Furniture Music is Montreal-based poet Gail Scott’s experimental prose memoir about her time living and working in New York City between 2008 and 2012. While it traverses several historical milestones – the Obama presidency, Occupy Wall Street, the 2012 Quebec student strikes, and Hurricane Sandy – the narrative is articulated through Scott’s observations, conversations, and musings. The text also incorporates fragments of quotes from artists, intellectuals, and public figures (cited in the margins), creating a chorus of voices which sometimes harmonize and other times clash. Furniture Music archives the ordinary in the midst of upheaval.
Furniture Music aims to represent Scott’s life as it is being lived. Written in the present tense and in staccato sentences, Scott’s short, hurried prose reflects the frenzied pace of her days during this period. She is often in transit between different venues, friends’ homes and studios, New York City and Montreal. The present tense also creates a sense of immediacy, of being in the here and now even with readers approaching this text from the distance of a decade. Scott is concerned with representing how people navigate the present moment, before the sense-making and normalizing drives of individual and institutional memory take hold. To this effect, she privileges the faculty of perception – sometimes becoming a conduit for the texture of the city, scraps of media, and the conversations amongst her friends and peers. Scott draws our attention to the fleeting moment “between event and the remembrance of it.”
The sense of immediacy produced by Scott’s style is in tension with the multiple intermissions for “furniture music” – another term for background music – within the narrative. These pauses in the text are for Scott’s memories, daydreams, and reflections. For instance, Scott describes walking past Barack Obama’s election posters in 2008 when she remembers the drama of the election campaign happening up north: “[FURNITURE MUSIC’s playing current Federal election campaign. Chez nous. Where incumbent right-of-centre Mr. SHHH’s former pastor. Said leader of church against abortion. Divorce…Mercifully Mr. SHHH promising. Not to reopen gay debate in Parliament.]” “Furniture music” represents thoughts that linger in the background, sometimes connected to Scott’s immediate reality and sometimes removed. These thoughts may not always command all of her attention, but they nonetheless have the power to distract and redirect her.
Vacillating between this present and reflective mood, the memoir documents the social movements that sought to challenge privatization and corporate encroachment during the end of the last decade. In particular, it locates the demands of these grassroots struggles in the shadow of the Obama presidency, which oversaw increasing neoliberalism while propping up progressive optics. Scott draws attention to the visceral experiences of being a part of these movements: flushed cheeks and dark eyes “from nights of talking, smoking, painting placards” during the 2012 student strike demonstrations in Quebec, a youth bursting into tears as they enter the prefigurative world of the Occupy camps, the physical ordeal of young First Nations people walking in -40°C to reach Parliament Hill in Ottawa.
She reveals the originary sparks of these movements and the affective ties between those who were involved. Her attention to these movements also point towards an alternative vision of citizenship – one where people can affect change (and shape their destinies) not just through their vote, but also through directly stating and enacting their demands. Despite Scott’s regard for these movements, she also alludes multiple times to their dissolution: “Are not all revolutions spotted with unwitting betrayals…?” We are left considering why these movements fizzle out and where, if anywhere, that initial energy goes.
The memoir represents Scott’s experiences in the alternative poetry scene – including St. Mark’s Poetry Project and the Bowery Poetry Club – both as an artist and an observer. While Scott expresses a fondness for her community, she also critically examines the reception of experimental writing as well as the kind of social spaces that it fosters. Scott shows how experimental writing, despite its brazen rejection of the rules surrounding communication, is adept at registering and forging connections between our sensory and affective experiences of the world.
Moreover, Scott’s intertextual practice – her incorporation of quotes from other writers and intellectuals into the text – challenges the idea of experimental writing as detached and rootless. She demonstrates that these works can still be tethered to literary traditions. At the same time, Scott alludes to the tendency of experimental writers to retreat into their communities: “Towards warm embrace of S. Can these poets. Living their small group existence? Be in reality impacting public thinking?” The “warmth” of these spaces may be the result of artists insulating themselves from broader political struggle.
Furniture Music ends with the acknowledgement that poetry “cannot make revolution. It can, however, create space. For freely imagining. Edges. Of le possible.” That is to say, regardless of the extent to which experimental art can impact change, Scott insists on the value of creative practices that allow us to pause and reconsider what we know to be true.mRb