Assay@NFN15: “Adventures in Poetic Biography”

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 Jessica Wilkinson, Dennis Cooley, Heidi Czerwiec, Benjamin Laird

Jessica Wilkinson opened by respectfully disagreeing with a comment made by Brian Doyle during his keynote address, in which he said that poetry got so involved in its feeling that it ended up talking about its left breast – she asserts that, as much as the essay, poetry can engage with nonfiction topics outside the self, and in fact has some formal strategies for doing so that the essay does not.

Heidi Czerwiec: her discussion of poetic biography focuses on how poetic form can enhance and embody the person being represented in the biography, and uses 3 of her projects to illustrate how. In Self-Portrait as Bettie Page, she explored the slippage between herself and ‘50s bondage pinup Bettie Page via the sonnet sequence, which paired well with the strictures of bondage. In “Rachel,” based on 17th C still-life painter Rachel Ruysch and depicting 3 periods in her life, Czerwiec riffed on a Baroque sonata in tetrameter lines with various leitmotifs in counterpoint. And in A Is For A-ké, The Chinese Monster, about a 19th C Cantonese youth with a parasitic twin during the lead-up to the First Opium War, she used numerous forms to play with the instability of twinning and Sino-British trade, in particular an interlocking form borrowed from Greg Williamson called “double exposure.”

Dennis Cooley: discussed his project Bloody Jack, about Jack Kravchenko, a famous outlaw in Southern Manitoba before WWI which, inspired by Bakhtin’s “carnival of voices,” he chose to render as a play among several voices: letters to editors, love songs, newspaper clippings, Ukrainian phrasebooks, rope-skipping songs, lists, etc. [read excerpts]

Jessica Wilkinson: her work was inspired by Susan Howe, in particular My Emily Dickinson, and how the voices of her subjects led her to the form – by listening to the voices, she could meet them on the page. She discusses 2 projects. The first, marionette: a monument to failure, dealt with Hearst’s mistress, film actress Marion Davies. Because of Hearst’s influence, info on her is inaccurate and erased; because of time, films of her are crumbling. Wilkinson’s project called attention to this faulty/fragmented archive via a visual-based text full of fragments and white space. In contrast, Suite for Percy Grainger about the Australian composer is based in auditory play and draws from an overwhelmingly full archive – Wilkinson’s 5-part manuscript is a 5-fingered composition that portrays 5 different aspects of the complex man. Currently, she is at work on a MS about Balanchine in a text based on movement.

Benjamin Laird: his work deals with biographical poetry in programmable media, by which he means work written in code, web-based (JavaScript, html). He claims that the medium in which poetic biography is written changes how we experience it, and changes the person being represented. He discussed his project on 19th C spiritualist, activist, and lecturer William Denton. He cites Rachel Blau DuPlessis’ idea of segmentivity – that the meaning poems make occurs in smaller segments (phrases, lines, stanzas) that combine to create larger meanings (poem, book) – he plays with combining and recombining these segments to manipulate meaning. He also talked about the issue of versioning – how software affects poetry – since software is inherently incomplete and is constantly being updated/changing, and that while this creates difficulties and challenges for programmable poetry, it also highlights the constantly-changing subject and our relationship to it. He also mentioned Memmott on poem/software as a tool for making meaning. You can see examples of his work on Denton at


Heidi Czerwiec is a poet, essayist, translator, and critic who has recent work appearing in Angle, Able Muse, and The Boiler Journal.  She is the author of Self-Portrait as Bettie Page and the forthcoming A is for A-ke, the Chinese Monster. She teaches at the University of North Dakota, where she is poetry editor for North Dakota Quarterly.

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