So I toil in this “transpersonal” lyric. Yes, the lyric that seduces me most seems an organic field of reception, an egoless constellation of perceptions (Kyger, Whalen). Yet, taking up after Pryor, I want the poem to be an argument too, one that advances through a slippery, protean range of illocutionary gestures and ellipses that activate assumptions and responses for readers and thereby achieve some shift in the audience’s perception, or perlocutionary effects, but effects that always exceed anything the poem can anticipate.
I chose my book’s title, This Isa Nice Neighborhood, because it activates, in miniature, the rhetorical aspect of such transpersonal poetics. The title’s history as a defunct public art installation originally conceived by the artist Daniel J. Martinez and two collaborators is detailed in a note in the back of the book. When I present this text to students, though, I start without context and ask them, simply, what language is for. They invariably answer “communication.” But while no one has any trouble arriving at a literal understanding of Martinez’s text, it nonetheless dares us to correct its spelling and in that to correct also its diction and accent. The text makes itself available to us while simultaneously making available the possibility of its alteration. It is as if the act of reading this sentence conjures above it the hand that wields the correction pen. That my own labor (and that of my fellow composition teachers) is implicated by the suspended pen makes the text that much more urgent, and potentially threatening, when we consider its obverse reading. In other words, when we deny the urge to train the thing toward standard American English and indulge in saying the words, in taking on their diction and accent, however briefly, as our own. Has not Martinez laid out before us, then, a banana peel, one that slides us forcefully and gleefully into the role of minstrel? And it is minstrelsy unfaithful to any specific history of race relations in the U.S. but haunted by all of them, a quintessentially post-modern minstrelsy. For, whose accent, exactly, does the text render? The public art installation Martinez and his collaborators designed was meant to be installed outside San Francisco’s then new Moscone Center. It is worth noting that the neighborhood that was dismantled to make room for the convention center had housed a thriving community of Filipino immigrants. What’s more, the original design for the public art project laid neon tubing over each word that would, by night, glow the same word in Chinese characters on one side and in Spanish on the other. And, finally, the text helps make legible the specificity of standard American English. As one student who identifies as white and lives in Dallas pointed out, standard American English often runs words together, and this text seemed to her a perfectly accurate representation of her own manner of speaking the phrase. So the accented “other” we are given to perform when we utter “this isa nice neighborhood” is a perfect void each reader/speaker fills in, or, colors for herself.