03 June 2019
Today at the University of British Columbia, as part of the 2019 Congress of the Social Sciences and Humanities being hosted there, the International Institute for Critical Studies in Improvisation will present a showcase of practice-based research on and around improvisation. I'm attaching the flier/schedule. Come check it out!
30 May 2019
I have been reading about the death-toll on Mount Everest, and seen the photograph (in The Guardian, here and here) of the current human traffic jam at the summit, trying to push upward, sometimes stepping over the bodies of other dead climbers. This piece, this poem, emerged for me as a commentary on the news, and of thinking about the inhuman and about certain forms of eco-tourism and terrible sublimity emerging in the accelerated epoch now named the Anthropocene. A hybrid sonnet came out, in fives and sixes. I want to put it up on this blog because of the immediacy and the temporality of its subject matter. It was composed and edited over about three days.
Tourist Climbers, Mount Everest, Nepal Side, Late May 2019
(See the Photograph by Nirmal Purja)
Triumphantly inadequate: out of ten-plus
amateurs, permits intact, who’d expire
in a crammed mass ascent through the kill zone this week,
most, chuffed with so much third-hand hubris, got
sucker-punched by the hypoxic sublime. Sure, sure,
a blue-balling few summited, but only
to crumple along the first leg of the slog down.
(People stepped over them, stiffened. A line
of down-filled anoraks snaked its impacted track
up the crown ridge, strewn with used O2 tanks,
marking a slow-witted hokey-pokey topward.
You choose to bend and help, you don’t make it.)
No cliff jockey returns from this fierce place unscarred,
having clomped past the air’s inhuman edge.
15 April 2019
A few of the students in my first-year undergraduate course at UBC requested what amount to executive summaries of the six principal texts on the course syllabus (which can be found here: http://faculty.arts.ubc.ca/kmcneill/111_2019.htm). Lecture audio (also posted on my SoundCloud page, Kind of Kevin) on each text can be accessed through the syllabus. The course is an introduction to the study of prose non-fiction that I teach under the title “Displaced Persons.”
English 111, Section 005—Displaced Persons: Approaches to Prose Non-Fiction
Summaries and Overviews, by Prof. Kevin McNeilly
As requested, I have drawn up a set of paragraph-long takes on key themes and talking points in the six main texts on our course syllabus. These paragraphs only suggest possible critical and interpretative trajectories through this material; use them, if you wish, as starting points for your own readings of these texts.
David Chariandy’s I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You(2018) tries, as the title suggests, to find the means both to disclose and to discuss unacknowledged or suppressed antagonisms around his experience of racism in Canada. It’s important to recognize that this extended letter addressed to his daughter – the book is an extended essay in epistolary form – builds on the concept of the essay (or essai, in Michel de Montaigne’s sixteenth-century French) as an attempt, as an open-ended experiment in how to put his complex and fraught encounters with racial interpellation (being “hailed” or identified) into words, how to frame his thinking around race and to communicate those experiences to (and with) his family. He develops a pluralistic concept of heritage, community and ethnicity based on a respect for difference and diversity and a resistance to seeing the human “mix” in terms of sameness; he admires what he calls the “luminous specificity” of human experience. By the close of the book, he argues for an open-minded and attentive practice of “listening.”
Lawrence Hill’s op-ed in the June 1, 2018 issue of The Globe and Mail, “Act of Love: The Life and Death of Donna Mae Hill,” makes an argument for a compassionate approach to physician-assisted death or assisted suicide by narrating the final days of his mother’s life, as he accompanies her to a clinic in Switzerland. The extended essay braids together three time-lines—anecdotes from his mother’s life, a narrative of her last days and assisted suicide, and a brief account of the present time of writing the essay at his desk—to reflect on what we called intersubjectivity, the ways in which lives and voices are enmeshed in each other. His prose describes and enacts diegetic practices—ways of telling—that, as speech-acts and “acts of love,” create necessary human connection.
As an extended series of interlaced, page-long fragments, Diamond Grill forms what Fred Wah calls a “biotext,” an assemblage of life-stories that weave in and out of each other. Wah is particularly concerned with questions of racial identity and mixing: one of the most significant dishes served at the family restaurant run by his father (who also shares his name) is “mixed grill,” a jumble of European and Chinese foods. The swinging door in the Diamond Grill between the public space and the kitchen is also a crucial figure for Wah of the hyphen, as in the ligature between “Chinese” and “Canadian” in Chinese-Canadian. Wah works to find the means to inhabit that in-between “contact zone,” where he engages with what he calls “the dissonance of encounter, the resonance of clashing tongues.” Through the recombinant, DNA-like form (according to him) that his writing takes, Wah seeks to negotiate with difference and to reconcile himself to that on-going, hyphenated clash.
Each of the chapters of Marjane Satrapi’s graphic memoir, Persepolis, translates crucial moments in her personal history—as a teenage girl in Tehran, growing up through the Iranian revolution—for a contemporary French audience. Her episodic depiction of her adolescence, mapping a trajectory of personal transition and developing self-awareness, wants also to offer a corrective to misperceptions about both “life in Iran” and Iranian national history, as an “old and great civilization”; the text is a memoir, for her, not merely as a narrative of memories of her youth but also, significantly, as a memorial to her fellow Iranians
who lost their lives in prisons defending freedom, who died in the war against Iraq, who suffered under various repressive regimes, or who were forced to leave their families and flee their homeland . . . . (“Introduction,” [vi]).
Her drawings both represent and enact a visual engagement with the strictures of authoritarian control, as Marji tests the boundaries, and bears witness to the limits, of who she is allowed to be, and to become. When in the opening chapter of the text, Marji declares at school that she wants to be a prophet when she “grow[s] up,” a declaration that her teacher regards with cynical horror but that her “puzzled” parents affirm is a child’s imaginative prerogative, she also activates a tension around visuality—between the visual and the visionary, between the witness and the seer, between looking and insight—that informs the set of antitheses and contradictions, especially between the traditional and the modern, that inform her fraught sense of belonging, of being a young Persian woman.
In Citizen: An American Lyric, Claudia Rankine confronts the pervasive micro-aggressions that she faces in her everyday life as a Black American woman. Her text is a multi-modal assemblage, an instance of intermedia, combining printed text (designed in stark black and white by her collaborator, John Lucas) with photographs of visual media by other artists, scripts for internet videos (also realized in collaboration with John Lucas), audio, sports television excerpts (especially around Serena Williams), and more. Rankine addresses the ways in which black bodies are presented, interpreted and contained against “a sharp white background” (a line she takes from Zora Neale Hurston, via artwork by Glenn Ligon). She composes a number of elegies for young Black men (“my brothers . . .”), and creates fading typographical monuments that both acknowledge and enact their disappearance from public view. She is interested in the ways in which works of art, through shifting focus and points-of-view, can become politically charged and provocative.
In Findings(2005), Kathleen Jamie’s essays revolve around four main themes or trajectories: the archeological (involving visits to Paleolithic digs), the ecological (involving encounters with the non-human), the bio-medical (involving visits to hospitals, museums and medical institutions), and the ornithological (involving encounters with birds). She positions herself as a tourist, a visiting outsider, something of a stranger in her own familiar Scottish context. Her writing engages with issues around what we now call the Anthropocene, the epoch of human impact on the climate and on the planet itself. She focuses in on different, conflicted senses of time: the present, human history, natural history, deep time. Each essay is typically framed by encounters with edges, margins, shorelines and contact zones. She concerns herself with her “findings” in each of these moments of discovery and encounter not to advocate for the power of human, anthropocentric knowledge-gathering, but rather to test and acknowledge the limits of human dominion and understanding; these are essays that lean in to unknowing, and think lyrically through the ethics and implications of human technology, of the craft of human expression.
31 March 2019
This video was made as an addendum to my four lectures on David Chariandy's I've Been Meaning to Tell You (2018), for my first-year undergraduate course at UBC on approaches to non-fiction, "Displaced Persons." I discuss key themes in the book, and offer an array of descriptive registers of race, particular around the figuration of blackness. The course website is here: http://faculty.arts.ubc.ca/kmcneill/111_2019.htm
12 March 2019
Here are the sleeve notes I was invited to write for Other Worlds, a duet recording by pianist Peter Urpeth and vocalist Maggie Nicols, issued on compact disc in 2017 on the FMR label, although from the look of the website it appears to be out of print—copies are still available from Squidco and other distributors, I think. The music deserves wider circulation, and it was an honour to write this brief piece.
These duo improvisations were originally made for the development of the soundtrack for Seán Martin and Louise Milne’s 2011 documentary, A Boat Retold. A few short sequences made the final cut. Fortunately, we can hear on this album something close to its initial and fully realized form: a pair of aqueous, intimate and mesmerizing extemporaneous suites. Maggie Nicols, I’m told, came to the title—or the title came to her—after re-listening to the recordings. The music she and Peter Urpeth share combines the exploratory and the attentive, shifting between moments of assertion and accommodation, of provocation and conversation, of sounding out and listening in. The phrase Other Worlds suggests not only a combination of allure and unknowing, of the worldly and the strange, but also a search by the duo for its own nascent, unfolding narrative, sound-tracking their mutual reach toward each other’s sound-worlds and outward, together: an opening up to the textures and audible flows of the living worlds around them. There are moments, at the beginning of the second piece, when the vocalist veers on her own into what seems like a kind of ur-Gaelic patter, syllables contingently and playfully feeling their way into what might be meaning, but never quite arriving, never quite coming to ground.
At least that’s what I hear, since I don’t speak Gaelic. She offers us something just the other side of words, distilling a ludic alterity that’s sonically palpable in the edgy grain and in the throat-singing overtones that come and go along her sometimes fierce, sometimes yielding melodic fractals. The piano functions as resonant accompaniment, drawing out and layering harmonics, supporting and deepening their exchange. But as each improvisation unfolds Urpeth quickly becomes co-creative collaborator; piano and voice variously merge and diverge, unknitting temporary concord into contrapuntal banter, then stitching threads and coaxing excursuses into newly discovered intersections and emergent, evanescent alignments. What I pick up on, as I listen, is the pianist’s decisive, responsive and protean touch, the haptic give-and-take of a genuine reciprocity—the point being, I think, to attend on their itinerant and vitally otherwise communion, a collision of quickened but separate attentions, and to follow where they go.
The sound of this particular recording is capacious, yet close. I overhear their shared and mutually shaped space, as notes seem to bounce and scatter along the walls of The Vortex on an empty afternoon. I find myself proximately immersed in their interchange, amid stream, virtually part of it. The music of Peter Urpeth and Maggie Nicols remains warmly open and consistently welcoming: an invitation. The poignant release that the closing minutes of the second piece enacts, as they let go of each other and as their lines come apart and dissolve into ambient sound—the voices of children playing outside the club, an outer world that has been present throughout the recording—offers a deeply moving enactment of what their music accomplishes, here: a lyricism of possibility, an open-hearted grace.
05 March 2019
I'm a good few weeks late with this, which was written soon after Joseph Jarman's passing in early January. I haven't been keeping up with the blogging for at least a year now; things should change soon. In any case, this is for Joseph Jarman out of deep respect for what I believe his music and his poetry have taught me. And how his work has taught me more about how to listen.
Song for Song For
(Joseph Jarman, 1937-2019)
whoever heard about a better way to dance, then did;
whoever sensed life soon enough gets over with itself;
whoever got called to call out hardline America;
whoever learned to ghost-finger an alto’s sacred glyph,
a baritone’s raw mark-up language, a tenor’s thick throat;
whoever showed righteous moxy in situations when
righteous moxy was not exactly needed; whoever
testified to the unkempt scurf of little instruments;
whoever understood the fraught, feral imperatives
of compassion; whomever good gumption never let go;
whoever decided on fiercely striated face paint
most gigs, most nights; whoever chased “uncharted microtones”;
whoever caught nothing shy of the heft of complete light;
whoever said, “I seek new sounds / because new sounds / seek
09 November 2018
Here is my version of an Instagram poem. Or one of them. My take on Rupi Kaur, maybe. I wrote the text and took the photo yesterday in the Nitobe Memorial Garden on a lunchtime walk with my wife Christina, to whom the poem is dedicated. It was pretty quick. There was a little tweaking and polishing and editing today, but not much, as I combined them into something meme-like. And also not.