Tag Archives: archival poetry

Making poetry in these slurred times

This may not be the most coherent piece I’ve written but it might be the most heartfelt and urgent. We’ll start with some context. It’s now April 19th 2020 and I’m living with my lover, for the first time, in Ventnor in the UK and we’re in lockdown.

I don’t know about others but I write verse in order to work out about how I feel about something. The previous blog was a poem I made in response to the current and ongoing disaster, I’ve also made a v short performance piece (see below) in response to how this thing seems to be unfolding.

The shock for me is how hard this is. It should be ideal because I use documentary material, I’m a vaguely anarcho-lefty policy wonk with specific interests in health and social care and I hover on one of the main ‘vulnerable’ groups. This should therefore be the ideal opportunity, in a spacious property overlooking the Channel, to write at least one epic of Spenserian length and probably two.

In fact, there is an argument that gently points out that we creative types have a duty to spend this time documenting the disaster and how we feel about it from the inside in, more or less, ‘real’ time. To go further, I would hold up Celan’s Todesfugue as one of the greatest poems we have that did exactly that.

I’m under no illusions, I am at best an interested amateur who writes in order to perform rather than to be read. I’ve written and had performed lengthy pieces on Bloody Sunday, Ferguson and the Newtown shootings, I’m thus not averse to dealing with challenging subjects and am drawn to the complicated.

Covid-19 has, however, from nowhere on my horizon, has scrambled any feelings and thoughts that I might have.

We’ll start with bigness. In terms of a single Whiteheadian event, this particular virus is huge. A glance at one of those fucking dashboards reveals that it is infecting and killing everywhere and our collective response is hugely passive. As I type the global economy is continuing to collapse and a return to any kind of normal is looking increasingly unlikely for any of us. From this viewpoint, the making of art in itself can appear to be trivial and poetry making then becomes even more self-indulgent and vain than normal.

I’m not suggesting that all art is of little import but that big events and themes require a degree of brilliance that few of us have. In fact the bebrowed rule is that the quality of material required increases in step with the importance of the subject matter. The most obvious examples to me are Dante on the afterlife, Milton on the Fall, David Jones on World War One and Celan on the Holocaust. There are quite a few others.

Those of us who aren’t brilliant then have to try and avoid irrelevance by saying something that might be useful to the reader by presenting a different perspective and providing a consequent moment or two of reflection..

Moving on to plenitude, this catastrophe is producing too many aspects and too much data as it scythes through us. All of the media, quality and otherwise, is feasting on this stuff and putting forth opinions on everything from the plight of those locked in with their abusers to the chemistry of enzymes and proteins. None of these very many concerns are minor issues and they will all be struggled over in the years to come.

In the face of this poetry can become:

a ranting thorn in the side of the powers that be;

a record of the disaster and its effects;

a memorialisation of the dead;

a blueprint for the future;

an interrogation of the nature of science and expertise

a personal response providing one possible way feeling about this stuff.

My problem is that I want to do all of these (except perhaps the blueprint), and they all keep crowding on to my page and all of them seem really important which results in either clever-clever rantery or a major wallow.

As well as complexity, I’m also struggling creatively with adjusting to the disaster as it reveals different aspects of itself. This weekend the British media have discovered that residents of care and nursing homes may be dying in their thousands in addition to those currently recorded. As an ex-manager of the inspection and regulation of such homes I know that these figures are readily and easily available and national collation should have begun in February at the very latest. I’m also disgusted that politicians failed to act upon the bleeding obvious fact that these homes are by far the most vulnerable part of society. I’ve ranted about this on social media this morning but now feel that I need to add this specific negligence into the creative mix.

The other problem that I have is that of sudden isolation. We’re living in a small town that,for all its many faults, has a strong sense of community and collective endeavour, these things have, literally, kept me sane over the last ten years and now going out on our daily walks reveals a blank page.

Both Megan and I want/need to talk to others face to face about the weight and complexity of what’s going on and that is the activity that is most Against The Rules. Incidentally, we now have a society that’s governed by rules rather than laws and nobody seems to have noticed.

I’ve just realised that this may have turned into an extended whinge, the kind of semi-ranting self indulgence that I’m wary of. My only excuse is that at least it’s an honest exploration of the bewilderment and angst that I feel in the gripof Covid 19.

Within Minutes, read by John Armstrong (writer) and Megan Mackney (actor)

Vanessa Place and the Archive

First, a couple of announcements, John Matthias and I have now completed the annotation of all seven sections of the first poem in the Trigons sequence and any feedback would be most gratefully received. Secondly the experiments in reading project has now acquired additional material on all three poems: ‘Night Office’; ‘The Anathemata’ and ‘The Odes to TL61P’. With regard to ‘The Anathemata’, I’m particularly grateful to Tom Goldpaugh for his support and contributions.

I think I’ve said before that. as a make of poems, I’m attracted to archives and in particular archival records of Bad Things that have occurred. I know that I’ve also expressed my admiration for Vanessa Place and the crucial work that she does. So, imagine my delight in coming across ‘Full Audio Transcripts’ on the radio-break site. This is a sound file which consists of the poet reading transcripts from conversations between various government agencies of Sept 11 2001 as the morning progressed. The most frequent conversations are between aircraft controllers and the other agencies. The reading lasts just over 90 minutes and is mesmerising.

I’m a tired old cynic and I know what happened and in what order it happened on that day, I’ve read senate reports and watched a number of documentaries so I didn’t expect this to tell me anything I didn’t know. After a few minutes I became transfixed because of the way in which another picture was being painted, a picture without a single viewpoint of a world that is confused, chaotic and more than a little scared. If there is a narrative it is that all the acronyms and numbers and command structures and all the military might in the world will now save you from a group of men with box cutters and imagination.

There are multiple confusions ranging from whether planes have been hijacked or not, in which direction and at what height a plane is flying, the fate of the crew on one of the planes. Place reads this mounting chaos in virtually expressionless speech with clarity and sustained stamina. The effect is to draw the listener into the heartbreaking conversations and to identify with the various voices as they try to make sense of the unfolding tragedy.

Poetry purists (and not-so purists) have many things to say about this kind of thing, that it doesn’t contain any original work, that is much more about form than substance, that all conceptualists are charlatans who are more interested in producing a single idea rather than a sustained and considered piece of work. I, however don’t have problem with the conceptual per se, my own bias lies in the direction of the confessional as well as P Larkin, but I’m saddened that most of it isn’t very good. This is especially unfortunate because it has the potential to mount a proper challenge to the over-lyricised state of things today.

I’m also not a fan of everything that Place doe, her “One” collaboration is both overly precious and underwhelming but, at her best, the work remains essential. Both ‘Transcripts’ and ‘Tragodia’ challenge the current poetic and depict in some detail, the forces of the state at work and the very many flaws therein.

Of course many would argue that this isn’t poetry and that is part of the ‘point’ because it can’t be anything else, ‘Transcripts’ makes its own demands- it uses one voice to read out the words of many and it must be viewed in the context of contemporary poem-making. This is not to suggest that it’s a foundational Ur-text marking the moment when the established order is overthrown but to demand that attention is paid to what it does and what it says.

In terms of subject matter, I’m reasonably ambiguous on 9/11. It was a magnificent thumb in the eye of imperialism and capital but nobody deserves to die in that way and it was organised by a small group of fundamentalist nutters (technical term) who ever since have received far more attention thn they deserve. It also gave the clapped out forces of imperialism to demonstrate their ineptitude and impotence in a number of sovereign states across the globe.

I’m also very aware that the above is many miles away from the American mainstream and I don’t listen to this reading in the same way that a US citizen would but I can be horrified (still) by the slowly dawning realisation that something very bad is unfolding, from the first calls from the flight crew to the muddled decisions to open fire on hijacked aircraft. This isn’t sensationalist, Place does not read any of the words of the victims as they occur in transcripts (and are all over the web) but she does read out what others say about them. One of the things that struck me whilst reading the second and third parts of Tragodia is the amount of numbers that the state use to keep control of its own data/instruments of power. This aspect is underlined by the constant reference to acronyms and numbers between the various civil servants and military personnel. Oddly, this is not something I took much notice of when I was involved in policy and procedure setting, but looking back (especially in child protection issues) it is how things were done.

A couple of years ago I was heavily involved in a poetic examination of the massacre commonly referred to as Bloody Sunday. Listening to Place reminded me that I still have the transcripts of military chatter on that day and am now about to compare and contrast….

In conclusion, ‘Full Audio Transcripts’ is another brilliantly defiant work by Vanessa Place that demands a response from all those who profess an interest in poetry and the poetic.

Vanessa Place’s Tragodia

Vanessa Place is the scariest poet on the planet. I know this must be true because I’m quoted to that effect on the back of the two paperbacks that I’ve just bought in order to complete my reading of the above trilogy. In addition one K Goldsmith is quoted with: “arguably the most challenging, complex and controversial literature being written today”; Rae Armantrout with Vanessa Place “is writing terminal poetry” and Stephanie Hochet calls Place “etrange et forte” and “n’est pas un femme banale”.

I’ve written in the past about Place and how essential she is for the future of poetry, I’ve also been critical of some of her material that Isn’t Very Good and entered into a debate as to whether or not she has killed poetry (she hasn’t). My admiration started with reading “Statement of Facts” which immediately impressed me as strategically the most important event in poetry for many years. I probably need to explain – I’m of the view that the Poetry Problem stems from the fact that it continues to run on some notion of the poetic that was already clapped out by the end of the 16th century. This has led to the belief that radical breaks/fissures are needed to challenge and undermine this state of affairs- the Tragodia trilogy is the least compromised and most coherent of the current batch of breaks.

The first part of the trilogy is “Statement of Facts” which uses court documents to narrate some of the assaults carried out by Mark Wayne Rathbun aka the ‘Belmont Shore Rapist”. This is followed by an account of Rathbun’s arrest together with what appears to be a detailed precis of the dna evidence presented at trial and the defence experts’ rebuttal of this.

The other two parts both have this preface:

All quotations and accounts in this book were taken directly from the trial transcripts of cases that Vanessa Place handled on appeal. All these transcripts and the appellate briefs filed in each case, are matters of public record. However, the names of the people herein, as well as other direct modes of identification, have been changed to protect their privacy.

Place has said that she has plagiarised herself in making Tragodia. We’ll come to that later – the second part is “Statement of the Case” which has 33 statements setting out the grounds of appeal against a range of convictions. The third is “Argument” which is 33 densely worded attempts to demonstrate why specific convictions should be reversed.

The eighteenth statement and the fifth argument relate to the Belmont Shore case and conviction and I’m going to use those to show why this material is so very important. Before doing this I need to admit to a couple of biases, I’m a fan of documentary poetry and especially that which has some kind of archival base. My own creative endeavours in the recent past have looked at Bloody Sunday and the Shipman Inquiry as sources of material for thinking bout evidence and the need to bear witness, to give voice to experience.

What follows doesn’t make easy or comfortable reading, the details are factually presented but graphic accounts of rape that most will find difficult to read. This is a brief extract:

On April 2, 2000, Francine J. was living alone on Marakita, in Long Beach; by 6:00 or 7:00 p.m., she had showered and gone to sleep, wearing an old short nightgown. As was her habit, Francine J. had locked all doors: she also had sticks behind the doors and windows except for the bathroom window, which she kept partially open for ventilation. Francine J. woke to find a hall light on which she never used, and then someone “pounced” on her. A gloved hand was put over her face, a finger into her mouth; Francine J. bit down hard. The glove felt rough, like a work glove. A man rolled up Francine J.’s nightgown and used it to cover her eyes and ears, tying it in the back, and putting her hands behind her. He told Francine J., “Do as I say and I won’t hurt you.” Francine J. said she would, and asked him please not to hurt her. The man asked Francine J. what her name was, and if she was alone; Francine J. told him her name, and said she had a friend who occasionally came in after midnight to sleep at the house. Francine J. lied about the friend. (RT D-35-D-39, D-49)

The man asked how long it had been since Francine J.’d been sexually active, she said it had been many years. The man put his penis in Francine J.’s vagina, removed his penis, and told Francine J. to put his penis in her mouth. As she did, she noticed the man had a “metal ring” around his penis. At some point, the man took his penis from Francine J.’s mouth and put it back into her vagina; periodically, he had her change positions from her back to her side, removing his penis to do so. Francine J. didn’t remember how many times this happened, though it was more than twice. The man told Francine J. to lie face down; Francine J. became worried he would anally penetrate her, and asked him not to, because she had hemorrhoids. He did not. The man had Francine J. orally copulate him again. Francine J. could not recall if she orally copulated him two or three times. During the encounter, the man left and went to the bathroom more than once. After the second oral copulation, he went to the bathroom, returned, and put his penis in Francine J.’s vagina again. At some point, Francine J. asked the man for a drink of water; he gave her the bottle she kept on her bed stand. Francine J. could not remember if the man touched her breasts. Francine J. was in a lot of pain as the attack happened shortly before she had hip replacement surgery; she told the man about her discomfort, and he put a pillow on the night stand to support her leg. (RT D-39-D-42, D-46-D-49)

After a while, Francine J. told the man she was in a great deal of pain; he asked her for five more minutes, and after five minutes, left, telling her not to move for twenty minutes. She didn’t hear him, and he repeated the instruction. About ten minutes later, Francine J. went into her dining room, found the sliding glass door open, then called the emergency number. (RT D-44-D-45) The police arrived, and took Francine J. to be examined by a forensic nurse specialist. Francine J. had bruises on her body, and one breast was reddened, in addition to “pinpoint” bruises and multiple tears around her labia and outside her genitalia. Swabs were taken from Francine J.’s right shoulder, left breast, right breast and mouth, transported to the police station and then to the crime laboratory; a reference swab was taken at a subsequent date and transported to the crime lab. (RT D-45, 1355-1358, 1411-1412, 1437-1439, 1441, 1444-1445)

During the assault, Francine J.’s nightgown periodically “slipped a little” so she would catch “glimpses” of her assailant’s face. The man’s hair was either dark blonde or light brown, “loose curls” on top and short on the sides, a “neat haircut.” She thought his eyes slanted a little on the outside, and noted he had “quite a bit” of body hair, but not dark or black body hair. Francine J. told police he had a medium build, “not a real big heavy guy”; she testified he seemed “not real tall,” with more of a slender build. The room was lit by a light from outside Francine J.’s bedroom window, the small nightlight in the base of her night stand lamp, at one point, the light from the television after the man asked Francine J. to turn it on. Francine J. said her attacker did not look dark, and described him to police as white. (RT D-43-D-44, D-49-D-53, 1440).

On May 1, 2000, Francine J. called Detective Kriskovic and told her she’d received a telephone call from a man; after the caller hung up, Francine J. recognized his voice as her attacker’s. Francine J. testified she wasn’t “100 percent sure” it was the same man, but it was a voice that was similar. (RT D-57-D-58)

“Statement of Facts” contains many of these accounts and the cumulative effect of reading these is disturbing at quite a deep level. These are then followed by a detailed record of Rathbun’s interrogation:

The interrogation resumed the next morning at 9:45 a.m.; appellant was asked if he remembered his rights, appellant said he did, and agreed to continue. Kriskovic told appellant he would be charged with all the DNA cases and, if convicted, would face a long prison term, possibly life. Appellant said he wished none of it had happened, and that he knew what he was doing was wrong when he was doing it; Kriskovic asked him what he meant by that, appellant said wasn’t it obvious he was making all of the bad decisions and wrong choices. Kriskovic asked if raping women was wrong; appellant said he knew it was wrong. Kriskovic asked if doing these things was contrary to the way his mother had raised him; appellant said yes. Kriskovic asked how appellant prepared himself when he entered his victims’ homes; appellant said sometimes he would enter the home, then undress, and would usually ask the victims to give him ten minutes to dress inside the house and leave. Appellant said he never stole anything from his victims. (RT 1241-1243, 1282, 1289) Kriskovic asked appellant about the attack on Rosalie M.: appellant said a friend named Donnovan Seeks or Sikes dropped him off near the Hilton in Huntington Beach, where he planned to meet other friends. Instead, appellant walked into the nearby trailer park, and broke into Rosalie M.’s trailer through her window; Rosalie M.’s trailer was located near the rear of the park. (RT 1244-1245)

According to Kriskovic, when questioned about the Gloria C. attack, appellant said it was possible he’d taken some of the louvered panes from her kitchen window, but if he did, it was not because offingerprints. When asked about the attack on Francine J., appellant said he had never worn a “cock ring.” When asked if he orally copulated his victims, appellant said he hadn’t; when asked if he’d forced his victims to orally copulate him, appellant said he hadn’t; later, appellant said maybe he had. He then indicated he had worn a cock ring once, and that the ring had been given him by an acquaintance. When asked if he’d ever identified himself to his victims, appellant said he didn’t remember, asked what names the victims recalled, then denied identifying himself as Max or Tito to any of the victims. (RT 1244-1246, 1309-1310).

This is followed by the dna evidence presented by different experts. Each of the experts also has a paragraph outlining his or her credentials in this field. This is from one expert’s work:

According to Fedor’s analysis, appellant’s standard genetic profile at the thirteen tested loci included, at the D3S1358 marker, 16 and 17 alleles, at the VWA marker, a 14, 16, and at D18S51, 14, 14. (RT 1463-1466) As retested, Dorothy C.’s breast swab was a mixture: a mixture can be discerned if there are more than two genetic traits at any one genetic marker.28 The presence of a Y chromosome indicated the other donor was a male; once Dorothy C.’s profile was deemed the minor donor, due to the relative degree of intensity, the remainder created the major donor profile. The chance a man unrelated to appellant could have been the major donor was one in forty-seven sextillion. There are six billion people on earth. (RT 1467-1471, 1569-1570)

Retesting the Barbara B. sample, Fedor determined the DNA profile from the sperm cells taken from the right buttocks swab matched appellant’s; the chance of a coincidental match was one in eight hundred forty-four septillion. Barbara B.’s right and left breast swabs also included appellant’s profile, with the same one in eight hundred forty-four septillion chance of a coincidental match. Appellant’s random match probability on Barbara B.’s external genital swab was one in seven trillion. Fedor assumed two contributors to the mix. (RT 1471-1475, 1491, 1503, 1605-1607-1608) The Marion J. breast swab was a mixture; appellant’s random match probability was one in nine septillion. The Marion J. external genital sample did not test positive for male DNA, and there was foreign female DNA in the sample: at the
VWA marker, Marion J. was a 14, 18, and the mixture shows a 14, 18 and a 16, 23. At D21S11, Marion J. was 29, 32.2; there was also 31.2 and 30. Sometimes, with some ethnicities, the Y chromosome does not amplify properly. (RT 1475-1477, 1597-1601) Appellant’s random match probability for a portion of the prepared DNA from the fecal material taken from Carol R.’s window was one in eight hundred forty five septillion, and his match for another portion one in eight hundred forty-four septillion. (RT 1477-1479, 1491-1492, 1502-1503, 1514-1515) The Esther R. nipple swab was a mixture, Esther R.’s DNA was subtracted, and the remaining profile matched to appellant with a one in nine septillion probability ratio. At VWA on Esther R.’s external genital swab, there was a 23 marker which belonged to neither appellant (14, 16) nor Esther R. (14, 15): the sample does not contain sperm, and the male components appear in the mixture to a lesser degree than the female: Fedor could not determine whether the male donor left the 23 allele, or how many people contributed to the mixture. Fedor still matched appellant to the external genital swab sample at a probability of one in nine septillion. (RT 1479-1482) In both the Marion J. and Esther R. genital swabs, there were
unaccounted-for 16, 23 alleles at VWA. (RT 1601-1603)

I first read ‘Statement of Facts’ a couple of years ago and immediately understood that it is radically different from the usual conceptual material because of its absolute refusal to compromise with accepted notions of the poetic but also because of the ‘breadth’ of the content. There isn’t any compromise because the material itself isn’t in any way fiddled about with, dressed up nor adjusted in the name of literature / poetry. It isn’t difficult to understand the language until we get some bits of the dn testing, the details of the assaults are absolutely explicit and relentless – in the same way that Bolano’s 2066 catalogues the torture and murder of women in northern Mexico – in recognition that the rejection of ‘style’ is the only way to deal adequately with some events.

It’s easy to get carried away by the impact of the assaults in all their terrible detail but what might be more relevant is the progressive presentation of evidence and what various parties might wish to do with it. We start with the victims’ accounts and the evidence collected/gathered at the time and then move on to what the defendant is alleged to have said during the police interrogation and then on to multiple aspects of the allele problem and what dna might have to say about the ‘truth’.

In the case of the Belmont Shore Rapist the nature of confession as witness is the focal point of both the statement setting out the grounds of appeal and the argument against conviction. The appellant’s counsel argue that the courts refusal to admit expert testimony with regard to false confessions denied Rathbun a fair trial. This is the second paragraph of the grounds:

Pretrial, the court denied two defense requests to appoint an expert for purposes of presenting expert testimony on the phenomenon of false confessions, finding the evidence was inadmissible under People v Kelly (1976) 17 Cal.3d 24, inadmissible as expert testimony, irrelevant as to the facts of appellant’s case, and inadmissible pursuant to Evidence Code section 352.(CT 375-410, 412, 483-553; RT C-1, 385-395, 402-503, 834-835; Ex Parte Motion RT 1-7) The court denied defense request for discovery of DNA evidence relating to uncharged incidents, finding such incidents inherently irrelevant. (CT 648-683; RT C-9-C-12, 69-75). The court granted the State’s motion to exclude evidence of third party culpability. (CT 341-345, 714-738; RT699-708) Pursuant to People v Smith (2003) 107 Cal.App.4th 646, the court ruled evidence of mixed source sample testing would be admitted, admissible under the third prong of People v Kelly, supra 17 Cal.3d24, and under a separate admissibility challenge based on
People v Pizarro
2003 110 Cal.App.4th 530 (CT 739-788, 804=808; RT37-43, 47-58, 61-69, 76-142, 151-196, 200-260, 268-301, 334-338)

There are a further three paragraphs highlighting different aspects of the case, these are followed by a list of the 64 charges that Rathbun was convicted of and the sentence that he received for each. He was sentenced to a total of 1040 years, plus 10 life terms. The act of testifying in criminal cases is done in front of and facillitated by the state and this process is surrounded by all kinds of documented paraphernalia which are used and referred to so as to underpin what we think of as the ‘rule of law’. One of the many (many) issues raised in my mind by ‘Tragodia’ is the over-abundance of references and the names given to these references as if to add further credibility to the criminal justice system and that this may be an example of what Prynne means when he talks about how complicit language is in oppression.

Before we go any further, I’d like to make it clear that I’m of the view that Rathbun was guilty of these crimes and that it would have been an absolute travesty if he had been released on appeal. This is despite the fact that the behaviour of the police appears to have been extremely inept, Rathbun was subjected to six hours of questioning but only the sixth was taped. There is a marked difference between the full and frank confession described in the officers’ notes of the first five hours and the monosyllabic answers that Rathbun gave on the tape. He was told that he could speak to his mother (he was concerned that the media would contact her before he could tell her what was going on) only after the interrogation had been completed. I also think that the appeal is clutching at straws with regard to expert evidence on false confessions, not because the phenomenon is unlikely but because there is only one documented ‘version’ of the first five hours. Place presents the argument for appeal in its entirety – this is a brief extract of the part dealing with false confessions:

In People v Page, supra, 2 Cal.App.4th 184, expert testimony had been allowed on general factors which might influence somebody to falsely confess, examples of those factors, and evidence of relevant psychological experiments in the field; the trial court excluded opinion evidence on reliability of defendant’s confession, though counsel was able to argue application of the expert testimony to that confession. The First District found no constitutional violation in the exclusion because this “marginally curtailed” testimony did not deprive defendant of the ability to present evidence on the circumstances of his interrogation, ‘merely affected the way the defense could link the theories presented by the expert to the evidence introduced at trial. It did not prevent it from making that connection” (Id., at p.187.) There was no abuse of discretion under 801 because there had been no “wholesale” exclusion, citing People v McDonald (1984) Cal.3d 351, 370-371, the Page court reiterated that expert testimony is permitted where the testimony does not seek to “take over the jury’s task of judging credibility….does not tell the jury that any particular witness is or is not truthful……, “but rather informs the jury of factors that might affect the issue of credibility” “in a typical case and to the extent that it my refer to the particular circumstances” of the present case, may be limited to explaining “the potential effects of those circumstances….” People v Page, supra, 2Cal app 4th at p.188, original emphasis.)

So, why is this so important? Firstly it shows how startling work can be made without the usual poetic window dressing, secondly it demonstrates that there re other ways to say Really Big Things and that truly ‘open’ texts like this have just as much power to move and evoke as what is considered to be great poetry.

I think I need to make it clear that the primary importance of ‘Tragodia’ relates to strategy, given that there is a kind of tiredness in the overpoeticised material that is what most people consider to be contemporary poetry – this represents the kind of ‘jolt’ that may cause the ruptures of change that are needed.