Consider, if you would, this line, written by Auden for Yeats in “In Memory Of W.B. Yeats”: “The words of a dead man / Are modified in the guts of the living.”
While I acknowledge that this line comes from a British poetic tradition that also gave rise to Kipling’s obviously-problematic “Take up the White Man’s burden", I wonder whether this line by Auden is an appropriately-evocative sentence to draw forth a word or two with regard to whether, for you, the idea of modification in this context had in any way to do with Settler Education.
There are a quite a few quoted passages in Settler Education, and sometimes those passages are modified from the original. I delved into the archives with this book, did a lot of reading, a lot of searching. My first impulse in including these “outside” words from other texts was to provide evidence: Look. Look what was said, what was thought, what was done, what happened here and happens here still. The impulse was to turn people’s attention towards the stories of the Frog Lake “massacre” and the Northwest Resistance and the “theft that founds this country” (as the poet and my former teacher Tim Lilburn puts it) and hope readers go down the path. Which is, now that I think about it, what teachers are for.
The modification of those archival passages followed by necessity. I mean this in two different ways. First, outside words, and especially outside words belonging to “the colonizer” or related through the colonizer, constantly threaten to hijack the thing they inhabit. (I’m including myself in this: to make matters that much more complicated, I’ve been trained to be a hijacker too in many respects, and my project is to keep fighting against it!) So it became necessary to make sure those voices were throttled, to make sure that their familiar refrains didn’t become what the book was. I needed to let them in, so we can see what they are and see how and to what extent we’re involved in the same practices now, but it was necessary to strip back their syntax at times, to get it as close to an essence as possible. Their words could then exist in the poems in a way that I hope was enlightening. (Oh god, what a fraught word I just chose. Enlightening. I’m going to leave it because it’s so damn problematic and the wrong word entirely.)
And secondly, the “words of a dead man” are “modified in the guts of the living” by necessity, I would argue. It is necessary to life that we fuck with and change their words, in order to exist. It’s necessary for me, anyways, to read Auden’s words critically and politically. The poem from which these lines come also contains that now fairly well known phrase that “poetry makes nothing happen.” Here’s a fuller excerpt:
[…] Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.
Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still,
For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.
Poetry makes nothing happen but it is a way of happening. It is a mouth. It is a way to speak. And I hope Settler Education makes clear that way that Auden speaks of.
Laurie Graham will be formally launching Settler Education at 2PM this Saturday (May 14) at Oxford Book Shop (262 Piccadilly). She will also be giving a reading (in collaboration with David Huebert, author of We Are No Longer the Smart Kids in Class) at Chapter's (1037 Wellington Rd.) on Friday May 20 at 6:30 as part of a newly-developed reading series, Couplets: Poets in Dialogue.
And here's a link to the London Free Press article about the book!