Crowy Choragraphy: Poetic Pecks

K. A. Wisniewski

“If men had wings and bore black feathers, few of them would be clever enough to be crows”
~ Rev. Henry Ward Beecher


The scene opens with me, transcribing a decade-old interview with Gregory L. Ulmer for new anthology of previously published essays: “The Making of ‘Derrida at the Little Big Horn.’”  This is the beginning of Electracy: Gregory L. Ulmer’s Textshop Experiments.  

I am flipping between the pages of the anthology Strategies for Theory (where the interview first appeared) and the original essay in the book Teletheory.

Page 3:

“The myth of a theory is to culture what the seed is to nature (with a multitude of variations on the transmittal of the seed)” (199).

I have to stop and revise.  

Transcription slips and trips and falls, becoming dream-work.  In this trance, I predict text, ignore the page, and I insert new words and sounds and stories into the document, pieces of me sliding into Ulmer’s text.  “This isn’t Ulmer,” I catch myself.  The cursor moves back, replacing "kernel" (or "colonel"?) with "seed"; I recede from this wandering until no threads of me remain.  This replication, this verbatim reproduction, is the blossom of the literate/print apparatus.  As I return to the document(s), I can still hear the crows cawing my initials—“KAW—KAW”—as they peck through the black plastic garbage bags left by the roadside outside on home office window.  They, too, are looking for seeds or kernels.  This is the beginning of the “The Making of ‘For the Crows.’”


Notebook Fragments

A thread yanked from “Derrida at the Little Big Horn.”

Distracted, I wander online, link-to-link, click-after-click, until I find other histories of Little Big Horn.  The last person to see General George Armstrong Custer alive was one of his Crow scouts, a seventeen-year-old named Curley.  After being relieved of duty at the beginning of battle, Curley watched the battle from a distant ridge.  Records show that following Custer’s defeat, he rode for two and half days before reaching the steamboat Far West.  Since no one on the ship spoke Crow, Curley attempted to sign his report out, drawing circles on paper that represented troops and Indians.  The white men hovering above the paper could only understand that a battle had taken place.  Years later, Chief Gall, an Unkpapa Sioux and one of the Indian leaders who defeated Custer, claimed that Curley must have transformed into a bird that day, because that was the only way he could have survived the battlefield.  He was interviewed numerous times and, later, branded a liar, although some modern historians belief his account to be accurate (See, Welch and Stekler).


Curley, Custer's Scout, c. 1885.


This is not a linear narrative, argument.  Pages curl and fold into each other.

In some Hindu stories, the crow symbolizes our ancestors, mystic messengers recounting the history of the world and warning us of danger, carrying the souls of friends and loved ones to the afterlife, and offering signs from the beyond.  In a chapter of the Yoga Vasistha, Bhusunda is the old sage in the form a crow.  But, more often, in the east and the west, the crow is a symbol of disease and death.  They are tricksters, liars, and thieves.  In their book In the Company of Crows and Ravens, Marzluff and Angell hypothesize that the cleverness and thievery of crows—their biological and cultural evolution as a species—have shaped our own evolutionary history.  Humans and crows: both intelligent, both able to easily adapt to environmental changes, and both opportunists, exploiting a vast variety of resources (Marzluff and Angell 300).  As humans developed agrarian cultures, crows became competitors.


The American Crow. Plate by James Audubon.


One of my earliest childhood memories is spending hours playing in the basement of my family's Baltimore rowhouse and listening to my father's extensive record collection.  Mid-1960s British rock harmonies was the most common sound to reverberate from my father's Bose speakers, but occasionally he opted for more contemporary LP's (perhaps to satisfy my mother's tastes).  I was barely two-years-old when Michael Jackson's Thriller was first released.  On one of the earliest plays (that I can recall), I remember (alone in the basement) freezing in place as I heard the sound effects of wind and thunder, creaking floorboards, and howling dogs.  Enter Vincent Price.  His voice-over (rap) shook me: "Darkness falls across the land. / The midnight hour is close at hand. / Creatures crawl in search of blood . . ." My parents turned off the lights, and, as Vincent Price laughed menacingly, I screamed and cried until the lights came back on and I was scooped up by Mom or Dad, both laughing themselves.  Just a few years later, I remember listening Price's rendition of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven" on a plastic record player at school.  Immediately, I am transported back to my basement. I didn't care that he (Poe) lived not too far from where I did.  It was years until I could appreciate both Poe and Price. 

I still can't tell the difference between the raven and the crow.    


LIGEIA LP Cover. Edgar Allan Poe Read By Vincent Price.



For the Crows: The Experiment

With these segments, I identify the crow as my electrate emblem.  Through the crow, I mourn literacy.  It is a response to those writers still anxiously—nervously—clutching to print culture.  The experiment is simply to highlight the shift from print to electracy; the crow, a symbol easily identified and interpreted by the literate, becomes both the messenger to print culture and a character representing print (or the colonization of the oral).  It is a tale told from the beyond—from the perspective of electracy.  

The piece began as an essay (from the French essayer—a trial, a test, a proof, an experiment), working and unworking itself until the threads were knotted, clotted.  I was simultaneously in the midst of submitting a new poetry chapbook for publication—what was to become Making Faces (2016)—and cut its 3,000 words down to 89.  One work, genre, apparatus, inspiring—bleeding into—the other.  The work of cutting becomes an exercise in free play, free from the "publish or perish" ideology and my own nervous expectations, free from form, narrative, argument.  Derrida writes, "For there is sure play: that which is limited to the substitution of given and existing, present, pieces" [italics in the original] (292).  Here, Derrida celebrates play and creativity, a realm absent from rules, authority, and preexisting codes.  In Internet Invention, Ulmer similarly refers to this as "poetry applied."  I am encouraged by this. "Poetry is the calculus of theory in the domain of arts and letters" (4).  As the poem is shaped, I am testing a theorem of childhood memories and projected worries of the academy sent from the future.

The work is an effort to quell confrontation and to recognize the still common "mistake to polarize these [orality and literacy—and electracy, my emphasis] as mutually exclusive" (Havelock 11).  As a genre, poetry (and poetics) transcends apparati.  This piece aims to follow the lead of Havelock, Walter Ong and Greg Ulmer to extend this remark to include our transition into the digital age.  Ulmer writes, "Grammatologists such as Walter Ong described electracy as a kind of 'second orality'—as a hybrid sharing features of literate and oral practices, to be understood as intervening between and mediating the apparatuses of orality and literacy, distinct from its chronological position as coming after literacy" (Ulmer, Internet Invention, 163-4).  He continues by suggesting that one of our first experiments should remake the scenes of the first encounters between literate and oral peoples.  Although the poem might be read as parody (especially the original version), its goal is neither expository nor argumentative, but rather associative.  The performances of this work emphasize Ulmer's notion of intervening into a situation as a means of engaging through production.  Before recording the two versions present here, the poem was performed live at local poetry readings and was originally printed on a late nineteenth-century letterpress.  These, too, are part of the poetic performance...

"For the Crows" Broadside. Published by Hot Air Press, 2015.

"For the Crows" Broadside. Published by Hot Air Press, 2015.


"To perform a poem is to make it a physically present / acoustic even, to give bodily dimension—beat—to what is / otherwise spatial & visual" (Bernstein 21).  The original recording of "For the Crows" is what we might call a traditional reading.  And a (re)cording.  An echo of the Gothic at the KAWing Price of Poe.     

"By replacing the New Tradition in writing
with a formidable renewable tradition in
electronic Remixology or what Ulmer calls electracy
(the meeting of electricity and literacy)
we open up future channels of distribution
that are fueled by renewable energy sources" (Amerika, 119).

The Remix.  An imperfect loop of the recorded title—acting as back-beat percussion—serves as the repetition required from the literate realm.  Accompanied by an eerie piano riff and drum machine, repetition and memorization haunts the recording.  The original vocal is re-processed, run through a Dunlop guitar Crybaby wah pedal.  The sound of crows (recorded just outside my house on my iPhone—just as where I started this essay) fade in and out.  Instead of ending after the first reading, the poem continues, replays, and deconstructs.  I return to the turntable of my youth, scratching, interrupting, imitating the cawing of the crows.  Electracy is "KAWing," not disrupting the text, but uncovering the ghosts that live within it.

Poetic pecks.    


For the Crows: The Results


K. A. Wisniewski is the author of Making Faces: Poems (2016) and the editor of The Comedy of Dave Chappelle: Critical Essays (2009).  His essays and reviews have appeared most recently in Genre, Alphaville: Journal of Film and Screen Media, Hyperrhiz, Civil War History, The Journal of the Early Republic, The Maryland Historical Magazine and the anthologies Commanding Words: Essays on the Discursive Constructions, Manifestations, and Subversions of Authority (2016) and Kidding Around: The Child in Film and Media (2014).  His poetry and translations have appeared in dozens of journals and magazines, including basalt, The Chariton Review, Toad Suck Review, MayDay Magazine, CAIRN, Tule Review, Coldnoon Travel Poetics and the Sierra Nevada Review.  He is one of the Managing Editors of Textshop Experiments




Amerika, Mark. remixthebook. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2011. Print. 

Bernstein, Charles. "Thelonious Monk and the Performance of Poetry." My Way: Speeches and Poems. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999. 18-24. Print

Derrida, Jacques. "Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences." Writing and Difference. Trans. Alan Bass. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978. 278-293. Print.  

Havelock, Eric. "The Oral-Literate Equation: A Formula for the Modern Mind." Literacy and Orality. Ed. David R. Olson and Nancy Torrance. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991. 11-27. Print.

Jackson, Michael. Thriller. Los Angeles: Epic, 1982. Sound Recording. LP.

Marzluff, Jon M., and Tony Angell. In the Company of Crows and Ravens. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2007. Print.

Miller, Paul D. Rhythm Science. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004. Print.
Poe, Edgar Allan, Basil Rathbone, and Vincent Price. Edgar Allan Poe Soundbook. New York: Caedmon, 1977. Sound recording. LP.

Venkatesananda, Swami. The Concise Yoga Vasistha. Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1984. Print.

Ulmer, Gregory L. Electracy: Gregory L. Ulmer's Textshop Experiments. Ed. Gregory L. Ulmer, Craig Saper, and Victor Vitanza.  Aurora, CO: The Davies Group, 2015. Print.

- - -. Internet Invention: From Literacy to Electracy. New York: Longman, 2003. Print.

Welch, James, and Paul Stekler. Killing Custer: The Battle of Little Big Horn and the Fate of the Plains Indians. New York: Norton, 1994. Print.