Oilywood reflects coastal life in Burrard Inlet
Christine Leclerc’s Oilywood, well-deserved winner of the 2014 bpNichol award, operates like a cut-up filmstrip of biographical and autobiographical reflections on coastal life in BC’s Burrard Inlet. The action is prompted by increasingly public and dubiously legal tar sand/oil industry incursions into the region. Spliced into this film strip’s em-dash cuts are a ticker tape of oil giant Kinder Morgan’s news releases and a scattering of terse, italic interjections—“hear something,” “fish on rocks,” “who gets to belong here,” “shifting baseline.”
Over sixteen sections, a modest 1–3 pages each, the focus oscillates between reflection and news release, suggesting a tug-of-war between community and corporate discourse. However, the mood here is tension, not opposition. Where the two competing discourses are cut rapidly with interjections, for instance, the result is uneven but nonetheless unified terrain, easily navigable through code-switching:
[…] I always
think about that, how the water stays
flat and the Earth slopes down below
it. I love how it connects, how the
ocean could go up—
Kinder Morgan grows natural gas treating—
—business with acquisition of Gas-Chill.
El Paso to present at Oppenheimer 5th Annual Industrial
These reflections and news releases operate in the documentary tradition. If Oilywood were a film, it might feature talking heads punctuated by shots of newspaper headlines. Meanwhile, the interjections—Leclerc’s poetic voice scorching the celluloid?—digress from the ideal of documentary neutrality. Yet their decidedly spare digressiveness, sometimes allusive and sometimes reminiscent of Ingmar Bergman’s cryptic still shots, becomes semantic only in relation to Oilywood’s documentary content. Think the Kuleshov effect, as described by Hitchcock.
What’s the Leclerc effect, then? While no one would call this chapbook’s ecopolitics ‘ambiguous’—it opens with a declaration that “advocacy demands / our sketches” of “the future”—you’d have trouble showing that Oilywood is polemically didactic.
“Sidelong” vs. “Didactic”
Forgive a few of my own digressive interjections. At the most recent London Open Mic Poetry Night (Feb 2015), Gary Barwin fielded a few questions about ‘political poetry.’ These were prompted, in part, by his performance of “inside,” a poem from his moon baboon canoe that excavates the nesting-doll layers of dog/Stephen Harper/dog/Stephen Harper inside our current Palpatinian Prime Minister. For Barwin, “inside” casts a “sidelong” glance toward the political, avoiding an overt “didacticism” (e.g., comparing Harper to Palpatine) that, while preaching to the converted, risks alienating the unconvinced.
But Oilywood is neither sidelong nor didactic. Kinder Morgan is spot lit—it’s the chapbook’s main proper noun, if not its main character. But what on earth do its investment-capital-jargon-clotted, third-corporate-person news releases mean? Leclerc’s interjections guide our interpretation toward the concrete, reminding us of “fish on rocks,” “rubbered ducks and harried herons,” and that “birds drip with it [oil].”But what is she showing us that we haven’t already seen? This is collage work, juxtaposition. It’s about selection and framing, the sub rosa art of documentary. It situates propositions about causality and responsibility, Kuleshov-like, in the reader’s eye.
Back to London: an audience member champions the importance and “threat” of literature’s capacity for “unpacking” ruling ideology. She mentions Harper’s attacks on democratic speech and compares them to fascistic/dictatorial regimes’ suppression of the literati. Barwin agrees: “unpacking” is very important. “I’d love to be considered a threat,” he jokes. (I agree, silently.) “Unpacking” buzzes around the room for a bit.
But Oilywood doesn’t ‘unpack.’ It provides no glossary of Kinder Morgan-speak. It leaves readers to unpack the relations between its documentation and its italic interjections. The simple work of juxtaposing corporate jargon with community history seems a profoundly political gesture. I wonder, then, if the work of literature, even political literature, really requires unpacking. More specifically, Leclerc suggests that docupoetry—a political poetry par excellence, as Joseph Harrington suggests—need not bean act of unpacking at all.
“Let the text speak for itself”
And it never shut up
In his recent manifesto of wifi-enabled literature, Uncreative Writing, Kenneth Goldsmith advocates the politics inherent to “copying and replication”:
If we wished to critique globalism, for example, uncreative writing’s response would be to replicate and reframe the transcript from a G8 summit meeting where they refused to ratify climate control threats as is, revealing much more than one ever could by editorializing. Let the text speak for itself: in the case of the G8, they’ll hang themselves through their own stupidity. I call this poetry.
Oilywood shrugs in Goldsmith’s direction, in that Kinder Morgan’s news releases are “the text … itself,” replicated and reframed, rather than editorially unpacked.
But Stephen Collis’ perspectives on political and documentary poetry are more relevant to Oilywood. Collis gets a direct nod in Leclerc’s acknowledgements and provides a blurb for the chapbook’s back cover. He also comments on Leclerc’s advocacy and the derision of political art as “propaganda” in a recent Town Crier interview with he and his decomp collaborator, Jordan Scott. But even before that, in an ars poetica on his own anti-monumental The Barricades Project, Collis observes that:
Capitalism is paratactic, mobile, and poses everywhere the problem of boundaries.
Poetry is paratactic, mobile, and poses everywhere the problem of boundaries.
His Project, as a poetic “history of alternatives and willfully imaginative alterations” to capital, is thus a project of “provisionality,” of resistance not as canonized movements but as movement per se. From this perspective, resistance doesn’t unpack: it lives out of its suitcase.
There are 135 words of poetic interjection in Oilywood. That’s less than five per chapbook page. If anything, then, Leclerc is packing light. I call this poetry.
Not polemos but body-talk; not incitement but emplacement
I don’t mean to mislead. If Oilywood tries a kind of resistive semantic movement, this is not an abstracted nomadism. Its reflections document a deep investment in the common space of Burrard Inlet. The title, a conceptual play on the Hollywood sign, signals Leclerc’s preoccupation with place as much as it does the chapbook’s formal affinity with film. And as much as these reflections are formally consonant with The Barricades Project’s “disembodied lyrics lacking specific subjectivities,” they consistently tie the poems back to the tactile and embodied. Leclerc’s interjections do the same: “linger,” “make out,” “fog-drizzle,” “rock skip,” “dragged toes through wet sand.”
Perhaps most radically, these italic interjections demand the accountability of Kinder Morgan’s abstracted, alien jargon to the experiences and actions of human bodies in ecological place: Kinder Morgan’s economic bullying is “Kinder Morgan— / throw[ing] sticks ….” Even Kinder Morgan’s capitalist futurism is set deep in the body: “the future … is flush with … hear something / — / assholes.” (You might also hear an echo of William S. Burroughs’s cut-up masterpiece, “Did I Ever Tell You About the Man That Taught His Asshole to Talk?”)
If literary censorship and persecution make literature political through context, then debates about the (political) ‘should dos’ and (aesthetic) ‘can dos’ of literature must be seen in the context of the liberal democratic (colonial, capitalist, corporate) politics that attempts to make literature purely aesthetic—that is, that demands its apoliticization.
On the other hand, for Leclerc, oil politics makes literature (especially that of community, body, and place) ecopolitical through context. Kinder Morgan’s discourse erases the material specificity of Burrard Inlet, but as Leclerc insists, “I need this place.”
Activist and poet Bobbi Sykes once famously asked, “What? Post-colonialism? Have they left?” Of course they—the colonial bodies and institutions occupying settler colonies, like Sykes’s Australia—hadn’t, haven’t, and won’t leave. Likewise, we seem stuck with corporate bodies like Kinder Morgan and their attendant demo-capitalist institutions. So the notion of apolitical or ‘post-political’ literature is baffling. Until that utopic day, when “they” all leave, we and Leclerc—as Collis puts it so well—“write in a world where there isn’t anything but the political to write about—a world where everything is political.”