Canadian poetry is extremely diverse, with influential strands of innovation. I prefer to think of it as Canadian poetries.

Christakos herself cites bp Nichol as a major influence, and even a mentor.

One of the many frustrations facing Canadian poets and readers of Canadian poetry is the fact that what gets discussed is so limited. So here's to broadening that discussion.

Thanks for the visit, Q.

Lemon Hound said...

See among other things,
Drucker on

Gregg Betts' Plunderverse

q. said...

I hope I didn't give the impression that I think there's only one strain of Canadian poetry. I meant, but didn't convey, that I think certain types of poetry get paid attention to a lot--as if they were the only kinds. I am Canadian too and the lack of critical work sometimes makes me think that the silence means something. It may not, though. Hmm. Gregg Betts's Plunderverse is quite awesome, I agree. Thanks for the linkage. It's helpful...

Lemon Hound said...

Yes, you're right. There seem to be continual attempts to edit out this "nonsense" as one critic called it.

See the side bar for great readings of Canadian poems from Jason Christie and Greg Betts. More to come on all of this. It's much needed.