by Tina Darragh
In June, 2008, I attended a “Poetry of the ‘70s” conference at the University of Maine to be on a “DC Poetry” panel with friends. I’d never attended a poetry conference, but I wanted to go because I feel a great deal of admiration for and loyalty to my fellow DC poets, including (but not limited to) those on the panel: Lynne Dreyer, P. Inman, Doug Lang, Tom Orange, Joan Retallack, Phyllis Rosenzweig, and Diane Ward.
There was no group meeting beforehand to discuss what we would say. We were there to share memories and observations, not to make claims. For my part, I told a story about being on a picket line with P. and Doug during the Discount Bookstore strike of 1975. That summer the clerks went out to protest random lie detector tests administered by management. Discount’s insurance company told them that some of their losses would be covered if they could be attributed to pilfering employees rather than to a combination of management bungling and megastore competition. One afternoon, members of a Mao study group wearing “Dare to Struggle/Dare to Win” teeshirts crossed the picket line, explaining that they had to have copies of the “little red book” by 4:00 PM. This story struck me as “so ‘70s” – glimmers of political insight quickly overwritten by identity while business remained “as usual”.
On the panel, I used the term “skeptical” to describe how I began to approach words then. It was not the kind of skepticism that resulted in withdrawal from community and commitment, but rather was a layer of self-critical thinking that went with everything. In terms of poetry, I took the position that I didn’t know anything about my friends and family, and began to look them up in the dictionary.
The poems were transcriptions of random dictionary pages. My “permission” to do this came from cross-referencing an odd literary couple – the British poet Stevie Smith and the French poet Francis Ponge. By chance, I had come across Stevie Smith’s Novel on Yellow Paper written on the discarded bottom sheets of carbon paper she used as a secretary. One of my college professors, the poet Michael Lally, had given me Ponge’s Soap as an example of a poet renewing words in the world while continuing to be politically active. So my proofreading job set me up for a life of dictionary work.
My first couple of projects ("my hands to myself" and "on the corner to off the corner") were collections of dictionary transcriptions. Beginning with Pi in the Skye, self-criticism as a process was transcribed, mixing dictionary work with an “I-in-error” procedure. I’ve tried to vary the forms of error-tracking against the odds critiques figures of speech with fractal geometry (at Ponge’s suggestion), and a recurrent dream figure is not interpreted but rather makes fun of the author in dream rim instructions.
The feminist medieval apology tradition is the form of self-criticism utilized in my most recent project, "opposable dumbs." Currently, I’m following up on a mistake I made as a reference librarian – generating a bibliography of references for (Alain) “Badiou” instead of the requested (Pierre) “Bourdieu” – another literary odd couple. I’m also involved in a sporadic collaboration on ecology and poetry with poet Marcella Durand, who began corresponding with me in 1999 after hearing that we had a common interest in Ponge’s work.
Rule of Dumbs
Illuminated Apology Laments