LETTERRS

I start in the middle of a sentence and move both directions at once.
―John Coltrane

Language is the only homeland.
―Czesław Miłosz

In this brilliant second book, LETTERRS, Diné poet Orlando White takes space, sound, and silence into the very page. He investigates a vocabulary of linguistics and orality, creating a tension between the two.

Take the first poem, “Nascent” where the word ‘plash’ appears. “It’s a plash on/parchment sheet.” So we have the plash sound and then the “parchment” sound. Plash means ‘a light splash or the splashing sound.’ A water sound, cut short by the parchment, that is, the sound is cut into silence when it is put on parchment. Or, is it?

This is a book about what poetry can do. In some ways, it is an ars poetica, a poem about poetry. Yet, it is that and more. As John Coltrane tried to do, White seems to move the sentence in both directions at once. And, if language is homeland as Milosz feels, what is landscape? Orlando grew up in Sweetwater, Arizona. Vast tracks of land, and quiet. Wide and deep quiet. His mother was a weaver, and so he heard the weave and woof of the shuttle day in and day out. In fact, the length of wool would become a line of length for his poetry.

And of course, his own language. Diné Bizaad.

One cannot force Native poetry into generic classifications. It spills over into the margins, making the luminal central, asserts Dean Rader in his book, Engaged Resistance. Rader believes almost every Native poet practices some sort of compositional resistance, either through line breaks, capitalization, closure, and fragmentation. Orlando has engaged what poet Charles Olsen termed Projective Verse – Poems as energy on the page, a field of energy. The breath being the guide, written as music, in breath phrases, that rather than relying on received forms, even imagery, metaphor, and the ego.

Rather than an inanimate, White’s idea is to make the word animate. From his first language, Diné Bizaad, “things are animate”—for example, the word for computer is “metal is thinking” and this book among the many, many things it is, is an overlapping of language, multi-vocal Diné Bizaad, English, and Latin, and multi -ways of thinking.

Interview:

Veronica Golos: It seems to me that with LETTERRS, you are doing two things at once: paring English down to its symbols, sounds and shapes, and, at the same time opening and doubling meaning through a vocabulary of linguistics.

Orlando White: For me, part of the book is about the peculiarity of a word, what it looks like on a page, and what it sounds like. For example, aposiopesis. On the page, it looks funny; when we first see it, we think, how do I pronounce this? Pronunciation here, and in many cases, is also apo-sentient, pronounced in two different ways. Or like anaphoric. It looks strange, so we sound it out.

VG: It also seems to me that you “force,” or encourage the reader to go on a similar experience or journey you have done as they read these poems, because the poems generate an underlying experience the writer has had with language.

OW: In my first book, Bone Light, I never used the dictionary and used a limited amount of words. In LETTERRS, I used the dictionary and thesaurus extensively, searching for words that created some sort of experience through its meanings, in which you would go on some etymological journey. But, at the same time along the way I discovered how a word was pronounced,  because sound is much more intriguing.

VG: Your work took me to the dictionary and thesaurus and google, and there were words within words! Perspicacity, analphabetic, ogonek, soma, ictus, skirr, glisters, circumflex, excursus or ogive, which means: “a diagonal rib in a gothic vault; an arch that rises to a sharp point, and a graph that represents the cumulative frequencies of a set of values.” How many meanings can one cull from one word? Oh, and stipple! I loved that word. I would like to talk about the poem that opens LETTERRS; the “Nascent” poem, which riveted me. It feels to be both an emersion—a feeling of words rising out of the page, as if they are our original words plucked out of chaos—and, at the same time, an immersion, words that dunk us into primal sound and sensibility.

OW: First there is sound, the origin-sound and in LETTERRS it begins with “Nascent.” And at the beginning of  Bone Light as well, “underneath sound there is thought”: it’s the white spaces of the page that allow print, text  to animate, exist, as first sounds. I think that when one is speaking—literally you can’t see the words visually, so in order to see it, we have to print it on a surface. I think there’s a moment in which sound is the origin…sound is the first word.

VG: In “Nascent,” you write: “…procreation to circumflex: Díí, these // pitches of stress these flares over letters//hover, keep in place the strained origin in speech…” Could you speak about the use of Diné Bizaad?

OW: Enunciation, pronunciation are important, especially in  Diné Bizaad. Visually on the page, what represents sound in our language are the diacritical marks. So, on the page, the visual sound, and the origin of language on the page is those marks.  Accordingly, in LETTERRS I try to enact that experience of a Diné word which Díí is an example. My thinking behind it is the mark on the page really defines, creates an experience too—that there’s also a specific language connected to a specific people.

VG: Let’s switch. Here is a question you must be asked again and again: In the messy world of “poetics” with whom do you identify, at least in what you’re offering on the page? Which “field” do you see yourself aligned to in poetics?

OW: I think if there’s a poetics now, its the poetics of one-word poems. I think of Aram Saroyan’s and bpnicholas’ concrete poems, especially their one-word poems. What does it mean to experience a word visually, where a noun becomes or is a verb, concretely? In general, I feel that at the moment that’s where I am in poetics. Also, thinking of how not to be routine in poetry…as poets we re-member lines, stanzas, imagery, sound, but for me I want to experience a word in the moment, now, and how a single word can create its own literary merit, status, experience outside of sentence, outside of traditional poetics, etc. But I tried to use and recreate some words like “ipseity,” “communicatio,” or “unwrit” in the poem BLOCK CIPHER to enable some sort of experience by either using an unconventional word or by misspelling or adding to a word:

Under diagram———— of a letter-less paragraph,

block white.—– Silent quadrates,—– grid———— imperceptible

where the arrangement———— cross-puzzles itself.

Blank words—– equidistant—– by page—– flectional—– by print.

Structure of paper—– exists to limit—– communicatio

of sound—– of silence;—– how word-types—– appear,

how fonts—– distinguish———— an ipseity of language.

The pages’—– margins shape set-text———— a voice unwrit;

contains unseen—– accent,———— pressure wave code.

Where breath—– within paper—– functions——– a sensation thought,

actions—– charge——– form.———— Without

a point—– an i —–will forget—– its direction,—– or a j

with its curve—– will not show——– its breadth———— of line.

OW (Cont.): Also, I think there is “compositional resistance” that allows the spaces between words to loosen up the authority of  line break, of syntax. For me, the page in itself is a type of energy, an energy into which we enter. It balances the language. For me as an Indigenous person too, I see it as a type of resistance against English colonialism as well; that the spaces in-between are used to  resist and release  traditional rhythms and syntax. To see white space as a place of liberation, dissolving those boundaries between what is authoritative and what is not. And there are moments of silence as in the way speak in Diné too, the use of apostrophes that enact brief pauses within the language, and I transpose all these  with how I use the white space on the page.

“Compositional resistance” is using the white space, so when I read aloud I invoke  silence and pause. Some people have a hard time with my live readings. So “how does your poem look on the page?” is a question I’m frequently asked. My answer is: what would happen if we read the way a poem is written on the page? To add the white spaces of the poem within a reading? To do things like, at a line beak, read the white space after it longer than usual! To break out of the standard use of language and page! Use the silence between letters, words, language to heighten the poetic experience! Because in some way when I read with pauses I feel like  I’m resisting the authoritative poetics, and liberating myself as a poetry-writer!

VG: in some ways I am reminded of petroglyphs. I live in Taos, New Mexico, and there are many handprints, drawings of animals, sun signs, and birds on rocks located on common hiking trails. Do you feel any connection between these ancient symbols of communication, a kind of “I am here” with your own travel in terms of this book, the arc of which begins with “Nascent?”

OW: The letters of a language constitute a signal, a single human mark. Inscribe: yes, think of the hand print petroglyph, think of letter and symbol as a pictograph. Or think of language torn down to its root, which is a pictograph, an image. And if there is no root, it’s letter, it’s sound.

 VG: Thank you for this.

 

note:

‘All of Nichol’s work is stamped by his desire to create texts that are engaging in themselves as well as in context, and to use indirect structural and textual devices to carry meaning. In The Martyrology different ways of speaking testify to a journey through different ways of being. Language is both the poet’s instructor and, through its various permutations, the dominant ‘image’ of the poem. The [nine] books of The Martyrology document a poet’s quest for insight into himself and his writing through scrupulous attention to the messages hidden in the morphology of his own speech.’ – Frank Davey

It was growing late, and a waiting friend (Saroyan can’t remember his name) was getting antsy. He wanted to leave Saroyan’s little apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side and head downtown to Le Metro Café where Lou Reed and The Fugs and Andy Warhol liked to hang out when they were still freaks, not superstars. But Saroyan held him off. Dead center on the sheet of paper curled in his Royal manual typewriter, he clacked out this single misspelled word:

 

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