20.03.03, Bilkent University, Ankara, Turkey
Suddenly, after months of thinking about war but having nothing besides the media to focus our attention on it, there are signs of it everywhere we look. I returned home from school yesterday to discover notices in the lobby of our building outlining security procedures for air attacks. “Apparently there’s a bomb shelter in the next building,” Glenys said with an eghads look.
It’s highly unlikely there will be any spillover of this conflict into Turkey. Although it is possible that Turkey will soon be engaged in a conflict of its own with the northern Iraqi Kurds. We’re not hearing much about what it currently happening at the Turkey-Iraq border.
A pair of men tested the generators in a nearby building this morning. They rumbled to life with the clanky growl of an old mechanical beast that’s been hibernating. A short while later, as Euan and I were doing our usual Magpie count out the window, a jet roared over the campus at great speed heading southeast, as if to confirm that Turkey has indeed opened its airspace to coalition forces. Vanloads of Jandarma tool around the area incessantly. We start to try to interpret these signs.
Being a new dad in times like these is an uncanny and confusing experience. It’s jarring to look at my son and see so much innocence and wonder and be thinking about people dying and suffering off in the distance. I told my son what was happening because we always tell him everything that’s happening (“Daddy’s licking oatmeal off his thumb Euan!"). Again I had Oppen to put some texture to this feeling I have for my son with regard to the war:
My daughter, my daughter, what can I say
I cannot judge it.
We seem caught
In reality together my lovely
Meanwhile, life goes on, but in a much different way, with a much different feeling to it, naturally. I greeted one of my students yesterday and asked her how she was. “Uptight,” she said. It’s difficult to teach or sit for classes when your mind is elsewhere. I sit in my office and stare off into space for periods of time, my mind reeling. When I snap out of it, I realize I must get my act together, and I start to scurry in my head even more.
I’ve made last minute adjustments to the syllabus of my American Poetry class in an attempt to keep focus on both poetry and the war. I put Oppen’s Of Being Numerous, Williams’ Introduction to The Wedge, and selections from Reznikoff’s Testimony on for this week. This work has generated good discussion and, to the extent that they want to, has allowed my students to use class discussions as a forum for their thoughts and feelings about the war.
On Thursday’s class I read from Of Being Numerous and asked my students to listen with an ear toward the poem and with an ear toward Baghdad, to see if this poem in any way enabled them to focus on the war. When I asked them if the poem helped or hindered their attempt to focus on the war several students said they went into and out of focus about the war, but that the poem helped them focus on experience and what that is. How do you experience something you’re not experiencing? If war is meaningless, then what is poetry?
I read the Williams stuff I posted to the list on Thursday. Poetry isn’t a turning away from the war, it is the war, “merely a different sector of the field.” How can that be?
We talked about objectivism as a poetry of attention. Attention to the very facts of existence and to time, what that dialectic produces in the mind and in language.
We had also read for that day selections of Charles Reznikoff’s amazingly affecting poem Testimony. Two students introduced the poem and got a discussion going about the discrepancy between the lack of emotion in the language and the deeply emotional effect that that language produces when you read it.
Then a student named Berna compared the poems to “the media,” to news. I told the class about one of Pound’s definitions of poetry: “Poetry is news that stays news.” It turned out to be the perfect way to account for the relevance of reading a poem that was published in the 60’s, and which incorporated images of WW2 and Vietnam, to focus our attention on a war that was happening while we were talking.
I ended class about 8 minutes early, but then something very unexpected happened. None of my students got up to leave. None of them even stirred. There was a short silence and then another student picked up the discussion again, and we continued talking as if class was still in session.
But the atmosphere in the room had changed completely. I was no longer presiding and everyone was there by choice. The classroom turned into a meeting place. What a freaky feeling it was to have everything change so dramatically like that with no apparent activity to produce it. I felt a lot calmer after this class than I have in days. The two students who exited the classroom with me told me in Turkish to take good care (“kendine iyi bak”). Normally they just say, in English, “See you.”
18.03.03, Bilkent University, Ankara, Turkey
There's a lot of talk here, as there is everywhere, about what Americans are made of. How much manifest stupidity and malice can there be in a nation's will to violence? I keep telling my students to be as exacting in their denunciations of the actions of the Bush administration as they are in their affections for American films and music.
As a Canadian teaching American culture and literature in Turkey, I feel strangely caught in the middle. My students see me as quasi-American and as an ersatz spokesperson for American values. What could be more ridiculous than that? And yet, here I am, teaching American culture to students who, most of them anyway, love and hate America in almost equal measure. That I can understand.
All of the missile launchers have left the Mediterranean and have passed through the Suez canal bound for the Red Sea where they can send their weapons without having to violate Turkish airspace. No doubt the dozens of cargo ships loaded with jeeps and tanks and artillery will turn tail soon, if they haven't already.
Euan, who was born three months before we came here, is learning to walk. We are mobbed by incredibly affectionate well-wishers whenever we step out in public. His blue eyes.
My former student Levent wrote to me recently to say that he wouldn't be able to drop by for a long time. He was passed over by the military. Instead he will join a Turkish company and work as a guide and translator for American soldiers in Diyabikir, near the Iraq border. As all Turks do, he asked me to kiss the baby for him and give his best wishes to my wife.
All this recent protracted talk about the Americans hit a high pitch around the time that the Turkish parlaiment voted down the government's resolution to allow the US to use Turkish air bases in the eastern part of the country. It also coincided with the section of my American Poetry class on counter-cultural modernism (a designation I use to characterize works that turn from literature and attempt to interpellate techniques and strategies from other media and other art practices (cubism, oral performance, documentary, etc.). I thought the subject and the times called for something different so I read from The Making of Americans for 45 minutes. I have been reading The Making of Americans to Euan since before he was born. I was also thinking, when I came up with this crazy idea, of Stein's descriptions of American soldiers in France during the wars she lived through.
I began to read, moving the text closer and closer to my face in order to bear down on the syntax and maintain the rhythm. I wanted my students to HEAR Stein. I thought that if they just sat there and listened they would break through their resistence to it. I have been moved to the brink of tears by reading The Making of Americans. If my students could get the rhythm they might slide into a groove and go with that. That that mightnot happen hadn't occurred to me.
At first I felt stupid and manipulative for doing this, but I hadn't prepared anything else so I had to go on. Eventually, I worked myself into a mythic kind of dry-mouthed trance, swaying back and forth, sucking the words off the page and setting them down in the ether in front of me. They seemed to hang there a moment before vanishing. I had tunneled into the text and there was no need to look up. Something like the "perpetual present," which I had always thought of as bollocks, "came athwart me", as Wordsworth says. There was no there there.
When I stopped, the stupid feeling returned to me. Some of my students were clearly also in a trance, others sat with their arms crossed, others, I realized, had spent the time text-messaging their friends. The students who felt like talking said it sucked, that they hated all that repetition, it irritated them.
I felt like my experiment was a failure. I walked home mildly scolding myself for winging it yet again. The next day I received this response from one of my students:
The Making of Americans: In class, repetition of words was criticized. Respecting these ideas, I declare that I am against such a view. Mind and deliverance, in other words mantra is a word which is repeated over and over. Instead of fooling or mocking, it brings full concentration against disruption, so in a way it eases identification. I think The Making of Americans comes with many mantras. My views are based on hearing. Within a short time of period, while listening to it I am evoked by the sound and the repeated words help me to initiate. I am sure if there were no paper sounds and laughs, I could easily meditate. While reading it, I received deliverance, because the flow of the language activated Asmita. If you ask me what I got from the novel(?), I cannot give you a summary, but if you ask me what I got from it, I can say that my mind was set free from material inclinations.
"Onward!" as Creeley says.
[Scott Pound has been posting to the Buffalo Poetics List a running diary of his time in Turkey which I will start posting here also. If I get inspired I'll go back and pick up some of the prior ones.]
2.27.03, 13:00, Bilkent University, Ankara, Turkey
A former student of mine who recently graduated came back to campus to see me the other day. He was making the rounds announcing his impending marriage. Delighted for him, I said, “Congratulations! When?” He looked down at his feet for a few seconds and when he looked back up at me all the happiness had left his face. “I don’t know,” he said. “We will wait.” Standing between him and married life is 8-16 months of compulsory military service, and potentially an extended period of conflict in the region, conflict in which he may be personally involved. He thinks a U.S. invasion of Iraq would just be the beginning. He’s probably right.
Turkey’s main concern with regard to a possible war in Iraq (of many besides the economy) is the Iraqi Kurds. The Kurds in Iraq are substantial in number, presently occupy and govern their own territory, and have a large militia (70,000-130,000). In the event of a war that topples Sadam’s regime, they will be gunning for their own state.
Far from agreeing to let this happen, Turkey in fact proposes to move into Kurdish territory after the American invasion for the purpose of supplying “humanitarian aid.” Did I forget to mention that the Kurds are sitting on top of a lot of oil? Well, they are. Their Jerusalem is a city called Kirkuk, an “oil rich” place.
Needless to say, a Turkish presence in Northern Iraq would not be welcome and the leadership of the Iraqi Kurds has already promised that there would be conflict.
Peter W. Galbraith, writing in the New York Times, suggests that the Iraqi Kurds are again about to be double-crossed by the U.S.
My student and I continued to talk for a while, about the war, not his marriage. The silences between our talk grew longer and longer. Finally, he stood up, dejected, shook my hand, said goodbye and left.
"The mother tongue is propaganda"
--Marshall McLuhan (1965)
Department of American Culture and Literature
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