Well, I'm here with Anna and Erica, hello, you two. >> Hi. >> We are here to talk about a poem that appears in this book by Divya Victor and the book is called Kith. And toward the end of this book, it's pretty sizable book, we have a long poem that's broken up into alphabetical pieces and the poem is called Foreign Terms. And I'm going to read an epigraph from the poem. Foreign words and phrases that have not yet become anglicized, not found in Webster's, are italicized on first appearance in text and legends. And that's from the style manual for National Geographic. And another epigraph from the beginning of this poem, almost all absurdity of conduct arises from the invitation of those whom we cannot resemble, wow. >> Wow. >> And the first page is a facsimile of an English Tamil exercise book. So Tamil being a language of a certain section of India and also partly of Sri Lanka, formerly known as Ceylon. So you have almost a dictionary kind of thing. Then you go through the poem and you begin to get alphabetical sections. A is for Amani, C is for Cumeran and not Chutney, D is for dawn, G, H, H is for her hair. >> So it's like a children's catalogue of alphabet. >> It's kind of like it's a primer, right, it's a workbook. >> A is for apple, B is for boy, C is for, yeah. >> K is for kerchiefs. >> M is for Michael Jackson and Malcolm X. N is for the making of new Americans, what's that a reference to, Erica? >> Stein. >> Gertrude Stein, the making of Americans, N is for the making of new Americans. So there's a suggestion of immigration there, I guess. >> O is for O-H. And we're skipping all the way to the end and the last poem is not Z and nor is it Y, nor is it X. It's W, W is for Walt Whitman's Soul. And that's the poem we're going to talk about, because we're Whitman fans. >> [LAUGH] >> So I guess, given that epigraph foreign words and phrases have not yet become anglicized, and almost all absurdity of conduct arises from the imitation of those whom we cannot resemble. As people who've read and heard this poem read, what are some observations about how it sounds and what words are used in it? Get us started, Anna. Well, I guess one place to start would be the other epigraph that she uses in this poem, which is one of the very first Indian words to enter the English language, was the Hindustani slang for plunder, loot. And there's an awful lot of loot and looting in this poem. >> Yes, so say more about that epigraph, this is to be, just for the record, not the epigraph to the poem that's got all the alphabetic order. >> Right, this is just for this particular particular section within that. >> And, say the obvious about how, why would it be that one of the first Indian words to become part of English is this kind of incriminating word. >> Because the English did an awful lot of looting and plundering and pillaging. >> Of what though, by the way? >> Of the entire Indian subcontinent. >> Yes, but I need to be a little more specific, what were they interested in? It's certainly a rich [INAUDIBLE]. >> Say, like tea, spices, jewels, valuables. >> Natural resources. >> Resources. >> Resources of the Orient. >> Right. >> So called. >> Right. >> And Erica, is there a tone? I mean, this poem is just very languagey, which we'll talk about in a second. But is there a tone to the way language is deployed in the context of this looting? Do you sense it? It's a hard question. >> That's a hard question. >> I mean, is the creator of this language pissed off? >> I don't know that I would say that the creator is pissed off, I feel like the way that language that to me as an American reader, a lot of the terms are somewhat unfamiliar, but they're piled up in a very Whitmanian way. So it feels like it's almost, the poem itself is celebrating a certain cataloguing of language that a reader might not really be a part of. And I think that- >> What do you mean by that, a reader won't be part of? >> So that the reader just might not be familiar with, so like- >> Can you give some examples of words that the reader might not be familiar with? >> Yeah, like secreted from the cloaca of the kerria lacca set with glazed cakes. I had to look up cloaca and kerria laca, or another example is feral nautch girls. >> N-A-U- >> T-C-H. >> I'm in the poem and I'm feeling the movement of the language but there seems like there are consistently these words that are really important that I just have no, I don't know them. So I look them up, which is kind of a fabulous thing for a text to ask one to do. >> Mm-hm, Anna, we do have spices and tea and Indian delicacies, I guess. >> Sure. >> So how does the poem which uses so many of these things as luscious words, words that are plumby in the cheeks, tongue, lips, right and internal rhyming, that creates that plumbyness, bejeweled and oil loins anointed by coin, that admission of plump, plums, lump, sums into the Ganges, so my cheeks, tongue and lips are doing a lot of plumby work. >> It reminds me of October and the Real Order. >> Yeah, yeah, lum, mum, mum. >> [LAUGH] >> But what is Divya Victor achieving by piling up all these spices into a great wonderful basket that gets to be imported to your Anglo-American eyes? >> I kind of feel like she's looting English. >> And ears, I should say. She's looting English to do this work. >> Hmm. >> Right. >> Mm-hm. >> There's like a double act. >> So she's looting the English that got looted. >> Yeah. >> Uh-huh. >> And it's kind of an act of reclaiming. >> Mm-hm, all right. No, I like that. Erica, your thoughts on what Anna just said? >> I- That's brilliant, and I totally agree. And it's interesting because of if you think about the title, W is for Walt Whitman's Soul, you know there's this reclaiming Of a certain language where, the poem itself when you read it. It has a lot of formal rhythmic things in common with the Whitman that we read in ModPo, but- >> Song of myself. >> Song of myself, but the cataloging that happens in Song of Myself, which is sort of like the all encompassing every man. This is totally different because we're not necessarily dealing with one person as all people sort of stuff. We're dealing with looting. And there isn't this universalizing that you find in Whitman. And I love the moment in the middle of the poem where she writes a corks open a profound song, itself it sings. >> Yeah. >> And there's this it from the first word of the actual poem that carries through in place of the I or the we of Whitman. >> Mm-hm. Great. >> We have to deal with that right, like what this it is? >> We do but let's put it off for one second. Stay with Walt. So, I assume Erica, when you got to itself it sings there's a nod by Divya Victor to Song of Myself. >> And to the almost self sufficiency of language in catalog, of piled on language, and it creates its own world. Okay. So Anna if I in regular demotic idiomatic parlance were to come up to you and say I'm vying for Walt Whitman's soul. What would I mean? Or I'm vying for the soul of the Philadelphia Phillies or what is that idiom about, like I want for the soul? >> I guess like to get to the essence of it or the heart of it. >> Maybe. But there's- >> Like, are you satanic? I don't know. [LAUGH] Are you trying to buy it from them? >> I asked a question that I kind of knew the answer of and I don't do that very often because, I'm not Socratic and like, my questions are not Socratic. Which of course is the Socrates-like teacher discussion leader who knows the answer and is just trying to get you to do it to pretend like there's participatory. >> [CROSSTALK] >> No, I actually ask questions I don't know the answer to. In this case, I screwed up and asked a question I know the answer to. Vying for soul- >> Maybe I just don't know the idiom. >> No you do, but we don't use it much. If I'm vying for the soul, for someone else's soul. So it means I want the Whitman that I want. What are the two Whitman's intention here? And this W is for Walt Whitman's soul, which soul? There are two Whitmans here. There's the Whitman who got very excited especially toward the end of his career about imperialism and colonialism and American colonialism. That he didn't live long enough to see us take the Philippines, us take the Philippines, that's later right. That's the officially the only colony at that period. The Hawaiians would probably argue otherwise. But anyway, the Whitman who was cheering on passage to India, the Whitman who really wanted us to reach out and see and include in the Whitmanian sense of inclusion, everything and therefore was a bit of a plunderer and a bit of a defender of American linguistic. In the name of American democracy, linguistic vistas, which would include the world. The Suez Canal, for instance, which means what in the context of boatloads of spices in- >> Easier passage, it means if you can go through the Suez Canal, you can skip the whole Horn of Africa. >> Yeah. >> [CROSSTALK] >> It's a key economic moment from the point of view of being able to extract resources from a place like India. And the celebration of that is so Whitmanian, he really had a blind spot we would say at the end of his career. Okay, so there's that Whitman, and then there's the soul of the Whitman who is a model for the accumulations and the catalogs and the plummy sounds of language. W is for Walt Whitman's soul and I guess now the question I don't know the answer to is and we'll start with Erica is, what stance does this poem take, or does Divya Victor take or does her speaker take in relation to Whitman? >> Well, I think that what's brilliant about this poem is that it's simultaneously a critique of Whitman while enacting the cataloging that we know of his poetry. So it's sort of both. So the contents of the poem, I would say is going towards the critique of what we were just talking about, about Whitman, but then the way that the poem is written and the rhythms of the poem and the really long sentences and the cataloging, it's doing that. So it's sort of fascinating on how it's working on both levels. >> In a way, I mean in response to my using the idiom of vying for soul, it is a contestation itself for the Whitman we mistrust. The capacious, the kind of gross, reaching groping Whitman that gives us the heebie jeebies. The Whitman that Williams assumed. >> Sure. >> And one would say libidinal, but that's not necessarily relevant here or to use Bob Perelman's word, appettious. The appettious Whitman who would have enjoyed eating, drinking the Earl Grey tea, and all this and the other Whitman that we've been talking about. So, Anna, the ending, it seems bitterly ironic and critical right? A mocking of the the passage to India, of this soul and soul is the word right from the title. Is there any way to suggest that the end is not ironic and not a critique? >> Not a critique of? >> Whitman. >> Of Whitman? The end makes me so sad. I don't know. >> What are you sad about? Well, this whole idea of a soul bidding for its own passage. >> Mm-hm. >> Sets me up to think that it's impossible for the soul to bid for its own passage, that its passage has already been bought and sold to some other entity. I can't help but hear the middle passage in there. Even though slaves weren't necessarily brought from- >> But what is the passage of India that gets referred to here? It's of course the Suez Canal. >> The Suez Canal, yeah. So the passage of like stuff, the passage of goods, the passage of culture, the passage of all the things that got sort of culturally and physically exported like from India to Europe and North America and elsewhere. >> Let's me- >> I don't know, I don't know. I don't really know how to read the end. >> Let me read the last part of it and I'll ask each of you to respond and then we'll do some final thoughts and wrap up. So it can sell them with a name of a place, like scarves or garlanded whores moored to wharves. I just said wharves like a Philadelphian, wharves, sorry. Or garlanded whores, moored to wharves suckled by mother of pearl or teas named after Earls. And they with whole scores to settle, settle for homemade cures, nettles, ginger, turmeric, a paste or to taste. And it steals and seals in letters scented with sandal, sent abroad, waxed and pressed with cornelian gems, honed from ground it owns and makes stone. From their flesh ekes ink, from their sweat, soaks indigo in lye fermented with time and makes color, so it can bid for its own passage, the passage, O of this soul, to India! Erica, what do you hear there besides, amazing control of internal rhyming? >> I think the end is absolutely a critique of weapon. But again, kind of to go back to what we were talking about, the tone of the poem, I don't think the speaker is pissed off, even though it is her critique. Because what I heard in the language, is, I think it was Anna who was talking about the poem as reclaiming language that was colonized. So, I see in this, piling up that evolves to this exclamatory, it ends with an exclamation point. Yeah, it's ironic, it's absolutely a critique. >> It's almost a quote from Whitman- >> Yeah. >> The exclamation point, yeah. >> Absolutely, but it's so full of energy too. So it's, I'm trying to figure out how to say what I'm thinking. So, I think that in the control of language building up to this point, you got the critique simultaneous with a certain celebration. >> All right, Anna, now we get to the it. I'm going to read the first few lines and your job is to try to understand the it, in it sits with a fork. Okay, good luck. It sits with a fork made from a lotus on an ivory chair, eating an elephant stake in the company of bears and feral nautch girls on a monsoon evening incandescent with an appetite as mighty as railroad, there's Whitman. As railroad, spanned across seas and reclines. It's cheeks burnished, it's ass varnished by suns setting on bronze and sugared with saltpeter, its torso a tableaux for the annals of rectitude, the theater for roiling or robust passage, a veritable Suez Canal. Wow, okay, your job is to do the it, and Erica, we can give you any help from us. And Erica, the veritable Suez Canal suggests that something's going on here that is a metaphor, that is Suez Canal like, and I don't know what it is. Anna, it? So, maybe, my God, I don't know, it's so hard. Maybe, I mean, the title's W is for Walt Whitman's Soul, all right? >> So it could be the soul, it? >> So, could be it, the it could be the soul. >> The soul of Whitman- >> The soul of Whitman. >> Sits with a fork. This is like a debauch. It's a big meal >> Yeah. >> Debauch is the wrong word. What's the- >> Like a bacchanal. >> What's one of those scenes, it's a gluttonous imperium. >> Yeah. >> At the table. It sits with a fork made of Lotus on every chair. So, there's a chair, there's a fork. There's dancing girls. >> It's got- >> Chairs- >> Or it has a fork on the other hand. >> An appetite as mighty as a Whitman plum. Fat ass. It's a red ass, varnish with suns setting on bronze and sugar. It's this gross meal of looted language stuff. >> Yeah, >> That is a veritable Suez Canal. >> I mean, it's like you can read ass as a sort of a humanoid colonizer figure, in a way too? >> It's a kind of monstrous situation. >> Yeah, but that, it breaks down as soon as you come up with that reading, right? >> Yeah. >> The it is totally unstable. >> Yeah, okay, all right, Erica, your thought on either the it, or the veritable Suez Canal? because veritable does suggest, that this is an analogy of some kind. >> Well is the veritable Suez Canal the it? >> If so, help us. >> If so, I mean I feel like it goes back to the critique of Whitman. And it might be, if you think of it as a critique of Walt Whitman's Soul, then is thinking more globally of the looting of language or the looting of things. >> Samuel Johnson's epigraph, almost all absurdity of conduct, meaning everything that people do that's stupid, arises from the imitation of those whom we cannot resemble, which means what? Translate that into terms of immigration and imperialism. Almost everything we do that stupid arises from the imitation of those whom we cannot resemble. And what does that has to do with this? >> I'm just trying to, it's about how stupid cultural appropriation is. [LAUGH] Right. >> And the question is, this poem transports a tremendous load, overflowing of spices and jewels, directly to our eyes. In a way it is a veritable Suez Canal or an instance, linguistically of a veritable Suez Canal. Not that it can be said to be guilty of what Johnson is saying, but in fact, the speaker of this poem knows more than someone who's an idiot, because they try to imitate what they aren't or what they don't understand. There's a certain understanding here. Okay, final thoughts on this amazing piece. And I mean, people listening, watching this video have been thinking a lot about Whitman, so you might want to add something about Whitman. Okay, Anna, final thought of any kind? >> Well, my sort of Whitmanian final thought, is that, there's a moment in, I think it's counter 47 of Song of Myself, where Whitman says, the best among my students learn to destroy the teacher, well, talk about destroying the teacher. [LAUGH] This poem. >> All right, and now Whitman's Whitman. >> And now Whitman's Whitman in every possible opportunity, right? >> It's a blob of the pave list poem, that's so deeply languaged, that also performs the kind of political work of reclaiming the language that was looted. Rather than just simply sort of cataloguing a scene, right, I'm not trying to dis Whitman, but This poem very much out-Whitmans Whitman in its politics, in its critique of the language that was looted in its critique of the stuff that was looted. I mean, my favorite moment of those, sorry, I'm going to say my sort of second half my final word, is towards the end. The mother of pearl, or teas named after earls, like bergamot, the tea in Earl Grey tea, that's what that tea should have been named for, not after Earl Grey, right? [LAUGH] Should've been named bergamot. >> Yeah, and bergamot's such a better sound- >> Yeah. >> Coming out of the mouth. >> Mm-hm, so- >> Erica- >> It's great- >> Final thoughts? >> It's so great. >> I mean, my final thought was also going to be around, The incredible way the poem is constructed, and how I think that this poem out-Whitmans Whitman. Because there is no moment in it that feels sort of sloppy or excessive. The command over language, and the brilliant internal rhyming stuff happens, I mean, it's just fabulous. >> My final thought is anticlimactic after those two wonderful thoughts. But you said blab of the pave, so blab of the pave happens in either Brooklyn or Manhattan. I believe it's Manhattan. It's in the theater district. It's the snow falling, and a theater is letting out, and- >> Yeah, and there's a lot going on. It's a lot of noise. And it's a great passage in Song of Myself. But here we have this kind of irony of, it's as if the pave that is the site or locale of the blabbing, and therefore the locus of this man's aesthetic, it's as if that pave were somehow to have been stretched across the sea, or through a canal. Which, of course, is impossible. That's a mixed metaphor, right? You can't have a blab of a pave that's global. But here, notice reminds us of that impossibility with an appetite as mighty as railroads spanned across seas. There's the Whitmanian manifest destiny trope, railroad, which Woody Guthrie and Bruce Springsteen and a whole lot of other people have appropriated as their trope of America, the American soul. >> Right. I think of Springsteen in Land of Hope and Dreams, in which we get a railroad where Springsteen, the speaker of that, is saying I'll accompany you as far as I can, come on board, come on board. And they're clearly crossing the prairies of the US, and Springsteen is being Whitman, he's saying, I'll guide you. I can't take you to the promised land, but I'm your friend. All right, well, so that's a very American continental, that is the American continent, and manifest destiny, I think. Well, manifest destiny is all well and good, if you're the aforementioned Steinbeck, or even Springsteen. Let's get to California. Or even if you're Frank L Baum in the Wizard of Oz, it's all about getting to the land of milk and honey, right? That's not fine, because of all the people you had to kill and displace on the way there. But in the American context, you can say that and get away with it, if you're Whitman, somewhat. But it's a little harder to get away with a railroad that spans across seas, goes through the canal, extracts all the resources and gets away with it. And wow, I thought that was going to be a small point, it turned out to be a big point. >> [LAUGH] >> So I think the is putting the lie to the metaphor of the railroad spanning, right at the beginning, and signaling to us that there's a problem here with Whitmanian capaciousness. And there's a lot it doesn't understand. Thank you both, this was good. >> Yeah. >> Thank you.