Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Stephen Collis, To the Barricades

The first principle of The Barricades Project, to which To the Barricades belongs, is taken from Robert Duncan: “We begin to see that the intention of the boundless is manifest in the agony and restoration of pages or boundaries or walls” (“The Delirium of Meaning”).

A second principle can be found in Walter Benjamin: “This work has to develop to the highest degree the art of citing without quotation marks. Its theory is intimately related to that of montage” (The Arcades Project).

If there is a third principle, it may be contained in the following passage from Rancière:

Suitable political art would ensure, at one and the same time, the production of a double effect: the readability of a political signification and a sensible or perceptual shock caused, conversely, by the uncanny, by that which resists signification between opposites, between the readability of the message that threatens to destroy the sensible form of art and the radical uncanniness that threatens to destroy all political meaning.

(The Politics of Aesthetics)

To push through boundaries towards the boundless (which is tangled there) – to mix appropriation of found material with lyric expression to the point that the one becomes indistinguishable from the other – to practice a dialectic of “readable” political signification and uncanny shock – these are the pathways of this poetry. A lyric voice takes up procedures and citations because they are the world in which it finds itself embodied, a co-embodiment of the address “Dear Common” that someone calls out to anyone else there. “Lyric,” writes Thom Donovan, “relates the body of the poet to a poetics of collective affects” (“Lyric’s Potential,” Jacket2). So we try here, in a lyric space in which we must continue building resistance.

This volume is part of an ongoing long poem project that always seeks “plausible deniability” that it is in fact a long poem project. Everything I write is thus part of some inaccessible and inconceivable totality outside the work itself. Part of its fight is thus with itself, and with “culture” as such. The barricade made of language is both boundary and call for “beyondery” – an outside still to be practiced. But there’s that other boundary looming everywhere here too: how and when do we cross over from word to world, from text to action? Does the poem barricade us from a world of “doing things,” postponing action? Does it wall us up in the “merely cultural”? These poems, increasingly, have been written between actions in the streets. They hover there – a boundless boundary around the bound. The gaps and spaces between poems and pages and books are inhabited by “activism,” by a body amongst bodies in streets. Dear Common. Let’s speak our way into action, into each other’s arms, into new shared futures, into new speeches at new barricades thrown.

If this is “documentary poetry” – and it is certainly as much researched as it is lived – it is a documentary of social affects, past and present, of collective expressions of desire, of hope, of outrage, of solidarity, of defiance, of the endless call from the commons for “liberty or death.” It is a documentary of the spirit of resistance and revolution. The address of the insurgent impulse, to all potential insurgents, to all tomorrow’s insurgent parties. (Stephen Collis, “Notes and Acknowledgements”)

It’s difficult to begin to discuss Vancouver poet and critic Stephen Collis’ poetry collection To the Barricades (Vancouver BC: Talonbooks, 2013) without first quoting at length from his “Notes and Acknowledgements,” placing this collection in a context larger than itself. Collis is the author of a number of books, including two previous poetry collections which form the first two sections to his ongoing “Barricades Project” – Anarchive (New Star, 2005) and The Commons (Talonbooks, 2008). Over the space of five trade poetry collections, Collis’ work explores a series of short-phrased stretches of sentence-stanzas in an ongoing project writing Vancouver specifically, Canada generally and social issues throughout.  In his “12 or 20 questions” interview (posted September 7, 2007), he talked about his work-in-progresss, “The Barricades Project,” and the subsequent volume of such, to be titled “The Red Album,” which appears to have since shifted into fiction, given that The Red Album is the title of his forthcoming novel with BookThug. As he writes in the interview:

I always work on books or series of books. The book is the main unit I think in terms of—my unit of composition. At the same time I do write short, occasional lyrics, and I publish a few of these in journals, but whenever I’ve tried to group them as a possible book it’s been entirely unsatisfactory. I just don’t work that way. I have to have the concept for the book to work towards, to think through. Writing in general usually begins with the making of collages—word assemblages that come out of the research I’m doing for the book in question. These often don’t make it into the book, but at some point the playing around with my research stops, and something else takes over, as I find my way into the language I want to use—or be used by.

There has long been a history of politically-engaged poetry out of Vancouver, something that, in comparison, seems lacking in much of the rest of the country, and something that has been given far less critical attention than it deserves. What is it about Vancouver that makes so many of their writers, especially language writers surrounding the past couple of decades of the Kootenay School of Writing, so engaged? One can point to such socially and politically-engaged poets such as Aaron Vidaver, Roger Farr, Maxine Gadd, Dorothy Trujillo Lusk, Jeff Derksen, Marie Annharte Baker, Reg Johanson, Peter Culley, Nancy Shaw and nikki reimer, among others. To the Barricades is a book that works to document protest and other civil action, including the “Paris Commune” or “Fourth French Revolution,” a working class revolution that ran from March to May, 1871. The collection contains critical poems of self-protection, poems working to protect human interest and interaction, constructed out of ready-made material, quotes that speak of action, such as the Fredric Jameson quote that opens the poem “RELUMINATIONS 1”: “Barricades involve a kind of bricolage, a provisional cobbling together of whatever bits and pieces come usefully to hand … this may also serve as a perceptive account of the poetic techniques of a Rimbaud, indeed of the revolutionary avant-garde in general.” In the second part of the poem “La Commune [1871],” he writes:

is the search for happiness

we know history
repeats itself

to all the dead anarchists!

I make you a chain of flowers
a grave of roses

now let’s not lack audacity
in dealing with the banks

even in a democracy
we aren’t free to demonstrate    freely

things kept germinating
long after the event

it’s time we stop being
represented and start     being

the commune echoes
we’re still at the same point

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