Poet Orlando White

CAROLYN: I am honored
this evening to welcome poet Orlando White, author of
the books of poetry Bone Light, published in 2009, and
LETTERRS 2015– which received the San Francisco State
University’s Poetry Center Book Award. He is Diné, from
Tólikan, Arizona, and holds a BFA from the
Institute of American Indian Arts and an MFA from
Brown University. His work has been published
in Ploughshares, The Kenyon Review, the Salt Hill
Journal, and elsewhere. A recipient of the Lannan
Foundation Residency and the Bread Loaf
John Ciardi Fellowship, he currently teaches at Diné
A and in the low residency MFA program at the Institute
of American Indian Arts. Of Bone Light,
Elizabeth Robinson wrote, Orlando White,
quote, “recreates poetry from the molecular level. His vision presents
language letter by letter– as body, as recipe, as
originary myth, as admonition.” This list that
Robinson enumerates speaks to the astonishing
multiplicity that drives White’s poems. Through dissecting
and recycling, his poems remind that,
with the alphabet, as with the body, our pieces– our parts– are finite. But our lives and language are
sites of endless invention. His poem “Fill in the
Blank” ends “punctuation– use it to connect the bones.” Through what Kazim Ali
called a “careful excavation on language and letters
and the physical body,” White’s work investigates
possible connections.” The more recent LETTERRS
stylizes its title, italicizing what is perhaps
the problematic within the word E-R-R– “urr” or “air–” and
gestures at a disintegration of bodily and linguistic
connective tissue– even more extreme than in
White’s preceding collection– with visuals and language that
are deliberately disorienting. From poem to poem– sometimes
in a fog and sometimes startled, in fact, by clarity– we are asked to wonder,
to ourselves– err. It begins with an epigraph– “Poets are citizens of
language,” Edwin Torres. In this nation, where
citizenship and language are most frequently tandem
tools of oppression– denying sovereignty
and building empire– Orlando White resists. If citizenship
allows us, in a way, a relative freedom to leave and
then to, without interruption, return, White does
so with language– departing from and returning
to its so-called “borders.” He asks readers to absorb
letters by ear and also by eye. He compels, in the
poem “Unwritten,” “Excavate what appears
to be an O; remove its tiny white cranium;
within text there is extinction,
bone-shaped artifacts.” Through these texts,
White gives us the tools to reconsider
any distinction between what we call our bodies
and what we call our words. Please welcome a true observer,
chemist, surgeon and citizen of language– Orlando White. [APPLAUSE] ORLANDO WHITE: That
was really nice. Thank you, Carolyn– and
also to Robert and Eleni and for all of you being here. Thank you so much
for your presence. [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH] So I’m going to share a
few poems from Bone Light and then move into
LETTERRS, and then I’ll share some new stuff
towards the end. This is “Imperative.” Break a sentence; use
letters for teeth. In a word missing a
letter, place a tooth. Flick a period off the
page with a fingernail. Press on the black dot;
smear into a comma. Separate a skeleton
into verbs and subjects. Until ink comes
out, pinch a letter. Use letters shaped like
bones; connect a word. In the sockets of a
skull, put commas. Push a verb to push
a noun off the page. Until it softens, rub
bone against paper. Boil the skeleton of
a sentence into ink. Suck the marrow out of a letter. Grind up a piece of
bone; make calcium ink. For paper, soak skin in bleach. Erase a letter until
it looks like a tooth. Amputate one letter
to fix another. Pull a punctuation
mark from a sentence. At end of sentence, remove
the tiny black skull. Crack a sentence;
let the ink drain. Dip a bone into ink;
leave it to dry. Take a bone and lay
it before a verb. Shake punctuation off the page. Scrape the paper from a letter. To erase a sentence,
remove your tongue. Bleach paper then put on face. Use commas to connect bones. Extract the ink from a sentence. Rinse a letter in
bleach; wring it out. With the edges of paper, skin
yourself; bathe in bleach until flesh slides off; get out
and lie down like a sentence. “Discourse.” When you are naked,
you are unwritten. Put on a dark suit. Be a letter. Next to you, she slips on a
black dress shaped like a j. Our bodies, made of ink,
a substance of long. We only want to be written– to have content. But language likes
to dress us up. Position us Next to one another,
so we exist as characters. As someone places a hyphen
between us, we feel conjunct. It can be erased. When it happens, replace
the blank space with a verb. Put a letter under erasure. Sometimes things
written are contained– not in our control. Then we must take
off our outfits, fold them back, remove
ourselves from the page. So this is a little short
short essay, if you will, that I wrote. It’s titled “Functional White– Crafting Space & Silence.” The white space is just
as important as the text in a poem, whether it’s the
counter that shapes an O or S, a line break after a word
or a caesura within a line. With space, one can
shape sound and language to create a poetic field. And with that, one
may express a silence. When we write or
type, our focus seems to be on a small percentage
of the paper, which is, where the text is placed. But around it there lies
a pause, a momentary rest that hibernates. Much like a semibreve
rest within a measure or like a crease pattern after
unfolding a sheet of paper– space holds rhythm
and structure. Plus, what are letters, words,
punctuation, and sentences without the music
and form of the page? As I was saying, a particular
text that comes to mind is “Lecture on Nothing” by
John Cage, in which he composes measures of white space. In his introduction
to the lecture he emphasizes how to
read the text by saying, quote, “this should not be
done in an artificial manner– which might result
from an attempt to be too strictly
faithful to the position of the words on the page– but with the rubato which
one uses in everyday speech.” Unquote. In a way, Cage reminds us
not to depend on language but rather to consider the
cadence of line in relation to the page’s expanse. Where the paper and
body and ink and breath exist simultaneously in order
to create a literary moment for the writer. That connection
between poet and page becomes proportional
to each other. Where symmetry occurs
in that instant you ascend then descend and
finally crossbar the letter A; your hand is the letter
along with your body synchronizing with
ink and vise versa. Because there is a pulse
in the human figure, there is pulse within
the folio as well; the poetic existence in space
between the written language is the vital sign of silence. Designers of publications refer
to the white spaces of the page as functional white. Functional white
guides the reader through a text; white
space allows text to exists in a specific position
on the page in relation to the background. And perhaps that
background is the throat of paper, inhaling language
and exhaling sound and silence. Like Inuit throat singers,
when the page and poet are face-to-face, close enough
for both their lips to meet, their breaths subsist
off each other. And in an instant,
that natural ornate experience blends
person and page. The line and its
breath, with its origin from the lung of the page,
is caesuric, as we are too. Because pauses
construct the spaces which interweave letters,
words, and thoughts on a sheet of paper. Though silence on the
page develops habitually from our use of techniques
as poetry writers, sometimes being aware
of the white spaces, rather than concerning
ourselves with the punctuation and language, allows us
to experience the silence personally. Perhaps text sometimes
acts as a polarizing filter that darkens the paper and dims
the brightness of the page. So it’s up to us, the
poets, to write and un-write and interpret and re-interpret
the page through space by making language and
silence collaborate. Because there is
another rhythm waiting to reawaken from the
depths of the page and we, poets, should construe
and create the pause before and during the reading
and writing of a poem. So I’m going to move on to
my second book, LETTERRS. This is “Nascent.” It begins at a diacritical
spark of breath and soma. Vowel stress, nasal enunciation,
the tenors of existence. Ictus of ‘iiná inside where
person ticks in utero like tó rippling skin. Hither to by way of sonus
in a moment in accordance with vocabulary. Body forms the single
E, long interval. Appends and muscular
tube of [INAUDIBLE] See the ink’s flagella
zigzag, skir towards page ovum to perforate its egg coat,
fecundate the nucleus of this sheet opposite of black
like static vibrating epidermis eardrum. It’s a plash on parchment sheet. A single drip seep, ink as
semen, saturates fibrous layers, stimulates the origin
of the length of a tongue. Igniting between no light
and cotton rag paper, the acute cadence
blisters a glottal flicker like dotting the top
of an upper stem– headless human silhouette. Throat deep where the
parturition of phrase, of aphorism, breathes and coos. [INAUDIBLE] their sound only
sound shaping, visible bod and noggin to hear
perspicacity it is active fro and to
an infinite oscillation of an alphabetic
procreation to circumflex. D, these pitches of stress,
these flares over letters hover, keep in place the
strained origin in speech; these newborn glissandos,
these movements tense and revise type size where
[INAUDIBLE] designs permanence. Pronunciation marks are proof
of one’s own cultural sentience. Those authentic
reverberations above the cap height where breath pressures
tongue against teeth, below the baseline where throat
exhales the long accent vowel; in that moment it
echoes through. Nose quivers, as phonemic
air the [INAUDIBLE] tickle of [INAUDIBLE]. Someone once said, to debate
oneself is to debate the page. It’s a space, a
locus of excursus, where vibrations leap
between self and proportion. When one peers into that leaf
mirror of white and hush, it subsumes thought. Because the word I, a
reflection of the mind, is supple and limitless. To say it means to
practice immediacy, but to write it means
to construct perpetuity. Because within the
expanse of page, ego is protean, like
shade produced by body. And in that movement, when one
strokes that single vertical, descends the line and stipples
a dot, its ink blood courses. A letter on the page
affirms the being of person, per in accordance
with the root, sun. A prod and slit, like an
iota contour, written. A projection of what
occurs instantly in the mind, our sense of self,
air, vibration waves in air, until we materialize, body
size between the X height. This is how we
understand ourselves, through the placement and
movement of ink, absorbing into paper. I just turned the page, and
I’m thinking about my daughter. She’s 12 years old. I was telling some grad students
earlier, during demitasse, that when I came out to Brown
in 2006 for grad school, my kid was born. And when she was born,
I wrote this poem. It’s titled “Paper Milk.” Newborn alphabet cries
its vowels and the page nourishes them– a opens into a u, it
becomes a tiny cup, fills with paper milk. The e too unfolds
to an o and nurses on the colostrum of pulp. Thought attaches
sound from mother e’s to thin sheet of white. Form, a structure of feeling,
an instrument of print, means to foster. The verso and recto will be
caretakers of our infant text, as writing develops calcium
to bring life to ink, letters become
collagen of thoughts. A really quick, funny
story about my kid– so when LETTERRS came out,
when it was published, I grabbed a couple of copies. And I got a copy for her. And I remember handing it to
her and she’s like, what’s this? And I was like, oh,
it’s my new book. She’s like, oh, cool. So she’s looking at
the cover, and she’s kind of walking away from me. And then she’s like, whoa. She’s like, wait dad, the title
of your book is misspelled. [LAUGHTER] Because its the word letters,
but I added another R. So anyway. And then I didn’t
know what to say. And then she was like, well
that’s what poetry is about, right? [LAUGHTER] And I was like, yeah. I think you’re right. [LAUGHS] Anyway, I
always have that moment in my head all the time. I think what I’ll do
is I’ll share just two more poems with you. All right? And then I’ll read
something, and then I’ll share some new work. “To Uncolor.” Use paper tweezers. Pinch free the ink delicately,
like pin bones from a fish. Pull out stems, cross bars,
ascenders and descenders. Now place the page
inside a crucible. Fill with chlorine
and bring to a boil. Add a measure of Borax to
help cleanse serif blotches. Place a lid atop of it. Wait momentarily. When edges of type
are anti-aliased, the limits of language restrain. In the meantime, think
of folio steam burns, it’s layers blistering
lampblack, color fluid discharging and then
liquid parching. Do not damage the surface. A smudge is immutable. Even its dense
sentences and paragraphs should begin to degrade,
as the pulp loosens. Watch as the letter
disarticulates from its baseline,
like a pivotal joint unhitching from a spine
through maceration. It’s in that moment print
attains a satori, a blankness– permutes mutes the
paper of complete space. [INAUDIBLE] I’m sorry. Excuse me. [LAUGHS] I had– Sorry, just looking
for a cigarette. No, no. [LAUGHTER] SPEAKER 1: [INAUDIBLE] a
chance to do that, too. ORLANDO WHITE: [LAUGHS] I thought I was
prepared for everything. But– [LAUGHTER] Oh, you know how poets are. We just like take
our sweet time. You have no other choice but
to just sit there and listen. [LAUGHTER] Right? I thought I had here. I thought I had everything. Oh, here it is. So let me just
blow this up here. If any of you are
familiar with this– you probably know
who this is, right? So I’m just
projecting that, just because it’s a part of what
I’m going to read right now. So this titled “Play
and Imagination– On the One-Word Poem.” The process of writing a
one-word poem on the page involves playfulness, along with
the willingness to take risks with imagination– much like a toddler
who scribbles letters for the first time on
paper, using the crayon to draw what a word
might look like, and creating language
outside the boundaries of standard writing. In a way, to think
like a child who is creating his
first word on paper is to engage in a
true act of writing. Because to write means to
link the brain, the eyes, the hands simultaneously– It’s that coordination of
the poet’s artistic vision and creative action,
which can reveal a word’s identity through its image. In that moment, the poet
writes mum in cursive and watches its shape flow like
a wave across the page, or gig, to notice how the
lower loop of g shapes itself into an earlobe. Through this practice,
the poet guides his hand through a graphological
meditation which then becomes an artistic
mediation between self and page. This is when he
reimagines language, reimagines the relationship
of writing an experience to move toward a
literary moment. Much like that moment when
discovering a new word like “nefelibata,” that feeling
of surprise and curiosity one has toward its
spelling and meaning. Let’s look at a
one-word poem that is meant to be seen
rather than read, a poem that’s meant to be viewed
as image rather than text. In the poem “eye”
by Aram Saroyan, he adds an additional
“y” and “e” to the word to enact a sense
of play and inventiveness. And in a way by
adding extra letters the word visually
becomes what it means. At first glance, the one-word
poem appears disorienting; it takes a second for
our eyes to adjust to it. Perhaps it’s because as
viewers the extra y and e skew our perception a little. So we find ourselves scanning
the word back and forth as if in a REM state. But what makes this
poem effective too is its play on a palindrome. A palindrome is a
word or sentence that reads the same
forward and backward. Some examples are “toot,”
“minim,” “never odd or even,” or “draw o coward.” In his word poem, Saroyan
gets us to understand his interaction with language. His use of a palindrome gets
us, as readers, to look closely at language, to
literally eye the word, but then he adds
those extra letters and suddenly the poem
becomes visible as an image. In Ian Daly’s essay,
“You Call That Poetry?!” Saroyan says, quote, “I
got intrigued by the look of individual words; the word
‘guarantee,’ for instance, looks to me a bit like a
South American insect.” The one-word poem gets us to
think about the word as picture and reminds us, as poets, that
to develop the mind’s eye we must open ourselves
up to seeing language and to feel the
energy of a letter. The origin of the
A– the capital A– for example, derives from
a pictogram dating back to the 11th century
in the Middle East. The A is an ox-head, and if you
rotate it until it stems point upward you will
see the ox’s muzzle in the area between the
apex and the crossbar. Once we are aware that
the letter is a picture, it’s up to us, as writers
to imagine the ox ploughing the field of the page, getting
it ready for us to plant and expand our imagination. So what I’m going to do
is I’m going to share– I don’t even know
if it’s real work. It’s new work, but– it’s OK to laugh if you– [LAUGHTER] –once you see them. So, I’m just going to end the
reading with some new stuff– just maybe three
or four of them. Because I’m shy. I’m not ready to– So there’s another Diné poet. His name is Sherwin Bitsui. In his second book, which
is titled Flood Song, he opens up his poem
with a one-word poem, or a visual poem,
with this Diné word. And anyway, I was
really inspired by that. And so I wanted to kind
do my own version– or my own take– on that idea. All right, so this is wa tó er– “Wa Tó Er.” So the idea behind this is just
that I took the IPA, right? Not beer. [LAUGHTER] You know, the International
Phonetic Alphabetic, in the dictionary– for water. So you have the schwa, right,
which is the upside down E. And I took our word for water. In our language, our
word for water is tó. Right? So it’s wa tó er. Anyway. [LAUGHTER] It’s kind of cheesy, but it
only makes sense in my head, I guess. Tl’ish, tl’ish, tl’ish, tl’ish,
hastlish, tl’ish, tl’ish. So here, it’s another Diné word. If you just listen to the sound
of it, it’s our word for mud. But the sound of obviously
is onomatopoetic. So it’s like the sound of
someone stepping in mud. Right? That’s our word for mud,
but it’s actually the sound. Because it’s very
distinct, right? The sound of mud
when you step in it? There’s nothing else
that sounds like that. I’m not going to do that one. [LAUGHTER] This is blad- dil. Blad- dil. So again here,
much like water, I took the IPA of the
word blood and our word for blood, which is dil. So dil is, like,
something that’s oozing. So if you imagine the oozing
of blood, if it had a sound, it’s dil. I don’t know if that
makes any sense, but– So I’ve been really
fascinated with the idea of one-word poems. I was first exposed
to one-word poems when I actually came
here for my MFA program. I took a class with John
Cayley, and he gave me a book by BpNichol. And then I was also
introduced to Adam Saroyan. One of my MFA peers was
reading his Minimal Poems, and that’s how I came
across the “eye” poem. And so ever since
grad school, I’ve been kind of obsessed
with one-word poems. And I’m also interested
in my own language, because I think that it
adds a little bit more– but also to just kind of
look at them visually. And anyway, that’s– I have more, but I’m
not ready to share them. But thank you so
much for listening. [APPLAUSE]

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