April 25, 2015

Experimental Histories & The New Narrative

Recently, I've been interested in using experimental forms of story within my creative work. Of course, this is not new in the field of literature (poetry, fiction, drama, or memoir), and it also isn't new in the field of history. Historians grapple with narrative, and they search for ways to convey several, even conflicting, perspectives. In historiography, the writing of history, some use experimental methods to provide a more complete story. In an article about designing a college course in experimental history, Martha Hodes wrote "complexity is a crucial component of sound historical analysis." It's also a crucial component of story-telling.

History archives offer rich resources for details, characters, settings, and plots; the story I've been working on recently mines historic archives to create a world that explores the effect of the past on contemporary life.

Stephen Muecke. "Experimental history implies a gap between what has made sense in the past, and what no longer makes sense, whether it is past events or new ones demanding to be gathered into the fold of meaning."  It used to be that people believed "objectivity" could be achieved. But now, no longer can readers accept "one story" that may reflect the dominant group in power. There is more than one gaze: male, female, and in between. There are many cultures on any point on a map, and many political perspectives. There are many species. There are class differences. Multiple subjectivities bring all of us closer to "the truth." The experimental form allows for more points of view and more connections.  

Of course, the historical record should reflect the materials in the archives and empiric evidence. Initially the juxtaposition of the word experimental with the word history may seem problematic, but certainly it is a more sensible approach.  Experimental does not need to mean fictitious. It refers to the process and structure of the narrative. Perhaps it might bring together old sound recordings with artifacts, images of now extinct species (for it is not only humans who have cultures), and old documents. Perhaps it might overlay maps and narratives and crop reports to reflect changes over time. The writer of fiction and poetry often embraces juxtapositions, a variety of voices, and other surprises. In the final form, the story must be believable.

What does experimental history look like?  Merle Patchett kept a blog, Experimental Geography in Practice: exploring correspondences between geographic research and experimental and artistic practices.  She wrote:
Through my PhD research I developed an experimental historiography that drew creative resource from the purposeful assemblage and rehabilitation of diffuse historical fragments to form unorthodox archives. My adoption of a form of historical ‘assemblage method’ (Law 2004) is to be read as a challenge the historian’s fidelity to conventional empirical and archival evidence, in that I attempted to make the materials I assembled count precisely by not forcing them to fit within a pre-determined narrative, recognising instead that materials themselves can create knowledge, or at least encourage open and imaginative thought. 
In this way I sought to craft a form of historiography that is alive to the ultimate alterity of past lives (human or otherwise), events, and places, recognising that what remains of them is always going to partial, provisional, incomplete and therefore what is being presented is always already, to invoke Derrida, “sous rature” – under erasure. 
I am now attempting to develop my form of experimental historiography into a form of curatorial presentation.
The phrase "the ultimate alterity of past lives" suggests that each historic personage holds a degree of complexity.  One version or one interpretation can be discarded over another version or interpretation. This scholar of geography and creative artist brought together sound recordings, old photographs, and excerpts of documents into beautiful and haunting presentations that allowed her to interrogate the cultural bias and assumptions of past explorers. These disparate elements, when placed in close proximity, express much more than a single-threaded narrative. They serve as collaborating evidence, and even more, the reader/viewer grasps possibility, tension, and meaning in the gaps.

Narrative has also a potential for healing. For awhile, the term "cultural competency" was used in human service organizations as they attempted to understand and provide services to diverse populations. A better term is now arisen: cultural humility. We should not presume that we can know enough about a person, a culture, or a landscape to make blanket statements. Deep listening helps a writer build believable characters and good poems. In poetry, a spare style will evoke multiple meanings.  It's best to avoid assumptions, and to listen to the gaps and silences.

Creativity can be a transformative force that gives breath and sustenance to people who are suffering. Artistic and activist memory work recognizes the effects of past atrocity on landscapes and their new inhabitants.  Mapping Spectral Traces is a group of scholars, writers, artists, and activists who attempt to address trauma in communities. The Creativity and Madness conference in Sante Fe, intended for mental health professionals, investigates the psychology of art and artists. Madness is analyzed in relationship to creativity.

Lewis Mahl Medrona, MD, PhD, spoke about the power of story-telling and history in the practice of narrative medicine. This practice can be surprising. He related a case study, the mental health treatment of a Native American man who suffered from alcoholism, diabetes, and post-traumatic stress from childhood.  Medrona's brilliant intervention involved a ceremony giving the man a new childhood. The line doesn't necessarily have to be drawn between fiction and nonfiction. What he offered this man was a new interpretation of his life, and new possibility. Interpretations of a real event demonstrates vastly different perspectives among eye-witnesses; different possibilities evoke different outcomes.

In "A Long Note on New Narrative" by Robert Glück, the author identifies and defines a method of literary practice termed New Narrative:
We were thinking about autobiography; by autobiography we meant daydreams, night dreams, the act of writing, the relationship to the reader, the meeting of flesh and culture, the self as collaboration, the self as disintegration, the gaps, inconsistencies and distortions, the enjambments of power, family, history and language.
This writing acknowledges multi-faceted life. If we lack imagination, we lack life's necessary tools. New narrative is conscious of meta-data, similar to other experimental forms. Many writers and poets employ these methods to present a more complex and bigger story. Experimental history, or literature, or music offers us new perspectives and new patterns. This dynamic and creative field brings new gifts.

April 15, 2015

Mitchell Yards - Artists of the Iron Range

Thank you to the Playlist WDSE for celebrating art and artists.  This documentary about a place, a time, and the artists Dan Turner, Sheila Packa, Paul Seeba, and David Aho will move you!

April 10, 2015

Night Train Red Dust

Thanks to WDSE Playlist:
The first poem, "Sketch" is about a true story that occurred in 1914 during the labor strike in Biwabik at the home of Philip Masonovich.  Two company guards arrived at the home, purported to check on a "blind pig" or still.  A scuffle ensued, and a gun went off and shot one of the guards who was outside near the horse and wagon.  Mr and Mrs Masonovich were taken into custody. Even the baby went to jail.  Charges were also filed against union organizers who were 75 miles away.   The sketch is proletarian form of writing: a character, a situation, but not necessarily a plot.  I chose the word sketch for the title because of the ambiguity of the situation.  Nobody really knows who said or did what, or who was to blame. We do know that the companied hired and armed men, and that these men used their guns.  A mine worker was shot in the back in Gilbert, and seven thousand people marched at his funeral, including the union organizer for the Wobblies, Helen Gurley Flynn. She later became one of the founding members of the ACLU.

April 6, 2015

Storytelling on the Web: Choreotextographies

Reading and Writing

Reading and writing are the two sides of a text. Reading opens doors and writing crosses thresholds. Reading begets writing. For me, it is a steady chase. Writing begins with an insisting image or something stirred by conversation, between pages or words exchanged with a friend. I begin with no expectation—because that is the best way—simply moving my hand across the page, writing the most mundane things and in this process from somewhere comes a word or a phrase that I follow until I’m lost. Getting lost is necessary, and so is way-finding through dreams, associations, experiments, and reverie.

In books, I find stillness and escape. The lamp on my desk shines books splayed downward and others fallen in stair-step patterns up and down. Books I’ve read are turned titles down, spines to the right, and books I plan to read have titles up, spines to the right. I love to read sitting by a window turning the thick pages fragrant with the scent of libraries and women who wear glasses on delicate gold or silver chains.

Words written in long before arrive into a new encounter, like a letter found in a bottle. While reading, an intimate and silent dialogue occurs with the past or with another life experience. Here is part of an exquisite poem by C.P. Cavafy that uses the phrase "an invisible procession"--

When suddenly, at midnight, you hear
an invisible procession going by
with exquisite music, voices,
don’t mourn your luck that’s failing now,
work gone wrong, your plans
all proving deceptive—don’t mourn them uselessly.

Aside from the narrative of a leader losing his country, aside from underlining the need to face one's losses with courage and other meanings, the poem identifies an individual's cascade of images, memories, and associations. As the world changes, we might apply this metaphor to our experience with old ways of publishing books and experiencing stories.  In our imagination, an invisible procession occurs that can lead to our own creative work. I want to create new works that are evocative and have openings that invite the reader to make multiple meanings. 

In the Digital Age

E-books are static—static as a print book (although this is changing)—and they do not give the reader the sensation of a unique object that pleases the sense of touch and smell. The web provides new and different perspectives and languages: virtual reality, online gaming, multiple media and interactivity. A story that goes from print to film often contracts. The visual language and music will carry meaning as well as the words. If that same story is used in interactive gaming, it will expand. 

Digital media offer new artistic opportunities to make the invisible processions visible. With an increasing range and breadth of communication and networks, we select and arrange multiple things, people, places, and experience. We see memes, and we like to participate. We like our videos to go viral. Curation is a system of collecting, organizing and presenting. Patterns have become more apparent and necessary.

As a poet writing on paper and an artist presenting in digital online environments, I consider the reading and writing exchange. I can best describe the web films I've worked on as innovative ways of reading. The projects arrive, and they depart in code. They are mobiles of text, sound, and image. I call these choreotextographies.


I look for metaphors of movement: flows of rivers, wind, and water, bird and animal migrations, human travel and migrations. Also I’m drawn to transformations—metamorphosis, organic growth and decay, alchemy. Creative work can demand this same process. People change residences, relationships, and/or activities in order to complete an artistic work. Even the language conveys how radical the process can be: one executes a piece of art or music. The verb means a successful rendering but also it carries a shadow of death. The old way of being dies, and a new one arrives. We become part of the artistic piece at the same time as separating from it. Every creative work is an act of change.

Artists court change. Virginia Woolf said, "...we can read ... with another aim, not to throw light on literature ... but to refresh and exercise our own creative powers." Writers are good readers. Readers are open to enchantment and meditation. Readers are thinkers and dreamers. In the exchange, there is a potential transmission of energy and breath and intimacy that extends beyond one's life.  

This was originally published in Proof Magazine, 2014.

April 2, 2015

Enter Text

Exciting news! Kathy McTavish and I have just been accepted into a one month arts residency, "Enter Text," for poets, writers and text-based artists. Arteles is near Tampere, Finland.

Enter Text

Residency program for poets, writers, and text-based artists at Arteles Creative Center in Hämeenkyrö, Finland. The one-month residency period occurs October/November 2015.

Fiction writing, visual/sound/traditional poetry, graphic novels, code art, calligraphy, typography… All are equally greeted with joy and creativity in Finland with other enthusiastic, international text artists and writers.

Silent nature and solitude

Surrounded by beautiful forests, fields and lakes, Arteles Residency provides the perfect setting for intense writing and mindplay close to the nature. The same award-winning landscapes (European Union Landscape Award 2009) have also been an inspiration for F. E. Sillanpää, the Nobel Prize winning author born and raised in the region.

The predefined structure of the program is very flexible, allowing you all the time & space you need in order to take your work where it wants to go. Weekly group meetings are a good chance for feedback and discussions, but if you feel more like barricading in your writer’s chamber, you are completely free to do so, as all participation is 100 % voluntary.

Experiment freely

To accompany the intensive solo practice, the program is an excellent opportunity to join forces with other text-based creatives from around the world. Share, examine, go cross-genre – play around and see what comes out. Brainstorms to be finished in the heat of the traditional Finnish sauna.

Read more and apply online at: