Thursday, October 19, 2006

On Wanton Textiles and Collaborative Chapbooks

I just finished reading Wanton Textiles (No Tell Books, 2006), a collaborative poetry chapbook by leading emerging American poets Reb Livingston and Ravi Shankar, and it's an entertaining read. I imagine that if Regis and Kelly were ever to emcee at a Dadaist poetry festival, this is what they would say to the crowd of spools and yarn.

In this slim volume, the distinctive voices of Livingston and Shankar emerge unscathed as their personas exchange prose poems with each other. While both poets continue in the "avant-garde" tradition of poetry writing and seem at ease with surrealist techniques, I think that we essentially have a successful study in contrast. Even though one poet (Shankar) is Asian-American, while the other poet (Livingston) is not, I would say that gender is a more obvious proxy than race for the representation of "difference" here.

Livingston's passages are generally marked by her use of the second person "you," her relatively more personal voice, her plain speech, her directness, her observation of concrete, everyday objects, and her evocation of "feminine" reference points (e.g. "hosiery" (p. 9), "silk worms" (p. 9), "mermaid" (p. 11), "beautiful pinching stilettos" (p. 15), "grapefruit-scented" conditioner (p. 24)).

Shankar's passages are generally marked by his comfort with the third person, his preference for the abstract, his scattering of relatively obscure names and places, his use of long and/or difficult words (e.g. "multitudinous" (p. 14), "clairolfaction" (p. 14), "vestigial" (p. 19), "slabyard of recurrent camisoles" (p. 21), "entropy" (p. 23)), and a certain gender-neutrality that nevertheless still possesses qualities of a "masculine" voice.

I should note that I'm more familiar with Shankar's poetry than Livingston's. I haven't talked about my thoughts on Shankar's poetry on this blog before, so I'll do it quickly here. In my opinion, the greatest strength and weakness of Shankar's poetry is its intelligence. The poetry is often brilliant and eloquent. It's often "erudite," so to speak. The voice, vocabulary, and tone are somewhat like Vijay Seshadri's or John Yau's. There's an implied skepticism towards the personal and/or confessional and not too much of an everyman feel to the poetry. There's usually no obvious invocation of the poet's race. In short, this isn't the work of Adrienne Su or Li-Young Lee here.

I was particularly fascinated by the fact that Shankar largely kept his usual voice, as described previously, but also expanded it in response to Livingston's passages in certain lines. To note just a few of Shankar's lines that break from the prevalent rhythms of abstractness: "Let's stretch together, sky, breasts/ silhouettes, our own recognizable heads/ unnumbered and damp upon the grass" (p. 26), "Nothing doing./ Not a single train has left the station/ grown over with snarling vetch, sandwich wrappers," (p. 23). At times, there's a shifting of gears here towards relatively simple, plain, everyday talk, and what an admirer of Adrienne Su or Li-Young Lee's poetry might characterize as charming.

I'm bringing up this point, because it suggests one of the great potentials of collaborative poetry chapbooks. Collaboration can lead to shifts in a poet's style and add to a poet's repetoire. The back-and-forth between two poets makes each think about his or her work in relation to the other poet's work. I think that I may blog more about collaboration in poetry as it relates to Asian-American poetry in a future post. But for now, I'll just say that Wanton Textiles represents a nice example of, and model for, a collaborative chapbook of poetry.

2 Comments:

Blogger Robert said...

THE Ravi Shankar? Wow. How'd Reb swing that one?

5:49 PM  
Blogger Roger Pao said...

Hello Robert, thanks for visiting. Alas, this Ravi Shankar is not the sitar virtuoso. But he IS co-editing an anthology of Asian poetry, which makes him "THE Ravi Shankar" in my book. He's co-editing the volume with poets Tina Chang and Natalie Handal, and it's due out with W.W. Norton next year.

8:25 AM  

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