SPEAKER: This is a production of Cornell University.
LYRAE VAN CLIEF-STEFANON: First, please allow me to acknowledge and thank our donors Barbara and David Zalaznick, who through their generosity have so enriched our lives here in Goldwin Smith Hall, and my colleagues in the creative writing program, whose hard work and vision have made and continue to make this series and the program here at Cornell such a success. Thank you, [? Sarah ?] and [? Maryann ?] for everything that you do. Thank you, Cynthia, for forsaking the Arizona sunshine to be with us this semester. And finally, thank all of you for braving the snow and cold this afternoon for the sake of poetry, to listen.
In Scheming Women-- Poetry, Privilege, and the Politics of Subjectivity," Cynthia Hogue writes, "Empowerment evolves through exchange based on listening to, not talking at a disengagement from the structures of dominance. Listening is not passive, but actively builds bridges between subjects positioned by, as well as shifting between internal and external differences, whether we define them as natural or constructed, whether established through the processes of inclusion/exclusion, or identification/abjection."
Cynthia Hogue's poetry makes evident her interest in dynamic exchange in the work of the poet as active listener. Again and again, this idea emerges in Hogue's work. One finds it, for example, in the contrapuntal 2008 section of "Arseniad," which Cynthia told me she's going to read this afternoon. I'm really glad that in the collection or consequence, with its magnificent uses of line and space, "If she is not at the center, it is not her story. I speak to the margins instead of the center. Makes no difference, she's not here."
Or in poems on New Orleans, a place Hogue notes, where "all the muses had streets. The interview poems in When the Water Came-- Evacuees of Hurricane Katrina are drawn from actual words of evacuees, those from the Katrina diaspora who landed in Arizona. Their original interviews, some 50 pages long, shaped and edited with nothing added." As highlighted in the Author's Note, "They stand with the books photographed as, quote, 'individual facets of a larger mosaic. Together, they begin a conversation."
In an interview with Poetry International, speaking of translation work in which poems, quote, "overflowed their original borders into another language," Hogue notes, "A poem from any language, translated into English, freshens the language by estranging it from us. In the process, remaking our relationship to English and how to use it, or how language uses us. The act of translation must, by necessity, be a vigilant and hyperaware process at every level of the poem, both in the original and the target language. But the generic nature of the poem is that, as it eludes control, it sharpens the tool, which I take to mean our usage of language."
I'm interested very much in the way that Cynthia Hogue embodies that process, as in "At Delphi," from the collection, The Incognito Body, where she writes, "The story is the path or way. We happen upon it once or twice, arrive in lucid noon to a place where we once came to know what we do not know. My body knew. Still, it felt like a feeling. I called it a feeling."
Cynthia Hogue is the distinguished visiting writer of the Department of English for the Spring 2014 semester. She's published 12 books, including Or Consequence, and When the Water Came-- Evacuees of Hurricane Katrina, Interview Poems with Photographs by Rebecca Ross. She also co-translated Fortino Sámano-- I don't know if I'm saying that right-- The Overflowing of the Poem, with Virginie Lalucq and Jean-Luc Nancy, winners of the 2013 Herald Morton Landon Translation Award from the Academy of American Poets.
Her forthcoming collection is called Revenance, and it's due in the fall of 2014. She is the Maxine and Jonathan Marshall Chair of Modern and Contemporary Poetry at Arizona State University. Please welcome Cynthia Hogue.
CYNTHIA HOGUE: Yes, do you hear me OK? Because I want you to hear that I am thanking you for what a generous introduction. Thank you, Lyrae, and also for this welcome. To be among you this semester is such an honor. And I've been really jazzed working with the students so far. I trust that's going to continue. It's a great conversation.
I wanted to open with an homage to James McConkey, who I see is here. I was so moved by your reading. And I thought I would open with a poem that kind of functions as an homage. It's not a personal lyric. It's not straight autobiography. And yet, it's all true. It happened.
Once I removed it from the originating context, which was a lunch date, it became a fable. It's called "Stones." And it has an epigraph from George Oppen. "The universe is stone, but we are not. I have a friend who imprisons stones. How do you do that, I ask? I build little cages and put them in. And why do you imprison these stones? They are immoral stones. I oversee the purification of petrified beings.
Where do you find these immortal stones? I find them in the river, which is low in the summer drought. Are all the stones you see immoral? No, only the ones I imprison. Can you tell which stones are immoral? Yes, I can tell which ones are immoral and which are not.
And where do you keep the cages? I keep them on a shelf near the window. And do you keep them by the window so they see their old abode and know what they have lost? I keep them by the window because that is where I have room. Will you free these stones? Yes, when they have learned morality and are purified of being petrified.
Will you teach them morality and courage? No, morality and courage cannot be taught. but they can be learned. How will imprisoned stones learn? They will learn because I have moved them. And that is what they feared most. When will they know they have learned? I will know when they know."
Actual conversation, it didn't seem strange at the time.
But when I got home and wrote it down, I thought, hmm, I think this is a poem. I wanted to open with a couple of other poems that work with voice. This began as a classroom assignment, as so often we writing teachers discover that if we do the assignments that we actually give, we sometimes get a poem-- not always, but sometimes.
So I was giving a writing intensive on Cape Cod. And we went over some conversation poems. And I assigned a conversation poem. And that afternoon was privy to this conversation.
"On Bumps River," this has a little bit more commentary than the first. "We have come with kayaks to the water, powder blue and marine blue framed by dune, barrier island, the steely clouds. One of us says, I'm afraid. The second, take risks, face fears. The third, holding his child, place feet in your center to stay balanced, upright.
I go in circles, circles, circles, the first says, though I wish to cut the water like wings slice air. Wind rises, and the child is cold. I'm cold, he says. I'm cold. An osprey hovers, dives, touches the water and rises, flapping, lifting, the fish in his talons, weighting him.
The third says, the law of aerodynamics are illustrated by the osprey, which flying as he descends, plucks the fish and turns it with his talons to face the direction in which he flies. We all look up again at the osprey flying low over the dune, still visible. The second says, poor fish. The third, the osprey nests near others because it hunts alone.
The wind's rising. The child's cold. The first says, we will go back. The second, we will go on a while. The fish is sailing out of sight and does not think or move and will not close its eyes."
This next poem is a recounting of a conversation. So it's about a conversation to which I was not privy and probably wouldn't have understood if I had been there. But this is from Revenance, the forthcoming book, which is a very placed book. Many of my poems are placed. But this is in the ecopoetic sense of the spirit of a place, or even the spirit of another species with which or with whom we might commune if we are deeply enough engaged with the place.
"The Woman Who Talked with Trees." "That a tree could speak, that a woman claiming to converse with and to tell the story of trees in a novel she hides in her desk, so careful to talk about, but otherwise to keep tree speech to herself, walked into a standard vernal elm, endangered oak, and spoke to you. And you listened to her. In that grove, those trees now conjured that words could keep them."
So I think about voices. I listen, as Lyrae so beautifully explained. It's a practice called attentive listening that I was doing long before I trained in conflict transformation but became a way to understand human nature, what we reveal and what we conceal, of course, and what we say.
But this next poem, "The Arseniad," which is from a longer series called "Ars Cora," is very much asking the question, how does one listen if the voice has been silenced? How does one tell a story that has disappeared from history if the only sign that somebody lived is her name in a court document about her case?
So this poem is trying to access the spirit of this personage about whom I was told the month before I was leaving New Orleans for good, Cora Arsene. She was not the first slave to use the courts to sue for her freedom. But she had the unique distinction of being the last on the eve of the Fugitive Slave Act, which closed the courts to slaves suing for manumission.
She started her lawsuit in the same year as Dred Scott. As we know, his case went on to the US Supreme Court. Cora Arsene actually won. She sued her owners, who had taken her to France. That's roughly the outline of the story. They took her to France, where basically because French law forbade slavery, she was freed. And when they brought her back to New Orleans and tried to re-enslave her, she sued them, both for her freedom and also for her back wages.
This was a story that I took 10 years to research, didn't know much about slave history. I didn't know much. I'm not a Southerner. I didn't know much about Southern history. I didn't know about the Caribbean history of slave rebellions. And I researched for 10 years to contextualize this person. I kept trying to give the story away. Nobody picked it up. And finally, a friend said, I think it's your story. Find a way to tell it.
It's fractured. Part of the story is my search, my journey. But I wanted to be very much in the margins of this poem.
"Arseniad," there are two epigraphs. "If history is a record of survivors, poetry shelters other voices," Susan Howe. "She isn't here nor her page of exertion," Kathleen Fraser.
"1836, an owned person leaving New Orleans, few paved roads or lights, levees 'lined with a forest of masts.' No other city of the world had advanced with such gigantic. "Burgeoning on the bayou.' Eric Fleury, easy mobility on waterways, 'pervasive swamps' to escape enslavement and survive, chaotic prevailing, mixing. Indian, African, Spanish, and French, after which American rule erased the Code Noir, and Las Partidas Siete, which defined its 'bondsmen' and 'bondswomen.' By legal definition, slaves had souls, and therefore, productivity encouraged manumission, illegal, 'barbarous and inhuman treatment.'
Eugene Genovese, Roll, Jordan, not to be confused with actual kindliness, no fabled Golden Age of Good, always only goods. Arsene, alias, Cora." One thing I should mention is that the court documents consistently refer to Cora Arsene as "Arsene, alias Cora." So you'll hear that again in the poem.
"Arsene, alias Cora" traveled to New York with the white Creole couple who owned her. Own, adjective, intensifier, as in, 'To thine own self be.' And verb, to possess, used with object, as in to own something." Or, in this case, someone. "And verb, to acknowledge, as in to own a fault.
All three boarded a schooner for a sojourn in France. Arsene, alias Cora walked off the ship where [READING IN FRENCH]. And was, by French law, freed.
1838, in Paris, a distinct effort of the imagination is required to visualize cobbled streets and begrimed spires that horse-drawn along river to a place of Concord, Arc of Triumph. At Étoile, around which still woods, the mentality of liberty, free passage all over everybody, self-evident, lightenment, post-Revolution and idealized thought that Cora have heard, learned letters. One, at least, survives by account in court documents, A, on a note she handed one of her witnesses.
Returned with her owner was before France a good servant. After sojourn impertinent and insolent, irrevocably obdurate, Arsene, alias Cora when re-enslaved eight years later, put up for sale, herself refused to comply.
1846, became the last slave to. Hired the best lawyer who would take such cases. Oh, use the courts, oh, sued for freedom. Plaintiff gave witness, on her behalf, J. Ducourneau, a small piece of paper marked with the letter A. Two or three front teeth are missing.
Arsene, alias Cora, a name in census rolls in New Orleans. And a Supreme Court of Louisiana decision also appeals, wherein both courts ruled cannot affect and destroy the donation of the freedom made in France by the consent of the master. No law can be enforced retroactively. It can only be made for the future.
2008, I am speaking of her. I write in silence. My words cannot find her or become her. If she is not at the center, it is not her story. I speak to the margins instead of the center. It makes no difference. She is not there."
So ti's a bit of documentary-- I read about half of it-- a bit of documentary method to try to excavate, to try to piece together that which had simply vanished. And I would call it a poetics of witness, or at least written in that spirit.
My husband and I thought that we would read a little bit from the translation, Fortino Sámano. And he will read the French so that you get a sense of the original. What this book is it's a collaboration between the young experimental poet, Virginie Lalucq, and the French philosopher of aesthetics, Jean-Luc Nancy, who really admired her work. And when he heard that she was doing the series on Fortino Sámano, he asked if he might write a commentary, am explication of the text.
Her series is about not the Mexican revolutionary and Zapatista lieutenant Fortino Sámano, but about a photograph. We had thought it was the only [? extent ?] photograph. But we were just corrected, that there is, in fact, one other photograph.
But the photograph that Virginie Lalucq meditates on is snapped by Augustín Victor Casasola, a documentary photographer of the Mexican Revolution the moment before Fortino Sámano is to be executed, which you would never know from the photograph. He's very nonchalant. He's smoking a cigar. He's looking death in-- he's, in fact, looking at the firing squad with the sense of [FRENCH]. And that's where she begins her meditation.
The first two that we're going to read, she resuscitates her voice. She inhabits him. And Jean-Luc Nancy's commentary is really on the nature of the poetic image. There's no reproduction of the photograph. The only reproduction is poetic. So Virginie Lalucq is contemplating what the photographic image, what the visual image can do. And Jean-Luc Nancy is contemplating what happens in the transmission, the translation into poetry. So this is very much a work of aesthetics. Sylvain Gallais, by the way. I'm so sorry. [LAUGHTER] My husband, perhaps you figured that out.
SYLVAIN GALLAIS: I'm just the husband, OK? [READING IN FRENCH]
CYNTHIA HOGUE: "How many of my executioners were charming? The image tells us nothing about settling scores central to this shooting or of the light brim of blood that follows. At the moment, I'm smiling. At the moment, my criminal record empties, and there's no lasso yet.
What image? Did anyone see an image? Virginie told me there won't be a photograph in her book of Fortino Sámano in front of the firing squad. Then I won't have seen an image. But it says nothing. I notice that this is said in an [? Alexandrian. ?] The image tells us nothing about settling scores. Right away, already the cardinal line of French poetry. It is not by accident. It is why the cut that fellows says concisely, 'central.'
The image says nothing. But the image has, par excellence, a quality of the poetic. The Image is the poem. Absent the image, the poem will make an image in speaking, just as light brim of blood is seen when read, when said to oneself seen literally alliterated in the carefully elaborated welling of red. Virginie chooses wording that doubles blood's plosive, insisting on the coagulating [? Carmen ?] trickle to follow, just before it is to spill. At the moment, I'm smiling, at the moment.
I smile now having this moment in mind. I smile at this moment so that it will remain this moment. I smile thinking of its eternal return, a smile for an easy death lasting only an instant, a smile for the stillness of the moment before it spills, the meaning suspended in an imminence that which remains imminent. The meaning never occurs. The image says nothing.
Here's the poem, on the ridge, the edge, on the brim. This does not make a lasso, not a loop that would fetter any more than Fortino is tied in front of his killers. His blood and his crimes empty out freely. But I cannot not hear how the blood is caught by this no lasso. The trickle of [? Carmen ?] makes a loop where meaning is captured by a moment that will never come to anything."
SYLVAIN GALLAIS: [READING IN FRENCH]
CYNTHIA HOGUE: "Whether the execution was summary or not, the walls and alluring extra in the background. In the foreground, the image is not a stethoscope any more than I am a hero or a movie actor. The image does not say whether my heartbeat speeds up. At this very instant, I'm grinning wide. I'm strong, I'm the worst son of a bitch alive. I'll shoot myself, smoke my last cigar, after which I'll rise to grin at you again.
He's dead. He gets up, resuscitated, if you like, or fully imagined, passing into the silence of this image with no beating heart, without clarifying who is speaking, except that someone is speaking. Someone announces the exact moment that he falls and gets up, like a line, anew, falling, cutting, reversing.
The execution, everything is there, set into play, brought to term. That is why the verse opens with such a cadence [INAUDIBLE], internal rhyme in the hemistich. Whether the execution was summary or not, there is in the line an execution that is always in some sense summary, of the course of meaning, of discourse that does not relate to the moment.
The break in that course, in contrast, must take place only at the precise moment, meaning shoots itself. What a cold word, sputtering without appeal. And the rising smoke from the cigar here mixes with the smoke from the guns. A poem is always, at each moment, the last word with no conclusion." Thank you.
And I'm going to read two more poems. One is [? acrostic. ?] And it is a poem without conclusion. It is also a poem very much in conversation with the economy. Sylvain is an economist, as well as my co-translator. And what I can say, since we married, is that I think a whole lot more about the economy than I otherwise would have. Although I don't think about it in the same way.
"On Securities and Exchange," This is really, in some sense, an [INAUDIBLE] poetica as well. "On Securities and Exchange. A river runs through the painting. Its blue wash sweeps across the whole foreground. It narrows, meanders into the canyon. Its currents are the same sky blue as the triangle of sky. And the sun casts a bright strip edged in beryl through hills hulking into hunter green.
You no longer feel safe in the country, which has exchanged safety, securities, for insecurities. Such pressing matters distract you from painting, art's abstraction of what's real, its refusal to face facts like everyone else. Or this is the thing, it's complication of what is is what confuses you. Does the river flow towards you or away? You spend all day not deciding."
And I'll close-- I wanted to share with you part of the, I would say, the emotion for me of being here is that I grew up not so far from here. And I have spent the last three years shuttling back and forth between Arizona and the Saratoga area for elder care.
And that care came to completion last summer. My mother died, and my father died two years ago. So in the month I've been here, I have been working on a piece that I started earlier. But this has to do with being dislocated. Although I know this region, I am certainly in culture shock. We drove 2,500 miles through a blizzard system that seemed to just miss us but certainly accompany us for all of those miles.
I didn't remember winter being so dramatic.
I remember things like tobogganing. But I'm going to read you just this piece of what is in a longer elegiac meditation. And it's about being a voyager, with a nod to Ezra Pound, the wayfarer. Of course, the wayfarer in my poem is female.
"You must turn your thoughts to the displacement of a voyage. Cultivate the mind to undertake travels long, discomfort, and insecurities, such as tripping down stairs as you start. Dust yourself off. Feel for broken bones. Forget pride, and adapt the parlance of malediction and misunderstanding for the rare day that all goes well to consider the way of the wayfarer. You won't think of it at the time. But later, after the black eye shows from the fall, the cramp flares in your hip, as you step onto the overlook, you find luck on the road in February.
The sheer pluck you chose to tarry where others find bone-chilling wind. When asked, were you born happy? You say, no, I was not, rather, and persistently, melancholic. Yet, the treasure of your get-up-and-go, your grit in the not giving up, tempers the story you always tell."
And I have to mention here that this is not autobiographical. This actually is my mom. "Yet the treasure of your get-up-and-go, your grit in the not giving up tempers the story you always tell, for a lark, really, maybe to be funny, or a bit magical. Who knows? The one with fairies at the bottom of the garden in the song that broke you up every time. It's so silly that you could never finish." Thank you so much.
Thank you. Any questions? I'm happy to answer questions. I'm also happy to stand here while you're silent--
--thinking about whether you have any questions. Roger.
AUDIENCE: You spoke-- in the next to last poem, you read this book about "Art's refusal to face facts." And yet, you-- a lot of your poems seem to do precisely the-- deal with the facts, with evidentiary material, or the translation or photographic records. Do you have a way of thinking about how poetry deals with actual material like that documented photograph?
CYNTHIA HOGUE: Yes, yes absolutely. That's such a great question, because the conversation that I was having in my head writing the [? acrostic ?] poem was very much with the world beyond arts and humanities, where art is not valued and is considered, if not valueless, somewhat of an inscrutable mode of communication. So that was the context for that.
But art, of course, is facing facts in ways that transform the facts, ways that make us aware, ways that bring these facts into a different attention, like that conversation I had over lunch, which at the time was just weirdly playful, and I played along. And what came up when you isolate it is something that has really been transformed out of context, thanks to the process of decontextualization.
Robert Duncan talked about he was trying to get Denise Levertov, his friend, to stop writing a documentary poetic during the Vietnam War. And he said, how can I convey to you the importance of transforming this material, that you have to alchemize the material through word work?
And her point was that through recontextualizing the facts, through enhancing them by giving them the artistic frame or the formalization of the being in the work of art, that's part of that alchemization. Yeah, yeah, thank you. Yes.
AUDIENCE: I was wondering how you think about the oral performance of a poem like "The Arseniad," which on the page has all sorts of typographical features that you can't reproduce. And you crossed out words, and there's spacings, et cetera. Do you think of these as just two completely different things? Or is one an inferior rendition of the other? Is the real poem on the page? Or is the real poem your performance? So how do you [INAUDIBLE]?
CYNTHIA HOGUE: Well, it's "The Arseniad" is not a performance poem, per se. It's not that I haven't read it. But I don't read it very often, because it is hard to perform. And some things, like the "white Creole couple," "white" is in visible erasure. And that's a kind of acknowledgment of the nuances of race in and around New Orleans, which I could do something like that.
But I'm not a dancer. I'm not a performer, per se. I am performing. But I would say that they are in tandem, that the work shifts when you hear it orally. And it shifts again when you sit with it on the page. I left out some of the most documentary passages simply because they don't perform as well, really, yeah. Thank you.
AUDIENCE: [? I've been ?] thinking ever since I saw [? the art ?] of Robert Duncan and his letter [? talks, ?] and just how much of a drama [? that ?] have come to be in American poetics. And I was just wondering how if, for instance, you were to partake in a kind of conflict mediation between those two poets, or engage back with them, how-- because they're such that, like they were saying, it was such a stark break between them. And they seemed so unreconcilable at the end.
CYNTHIA HOGUE: They were, yeah, they were, finally. If I were to be a mediator for Denise Levertov [CHUCKLES] and Robert Duncan-- one of the things that became very clear when I was reviewing that material, I was kind of theorizing her poetics of witness as a kind of eyewitness. And I italicized "eye," eyewitness.
But she tried very hard. She listened very hard. And Duncan was very, very caring. He was very, very gentle with her. For a long time, there was real communication. And then, finally, feelings got hurt. And egos got bruised. And sometimes it's most productive. It's been very productive for American poetry that they had that fight, and that it was long-distance, because we have all of the letters that are such a rich source about process and about poetics.
So I mean, for them, it was-- actually, he did try to apologize. And she finally refused to accept the apology. For them, personally, it was a real shame. But for American poetry, it was very productive. And that's what they say about conflict is it's often productive. The communication is amplified, if you will.
I think a lot of interesting poetry-- Duncan wrote poetry. She wrote poetry very much in conversation with each other, really. It was really about something I've also thought a lot about, how to be a poet during wartime. How to be a poet when the country is waging a war that is distant and does not impact me personally.
I'm afraid my voice is going to give out, so thank you so much.
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Distinguished Visiting Writer Cynthia Hogue read from her poetry Feb. 6 as part of the Spring 2014 Barbara & David Zalaznick Reading Series.
Hogue is the Maxine and Jonathan Marshall Chair of Modern and Contemporary Poetry at Arizona State University. She has published twelve books, including "Or Consequence" and "When the Water Came: Evacuees of Hurricane Katrina" (interview-poems with photographs by Rebecca Ross). Her forthcoming collection is entitled "Revenance" (Fall 2014).