30 September: National Day for Truth and Reconciliation

Here is something that I wrote last year for its 30th of September, in what might superficially seem unconnected: a course called “Introduction to the Literatures and Cultures of the Romance World I: Medieval to Early Modern.” But all things are connected, even if you have to do some thinking work to get there. And that work is always worth doing and a good thing. Especially today.

This post is about poetry and listening.

First, some context.

All of the course readings (written texts and listening) were in English translation, as there was no expectation that students have any knowledge of any Romance languages of any period; but works were often read and taught bilingually—especially poetry—as an introduction to, and invitation into, other languages through their sounds, and to accessing their word-art through auditory and visual pleasure. All readings were free: open access or through library course reserves, for which my continued thanks: libraries and librarians are superheroes.

One of the course’s purposes (learning outcomes, raisons d’être) was the close reading and questioning of its given title, and reflection on and around it. The way we (the students and I) did the course was the opposite of a Great Books Greatest Hits By Strong Manly Top Genius Champion Successful Heroic Leader Therefore Exemplary And Representative Figures Of The Greatest Civilization Ever course, looking backwards from the point of view of a modern colonialist imperialist (capitalocene genocidal patriarchal etc.) power—for our course and this program, that’s France and Italy and Spain—and the long 19th century. And the opposite of centring The Glorious Roman Empire as anchor and governing focal point: historically, ideologically, aesthetically, conceptually, and perceptually. Set readings were by women and anonymous / anonymised people of unknown gender. We started not with a Major Famous Important language, figure, and canonical literary work; but with a young woman signing in a repressed minority language, up a mountain, in isolation with her dog, during a global pandemic, in 2021 just a few months before the start of that course … in a continuing present “Middle Ages.” The most important, crucial, vital threads in this course were poetry and poeticity, imagination and imaginative life, the subversive joys of marginality, and staying alive through imagineering and poeticising.

The first part of the course was called “Caves, refuges, and poetry” and centred (in a constellation / most-connected-nodes-in-a-network way) on Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams, selected songs by Alidé Sans, and selected Old Occitan (often multilingual) poetry starting with the anonymous birthing poem/song/chant/incantation “Tomida femina.” We were thinking about what poetry is and why it is (or, if you will, “what poetry is for” as a crasser utilitarian Objective And Outcome idea). The only set secondary or theoretical text in this course being Audre Lorde, “Poetry is not a luxury” (1977).

The second, middle, part was called “Adventuring and other Romance romances” and centred on Monty Python’s Holy Grail (because while this course, my design, and my designs were anti-canonical there is such a thing as le grand incontournable), Marie de France’s Lais in a chapter subtitled “Narrative lays: moving between song and romance,” and Heldris de Cornüalle’s Roman de Silence in a chapter subtitled “Romance romance romance: the centre of our course/world.”

Here’s what the course looked like as a whole:

Truth and Reconciliation Week corresponded to week 4 of our course, moving from song to story and between them, through starting to meet lays and Marie de France. Here’s what that week of (and around and outside) class looked like: I’ve been reading and listening again, and I hope that some of the readings and listenings might be of interest and benefit for other people too. These are raw post-class-session notes, with some cryptic short-hand (from me) and references in response to student questions along the way.

session 4.1 (Tuesday 28 September 2021)


Other worlds

For this next part of the course, we’re still in havens and border areas: grey misty unclear in-between cloudy places, coasts, (some mountains), wild woods, edges of linguistic zones, multilingual places, and with people moving around. Plus other worlds, underworlds, and other other-worldly otherworlds.

This week and next: Marie de France’s lais as an intermediate zone (formally, structurally) between song and lyric poetry (the last two weeks) and longer narrative (the Romance of Silence, weeks 6-9).

Next week (week 5):

  • on Tuesday, Chevrefoil and more Marie and her world(s)
  • on Thursday, a first experiment in being “prof for the day” where we’ll work in four larger groups: please add a comment in week 4 discussion : are you …
    • team Equitan
    • team Lanval
    • team Chaitivel
    • or team Bisclavret?

Translation, location, relocation, and dislocation

  • Lais: cultural preservation and continuation, remixing
    • formal movement across and between languages, kind of word-art, medium, genre
    • experimentation: remaking, versions and variants, balancing performance and transmissibility, keeping space open for live improvisation and interaction, for creativity and continuity
  • Fables:
    • the familiarity of older animal stories
    • may contain older layers of older histories (and cultures, languages, worlds) behind and beneath them
  • The Purgatory of Saint Patrick:
    • pilgrimage, adventure, stories associated with both
    • see also analogously: Chaucer, Canterbury Tales (later 14th c.), the pilgrimage “guide” (with stories) for Santiago de Compostella, 20th-century Michelin “Green Guides,” voyages to underworlds and otherworlds and parallel dimensions.

Making changes to reshape a story to be comprehensible: dress, behavioural codes, social convention, ways of thinking and knowing (including, but by no means exclusively, religious beliefs), and power structures.

Remaking and remixing: for a new audience, time, place; understandable to them; “translation” and “refashioning” and what you change and why (for example clothing, technologies, and customs), renovation / innovation and renaissances, Occitan novas, Italian novella, French nouvelle, Spanish novela (and telenovela), and the novel.

Maintaining some strange and alien aspects: for effect, for a reminder of distance and respect for it; sometimes strengthened as part of making this new version.

Physical locations

Ancient forests in this world / part of the world

  • Brocéliande (Britanny; see also horror film of same name)
  • Ardennes (Belgium/Luxemburg/France/Germany; see also Shakespeare’s “Forest of Arden”)
  • Białowieża (Poland/Belarus)

= in atmospheric slides:

+ other people from other worlds

+ going in to forest for adventure, quest, knowledge

+ self-discovery, rediscovery, connecting with roots, refinding older self, …

  1. lai/lais and translation:
    • Breton short(ish) narrative poem, lai related to Old Irish lóid and to contemporary—late 12th c. CE—Old High German Leich (and longer later continuing tradition of German Lied)
    • words and their ancestors and relatives and descendants +/- meaning “song”
    • but also with an aspect of storytelling, live performance, and being part of a living tradition that continues (and stays alive) through retellings and their variations: related to reconstructed hypothetical Proto-Indo European *leyg-, “jump around,” and through it for words in languages across central and western Eurasia—Indo-Iranian, Persian, Kurdish; Baltic and Slavic languages; Germanic and Celtic ones; Old French, via Marie; Old English—for ideas like: “bounce, shake, tremble, dance, play, game/sport, move around”
    • pull together all these senses underlying and constellating around this one word, lai: it’s intrinsically essentially about translation and/as the liveness of literature
    • Marie’s version: a “contemporary dress” version/translation, translocated for her time and place, and with space retained and opened up (that, too, is part of maintaining the lai’s openness as a form) for future further retellings, versions, continuations, translations, …
  2. This bridge, and the echoes of an older land bridge: other ways of knowing, preserving and transmitting knowledge, history, science; analogies, knowledge-keeping in Pacific Indigenous cultures, from here now, down the coast, across to Australia.
  3. MS + no performance notes: not unusual, a catch-22 where it’s assumed that a reader is either already a performer—with that knowledge transmitted orally and by apprenticeship with master artists, so the most that you’d add (Old Occitan troubadour poem-songs for ex.) might be the start of a melody, if it was a new tune or an unusual one or —or a different audience, reading “just” for the words

session 4.1 supplement: throat singing (Tuesday 28 September 2021)

In Tuesday’s session we/I digressed into talking about throat singing. I’m adding an extra post here for you about it, with some music and links.

  • Tanya Tagaq, “Tongues”
  • reconstructing the route that led to discussing throat singing

Tanya Tagaq, “Tongues”

(a first listen, audio only)

Tuesday’s throat-singing digression was neither entirely intended nor entirely unintended. Uncertain whether I’d bring it to our class this week or next week, the idea was further forward in my mind that day because of thinking about National Truth and Reconciliation Week and thinking about how as a 21st-century settler I should and can try to understand. The shape and direction of my own learning here has been about trying to understand something as itself and on its own terms, and trying to understand it in connection with a cognitive and conceptual framework of what I might already understand better: individual lived experience and mixed-up background, other knowledge (albeit, as with all knowledge, limited and imperfect), and this course and its world and other worlds which might all share some aspects in common:

  • alienness, marginalisation, estrangement, strangeness
  • loss, memory and remembrance, survival
  • unknowns and tragic unknowabilities
  • knowledge, knowing and unknowing, learning to know, learning to unknow and to accept and work with one’s own lack of knowledge, learning above all to listen
  • BUT ALSO the absolute inalienable unique specificity of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis histories and cultures and individual lives

I’m expressing this poorly and badly, and it is not my place for me to say any more because I would be whitesplaining, appropriating, adding insult to injury, blundering around messily, and risk distracting attention from others more—most—important here and now: the lost, the missing, the dead, the damaged, and survivors of residential schools / forced assimilation reeducation camps. People.

At the same time, I also thought that I should say something about why throat singing is something to think about, in the context of Truth and Reconciliation right here right now. Universities and their courses are supposed to be places of education and learning and thinking (and not, mourning this week especially, their opposites). It would be intellectually irresponsible (quite aside from inhuman) and an ethical failure not to seek connections between work in an academic course and a larger world around it. Even for a course that’s about a different time and place. Especially when that time and place is the deep roots of modern colonialism, ethnocide, and genocide.

It would be wrong for me as a person and as university faculty to be silent. Even if it’s being clumsy about ignorance and not being able to say anything. This feeling is also good: fear the day when you think that you know everything, can talk about anything, and have nothing to learn. Unsettling, being unsettled, but that’s the way to a knowledge that’s embraced by acknowledgement.

So. Let’s hear more from another person, then, someone better placed to speak as she knows more and has more to say, and is herself a Survivor: the Inuk throat singer Tanya Tagaq

Listen again, the bigger picture. (Videos embedded here might need to be opened in a fresh tab in YouTube, so I’ll always also add the direct links too like here.)

“Tongues” has been earworming me—can you say that in English?—since early on Tuesday morning. The timing of its release, one of these peculiar uncanny serendipitous unpredictable coincidences, before our class. A strange and wonderful thing. The song and its video were haunting our class in Tuesday, it was too immediate—just hearing and seeing it two hours before—to bring it, and the artist’s creative and critical work around it, in to our class. 

But the song had to be here, so here it is in this extended remix of our class [and] of our Tuesday session notes … 

Reconstructing the route that led to discussing throat singing

The approximate route was:

  1. general themes for this fortnight and adventuring module:
    • introduction to Marie de France and her writing as a bridge between the world of lyric poetry/song and the world of longer storytelling/narrative 
    • combined, in the background and overarching and underpinning, with this module’s space(s) of other worlds
  2. the form and performance of a lai:
    • a bridge connecting two things and that’s both of them (and neither; like translation bridging languages and/or cultures, time, and space)
    • musically, a mixture and alternation and simultaneous layering of sounds: up to the performer, from one voice telling a story, to multimedia polyphony, to multiple vocal performers and a full orchestra … 
    • no performance notes in the later (late 13th c.) written manuscript versions remaining of these earlier (late 12th c.) lais (more about this peculiar feature over the next few weeks)
    • vocally: can be singing and declamation / chanting and storytelling
    • can have other musical instruments: wind (for a single performer, this usually means switching between human voice and, say, a flute), stringed and percussive (can be used in other ways too, ex. using a stringed wooden instrument as a drum)
    • for enhancing and adding effects, affecting expression and meaning
      —weight, amplification, tempo, volume; underlining elements, weaving in new ones; complicating, nuance, shading 
      —feel, feeling, emotion, mood; for artist and audience, and part of how the performance itself creates a bridge bringing together performer and listeners, in that shared time and (internal, imaginative) space
      —plus everything else that is a performance: physical space, lighting, scent, dress, props, …
  3. one of the (many) unknowns of “Marie” “de France” and “her” “lais”: performance
    • a strand of scholarship / research that could itself constitute another kind of “version” (like the lais as translation, and like any performance especially when it included improvisation)
    • from attempts at exact historically accurate reenactment—inc. making instruments and clothes, using period tools and materials, etc.—to free open renovative/innovative interpretations (note that the French word “interprète” also means “performer”), like Alidé Sans’s “Aqueres montanhes”
    • interdisciplinary intercultural research involving comparative literature and cultural studies, music and musicology and ethnomusicology, folk and popular cultures, archeology and material history, histories of science and technology, anthropology and sociology, and basically all the academic(-ally divided up) humanities fields that are interested in human ways of knowing
    • a recent example (which I consider good, so include links so that you can decide for yourselves): the work of the Sequentia medieval music ensemble inc. collaborative work with Katarina Livljanic and Dialogos: traditional singing techniques of the Balkans, Eastern Mediterranean, and Black Sea areas
  4. a whole person can be more than a voice telling or singing one line:
    • movement, facial expression, dance
    • using body parts as musical instruments, for ex. hand-clapping and drumming on yourself
    • including other voices: from song to chant and back, falsetto, scream, howl, growl; and other languages, being multilingual moving from one language to another, mixing and remixing languages, and/or making new language(s) through puns and rhymes and phonetic patterns
    • and including the voice as an instrument: beatboxing, scat singing
    • and including using the voice—and everything around it—in more than one way at once
  5. THIS HERE is where we came to throat singing!
    • Tuvan throat singing—Mongolia, Siberia—and Inuit, Indigenous Arctic Circle connections
    • more overtone / harmonic singing around the world: geographically from Japan (Ainu) to Sardinia (western Mediterranean, back in our course’s world) and South Africa (Thembu Xhosa)

Let’s end [these notes] by returning to Tanya Tagaq’s voice, in her collaborative work with the Kronos Quartet, a contemporary classical (western) music string quartet; a musical truth and reconciliation:

Nunavut is a remarkable musical collaboration between Kronos Quartet and Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq. This performance of Nunavut was directed by Mark Lawrence as was the documentary “A String Quartet in her Throat”.
—Mark Lawrence

Larger context: a selection of Tanya Tagaq’s collaborations, in her site’s videos: 

session 4.2: no class, National Day for Truth and Reconciliation (Thursday 30 September 2021)

Thinking and learning about this day and week, and intersections with the context and topics of our course: about nation, identity, literature, culture, and a world; and about people, as collective groups and relationships and fragile precious individual living beings. In remembrance of every life lost, to forced assimilation camps. And for those who survived.

Listening: some poetry, spoken-word poetry, hip hop, and song from three artists:

JB The First Lady: https://www.jbthefirstlady.ca/

Billy-Ray Belcourt: https://billy-raybelcourt.com/

Selections from This Wound Is A World:

Keliya: https://www.shazam.com/artist/207170299/keliya

… and a bonus introductory Top 10 from the Raven movement for Indigenous justice: https://raventrust.com/top-10-indigneous-musicians/?fbclid=IwAR1jBuc_ayJejVm_lfPQETB8PsWUWqpHs7exoNqQufVm0zg7sCiqc95ufj4

Listening: a small selection of telling through podcasts: 

30 September 2022 ….

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