Thank you for asking me to respond to your fascinating essay, “Speaking in Tongues: Poetry and the Residues of Shared Language.” Rather selfishly, perhaps, it resonated with me as a kind of manifesto-after-the-fact for Tinfish Press. I founded Tinfish in 1995 as a platform from which to argue that experimental forms (with their various dictions) make good vehicles for work in largely post-colonial Pacific spaces. The con/fusion of poetic form and radical diction has been central to Tinfish’s argument from publication of Lisa Linn Kanae’s (2001), Sista Tongue, Barbara Jane Reyes’s Poeta en San Francisco (2006) Donovan Kūhiō Colleps’s Proposed Additions (2014), Leona Chen’s Book of Cord (2017), Geneve Chao’s émigré (2018) many other books and poems along the way. In each of these works, dictions/languages meet at fault-lines cut by political and cultural power. Kanae writes a Pidgin memoir of her brother’s experience as a “late talker,” along with a conventional essay about the suppression of Pidgin in Hawai`i schools in the 20th century. Colleps uses Pidgin and Hawaiian language to tweezer up the thin tissues of history on the Ewa plain, where he grew up. By contrast, your own Dandelion Clock (2010) mixes medieval vernacular lyrics with appropriations from Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
You use the phrase, “by [or in] contrast,” twice in your essay. At both moments, I wanted to ask for deeper analysis; you were touching on an argument that you weren’t quite making. That argument has to do with history’s violence as played out in diction. The first “By contrast,” sets Lois-Ann Yamanaka beside Cathy Park Hong. Hong, in Dance, Dance, Revolution (2007). Park Hong invented a Pidgin for her epic poem, one only spoken by characters in the poem. It’s a highly poeticized language, marvelously invented to illustrate what happens when people come together to construct a tongue because they don’t share a native language. Yamanaka uses Pidgin (Hawaiian Creole English) throughout Saturday Night at the Pahala Theatre (1993) because her characters come from working class / plantation-era families on the Big Island. This Pidgin, as Kanae puts it, is a material “language of resistance.” The central speaker in the book is powerful only insofar as she speaks powerfully. But she knows her language is considered inferior to standard English. The speaker’s brief performance of standard English (in her instructions on how to get a boyfriend), in the context of her community, makes her appear less working class and more feminine. This non-standard diction reflects a pre-existing community of speakers, where your own experiments with diction in Dandelion Clock suggest a new mix of sources, Middle English and southern Midwest white and black vernaculars. The first language is spoken to communicate, the second operates as a meta-commentary on outsider tongues. The first uses a pre-existing language, the second (in the manner of T.S. Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent”) writes through existing language arts. Park Hong’s Pidgin exists somewhere in-between, but very much in the realm of allegory, instead of realism. Her book can only be a poem; Yamanaka’s sounds like speakers in Pahala on the Big Island who may never have read poetry. (I told the cashier at Mizuno’s Superette in Pahala that I was there because I’d read about the store in a book of poems. “Oh, they’re horrible!” she responded, but softened her stance a bit as we talked. Yamanaka had exposed the inside to the outside, and that was not a popular move in some quarters.)
I taught a class American literature since 1950 during the middle years of the George W. Bush administration. Unlike most of my classes at UHM, this one included several students who loved to argue, even if they didn’t understand the concept of a stable political position. (Often, they argued against what they’d said the day previous.) They debated race and culture and language. When we arrived at Barbara Jane Reyes’s book, Poeta in San Francisco, which Tinfish had recently published, we discussed translation issues. Reyes refuses to translate several of the sections of her long poem, leaving them in Tagalog and Baybayin (a pre-western contact Filipinx script incomprensible to most people). One local Asian student opined that Reyes owed us a translation of everything in the book. Another student, a heretofore quiet young local Asian woman, rose from her desk—carrying it with her—and yelled, “She owes you no such thing!” The first student wanted an entryway into the text; the second saw value in keeping most of us outside of it. He wanted to participate in a community that read and understood the poem; she saw that Reyes was writing an “insider” text. As Gloria Anzaldua puts in her “Speaking in Tongues: A Letter to 3rd World Women Writers” (1981): “Because white eyes do not want to know us, they do not bother to learn our language, the language which reflects us, our culture, our spirit.” Anzaldua feels “the rip-off of my native tongue,” as if she appropriated her own speech from the double-consciousness of a Chicana writer. She is an outsider of the inside, partly inaccessible to herself, angry. My one student’s rage at the idea of translation reflects such anger.
When we equate kinds of experimental writing and uses of non-standard diction, as Jerome Rothenberg and Pierre Joris do in their first volume of Poems for the Millennium (1995), a brilliant and highly problematic volume, we come at literature from the point of view of translation. We assume the good of likeness and shared meaning. When we consider the various needs of poets who write experimentally, we also need to honor their resistances to translation. Some poets invite us inside, while others insist that most readers—in this case, non-Filipinx American readers—remain outside a linguistic wall. To experiment with diction and non-translation of languages permits both these movements, at once toward and away from the reader. They invite some readers in, and exclude others (often turning the tables on the old guard avant-garde of Ezra Pound and other translators from languages they don’t know). Sometimes, they exclude the poet who transcribes them.
Even more of a contrast comes when you place Harryette Mullen’s work beside FLARF. Mullen has long used experimental forms for poems that include standard English and African-American vernacular. That code switch comes of historical necessity, born of slavery, segregation, and the educational system. Mullen herself has argued against writing exclusively in the standard or the non-standard, but she wields them both, moving between speech and reading communities. You shift abruptly from Mullen to a “school” of poetry that “mines new territories for their scavenger aesthetic,” and then on to projects that “lyricize the lexicon.” This leap is at once brilliant and problematic. Part of the problem comes in your argument that diction can be appropriated, where form cannot. You express pleasure in such appropriations (something that animates a lot of your poetry). But remember the controversy over Michael Magee’s “Their Guys, Their Asian Glittering Guys, Are Gay”? Remember Kenneth Goldsmith’s appropriation of Michael Brown’s autopsy, its scientific diction, his rendering of it “more poetic”? I agree with Andrew Epstein, in a LARB review of the Flarf anthology that, “In the decade and a half since Flarf emerged, strategies of appropriation of the sort these poets deploy have spread far and wide. It is worth noting that they have proven particularly useful as vehicles of political critique and dissent for a long list of poets of color not affiliated with the (largely white) Flarf coterie itself, who have seized on such tools to create works that take aim at racism, US foreign policy, police brutality, oppression, and misogyny, often more directly and powerfully than Flarf.”
So yes, there’s a contrast there, but the contrast is more than a contrast, it’s a crevasse. That we can share a writing practice across that divide is inspiring, so long as we recognize that we’re working from different sides of a canyon. We can communicate with one another, because our writing practice is similar, but that communication is less one to one (the usual translation) than one to many, which can feel like one to none. Or, we can do what Goro Takano does so provocatively, which is to write in his non-native language (English) by attempting to create a space without culture. This is another form of translation, indeed. It may be no accident that one of the narrators of Takano’s first novel is a demented woman.
I’ve been thinking again these days about dementia. You wrote on Facebook recently that you can’t go to visit your mother due to COVID-19. You’re not alone in this sad exclusion. During the many years that I was writing constantly about my mother’s dementia (two volumes of Dementia Blog were published by Singing Horse Press in 2008 and 2014), I came to realize that the speech of Alzheimer’s sufferers presents as radical diction. It is untranslatable. I did nothing more than transcribe what I heard in my mother’s “memory care home” (what a phrase that is) and came out with what sounded like avant-garde Modernism. Gertrude Stein, Samuel Beckett: I imagine they encountered dementia in their formative years. The vocabulary of dementia and its broken-down syntax presents us with “experimental” diction that is also absolutely realistic. Hence:
“That makes me happy because lulu. Lulu, yes
I hope it’s my father where it’s cuz you kids don’t have to be like that.
My back hurts: a little old lady that’s me.
You wad it you dad it you got it you dat.
These are beautiful things. (Vol. 2 48).
It’s as if Emile Zola’s narrative impulse were to meet Stein’s undoing of that impulse and they emerged with similar intentions to present a mirror to the world. The material world (of a damaged brain) yields language that has seems to us to be immaterial, sheer play. But if a man asking to have his shoes tied does so by talking about a train, he still uses language to mean something; it’s just that that meaning is not shared. This may be analogue to the way the material world of history (linguistic and otherwise) relates to the rather more immaterial world of Flarf and some Language and post-Language writing.
Language writers wanted to cure the world by making the reader hyper-aware of corporate and governmental words, phrases, advertisements, propaganda that molds our thinking. It did so with wild experiments in diction and equally wild experiments with realism (think Silliman’s New Sentence, where realistic sentences “torque” into non-narrative writing blocks). The writing in Tinfish has courted this paradox, by bringing out an oceanic field in which writers share writing practices (such as multi-lingualism, parataxis, field poetics, and so forth) but come at them from very different places. These are places where the experimentalism of the Modernists and Postmodernists becomes a new realism, where the language of nostalgia for an organized past gives way to the language of illness.
I’ve written this response during the week that Hawai`i closed for business. The mayor of Kauai, Derek Kawakami, called this “going on vacation,” signifying on why most people come to the islands. Travelers come to get outside their problems and their bad weather. They don’t realize they’re speaking a language that comes to them straight from the tourist bureau—filled with words like “paradise” and “beaches” and “aloha”–when Paradise is where one of the worst pandemics in world history ever occurred, after European contact. These words no longer translate well.
Wishing you and your family good health, Daniel.
Susan M. Schultz
Gloria Anzaldua, “Speaking in Tongues: A Letter to 3rd World Women Writers,” 1981, Xerox.
Andrew Epstein, “Funks of Ambivalence: On Flarf.” LARB, 22 July 2018. On-line.
Susan M. Schultz, Dementia Blog. Singing Horse Press, 2008, and “She’s Welcome to Her Disease”: Dementia Blog Volume Two, Singing Horse Press, 2013.
Tinfish Press website is located at tinfishpress.com
Susan M. Schultz is a Professor of English at the University of Hawai`i-Manoa, where she’s worked since 1990. In 1995, she founded Tinfish Press, which she edited until 2019. She is author of Dementia Blog (Singing Horse, 2008) and “She’s Welcome to Her Disease”: Dementia Blog, Vol. 2 (Singing Horse, 2013), as well as several volumes of Memory Cards. Her most recent book is I Want to Write an Honest Sentence (Talisman House, 2019). She is a lifelong fan of the St. Louis Cardinals.