Friday, February 21, 2014

"Poems Exploding Like Bombs: Casagrande and Poetry's Public Spheres" / A Guest Posting by Marsha Bryant

Editor's Note: In the following guest posting, one of P&PC's all-time heroes—Marsha Bryant, Professor of English at the University of Florida and author of Women's Poetry and Popular Culture—shines a spotlight on the Chilean art collective Casagrande, which, for more than a decade now, has been dropping millions of poems on cities around the world. In a stark reversal of the World War II practice of bombing soldiers with propaganda poems, Casagrande's helicopters and "poem clouds" reclaim the air as a site and source of cross-cultural communication, wonder, and cultural memory—simultaneous acts, Bryant argues, of remembrance, intervention, and reinvention. Read on, dear reader, to discover what happens when poems fall from the sky.

W. H. Auden's birthday is a fitting day to mark how one of our most compelling occasional poets can be occasionally prophetic. Indeed, the most notorious line from Auden's "Spain"—"To-morrow for the young the poets exploding like bombs"—uncannily predicted what is now the largest-scale poetry event in the world. Written in 1937 to raise money for Medical Aid for Spain, this poetry for populist culture remains the most famous poem in English on the Spanish Civil War.

Like most artists involved in what some called "a poet’s war," Auden supported the Republic. He submitted his page proofs two days before the bombing of Guernica (Gernika), and Faber published "Spain" in pamphlet form in May. [NB: Auden would later rename the poem "Spain 1937."] The image of exploding poets strikes some as insensitive (even gratuitous) given the deaths of Federico Garcia Lorca (by execution) and John Cornford (in battle) during the conflict. And in a post-Hiroshima as well as post-Guernica world, Auden's fusion of poetry and bombardment proves even more unsettling. Yet the poet's posted-forward scenes of youthful energies, crowds, and public spaces find new meanings in Chilean art collective Casagrande's "Bombing of Poems" project. In 2004, Casagrande dropped 100,000 poems by Basque and Chilean poets over Guernica. 

I was fortunate to meet Casagrande member Cristobal Bianchi when he visited the University of Florida this year. (The other members are Joaquin Prieto, Santiago Barcaza, and Julio Carrasco.) Bianchi's comments reflected poetry's vital role in reorienting art's space in the public sphere—including the atmosphere. The Bombing of Poems began at Santiago's La Moneda Palace, which Pinochet destroyed in 1973. Triggering and transforming this cultural memory, Casagrande dropped poems by 40 Chileans over the site in 2001. 

The collective chooses traditional and experi- mental poems with a direct style, giving contem- porary poets an aerial space and mass audience. Using a helicopter, Casagrande has flown over five other cities that endured aerial bombardment: Dubrovnik (2002), Guernica (2004), Warsaw (2009), Berlin (2010), and London (2012). For these locations Casagrande printed bookmarks with the work of poets from Chile and the host city, translating each into the other's language. 

Evoking and recoding cultural memories of war leafleting as they fall from the sky, these fluttering objects take on a freighted and transient form of terrible beauty. As Bianchi describes it, "the poems compose an image—a bright cloud—in the sky" (Los poemas component una imagen—una nube brillante—en el cielo). Casagrande is well aware that the spectacular nature of these events is rife with contradictions. There is a "provocation in the event that is symbolic, and not just peace. There is ambiguity, ambivalence," Bianchi explains. "For example," he says, "there is a conflict of the Bombing of Poems as a space of remembrance of aerial bombardment as such, but it also relates to the more convoluted controversies and questions lying behind the destruction of those urban spaces from sky." (La provocación del evento is simbólica, no is un proyecto sobre la paz. Hay una ambiguedad y ambivalencia. Por ejemplo, existe un conflicto entre el Bombardeo de Poemas como un espacio de recuerdo del bombardeo aéreo, pero también sobre las controversias y preguntan que descansan detrás de la destrucción de esos espacios urbanos desde el cielo.

Floodlights on the ground heighten this effect, illumi- nating the arriving helicopter and falling poems. The event takes about half an hour. In London, the event's official name was "Rain of Poems," reactivating memories of Blitz poetry such as Edith Sitwell'sStill Falls the Rain” (1941), which entangles deathly stasis and prophetic momentum. For H.D., another scanner of London's aerial bombardment, poetry was "indelibly stamped on the atmosphere somewhere"—and poetic words could "hatch butterflies" (The Walls Do Not Fall, 1942). In the atmosphere, Casagrande's poem-clouds sometimes seem like spectral butterflies as they rain on crowds of people gazing up in wonder and remembrance, with smiles and tears. 

Disrupting the economy of war by offering poems as gifts, Casagrande designs bookmarks with a graphic for the event on one side, and a poem paired with its translation on the other. Here (to the left) is a bookmark from the Berlin Bombing of Poems, and two from London's Rain of Poems (the third has a poem by Chilean Marcela Parra). These bookmarks are artworks, not commercial spaces; they are free from advertising and other forms of publicity. The bookmarks are also spaces that bridge linguistic, cultural, and generational divisions. I find that Rodrigo Rojas's poem from the Warsaw Bombing of Poems beautifully distills these dynamics: 
Dickinson ordena: Split the lark 
and you'll find the music. Abran 
a los pájaros y encontrarán su música. 
Pelen las alondras con agua caliente. 
Con navaja trocen, abran sus carozos, 
descascaren, calen a los mirlos, con cuchillo 
zapallero saquen una a una las pepas al zorzal, 
hiervan, muelan a los tordos, abran, 
partan a los pájaros y encontrarán la música. 

Dickinson orders: Split the lark
and you'll find the music. Open 
the birds and you will find their music. 
Peel the larks with hot water. 
With a razor cut them up, open their cobs. 
Peel, soak the blackbirds, with a pumpkin 
knife draw one by one the seeds from the robin, 
boil, grind the thrushes, open, 
split the birds and you will find the music. 

—translated by Carolyn Bradley 
Split across its Warsaw bookmark in Spanish and Polish forms, Rojas's poem widens across North and South America by generating from Emily Dickinson. In splitting these differences, "Dickinson ordena" re-fuses individual and communal meaning of lyric utterance through songbirds, bridging the reputedly private world of a poet-recluse with a large-scale public event. Moreover, the violent images of creative cooking explode safely-sealed containments of domestic space—and of writing and reading spaces. This poem means to be opened wide. For in its explosion over Poland, Rojas's poem becomes an act of fusion, fission, and frisson

Each recent Bombing of Poems leaves Spanish behind in places that have forgotten or never learned it. But no bookmarks are left behind. As you can see in CNN’s London footage, spectators gather all they can—sometimes stopping to exchange bookmarks or to read their poems aloud. Casagrande's Bombing of Poems project is an act of war remembrance; it is an act of intervention; and it is an act of reinvention. Bianchi points out that this kind of poetry explosion "triggers a resignification of the place, which is bombed in a different way" (gatilla una re-significación del lugar, el cual es bombardeado de un modo diferente). In my book Auden and Documentary in the 1930s, I discuss how Auden's "Spain" is a transportable text that brings future readers into its historical event—bridging the Spanish Civil War with crises of our own time. Casagrande shares Auden's sense of a troubled present and uncertain future, gathering us into our violent pasts and making us partners in renewing cultural memory. 

1. Auden's "Spain" pamphlet from Marsha Bryant's collection.
2. Bombing of Poems photographs and bookmarks courtesy of Casagrande
3. Rodrigo Rojas's "Dickinson ordena" reprinted courtesy of Rodrigo Rojas; translated by Carolyn Bradley.
4. English and Spanish versions of Cristobal Bianchi's remarks by Cristobal Bianchi.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

From the P&PC Vault: Hooked On Fisher Poets

The annual meeting of the Associated Writing Programs (AWP) is taking place in Seattle two weeks from now (Feb 26-March 1), but the P&PC Office won't be there to hob nob with professional writers and teachers of writing. Instead, we're going to the seventeenth annual Fisher Poets Gathering (FPG has no acronym that we know of), which opens in just a few days (Feb 21-23) in Astoria, Oregon, a city of just under 10,000 people located in the far northwest corner of the Beaver State. Celebrating commercial fishing and its community through story, poetry, and song, this year's Gathering has seventy-eight people scheduled to read or perform at bars and restaurants throughout Astoria. To help get you primed for the event, here's a short interview P&PC did with Jon Broderick—a fisherman, teacher, poet, and one of the event's creators and organizers—back in 2010 when we first attended the Gathering.

Poetry & Popular Culture: You were there when the Fisher Poets Gathering started, right? What were you thinking?

Jon Broderick: Yes. I made the first phone calls, and I never found anyone who didn't think it wouldn't be a terrific idea or who didn't want to help. Folks like John van Amerongen of the now defunct Alaska Fisherman's Journal, Hobe Kytr of the Columbia River Maritime Museum, Julie Brown and Florence Sage of Clatsop Community College and, of course, forty friends and poets, contributors to the Alaska Fisherman's Journal over the years, all of whom showed up with their friends and found themselves among kindred spirits who knew when to nod and when to wince when someone read a story about work in the commercial fishing industry.

P&PC: How have things changed since then?

JB: Since our first Fisher Poets Gathering, a movable gathering wandering from the Wet Dog to the Labor Temple and back, we've become four or five concurrent venues over four days. It's grown, but it's kept a casual, democratic feel. It's no contest. It's no slam. Anyone who's worked in the industry is entitled to fifteen minutes at the mike to tell his or her version of events. We pay the sound guy with proceeds from the gate and divvy what remains among the out-of-town readers, favoring those from farthest away. Along the way, we've had to insist now and again, against more ambitious interests, on the Fisher Poets Gathering's inclusive and communitarian roots and purposes. Mostly, we want to enjoy the company of other fishermen and women, tell stories, and see old friends and make a few new ones.

P&PC: What's a good example of a Fisher Poet poem?

JB: Geno Leech's "Let's Go Take a Look" is one of my favorite poems about the industry. When he recites it, he rocks back and forth on stage with his eyes closed. I don't have a written copy of it here—just on audio. It describes, from a deckhand's point of view, that moment when a skipper decides to go fishing in tough weather that the hands would rather miss. When your skipper says "Let's go take a look," you're in for a long couple of days. But there's nothing to do but pull on your rain gear and hunker down. Every deckhand's been there. Geno's a master at making each word work in his poetry. Part of it goes: "In the sodden, black-blanket night, hung with woodshed fir-pitch musk, I ragged a hole in a fogged up windshield and limped off in a crippled truck. Rain drilled the road with welding-rod drops, porch-lit houses drowned in their sleep, beer cans lay drunk on the fog line. I turned left on Portway Street..."

For me, the experience of participating in the life of the commercial fishing community is more important than the technical quality of anyone's poetry, though. We turn away fine poets and musicians who haven't worked in the fisheries. We get enough fine poetry nonetheless.

P&PC: What happens when cowboy poets meet fisher poets?

JB: Cowboy poets and fisher poets have plenty in common. I wrote an essay for the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering a few years ago about the very thing when the cowboys invited some of us to perform there. Both celebrate honest work, a love for the tools and techniques of their trade. Both live close with nature at its best and worst. Both remember the characters they've encountered. Ron McDaniel is a cowboy from Arkansas who has joined us in cross-cultural exchange every year now for four or five years since some of us met some of them in Elko, Nevada.

P&PC: What's the new generation of fisher poets like?

JB: An unexpected but durable result of the Fisher Poets Gathering is that it's been an occasion to generate writing about the culture of commercial fishing by folks who wouldn't write about it if the Gathering didn't exist. Fisher poets are more often older than younger, but a number of kids are seeing themselves a part of the tradition they, too, want to celebrate with others. Lots of times, it's families that fish together. My kids have worked hard beside people of all ages. You'll find some young voices to enjoy this weekend. You decide what they're like.