Resisting the Spectacle: Gregory Kan
In the How to Read My Poem series, inspired by Verb Festival, our favourite poets take us under the hood of one of their poems. Gregory Kan writes about what drove his book-length poem, Under Glass.
When I first started work on Under Glass, I was curious about letters and letter writing. In addition to the particular tone and diction of letters, I was interested in the address or invocation, “you”, and the relationship between the addresser and the addressee. Various kinds of contingencies and distances are at play in this relationship. There is a kind of fragility to correspondence. Lost or misplaced or wrongly addressed mail. Dead authors, dead readers. Letters that have been partially destroyed or fragmented. The incompleteness of burning. Who is the “you”, and who is the “I” who speaks? Not to mention the when and the where...
I then thought about what it meant to witness or experience something and, further, what it meant to share that with another person. I looked very closely at all the hinges and leaps in language and communication.
I wanted to resist the pressure to deliver the juicy spectacle ... I believe that trauma should not be commodified.
This brought me to trauma, and how trauma is written about and represented. I thought about excess, and what is too much for language, or is beyond language. I thought about responsibility, and what is responsible when one writes about trauma. I wanted to resist the pressure to deliver the juicy spectacle. I believe that trauma should not be reduced to spectacle. I believe that trauma should not be commodified. Trauma, to me, is not just the original site or event of violence, but also its unfolding, its downstream effects and traces. The tree that’s growing in the corner of the room. This became an important constraint on the work as a whole. While, of course, I believe there are many contexts in which direct descriptions of trauma are important, I reject its aestheticisation for self-glorification and cynical marketing.
There is an increasing drive and demand for the narratives of women, Queer and Trans people, people of colour, immigrants, refugees, etc., etc. On the one hand, there is real emancipatory force and potential that issues from the telling of these stories, for those historically marginalised and erased to become increasingly visible through their narratives. On the other hand, there is also the potential for tokenisation, reduction and exploitation via the very same industrial and colonial apparatuses these stories are speaking out against. This is a double bind that every ‘minority’ writer must navigate. I’ve struggled with this question since my first book, This Paper Boat, where I wanted to problematise the trope/expectation of ‘the good immigrant’, ‘the immigrant story’ and what it meant to write autobiography in general.
With this constraint in mind, the vagueness in the language of ordinary conversation came into play for me. Hannah Newport-Watson points out, in her review of the book, the number of times I used the word ‘thing’. I was fascinated by the frequency of ‘empty containers’ and gaps and absences in our day-to-day speech, especially when someone is attempting to say something that they feel to be ‘unspeakable’. I am well aware of the risks I took, for in poetry-workshop culture it’s a convention to eliminate vagueness or generalities or abstractions in favour of the particular. I suspended this convention for myself in Under Glass. The challenge then became, how relatable can abstraction be, and can it be abstract and personal at the same time?
I don’t think alienness always needs to be framed negatively. It is also a condition of the most beautiful things in the world, such as empathy, love and wonder.
An extension of my inquiry into ‘empty containers’ in ordinary language, I looked into the mechanisms of the symbol and allegory. The linear narrative in Under Glass references symbols familiar in literature: the sea, the sun, the lighthouse, etc., and some reviewers have pointed to its allegorical quality. To me, symbols are ripe for hijacking, overriding and overloading. So in addition to the gaps and empty containers I was already using, I looked to repurpose, recode and remystify traditional symbols of literature. My goal was to achieve the construction of a world that was simultaneously familiar and alien. As an immigrant to New Zealand and a person of colour, I experienced (and still experience) the alienness of a world, and the feeling of being alien and alienated myself. I wanted the text to embody and perform that.
I think everyone experiences alienness, i.e. encountering something in the world that one finds alien. To me, alienness is the experience and feeling of one’s internal models of reality being exceeded and/or disrupted. And I don’t think alienness always needs to be framed negatively. It is also a condition of the most beautiful things in the world, such as empathy, love and wonder. All these experiences that begin in the encounter of the unknown. Impossible gaps and impossible bridges. The beauty and terror and noise of being in a jungle.
But not everyone experiences being alienated. Those who are particularly privileged stand at the centre of their respective worlds, and may not often experience what it’s like to be on the other side of those borders. I wanted the text to be able to invoke, at times, the sensation of being outside, even in the places that we find most comfortable and familiar.
In saying all this, I don’t want to confuse the process of writing the book with the process of someone reading it. Whether my considerations, concepts and constraints succeed, or are meaningful or significant to someone reading the book, is not for me to determine. I like to see my writing as a form of scaffolding, not as a total, enclosed product in and of itself. In all these holes and empty containers and deconstructed symbols and worlds, I hope the reader finds space to construct meaning and narrative alongside or on top of the text. It is impossible for writers to determine how much structure, how many handholds, will be sufficient for readers, or how much might be too much. Every reader is different. I think this is certainly a divisive quality of the book, but one that, ultimately, it lives and dies by. I don’t believe that a poem should be treated like a puzzle with a single correct answer, let alone one that the author has intended.
Under Glass is published by Auckland University Press