The Poetry Project

Touch/Don't Touch Footnotes

Rachel Parks Liu

“How do we navigate the imperatives of touch? The edges of bodies? The possibilities within constraints?” These are the questions Gabrielle Civil asked us in her discourse. For this event, “touch [encompassed] the tactile, the energetic, and the ancestral as sites of exploration” (The Poetry Project). It felt intentional and comforting to hold this discourse on touch remotely with the internet as our safety barrier and Civil’s leadership and guidance through the subject matter was bold and unique. I can truly say I’ve never been so engaged on Zoom!

Among the many activations Civil instructed us through, the communal activation of Yoko Ono’s Touch Poem V struck me and stuck with me mostly because I’ve been seeing many of the instructions from Ono’s Grapefruit being posted on the internet lately. If ever there was a lull, there is most certainly a resurgence of fluxus at the moment. To me, this second wave of fluxus seems largely aesthetic and missing the it’s key performative element because of the way all of it is mediated through internet platforms. Beyond the post, Civil had us break the poem out of the feed by asking us to simultaneously perform Touch Poem V. Each video chat moved in sync as the participants around the world observed and described the barriers of our physical locations.

For the breakout sessions of the discourse we were invited to choose between tactile, energetic, and ancestral touch, which each worked with a different reading from the packet Civil had prepared for us. I chose “energetic touch” because the joining of the two words interested me, if only because I had not heard the phrase before. Nothing excites me in the same way that new language does! The union of energy and touch felt intentional and purposeful linguistically. Energetic touch seems to be a phrase designed to describe something dominant language has refused to acknowledge. In the energetic touch breakout room we discussed Baby Suggs’ Sermon from Beloved by Toni Morrison. During the event I was fixated on the idea that energetic touch seems to elicit one to move towards action. It has only occurred to me now while writing this footnote that both the sermon and Touch Poem V are instructions. The insight that arises from this is that, at best, we can energetical touch others, in the spiritual sense, to move towards action that creates communion, interactivity, and interconnectivity.

Writing this footnote was inspired by being assigned Ono’s Grapefruit in a writing class I am currently taking. When discussing the reading as a group, all but one of my classmates found the work uncompelling. In defense of Grapefruit’s absurdity my classmate brought up the compelling argument that poetry can be more utilitarian than many other forms of writing. This language prompted a recollection of Audre Lorde’s 1985 essay Poetry is Not a Luxury, which rereading has grounded much of what I found to be true in my experience from Civil’s Touch/Don’t Touch discourse. The language of energetic touch that Civil proposes “...give name to those ideas, which are, until the poem, nameless and formless – about to be birthed, but already felt.”

Work from Touch / Don’t Touch: Dis/Course with Gabrielle Civil