March 19, 2015 in Celebration of Canadian Poetry

Week 12 – Teaching Being Writing How? by Natalee Caple

D’bi Young stalks towards my students and declares her love for them and they melt, they are listening so well they are not listeners anymore – not separate from the poem. They watch as she moves through the sounds, changes her body, becomes someone at once in front of them and elsewhere. She sings to the ceiling and the ceiling sings to the hall. The erotic pom poms of adolescent lovemaking bounce around the conference chamber, row on row of seated thinkers thinking, pom poms! with delight.

Lillian Allen, smiling, nodding, proud of d’bi, with her, in the present. They have a community, I can see it. There is ego, there is aggression, there is intellectual maneuvering, gurudom even (what is a biomythicist?), but these are women writing on the present.

How did we forget that the walls were built around the words but the words were there in the bodies first? How do we get the classroom back into the city? How do I start teaching towards the present? It feels so often like I am making my students catch up to the present, wade through all the past, and at the end of term when they are worn out, I say, what is now? How do I stop doing that or else how do I draw connections between the past and present the encamped arts so well that they can travel on without me, move around, back and forth, until they feel like they belong? How do I go with them? Write while I teach? How do I mark without marking them?

What do I tell them when they say they want to be famous? Or even that they want to live from their writing? What recipes for writing are there beyond the ones for immortality? What no one tells you about investing in your own immortality through writing is that when it comes about you will be dead dead dead. It is a kind of death wish to write for the future and not for the present. And the truth is that future readers will be more interested in their own culture, their own present, except for the specialist traditionalists (those snobs), and your voice at best will seem charming, yearning, quaint to readers who have their own present, who are invested in their own lives and communities, who are listening to music that would not sound like music to you. At least I hope that future writers will be invested in their own communities. I hope that they will be producing new works and thinking about contemporary politics and the kind of world they want through poetry. I hope that future poets will have forgotten or never known the old wars and will happily pillage every camp. When all the spells are broken I hope the pantry will seem full. One day you will be a writer and it will just happen and it will mean more and less than you can imagine. Should I tell them that?

Writing as being, writing as thinking through ways of being, writing as play, as outrage, as catharsis, as participation, as recognition, as community, as bodies before the text. I’m struggling again with wanting to write and worrying about belonging how can I help anyone else? What does it even mean to be a feminist writer now? When I reach for examples of genres created by, peopled by, propelled by female bodies I come again to Dub, but I cannot be a Dub poet.

What I love about Dub is the urgency of the present embodied in texts that cannot wait for printing. Can I teach them that? Not that Dub or any poetry does not love books; we all love books. They must love books. Maybe they don’t have to love books. But Dub does not wait, not even for love. Dub asserts a politics of presence in the present. How can I teach that?

I am a feminist writer; I just am. I don’t think I get to choose not to be one anymore. But feminist writing struggles to capture the present within the academy. Feminist writing has found a stronghold in the academy. I think that’s good. But is it also a problem? Can we see the outside from the inside? Can we graffiti walls if they belong to us? I want to draw all over the inside and the outside of everything. But that’s not graffiti. I must not cover up the graffiti.

Graffiti artists prove the existence of denial, of outsider-ness, and that outside walls are also part of the city, are also canvasses that witness — that tunnels and bridges are more than ideas. Can feminism survive consecration in the academy? Can I still write for books and think around the book, through the book, be in the classroom, but keep the classroom in the present, can I remember the city going on and the internet and the hospitals, can I go with them, my students, help them take apart machined public speech and speak again? Can I take the risk of telling them not to trust me, that they must never believe me completely and still help them? I want to insist on gatherings, but I don’t want to go out, but I do! Gatherings gather momentum. I believe in hot breath and laughter. I want to go with them. I want to build homes in every new technology, collaborate and build more gathering places. Witness and listen and write and write and write.


Natalee Caple‘s most recent novel, In Calamity’s Wake, was published to international acclaim in 2013. Her poetry collection A More Tender Ocean was shortlisted for the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award. Her book of short stories, The Heart is its own Reason, was called “moving…arresting” by The New York Times. Her novel Mackerel Sky was called “breathlessly good” by the Washington Post. Natalee’s work has been optioned for film, nominated for a National Magazine Award, the Journey Prize, the Bronwen Wallace Award and the Eden Mills Fiction Award.

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