thirsty for water

When I was young, I swam competitively, but gave it up after spinal surgery at age 12.  A long time out of the water would have meant a long time clawing my way back to form, and I really wasn’t passionate enough about it.  What I was ambivalent about, of course, was the training, not the water (or even the competition, to be honest).  The water was always a magical and transformative place, a place within this world that somehow also transcended it.  Swimming, I could leave my mundane and awkward embodiment behind, and completely enter into my body and its potential.

Last year, I went for a “Salamander” with artists and activists Petra Kuppers and Neil Marcus, in Berkeley California.  I wholeheartedly recommend you reading Petra’s book “The Scar of Visibility“, the book they wrote together “Cripple Poetics: A Love Story“, as well as taking what opportunity you can to see their performances and videos (maybe start here, with Neil’s brilliant “Disabled Country“).  Anyway, the Salamander.  They describe it best on the site dedicated to documenting some of the outcomes of this project.

Salamander is a community performance project. We use underwater photography, dry performance workshops, creative writing, clay work and video to go under, to find our disabled beauty emerging from the deep, the wild aesthetic of water, deforming ourselves through sleek unhinged control.
Since May 2013, disabled people and their allies from around the world have climbed into pools and oceans with us, and we float together, enjoying complicated freedom, companionship and adventure. And we give ourselves to the pressures the waters exert on us.
There is little instruction in Salamander swims: the water is the director, the choreographer, as we twist freely in gravity, trusting each other, exploring the integrity of our bodies. We also chat while we are in the water, and explore the easy flow of communication in the fluid medium of supportive water. The emphasis is on play and process.

andyswims

andy joel neil and petra

Here’s the poem I wrote soon after the swim (with a little re-writing, as I can’t help myself…!).

~

Salamander

Berkeley, California

with Petra Kuppers and Neil Marcus

Squint into this, I would have

said to myself, knowing the key

ingredients and their venom.

A public swimming pool.

A camera.  This body.  I don’t need

to spell it out.  Prose says it’s all there,

always fizzing in the marrow.

The enjambment between us proves

everything blue, all water.  This

is a series of dances

we invent as we go, each

the length of a full breath.

One body passes over me, another

winds around my torso, sinuous,

amphibious, tender, muscular,

substantial.  Deep animal

play, human mind turned

against itself and for the new human,

submerged in the way we move

together fluidly, or bump

against bone with apologies and

laughter, then dive down again

into the depths where thresholds

blur and the future

opens like lungs…

Clouds move in as I climb out

and become singular again,

rubbing the towel against my body,

but leaving a few drops behind.

I know two things –

it’s too cold to stay here all day

and the world is thirsty for water.

~

jan feb 2012 043

Life keeps hurtling forward.  Memories can feel distant.  But though we leave the water, we carry it always inside us.  I want to remember this.

~

disembodied poetics?

As many of you know, I was in the United States in July and part of August.  The main reason was to attend the (big breath…!) Summer Writing Program of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado.  I first heard of the School  in the late 1990s, when I found an anthology of writing published by them, and bought the book partly out of cautious curiosity – how could poetry be “disembodied”?  And should it be?

Anyway, in the last year or so, I found myself feeling a little unsatisfied with my poetry, feeling I was beginning to repeat myself.  I wanted to give myself a jolt of poetic input, to be challenged, confused, encouraged and expanded.  So, a four-week schedule of workshops, readings, talks, panel discussions, meetings and mentoring, all held at the foot of the Rocky Mountains, with a roster of writers including Anne Waldman, Amiri Baraka, Anne Carson, Rae Armantrout, Jerome Rothenberg and Ron Silliman…  hmmm, let me think about that – YES.  And thanks to Copyright Agency, who gave me generous funding, I could attend and not come back entirely broke.

It is impossible to capture my time in Boulder in all its sunshine, rigour, shivers and momentum.  But I can give you some hints.

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After I moved in to my sub-let on University Hill, while I was wandering around town looking for something salad-like for lunch, I noticed a guy looking at me fairly intently, curious.  Normally, I’d feel a little suspicion or anticipatory resentment, but I’m not at home and I’m determined to be open.  “Is that scoliosis?”, he asks.  So, I say yes, tell him the brief Marfan story.  He tells me he has a slight scoliosis and a lot of pain – when he was a little kid, in the 80s, he and his brother would play at professional wrestling (WWF-style) and he was slammed down onto concrete.  We talk for a while about how invisible pain is, how everyone’s story is different.  He asks me why I’m here; I tell him about Naropa.  Turns out he grew up next door to one of the founders Chogyam Trungpa, which is another story…  But something of the outgoing, genuine, unpretentious nature of this conversation is (to me anyway) very American…

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Each of the four weeks at the Summer Writing Program, you choose a different workshop.  I was with Rikki Ducornet, Rae Armantrout, M Nourbese Philip and Anne Waldman.  We grafted our own writing onto fragments of Herodotus, extending threads into the surreal or hyperreal.  We took famous poems and (out of homage or critique or both) rewrote them into another era or voice or gender.  We recorded a collaborative performance poem in the studio.  We talked about imagination, research, appropriation, colonialism, modernism, rupture and environmental crisis, and of course a million other things.  If there was an overarching theme to the Naropa approach, I would say it’s a passion to integrate research and intuition within poetry, and to engage the writer’s own body in the writing process.

In Nourbese’s workshop, we were to tell our own story, one at a time, in a circle.  But we had a time-limit.  And when the automatic timer went off, no matter how intimate or mundane or traumatic (or mid-sentence), our story would have to stop and the next person start.  The accumulating, visceral sense of interruption accumulated, a palpable absent space, one that also was a kind of communion.  We wrote out of that space, not to fill it in, but to respect it and allow it to speak.

There were many rigorous lectures, thought-provoking panel discussions, powerful performances and readings, and in between sessions some rich conversations.  Some of us meditated in the mornings.  Some of us had tacos and beer in the evening.  There was blue summer sky, horizontal clouds, afternoon storms, and the mountains surrounding us.

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I have a whole lot of unfinished poems in my journal to revisit, a percolating idea for a long poem, and many thoughts and provocations to sort through.  And many new friends and colleagues.  We keep hiking…