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Grad student Sarah Dowling's poetry scrutinizes constructs of safety.
March 1, 2010
The term "security posture" is used primarily in the world of corporate technology to define the level of risk to which a system or organization is exposed. In a world seriously rethinking the soundness of its corporate institutions, it's an especially apt title for English doctoral student Sarah Dowling's recently published book of poetry. Security Posture, which won the 2009 Robert Kroetsch Award for Innovative Poetry, examines the imagined safety of the tropes around which we organize our lives.
In the collection, Dowling scrutinizes the societal and cultural logic that assumes the safety, security and goodness of romantic or intimate couplehood. Dowling explains, "Everything in culture says, 'this is a way of living that's going to make it right for you.' I think the poems in this book show, on the one hand a longing for that, and on the other an ambivalence and skepticism toward it."
Dowling employs formal techniques of disruption to reinforce her investigation into these assumptions of security. One way she does this is by quoting language drawn from a wide variety of sources in her poems. Just as she drew the title from corporate websites, she also draws from newspapers, advertisements and even banking language to knit together different voices.
"Everything in culture says, 'this is a way of living that's going to make it right for you.' I think the poems in this book show, on the one hand a longing for that, and on the other an ambivalence and skepticism toward it." – Sarah Dowling
"I tried to collide technical-sounding language with more personal language," Dowling says, "to get at the idea of things that seem safe not being a source of safety in the way we might want or hope them to be."
Another technique Dowling employs is to repeatedly reorder the same set of words across a section of the book to create an unmoored sense of meaning and voice. "What makes grammatical sense changes from one reordering to the next," Dowling says. "And it also gets at the ways in which writing seems to record a voice, but in fact what is recorded often becomes apparent only through different kinds of conventions—like grammatical conventions. It's interesting to see what can happen to almost accidentally make a voice appear."
The courses Dowling took when she began her Ph.D. program at Penn have had a formative influence on her poetry. "My feminist theory classes, my queer theory classes and my classes on modernism," she says, "brought up a lot of different ideas about what constitutes a person; what constitutes a good life; how these ideas are formed and shaped in a broad sense; who are the kinds of people who have contested these ideas; and what are the perspectives from which they've done so."
Dowling is now working on a book of poetry, titled Hinterland B, which explores the urban hinterland as a metaphor for entities and ideas that exist on the peripheries of cultural norms. A 2009-2010 Graduate Humanities Forum Research Fellow, she is also conducting dissertation research on multilingualism in contemporary Anglophone poetry, focusing on poets such as Marlene Nourbese Phillip, Cecilia Vicuña and James Thomas Stevens. She examines these poets' use of other languages within their poems as a "rhetoric of noncomprehension," which challenges readers to contemplate the gaps in their own understanding of a subject yet continue to engage with it nevertheless.
"It's an interesting way of creating a text because each reader's access to it will be very different," Dowling says. "But I don't think it's intended to exclude some people more than others. It calls attention to the fact that, of course, we don't understand everything, and, depending on the subjects of some of these poems—like experiences of immigration, concepts of citizenship, the history of colonization—it can be incredibly important to think about that. I interpret these poets' use of multilingualism as a way of making that inability to understand a core experience. In their works, you can't skip over not being able to understand something, and it's not something you can use as an excuse to stop reading."
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