Vanessa Place and the Archive

First, a couple of announcements, John Matthias and I have now completed the annotation of all seven sections of the first poem in the Trigons sequence and any feedback would be most gratefully received. Secondly the experiments in reading project has now acquired additional material on all three poems: ‘Night Office’; ‘The Anathemata’ and ‘The Odes to TL61P’. With regard to ‘The Anathemata’, I’m particularly grateful to Tom Goldpaugh for his support and contributions.

I think I’ve said before that. as a make of poems, I’m attracted to archives and in particular archival records of Bad Things that have occurred. I know that I’ve also expressed my admiration for Vanessa Place and the crucial work that she does. So, imagine my delight in coming across ‘Full Audio Transcripts’ on the radio-break site. This is a sound file which consists of the poet reading transcripts from conversations between various government agencies of Sept 11 2001 as the morning progressed. The most frequent conversations are between aircraft controllers and the other agencies. The reading lasts just over 90 minutes and is mesmerising.

I’m a tired old cynic and I know what happened and in what order it happened on that day, I’ve read senate reports and watched a number of documentaries so I didn’t expect this to tell me anything I didn’t know. After a few minutes I became transfixed because of the way in which another picture was being painted, a picture without a single viewpoint of a world that is confused, chaotic and more than a little scared. If there is a narrative it is that all the acronyms and numbers and command structures and all the military might in the world will now save you from a group of men with box cutters and imagination.

There are multiple confusions ranging from whether planes have been hijacked or not, in which direction and at what height a plane is flying, the fate of the crew on one of the planes. Place reads this mounting chaos in virtually expressionless speech with clarity and sustained stamina. The effect is to draw the listener into the heartbreaking conversations and to identify with the various voices as they try to make sense of the unfolding tragedy.

Poetry purists (and not-so purists) have many things to say about this kind of thing, that it doesn’t contain any original work, that is much more about form than substance, that all conceptualists are charlatans who are more interested in producing a single idea rather than a sustained and considered piece of work. I, however don’t have problem with the conceptual per se, my own bias lies in the direction of the confessional as well as P Larkin, but I’m saddened that most of it isn’t very good. This is especially unfortunate because it has the potential to mount a proper challenge to the over-lyricised state of things today.

I’m also not a fan of everything that Place doe, her “One” collaboration is both overly precious and underwhelming but, at her best, the work remains essential. Both ‘Transcripts’ and ‘Tragodia’ challenge the current poetic and depict in some detail, the forces of the state at work and the very many flaws therein.

Of course many would argue that this isn’t poetry and that is part of the ‘point’ because it can’t be anything else, ‘Transcripts’ makes its own demands- it uses one voice to read out the words of many and it must be viewed in the context of contemporary poem-making. This is not to suggest that it’s a foundational Ur-text marking the moment when the established order is overthrown but to demand that attention is paid to what it does and what it says.

In terms of subject matter, I’m reasonably ambiguous on 9/11. It was a magnificent thumb in the eye of imperialism and capital but nobody deserves to die in that way and it was organised by a small group of fundamentalist nutters (technical term) who ever since have received far more attention thn they deserve. It also gave the clapped out forces of imperialism to demonstrate their ineptitude and impotence in a number of sovereign states across the globe.

I’m also very aware that the above is many miles away from the American mainstream and I don’t listen to this reading in the same way that a US citizen would but I can be horrified (still) by the slowly dawning realisation that something very bad is unfolding, from the first calls from the flight crew to the muddled decisions to open fire on hijacked aircraft. This isn’t sensationalist, Place does not read any of the words of the victims as they occur in transcripts (and are all over the web) but she does read out what others say about them. One of the things that struck me whilst reading the second and third parts of Tragodia is the amount of numbers that the state use to keep control of its own data/instruments of power. This aspect is underlined by the constant reference to acronyms and numbers between the various civil servants and military personnel. Oddly, this is not something I took much notice of when I was involved in policy and procedure setting, but looking back (especially in child protection issues) it is how things were done.

A couple of years ago I was heavily involved in a poetic examination of the massacre commonly referred to as Bloody Sunday. Listening to Place reminded me that I still have the transcripts of military chatter on that day and am now about to compare and contrast….

In conclusion, ‘Full Audio Transcripts’ is another brilliantly defiant work by Vanessa Place that demands a response from all those who profess an interest in poetry and the poetic.

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2 responses to “Vanessa Place and the Archive

  1. Fascinating piece about fascinating pieces. Being Northern Irish and conceptually-involved since Bloody Sunday itself, I am recently finding Vanessa Place’s work a gateway to what, from my perspective in the UK, a fairly solipsistic one at that, amounts to a parallel conceptualism in which things are being done just that little bit differently from my own. The nuances become huge gorges in Place and that’s why she’s the most interesting poet in America. I would hope you can see your way to expanding on your compare/contrast publicly as it will surely be worthwhile! Meanwhile, much new information learned here. Thank you.

    • Thank you, have you seen this? I’m of the view that she offers the only way that poetry can move forward. I’m also of the view that practitioners of every hue should pay more attention to the challenges that the ‘Troubles’ continue to present. End of v short speech.

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