On Orphic Criticism and Occult Poetics, AWP 2019
by Simon Calder
I propose that we need a hermetic means of approaching literature – the interpretive pose of the mystic, the magician, the mage.
So declares Ed Simon in his contribution, ‘Moved the Universe: Notes towards an Orphic Criticism,’ to Berfrois: The Book, which I read while holding down the Berfrois fort on my first morning at this year’s Association of Writers and Poets (AWP) conference in Portland, Oregon.
As poet Calliope Michail relieved me from our table, freeing me to explore the rest of the book fair and conference, it was as though Simon’s call for a reading of poems “not as texts but as prayers” had cast a spell upon everything that was to follow.
With every turn I encountered a reverence regarding “literature’s sense of the ineffable, the numinous, the transcendent, the ecstatic;” around every corner a reminder of Simon’s reflections on “Calliope with her tales of brave Ulysses”: “if there is a sense of the sacred, occult, or even superstitious in that model of the muse, then I lustily embrace that.”
One of the first tables I encountered beyond Berfrois’ was that of a Canadian press named Ekstasis, a word that has its roots in the Ancient Greek ἔκστασις, meaning “to stand outside oneself.”
Having been reminded of that fact of etymology by poet, editor, and dancer Carol Ann Sokoloff, I acquired a copy of her New Sufi Songs and Dances and lustily embraced that book’s pronouncement: that “The Soul expresses its inexhaustible energy in so many ways, all of which are characteristic of its celestial relationship with the feeling heart.”
When asked what manner of books I was seeking by a woman working at the Red Hen Press table, I followed Simon and Sokoloff’s suite. “The mystical!” I responded with enthusiasm, then was handed a copy of Katharine Coles’ Wayward. The cover of Coles’ collection, which my new Red Hen friend had designed, contained an image of The Fool from the Major Arcana tarot deck.
Later conversing with Coles, I learned how the cover designer’s intervention saved the fool: the book’s back cover reverses the image on its front cover, Coles showed me, granting the fool a second cliff upon which to land after lifting his foot from the first.
The book that my fool-saving Red Hen friend thought most fitting for my needs was Cai Emmons’ Weather Woman, a novel whose protagonist “discovers her deep connection to the natural world has given her an ability to affect natural forces.” The blurb on the back cover continues: “a woman experiencing power for the first time in her life, she must figure out what she can do for the world without hurting it further.”
“It’s low fantasy,” Emmons, who was present, signing copies, explained to me: “the world is recognizably ours, but with this one, new disorienting component.”
“The main character’s discovery that she has this previously unrecognized power?” I asked.
“So the novel dramatizes her in the act of discovering that she has this power? undergoing and overcoming doubt that she truly has this power?”
“Yes,” Emmons responded, “it’s a book about female empowerment.”
“Yes! The manifestation of attunement, an attunement between responsibility and power.”
One of the first panels I attended after having purchased Wayward and Weather Woman had much to do with the same subjects: female empowerment; manifestation; and the attunement of responsibility and power.
Comprised of papers presented by editors of Luna Luna, Grimoire Magazine, Transom and Akron Press, this was a panel about, by, and for witches.
Discussing her editing practice, Jessica Berger asserted “I hope to read work like a temporary tattoo that doesn’t wash off for weeks.”
In wonderfully heterogenous ways, the panelists each saw the witch as a figure of empowering non-conformity. Beyond this, though, one panelist, Joanna Valente, conceptualized the witch as “a figure who sees, listens, and understands the things,” specifically “because she wants to heal.”
Wondering why the witch has such resonance right now, the panelists agreed that it is in part because she “provides a way of speaking the unnamed, especially in the wake of the #MeToo movement.”
As Mary Biddinger so eloquently put it, now appears to be a time at which we feel at last “able to access the parts of religion that are mystical and reject the parts that reject us.”
It struck me that our reasons for embracing the figure of the witch are remarkably similar to Ed Simon’s for embracing orphic criticism, the interpretive pose of the mystic, the magician, the mage.
In attendance at “The Season of the Witch” was my fool-saving friend. She gave me a temporary tattoo. It didn’t wash off for days.
Day two at AWP, and I first find myself engaging with author Rolf Yngve at the Saddle Road Press table. Yngve’s new collection of short fiction, Dog Watches: Stories from the Sea, intrigues me, informed as it is by thirty-five years of active service in the US Navy, so I purchase a copy.
Before I return to my table, Rolf and I discuss performance art (Saddle Road’s Ruth Thompson has been working on a collaborative performance with Japanese dancer Shizuno Nasu) and the tarot.
“Here, take this!” exclaims Rolf.
He encourages me to take a tarot card from the table.
“Which is it?”
I turn the card, which reveals itself to be number eleven in the Major Arcana: Justice.
“That’s promising,” he notes.
“I tell you what,” Yngve chimes; “Take that with you, then bring it back at 2pm. Tania Pryputniewicz will be giving readings here. Show her that card and tell her I said you should have a reading done.”
“Thanks Rolf. I will!”
Back at the Berfrois table, I am introduced to Teresa K. Miller, who I congratulate on her brilliant piece in the Berfois book. Like every piece in the series Teresa has published with Gregory Giles, “Zombie Viruses and Parasite Eggs; or, Horror Emerges from the Thawing Arctic” is a film conversation with an environmental and social justice theme. Looking back over the piece, I am reminded of Weather Woman and Emmons’ ideal on manifesting attunement between responsibility and power.
In Berfrois: the Book, Miller reflects: “psychology gives us the term ‘diffusion of responsibility’ to describe the decreased likelihood we’ll act in a group, because we assume someone will step in. Someone else, some entity more powerful than us, could and should take action. And why sacrifice individually if our neighbor won’t?” Miller proceeds to characterize our dilemma thus:
We can change our interaction with the natural world and be an example for others, even when no law yet compels us, or we can contribute to the problem with abandon and abandon hope.
Calliope joins us at the table and notices my Justice card. Tania Pryputniewicz is just about to start conducting readings at the Saddle Road table, I explain, and Calliope and I decide that we’ll both have readings done.
Before leaving for mine, I notice that a panel titled “Tarot for Writers: Expanding Intuition, Imagination & Craft” is due to begin in an hour.
“Yes! People keep asking me why I’m not on that,” exclaims Tania Pryputniewicz, who has also just heard of that panel, when I arrive for my reading; “you’ll have to report back to me!”
Before conducting my reading, Tania responds to my talk of tarot and craft by sharing a little about her own deck-making. “Here’s my fool card,” she exclaims, highlighting the presence on that card of a heart with a compass. The title of Tania’s forthcoming workbook, which she’s here at AWP to read a chapter from, is Heart’s Compass Tarot and Writing. “I rise daily eager to face the blank page and follow the compass of my heart,” Tania asserts on her website.
“Are you ready?” Tania asks, inviting me to shuffle the cards, mixing myself with the deck.
Tania next asks for a blessing – that the reading “come from truth, love, and light, compassion and clarity” – and asks me to check in with my heart, then share what I’m seeking to know.
“On a very general level, I want to know what my next step is.”
The reading begins.
It is a three card reading.
The first card – concerning what Simon comes in with – is The Moon.
“The Moon is a big soul card,” explains Tania; “it’s about turning inside. So this is a great time for doing exactly what you’re doing: reflecting on the next step…”
“I actually just wrote a collection of songs about the moon.”
“A-ha! I love it!” Tania smiles, then draws the Page of Wands.
“So, in the recent past, an energy that’s still with us is the Page of Wands. Pages are still learning, and here she’s holding this beautiful staff. She’s learning to stand up for herself, to get in touch with her creative passions.”
Beckoning at the staff, Tania states: “she’s got the tools to do it now.”
The third card, concerning what’s on the horizon, is the Two of Swords: “now this person has a blindfold on, and she has her arms crossed in service of blocking out what people are saying. She’s taking a moment to get things balanced.”
“What a nice, coherent story,” I note.
“Yes, and then there’s this,” says Tania, drawing attention back to the Justice card. “If you look at these two together it seems there’s an opportunity to rate things fairly and have a broad perspective over it all.”
Tania and I take in the narrative.
“Would you like a further image, for the next step, for direction?” she asks.
“Yes, please. I would love one.”
Tania draws The Fool.
“Wonderful! Could you have gotten a better card for starting over?”
At that moment it suddenly strikes me that the fool card between us is the very same one – from the Rider Waite deck – on the cover of Wayward.
“My friend designed a book cover with this exact image on it!” I blurt out, “but the cliff that he’s about to walk off is mirrored on the back, so he’s saved from falling.”
“This is a beautiful blessing for a new beginning,” she reiterates. “You see, the beauty in him is that, yes, you could see him as being about to walk off a cliff, but his heart is so full and so free; he’s uninhibited, and fearless. The universe loves a fool.”
“What’s that in his hand?”
“…and here we are in Portland, the City of Roses!”
Tania and I smile again, then I highlight that I’d better be off to the tarot panel.
“Do! Enjoy it! And report back!”
“I will!” I exclaim, “in a joyful, foolish manner.”
When I arrive at room F281 for the “Tarot for Writers” panel, the first thing I notice is that twice as many writers as can fit into that room are trying to do so.
Until very near the end of the panel, it is impossible for me to even approach the door, so I stand in the Conference Center corridor, notebook in hand, recording everything I am able to overhear, from “tarot is a tool so that the unconscious self can interface with the conscious mind” to “we really misjudged the size of the room, didn’t we?!”
The panelists keep returning to the relations among their artistic processes and tarot, from Fatia Kola’s emphasis on how Pamela Colman Smith’s Minor Arcana “brought poetry and liveliness” into an otherwise-abstract occult practice, to Leslie Marie Aguilar’s detailed account of how hues of the “joyous,” “animalistic,” and “carefree” were wrought into the fool card she crafted.
Shortly after this second day of panels ends I reunite with Calliope and we concur that this year’s AWP seems exceptionally mystical. I share how immediately after the trot panel I attend another on “Occult Poetics.” This second exceptional panel is curated by one Laurin DeChae, who posits that the return of practices like divination and astrology to the popular sphere “signals a return to such feminine divine energy as has previously been weaponized against us.” Reflecting on the rekindling of relation between writing and occultism in her own scholarship, DeChae asserts “I felt myself becoming witchier.”
My Red Hen friend makes another appearance before the end of the evening, this time gifting me some rosemary. I tell her about the drawing of the fool card.
“You’re definitely on a journey of sorts,” she responds.
The final panel that I attend on day three of the conference, “Literary Sexual Abuse: from Silence to Safety,” is curated by a witch named Annie Finch who I meet at the AWP dance party at the end of day two.
“The goal of this panel,” she states, “is to create change on a spiritual or psychological level, and since my spiritual path is that of the witch it will end with a healing ritual, to change the energy around sexual abuse.”
One of the panelists, Cathy Linch, does an excellent job of grounding discussion of how change can be affected in deep appreciation of the ways in which we are “changed physiologically” by trauma. Drawing on Van Der Kolk’s seminal work The Body Keeps The Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, Linch makes a well-reasoned case that it is senseless “to condemn ourselves for the ways we’ve developed to deal with trauma,” then highlights how hope exists in a broad array of possible “cognitive, communal, bodily interventions,” from dance, theatre, and yoga, to Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), mindfulness and writing.
As my AWP experience draws to a close with such emphases, I think back to Carol Ann Sokoloff’s celebration of becoming one’s body through dance; to Laurin DeChae’s emphasis on reuniting I and we through occult poetics; to my favorite lines from the Wayward collection, that “what matters is / What occurs occurs / Between them, not to them”; to meeting Annie Finch on the dance floor; and to my discussion with Rolf Yngve about Thompson and Nasu’s poetry and dance collaborations.
In the words of Hidayat Inayat-Khan, as quoted by Carol in New Sufi Songs and Dances, “some sing; others dance; others write poems; others paint, carve or mould; and others play or create music,” since “the soul expresses its inexhaustible energy in so many ways;” and in the words of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Committee, as quoted first by Bessel Van Der Kolk and then again by Linch, “my humanity is inexplicably bound up to yours,” this explaining the effectiveness of modalities of healing like choral singing, drum circles, and dance.
This is the word that panelist Shaindel Beers presents as something she would like to “invite in,” “a word to walk away from AWP with” in the final stage of the healing ritual with which the final panel ends.
The word on which I land is integrity, understood not only as the quality of being honest and having principles but also as the state of being whole and undivided.
There exists – I am reminded of Tania Pryputniewicz’s assertion – a position from which arises an opportunity to rate things fairly and have a broad perspective over it all.
The ritual ends, and I find myself leaving the Portland Conference Centre with arms full of rosemary, sage, and seed packets (courtesy, again, of Shaindal Beers), as well as a new word beneath my temporary tattoo.
“Yours hasn’t come off yet,” notes my Red Hen friend, into whose company I happen upon leaving the conference center.
I tell my friend about the panel and the ritual and the word, and then I stop telling, and listen.
“What steps can I take,” I ask her, “to help women and improve this situation?”
Inspired by Laurin DeChae and Annie Finch and Joanna Valente, by orphic criticism and occult poetics, I feel myself becoming witchier. I feel determined to engage in the doings that are challenging, to figure out and serve whatever facilitates healing. What is the alternative after all, but to contribute to the problem with abandon and abandon hope?