The essential purpose of my work is to challenge familiar topoi and normatives of poetic activity as they pertain to environmental, humanitarian and textual activism in ‘the world-at-large’: to show how ambiguity can be a generative force when it works from a basis of non-ambiguity of purpose. The ‘disambiguation’ is a major difference with all other critical works on generative ambiguities: I state there is a clear unambiguous position to have regarding issues of justice, but that from confirmed points, ambiguity can be an intense and useful activist tool. There is an undoing of an apparent paradox of text in terms of ‘in the real world’ activism. It becomes an issue of consequences arising from creative work and positioning. Whether in discussing a particular literary text or ‘event in the world’, I make use of creative texts at specific sites of a broader, intertextual and interconnected activism.
This book aims to develop textual and literary mechanisms – a poetics – for dialogue and exchange between different ‘communities’, in order to enhance positive communication and empathy, and lead to ‘conflict’ resolution, seeking ‘common ground’ for social and cultural interaction. This might be subtextual in most instances, but the suggestions are as relevant as the overt statements, and if this generates ambiguities, it also generates multiples points of departure from a status quo (of text, of reading, of context), from the nexus or tangled webbing of communications – it offers nodal points, zones of agglomeration and coalescence, moments beyond the ambiguities. The core principle here is the notion of exchange between communal and individual voices privileged in how they are received and heard outside their own communities, and those who are only (and often barely) heard within their own communities, struggling to be heard in a way that can implement positive change for themselves, their communities, and humanity as a whole.
On an Innovative Poet’s Book, Never Published – Asked to write an introduction to a new book of poetry by Scott-Patrick Mitchell that never appeared, I wondered about the life of such texts (the book itself, the intro apropos of a ‘hidden text’). Within this book, this short chapter is an example of the evasiveness of critical text-making, where its referent is ‘lost’ or changes into something else (Scott-Patrick Mitchell’s poems would find different lives in different contexts). So the book itself becomes ambiguous, as all physical manifestations of texts are vulnerable to deletion, erasure, to loss in some form. In the first volume of this trilogy, I discussed the erasure of digital files of record I called ‘Net Death’, and in some ways this echoes that. But it’s different – the loss is only partial in the immediate, and the text written remains a moment of engagement that says something, I think, about textual practice. The direct relevance to the argument of this book resides in the following quote: ‘Love and desire, lust and consummation, are not about imposition. Again and again, these are poems of rights, poems of language’s possibility to extend outside the status quo, to particularise and universalise at once, over and over, but to know respect and intactness of self and community.’ Scott-Patrick Mitchell identifies as ‘non-binary’, and it should be said clearly here that this does not necessarily accord with ‘ambiguity’. The defining of ‘non-binary’ as ‘ambiguous’ is completely at odds with the affirming decision-making behind identity. Such ‘definitions’ are beyond ambiguity, and only those who see a binary in gender will construct a discourse. In their poetry, Mitchell deals with ambiguity of language and even situations and interfaces with world, but this is not via an ambiguity of identity. Sexuality and desire are central to the poet’s poetics, but they are not fixed by even the language they use.
The Inherent Reciprocities of Memoir-making: On the Memoirs of Evelyn Shakir and George Ellenbogen. This section was written to accompany the co-publication of earlier memoirs of Shakir and Ellenbogen in French- and German-language editions (this ‘introduction’ is unpublished prior to this in English), but also in the context of this work as whole (I discussed the context with George Ellenbogen). Sharing a life, as Shakir and Ellenbogen did, is focalised through a ‘disparity’ of heritages and histories that would seem in discourse to be in opposition, but are reconciled in their compassion, empathy and willingness to retain their own identities while respecting and in fact sharing each other’s, and also the communities they come out of. In some ways, this is the pivotal section of the book, as it moves towards a giving peace, searching for mutuality in ‘difference’, while always tracing the complexities. As I say in the introduction to Beyond Ambiguity: ‘The section of the “conversations” between Evelyn Shakir and George Ellenbogen in their respective memoirs is pivotal in this attempt. I have long been interested in spaces where, say, Hebrew and Arabic writers can share textuality, and how this reflects on a non-state issue of sharing and co-existence ... I try to consider divisions as acting as points de repère rather than separations, and I find such traces in these wonderful memoirs written in English.’ Jewish Montreal (with a reaching back into the journey from Europe of the Holocaust), Arab Boston (come out of Lebanon), and the crossing pathways of migration, and an articulating in the world of their ‘nows’, is generative and resilient, and I attempt to trace this.
The relationship between issues of ambiguity in creating and reading literary texts, and making use of those texts in environmental and ‘rights’ activism, can seem incongruous, and frequently even adversarial, but in this section I try to reconcile matters of clarity in commitment with evasiveness in textual slippage. The chapter begins with a poem of unambiguous pro-environment activist intent that, nonetheless, carries its own ‘internal’ ambiguities. This section considers the nature and implications of such apparent contradictions. From considerations of ambiguities which refuse ‘definition’ and lead us to ‘push beyond ambiguity’ in an attempt to maintain clarity of purpose and the generative slippages of understanding/misreading, we read text outside the investments of institutions (academic / schooling / government etc.); we encounter the question of how we use these texts for activist purposes. Considering the making of adaptations and versions out of Hölderlin’s poetry, and inflecting through Ivan Illich’s ‘Deschooling Society’, I write, ‘I want textual analysis to lead to an articulation of defiance against forces of exclusion and oppression. The university might well have an official policy of supporting cultural, gender, ethnic, and even political diversity, but it will never support a position that resists the administrative bedrock upon which it is based.’ Concluding the section is ‘The truth should be in blurbs’, in which I argue that documents of support (blurbs, encomiums, reference letters etc.) should operate as an extension of textual activism and be documents of responsibility. I say: ‘All of the documents-of-support I have written over the last twenty-five years for others actually fit into a narrative of justice, environmentalism, and anti-aesthetics even when the work itself might seem far from these concerns.’ In this, one exchanges/interacts with the text – a sharing rather than a comment from an often (mis)perceived position of ‘authority’.
This final section is divided into three sub-sections and is concerned with collaboration in activism, writing, community and common purpose. I have worked with Swiss sociologist, novelist, poet, sculptor and artist Urs Jaeggi since the mid-1990s, and here are parts of collaborations with discussions around their making and enactment. There is also a consideration of ambiguity (‘textural ambiguity’ – with its text/texture ‘plays’) in the making of poems on photographs, and in photographs themselves in ‘On Textures of Ambiguity – a collaborative exhibition of poems and photographs [of Will Yeoman]’, in which the subtexts of this book come into relief: ‘I am fascinated by the way apparent ambiguities come about from not being able to position an ‘object’ in relation to other ‘objects’, to set something seen in the broader context of seeing – to show the other co-ordinates around a single point; the inability to show the GPS co-ordinates, so to speak, might actually tell us more about the locally specific than the vista image, the points of reference, the photograph of the broader landscape’. The act of displaying and exhibiting has been a theme across this Poetics Trilogy, with the curatorial act always in question. From collaborating with another writer/artist, the section moves into more personal poetic considerations regarding activism. Throughout the trilogy, I have used my own poems as ongoing ‘windows’ into practice, with specific usage in tension with the ambiguities of the language arrangement, the prosody, of the texts. And we ‘resolve’ into the contradiction of supporting a cause while objecting to some of its methods (as failing, to my mind, to take in some of the contradictions in a specific ‘protest’ action). This section, and the book (other than the conclusion which address all three volumes of the Poetics), concludes with communal statements of participatory activist poetics.
This section considers a number of poets’ works and lives. From celebrations to obituaries, from investigations to elegies, the common theme is the tension (the condition of being ‘fraught’) between how a text is read and what the intent was behind its making, and also its publication. The key to reading the ambiguous relationship between belief (vegan anarchist pacifist) and reading a text justly and in its own terms is focalised, especially in the discussion of Alison Whittaker’s Blakwork, in which a number of poems are set around an abattoir where family worked. I write of Blakwork that it is: ‘this decentering book of centres ... this word of mouth book of occasional computer gambits... of paddy melon paddocks (been writing a lot about those lately!) ... of shredding the warped contrivances of racism ... of powerful blakwomen ... of growing up and observing the journey ... of family and belonging and country’. Much of this section is concerned with identity and belonging, and how such things are defined or refuse definition (depending who is doing the defining), as well as notions of community. The crisis of colonialism is said and unsaid in the crisis of textuality. Across these pieces I am ultimately arguing for respect for difference, for cultural diversity, for mutual co-existence, a primacy of Indigenous rights, and respect for the paths of knowledge. Poetry becomes an enactment of presence and its contradictions.
This section is about encounters with non-human life and an articulation of vegan animal-rights activism and mode of living. The ‘nature’ model of literary making that often comes (to my mind) at the expense of animals is considered, refuted and criticised. Starting with a ‘letter to an editor’ that is as much critique of a mode of talking about ‘nature’ texts as it is about a book being reviewed, I write: ‘Written with that oozing, sickly fluidity of so much neo-colonial cross-referential “nature writing”, which seeks to historicise experience as knowledge from which definite conclusions about the right and wrong of human interaction with nature might be drawn, the article leaves us with the “experience” of encountering the author’s encounters and epiphanies.’ I then seek to justify other approaches through a vegan animal-rights environmentalism, and consider how important conversation and exchange of information are around this (and, yes, accommodating different approaches!). The topic of loving animals and yet not wanting to ‘keep animals’ is explored in detail; the section finishes by reconsidering my long-term ‘anti-pastoral’ poetics with a look at the fraughtness between pastoral constructs of a rural ‘nation’ and the brute reality of such impositions – a consideration of the ongoing colonial exploitation that is supported by literary tropes. We are brought back to the point of ambiguity and its ‘consequences’ and movements: ‘The pastoral is inherently connected with an agriculturalism of progress. The mechanisation of the means of producing food. As such, in text, it becomes as if a “magic roundabout” that sends spokes and tracks out into ambiguities of literary expression’
Exemplarity and Margery Kempe’s encounters of the heart
Building on recent work in the history of emotions, this chapter argues that Margery Kempe’s interaction with her fellow believers, within the Book itself and in relation to her readers (both medieval and modern) is predicated on an emotional exchange and encounter that takes place in the heart. This imitative encounter is facilitated by an embedded and repeated lyric couplet in the Book that draws on well-established devotions to the Sacred Heart in Middle English lyrics and in the work of Mechthild of Hackeborn, depicting the heart as a locus for emotional reciprocity and connection with Christ. Reassessing Kempe’s interactions with her female communities in particular, I argue that the Book ‘stirs up’ and enacts a compassionate empathy that is fundamentally sustained by supportive female networks and that offers an empowering model for the twenty-first-century academy. We learn from Margery Kempe’s book of ‘felyngys’ by putting her exemplary and heart-felt devotion into practice. But Kempe’s exemplarity is always in process, always negotiated and critiqued in each moment of its unruly performance. I argue, therefore, that The Book of Margery Kempe produces a new kind of lay exemplarity that is emotionally capacious, socially dynamic, and invitingly adaptable, and which encourages us to think more flexibly about how we frame and understand interactions between medieval exemplary texts and their readers.