Friday, December 23, 2005

ubu web: Deanna Ferguson

d I

-- from "Unwanted"

I recently discovered the /UBU EDITIONS series edited by New York poet Brian Kim Stefans (while looking up more material by Juliana Spahr, an American poet I've been reading lately), with titles published in pdf form in (so far) two seasons: winter 2003 and spring 2004. Publishing (and republishing) more challenging poetic texts that would be difficult to acquire otherwise, the series includes book length works by Caroline Bergvall, Robert Fitterman, Gustave Morin, Ron Silliman, Brian Kim Stefans, Kevin Davies, Juliana Spahr and Darren Wershler-Henry, among others, as well as two collections by Vancouver poet Deanna Ferguson, including Rough Bush and Other Poems, and a reissue of her earlier Tsunami collection, The Relative Minor. As Stefans says in his introduction to the first series:

"My hope, with the /ubu ("slash ubu") series, is to complement and augment relatively "traditional" methods of publication by usurping one of the most common functions of independent presses -- bringing vital new literature to the attention of a wider public -- while moving into an area that most small press publishers are not able to approach: reprinting important works from the past decades that are too commercially unviable to do as print books.

What made this idea seem interesting now, as opposed to eight or so years ago when internet publishing began its colorful but checkered history (prematurely vaunted by poets as the sequel to the "mimeo revolution") is the realization that people are willing to read long, complex works of literature from the internet provided they can print them out.

By formatting these books with professional typesetting tools and publishing them as Adobe Acrobat files, not only is the amount of paper needed to print out a book lessened because web page items like menu bars and graphics are absent, but the letter-size (8.5 x 11) page is transformed into a visually pleasing "book" page, its seductive gutters, leading and tracking making Cinderellas out of the plain-Jane ream of photocopy paper.

Publishers of innovative poetries on the web have always had trouble formatting works in html (which, among other limitations, does not have tag for a tab), but the ubiquitous Adobe Acrobat format is perfect for giving the designer all the features of advanced typesetting and graphic techniques that are stable and consistent across several computer platforms. A colour printer lets you fully enjoy the cover pages of these files, most of them original designs by Goldsmith and including one of the artworks from the ubu archives." (Stefans)

It's interesting that Ferguson's work moves from potentially having such a localized audience to a much wider one, with her part in the /ubu editions project (will there be a third run, I wonder, or a fourth?). Part of the Kootenay School of Writing collective in Vancouver during the time of Lisa Robertson, Dorothy Trujillo Lusk, Judy Radul, Jeff Derksen, Colin Smith, Nancy Shaw and others (see Writing Class: The Kootenay School of Writing Anthology), Deanna Ferguson's The Relative Minor was originally published by Tsunami Editions in 1993 (publisher also of texts by a number of the Kootenay collective. Kevin Davies' Pause Button, also reprinted here, was originally published by Tsunami in 1992; rumours have the press perhaps restarting in 2006?). An editor of Vancouver's late Tsunami Editions, as well as Vancouver's tabloid of arts writing from the 1990s, BOO Magazine, Ferguson's publications also include Link Fantasy, Democratique and The Goth Poem (Cleave), ddilemma (Hole Books), Rough Bush (Meow Press) and Small Holdings (Tsunami). As editors Andrew Klobucar and Michael Barnholden write of Ferguson in their introduction to Writing Class:

"Linguistic relations reveal further institutional ties in the work of Deanna Ferguson -- specifically the institution of patriarchy. Unlike Derksen's paratactic socio-economic commentary, Ferguson's lines at first suggest a more continuous narrative:

In using the telephone, she says, I really gave so-and-so
a good reaming, reprimand city,
Soon enough, circularities of story, intimacies shared.
Bullshit made apparent, but
What is constructed in this world
Has at least a shelf-life.

If there is contradiction in this work, it emerges at the level of syntax first. Ferguson does not clarify whether the adverbial clause "in using the telephone" modifies "she says" or "I really gave." In other words, is the subject using the telephone to give the other un-named conversant "a good reaming" or merely to tell she has done so? The logic of the narrative supports the latter meaning, for how could one make specific use of a telephone to reprimand a person, save as a device of communication; yet the syntax of the line suggests that in the actual use of the instrument, the reprimand was given. Similarly, the jargon "reprimand city" plays with two meanings, making a pun of her terminology. Even after closely considering the different sections of Ferguson's long poem "Wanke Cascade," from which the above is taken, the reader inevitably realizes that s/he is no nearer to a sense of "shared" narrative than when s/he began. The point at which the description or representation of the supposed event actually begins is not clear here. Ferguson displays two fictions simultaneously, or rather two levels of a linked fiction: "circularities of story, intimacies shared. / Bullshit made apparent, but…" Once again, the medium of communication appears to disrupt more than it transmits.

What in the romantic poetry of social anger or in a "work poem" might appear as a literal complaint cannot overcome its discursive origins, and so retreats back below the linguistic surface. Only "fabrication remains intact"; and this, Ferguson implies, remains the real target of her critique. The poet, and a female poet especially, cannot simply escape her social role or create a new one; her language works against it. But the ideological forces affecting her diction do not necessarily mean that she is completely powerless. It is no small feat to recognize and acknowledge the condition of one's exclusion. Exclusion carries with it its own shades of autonomy and possible freedoms. She concludes:

until all events speak for themselves
until representations know what it feels like
until positioning in the order is located
until orders of knowing suss up
until strata is axed as metaphor
until economic isn't always the organizer
fear, baby

Such are the demands Ferguson makes, not only on her social condition, but on language itself. To revolt against the political economy of liberal capitalism is to abandon all of its cultural institutions, including those guiding communication and representation. Once again, as she suggests, exclusion from mainstream culture invokes its own terms of agency and capability ("fear, baby"). Ferguson is in charge of her language to the extent that she doesn't have to communicate, if she doesn't want to communicate. Perhaps the most cogent example of this form of cultural defiance is her refusal to participate in this anthology. It is difficult to assemble works from so many disparate writers, despite their similar origins and collective engagements, without risking reductive categorizations of a poetry that, by its nature, remains highly dependent upon context for much of its import and innovation. Ferguson is right to be wary of being included in such a project, and she wastes little time in demonstrating her obvious sense of exclusion even here." (p 40-42)

In her collection Rough Bush and Other Poems, Ferguson gives us fifteen poems in under ninety pages, moving from expansive to tight lines, and blocks of prose, wide movements across the page, to thin strips of words. There have been discussions lately on a list-serve or two about if poetry is supposed to be uncomfortable, and I think it should be. And "uncomfortable" can end up meaning a whole swath of things, whether through content or form or any mixture of whatever else. Deanna Ferguson's poems could be considered "uncomfortable" only in the fact that they help challenge any notion of what a poem is "supposed to be," something that should almost always be challenged, and re-thought. Ferguson's poems move through areas of thinking and language that help keep an active blur, and a shift to what a poem is, or can be. For any of us who write, or read, I think it's a constant struggle to keep an open mind to new possibilities of form, and not become too comfortable in any one stance or area, and any of the collections published in this series have certainly achieved great strides in important and interesting directions.

We are welcomed by a special discordance.
In shape of an elder bushes morning.
He was forty-two and I seventeen.
Gone hum-speak-griddle to our boiling roles.
Darned compendium. Too close to a
hint of relative and plank-walled with respect
to the mouth. His nose hooked over my
untaxable cache. Pine hotel. Laid directly
on account of country. Straight through it.
Forty borders in a curious
line behind us. Woody with joints.

-- "Rough Bush," Rough Bush and Other Poems

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi Rob, thanks for your post (I admit I'm coming to it a few years too late). I have only just come across Deanna Ferguson's work and must say I find it thrilling, challenging, beautiful, thought provoking and any number of words that fail to really capture what it is I feel in response to her poems.