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UC-AFT Member Spotlight Archive--Roxi Power: Poet, Interventionist!

Roxi Power is a poet, performer and lecturer in the Writing Program at UC Santa Cruz.

In addition to your career as a writing instructor, you're active as a poet and as a performer in the theater. Describe Neo-Benshi and tell us what draws you to work with it?

A month ago, I performed three Neo-Benshi pieces that I wrote for the Provincetown Tennessee Williams Festival (to A Streetcar Named Desire; Rebel Without a Cause; and Miss Lulu Bett).  It was an amazing experience to be a new-genre soloist in the same festival with established Broadway actors and “avant-garde stars like Mink Stole (from John Waters’ films) and Penny Arcade (of Andy Warhol’s Factory fame).

They’re currently performing their play in New York.  I’ve performed in a number of venues the past ten years, from Roy and Edna Disney CalArts Theater to Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco to St. Mark’s Poetry Project in NYC.   Neo-Benshi, or live film narration, involves writing a new narrative to an existing film, turning down the volume, and speaking the alternative story and dialogue into a microphone while standing to the side of the screen.  It’s a hybrid of theater, film, and poetry that originated 10 years ago in San Francisco after filmmaker Konrad Steiner invited San Francisco poets to write “over” existing films with new language.  The traditional benshi, or “film teller,” was a revered figure in Japan and Korea during the silent film era,.  He (always he) narrated and ventriloquized the actual screen action, providing the theatrical “live element” that Japan appreciated more than the U.S. film industry did.  There were tens of thousands of benshis, more popular than actors or directors, whose different styles of acting and interpretation were appreciated, but who always stuck close to the spine of the story. Those of us on the West coast who revived this dying art, did so in a revisionist spirit.  We create a “third form” or intermedium, collaging our own words with the moving visual image, to create an entirely new work of art.  

I’ve always been drawn to cross-genre or trans-genre work.  Much of my poetry is composed in relation to painting or music or other art genres (like film), and much of it is performed.  I founded and edit a trans-genre poetry anthology series at UC Santa Cruz entitled Viz. Inter-arts (see that explores work between genres and the relationship between the arts.  The book series was inspired by an event series I curated at UCSC in the past called “Trans-Genre:  Poetry and the Inter-Arts.” 

Tell us about your poetry. What inspires you, what do you like to write about?

Much of my writing is between genres or inspired by other art genres. Lately, I’ve been working on a long poem called “The Songs that Objects would Sing”, inspired by, or rather pulled out of me by my mother’s death. It’s a meditation on the stories, the action narratives, latent in static objects, that can be released through sustained contemplation--a kind of counterpoint, thus goad to the objects’ seeming stillness, to tell their stories. By simply observing objects without preconceptions, their redolence or storied character might be channeled in poetry. The way I relate, in poetry, to objects that outlast, thus stand in, for a life, draws inspiration from Modernist poets’ relationships to objects (Ezra Pound’s “objectism” or William Carlos Williams’s “no ideas but in things”), but the language and the stories that emanate from my sustained attention on them definitely transcends the original object or occasion. My goal is to achieve much more than description or a painterly relation to things. Like “abstract expressionism,” I hope my less literalist version of the objects allows others to converse with them by projecting their own associations onto a more open “screen.”

How does your work in theater inform or inspire your poetry and your work as a writing instructor?

Though most of my poetry is written to stand alone on the page, its origin is often in counterpoint—to another art genre—or written for performance.  Though my writing is not always as intimate as a “private conversation,” I always draw on the presence of a speaking voice, or the speed of speech (as Charles Olson describes in “Projective Verse”) to make my writing more kinetic.   Words are objects themselves that create a field of energetic relations between themselves.  They are not merely signs that point to a reality outside of themselves.   The words and their relation to each other in the field of the poem create a kind of drama with its own internal “rules.”  I’m drawn to the intersection of poetry and theater—namely Poets Theater—and there’s a rich history of this in San Francisco I’ve been involved with off and on.

As for my teaching of writing, my pedagogy has always emphasized process and writing as discovery.  If you’re engaged in writing as a process to discover ideas you haven’t yet discovered, your writing will likely contain what Olson described as “energy transferred from wherever the writer got it, by way of the poem, all the way over to the reader”, in other words the kinetic element I was speaking of:  an authentic person speaking to another.  Currently I’m teaching a new course called “Performance Writing” where we not only learn about various performance genres but also how to practice verbal as well as written discourse in class.  Public speaking. The art of conversation and public speaking needs revival among our screen-indentured generation of students!

You're currently sitting on the Senate Committee on Education Policy at UCSC. What's your experience been like with that committee so far? How important is it to have a lecturer viewpoint represented in that committee?

It’s an honor to serve on the Committee on Educational Policy at UCSC with such smart faculty and staff dedicated to undergraduate education. CEP requires so much time that it’s the one committee for which Senate faculty are paid. Though lecturers are not officially allowed to vote on policy nor are we paid for our service, I appreciate the birds’ eye view of the University’s undergraduate curricular concerns and to collaborate with colleagues across disciplines and ranks.  It’s empowering to represent lecturers’ concerns and have our viewpoint included in discussions and official correspondence.  CEP meetings are conducted in a very inclusive manner by this particular Chair.  I tend to be activist and upfront about Lecturer workload and equity issues in my various committee and union roles on campus.  It’s a fairly recent privilege that NSF can serve on committees at UCSC and am learning about all the ways a lecturer’s perspective can be of service to the campus at large (since we teach half of the classes) as well as our own concerns.  Lecturers’ concerns really are the University’s concerns at large.  Most of us may be on the front line teaching first year students, but those students become second, third, or fourth year students—hence the charge of Senate faculty and administrators—and their success depends on that crucial first year and whether the University is willing to invest in their success at that point. 

Lecturers are on the receiving end of many educational policies, such as the drive to admit more international students (to increase diversity and revenue for the University) and UCSC’s attempt to secure HSI (Hispanic Serving Institution) status in order to receive lucrative federal grants.  Therefore, it’s necessary to advocate for resources to handle the increased workload of teaching many more English Language Learners--in the Writing Program, for example.  We’re not seeing the revenue being directed to those programs that are charged with helping students achieve the literacy they need to survive all four years.  The drive to recruit international students should also be framed in terms of retention, since that too is tied to revenue for the University.  Lecturers play an important role there.  At least I can speak as a Writing instructor who spends many one-on-one hours with L2 (second language) students, trying to get their writing to the point where they can pass the class.   There is no serious discussion among administrators on this campus to address the significant increased but uncompensated workload that comes as a result of this recruitment initiative.   In a separate committee that I chair, we created a comprehensive workload survey for the Writing Program that revealed just how badly we need resources that have been stripped (like tutors) or unavailable during the past few years as our demographics have shifted radically. 

The survey showed how dedicated we are to our students (hence we voluntarily spend many additional hours weekly helping students in great need), but how life outside work is suffering due to lack of time and financial resources for our families.  Among UC Writing classrooms, UCSC has the most students per section—way more than national recommendations.   We have 25 students per Writing 2 section, and Berkeley has 14, for example.  That number results in many more hours of work per week. 

You're a member of UC-AFT. Has the union benefited you in some way? Why do you think it's important for lecturers at UC to have a union?

I’m utterly indebted and devoted to the lecturers’ union. I fought hard during the strike of 2004 for a contract that would confer some measure of job security for pre and post-six lecturers. The security afforded to Continuing lecturers by that contract cannot be overstated. Much of this, and so much other important work on this campus and UC-wide, is thanks to the work of our own Mike Rotkin. Now we need to focus on reversing the recent years’ workload increases and salary/benefit reductions during the years of the budget crisis (some of which has been manufactured).

If we permit our current workload to become “the new normal,” we are in trouble. Many of us are too exhausted to be active, but we must, or we’ll find ourselves teaching more students for less pay and decreased benefits in a changing demographic context that needs more resources to mitigate. UC-AFT is the main vehicle by which we enact changes in working conditions—by negotiating rights into our contract. Most lecturers have no idea what their dues go toward and would be astonished to know the history of these hard-fought job protections in these contract negotiations with UCOP.

Upon my arrival here 15 years ago, I realized what a bifurcated world UC is. We are the non-Senate faculty, defined by what we are not. The corollary, of course, is that Senate faculty are defined by what they are not (lecturers), though this is an invisible relation. Their privileges are dependent upon our labor. While they are perfectly deserving and nice people, the systemic power imbalance is often corrosive. I used to be a Visiting Assistant Professor at a liberal arts college for years and, while the tenured/non-tenured dichotomy was central to governance and policy, there was not such an intractable abyss between classes of instructors. Here, we have not been allowed to even attend Academic Senate meetings until recently, and we’re still not allowed to speak. We’re fortunate to be invited to the table with respect to Senate committees now. CEP , CAFA and other powerful committees can set policy and advocate for resources to those who control the purse strings. I hope lecturers’ voices will help make a difference in how those resources are allocated.