Fun with Field Notes

"WE'RE TRYING TO get away from that Festival of Nations shit," says Mark Nowak, assistant professor of humanities at St. Catherine's and editor of the Twin Cities' most eclectic literary journal, Cross Cultural Poetics. "I mean, I'm Polish, so I guess that makes my culture kielbasa and polka. We're looking for a way of writing about culture that isn't built on those stereotypes."

"Eccentric" is another way to describe Cross Cultural Poetics, which offers a mix of ethnography, black-and-white art, translated poetry, anthropology essays, and free verse. The most recent issue, XCP3, features a travelogue about China, a scrapbook of Indonesian puppets, and an exhaustive review of the work of experimental novelist and poet Paul Metcalf. Some of the material from the latest issue, such as environmental artist Carolyn Erler's pictorial exhibit of "stone and stick" sculpture, is obnoxiously inaccessible. Elsewhere, the writing is dazzling. The highlight might be Nowak's own contribution, "Back Me Up," which combines stark photos of the abandoned working-class bars of Buffalo, N.Y., with fragments of neighborhood folklore and Nowak's field notes. The piece also has an accompanying super-8 documentary film which Nowak will premiere at the Walker Art Center on November 12, when he and four other XCP contributors present a reading and performance of their work.

Translating anthropological field notes into poetry is the unifying theme of the third issue and the overall goal of XCP. It's based on a relatively new approach to anthropology which suggests that studying the interaction of language and culture is an intensely personal endeavor and should be practiced with the intuitive sensibility of a poet. "There's still a lot of head measuring going on," explains Nowak, "but there's also a whole new wave of anthropologists who realize that when you write, you're viewing, observing, and participating in human experience."

If Derrida makes your brain hurt, XCP probably won't make your bathroom reading list. To be sure, the idea of using poetry to compose ethnography is a little, well, cerebral. After all, how many people are waiting breathlessly for a review of After Writing Culture: Epistemology and Praxis in Contemporary Anthropology? For the most part, however, XCP strikes an admirable balance between density and accessibility. "When pieces are too academic, I just send them back," Nowak explains. "Otherwise it's just academics talking to each other."

Though he downplays his own contribution, Nowak is quick to point out the importance of small literary journals. Local publications like XCP, Rain Taxi, Luna, and the now-defunct poetry zine Disturbed Guillotine have offered an outlet for experimental writers. According to Nowak, they fill a void in the Twin Cities' literary scene. "There's the Loft, but a lot of writers don't have any interaction with the Loft. They don't feel like there's a place for them there."

Nowak has been providing a forum for avant-garde writing for several years now. While living in New York, he published two hand-collated zines, including the short-lived but impressively titled North American Ideophonics. Since moving to the Twin Cities seven years ago, he's campaigned to promote alternative publications, organizing a zine fair at St. Catherine's and putting together XCP. With determined networking, he's recruited an impressive cast of contributors, including eminent poet and playwright Amiri Baraka and a host of local notables. Though the list of contributing editors has grown steadily, it's still a one-poet operation. For now, Nowak admits, "I am the staff."

Mark Nowak and four XCP contributors will read at 7 p.m. November 12 at the Walker Art Center; 375-7650.

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