Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Poem 10 – The Policy on the Free Exchange of Ideas

There is something impure about the gullet or
Veined-through surface, a room without
Transitive verbs or furniture terrified of the monochrome
Façade that scrapes up, brushing close in repetitive
Windows, ledges and siblings

Wary of having my photo taken with him
Demonized as a dangerous liberal

More erasure followed here

She still makes the strong one weep
With No Respect to Electrostatic Interactions 

The ex-drinker drinks, ex-smoker smokes
Purely placing value on certain Runs Scored
By the National Education Center for Conforming

This book you hold is stored behind glass in the Pompidou
By lowtech ways like freezing yourself or the laws
Of special relativity

Secrecy is a sometimes necessary tactic
In anticipation of power-sharing
What relic dusts the molecule’s crystallographic center 

Which it would undermine by “liberalizing”

Well-plac’d Zeal
Zipping around near the speed of light
Your Cloth and Character comes in Paranthesis! [sic]

Can you believe marbled halls to kill readers where they stalk?
We rescued hominids from sad dressing
Between Supramolecules

To progress is a man, but this lesson is the landing witness
Decrease the amount of time you experience elapsing
You fail.
Where had those frames dived?

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Poem 9 – Love in the archive

(for Kate)

My lumberjack shirt is speaking among the bubbles
took them out of the liberry
working nostalgia like a new glove

The hour itself is lace, nipple of the clock
if cup if
me swallow you crouched on their capital
all over again is

Diving the absurd mostly when it makes sense
of your early work to see rough
through the layers sick higher
real women, big dimensions
from the point-of-view of a refined vampire

And oh how you women who are sealed
this hand over and this pass on
your pain management system a Morse piano
the human is easy happenstance fault of being
flesh and heart and liver and lungs and sweat

How dangerous this which skirts
between so real it lights up the clover
twisted no name, no hat
amid the mystic fields of
I wander'd and beheld a grove

Impermanent force
that changes how a system
evolves with time and should
I not have had I might have
rusted in the forest

Yours are looking exceptionally
interesting tonight
the original paintjob
shows through

Might I check out
that little ridge there?

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Statement to MFA workshop October 13

Tolerance Project Coordinator Rachel Zolf read out the statement below to her MFA workshop class on October 13, 2009:

This presentation is supposed to be about an Issue in Writing, I have materials for us to look at and discuss, but in the past few days an issue has been raised by another teacher in the program in regards to my MFA project, and it seems I haven’t been clear enough about my project, so I’d like to clear that up first. In order to do that I have to be very clear about the context behind my project. I think this will provoke a good discussion, so please bear with me while I outline the context.

On the first day of class we had about a minute to tell the class about ourselves and our work. I quickly explained that because of the discriminatory laws of the US federal government, when my female partner got a job as a tenure track professor at [university name edited out], I was unable to legally move with her from Toronto to New York, because our relationship is not recognized by US immigration authorities. I had to obtain a visa to stay here by some other means, and the only real choice was becoming a student. Hence my appearance in this MFA program, even though I am an award-winning mid-career poet with four books published by established literary presses and my work taught on graduate level English lit classes in several universities in North America.

Now obviously it is a strange situation for all of us to have me in this class. But it’s important to note that my situation is not unique in some ways. I have a number of other peers with multiple books and who have taught in colleges for years who are also being forced to go back to school and get the MFA credential that has become essential to getting any creative writing teaching work in North America. There is a big critique in the literary community about this, because as you well know, writers generally have to go into huge debt in order to pay for the MFA. The critique of the MFA as a disciplining institution acting as a cash cow for university endowment programs has been going on for years, and is in fact kind of clichéd.

Back to the one minute intro from the first day, I also told you I was working on a conceptual writing project where 85 writers, artists and thinkers from across North America had donated written and visual material to me, and that I would make poems for the MFA from this material. I also said I had a blog for this project. What I didn’t have time to say is that my project is called The Tolerance Project, and it is using the constraint of having to make poems only from the donated material as a means to examine the constraints that I have had to go through and am operating under in order to be here in the US and in this MFA program. I am of course here in this class partly because the US federal government doesn’t “tolerate” queer people. It was only the other day that Congress finally decided that killing people just because they’re queer actually is a hate crime, and they seem to be approaching the thought of repealing the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, so that, as Philly poet CA Conrad quipped at an event last night, the US military can finally put rainbow stickers on tanks and machine guns. My point is that the US government is very far from recognizing my same-sex relationship and enabling me to live here freely with my partner on the spousal visa that I would have easily received if I had been a man.

Obviously you can gather that a key aspect of my work is its political content. But I’ve always approached that work through polyvocality and the use of investigative documentary sources and practices. I never have just one voice and stance in my poems; they are always multiple and generated from large archives of collected research material. The book I have coming out in the spring is on Israel-Palestine and has only three phrases in it made by “me.” The rest is all collaged from human rights documents, books and other sources. Hence the reason that The Tolerance Project is framed as a collaborative project, where I have collected an archive of material to work with. I don’t believe in originality or the supremacy of the authorial voice. I agree with Walt Whitman that we each contain multitudes, multiple voices framed by our interactions with the various people, technologies, media and institutions that we deal with every day, and I let those multitudes be on the page.

I’m not sure if any of you has gone to my blog over the past six weeks since the start of the program. The blog was easy to find by googling me, and it was never meant to be a secret. The reason I have a blog is so that the 85 people who contributed to the project can see when I have used their donation in a poem. I have given every donor a barcode and post the barcodes used after the poem so they can check and see if their barcode has come up. They get barcodes not just to play up the DNA aspect of them contributing a poetic trace of themselves, but also so that the donors remain anonymous until the end of the project. This is intentional so that no one is distracted by reading the poem through the lens of a particular recognized author’s name. I truly see these poems as collaborations and have had some fascinating discussions regarding originality and subjectivity as a result of the comments made in the comments section of the blog and elsewhere. The blog encourages the public to make comments and give feedback on the poems, with the aim of my revising the poems based on cumulative feedback as an aspect of the final MFA thesis. I guess you could say it’s kind of a like a reality tv show for poets.

The key problem that seems to have arisen unbeknownst to me is regarding my taking the constructive criticism that you put on the poems I brought to class and putting this criticism on the blog in a completely anonymous form. I never assumed this would be a problem, and if there was a problem I assumed that people in the class who went to the blog would have told me. So for example, for the poem, “the Tradition,” the one on breastfeeding and all the chemicals in the milk, I wrote on the blog all of the workshop feedback I thought would be constructive to start with in terms of revising the poem. Here’s exactly what I wrote preceding that poem (btw, since this controversy I have taken down all the comments and we can discuss that more in a minute):
Some comments on Poem 2: “Poem has too much repetitions. It grates on listener’s/reader’s ear”; “a little preachy...look at tuning some passages of melodrama”; “I almost wanted to see some less robotic mixing in the beginning”; “I think plain, clear language could make it stronger, ie cut the repetition of not really me and simply refer to it as a child…it gets worn from overuse”; “hmmm very both motherhood and sex, lube and oils, perhaps just my reading”; “'economics and labor time and biology' could be too direct”; “reminds me of The Talking Heads’ 'Heaven'”;“'Hand this over./Pass this on' feels a little chain-letter like to me”; “'raisons' as intentional misspelling?”;“Follows some directions of the 'contemporary' canon, but explosive”; “Suggests the speaker is a kind of machine, so the speaker is the engine oil, what needs the additive.”

So that’s an example of what I would write preceding a poem (and just for the record, I don’t have a child). I deliberately didn’t post the positive comments, because they don’t really help in the revising process. The aim was that the online public would look at the poem and the comments and make more comments on the poem, that it would open up the workshopping of the project poems beyond just the few voices here. And that I could show donors actual critique on their poetic donations from relatively unbiased MFA students. Many donors are established poets from earlier generations that didn’t have to take an MFA in order to teach. So the project plays with the interesting fact that many of the people of earlier generations that are teaching poetry workshops have never actually undergone the workshop process themselves. In fact, one thing I like about being here is learning from established writers like [name edited out] how to teach these types of classes.

Given that all the comments were completely anonymous and blurred together as a collective response, I had no idea it would be violating the “privacy” and “sanctity” of the MFA workshop, as I have recently been told. I’ve never been in an institutional workshop. In fact, the only workshop I’ve ever taken was a two-day one almost 20 years ago where I actually wrote my first poem. I worked on my poems and books first with carefully matched mentors, then with peers and peer editors. I have also edited a number of books of poetry myself and was the founding poetry editor for The Walrus magazine, which is like a New Yorker or Harper’s for Canada.

The focus of my project is not this particular MFA. The blog doesn’t even name where the MFA is taking place, as what is most important for my project is that it is a collaborative take on the MFA as an institution within larger state apparatuses. That is the key concept behind my project, a deconstruction of how “authors” and “voices” are created through the process of the MFA, linked with how difference is “tolerated” (or not) in general in the US. I wanted to provoke a look at how the MFA works as a process, by deliberately blowing up the authorial creation and feedback process beyond this room. There is a long tradition in the art world of looking at the workings of art institutions such as art museums and art collecting practices and the creation of the artist as a commodity. In fact, if you remember the poem I brought last week about Adrienne Rich and the form letter…that is from my book Human Resources that looks at capitalist and corporate structures and even has a poem about famous American conceptual artist Andrea Fraser videotaping herself having sex with a collector for $20,000 and displaying the tape in an art gallery. How's that for an exposure of art as a commodifying institution?

I apologize if I haven’t been clear enough re my project. That was unintentional. In fact I wish we had more time in this workshop structure to describe each of our projects and ask each other questions. Now I’d like to ask you how you feel about your constructive feedback being used in my project, and if you would object to it being posted on the blog. Another alternative if that seems too public is I could post the anonymous constructive criticism in a more private space like my Facebook page and only give access to “friends,” ie my project collaborators and other literary colleagues interested in the project. Or if any of you didn’t want me to post your comments on Facebook either, that would be fine. Just let me know.

So to be clear, right now the poems I’ve brought to this class and my lit class are posted by themselves, with their barcodes. I have pulled the comments that came out of the classes off the blog. I’ve put them for now in a note on Facebook that is only accessible to my Facebook friends, but I can remove specific comments by specific individuals if need be.

I’d also of course feel very happy if any of you wanted to contribute to the reality poetry show with even more comments on the poems posted in the comments section on the blog. I put a call out that I particularly welcomed “asshole” contributions, given that if you know anything about the comment sections on poets’ blogs, they have always been seething pits of assholeness. That’s partly why I wanted to have a blog for this project, to draw the assholes out, and expose them a bit. But so far they’re laying low.

Anyway, I hope that clears things up a bit.

Sunday, October 11, 2009


It has come to our attention by way of certain powerful and influential authorities that the sanctity of the MFA workshop has seemingly been violated by our having posted anonymous constructive criticism on Tolerance Project poems that originated from said MFA workshop. This news is distressing to us, given that we made a solemn pledge at the outset of this project that “NO MFA STUDENTS WILL BE HARMED IN THE MAKING OF THIS PROJECT.” In humble response to the possibly egregious effects of our unconscious error, we have removed said constructive comments from this web log. Henceforth, solely the poems in their nakedness plus barcodes will be posted here, so that the 85 writers, artists, thinkers, tenured professors, famous--and infamous--poets (some tenured too), bartenders, coders, wrestlers, revolutionaries and MFA workshop instructors who have donated their poetic DNA to The Tolerance Project can still be made aware of when and how their traces have been activated.

The task now falls to you, the online public, to generate the helpful feedback needed for us to edit the poems posted here and create the best MFA thesis ever. We’re confident that you can still accomplish that task sans the constructive influence of our MFA compatriots.

If you have further queries, please contact The Tolerance Project Coordinator at thetoleranceproject[at]

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Poem 8 – Hooked on Haibun

The assignment was to write a Haibun, a Japanese form combining prose and poetry. We had been wondering how to utilize the two weird gynecological texts some guy donated, so here's a bit of DNA from them in dialogue with other vaginal traces in the Archive. The "Birth Fygvres" image from one of the gynecological tracts was placed on the back of the poem page.

Hooked on Haibun

Congenital defects were believed to be caused by thoughts and events that occurred to the mother during pregnancy. Mothers suspected of having engaged in perverse activities. Some methods used by midwives were covering windows and locking doors to protect from evil spirits. Difficult labour sometimes aided by dangerous “hooks” to remove the child. They kept the nature of the instrument a secret for nearly a century.

If it happens from defect of the spirits
let it be rubbed, the spirits aroused
flowing to the painful part


But if this retention is of another humor, that is hot and dry and called bile, then women feel burning and pricking of heat inside, and their urine is of a high color and greasy; and at the time of their purgation they excrete toxic matter like coal, waters a feeble color smell slightly.

Where had the vagina searched?
Why was the vagina of velocity gathering?
Why were we swerving?


There are corrupt humors in the womb outside the veins in the hollowness of the uterus, and they hinder women. And they feel heaviness. And there is much tending to. And they fly up to the heart and lungs. Hot about the mouth of the womb. Dark yellow and greasy. Inside and aching, pricking and hardness.

So existing a vulva
(so additional a sheet)

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Poem 7 – Adrienne Rich used the Communicating Bad News Template...

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Poem 6 – Frog I

Somehow the Project Coordinator neglected to post this a couple weeks back. The assignment was to write a reduction (drastically edited version) of a poem, and this lovely donation to the archive fit the bill perfectly all by its truncated lonesome. Ah, the simple plaisirs of the search engine.

Frog 1

Missing back left leg.
Missing back right leg.
Extra foot growing out of back left leg.
Extra back right leg.
Deformed back left leg.
Unabsorbed tail.
Extra left leg.
Extra and deformed left leg.
One eyed.
Tail unabsorbed.
Missing left leg.
Deformed tail.

sing back .ft leg
sing back .ht leg
ex fff rows back .ft leg
ex k right leg
dorm back .ft leg
tadpole t. ever ab
ex .ft leg
mm .ft leg
one eyed fff
ail un.sorb
sing .ft leg
form tail

Poem 5 – Revenga

The assignment was to compose a renga, a Japanese collaborative poetic form. On September 30, The Tolerance Project Coordinator Rachel Zolf joined brains with classmates Ray DeJesus & David Blasco to output the following. Zolf's lines were naturally generated from The Tolerance Project Archive using Ray & David's words as search terms. Poetic DNA barcodes below as usual. Truly a testament to the collaborative potential of the MFA in Creative Writing.


The airplane's strings, taut
The unforeseeable future

telephone on board

& the plucky errand boy
draws battery diagrams

the conceptual framework

pulled from A to Zone

point-of-view of a puppet

that ace in the hole uphill

downhill a mug that cries foul

but wait, we’re moving

seems a train across the way

& dry circumstance

as if thought were sufficient

as if we needed the plan

transfigured memory

a bottle of tequila

like a mouth to flame

electroplated handsets

used the provided seat belts

over your shoulder

republic as in the air

that sort of conduct

the burnt body of water

pair of earrings to return

flexible substrates

indifferent to the trials

in shifts of vowel

fixtures slid in quietly

sink below the frank handcuff

slouched to form in shriek

fast hands slip as a week wanes

toys the size of bricks

a bit in your mouth, the moon

falls into the lake—stay there

Plato made his dogs

wander the house of women

a kind of death cough

traction and embraces

dazzling cursive in bold

the black slip in dots

wrestling to become a find

the wires touch at twelve

frightening to dash in light

comfort to dodge high noon smoke

& wouldn’t it be

better to spill in attics

cancel the bake sale

this has meant nothing to me

the truth in a joke, to dig

the broke wrist of beds

sticking to basement hung

a baseball thrown low

sticking forks into flat cakes

a callous giggle alone