Hammering Poetry

Kaia Sand at Encuentro: Antena @ Blaffer 

Written by Michael McFadden

On February 15, the second day of Encuentro: Antena @ Blaffer, we gathered in the back corner of Antena’s bookshop on the second floor of the gallery. Walking in, we were handed sandpaper, wooden cards, and a copy of “Pounding the Pounder” by Edwin Torres in English and Spanish. The group, which had grown since the first day, sat on the floor as Kaia Sand began to explain her workshop, a sledgehammer and case of steel-type letters lying at her feet. Her contribution to Antena’s exhibition came about as a way to think through a set of files in the City of Portland archives - surveillance on activists groups in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s -  known as “The Watcher Files.” Sand and her collaborator Garrick Imatani have produced a plethora of work from these files - ranging from mailings of artwork inspired by activists’ fliers and poetic interpretations of the text stamped into objects to public lectures, such as this workshop, and looseleafservices.us, a website dedicated to The Watcher Files Project

One of the main permutations of the project is “She Had Her Own Reasons.” Sand culled through files that Portland Police kept on more than 300 activist groups, noting down phrases beginning with “she.” The entire piece offers a glimpse into the mindset of the officers and city officials of the time as well as why they feared women. “By writing down sentences that began with ‘she,' I could gather a crowd of women, a smattering of a sense of what these investigators feared about women organizing.” The lines come from surveillance records, clippings from newspaper articles, and even materials produced by the activists, all of which are kept on index cards - typed, with occasional annotations in pen. Sand responded to this form with an alternative indexing project. Just as Sand’s material for poetry is everyday language, the poet sledgehammers these anaphoric phrases into copper index cards. Through this method, Sand recontextualized the language of The Watcher Files and experienced it as a material entity. 

In her workshop, Sand focused on trying to highlight this idea: “…in poetry, we usher everyday language onto the page, but we transform it, noticing its material properties.” In doing so, we recognize the look, sound, and feel of the language. “It feels like poetry is all around me, and I get to usher it into space.” As she ushered the phrases from The Watcher Files into space with copper cards, so would we as a group usher personal phrases into space with wooden index cards. 

As her explanation of the project came to a close, Sand continued by reading “Pounding the Pounder” aloud to the group. If you aren’t familiar with the piece, the second part is comprised of a series of “I” statements representing a wide array of the poets thoughts and impressions - anything from “I have rented God” to “I have seen her” to “I relish the thrill.” Sand neared the end of the list, and the group gathered pen in hand, each of us ready to produce a list of our own. When she finished the reading, I hastily started to scribble down my statements, trying to get out as many of my thoughts as possible in the allotted time. My list follows: 

Kaia Sand. Photo courtesy Pablo Giménez Zapiola

I wake without sleeping 

I am split

I am a web of neurons 

I have to start speaking 

I was lost 

I am ready to fall 

I have known love 

I let my tongue do the talking 

I have been adrift 

I reach across space 

I am present 

I have constructed this puzzle 

I live without proof 

I am unable to sleep 

I love egg puns too much 

I met her in a dreamscape 

I fill myself with knowledge

Our time came to an end. As people scrambled to get their last thoughts out, Kaia Sand instructed us on what we’d be doing in the second part of the workshop. To foster inspiration as well as reaction, we would build off of each other’s lines. We stood and milled around Antena’s bookshop, reading our statements aloud and hearing the statements of our fellow participants (“I rap in haiku”), reflecting on their meaning (“I love Downton Abbey”) as we improved upon and added to our own lists (“I requested chocolate cake”). Our time came to an end. We took our seats, and, pens once again in hand, our lists grew. My additions follow: 

I prefer tres leches 

Soy un hombre sincero 

I have not seen Downton Abbey 

I am global 

I strive for enlightenment 

I have wrapped it up 

We wrapped it up. Sand announced that if we had our statement ready, we could gather the necessary letters and hammer the statement onto our wooden cards one by one. If not, we were free to continue milling around, only instead of speaking our lines aloud, we could look for inspiration in the many books that fill Antena’s space. I didn’t search for inspiration but still needed time to choose. While fighting through an internal struggle to make my decision, I sought insight and inspiration by perusing the space and wound up getting distracted by “Newcomer Can’t Swim” by Renee Gladman - a collection of fiction and poetry that travels through a variety of soulspaces and dreamscapes. Eventually, I had to put the book down and focus. After all, there was no way I was going to leave the workshop without hitting something with a hammer. I narrowed down my list: 

I am ready to fall

I live without proof

I am present 

Each phrase represented an important personal realization from the past year and carried its own weight in my mind. After further mulling, my choice was made. Waiting for my turn to come, I gathered what letters I could and observed the other members of the group as they brought the sledgehammer down (“I flew a certain coop”) and pressed their phrases into the cards (“Soy continua”). Placing the letters in the steel-type hand holder, I picked up the sledgehammer, and pressed my statement into the wood: 

I live without proof. 

Encuentro: Antena @ Blaffer

It’s open to interpretation, but for me the main reference is to the feeling of being a writer who has made a living mainly producing words that others take credit for - blog posts about the benefits of living gluten-free, webpage after webpage about dental practices and procedures, vocabulary textbooks filled with stories for children produced under a company name. Still, it will undoubtedly carry a variety of meanings to those who return to Blaffer and view our cards - as will the contributions of the other group members.

Kaia Sand gathered our cards in an index drawer reminiscent of the one used in her own project, each writer credited for their card. “Since we had a multilingual group, I wanted to create an encounter/encuentro of individuals, including our languages. So each line/each individual added up into this lovely encounter.” Although the phrases didn’t share a source with “She Had Her Own Reasons,” the group similarly created a multiplicity of poems: our own individual poems as well as a collective poem that gave voice to everyone at Encuentro - a space where every voice mattered regardless of the language spoken.

The Watcher Files Project offers a rare opportunity to its readers/audience. The project walks a fine line and strikes an incredible, hard-to-create balance between being experimental and avant garde as an art project while maintaining its accessibility - something that Kaia Sand proved in her workshop. Unfortunately, there wasn’t time for everyone to hammer their piece of the poetry, so Sand has taken it upon herself to pound out each of the leftover statements. Upon completion, she will send the box of our cards back to Antena @ Blaffer where it will remain on display for the rest of the exhibition so that everyone get a glimpse into the experience of Encuentro.

Kaia Sand performed at Encuentro on February 14 and led a workshop February 15. Her work is on display in Antena @ Blaffer until May 10. The result of the workshop is currently being completed in Portland and will be on display at Blaffer upon its completion. Sand is poet-in-residence at Portland State University as well as at the Portland Archives and Records Center with Garrick Imatani. She works across media to explore history, politics, ecology, and economics. Her most recent book, Remember to Wave (Tinfish Books 2010), began as a series of walks Sand led around the Portland Expo Center exploring its political history, such as the World War II incarceration of Japanese Americans. Sand received her MFA in poetry from George Mason University in 2001.

Michael McFadden is a freelance writer, grant writer, and member of Suplex, a Houston and Chicago-based curatorial collaborative. He lives and works in Houston, TX.