I am exchange student (please speak slowly)

A blog by Caitlin Still, fledgeling writer, gloriously unimportant.

Seeing the Double: Reflections on a Semester at UdeM

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I was at lunch with a fellow exchange student the other day, trying to manage some exhausted sense of celebration now that my semester at the Université de Montréal has come to an end. My friend who hails from Finland had always dreamt of coming to Montréal on exchange. For me, coming to Montréal was more a matter of fate. I had always planned to go to France, until I learned that having plans is tragically optimistic, rather unhelpful, and also boring. Over all-you-can-eat sushi (a beautiful ubiquity in this city) we reflected on the semester that was, and how strange it was to be sitting there, chopsticks in hand saying ‘I can’t believe it’s finally/already over’. The weather outside was as warm and sunny as that of a Sydney winter. When I arrived here it was twenty-five degrees below zero.

What my fellow foreigner also said was this. ‘Is it just me, or do you keep seeing people who look like people back home?’ I practically slammed my hand on the table as I said ‘Oh god yes.‘ And it’s true. One of the strangest things about being at a foreign university, in a foreign city in general, is that I keep seeing people who are instant reminders of people back home. Though they carry some reasonable differences, the similarity jumps out at you. From the very first, it has happened constantly.

It brings interesting questions to mind. What happens when you meet ‘the double’? I’m not talking dead ringers or doppelgängers, but striking similarities both in appearance and manner, with important differences too. It’s the differences that give the experience a parallel-universe feel, enough to colour the scene with a sense of the uncanny. I’ve met or seen a couple of people in Montreal who remind me strongly of myself.  And I haven’t necessarily liked them. The figure of the double is a fairly important figure in literature, I’m told. Important enough for Sylvia Plath to have written her senior thesis on the appearance of the double in two of Dostoevsky’s novels. In fact, I had to write about the double this semester in a comparative literature course. It was called called Introduction à l’interculturel. 

What should my dislike of the double tell me, here on the opposite end of the world? I’m not sure I want to go into it, I wouldn’t know how. But at a foreign uni, seeing the doubles of others all over the place might mean a few things. On finishing my last exam, I went with my philosophy buddy/exchange student in solidarity from Mexico to have a beer and share a large poutine at the Irish pub down the road and debrief. We talked about the local students in our two philosophy classes–one on contemporary French philosophy and one on Nietzsche–and watching the class from an outsider’s perspective. When you’re not so involved, you’re in a better position to see the different parts that people play. You see who’s serious. You can tell who thinks they’re deep (a high percentage in any given philosophy class). You can tell who’s there because they don’t know where else to be, and who’s got something to prove. These are the things I suspect I don’t see so well at USyd, because I too have my part to play there. I wonder, without optimism, what I look like to any given exchange student when I turn up to tutorials late yet always seem to have something to say.

It’s been interesting, to say the least. But I’m not going to subscribe to the exchange-student-future-leaders-of-tomorrow stereotype and tell you that these have been the very best months of my life. I came for a challenge and I got one. Being an exchange student involves a lot of firsts, discoveries, new people. It’s fascinating and fun at its best. There is also a lot of uncertainty. It can feel like being back in first year, but worse because you’re not speaking your first language. Assignments take a long time to do. One experiences being the class dunce, the shame of a C- (and for all I know, worse could have happened during finals). But one time I was even surprised with an A+. And that’s how it is, plenty of highs and plenty of lows. I was sorry to leave UdeM, and will be even sorrier to leave Montreal. And I will write more on Montreal very soon. For at least a week though, when I get back, I will be happy once more to be stomping the hallowed halls of USyd like I own the place. On drinking a proper cup of coffee, I will hear the angels singing.

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White, Fey, Something to Say

I have something to say. This, my friends, seems precisely to be the problem at hand.

I’ve been having a lot of trouble writing in the last year. Never mind my tragically short attention span and my deplorable lack of self-discipline. Questions about the very practice of writing, of making art, become more and more urgent, the answers more and more elusive.

I started this blog because I was encouraged to. That meant a lot to me. I have a natural inclination to broadcast in this way, for better and for worse (and for oh, so much worse), but even writing this very post causes me some guilt. Who am I to claim your time, your concentration? Am I claiming to have written something of value when I leave a link to this post somewhere down your Facebook newsfeed? That said, a great deal of you who reading this will share my interests in writing and/or some artform. Communication. This implies having something to say. Something of value to say.

I am writing this to procrastinate — how I hate that overused word — on a Comparative Literature essay for a subject called ‘Pratiques Culturelles’, meaning Cultural Studies. The latter is not such a thing in the francophone world. It’s a personal interest interest essay (in French, please let me die) on a cultural phenomenon of our choice, my choice being Slam Poetry, and the Poetry Slam. I’ve been involved in slam in some capacity for over three years now, and despite it having given me my first audience, my relationship with the slam grows more and more conflicted.

My subject is the conflict between the two worlds of popular (read: performance) and ‘academic’ poetry, my thesis ultimately being that both groups have a lot to offer each other in their approach to poetry, and that cooperation between these two worlds is what will allow poetry to stay relevant and regain lost ground. The problem with the dominant class in the literary world — the academe — is that if you’re not a white male, you will be given fairly short shrift of a writer. Within the last twenty four hours the winners of the 2014 Judith Wright Poetry Prize, held by the famously progressive journal Overland, were announced. I couldn’t help but notice that first, second and third place were all given to white male poets.

That is not so surprising. Imagine how surprised we’d be, however, if the three winning poets were women. One would be forgiven for assuming the Judith Wright to have been a women’s prize.

The point I make about slam, in contrast to ‘academic’ poetry, is the space it gives to people excluded from this inherently elite milieu. This is particularly true of people who lack a formal education in literature, which should be seen as no barrier to writing a poem, or being a poet. Ultimately, a good poem is a good poem. Poets of both persuasions would do well to remember this rather than spitting narky comments at each other. As poets, we do work for a common cause.

A distinguishing feature of slam poetry may precisely be its problem, and its embodiment is the identity poem essential to the repertoire of many a slammer. The identity poem is one in which the speaker explores distinguishing aspects of his or her identity, generally those for which they are subject to oppression. For many with something to say about their experience as a person of colour, as a woman, as queer or trans* or other folks subject to oppression, the identity poem describes the reasons for which they are denied recognition by the literary establishment. The act of making your voice heard through such a poem can therefore be seen as an inherently political act.

Then again, some of us at the slam just need to get our start somewhere. Despite the irritating exhibitionism of many identity poems, the beauty of the slam is it has given many people a start in poetry which they would not otherwise have had. The problem that arises at the slam is that, where expressions of marginal identity are more likely to attract a perfect ten from an audience judge than any other well-crafted poem, identities are exaggerated, authenticity fabricated, and poems formulaic. Worse, those who enjoy a generally privileged social status dream up oppression for themselves. You know how it goes: just me against the world, I’m so quirky and visionary, nobody understands me. In The Cultural Politics of Slam, Susan BA Somers-Willett gives makes a perfect example of the Nerd Slam, where straight white males fabricate themselves a marginalised identity.

So what if you’re not really oppressed? What business do you have writing an identity poem if you generally belong to the dominant class in the great way-things-are? Not that much, I would argue. There’s nothing political in bemoaning the way nobody understands you in all your white, fey glory. In fact, I’d argue that it’s rather offensive to those who experience genuine oppression. So if you’re white and fey and like to slam, what do you write then if not an identity poem? Do you have anything to bring to the table at all?

I think the mistake we make, often in the more underground art world, is that all art has to be overtly political to be useful or meaningful. But I wonder if to abstain from the political in one’s art is a political act itself, as I interrogate my role in the poetic universe. There is a reason why much ‘academic’ poetry is concerned with the inner world, and the tiny worlds created between two or a few human beings, and a reason why popular poetry so often speaks to the world outside. There is also a reason why I believe that generally, this is as it should be.

I’ll leave you with the thought that inward-looking poetry, despite it being met with suspicion in the context of slam, need not be any more self-indulgent than the extroverted and political poetry more favoured by the slam world. But the question as to why, and who cares, still stands unanswered. So, to be continued.

 

Write good like me.

I have come to recognise a rejection email without reading it. From the publication that accepted me the first time, and rejected me countless times since, there is usually something in the first paragraph to the effect of ‘each month we get a huge number of amazing submissions’ — the magazine in question publishes, and is edited by, writers under 25 — ‘and each time it is an incredibly difficult task for us to…’ indeed, you get it. Feedback follows a couple of months later, and like a roach unto the morning coffee, feedback was just what landed in my inbox just as I was about to pull my boots on and run out the door the other night. 

Usually I take it in my proverbial stride, but this time I had the urge to reply. To leave professionality to the professionals and reject their rejection. Then I remembered what my mother always says about being gracious. I am sure the editors of the publication in question imagine me to be terribly grateful for their feedback.

I am told my poetry needs some ‘parring back’. I forgave the editor; it was obviously a typo, until it wasn’t. He typed it twice, the second time writing, ‘we felt that both poems relied too heavily on description, and could have also used a parring back,’ after which I will supposedly be able to ‘allow more time to develop some of the ideas/commentary that are currently muffled by the description.’

I looked this guy up. He is 24, three years older than me, and he has his degree. Beyond that, his volunteering for the publication is all that makes him more qualified than I am to critique (read: reject) my work. Yet if he were so well-versed (no, definitely no puns here) on the subject of poetry, he would know this: that if I wanted to state exactly what I meant, if I could give you a neat summary of my thoughts on a given subject, I would do away with the meter and slant-rhyme altogether and write you a bloody article, or a blog post like this. But if I am going to write a poem, it is because I must show you and not tell you. It is because I cannot simply tell you what I mean. And this is why poetry refuses to die.

As for my poems being too long, well perhaps they are. But I edit my work. If I’m slightly dissatisfied with an element, I’ll change it. That means if I don’t need a line, I’ll take it out. By the time I submit to a publication, I am convinced of the necessity of each line. So I feel the urge to say to him, tell me which lines can go, I dare you. The fact is, my poems are not that long. It’s just that they often exceed one page, which is not so cool in contemporary Australian poetry. It’s a matter of style, and at any given time, a certain style will be in vogue and everybody will do their best to deny that. Young Mr Jeremy Poxon’s poems are neat and compact. What he has suggested, essentially, is that I write like him. If I our places were swapped though, I would tell him that the bolts of his poems were impressively tight. But I would ask him, where is the music? Why don’t you tempt me to read this aloud, late at night, alone in my room with my tumbler of red wine?

I see so little contemporary poetry that is delicious. So little work that falls from the tongue like an incantation, that leaves something a bit magical hanging in the room. Sylvia Plath knew delicious: ‘Out of the ash/ I rise with my red hair/ and I eat men like air.’ The very deliciousness of Paul Celan’s ‘Death Fugue’ caused both uproar and adulation, but that is its own can of worms for another post. And of course, deliciousness resides in image as well as sound. The last line of James Arlington Wrights, ‘A Blessing’ comes to mind: ‘Suddenly I realise/ That if I stepped out of my body I would break/ Into blossom.’

But if I told him to come back with a poem that sang, would I be saying to him exactly what he said to me? Write good like me? It’s an issue of taste, now. An issue of style. I get what he’s doing, I get what other poets are doing, and I don’t want to do it. And if that leaves these poems unpublished, well, I suppose the world is not much worse off for it. They thank me. ‘Submitting is daunting’ they say, and they would like to see more.

Yet I am not daunted by submitting. Should I be? Have I done something terribly bold in suggesting they publish me? Something arrogant in presuming to have something to say, an emotion to express, that is of enough value to be printed in a couple of hundred copies of some semi-obscure quarterly? And that will be the subject of my second post.

In this case I can’t imagine being daunted. I expect rejection. In choosing (questionable verb) to be a writer, I chose a life of rejection. But next time I want better reasons and a more qualified editor without such an ugly surname. In the meantime I’ll go on Sylvia Plath’s logic, ‘I love my rejection slips. They show me I’m trying.’

 

 

(PS. If you don’t believe rejection is pare for the course, — seewhatIdidthere?– have a read. Bestsellers originally rejected.)

Stanmore, Olympia Milk Bar

OlympiaMilkBar (3)

He stares out through the glass
in the still semidark. That hall
of faded lino floor, they pass,
peer in and never dare go

to the milk bar on the
smog-choked road, from the
city to the western
sun set.

The cars howl by
Olympia: unlit, unhidden
with its stacks of sun-faded
chocolate-bar boxes,
stale cigarettes, a milkshake
to be had for four dollars,

others say he won’t sell
anything at all.

He, the man of the grey-weathered
rock-face. Mr. Pygmalion-dad who waits
in the gloom of the long-unrenovated place

Olympia, where a man no longer eats
but is eaten, far gone that
milkshake-making man
he stands, immovably,
in his milk bar.

And why, wherefore
your lovely daughter?

Your
portal to the past
Olympia

By the road from the great city
to Parramatta

kept open
for a beauty imaginary
for the amputee statue
the return of that she

from the edge of the earth
the falling dirt
wherefore no more
your disappearing daughter?

Olympia milk bar
leave your lights on

shine the beacon she will follow
should she wake up in the night,
wander back where you dust her off daily,
lovingly,

with twenty years
of anguished possibility.

Wipe the mud from the hollow of an eye say,
ah —

how young you ever are
girl, mine;

strangely young!

And every night
a light is on

it blazes nightly
down the great western highway

but which road did you disappear down?
Why,
which way
to the end you found?

He wipes the bench,
stares out to the end,
to the day

he will see her,
hands outstretched and
standing in the doorway
some lone Friday.

Treading a road
from an elysian light,

shining in robes, white
marble
as she comes.

Hibernian Nights

Edward Burne-Jones, The Golden Stairs, 1880

(Edward Burne-Jones, The Golden Stair, 1880)

Near central staish
there’s a building that
shakes

painted a greeny-grey,
where the walls breathe warm
with plenty to say

but here
even the bricks are hip enough
to keep mum, for
whatever happens in,
stays in.

In bright peacock costumes
befeathered young beauties
float up a staircase to the
city’s night sky

and sweep away
with silk skirts
the smell of late night
piss and vomit,
welcoming the
elevator scrawl, for
high times in Hibernia.

Given the smell beloved by us all
and the nation of its namesake,
the apartment block is aptly green,
and the paint peels contentedly
with more than a hint of

boholier-than-thou
smuggery.

Well
aren’t we.

With our warehouse
upon studio upon
warehouse space

once was a squat,
now the men wear
crisp gingham shirts

and the ladies
are manicured
and pedicured with
hair all dyed down
in nonchalant perfection,

and her tatts,
her runic
tribal tatts will
always be the better

the envied of hers,
and hers

and tonight,
half the population
of this tired-town bohemia
descends on the green building,
Friday night to
see and be seen,
and chief,

I’m just happy,
so happy
to be part of the Scene

having stumbled here at
seventeen;
thrust off the tail end of the
HSC, now

lost in the labyrinth,
seeing and being seen,

well-dressed and fairy-haired;
a pre-Raphaelite dream.

Near central staish
there’s a building that shakes.

We see and are seen
in our warehouse dream;

Upstairs there’s a rooftop,
our stairway opens to the sky

the moon slumps over
the city’s jagged line.

I thought this to be the
stairway to some
provisional vision
of heaven, but it
seems I’ve been
mistaken

unless of course,
an artist’s mecca
is but a pilgrimage
for the ranks of those
who preen
and pose.

We smoke
amongst the
cockroaches,

where we see
and are seen.

Across yer Face

My child,
my child,
won’t you give us a smile?

It brings the mind
such ease to see
the face so perfectly
in place.

My world,
my world,
won’t you be a good girl
and smile?

For without,
why, you’re
never fully dressed

people will think you’re
mad, depressed and

child,
if you don’t smile

don’t
smile hard, don’t

pull it, stretch it
all the way

across your
face,
you disgrace

well won’t you
be the sort that
we detest?

because you’re
never fully
dressed,

and there,
there,
there

don’t air
your filthy,
dirty laundry

or your thoughts
out on your face,

your nice face,
your perfect face.

Smile
because your pigtails
are neat for school

Smile,
because your
mother loves you

Smile
because every day
is the same, and
everybody smiles

so smile
and all your worries
go away.

Smile
until your jaw cramps

pull that great gaping
smile
all the way
across your face.

Smile,
and maybe then
someone will like you

Laugh and the world
laughs with you; laugh
and the world will laugh
and the world only smiles
on people who smile.

And if you cry, heck,
you deserve to be
as alone as you feel

smile as though it’s real,
and

if you don’t fake it,
then how will you make it?

fake it,
fake it,
we all made it.

We are happy.
We are happy.
We are happy.

Life is easy.

So darling do
us all a favour and
cut us a smile

like a great gaping
gash all the
way across your
face;

like a
long and bloody
wound across your
precious little
baby’s face.