Here come the minor poets!

13 NOVEMBER 2016 by Frank Keizer

Who are the minor poets? Being minor has nothing to do with stature, or grandeur, or lack thereof, in any conventional sense. Rather, it is a name for what defies categorization, for what is not at home with bodily or sexual norms, in the preconceived universality of a closed-off ‘we’, in a unifying nationality or in a given linguistic or generic territory. Minority is not a diminishment, but a reordering, in which debilitating hierarchies altogether disappear and difference is kept, like a flame. Becoming minor requires, as Deleuze and Guattari have it, becoming a stranger in one’s own language, or to ‘speak the estranged’, as Peter Gizzi has written. What you will find here is a selection of poets who expertly, but not authoritatively, have thought within this boundaryless space.

Mamta Sagar
is a poet and activist writing in one of the oldest languages of the world, the Kannada language, from southern India. Her poem ‘SONG SLAUGHTER’ is a hymn for what remains unsung, written in response to the murder of Saketh Rajan, a Naxalite (a communist guerilla), an Indian revolutionary:


the song,
when it fell
the earth shuddered
flowed in red
tomorrow’s history
(and the lines that remain out of it)
unsung songs
quiver and quake
in soil and sludge
shattered dreams
buried wishes
flayed bodies

the last rays like pyre
set the river ablaze.

The beauty of this poem is that after all has crumbled, ablaze amid the terror of history and ‘the lines that remain out of it’, a record remains as a fierce reminder of violence. There is still ‘tomorrow’s history’ - a double meaning: the history of violence and the violence of history itself, but also the poem’s enactment of a different one.

But how to undo a violence that is ongoing? Also singing against abject horror is queer American poet CAConrad. It’s easy to mistake his so-called somatic poetry rituals for exercises in self-enhancement, but they are far from that. ‘I am a poet, not a motivational speaker’, Conrad has said. His poems are about finding his body in a place and time of profound destruction and sorrow, which has forced the poet to usher in radical forms of self-care. Radical because untherapeutic, because unprivate. His poem COPING SKILLS FOR THE FLOOD, excerpted here, is an indictment of endless war and the poet’s uneasy complicity with it:

                           a happier location for
                                        the war not the
                         easiest thing you realize
                            beautiful architecture
                           refreshing beverages
           our signs read hello love us for
                                          the century of
                                             progress we
                                                 gave you
                                        early here
                                        they are

To be queer for Conrad is not just to be at odds with normative sexuality and ‘normal’ body or gender standards, but to be out of line with the capitalist, patriarchal war machine, that of the nation state, the USA especially. Conrad’s work runs counter, shot through with the strength of those who do not lust after power. It is a means of self-care as a path towards collective self-determination and relational empathy.

We gravitate away from the center, towards the fringes of Europe, away from English, a shared imperial vessel (the irony of this piece is not lost on me) for fostering ‘universal’ understandability. Chus Pato is a Galician poet writing in Galician, a teacher and a communist advocating secession from the centralist government operating in Madrid. Galicia is the rainy, wind-swept region in northern Spain where the heart is a ruin. But the rubble that has amassed here has ceased to be a neutral repository where we can happily play with language now that history has ended. No, not all of us are nostalgic. Conflict and struggle remain, and remain vital. The famous end of history is the end of history as only some of us know it, the last stretch of the colonial imagination. To break with that is to break with the colonial frames of reference. There are still struggles to be fought.

In poetry too, Pato has seceded from norms, breaking out of the familiar lyric frame in favor of a writing that sprawling, fragmented and voluminous. Her poems are some of to the most ‘thinkiest’ poems I know, in a tradition that perhaps also includes Ann Carson. In THE VOICE WAS PANIC, Pato writes:

I prefer my panic on entering bookstores, leaving you behind, who abandon me everywhere, without money, or in the car with no handbrake. We visit a city to recall the edifices of cities

dreams are not theory, and now we’re stuck here because you’re loathe to wake up in this palace of privatized urbanization, alongside so many others whose condition we share. Tonight our murderers are drunk or shut in the toilet

once and for all, nothing hermetic, or cryptic (which we never write anyhow) and I send it into orbit, with all our splendid manures and heathers.

Chus Pato writes a poetry of reconstruction. What it reconstructs are bodies. Pato is an exquisite minor poet, not willfully hermetic, but writing for survival, in a small language on the borders of Europe, a ‘finisterra’ where community and nation are shattered. The shards remind us not of a melancholic brokenness of that what is yet to be included, and thus homogenized, but that which carries its otherness proudly, as a fiery breath of life.
I’ve been reading CAConrad and Chus Pato for a few years now. I recently discovered Mamta Sagar, when she read at the Poesiefestival in Berlin earlier in 2016, and the last poet included here: the Mexican Dolores Dorantes. . I’ve been trying to think of ways lately to make poetry not just formally more open and collaborative, but socially and materially as well, and Dolores Dorantes is a wonderful discovery:

“17.-Territory with no harbor, territory with no stopping place, body with empty heart. Place drained of blood we are all yours running. All running to enter you. We are a sea of naked girls. Happy in the midst of the howling. We get to your chest. Armed with girl masks and animal tongues. You nearly die. More than this territory of uncertainty. We are yours. For your will and we want what is ours. We’re moving along, arranging ourselves there. Heating it up there. We run like blood runs and the lobelias of fear. We enter like cool air. We place ourselves tidily like soldiers or jewels.”

Dorantes, who now lives in Los Angeles, has been a longtime resident of Ciudad de la Juarez, a city whose name has become one for the war against woman. All kinds of female voices speak in her poetry. Dorantes makes these voice heard, but even more so, amplifies them – because they may already speak, but without being heard – and not just in these poems: she has worked with marginalized women in workshops for autobiographical writing. Dorantes’ poetry is a great instance where becoming-minor is figured as becoming plural. Because taken together, the minor could well become a swarm.


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