vendredi 28 septembre 2007

Regression as Poetics

Regression is the passéisme of the individual. Active nostalgia--maybe a kinder way of saying regression--is what fuels poetry. The corpus of any poem is littered by observations, memories, synesthesias, bits of conversation or language that have stuck. In the workshop, we would call these things images. Poetic creativity has nothing to do with creation, the spontaneous generation of language, but is really re-creation. It is the past, dressed up to be made presentable, enjoyable, cathartic, ruinous.

Perhaps this is a new phenomenon, with an origin in confessional poetry. The poet of today is obsessed with herself, even if this is not apparent from her work. Those images have to come from somewhere. We are no longer content, as readers, to deal with grand symbols, the metaphors of society, or historical tropes. This bores us. We want something shocking, moving, obliterating. At least we want cleverness.

This creates a bit of a problem for me in Moncton. I've written tons since I've been here, but nothing that takes into account the Acadian diaspora. All I've written about is homeland. Furthermore, I am obsessed with my own regression. I love reliving all of my emotional extremes, being hurt and elated all over again. I glorify the excreta of memories. This is my own sentimental scatology.

My project so far swirls around the schema of place. I've written poems with a day number and a place name, such as "Day One: Chauvin." I've covered a lot of ground. The aim is to finish in Moncton, or perhaps Port Royal, the former city (it is no longer as such) of my ancestors. In these poems, I am addressing the cities as lovers, and in doing so personify them, metamorph them into the bruised memories of lovers I've had in those places. Being with a poet is indeed a bad thing, because your life is now on display. Or at least the small details of your life: your movie ticket stubs, your birthday gifts, your manner of speaking, your flaws and infallibilities.

With the exception of one poem called Chicago, I haven't left Southern Louisiana. As my regression takes a firmer and more fatal hold, I may never.

lundi 24 septembre 2007


There is something in cultures that invariably turn them into Passéisme. This word, I've encountered in a manifesto by contemporary Acadian artists, is used to attack the obsession of a culture with its own past. In Acadian letters and art, it is evident by the constant referral to three events: the idyllic origins of Acadie, the deportation, and the renaissance of Acadian heritage in the late 19th century with the founding of Collège Saint-Joseph.

This phenomenon does not limit itself to my small community and her culture. Take for example the culture of New Orleans, which obsesses over the idea of a decadent, bohemian port city that thrived until about the end of World War II. The truth in New Orleans today has been unveiled and laid naked under horrifying light by Hurricane Katrina. The city has a 70 percent poverty rate, structural incompetence, and ghastly crime, yet people still talk about this magical and fictional version of the city. Perhaps this is a good thing--afterall, it keeps the morale up. But it can only be truly useful if it urges the people of New Orleans to rebuild her city and change their attitudes about justice, social sustainability, and everyday life. Although I am skeptical, because I see the simulacrum of New Orleans competing with any valuable progress.

Likewise, in Acadian (and by proxy Cajun) community, a lot of the cultural energy is spent on tableaux of the past. I will recount my first encounter with this, when I traveled to Bouctouche for the exhibit, Le Pays de la Sangouine.

Sangouine was a character in the work of Antoinine Maillet, the mother of modern Acadian literature and theatre. In the park, one can listen to monologues by people who are dressed as Maillet's characters and who perform them in little buildings decorated for the period, which I guess is either right before or right after the deportation.

The land there is truly beautiful and most of the spectacles occur on a little island accessible by a foot bridge (although there is a golf cart that drives people back and forth, driven by a Lirette whom I had not the pleasure of meeting). When I went there, it was a clear, windy day.

When I arrived on the island, I went directly to where I could hear music, coming from a bar. The band was energetic and talented. They sang songs in French, even some from Louisiana. Afterwards I wandered. I met a guy, a Girouard, who was the inhabitant of the lighthouse. In the light house there was a statue of a monk with a mirror suspended over his head. The head was cocked all the way back so as the monk could view his face. The statue was at one point the masthead of a boat.

This Girouard and I talked about a few things--the presence of Lirettes in New Brunswick, the plight of the Acadians and Cajuns, his trip to Lafayette. He said that after driving 2300 miles to Louisiana, "it was like coming home." He also discussed black culture with me, a conversation I tried to avoid. He told me the Cajuns, "That's blacker than nigger." This is an example of ethnocentric passéisme. Apparently, he is also a clairvoyant.

I went back to the music.

mardi 18 septembre 2007

Identity and Hockey

What does it mean to be an American? A Canadian? I just returned from an orientation in Ottawa, the capital of Canada. This, of course, was the main question. I am, afterall, on a "cultural exchange" in this fine country.

For starters, there are the stereotypes: Americans are straightforward, Canadians deferential. Americans start a speech with a story or joke, Canadians with an apology. Americans are fool-hardy and individualistic. Canadians are rational and cosmopolitan and consider community something important.

The stereotypes tell little more than what the country as a whole is perceived as, combined with its own self-perception. It doesn't, for instance, elucidate what one of either country does on long lonely evenings. It doesn't name passions and hopes. It doesn't delve into the sexual politics within relationships or otherwise. In essence, the stereotypes are sort of useless in determining identity.

As far as policy, the countries have defined themselves by their differing political acts. Yet not every American carries a gun and wants to impose her ideology upon all others. Not all Canadians are safely smoking hash with their same-sex partners.

I personally think hockey is a much more elegant and violent sport than American football. But I also believe that ambition is to be valued as a cardinal virtue. I've spent time with other Fulbrighters and with Killam fellows from both countries and can attest to the multiplicity of personalities. But maybe we are in a society we've created, the between-national scholar vagabonds, the thrivers of another's culture. We've come to this point because we have become obsessed with the other. Scientists, fashionistas, academes, actors, and poets. Some of us are more glamorous than others. But you wouldn't guess that the glamorous girl was from North of the border. That the Long Island boy was a shy Canada studies major. That the 40 year old American undergrad was the most cosmopolitan and subdued. That one law professor drew during lectures and another was an Irish aviation enthusiast. That the heroic professor who would spend his retirement philosophizing on organization and business was not only not American born, but British. That the francophone was a triple minor (none of them french) and was A+ at hockey. That the professor running the Fulbright show was a former hockey champ. That the American poet was the one who scored the winning shot.

This is all to say that I really feel bonded to the people I met this weekend (not just the ones alluded to), that we have at least some society among us. This brings me farther away from the question of what it means to be Canadian or American, but brings me closer to what it means to be a human. Which may be the point of cultural exchange afterall.

In other contemporary news, Brady has arrived.

mardi 11 septembre 2007

Hub City

A little about where I now live--Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada.

This city is the epicenter of today's Acadian heritage. This may come as a surprise to you who think immediately of Nova Scotia as the heartland. Historically, Port Royal was the capital of Acadia before the deportation. That fort is where at least the Chaillou branch of my family lived and died. After its seizure and transformation into Annapolis Royal and the foundation of Halifax, the Acadians were no longer in Nova Scotia, the anglo title for Acadie.

When Acadians returned, they settled in what is today New Brunswick. After a "renaissance" in the late 19th century and the foundation of Collège Saint Joseph (today's Université de Moncton), Moncton became the hub for the patrimony.

This being said, the city of Moncton is like a bilingual Houma, although with a lot more energy. The downtown area is vibrant with restaurants, entertainment, interesting architecture, etc. The rest of the city is variously consumerist, collegiate, and high tech. These facts are nothing particularly interesting--the real asset of this city is her people and their interactions.

The first restaurant Linda and I ate at in Canada was a Mediterranean restaurant called Graffiti on Main Street. The hostess told us "Assiez-vous n'importe où." From then on, we were addressed variously in English and in French. At the table next to us, a party of eight typified the linguistic schizophrenia, as each person ordered in her language of choice.

Of course, at the university, everything is in French. Although at the library, I did overhear a conversation between two students: "Tu vas aller au concert ce vendredi?" "Ouais, ça va êt' right la fun!" This is a dialect calle Chiac, which does to French what the Cajuns do to English.

The Acadians remain a vibrant, enduring minority in Moncton--a far cry from the assimilated Cajuns of Houma. The Acadian flag is ever-present, French is partout. There are artists, poets, novelists, essayists, academics, and politicians all fighting to preserve an identity so ingrained in a people, that it doesn't matter whether they physically remember the deportation 250 years ago. These people have ammunition against assimilation.

In a way, it is because they are surrounded by anglo-mania. Signs, government, and the US aside, the Acadians are a minority in Acadia. But they've persisted and show no signs of dying out, of losing their language, their literary tradition, their music, or their faith.

Best of all, the last names of all the luminous figures in Moncton have the last names LeBlanc, Chiasson, Boudreau, Arsenault, Theriault, and Forêt.

dimanche 9 septembre 2007

The Mountain to the Border

The rest of the trip was spent in the car and with friends. We visited a poet and a novelist in Lancaster, PA, a town more sinister than it seems. My friend, KF, gave me a book of Herbert Zbigniew. He wrote poems that address history coming out of World War II. He was obsessed with human dignity. We ate hoagies in Philadelphia, a better city than it seems.

In New England, we visited a friend who is a musician, professor, and novelist. We visited a rocky beach, our first. Linda recorded some vocal tracks.

Crossing the border was a hassle. The customs officer decided that my sea turtle boots were potentially illegal and a threat to the national security of Canada. She and a much more imposing and malicious woman searched through all of my belongings. Eventually, they concluded that there is a statute that allows me to bring in sea turtle boots if they are, in fact, clothes or personal items.

This post is not meant to illumine, but for record keeping. I won't go in too deeply as to this part of the journey, because it is nothing but private conversations between friends. You understand.

We made it to my apartment in Moncton after midnight, moved everything in, and exhausted, collapsed until morning.

samedi 8 septembre 2007

First Night on the Road

Before I can even begin the story of here, I must relate the voyage--if at least to give reference.

Linda and I left mid August with my worldly possessions (and Brady's) stuffed in the back of a more or less reliable Ford Explorer. Although gratuitous gas consumption is not kind on either my morals or checkbook, it made more sense than facing the journey North in a 1970 MG Midget, which was the only other available option. We packed bologna sandwiches, plums, nectarines, peaches, chips, salsa, Coca-Cola, and lime-flavored LaCroix. We brought books on tape. We brought one another.

Driving is essentially an uneventful activity, at least if all goes well. We made excellent time and gas mileage, arriving near our destination at Crosby campground in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. Right on the precipice of the park exists one of the most bizarre pair of "cities" in all of America: Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, Tennessee.

Jean Baudrillard, recently deceased French theoretician, devoted much of his career to explain what he called "hyper-reality"--evidently a reality above reality, fantasy qua reality. This hyper-reality is especially well illustrated in Baudrillard's schema of the procession of the simulacra, wherein in a sign mirrors basic reality, begins to distort it but nevertheless remains faithful to the original, departs heavily from reality, and finally exists instead of reality (the basic reality no longer exists). Baudrillard could have written this work on a single visit to Pigeon Forge.

The sign reads, "Welcome! Pigeon Forge: Family Vacation Hub." Even today the population is no more than 5000. The main drag there is completely zoned for tourism. This all began in the 60s after years of being little more than a settlement on the outskirts of Gatlinburg. The first attraction, Rebel Railroad, brought tourists on a confederate train under attack by the Union army. Pigeon Forge with its limited resources, both in population and in economy, hardly played in the American Civil War, although a few residents did enlist on the Union side of the skirmish.

When Linda and I passed through, it was all we could bear not to jam into the stand still Friday night traffic on US-441 as we named the litany of attractions with uncontained awe. A theater dedicated to one evangelical musical called The Miracle Theater. Countless "Old West" shows, saloons, and theme restaurants. Sky diving. Dinosaur Walk Museum. The Pigeon Forge Gem Mine. A strange upside down building--stately columns included--called WonderWorks. Fiddler's Feast Tennessee Shindig, which according to the website, seats 900 for its nightly supper shows. Black Bear Jamboree. And the diamond in the diadem, Dollywood.

We barely noticed when all of a sudden the lights were out and we were surrounded by dense mountain trees on a road that took more and more daring turns up the mountain. We were in the midst of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Alarmed, we crept up toward a summit, in the wrong direction. Eventually we backtracked along the road, and figured out the way to Crosby thanks to a "friend of the park." We pitched a tent and so ended our first night on our tour of America.

The Journey Has Already Begun

In 1936, Albert Speer defined ruin value in architecture. This concept is that one should strive to make buildings that, if they were to collapse, would decay beautifully. Great stone structures, columns, anything carved deeply, etc. The Romans knew this but did not name it, like the Greeks before them.

In North America, our youth has stifled our ambition. We see history as ephemeral (as indeed it is). We are shortsighted. I am under the impression that Jean-Baptiste Colbert, finance minister to the sun king, planted the trees in field in front of Invalides in Paris so that in 200 years, the French would have a fine supply of lumber for their navy.

Cultures are by their very nature mutable. New situations arise which must be dealt with, for instance technology, modernism, consumerism. But what is culture anymore anyway? I am a Cajun, born in Southern Louisiana. But what does that even mean? I did not learn French, the language of the Cajuns, at home. In fact, I speak a Parisian French that I learned at the Sorbonne. What else is there? Food, music, good cheer, talking flat? Is that what makes a culture?

I am writing this as an introduction to what I am doing. I study culture, specifically Cajun culture and its mother Acadian culture and beyond that French culture, and these cultures in opposition to American, e.g. of the United States, culture. My precise job at the moment is to write poems under the auspices of a Fulbright grant while I live in Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada's premier bilingual city and epicenter of Acadian arts and culture. Maybe if I figure out what culture means, I will describe it here.