A promise is a promise. The Cadillac session at the Maple Leaf and Eagle conference in Helsinki? Well, it was a smash, as I thought it would be. But there were other things equally smashing going on. Fortunately. There's nothing worse than a conference that's uninteresting, or with some uninteresting people in it. This being Finland, however, I knew before hand that something interesting was bound to take place. It always does.
It's been some years now, since I've discovered that at conferences I tend to seek out certain academics. The Finns do it for me. It took me some more years to figure out why there was such an amazing affinity between myself and the Finns, but once recognized, it became obvious that our common nerdiness was also a most solid platform on which all things strange and uncommon took place, quite de rigoeur. As far as I'm concerned there's nothing more liberating than being able to say and do the most unlikely things, or say and do the most inappropriate things and have people think that it's the most natural thing in the world. So, what I'm saying is that around Finns it takes a hell of a lot more to make them think that what you say or do is not already perfectly normal.
This is also reflected in the way in which Finns always manage to invite the most exciting speakers. Yesterday George Elliott Clarke delivered the keynote address in a most engaging performance, very similar in fact to the ones one sees only on film and documentaries. A resurrected Malcolm X reminded us of how to approach not only African-Canadian history but also poetry. He is a speaker who exerts his oratorical agency through a combination of formidable writing and body language. As I always sit in the front row for such things, someone was worried that I might have gotten showered by words in more than one way. (Anthropologists such as Daniel Miller have interesting things to say about mixing bodily fluids - spit, to be more precise - with auratic oral delivery in forgotten African cultures.) It didn't happen to me. I hurried instead to get my three copies of his books signed - which he did most graciously especially after having recited a poem in plenum at my request. The volume entitled Black is, by the way, all about spitting words out. Black now contains an implicit reference to white camellias - and my own name in Clarke's handwriting follows suit. No excessive double l's in it, but accents, as he writes on the front page "à Camélia". I'm pleased, as the volume also includes a poem that's dedicated to another friend, the magnificent poet Evie Shockley, whose ink and skin is as black as Clarke's. A standard in fine poetry, and fine bodies, one might add. Here's one of Clarke's poems:
1 - Standards
Each poem perishes and replenishes,
Line by line.
Even if you copy poets
Smashed to smithereens
(or "I am's")
Note that the truest black poet
Is a happy-headed Dadaist --
If the poem is in fine form
(No matter how frail),
Tattling the Truth
The good poem stabs like a dagger now,
Explodes later like a grenade.
As soon as someone in the audience wants to pose a question but not before he confesses that he's miserable because he cannot write like Clarke, my mind goes off in other directions. I think of Tony Harrison's eloquence, all the result of struggling with the iambic pentameter, and Tristan Tzara's Romanian poetry, all the result of cutting up words. Rhetoric reduced to smithereens. Clarke is in a trance - and I'm the only one who is close enough to observe that for the entire questioning period, which is long, he delivers answers at the speed of a canoe down Niagara, with his eyes closed - no water can touch him.
Today, in a panel about nature, the first nations are mentioned, and a bizarre story was told. Not long ago, when the Americans wanted to build a gigantic telescope on some Indian land, some members of the Apache people were asked to state their opinion as to whether they thought it was a good idea. The Apaches showed up in court to testify - only their testimony was one of silence. This threw the verbose American judicials off their tracks. An Indian interpreter of the rhetoric of silence was called in to 'translate' this performative nothingness. Today I shook hands with him, and we just looked at each other - talking seemed superfluous. For me it was more interesting to follow his gaze and glance through his fascinating blue eyes fixed in orbits the color of olives. His hair was long and his skin soft. For him.... we got interrupted. Another friend, and a professor of creative writing at Stephens College joined us. She wanted to touch my long string of black pearls. She thought that their lustre and smoothness became me.
Later at a posh Japanese restaurant I stuffed myself with sashimi - each fragment of the 20 fish pieces I got contributed to enhancing the taste of my favorite bite: the salmon. The pink and buttery fish melted on my tongue in such a way that even the cup I was drinking green tea from felt like a pancake drowned in syrup and perfume.
Cultural studies in Helsinki is full of black, yet pirouetting holes.
PS. My last line in my paper on Cadillacs? "Let's see some black swans racing". This line in reference to Cadillac's history of changing logos garnered both laughs and thoughts. I was merely anticipating what would make me savor a moment, as Cadillac's contemporary marketing tagline is all about that: Savor your freedom. Savor the journey. Savor the moment. I didn't think that I was prophesying the future in the past. Savor the grammar. Indeed.
PPS. People have been asking me what kind of car I drive. Well, it's the latest Suzuki Swift. I told them that if I had a choice, however, I would drive this thing below. There's nothing that matches a Lamborghini. The Americans were baffled...