Massachusetts Reviews: The Ground I Stand On Is Not My Ground by Collier Nogues
- By Jeff Diteman
The Ground I Stand On Is Not My Ground by Collier Nogues (Drunken Boat Media, 2015),
While the conventional approach to poetic production is additive, involving the careful placement of words on the void of the blank page, erasure poetry is subtractive, starting with an existing text and deleting material until only a poem remains. The source texts for such a procedure can be anything--another poem, an ancient codex, a corporate annual report, a scientific study, a newspaper article--any document that the poet thinks can be distilled down to produce the new poetic object.
Erasure poetry is a form of materialist art in the sense that it is interested in the relationship between materials and concepts. Some erasure poetry is done using algorithms for selective deletion, as in Words nd Ends from Ez by Jackson Mac Low, an erasure of Pound’s Cantos. I would call such deterministic or randomized erasure “pure materialist art.” On the other hand, sometimes the poet uses erasure to craft messages on a topic that is distinct from that of the original text, as when Janet Holmes erases Emily Dickinson’s Civil War-era poems to discuss the Iraq War. This mode of operation can be described as “conceptual-materialist art,” in the sense that a concept is applied from the outset, and the materials are treated in a manner that serves the concept.
A third form of erasure operates in a “recursive-materialist” mode: rather than excluding the poet’s agency through the use of a fixed algorithm or prioritizing that agency by imposing a thematic concept, this third form involves a back-and-forth between materials, concepts, and procedures. Message is neither omitted, as in pure materialist art, nor given primacy as in conceptual-materialist art. Rather than allowing the materials and procedures to produce the results deterministically, the artist engages in a process of learning from the materials to choose and modify the procedures. The result is a haunting feeling of authenticity, surprise, and pathos.
This is the magic underlying Collier Nogues’s The Ground I Stand On Is Not My Ground (Drunken Boat Media, 2015), a work of erasure poetry about the troubled historical relationship between Japan and the United States. The work elegantly demonstrates the power of recursive-materialist art. The concept is readily accessible, while the result is at turns tragic, charming, and visceral. The book is at once a history lesson, a documentary sculpture, and a suite of compelling short poems.
Nogues’s book centers on US-Japanese relations, with special attention paid to Okinawa, where the author spent part of her childhood on an American military base. The source texts include a US military memo on mosquito spraying, two of Ezra Pound’s Radio Rome speeches, and the US War Department’s August 1945 Intelligence Bulletin. Many of the source texts pertain directly to the war or the US occupation, but some are only tangentially related, such as chapters by Robert Louis Stevenson and Edgar Rice Burroughs.
The associated website allows the reader to move back and forth between the source texts and the poems: the poems appear onscreen as islands of words on blanked-out pages. When the reader hovers over a line, the full original text reappears. The selection of texts leads to striking impressions of the paradoxes of war. There is a stark contrast, for example, between Ezra Pound’s anti-English, anti-Semitic rants and the cooler-headed denunciation of Japanese belligerent nationalism found in Robert King Hall’s introduction to the Cardinal Principles of the National Entity of Japan. The bibliography here could serve as a reading list for a course on the history of US-Japanese relations: an illustrated story of Commodore Perry’s expedition; firsthand accounts by Americans in Japan; the front page of The Stars and Stripes announcing the Allied capture of Okinawa; and a military map of the Pacific theatre.
While erasure is the formal productive tool, Nogues’s work also brings the principle of erasure to the thematic level. It does so in two ways: first, in its preoccupation with physical negation via motifs of holes, deletions, and voids, and second, as an act of counter-erasure that insists on narrating the untold side of history. There is a preoccupation with ditches, holes, ghosts, the evanescent placeholders of missing substance. Through this motif of absence, Nogues repeatedly reminds the reader of the subtractive nature of the work at hand. She also reminds us of the fundamental horror of war, the negation not only of material objects and beings but also of intangibles such as decency, memory, and fellowship. War depends on the negation of the enemy’s humanity. By attending to feelings of empathy that cross the boundaries of conflict, The Ground I Stand On Is Not My Ground erases the erasure of mutual humanity.
In one particularly poignant subset of poems, Nogues has taken as a source text Assistant Attorney James Rowe’s letter to Roosevelt’s secretary Grace Tully recommending the internment of Japanese Americans in California. Nogues erases this same one-page letter in eight different ways, producing a set of epistles that convey a gradual emotional breakdown in the writer. This series of poems emphasizes the process of negation, as a looming sparseness creeps in with every iteration. The principle of recursion is most evident in this series.
I wanted to give Collier a chance to expound a bit on the ideas that went into the creation of The Ground I Stand On Is Not My Ground. The following interview took place via e-mail in June, 2016.
Jeff Diteman: What were your criteria for choosing source texts? Did you set out with an idea of the sort of poetry you wanted to produce, and look for texts that would serve that purpose? Or did you start with an idea of the types of texts you wanted to use, and let the poetry emerge from that selection?
Collier Nogues: All of the texts I chose are canonical ones, the kind which speak with a great deal of assumed authority. They’re texts whose authors I wanted to interrupt and talk back to. That desire came before any of the poems did, and I do think it determined the mode of poetry which emerged. The poems are narratives from the point of view of individuals living through circumstances far out of their control, and their authority to speak derives only from the same place any of ours does: they have eyes, ears; they are sensing, observant people.
Once some poems started taking shape, I was looking for as wide a range of historical periods and genres as I could find. In a sense, the book is an argument for the size of the iceberg under the tip of the current American occupation of Okinawa. Stevenson is there because, as you point out below, he embodies the “benevolent” version of the orientalism which characterized late 19th-century Western attitudes toward Asians, which in turn helped shape imperial Japanese responses to the West, and further shaped the way the US understood its role in the Pacific War and now imagines itself as military and economic watchdog in the Pacific in the 21st century.
More practically, I looked for texts out of copyright whose originals I could access digitally. The Internet Archive is amazing, and this book would not exist without it.
JD: The full passage by Stevenson, a remarkable work of anti-racist but still-racist polemic, definitely caused me to read your whole book in a particular way. That is, it conveyed this potent idea of the feminization of Asia by an aggressive, self-masculinizing Western presence. In this manner, the source text runs the risk of overshadowing the poetry that came from it. Do you think of this book as the sort of conceptual work where the real art lies in the process, not the product? Is this primarily a work of poetry, or a bibliography masquerading as poetry?
CN: I think that description is perfect, the “aggressive, self-masculinizing West.” And I find that Stevenson’s is not the only text casting that shadow. Ezra Pound’s Radio Rome rants are egregiously feminizing. And Alice Mabel Bacon’s letters home to Connecticut are a really interesting version. She’s one of the few women authors in the book, and her descriptions of the Tokyo girls’ school in which she taught are aggressively humble—a kind of competitive self-feminizing perhaps? But like her contemporary Stevenson, she’s still quite aggressively other-ing.
One thing I love about this book is that a reader’s experience can span such a large range—some people have told me they love the book, but they’ve never even been to the website, while others have gone down the research path as you did, reading beyond the book to the original texts I’m erasing. I’m an archivist and research geek at heart. I’d love it if every reader came down the rabbit hole with me. And I love the word masquerading to describe the poems! The book feels like an accordion to me, or like a fractal crystal—you can expand, zoom in and out to a range of magnifications, and it will produce a music, a logic, at whatever scale.
But your question was, do I think of the art as being more in the process than in the product. I’m not sure I can say the process is different, really, from the product. I mean, if the product is this skinny book, okay. But the product is also the virtual version, the fact that you as a reader can run your finger down your smartphone screen and make the original text come back, that you can erase and unerase, you can feel yourself as observer, reader, listener and also as interrupter, maker, silencer.
JD: One of my favorite aspects is the way absence takes on a powerful presence, as in the lines “Until air / not land had organized as form.” Did this motif of organized absence emerge from the process of erasure by accident, or was it something you imposed as a structural link between your form and content?
CN: Thank you. That’s one of my favorite things about the book as well. An absent presence is one way to describe how history feels to me, living my individual life. It’s around me in the air, a force making the shape of the space I live in. All the reasons it was possible for me to end up living on Okinawa in the early 90s are the generative absent presences which made the book: from Stevenson’s brand of orientalism, to the Korean War and Mao’s victory, both of which made Okinawa strategically valuable to the US and therefore worth developing into “the Keystone of the Pacific,” complete with manicured suburbs for officers’ families and schools for my mom to teach in. Then Vietnam, for which Okinawa was an “R&R” stop, then the First Gulf War, where parents of some of my junior high friends were deployed as support. None of that is strictly visible in the book, unless you read more into the history and the original documents. But the book is charged with it all, and the form of erasure is uniquely suited to handle the sense that something very large is missing but still palpable.
JD: Beyond the formal aspects, on the narrative and thematic levels, your book stands as an example of poetry of witness. I am sometimes concerned that, in their quest for innovation and their allergy against sentimentality, a lot of avant-garde American poets show antipathy or apathy toward more overtly political, narrative forms of poetry. What is the status of the poetry of witness in the international literary scene you know? Are some literary scenes more interested in witness poetry than others?
CN: It doesn’t make sense to me to think of “more overtly political” and “narrative” poetry as opposite on a spectrum from avant-garde poetry. If that’s what “poetry of witness” is confined to, then I find it a relatively unhelpful term. There’s lots of poetry in the US which is overtly political (which I take to mean conscious of and interested in its own politics), running the gamut from disarmingly narrative to disorientingly non-narrative and experimental. I think of Bhanu Kapil, CA Conrad, Dawn Lundy Martin, Cathy Park Hong, CD Wright, Craig Santos Perez, Don Mee Choi to start. And each of those authors writes in a range of modes.
Here in Hong Kong, my sense is that poetry is usually understood as political. Even the most basic choices about writing are perhaps more obviously political ones here than they are in the US, beginning with what language a poet writes in (though Craig Santos Perez, Don Mee Choi and Cathy Park Hong, among others, foreground the political implications of that question in the US context). Nicholas Wong (who just won the Lambda Literary Award!) is a Hong Konger who writes in English rather than in Chinese. Tammy Ho Lai-Ming is, too, and she just published a poem in response to the censoring of a political artwork. Both of them published poems within days of the beginning of the Umbrella Movement in 2014 (Tammy’s; Nicholas’s).
The Chinese literary scene is also quite active politically—Fleurs de Lettres (字花), an avant-garde Chinese-language literary journal, published a full issue a couple of years ago asking writers to imagine they were writing for a post-2047 audience. The editors then censored the submissions as they imagined China would do, and published the volume full of black redaction marks. Fleurs de Lettres also curated a bilingual public reading as part of the student class boycott which preceded the Umbrella Movement, and offered poetry and literature lectures throughout the occupation of downtown Hong Kong.
So my experience of Hong Kong is that it’s a place where poetry is an expected response to political events—and actually, that’s my experience recently of the US as well. Drunken Boat’s blog is publishing a series of queer Latinx responses to the Orlando shooting. And Maggie Smith’s “Good Bones” went crazily viral that following week. Then there’s the ongoing work of #BlackPoetsSpeakOut and Nepantla and Apogee and the Asian American Literary Review and other politically engaged publishing/curating projects. All of this gives me hope that the idea of poetry being separable from politics is on its way out. I am glad to see it go.
Jeff Diteman is a writer, translator, and artist from Idaho, currently studying for his PhD in Comparative Literature at UMass Amherst. He has 10 years of experience as a full-time freelance translator. His translations and original writings have appeared in Jacobin Magazine, Drunken Boat, Nailed Magazine, The Missing Slate, and Inventory.