Sunday, November 15, 2009

Judith Roitman will read Nov. 19 new poems: here's her new form

Judith Roitman writes this about her latest poems, which she will read from Nov. 19 in a joint reading with Jim McCrary:

"About 9 or 10 months ago I started writing poems in couplets about unrequited love (which, if you know me, is truly bizarre). They were sort of ghazals (an Arabic form) but without the more formal elements. Here is the first one:


My beloved calls me at home
and I tell him: don’t do it.

I will be thrown into the bat cave.
My money will no longer work.

My tongue will be given to birds
and yours glued to the lamppost.

"They were okay, but felt a little glib. For example, the first line of the last stanza is a mashup of something from a Buddhist precepts ceremony, and the last line is the urban legend about what happens on a winter day if you touch your tongue to metal. They didn’t go deep enough. Reading them I felt like a sculptor looking at a block of stone: there’s something inside and my job is to find it. So I started playing with random generators (input a text and it will rearrange it semi-randomly) and the translation program Babelfish (input text in one language and translate it into another) to shake things loose and see what came out. This gave me raw material derived from the original text, like the separated bones of a skeleton. How do you reassemble it? So I went into collage mode and put things together to get this:


Beloved! says to him
from that house shouting.

Thrown with the bat oyster:
qualitative thing.

Money unable to operate.
Lamppost and tongue binding.

Glued to birds:
don’t do it.

"You can see how the translation program changed things: “bat cave” becomes “bat oyster;” “no longer work” becomes “unable to operate.” Somehow the added strangeness gives depth: an oyster is like a cave, and the juxtaposition makes the bat into its own cave (although I don’t expect anyone to consciously think this — I didn’t until I wrote this); “unable to operate” is a more desperate state than “no longer working;” “binding” is stronger and less derivative than “glued.” And you can also see the effect of collage. For example, “birds” is split off from “tongue” and stands alone (the only noun) in the last stanza, together with the imperative — don’t do it — originally in the first stanza. I don’t know how “qualitative thing” appeared, but am grateful it did. Also, freed this way, I could get rid of many (not all) instances of the smoothing parts of speech — prepositions, connectives; freed from narrative I could get rid of many (not all) verbs, which in turn frees the reader from thinking she needs to create a narrative or, even, the illusion of coherent meaning. "