I. DEEP CURATION
In its most basic iteration, Deep Curation is a term I came up with to describe a project I’ve become very excited about over since 2018, a project which also combines my writing practice with my curatorial practice—intertwining writing, reading and curating poetry.
As some of you may know, I used to organize the monthly Resonance Reading Series in Montreal for six years between 2012 and 2018, and that’s really where my curatorial practice began. The format there was quite traditional, in the sense of inviting four to six authors to present 10-15 minutes of work of their choosing. So while I was providing access to the stage and mic, and I organized the readers in a strategic order of appearance, the work that was presented was chosen solely by the readers themselves.
In the visual arts, curators have theorized a rift between what is called the curational and curatorial dimensions of organizing an exhibition, and this is extremely applicable to a poetry reading as well. The curational is basically all the practical, organizational concerns like booking a venue, ensuring a good sound system, advertising the event and so on. The curatorial, though, is the dynamic and interactive space that is created by the presentation of creative work and the reception and kind of energy exchange happening between the author and the audience.
I realized after some time that what I was falling prey to—and this is really what most literary event planning does—is limiting the curator’s role to the curational, and I was offering all curatorial agency to the readers. This is, arguably, a valid division of labour. Nevertheless, over the years, I started thinking more critically about what this division of labour means for the poetry reading as a forum, about the responsibility of the curator to represent work and vouch for work that they didn’t necessarily choose. And so I became increasingly fascinated by the potential of poetry readings with heightened curatorial agency also.
This interest was further sparked when I saw an exhibition called Reading Exercises, curated by Katrie Chagnon, at the Leonard and Bina Ellen Gallery in Montreal some years ago in 2015 which was all about the act of reading. So here was a fascinating anomaly—while writers insist on putting themselves on stage to read any which way, the fine arts was stepping up, taking the act of reading and presenting it in a fully mediated setting. Occasionally I still think of some of these works and I’ll take a moment to describe a couple of them for you. One work had, for example, recordings of people with drastically different accents reading the same text over different speakers placed at the extremities of a room. So as one walked through the space, some voices become more audible than others, while the general feel of the room was mostly just chaos, voices mixing and merging with one another. Another video project showed women from the waist up reading a text, while beneath the table they were being stimulated with a vibrator, implying that as they were reading, they were becoming increasingly aroused, struggling to concentrate on enunciating the text. This last example is obviously kind of extreme, but in both cases the listening experience of the reading experience is highly mediated. The curatorial agency behind the experience is pronounced. Someone chose people with different, jarring accents to perform a certain text, and these recordings were then choreographed through the strategic placement of speakers in the gallery space to create a very particularized aural chaos. Again, the women in the video are placed in a compromising position which changes the way they are able to act out a smooth rendition of a text, and the viewer is led through the humour of the scenario to experience an intellectual, sexual act.
The goal of Deep Curation is not necessarily to create a dramatic performance, but I think something can be learned from the exhibition space in terms of placing work by the same and different artists adjacent to one another in order to combine their generative potential. As Erín Moure and Karis Shearer write in a collaborative essay called “The Public Reading,” “The sounding of poetry, the choice of poems, the choice to elide lines or place poems beside each other that are not beside each other in the book, is a creative act.” They’re talking about the placement of poems at a traditional poetry reading, so how much more intense is the combination of texts in the context of Deep Curation?!
The strength of considering how artworks or poems go together, enter into dialogue with another, rub up against one another, contrast and scratch at one another…is endless. That is not to say that the goal is to embellish the poetry presented with any theatrical additions (like lighting, choreography, gesture, voice projection, etc.). The idea behind Deep Curation is rather to support the minimalism of the poetry reading as a genre—poets on stage reading their work—to present that poetry within an interpretative structure, to expand the individual poetic voice to the parallel projects of peers, and to self-referentially emphasize the act of listening so integral to any poetry event.
Deep Curation allows for poetry readings that are coherent, dynamic, and interconnected with a driving thematic, narrative, or philosophical arc to the whole. Works presented are now deliberately picked to be in conversation with one another, creating links from excerpt to excerpt or from poem to poem, but also projecting a clear progression of content from the beginning through the reading’s development to its finale.
At this point, I’m going to shift gears into part two of this talk and share a short Deep Curation script that I created to illustrate what I’m rambling on about. As you can follow on the handout I gave you, I combined excerpts of my poetry—and I think my poems are in the majority—with that of poets I love, namely Etel Adnan, Dionne Brand, and Joanne Kyger. I have excerpted down to the line, creating a poetic progression on the subject of mountains, less pastoral than discursive. Leading from mountains as language and intelligence, to mountains as woman and body, to mountains as gentleness and openness.
To provide slightly more context, I should also mention that Adnan’s excerpts are from her collections Journey To Mount Tamalpais, Night, and Surge; Kyger’s work is from a Selected Poems anthology called As Ever; and Brand’s work is from her newest publication The Blue Clerk.
My own work excerpts a few lines from my collection Ekke, but also includes more recent poems, in particular two long poems called “To The Woodcut Above My Writing Desk” and “Skin and Meat Sky.” There are many influential mountains and hills in my life, but specifically Table Mountain in Cape Town, South Africa, has really come to embody a form of geographical presence for me. As some of you may know, I often spend a month or two a year there and the studio that I’m lucky to inhabit at these times has a 180 degree view onto Table Mountain, which is truly a mystical, temperamental force of landscape. And then last year I attended a residency in Spain, which happened to be located along the Mont Serrat mountain range and I spent hours every afternoon walking and climbing in this mountain and really achieved a level of intimacy with the mountain there. So some writing came of these mountains and they continue to form my practice and curatorial practice, as you’re about to hear.
II. MOUNTAINS, A DEEP CURATION EXPERIMENT
A limited edition mountain poem, bequeathed
to the head of the poet (KdP)
Heading towards the garden which is the museum
this ontological greenness
mountains are a form of ascension (KdP)
Mountains rise in us, as language does … So mountains are languages and languages are mountains (EA)
words over the landscape
as it were
a lake (KdP)
If it is not a mountain, it is not a meaning (KdP_
in this mountain basin
working overtime to understand (JK)
the mountain reveals a perfect Intelligence within the universe (EA)
Do not climb that mountain unless you know it needs you (EA)
The soft-jagged edge of the mountain range
where I walk daily for three weeks, then leave
encumbered by the definitive brains inhabiting every boulder. (KdP)
The author finds it hard to rise in the mornings, whatever she is carrying lies as a boulder on her forehead when she opens her eyes, though it is invisible to anyone else. (DB)
The mountain is an animal wounded on its way to the sea, its limbs grasping the earth. I call it ‘The Woman’ (EA)
Oh! she’s a poet…
Who was that woman? (JK)
Each woman is a mountain. I remember those barren hills, ochre, yellow, amber-like, dry and crissing under the feet, quivering on warm nights, shrieking in pain in summers of sunlike violence (EA)
I ransack my vacancy. Set myself apart from all the holy
mountains I’ve consumed. The mouth of the river
roils perpendicular to my opinion. Joanne Kyger’s mountain,
its tight poetic gestures dipping into mundane detail.
Etel Adnan’s mountain much smaller than expected
on canvas, coloured facets of landscape pastel nuance.
Ramana Maharshi’s mountain, a ventricular coursing,
a cavity landslide dipping through eyes that are
the currency for an intermediary in the colour wheel.
Paul Cézanne’s mountain fading slowly away, this repetition
called obsession, called passion, called devotion.
Cecil Skotnes’ mountain which is my mountain, it’s the one I look
out on even when it’s not there or I’m not there because
it is always there, it is my ability to be there that fluctuates. (KdP)
The softness of the sky envelops the mountain with solicitude (EA)
Freshness of tumbling waters
purity of mountain air (JK)
It is inner luxury, of golden figures
that breathe like mountains do
and whose skin is made dusky by stars (JK)
I stumble over my love for the sea and rest my head on mountains.
I’d like to posit a theory that we’re all descendants
of headstones (KdP)
III. READING AS CURATING AS WRITING
To segue into the third and final part of this talk, I should note that my illustration of Deep Curation today is a little different from the three sets of readings that I’ve organized so far with Canisia Lubrin, Aaron Boothby, Erin Robinsong, Jason Camlot, Deanna Fong, and Katherine McLeod—in that usually the authors are present themselves and the poetry is passed back and forth between readers according to the script. Today, obviously my one voice has carried many different voices. I was debating the pros and cons of this point to myself quite a bit, and then realized that this might actually be a good thing in the context of what I have to say today.
What I mean is—Deep Curation, from the perspective of the curator and in terms of its curatorial impetus, showcases the interactive vectors of energy between the act of reading and selecting passages, becoming a way of writing new threads collectively. What I mean is that the process of reading and selecting becomes writing. And I would argue that through the act of Deep Curation, reading becomes writing on two different levels.
First, reading becomes writing through phrases and lines and passages that are combined to create a syntax of thematic and affective interconnection. In other words, my act of reading as the curator of this Deep Curation project embodies a form of writing and creating something new. Knitting together keywords and themes to create a new literary context.
One example of this reading to writing process would be noticing and rearranging poetic lines with the same word to clip disparate sections together. Take, for example, the following two lines.
the head of the poet
Heading towards the garden
These are both my lines, but they are from totally different sections of a substantially long poem.
In this case the word head as noun or as verb creates a flow.
A less literal example would be something like the following combination of my line, Kyger’s and Adnan’s.
If it is not a mountain, it is not a meaning
in this mountain basin
working overtime to understand
the mountain reveals a perfect Intelligence within the universe
Here the same word doesn’t repeat to shape the continuity, but the implication of meaning, understanding, and Intelligence does offer an almost mystical sense of this intellectual, theoretical entity which is the mountain, as interpreted by three actually radically different poets, yet converging here in poetic concerns.
The creativity inherent to this kind of reading process invokes some wonderful passages I’ve been collecting over the years on generative reading by authors I like. Virginia Woolf, wrote, for example, in her essay “How Should One Read a Book?” that “The time to read poetry is when we’re almost able to write it.” I can really associate with this sentiment! When you’re reading a strong book of poetry, every line seems to be a call to action, to start writing something yourself. In these instances, reading catapults you right onto a blank page and starts filling it up.
Similarly, Roland Barthes in The Pleasure of the Text suggests that the best way of reading is when you “look up often, to listen to something else”—this seems contradictory, but it is also really on point. I think Barthes is gesturing towards a kind of reading which makes you think of other things not because it is boring and allows your mind to wander, but because it opens up your mind to a myriad other related topics, and forms pleasurable, creative connections. It’s that kind of hyperactive, sometimes caffeinated, way of thinking when everything seems easy, when the mind can make radical leaps logically, and when reading becomes a form of making through the production of these intellection relationships.
My final example is Moyra Davey, who is actually mostly a visual artist, but also works quite a bit with text and script, and she wrote a wonderful essay with photographs to illustrate called “The Problem of Reading.” Here she kind of works her way through the question of how to decide which books to read and she progresses ecstatically to the conclusion that books suggest themselves to the reader as links form and subjects of interest organically formulate themselves. So in a way she’s arguing that even when one isn’t, say, in academia and researching a particular topic with its reading list of related books, the books one ends up reading, create a progressive line of thought and development through topics and connections that the reader’s brain shapes for itself. She then synthesizes these thoughts, suggesting that “the most compelling vision of reading is […] the one that implies a relation to writing, to work.”
For me, we’ve made a detour and returned to Deep Curation here because in a sense, reading is always a project of selection. On a deep, subliminal level, my reading eye is attuned to certain interests and even without realizing it, I’m generating memory pockets of material, residual images that maybe someday I’ll need to revisit.
I know that I’m making many grand claims over here and talking without any kind of scientific backup, and that’s part of the joy of being a poet! But think, though, of how differently different readers engage with texts, how their different reading trajectories inform an approach to those texts. To provide an example, I was recently invited to write a multi-part review of Dionne Brand’s The Blue Clerk for The Puritan, and Alexei Perry Cox, Linzey Corridon and myself each wrote a 500-word piece about the book from a perspective that intrigued each of us respectively. I wrote about language and its vitality; Linzey wrote about post-coloniality; Alexei about aesthetics and ethics. And although I could clearly see how each of these approaches were completely valid readings of The Blue Clerk, I was still amazed at some of the quotations extracted, like I had zero recollection of ever reading some of the passages used to back up interpretation. I am so attuned to noticing work on language, ars poetica, self-referential dialogue of grammar and poetic diction…that that is exactly what stayed with me, what was meaningful to me.
In the same vein, my interest in the female embodiment of intelligence, especially through radical integration into the landscape, is so great that somehow I have been able to combine poetry as disparate as the Beat generation feel of Kyger’s work with the philosophical, mystical edge of Adnan’s with the narrative quality of Brand’s, and to create an apparent continuity of both subject and voice. I should also note that I don’t see any of these women as being direct influences on my work, or rather, I’ve never set out to emulate their writing. Our concerns have overlapped only in the sense that I have been able to extract passages and place them parallel to one another in such a way that formulates a collective interpretation of our work. A mountain range of words is created, incrementally in moments of silent reading, through the tectonic undercurrent of thought processes relating to the writing of diverse authors and melding, molding and manipulating them into a connected script of difference.
After much wandering, I now want to return to my second point as to how reading becomes writing through Deep Curation. I’d like to suggest that the act of reading a Deep Curation script out loud is also an instantiation of writing, that enunciating words out loud together creates a new text. Suddenly the words of different authors are combined, not only in their juxtaposition and resulting interconnectedness, but in the sense of fusing dialogue into monologue. With multiple authors on stage at the same time vocalizing and interweaving their words, an intimate act of listening happens between those authors as well. A concentrated depth forms with authors listening to keep track of the script, to know when to start, when to stop. But this also initiates a kind of listening that steps into another poet’s words and momentarily inhabits it, understanding through sharing the instant of an author’s poetic articulation.
In this sense, Deep Curation embodies a wonderful kind of constant oscillation between the original identities of the authors, and their recontextualization. Of course, there’s an ethical question of authorship and I’m not suggesting that a Deep Curation script should ever concede authorship to the curator. Not at all.
The process is stranger than that. The excerpts of poems side by side retain their autonomy as works of Kyger, Adnan, Brand and so on, while simultaneously residing in a collective, novel and also inanimate authorship. The new author is not me, or whoever the curator might be. The curator might facilitate growth between the works of authors, but those works themselves seem to flourish in their new proximity, to saturate a whole new work with interpretative possibility.
To circle back briefly to the distinction between the curational and the curatorial, I might end my talk today by suggesting that the placement of fragments of poetry by different authors onto a page together is a kind of curational, organizational strategy. Reading becomes writing through the inscription of that potential. And then I will further propose that the moment of reading the Deep Curation script out loud stands as a curatorial moment of reading as writing, a dynamic, relational instance of authorship. The curator’s work, the authors’ poetry, the script, the verbal enunciation, the audience, your listening [your reading], all these factors and certainly others too, contribute to a poetic rendition at once egoless and authorial, free and formalized, read and written.
Winner of the 2019 Pat Lowther Memorial Award and shortlisted for the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award, Klara du Plessis’ debut collection Ekke was released from Palimpsest Press. Her second book, Hell Light Flesh, is forthcoming Fall 2020. Klara is a PhD English Literature student at Concordia University, a researcher for SpokenWeb, and currently expanding her curatorial practice to include experimental Deep Curation poetry reading events, an approach which places poets’ work in deliberate dialogue with each other and heightens the curator’s agency toward the poetic product. She lives in Montreal and Cape Town.
Photo credit: Jean Dreyer