ARC Fellows: Poetry, Voice & Violence

ARC Fellows: Poetry, Voice & Violence

Submitted by our 2020 Poetry and the Senses Poetry Fellow:

Jenif(f)er Tamayo (Performance Studies)

I’ve spent the last few years thinking about poetry and voice. Not like an “abstract” English grammar capital “V” voice––but like, the material voice. The one that makes waves and vibrations. Moves through canals, makes contact with our membranes. The one that literally touches us. 

Most of my research focuses on contemporary BIPOC poets who do weird shit on the internet, with loopers, recording devices; poets who make choirs with odd instruments; poets who construct sonic geographies for the Ancestors to travel through and visit with us.

So it was surprising to me, then, to end up in the archives. To end up reading stories about people listening to poetry more than 100 years ago.  My research led me to these two stories (that I am heavily summarizing here because who has the time for details these days): 

The first one: In 1917, inspired by ethnographic ‘research-trends’ of the time, the illustrious Poetry magazine published what it called, “The Aboriginal Issue.” This *special* issue contained fragments of uncontextualized Native American oral stories and songs “transcribed” by settler writers who wanted to capture the sound of Native voices and translate them into printed poems [1], making them into capital “A” Art. 

The second: close to the same time period as Poetry’s “Aboriginal Issue,” some of the settler nation’s most esteemed and widely taught poets, folks like Wallace Stevens, T.S. Elliot, Ezra Pound, and Gertrude Stein were similarly working to capture “the black voice.” In private letters to friends or in low-key publications, they gave themselves anti-Black slurs as nicknames and ventriloquized the sound of Black speech [2] for political play. 

These two stories are not really new to many of us and they are just the tip of the racist violence occurring all the time. Although Mrs. Tate, my high school English teacher, never got around to these kinds of histories about American poetry traditions, she did teach me that this period was called Modernism, and it was an era full of exploration and innovation. Which really means that white people were stealing shit and calling it their own (as they’ve always done) while at the very same time, they were wreaking material violence on those same people (as they’ve always done). What I didn’t know is how much the voice, the material voice, had to do with this. As if voices were some kind of enchanted site for the settler colonizer [3]…  

I have plans to say more about this––but as I’ve been sitting with these two stories, it’s been hard not to think about our present moment. It’s hard not to notice that the time period of this Modernist “innovation” overlaps with the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918. That while poor people were trying to escape death of all forms, rich white people were inventing, innovating, making capital A “Art!” I know this is an over-simplification, but this is a blog post and I have no energy to break it down (for those who want receipts). I wonder, then, how this “Art making” is happening now, amidst our own Covid-19 pandemic…

It’s hard not to think about what kinds of voices will be thieved this time around––what kind of enchanted voicing will need to be captured, violated, distorted? America––as it’s always done––will want to re-invent itself after this current pandemic’s devastation, and the re-invention will be built off the backs of the imaginary capital “O” Others it likes to harm and steal from. This is not to say other sounds waves won’t be flowing or showing us paths of escape, but I do hope that future poets, future students, future selves looking back on this time period won’t be swindled by the kind of American Art innovation, re-invention that is sure to accompany these times of material violence. I hope whatever this ‘period’ is called in the future won’t settle upon young faces, won’t make them believe that these were exciting times of discovery.       

  1. More on this story can be found in Sophie McCall’s First Person Plural: Aboriginal Storytelling and the Ethics of Collaborative Authorship, UCB Press, 2012.  
  2. This story can be found in Michael North’s The Dialect of Modernism: Race, Language & Twentieth Century Literature, Oxford University Press, 1998.
  3. For more on the topics of voice, enchantment, violence, Blackness and Indigeneity, I recommend the work of Dylan Robinson and Alexander Weheliye.  

Jenif(f)er Tamayo is a queer, migrant, formerly undocumented poet, essayist, and performer. Her poetry collections include [Red Missed Aches] (Switchback, 2011), YOU DA ONE (Noemi 2017) and her latest publication, TO KILL THE FUTURE IN THE PRESENT (Green Lantern Press, 2018). Currently, JT lives and works on Ohlone and Patwin lands and is pursuing her PhD in Performance Studies at the University of California Berkeley. Her research explores how contemporary Black and Indigenous poets use vocal practices to counternarrate histories of colonial violence. 

Note: Over the course of the spring semester, each 2020-2021 ARC Fellows will submit a short blog post about their project. We hope you will enjoy these short readings! Poetry and the Senses will create meaningful opportunities for engagement, research, and collaboration. As a think tank for the arts at UC Berkeley, ARC will act as a facilitator and connector between the campus and the many flourishing regional poetry communities. This two-year initiative (Jan 2020 – Dec 2021) explores the relevance and urgency of lyrical making and storytelling in times of political crisis, and the value of engaging the senses as an act of care, mindfulness, and resistance. To learn more about the program, click here.