Writing From the Lip of the Void: Naropa’s Community Practice Day, October 15, 2013

By Brent Zionic

Pairs of shoes, boots, sandals, flip-flops and even some high heels lined the hallway at Nalanda campus all the way from the entrance to the lecture hall on the morning of October 15th, 2013, Naropa’s Community Practice Day. A group meditation session ended just before the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics began. The bodies of freshly meditated minds meandered to the student lounge for refreshments or the restrooms for relief while professor Andrea Rexilius, the Summer Writing Program coordinator, checked out the stage and the sheet she had hung from the ceiling for the Panel Discussion “Writing From the Lip of the Void.” Minutes before the discussion, I had lent a pen to professor Bhanu Kapil in the student lounge, who was scribbling her notes on a long sheet of what looked like non-tacky duct tape.

When everyone entered the hall, we each found a golf pencil and small sheets of paper underneath our sitting cushions. Each sheet had on it a different question, prompting us for a response. Bhanu informed us that we could, throughout the panel discussion, scribble our answers and turn them in later for possible publication in a journal. She then introduced everyone on the stage: Andrea Rexilius, J’Lyn Chapman, Bhanu Kapil, Reed Bye, and JKS director Michelle Naka Pierce. She informed us that, “We wanted to write something from the body. What do you know about dismemberment?” and thereby put everyone on their figurative toes. She explained her ribbon of notes as an example of putting whatever is at hand to use: lacking a sheet of paper on which to take her discussion notes, she grabbed a roll of whatever was available among the construction materials at her house.

Andrea took the opening statements and moved us to the contemplative. A white sheet hung from the ventilation ducts to the left of the stage, and it was pierced with 6 sewing needles, long red threads dangling from each. She invited the audience to visit the sheet, examine and absorb it thoughtfully, and then contribute their stitch. The same way that we all contributed by writing our responses to the writing prompts, we all had a chance to add our stitch to the collective weave on the blank canvas. “Does writing pierce the page?” Bhanu Kapil had asked us all during the introduction.

Michelle Naka Pierce prepared us for a video demonstration of the 2010 MoMA exhibit “The Artist is Present” by Marina Abramović. “Attention is not concentration,” she told us while discussing what it means to write contemplatively. She asked us to consider, “How do you attend to the moment in a way that you take a risk?” Her point was to demonstrate how the artist Marina sat at a table for 8 hours a day, attending fully to whoever sat across from her. This intense focus required allowing failure to be a part of the work, a prescient lesson for Michelle to choose because the projector equipment failed to give us the video after a long delay. Reed Bye interjected between the video equipment failure and the loud train whistles just to the east of us, reminding us about attention: “How the myriad things experience themselves. Let the train whistle experience itself as a train whistle,” he quipped.

We skipped forward to Reed during the delay, who gave to us some further thoughts on attention, interspersed with lines of poetry from 17th century haiku poet Matsuo Bashô:  “Year after year/On the monkey’s face/A monkey’s face.” He mentioned that language is a wild system, and that “Poetry steps between a non-verbal state of mind and our gift of language.” This opposition of non-verbal and verbal is the place where we find the charge of meaning, caught between such oxymorons as “Wild system, Black Snow, and Loud Silence.”

During the Q&A period, someone asked a question about “pre-language meaning,” and how it affected the writing of the panelists. It was predictably difficult to talk about “pre-language” as a concept, but J’Lyn Chapman offered a poignant response regarding the use of language and its function overall. She spoke about meaning being ephemeral, and that all of us who use language have the capability of creating meaning that can be shared. “And what I produce is phenomenal,” she said. “Not just me, I mean…but all of us.” It was a nice way to bring a close to Bhanu’s opening remark that “We are all co-researchers.”

In a fitting reminder of what it means to be in the moment, Bhanu closed by telling us, “Goodbye, forever.”

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Brent Zionic is a first year MFA candidate at JKS. He has a MS in computer science, a MA in Japanese, and 15 years of experience in writing innovative software, but decided to give all that up to pursue creative writing. He has credits as the translator of “Furusato no shiro wa,” a collection of poems on Himeji Castle.