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Steve Halle reviews
Scratch Sides: Poetry, Documentation, and Image-Text Projects
Kristin Prevallet

77pp. Skanky Possum Books. US$10. ISBN: 097039523X paper

This review is about 4 printed pages long.

Against Lightning Flashes: Inspiration in Kristin Prevallet’s Scratch Sides

Poet, translator and teacher Kristin Prevallet proposes ideas for revising traditional views of poetic inspiration that derive from the Romantic/Lyric school of contemporary poetics. Her views on inspiration are informed heavily by Édouard Glissant’s ideas in Poetics of Relation, encompassing both his rhizomatic view of Relational poetry as an enmeshed, intertwining root system, much stronger and more diverse than a single root. Based on the rhizomatic system, Prevallet’s idea of poetry becomes “an arrow that paradoxically has no clear trajectory, that leads from periphery to periphery, that makes every periphery into a center but at the same time ‘abolishes the very notion of center and periphery’” (“Writing” 4). This sounds like poetry of indeterminacy, lacking closure or totality, but Prevallet favors investigation and accumulation to replace striving toward certitudes in poetry:

paragraph 2 

These questions of Relation extend to the very moment of the creative act. How do poems get written? Where does that flash of creativity come from? What is inspiration? The Relational poet simplifies the first question by discarding the last, and rather than sitting on mountaintops waiting for genius to strike, looks around and begins collecting, accreting, gathering. Glissant writes, "We no longer reveal totality within ourselves by lightning flashes. We approach it through the accumulation of sediments… lightning flashes are the shivers of one who desires or dreams of a totality that is impossible or yet to come" (32). This emphasis on the accumulation of sediments implies an apprehension of the world not as an unshaped bundle of materials waiting to be formed, but rather as a diverse and extensive patterning that is already formed and transforming, already imbued with a logic. (“Writing” 4)


Creativity’s flash, then, comes from involvement in Relation itself. Simply involving oneself in the rhizomatic schema of the ever-complex, changing and shrinking world through cultural interactions and projects becomes the new inspiration. For Glissant (and Prevallet), the “accumulation of sediments” begins at home, following the clichéd idea that the writer must write what she knows, “Sediment then begins first with the country in which your drama takes shape. Just as Relation is not a pure abstraction to replace the old concept of the universal, it also neither implies nor authorizes any ecumenical detachment” (Glissant 33). The rationale makes sense. How can a poet expect to participate in the diverse world community if she cannot relate to the day-to-day world she now occupies?


      Prevallet’s own poetry and projects begin in the world with which she is most familiar. Her book Scratch Sides: Poetry, Documentation, and Image-Text Projects, published in 2002, coincides with her article “Writing is Never By Itself Alone: Six Mini Essays on Relational Investigative Poetics,” published in 2003, and both the creative and scholarly texts inform and elaborate upon each other. Prevallet also does readers the uncommon courtesy of explaining from where her poems in Scratch Sides derive. Many of the projects stem from Prevallet’s attempt to remove classical notions of inspiration from her compositional method by accumulating documents and synchronizing her scholarly work, lyric poetry and notably synchronistic current events into poems. Prevallet reveals the methods she used to arrive at the poetic ends we see in Scratch Sides in an appendix called “Notes on Composition: aka ‘demystifying the process’”


      Two of Prevallet’s poems represent her thoughts on eliminating inspiration in favor of accumulation in Relational Investigative Poetics. Prevallet describes “Lead, Glass, and Poppy” as “written using synchronous thinking, which involves actively seeking out coincidences: forcing connections between images” (Scratch 71). “Lead, Glass, and Poppy” combines excerpts from a newspaper article from the New York Times and a scholarly project in which the former featured charred bodies and the latter charred books. This thematic intersection between accumulated information became the triggering element of the poem. In particular, the charred bodies mentioned in the Times article were found in a sunburst pattern, the shape of which was incorporated by Prevallet for the lyric section of her poem. The question remains, can this revelation of compositional technique be gleaned without the help of the explanation? Certainly, the hinged presentation of the poem is a strong clue. In the left column, Prevallet includes her own poetry while the newspaper quotations are in the right column. The presentation works seamlessly throughout most of the poem. In some places the dialogue between the two columns is so strong it is difficult to tell if one side is commenting on the other or vice versa:


The charcoal smears
over bombland
where airplanes drop poppies
on targets preparing to seed.
From them comes the emergence
of Teflon-coated icons
and worshipped telephones
that mouth prayers
in place of small talk.

When the chiefs of ancient Panama
went into battle, they wore golden disks the size
of Frisbees on their chest. The disks were said to
represent the sun god, and in the blazing
sunlight, as myth has it,
they shone so brightly
that they blinded
the enemy.

(Scratch 11)


Worship is the common bond between the lyricism on the left and the sampled text on the right. In this instance, Prevallet presents the pieces of modern technology (“teflon-coated icons and worshipped telephones”) as counterpoints to the golden disks used by the ancient Panamanian chiefs. The synchronicity between these passages and others in “Lead, Glass, and Poppy” is often just as startling as this example.


      Building on the relationship between document and lyric composition and between accumulation and relation is “Lyric Infiltration,” which features a complex cut-up technique that Prevallet describes in detail in her “Notes on Composition.” In “Lyric Infiltration,” Prevallet artistically foretells her statement from the article:


The Relational poet is concerned with respecting what already exists and translating the content of the borrowed source into a form that usefully complicates apparently simple truths. This, again, is the crucial difference between appropriation (stealing from the Other to complete oneself) and relation (recognizing that one's self and one's poetics are mutable forms, moving among the multiplicities that constitute the world). So, the poet is not writing above the larger environment, but through encountered and known materials. (“Writing” 4)


Prevallet reveals that “Lyric Infiltration” is a project in which she attempts to “find a form for rambling poetic notes” (Scratch 71). As in “Lead, Glass, and Poppy” Prevallet’s mingling of lyric poetry with news stories serves to complicate the news, which we tend to view as black and white truth.


      In “Lyric Infiltration: Synthesis A (lyric + source),” Prevallet creates a hybrid poem with no clear trajectory, unsettling the sources she appropriates. In doing so, Prevallet upsets George Steiner’s view of the contingent difficulty (difficulty created by a poem’s reliance on other texts). In Steiner’s view, the contingent difficulty can be overcome with research into the allusions and appropriations a writer chooses. For example, the footnotes to “The Waste Land” and the sources to which they point help to elucidate meaning and bring us closer to the interpretive totality of which Glissant speaks. Prevallet footnotes her sources here, but if anything, the opposite effect is true. The newspaper sources are evident in “Synthesis A,” but the concrete nature of the news is blurred, “The lion can hold a sense of moving / practically drumlike two in the forest came simultaneously / Ecological impacts include the sexual disruption of fish exposed to estrogenic chemical” (Scratch 21). As one may guess, the third line here is appropriated. In this instance, the quoted and condensed passage comes from the Eldorado Sun, and it follows the lyric line. This style of poem becomes difficult to interpret using any traditional principles of literary analysis, and the unsettling of the factual news then takes center stage.


      Part of the appeal of Relational Investigative poetics exists in the idea that a poet’s everyday projects and endeavors can find a place in a creative setting and become the source of the poet’s inspiration. No longer do poets have to limit themselves to explaining the epiphany through words that are inadequate to relate the value of another text or voice. Part of the process of explaining the unexplainable in Relational Investigative poetry, and in particular Kristin Prevallet’s work, comes from revealing the source that triggered the epiphany. The poems can include source texts in a cut-up technique or even images and photographs in order to take the reader through the experience the poet has undergone. This revisionist idea of inspiration allows for poetry to become more fertile and infiltrated, perhaps lessening the elitist view that many people see modern poetry as having.

Works Cited

Glissant, Édouard. Poetics of Relation. Ann Arbor, Michigan: The University of Michigan Press, 1997.
Prevallet, Kristin. Kristin Prevallet. 5 October 2005
———. “Gathering vs. Collecting: Correspondence with Jackson Mac Low.” Slought Foundation: New Futures for Contemporary Life 1 September 2001. Slought Foundation. 16 July 2005.
———. “Risking It: Scandals, Teaching, Translation.” Rain Taxi Review of Books. Summer 2003. Rain Taxi. 28 June 2005
———. Scratch Sides: Poetry, Documentation, and Image-Text Projects. Austin, Texas: Skanky Possum Books, 2002.
———. “Writing is Never By Itself Alone: Six Mini Essays on Relational Investigative Poetics” Fence Spring/Summer 2003. Fence. 20 June 2005
Steiner, George. On Difficulty and Other Essays. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980.