Strange Country: On Ai, Frank Stanford, and Page Expectations / by Peter LaBerge

BY LOTTE L.S.

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The 1970s. Roots: An Asian American Reader is published in 1971    the same year

the first issue of This magazine sows the seeds of Language poetry

culminating in L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E seven years later        Lyn Hejinian

                                    Leslie Scalapino

                                        Ron Silliman

the Black Arts Movement continues to          grow       Sonia Sanchez       Amiri Baraka

Nikki Giovanni       Etheridge Knight

                                                             morph           

                            and later

                                             be challenged by younger poets    Ishmael Reed            

Cecil Brown     “confessional poetry”        sparks       both followers

                                           and reactionaries            

No More Masks! An Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Women   published in  1973

Aiiieeeee! An Anthology of Asian-American Writers                                1974

    Nuyorican Poetry: An Anthology of Puerto Rican Words and Feelings    1975

    Audre Lorde              besmilr brigham Lawson Fusao Inada     Adrienne Rich

June Jordan                   Mei-mei Berssenbrugge    John Ashbery Joy Harjo

    Leslie Marmon Silko           Ana Castillo     Michael S. Harper      Alfred Starr Hamilton


Born in the mid-‘90s in South London, it is difficult for me to comprehend the full breadth of poetries existing in the U.S. during the ‘70s. Meanwhile in the U.K., Ted Hughes and his contemporaries continued their attempts to hold the poetry world hostage, and others provided a proliferation of propaganda to assert that a poem was not a poem if it did not rhyme. The British “revival movement” attempted to deploy oxygen into a sealed tank. In each person’s hands the assemblage above would differ, the same decade rendered unrecognizable for another. “Omissions are not accidents,” wrote poet Marianne Moore in 1968. We all choose who it is we recognize, who forms part of our reality. “When I was growing up I thought Arkansas was the centre of the universe, and Fayetteville was the centre of Arkansas, and Dickson Street was the centre of Fayetteville, and Roger’s Pool Hall was the centre of Dickson Street, and Roger was the Buddha,” poet C.D. Wright once said. Some of us will always be framed as marginalized, but no-one is marginal to their own life. U.K., 1970s: Another reality. Denise Riley, Veronica Forrest-Thomson, Linton Kwesi Johnson, the written and oral poetries of Bengali communities in East London, the poetry anthologies circulated within the anti-apartheid, Nicaragua and Palestine solidarity movements.

Ai and Frank Stanford are two poets often summoned for failing to receive the “recognition” they “deserved.” This is partly due to the fact that much of their work is out of print, the remaining copies $$$. While Ai received numerous awards and read to packed audiences, and both she and Stanford were published widely in journals and with presses, it does seem that both chose to situate themselves away from the movements and schools of poetry that were wielding their manifesto-ed lightsabers during their time. In a rare interview, Stanford warned, “If you’ve come here to get me to talk about movements in poetry and schools and writers and so on, I believe you’ve come to the wrong place.” Working as a land surveyor, he published ten collections of poetry with small literary presses, rarely giving readings. In 1977, he set up Lost Roads Press with C.D. Wright, run from Arkansas with the aim of showcasing the work of local poets. Not long after, Ai’s second collection, Killing Floor, won the 1978 Lamont Poetry Award from the Academy of American Poets. In the face of the often-reductive descriptions of her work as “hard hitting monologues” focused on “tragic violence—rape, murder, incest, suicide, abortion”—she would assert, “I don’t want to be catalogued and my characters don’t want to be catalogued and my poems don’t want to be catalogued.”

Stanford was just ten months younger than Ai, born two states away in August 1948 in Mississippi, and by the time Killing Floor was published, Stanford was dead; three self-inflicted bullets to the heart, two months shy of his thirtieth birthday. I don’t intend to recount or amplify the already heavily-mythologized biographies of either poet (a simple online search will do). I want instead to track the work of two poets writing at a single moment in time—relatively close to one another but seemingly unaware of one another’s work—by bringing into proximity two collections: Ai’s Vice: New and Selected Poems (1999) and What About This: Collected Poems of Frank Stanford (2015). While Vice wasn’t Ai’s final collection, it spans over twenty-five years of writing, bringing together poems from earlier books with new poems. What About This contains all ten of Stanford’s published collections, as well as a selection of unpublished manuscripts, an interview, short prose, and excerpts from his sprawling 542-page poem, The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You. This year marks the fortieth anniversary of both the release of Killing Floor and Stanford’s death. Tavern Books crowdfunded over $10,000 to reprint an anniversary edition of Killing Floor, while Foundlings Press published Constant Stranger, a collection of writings inspired by Stanford, and readers gathered in Arkansas for the Frank Stanford Literary Festival.

While in their twenties, both poets made new discoveries about their pasts. Stanford found out that he had been adopted at birth from the Emery Home “for unwed mothers” by Dorothy Gilbert, who he had previously believed was his biological mother. Stanford is said to have never discovered anything concrete about his origins, the records of his birth lost in a fire that burnt Emery Home to the ground in 1964. “Night has put her coins over my eyes,” he would later write. “I don’t know my past.” Around a similar age, Ai found out she was “the child of a scandalous affair my mother had with a Japanese man she met at a streetcar stop.” She described herself as “1/2 Japanese, 1/8 Choctaw, 1/4 Black, and 1/16 Irish.” The New York Times noted that “the proportions are telling too, for not quite adding up to a complete person.” In Stanford’s work, the messiness of experience, fractured identity, and shifting contradictions are akin to a snow globe being shook, the sensation of stepping off a spinning roundabout:

the principal that old crawdad asked me my name I told her I am
the Marquis de Lafayette Marie Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier
I got it down pretty good don’t I
better known around these parts as Francois Gilbert the gambler and duelist
sometimes I am Jean Lafitte the pirate I am the Japanese bowman
if I go into all my past lives it will take all day
but I was the rascal and rogue after I read the Lodging for the Night
I was Francis Villon

Here we see how The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You moves across multiple verbal registers without punctuation to avoid distinguishing between different selves; alternating between lyric and narrative, Stanford doesn’t abandon but reconfigures traditional lyric goals of expressing a singular self. What results is a consciousness ricocheting across multiplying existences. C.D. Wright called The Battlefield a “542 page poem without line integrity, punctuation or even space to facilitate breathing and eye movement, much less narrative clarity.” Written over more than a decade, the poem tells the story of twelve-year-old clairvoyant Francis—growing up white in the ‘60s between Memphis and Mississippi—who seeks to avenge the death of his friend, Sylvester, who is black and lynched in a racist attack. The Battlefield features a collection of characters based on many of the people Stanford spent his childhood summers with in the levee camps his father worked in, as well as cameos by figures such as Sonny Liston (who, after crying alone in a short-order café, falls asleep and is kissed on the back of his neck by Francis). If Stanford’s work spotlights the many shards of a self—“the adoptee, the backwoods Ozark dreamer, the vibrant light in the room, the withdrawn seeker” as A.P. Walton writes—Ai’s work offers a multitude of voices, “personas,” that express the shifting, contradictory and fractured nature of feeling. So begins “The Hitchhiker”:

The Arizona wind dries out my nostrils
and the heat of the sidewalk burns my shoes,
as a woman drives up slowly.
I get in, grinning at a face I do not like,
but I slide my arm across the top of the seat
and rest it lightly against her shoulder.
We turn off into the desert,
then I reach inside my pocket and touch the switchblade.

We stop, and as she moves closer to me, my hands ache,
but somehow, I get the blade into her chest.
I think of a song: “Everybody needs somebody,
everybody needs somebody to love,”
as the black numerals 35 roll out of her right eye
inside one small tear.

At once disgusted and lustful, humorous and hateful, the speakers in Ai’s work refuse to be overawed or mystified by their own complexities. “I feel everything and nothing,” the rapper Dave declares in “Two Birds No Stones”; “That’s why I’m living three lives, I’m in GTA.” By presenting us with a seemingly endless number of characters who abuse and face abuse, who do not deviate from speaking with the same unbroken, cool inflection, Vice forces us to confront the possibility that these aren’t just a few rotten apples who wear their vices on their sleeves—but that the whole tree from which they bruise is sick. In Ai’s poetry, violence is not “an interruption of civilized existence,” as Lisa Russ Spaar writes in the Los Angeles Review of Books, but “a prior, intrinsic, and terrifying truth of it.”

Stating that her speakers were not “vehicles” for her own voice, Ai said, “I’m not really searching for myself…. It’s human nature that I’m exploring, the behavior of everyone.” Yet Ai’s work avoids genericism or universalism. The poet and translator Forrest Gander writes, “One form of totalitarianism is the stuffing of expression into a single, standardized language that marches the reader toward some presumptively shared goal.” There is no such “goal” in Ai’s work; her poems do not seek to rehabilitate—this is why sins remain as book titles (Cruelty, Killing Floor, Sin, Fate, Greed)—these are speakers who remain, who refuse or are denied healing, redemptive epiphanies, resolution, anesthetic, transformation. There is no exhale. In refusing to do so, Ai recognizes the limitations of poetry, its inability to unstick itself from the world’s nightly revolutions, its whirring mechanics under the totalizing, brutalizing, systems that determine so much of our daily lives. Likewise, The Battlefield is not a journey for “justice.” Stanford recognized that his writing could not stand in for the work of justice, choosing—after 542 pages of violence, dreams and death—to leave the poem on, “all of this ends / with to be continued.” Later, Stanford writes in Crib Death, “I for one leave the transcendence of language / To the auctioneers on the widow’s steps.”

But the speakers in Ai’s and Stanford’s work are gifted something: existence. I remember asking my Mum what she wanted to do after she had managed to extract herself from a decade-long clusterfuck of a relationship. “I just want to be,” she said. It sounded like the easiest thing in the world, but to be able to live without the (poetically omnipresent) necessity of redemption, of transformation–isn’t that everything? And it feels almost impossible most days. “I mean to live,” says the narrator in Ai’s poem, “Nothing But Colour,” after stabbing herself to death with a bronze sword. In another poem, “Everything: Eloy, Arizona, 1956,” a woman deserts her lover:

Tin shack, where my baby sleeps on his back
the way the hound taught him;
highway, black zebra, with one white stripe;
nickel in my pocket for chewing gum;
you think you’re all I’ve got.
But when the 2 ton rolls to a stop
and the driver gets out,
I sit down in the shade and wave each finger,
saving my whole hand till the last.
He’s keys, tires, a fire lit in his belly
in the diner up the road.
I’m red toenails, tight blue halter, black slip.
He’s mine tonight. I don’t know him.
He can only hurt me a piece at a time.

Ai’s speakers are aware of these limitations, our inability to pick and choose which parts of a person or world we recognize, and which parts we turn away from. She will do the best with what she can. She will take pleasure in what she can. Ai stated, “I’m not afraid to look a character in the eye and see his whole life, and deal with that life rather than an episode.” Intention is important for anybody—not just poets—to know why, by what means, and for whom or what we wish to act. But “good intentions” function solely to serve a good night’s sleep. More often than not, good intentions sustain crippling conditions, tokenize experiences and lives, emphasize “assimilation” as if it does anything but standardize and suppress the proliferation of ways of being, seeing, feeling–of poetries. “I try not to write about issues when I write poetry,” M. NourbeSe Philip answers in “Interview With An Empire,” “[Instead I try to] get to the truth of certain experiences.” Ai’s work doesn’t intend to make a reader empathize, understand or condone. Rather, it provides us with “the cruel radiance of what is,” as James Agee expressed in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men in 1941. Yusef Komunyakaa recognized this in his introduction to a later collection of her work: “Ai’s ‘method’ was being alive.”

And yet I too keenly feel the tension between documenting the world as I experience it, and exploring how I’d like it to look, feel, run. Metaphor and the subversion of narrative form are two ways that Stanford’s work denies a singular, unified representation of reality. Take the misleadingly simple narrative of “Riverlight”:

My father and I lie down together.
He is dead.

We look up at the stars, the steady sound
Of the wind turning the night like a ceiling fan.
This is our home.

I remember the work in him
Like bitterness in persimmons before a frost.
And I imagine the way he had fear,
The ground turning dark in a rain.

Now he gets up.

And I dream he looks down in my eyes
And watches me die.

Stanford called his writing, “the poetry of being awake and asleep at the same time.” In “Riverlight” there exists no distinction between dreaming and reality, between the literal and the symbolic, between the “real” and the unreal. These binaries, and the hierarchies we see them strike up in daily life, float away. To be both alive and dead, both dreaming and awake, in both the present and past, is reality for Stanford’s speakers. We are all born into and make our own realities, for better or for worse. The presence of a missing friend, presumed dead, feels more real to me than the conversation I had with someone in my kitchen this morning. Disregarding linear chronology, Stanford’s poetry instead echoes how narrative and the process of remembering unfold in the mind. This reminds me of another Frank: Frank Ocean, whose album, Blonde, and mixtapes, Nostalgia, Ultra, and Endless, capture a consciousness delving into disjointed memories, the rabbit hole of past nights and years that mix physicality with the ethereal, exploring moments that morph into flashes of feeling, color, and texture that are felt presently. Each looks backwards to “The strange country of childhood / Like a dragonfly on a long dog chain,” to the point where memory is an active part of the present. “I can fuck you all night long / From a memory alone,” Ocean raps in “Memrise.”

Stanford’s use of metaphor and simile also refuses the hierarchies embedded in placing one thing in service of another, to render it more real. When Stanford writes, “Night is nothing / but the small shadow a woman-child’s foot casts / when she puts on her boots / when the taichi lesson is over,” the “small shadow” of a “foot” doesn’t exist to service our understanding of the night, but instead layers another narrative on top, spawning further narratives. “I am not content in just suggesting things by the use of words,” he writes, “I want to show the origins.”

After the release of her first collection, Cruelty, Ai was criticized by some for having “no consistent political position.” To claim so is “political.” To claim otherwise is “political.” As is whatever we choose (or don’t choose, or can’t choose) to dedicate our time and attention to. However, within current left-wing “radical politics” (O “radical,” a word increasingly used alongside “privilege” and “oppression” by those who think that using the word constitutes doing the work), we are often encouraged—as carla bergman and Nick Montgomery write in Joyful Militancy—“to wear our politics and our analysis like badges, as markers of distinction. When politics becomes something that one has, like fashion (rather than something people do together), it always needs to be visible in order to function.” At times, “having good politics” can be reduced to signaling (often online) “the right positions,” “saying the right things,” and “having well-formed opinions,” that form “the correct ways of critiquing and fighting” oppressive structures. By refusing to submit to the idea of a shared universality or hierarchy of feeling, reality, or approach, we are treated as equals by Ai and Stanford, expected to interpret for ourselves without prescription. And so their poems are changed by our reading, by our interpreting. They provide no platitudes, no certainties, no “correct way” or template with which to write, live by, or challenge our conditions. “Poetries are no more pure and simple than human histories are pure and simple,” states Adrienne Rich in Poetry & Commitment. As we see in Ai’s work, lived complexity is not nuance; existence is not representation; recognition is not empathy. “I don’t decide to represent anything except myself,” Mahmoud Darwish said, “But that self is full of collective memory.”

Both Ai and Stanford approach the page—the persona—through their own subjective set of experiences, observations, and understandings. “It’s not the word made flesh we want in writing,” William H. Gass writes, “but the flesh made word.” So much in the world (and its writings within) tell us what it wants from us: to grieve, to feel anger, to invest in the project of empathy that attempts to “play our full emotional scales like a keyboard,” as Haukur Hilmarsson describes (though he was talking about the cops)–to exploit rather than honor the pain of those around us, to mine our own to the extent that not doing so can deny their existence in the first place. In 2018, we write into a different set of choices and contexts than Ai and Stanford did. But they are choices and contexts nonetheless. Realities, even. Stanford and Ai’s work doesn’t expect a thing from us, but to fully enter their worlds does require our trust, our own subjectivities, a willingness to bring ourselves to the page.

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Lotte L.S. is a poet living in Great Yarmouth. More of her writing can be found here.