ACQL 2011 Winner – Joanne Leow

Re-map, Re-cover, and Re-perform: Interdiscursivity and the Poetry of Wayde Compton

In her seminal work on historiographic metafiction, Linda Hutcheon argues that the genre simultaneously enshrines and ironically undermines its intertexts of history, literature, and popular culture. In particular, she notes that “the ontological line between historical past and literature is not effaced, but underlined” and “the loss of the illusion of transparency in historical writing is a step toward intellectual self-awareness that is matched by metafiction’s challenges to the presumed transparency of the language of realist texts” (10). In effect, the use and also “ironic abuse” (12) of the intertexts lead to a more profound engagement with history, literature, and popular culture by questioning these received discourses. Taking Hutcheon’s idea that intertexts can be used as a way to challenge existing discourses and realities, in this paper I am positing that it possible and productive to place her analysis in dialogue with the poetry of African Canadian writer and theorist Wade Compton. Compton attempts to rewrite official history of identity creation through his work and chooses to undermine historical narratives and discourses through the ironic re-use of both poetic forms and cultural intertexts. In the context of the official history of British Columbia and the additional context of global black culture, Compton’s work represents ways to interrogate assumptions and to remember what has been lost and excluded.

Using Hutcheon’s ideas of the writer’s agency in destabilizing the ontological boundaries between history and fiction (or in a more general sense, art), perhaps it is possible to begin to work towards ways of reconciling history and memory. Theorists like Maurice Halbwachs and Pierre Nora have written extensively about the supposed opposition of history and memory. Nora argues that “[a]t the heart of history is a criticism destructive of spontaneous memory. Memory is always suspect in the eyes of history, whose true mission is to demolish it, to repress it. History divests the lived past of its legitimacy” (3). Arguably, through his poetic interventions, Compton reverses this dynamic of history against memory. His poems bring together diverse intertexts and poetic and cultural frameworks, and the conventions of official histories and literatures are—as Hutcheon puts it—“simultaneously used and abused, installed and subverted, asserted and denied” (5). With his wordplay, and poetic constructions, Compton shows us the fictiveness, hypocrisy, and limitations of official histories and attempts to create new ways of approaching the complex, multicultural society in which he lives.

For the purposes of my paper, I will be examining how Compton’s poetry functions through intertextuality by doing a close reading of his poem “Performance Bond.” In this titular poem from his 2004 collection Performance Bond, Compton is engaged in a re-appropriation and recovery of history and memory through the ironic use and re-use of a rich array of intertexts, both of genre and of content. Performance Bond is a collection of poems that is concerned with recovering, remapping, and re-performing official histories in ways that undermine and question fixed ideas of nationhood, identity, and belonging. Compton is particularly keen on challenging received ideas of multiculturalism, and his poems explore the tensions and contradictions inherent in official discourses.

In Compton’s work, we see that “an assertive Afroperipheralism” (After Canaan 15) permeates his work, which counters “the redemptive drive of Afrocentrism, which iterates everything but a narrow set of perceived traditions as inauthentic and culturally ersatz” (After Canaan 15). This is an effort of collage and bricolage that he also sees in Barack Obama’s memoir, Dreams from My Father (1995), of “growing up and piecing together . . . black identity from a mix of popular culture representations, books and fleeting encounters with other blacks” (After Canaan 14). In the context of these multiple discourses, Compton also brings to bear a sense of geographic specificity of the “complicated terrain” (After Canaan 17) of British Columbia, where he sees “being an afterthought minority has left open a modicum of space for self-definition—if, that is, one can take it as an exhilarating opportunity rather than a deficiency” (17). Being “of colour” in British Columbia is to be simultaneously excluded from historical discourses within the province and to be left out in global discourses of black history and culture. “Performance Bond,” with its call and response format of text and intertext—and its references to history, historiography, street culture, voodoo, the bible, intellectual theory, political slogans, and philosophy—enables these exclusions to be interrogated and incorporated into the complex self-creation that is occurring in the poem. Besides these references on the level of content, “Performance Bond” also uses the intertext of hip hop aesthetics to influence its tone and form. Danny Hoch has noted that hip hop aesthetics not only include call and response modes, but also a “codification of language,” an awareness of “sociopolitical context and legacy,” “polyculturalism” (immigrant and migrant), “lack of boundaries,” “lack of resources and access,” and the “criminalization of poverty” and culture (n. pag.). These are all issues that are taken up by Compton on the level of both form and content, but with his unique poetic voice. Winfried Siemerling sees this as Compton’s ability “to combine transcultural and migrant resources in a rooted, historical and social aesthetics that forces . . . a rethinking of narratives of Canadian culture” (31).

However, it is important to note that Compton’s engagement with the intertext of hip hop aesthetics and black American culture is not one-dimensional. In an interview with Myler Wilkinson and David Stouck, Compton talks about his engagement with it as

a kind of first step. . . . But it’s disturbing to me at the same time, because it’s really foreign to me and my sensibilities; it’s not about here. It’s all created by conditions that are very different from the conditions of Western Canada. So I’m kind of ambivalent about it that way. . . . [T]here has to be some intervention with your whole experience at some point. (142-43)

Compton identifies the heart of the paradox inherent in his use of hip hop, that it is “really foreign,” “not about here,” and yet, it is “useful” as “the most visible form of black culture.” Compton’s necessary interventions then in and with the genre of hip hop represents an engagement with an intertext that is not only transcultural and transnational, but also holds kernels of shared history, tradition, and ideological struggle (as seen in Compton’s musings about Obama’s memoir). His poetry might see hip hop as what he calls “a musical concomitant” of black cultural tradition, a “living extension of orality” (“The Reinventing Wheel” n. pag.), but it only becomes as such through the interventions that Compton performs in his poetry. Layering on this idea of hip hop aesthetics, Compton goes further back historically to consider the “character/god/theory called Legba,” which he sees as another “literary method, a heuristic process” that privileges the tropes of “indeterminancy, . . . crossroads, and chance” (qtd. in Wilkinson 138). He sees this as “a sharp deviation from the hip hop aesthetic, which is marked by extreme confidence and firm constructions of identity” (qtd. in Wilkinson 138). It is also an opportunity for a combination of intertexts, interacting in Compton’s work to create something new. Very much like Hutcheon’s postmodern vision of writers and their intertexts, Compton sees his work as a celebration of

repetition, knowing that you will mis-duplicate—and that the mis-duplications are the closest achievable thing to an actual you. . . . The remix is a way of—in one moment and one performance—re-enacting the manipulation of history and source culture. (“The Reinventing Wheel” n. pag.)

“Performance Bond” embeds this “mis-duplication” of hip hop aesthetics and indeterminacy from its opening:

The multicultural things apply
as time goes by
when the I itself
will not abide
eternal solipsism.

Everybody’s a migrant.
Every body gyrates
to the global bigbeat.
It’s sun
down in the Empire, and time has done
gone by,
and multiculturalism can’t arrive
by forgetting , but remembering
every hectare taken, every anti-Asian defamation,
because those who don’t remember
repeat. (Performance 42)

Compton’s use of language here is informed by the rhyme, rhythm, and repetition inherent in hip hop. However, his use of enjambment and the visual placement of the text on the page complicate the orality and aurality of hip hop. For example, Compton locates the pun in the word “everybody” by simply separating “every” and “body” in the following line, conflating ideas of identity and corporeality and creating equivalences between the ideas of national origins and popular culture. Compton connects the ideas behind the terms “migrant” and “multiculturalism” to the physicality of “gyrat[ing] / to the global bigbeat.” Further intertexts of postcolonialism: “It’s sun / down in the Empire”; black Englishes: “time has done / gone by”; and the slave trade: “The cracks are filled / with the bodies of those fallen through” are placed into the mix, reflecting an even more complex field that is located between the terms “multicultural” and “migrant.” “Performance Bond” does not shy away from its central premise that remembering, and especially remembering complex specificities of “every hectare taken, every anti-Asian defamation,” is most important of all. Forgetting, on the other hand, is equated with erasure and elision, in order to create a seamless whole or an authorized history, and dooms one to “repeat.”

Ironically, Compton spends much of the poem repeating: literally, as he quotes other thinkers, activists, and cultural artifacts, and also formally, with his poetic constructions. These are tactical repetitions, as when Compton quotes the Canadian poet Jamie Reid, and proceeds to rewrite and appropriate his argument on the criminalization of poverty:

It’s a crime
to be poor, to be broke, to float, to colour
the lines, to cross, to coast, to confound
the order, the entrance, the ocean, the border, to be
uncontained. (Performance 43)

Again here, Compton’s poetic construction and language echo the rhythm and rhyming structures of hip hop and rap. His use of caesuras and assonance in “to be poor, to be broke, to float, to colour” drive the line forward in beats that end suddenly with an abrupt line break at “outside,” which demarcates “colour” from “the lines.” This construction formally reflects what Compton is emphasizing about the transgressive nature of being “outside” the boundaries, “the lines,” and on the margins. He goes on to show, however, that these boundaries are merely constructs, since it is possible “to cross, to coast, to confound / the order, the entrance, the ocean, the border.” Again, with each caesura, Compton introduces ideas that progressively increase in size and scope. Here, Compton refers to the idea of being at a crossroads or in a landscape of indeterminacy, “unrestrained / uncontained.” It is important to note that Compton began from Reid’s tirade on the criminalization of poverty and intervened with this intertext to improvise a grand gesture of exploding meaning, borders, and carefully demarcated hierarchies.

This movement from a singularity to a plurality is repeated throughout the poem, drawing ever larger circles in time and space, in history and geography, and bringing in temporal and spatial intertexts into play. This is especially clear in Compton’s explorations of “the history of BC,” which he sees as a performative “history of whiteness” unable to affect “the watcher” (Performance 43). Compton is quick to point out the slippages in this closed definition of history, which features its share of erasures in the image of “whiteness.” He utilizes the poetic stanza break to emphasize a history “of colour” and reverses the structure of the sentence construction, where now

. . . the history

of colour is the history of BC
as it’s watched and created, assimilates
as it changes the watchers in the shadows,
the whiteness. The history

of whiteness is the history of colour
as it changes BC
which it watches
and estranges, as it changes
in stages,
history performing
as race
in BC
is created. (Performance 43-44)

Here, arguably, Compton references important discourses about the place of “whiteness” and “blackness” in North American history and literature that have been already put forward by thinkers like W. E. B. DuBois and Toni Morrison. Crucially though, Compton replaces the idea of “blackness,” “darkness,” and “Africanism”—which Morrison sets up against “whiteness” in Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination—with “colour.” This reflects the more complex demographics that are present in BC, where South Asian and East Asian populations have to be considered in conjunction with the African Canadian minority. The intertext that Compton draws on here is again significant for its dissolution of historical and geographical boundaries. Similarly, Morrison’s treatise wants to extend the study of American literature into “a wider landscape” (3) and investigate how “blackness” has underpinned “whiteness.” She writes,

I want to draw a map, so to speak, of a critical geography and use that map to open as much space for discovery, intellectual adventure, and close exploration as did the original charting of the New World—without the mandate for conquest. I intend to outline an attractive, fruitful, and provocative critical project, unencumbered by dreams of subversion or rallying gestures at fortress walls. (3)

Compton works in the spirit of Morrison’s project, but complicates it by placing “the history of colour” at the heart of “the history of BC.” This, he argues, is the true history that has the power to “estrange” and “change.” He uses the intertext of Morrison’s critical geography to “[map] out a context” (Wilkinson 131) from which to work. Later in the poem, Compton also enlarges the idea of “whiteness” beyond a literary context, seeing its “invisibility” (Performance 45) and non-existence as part of its ability to be omnipresent: “it is universal because it is without perimeter; / its perimeters are that which is not (non-)” (Performance 45). Compton conflates ideas of a white gaze with those of surveillance technologies, where “whiteness is the camera; / whiteness is the eye that creates the panorama; / whiteness encompasses; / whiteness, if seen, implodes” (Performance 45).

This sinister combination of “whiteness” with its unnatural “epidermis” and “the perimeter” which has “[acquired] eyes” allows Compton to introduce additional historical intertexts regarding the arrival and assimilation or rejection of immigrants to BC. Critic Reg Johanson argues, with great validity, that Compton’s challenge to British Columbia’s “primacy of whiteness” with his “many different overlapping Columbias” is inadequate because it fails to take into account a proper consideration of First Nation claims (1). Compton performs a palimpsest-like territorialization of British Columbia, where “Chinese Columbia / Haida Columbia / Punjabi Columbia / Japanese Columbia / African Columbia / Vietnamese Columbia / Squamish Columbia / Jewish Columbia / Salish Columbia” (Performance 44) are superimposed onto each other, erasing chronological and geographical hierarchies. He points out that the motto of British Columbia—“Splendor Sine Occasu” (44)[1]—already has a “myriad” of translations intrinsic to it, emphasizing the plurality that has already been secretly entrenched. Arguably, even though the issue of First Nations is somewhat elided here, Compton is still doing important work in collapsing the constructs of official history and geography, allowing for new insights and ways of thinking about how history and territory can be reconciled. His view of history is greatly influenced by Kamau Brathwaite’s “tidalectics,” which Compton sees as “a scrambled neologism for a dialectic that does not move forward, but rather transforms statically” (“The Reinventing Wheel” n. pag.), “a way of seeing history as a palimpsest, where generations overlap generations, and eras wash over eras like a tide on a stretch of beach . . . [where] we do not improve upon the past, but are ourselves versions of the past” (Bluesprint 17). Certainly, the repetition of the various Columbias echoes Brathwaite’s vision of a tide coming and leaving, as various groups repeatedly transform the territory of “Columbia.” History becomes “tracers, flashbacks, and ripples in time,” which “ring the screen” (Performance 45), and Compton uses both “tidalectics” and the historical arrival of immigrants and explorations of First Nation peoples as intertexts that interact and evolve to change our concepts of the unfolding of history and the various claims that ethnic groups have made on British Columbia over time.

With his focus on ships and vessels, Compton also invokes Paul Gilroy’s ideas of the Black Atlantic, where “routes” are literally “roots,” and culture is embedded in the image of a ship as “a living, microcultural, micro-political system in motion” (The Black Atlantic 4). Compton uses Gilroy’s critical framework, but replaces the slave trading ships with “Haida[2] vessels,” which sail into the death that is “museumization,” the Japanese steamliner Komagatamaru[3] with its would-be immigrants unable to reach a utopian “terra sine occasu,” and the “[e]picanthal Japanese vessels” that brought Japanese Canadians to the fishing port town of Steveston (Performance 45). These seafaring vessels represent major ethnic groups in British Columbia, from the First Nations to the South Asians and the East Asians. Each group, Compton points out, suffers from its interactions with “whiteness” and the enforced boundaries of British Columbia. Yet, as befitting a poem that has indeterminancy and tidalectics as intertexts, the tide shifts and turns. Here, it is again useful to consider Gilroy’s ideas of “the sea’s liquid contamination,” which “involve[s] both mixture and movement” (“The Black Atlantic” 2) and stands in direct contrast to the land “where we find that special soil in which we are told national culture takes root” (“The Black Atlantic” 2). By putting his focus on ships and vessels, Compton evokes Gilroy’s notions of the ocean “as an alternative form of power that confined, regulated, inhibited and sometimes even defied, the exercise of territorial sovereignty,” where “the Black Atlantic opens out into theories of diaspora culture and dispersion, memory, identity and difference” (“The Black Atlantic” 2). Like with Morrison’s work, Compton complicates the Black Atlantic, turning our gaze instead to the Pacific, where similarly significant movements and mixtures were occurring: ships arriving from Hong Kong with passengers from India, Japanese populations stepping off boats to play a significant role in the fishing industry, and the First Nations themselves, setting out from the coast of British Columbia to launch their own explorations. This is a radical re-appropriation of the intertext of the Black Atlantic, which also situates the experience of British Columbia in a greater historical context of global mixtures and movements and challenges the imagined isolation of the province.

Throughout “Performance Bond,” Compton remains aware of the difficulties and compromises that occur as he uses the intertexts of history, global black culture, and critical theory. He quotes the Tseshaht actor, activist, and writer George Clutesi[4]: “The old folks used to say that it’s not good, it’s not wise, to copy other people. You just gotta be yourself. Okay?” (Performance 47). Clutesi’s position as a promoter of Tseshaht traditions, with his advice to “be yourself,” is not easily tenable for Compton, who is only able to see a reality that has been complicated beyond “self,” compromised by the “borrowed finery” of these critical and cultural frameworks, with “Africans from America, then Canada, wearing the Caribbean” (47). Ultimately though, Compton remains hopeful, and again returns to the potentiality of the sea when he translates walking to the promised land as walking across the ocean. This movement is filled with purpose, as a “contraband” to enter and an “anti-racist” who must “remember” (48).

The denseness of the layers of the historical, literary, and theoretical intertexts that inform Compton’s work, both in form and content, allow him to have them interact and create new ways of understanding his contemporary context. In essence, the intricacy of his work reflects the complexities of a site like British Columbia, where, as he notes, one is at “an integrated outpost, / a province of edges, / a contact zone” (Performance 48). Most significantly, Compton is not content to simply document the multiple layers and ways of approaching British Columbia’s history; in writing about such a space of diversity and mixity, he is conscious of the fact that “the visual / won’t stay still” (Performance 48), and that the intertexts in his poetry estrange, change, and perform to constantly alter and challenge themselves and perceptions of fixed identities and heritages. In this instability, Compton’s work reflects on the tensions and contradictions in creating a context for a multicultural British Columbia in a space dominated by American popular culture, global black culture, and an official Canadian history.

End Notes

[1] The British Columbia Province’s website translates the motto as “splendor without diminishment” (see “B.C. Facts – Province of British Columbia”), but Compton is referring to the plurality of meanings inherent in the original Latin.

[2] An Aboriginal people indigenous to Alaska and the islands they call Haida Gwaii (Queen Charlotte Islands). There is archaeological evidence that they have been there for up to 8,000 years (see “Haida”).

[3] For a detailed history of the incident involving the Komagata Maru and would-be Indian immigrants in 1914, a useful resource is The History of Metropolitan Vancouver’s entry on the “Komagata Maru.”

[4] For more on Clutesi, see “George Clutesi.”

Works Cited

  • “B.C. Facts – Province of British Columbia.” Province of British Columbia. 2009. Web. 9 Dec. 2010.
  • Compton, Wayde. After Canaan: Essays on Race, Writing, and Region. Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp, 2010. Print.
  • —. Ed. Bluesprint: Black British Columbian Literature and Orature. Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp, 2001. Print.
  • —. Performance Bond. Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp, 2004. Print.
  • —. “The Reinventing Wheel: On Blending the Poetry of Cultures Through Hip Hop Turntablism.” Horizon Zero 8 (2003): n. pag. Web. 25 Nov. 2010.
  • “George Clutesi.” Tseshaht First Nation. 2009. Web. 9 Dec. 2010.
  • Gilroy, Paul. The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1992. Print.
  • —. “The Black Atlantic” Der Black Atlantic. Ed. Tina Campt. Berlin: Haus der Kulturen der Welt, 2004. Print.
  • “Haida.” The Canadian Encyclopedia. 24 Dec. 2010. Web. 25 Dec. 2010.
  • Hoch, Danny. “Towards a Hip-Hop Aesthetic.” Danny Hoch: The Official Website. 2006. Web. 25 Nov. 2010.
  • Hutcheon, Linda. “Historiographic Metafiction Parody and the Intertextuality of History.” Intertextuality and Contemporary American Fiction. Ed. O’Donnell, P., and Robert Con Davis. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1989. 3-32. Print.
  • Johanson, Reg. “Review of Wayde Compton’s Performance Bond.” The Rain 3.3 (2005): 1. Print.
  • “Komagata Maru.” The History of Metropolitan Vancouver. 2009. Web. 9 Dec. 2010.
  • Morrison, Toni. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. New York: Vintage, 1993. Print.
  • Nora, Pierre. “General Introduction: Between Memory and History.” Realms of Memory: Rethinking the French Past. Ed. Lawrence D. Kritzman. Trans. Arthur Goldhammer. New York: Columbia UP, 1996. Trans. of Les Lieux de mémoire. Paris: Gallimard, 1992. Print.
  • Siemerling, Winfried. “Transcultural Improvisation, Transnational Time, and Diasporic Chance in Wayde Compton’s Textual Performance.” West Coast Line 43.3 (2009): 30-37. Print.
  • Wilkinson, Myler, and David Stouck. “The Epic Moment: An Interview with Wayde Compton.” West Coast Line 36.2 (2002): 131-45. Print.