Reading for Change: the document as Witness, Part 3

The final part of an essay that came about through a recent BC Library Association Conference panel I participated in with Aislinn Hunter, Valerie Patrick, and Meghan Savage, titled “Reading for Change: how reading leads to action”:

Selected, a continuum—

Do you think reading is more influential for social change than other means?

RSS: Not really. It’s about that old labour slogan, “Bread and Roses”, and it’s about praxis: mindful action. Reading and action, like faith and action, love and action, seem to need to be in a symbiotic relationship. That being said, as a poet, I’m really ambivalent about activism. For the poet in me seems to need vast amount of inaction, brooding, alone time, balanced with dancing and walking and eating. Loving. Too much thinking makes us Hamlet like. Shakespeare had it all figured out… example: it took me five years to write children of air india, my book length sequence about the bombing of air india flight 182 and during that time I immersed myself in language, in ghost retrieval, in The Archive that is the saga of trauma and I stopped moving my body. Horrible. Now, I have to give the body its due, every day. Am reading much slower and much less, but have never been more aware of global/ecological influences, portents, the grass outside my rental in east Vancouver is already brown and shriveled where not watered.

What global issues are central to your writing experiences?

RSS: Ecology, migration/justice, violence, textures, the object in the archive, love, the body: individual and societal, economic/social. Also absence, longing, silence. All those letters, unsent. A glance on a train, seen from Platform (A), receding—

All these are for me encased in a continuing idea of perimeter, what is let in and what is kept out: from the garden of Eden to our own modern cities: these demarcations.

What is your intent or what do you want to accomplish through writing about global issues?

RSS: Really contrarian. It’s such a good question: poetry that doesn’t engage with the world, no matter how gorgeously crafted, doesn’t hold my attention for very long. Example, I had the great privilege of judging poetry prizes last year. So many of the wonderful poetry books ultimately didn’t meet my short list b/c they could have been written at any time in the last 100 years. There was literally nothing of the outside world allowed into the lovely lines and words. No sense of the urgency of now.

I don’t think of either the issues or of intent or “accomplishment” when writing. It is about staying open, doing the work of language and world building, word by word, sentence or line by line. Following cadence, listening for it. It both intentional, as in a daily practice and mindfulness, and it is non causal, non directive. It is negative capability, as Keats would say. It is about observation as witness.

How can libraries encourage reading for change? What are your libraries currently doing?

RSS: By surviving into the new global order as a free, tax supported public space. Story: the Surrey poem about a pay phone.

What are your libraries currently doing?

RSS: As the new Surrey poet Laureate, my Admiration for Surrey libraries: encourages community action: brings community into the library: café, internet, outreach program, places to sit.

What role does literary aesthetics play in politics and change?

RSS: different ways of seeing, observation as witness; form and language as a praxis: see my Narita poem. To be continued. Side-thought: about the provisional. Call Ray Hsu.

What books have personally inspired you on the topics of politics or global change?

RSS: Charles Reznikoff, Holocaust and Testimony; Robert Fisk; Samantha Powers; Adam Rothschild, King Leopold’s Ghost; M. Nourbese Philip’s Zong.

Documents and articles: Arts of the Contact Zone, Mary Louise Pratt. Can the subaltern speak, Gayatri Spivak. A wilfulness archive, Sara Ahmed. Senator Diane Weinstein’s monumental report to the US Congress, unclassified in 2014: Senate Select Commiteee on Intelligence, Committee Study of the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program..

“the present is a time within us” / The dart of my story stings / listening: Fetty Wap (1738), Wake Up—

For the writers, how do you choose how wide to create the picture?

RSS: The work chooses itself: the demand is to be open, pay attention to the needs of the work: image, line, rhythm, rhyme, story, pulse, cadence: what does each thing demand, when and where and why…I’m drawn to long poems: series, sequences, sets, suites, gaps, silences, margins, perimeter, what is inside/outside. So notions of macro/micro constantly emerging, have to negotiate, calibrate. The personal is the political. The margins are at the centre.

How narrow or wide is your lens, the net that you cast when writing about a topic?

RSS: Always, the two sided, slant focus, that moment of the personal, say, a man, standing in the shadow of a theatre, about to kiss his lover. Behind the lovers, a woman dances alone, with her nomad device: Fetty Wap, singing, Wake Up. Behind the wall, partition, border, those long lines of people— Compared to what, Roberta Flack

All the senses engaged, minute focus, time stands still, moves Janus Pointed, past/future, into, and of, the vast, the epic, the disaster sci-fi world where everything happens.

Read the other parts to Reading for Change: the document as Witness:

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