Saturday, December 10, 2016




I was fortunate to attend and participate in Outside-in / Inside-out: A festival of outside and subterranean poetry, University of Glasgow and other Glasgow venues, 4– 8 October 2016, where I got to interact with a fascinating and wonderful group of poets, artists, poet-artists, academics, and others beyond category.

In brief, and in the tense-modified words of the organizers, “Through performances, exhibitions, creative symposia and readings, [we explored] the margins of poetic activity, ask[ed] what lies beyond poetry and interrogate[d] the structures that delimit poetic engagement.’ Which, simply translated, meant that, for five days, a number of provocative performances, conversations, and other kinds of interchanges took place.

A great number of them felt, and continue to feel, to one degree or another, transformative, and I’d like to share a little of what got to me there.

The first night there were readings by Nuala Watt and Nat Raha. Nuala, who is, among other things, disabled (no-one is only disabled, of course) writes, in a letter to my wife, “I've had various dealings with the benefits system and I suppose the good thing is that I have become an activist as a result. But I (and all the other people) really shouldn't have to point out the stupidity of reassessing lifelong conditions, etc. People who are terminally ill are being found fit for work - that is, not eligible for benefits. It would make more sense if it were an absurdist farce, but it's real life.” Her reading emphasized the many and painful outsiderings of the disabled. Nat, a former musician (who is also a trans* person of color), read over a variety of sound effects and echo repeats that made many of the words unintelligible. I took that as a reflection of their sense of outsiderness: a position from which it can be difficult if not impossible to be heard.    

The next day was the first full day of events: panels, for the most part, but each was followed by long periods of discussion which broke down the wall between the panellists (authorities) and the audience. Andrea Brady gave a very good paper called Inside Lyric: Poetry in Prison, which threw into question the whole notion of who is inside, exactly, and who is outside (in her context, prisoners are the insiders, and those of us not incarcerated are the outsiders, while at the same time, in another sense, prisoners are obviously outsiders ...). A little later Sandeep Parmar spoke of Coterie, Community and Censure: UK Poetry and Race. It is worth remarking on how different-yet-similar-yet-different the poetry scenes are in the US and the UK, and how it was necessary for me to engage in a process of translation, several, actually, which took days and are in no sense complete or ever likely to be in order to begin to understand.

It seemed that every hour another door cracked open a bit ....

Perhaps the other panelist that day who had most effect on me was Nisha Ramayya, whose talk was called Moving Devotion, Moving Displacement: Decolonising Responses to Mirabai and Bhanu Kapil. Having written on Bhanu myself in an earlier issue of GR I was particularly interested in what Nisha might have to say about her. It was surprising, tho it should come as no surprise, how so many poets in at the conference found and find Bhanu, exemplary in the chances she takes, in all she puts at stake. Nisha and I had an interesting talk later about Bhanu’s minimalism and self-erasure, and how that might be in part because of the difficulties of her simply existing as a person of color and an immigrant in a basically white and “somewhat” hostile world. Which is not, of course, to say that any minimalist tendency is particular to people of color or immigrants, or that there is no maximalist response to the same set of circumstances.

One thing I found fascinating is how many people at this conference, especially migrants, felt a profound sense of dislocation, that they had no home anymore. This really touched me, a Jew, who has really never even considered a sense of home possible in this or any other world. That “anymore” really got to me.

That evening was dedicated to what the organizers called the “Barbaric Vast and Wild launch, with a mixture of performative-critical papers and readings by Jerome Rothenberg, John Bloomberg-Rissman, Andrea Brady, Diane Rothenberg, Gerrie Fellows, Tawona Sithole, Aonghas MacNeacail, Nicole Peyrafitte and Pierre Joris.” Barbaric Vast and Wild of course being Poems for the Millennium volume 5, which Jerry and I edited. I particularly want to emphasize a few things that happened that evening.

The first is the way Diane began her paper, which was on some of her experiences as an anthropologist among the Seneca in upstate New York. She emphasized the difficulty, the real difficulty, of actually listening to another person. I would say that the major lesson of the entire conference, as far as I was concerned, was, to paraphrase Jules Verne: listen, with all your might, listen! It’s hard, unimaginably hard.

The second was something Aonghas told me, during a break. He was born a Gaelic speaker. The school system tried to turn him into an English speaker, in other words, to break his connection with his culture. To destroy it. This was the first time I had really realized that the way Indians in the US were forcefully removed from their families and sent to missionary schools was an intrinsic part of colonization worldwide, not just a USAmerican aberration. It’s one thing to read about these things, for me at least it’s another to actually realize them. It hurt.   

The next day included what was possibly – for me – the most powerful session of the entire conference: The presentation by the Homeless Library. I am going to allow Philip Davenport, one of the organizers (the other was Lois Blackburn) to speak for himself here, since he posted shortly after the event. He called the post “The day we handed it over.”

“Two years ago you wouldn't have got me in a room like this. I would’ve run a mile.” Danny

We’ve taken The Homeless Library to various public places with great pomp attached, the Houses of Parliament come to mind. Always the readings by people who’ve experienced homelessness are the crucial moment, after Lois and I set the scene. But this was the deepest we’ve gone in public, and the most fragile, raw, honest, that we’ve ever allowed ourselves to be. Both Lawrence and Lois wept as they read. I caught Danny’s eye at one point and it was as if I was looking into a sea of sadness. And yet we made it through. And it was Lawrence who threw the lifebelt and pulled us out.

It was the day that the balance changed. The makers of The Homeless Library are also leading the discussion. Not only did their voices come through loud and clear, they were the experts. They knew homelessness, the support services, the poem making. And they shared this expertise, without sentiment, but with kindness and generosity. It wasn’t just the mechanics of the poems, it was the heart of the poems that they took us to. And yet they kept the ambiguity: “I wrote this and then I read it again and I thought I don’t know what it means but I keep coming back to it.” (Lawrence)

What was it about today? When we started to talk Lois and I had set the agenda. By the end of the discussion, it was led by Danny, Lawrence and Christine. We couldn’t possibly speak for them and their experience. In fact, it suddenly overwhelmed.

It was Lawrence who saved us. He was the parent in the end. Not only was he looking after us, the panel of five, he wanted to make sure everyone in that room left with hope. It was an act of absolute generosity. This was not a politician’s answer, it was not a dry answer. He was trying to see people’s faces, read their eyes, and to answer their need.

Danny has been the ballast of many of our sessions. His kindness and calmness settled many people down so that they could write or make art with us. I cannot put into words the contribution he has made to this strange word construction The Homeless Library. He has also written pieces of work that were ruthless in their honesty and which have touched many people. Today he came to a university and spoke to a room of professors and PhDs and artists and by the end of it he was giving people advice on how to write.

Christine was with us both as a support worker and as a person who has experienced homelessness and found a path through. She never pushed herself to the forefront and was quietly looked after the situation, with a sense of humour and a sparkle. She is on the door at the Booth Centre and manages situations every day that are the most chaotic (and potentially violent) that can be imagined. Today she read in public for the first time. She read beautifully, and instead of being the professional look after-er, she was the artist.

Afterwards, one of the festival organisers, took us to one side: “Hearing these people speak and seeing this work affected me. And it did the same to several other people I’ve spoken to. It made me think about how we do what we do, I’m thinking about my practice, how I make poetry. It’s also made me think about what is happening in this country right now.’ (Professor Jeffrey Robinson)

It goes on, but I’m guessing you get the gist. As far as I was (and am still, and can’t imagine ceasing to be) concerned, ditto Jeffrey.

This was followed by another session led by Sandeep, a “guided discussion on Race and US/UK Poetics”, which in some important and moving ways was a continuation, on other grounds, of the Homeless Library presentation.   

The last day concluded with readings. Alec Finlay and Jerome Rothenberg were particularly brilliant, as was Charles Bernstein, who tried heroically to sum up everything, or at least respond to the week’s events. I was particularly taken with Alec’s reading, which concluded with a piece on wind farms. During the conference I had asked various people in various contexts how, leaving aside everything else (as if that were possible, given how inextricably intertwined everything is, and feels), poetry was to go on, given that if strictly digital, that meant the exploitation of conflict minerals, and if on paper, that meant the destruction of forests, which we really can’t afford. Of course, there’s always performance, or the use of renewable resources à la the poets who, say, weave with yarn that will grow back as fleece ... (there was also a paper by the brilliant Rachel Robinson, Betweenness in the Work of Cecilia Vicuña, so my mentioning performance and the use of fibre here is not entirely gratuitous). Nevertheless, this struck me as important, to make poems on wind farms, or out of the language associated with wind farms and the places we put them, if any of us – poets or otherwise – are to have a future we might actually want.

But, just so I can be a bit like Lawrence, I’d love to be a bit like Lawrence, who “wanted to make sure everyone in that room left with hope,” I’d like to round off this little précis with an image of the penultimate speaker, Jerry Rothenberg, finishing up his reading of some dada poems ... a gleefully fiendish grin on his face. I think of those famous lines by Brecht:

“In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing.
About the dark times.”

For me, the important takeaway is not the last line – when are times not dark? – it is the line before that. Which begins with the simplest yet most challenging of words: Yes. It was a huge yes embodied by that grin.


John Bloomberg-Rissman has spent the last dozen years or so working on a long project called Zeitgeist Spam. Parts published so far: No Sounds of My Own Making (Leafe Press, 2007),Flux, Clot & Froth (Meritage Press, 2010), the text in A Picture of Everyone I Love Passes Through Me (Lunar Chandelier Press, 2016), and In the House of the Hangman (forthcoming, 2017), which has turned into a 2,000,000-word metatext and which will be published in 9 volumes. Additionally, he “authored” the “conceptual” work 2nd Notice of Modifications to Text of Proposed regulations: Regulation and Policy Branch, California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (Leafe Press & Laughing Ouch Cube Publications, 2010). He is also the editor or co-editor of several volumes: 1000 Views of “Girl Singing” (Leafe Press, 2009), The Chained Haynaku (Meritage Press & xPress(ed), 2010, co-edited with Eileen R Tabios, Ivy Alvarez and Ernesto Priego), and Poems for the Millennium 5: Barbaric, Vast & Wild (Black Widow Press, 2015, co-edited with Jerome Rothenberg). His reviews appear regularly at Galatea Resurrects, and he blogs at Zeitgeist Spam (

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