So, how to talk at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, about my new book ALL KINDS OF FUR if I couldn’t get south from Maine in time? Skype!
My friend and former English Department colleague Susan Tichy ordered pre-publication copies for her ENGLISH 619 seminar “Book Beasts,” a course for Master of Fine Arts: Poetry students on many contemporary poetry practices—visual and concrete, pulled text, erasure, mesostic and acrostic, constrained and procedural, land-based avant-garde, altered book, and more.
Susan and I have had a lot of adventures in teaching together. In my last decade or so at George Mason–I taught there from 1977-2013, Susan and I co-taught a course for folklorists and creative writers on the English and Scottish Traditional Ballad. And, we’ve done joint presentations, such as the one in Helmsdale, Scotland, at the Timespan Cultural Centre—a marvelous place, well worth a visit to their museum and archives, and for their programs. At Helmsdale, we combined Susan’s poetry from her forthcoming book with Ahsahta Press (The Avalanche Path in Summer) with my storytelling (“The Black Laird, the Cattleman, and the Mossy Green Boat,” from the telling of the great Scots Traveller storyteller Duncan Williamson) to consider life in the borderlands and on the edge—between land and sea, masculine and feminine bodies, and the human and spirit worlds. You can read more about this presentation here.
This Skype session, though, was very special for me because it was in Susan’s “Book Beast” course of 2008 that I learned about erasure poetry and began writing ALL KINDS OF FUR. And, I was really looking forward to talking with MFA students who had studied erasure poetry.
Here are Andrew, Shaun, Kayla, Nichole, Whitney, Ann, Caroline, Alexandria, Elspeth (not in the order you see them in the photo). Among this talented group are editors at so to speak, a feminist poetry and art journal housed at George Mason University, and an intern for the University’s annual October literary festival, Fall For The Book:
To prepare for class, I wrote out several pages of talking points with questions and topics I thought we might discuss.
I started my presentation by reading from the first pages of the book, in the way that I really like to do: I ask a gentleman to read the story text on the first page and then I read the erasure poem, the words in black font, on that same page. This performance sets up the back-and-forth between the Grimms’ tale and the way All Kinds Of Fur herself is telling her own story. Andrew read his part just perfectly, and we read pages 1 / 2 and 3 / 4.
Here are some the topics we went on to talk about together—
— Why did I keep the words of my source text, the tale of the Brothers Grimm, “ghosted”—present in gray font—on the page, instead of whiting or blacking it out, or making it invisible? I wanted to enact a conversation, a debate on the pages between the Grimms’ version and the tale that a woman—and a survivor of abuse—would tell.
Gray font – source text; black font – erasure poem.
— Why I took a liberty most erasure poets do not: I changed the appearance of my source text. I placed the Grimms’ story text in short lines, similar to the appearance of a poem, rather than leaving it in blocks of prose. I discussed how, as a folklorist” my practice of “ethnopoetics” influenced me. That is, when I “translate” the oral stories I collect into written form for publication, I type the words in lines, with the appearance of poetry, rather than placing words in paragraphs, as blocks of text with the appearance of short stories, novels, or prose. Such lining out of oral tales is “ethnopoetic” practice, begun by poets (such as Jerome Rothenberg), anthropolgists (for example, Dennis Tedlock), and folklorists (most of us, including me).
— What is shape-shifting and how is it reminiscent of writing erasure poetry? Shape-shifting in many folktales (such as “All Kinds Of Fur” and “The Woman Who Married A Bear), in legends of the selkies, and in many more tales reminds us of erasure itself, of changing the shape of words to create new poems.
— How did I find the words for my erasure poems and how did I revise some of the poems? I used my blog post “Writing KIN S FUR” to discuss my revision process and to show images of my revisions of several poems.
— How did I find the “ending” to my poems? How did I write the last pages? I begin this project not knowing how I would end All Kinds of Fur’s story, and writing erasure itself led me to see what she would say.
— What was my revision process? Did I keep part or all of the chosen text on a page or did I start from the beginning?
— Whitney asked, “Do you think we could we compare writing erasure with translating?” Yes! When people translated the tale “All Kinds OF Fur,” they used “girl” and erased the agency of the heroine who calls herself “child” to protect herself. Likewise, the use of “she” and not “it.” And “princess” instead of “Königstochter” erases the idea of the king and abuser. (This idea is what scholar Katharine Young wrote in her blurb of my book).
— What work does the inclusion of magic—ashes, chants, charms—do in the book? Why include it?
— What is the sexual symbolism of the spinning wheel? Why is the resonant practice of sorting so important in this and other folktales? I talk about many things, including how sorting is a powerful act of self-definition, for through it we discern who we are at that moment.
And, we ended class with me reading from page 67 / 68 to the end of ALL KINDS OF FUR.
What a fine class! Thanks to Susan Tichy and all of her “Book Beast” students!
One more scene from Helmsdale, Scotland, because it is so beautiful: