The Right Kind of Ignorance


It’s small and blackish and may have wings folded flat to its body, ready, waiting. But it’s so small I can’t see it very well. Or my eyes are weak. Or it’s impossible to get any closer to seeing this animal anyway and I can only shrug my shoulders and admit how strange it is. And how it lives, for now, in this corner of office, just far enough from the cobweb to remain safe.

I leave the room to wake my children and take them to school, and when I come back, it’s still there. It’s smaller than ever and very still. I find a magnifying glass and peer through it. It looks like a fruit fly, only smaller. It has legs the size of iron filings and wings; it definitely has wings. Either that, or they’re weird halos. Nothing about it is familiar, not its body, not its habits, not its time. In fact, the only thing that we have in common is sentience and mortality. I think about killing it. I could press it flat with my thumb, squish it dead in less than a second. A tiny black smudge that I could flick on the floor.

But I don’t. I Google it instead (a kind of death by over-information): I type in ‘tiny black fly’ and hundreds of pages of text fill my screen like a swarm. I learn new words and definitions: moth flies, owl midges, drain flies, fungus flies. They are all small and black with legs and wings, though each one is slightly different – there are variations in eye colour, barely visible markings, microscopic wing-patterns. But all the new information does is make me feel factual. Now I can hazard an educated guess that the fly is a baby fruit fly, of the family Drosophilidae, which means “dew-loving”. Meanwhile, the fly has flown off.

In John Berger’s essay ‘Why Look At Animals’, he talks about the human observation of animals as a sign of our separation from them: ‘The fact that they can observe us has lost all significance. They are the objects of our ever-extending knowledge. What we know about them is an index of our power, and thus an index of what separates us from them. The more we know, the further away we are.’ I agree up to a point (I think Berger’s actually drawing attention to different ways of knowing, as opposed to rejecting factual information out of hand). But ignorance can be just as powerful and separatist. Here’s a post I came across on one of the many ‘black fly’ forums:

I keep getting lots of tiny black flies in my house and just can’t seem to get rid of them?

They seem to gather mostly around windows and no matter how many i kill they just won’t go away. i’ve cleaned all of the kitchen which is where they are mainly and have fly killer patches on my windows, which are catching them, but i am killing well over twenty a day. they are driving me mad! They are about half a centimetre long. Any advice would be GREATLY received as I am getting fed up of hoovering the dead ones up each day and spraying my house with fly spray.

Reading the forum reminded me of Jo Shapcott’s poem, ‘Scorpion’, in which she tries to unravel aspects of the human-animal relationship, using an animal that has the potential to inflict as much harm on the human as the human inflicts on it.


I kill it because we cannot stay in the same room. I kill it

because we cannot stay in the same room with me sleeping.

I kill it because I might look away and not see it there on

the wall when I look back. I kill it because I might spend all

night hunting it. I kill it because I am afraid to go near

enough with glass and paper to carry it outside. I kill it

because I have been told to. I kill it by slapping my shoe

against the wall because I have been told to do it that way.

I kill it standing as far away as possible and stretching my

hand holding the shoe towards it. I kill it because it has

been making me shake out the bedclothes, look inside my

shoes, scan the walls at night. I kill it because I can. I kill it

because it cannot stop me. I kill it because I know it is

there. I kill it so that its remains are on the heel of my shoe.

I kill it so that its outline with curved sting is on my wall. I

kill it to feel sure I will live. I kill it to feel alive. I kill it

because I am weaker than it is. I kill it because I do not

understand it. I kill it without looking at it. I kill it because

I am not good enough to let it live. I kill it out of the corner

of my eye, remembering that it is black, vertical, stock still on

the white wall. I kill it because it will not speak to me.

Jo Shapcott

What the poem shows, I think, is the right kind of ignorance. Shapcott repeatedly wanders out to what fellow poet and teacher, Fran Quinn, calls ‘the exciting place’, the place where ignorance throws you around and you get surprised by life, over and over again. You can feel it in her poems. The keen edge. The possibility that the whole thing might not come off because it’s already all the time gaining water and she’s madly bailing. Quinn talks about the importance of ignorance in the creative act: ‘The creative act, by its very nature, is based on ignorance,’ he writes. ‘If you know it, it’s already been created, if you don’t know it, you have to create it. The nature of the creative individual is an ability to walk into the thing that you don’t know and create it. We were all taught to feel ashamed of our ignorance. Almost the entire educational system is structured to say that we’re supposed to know the answers. What I’m saying is that we have to break that model.’

I too have been taught to believe that what I don’t know is a sign of something lacking in me, as opposed to the wonderful opportunity for learning that it is. Sometimes, in writing poems and sharing their imperfection, there is fear and even shame. What Quinn suggests is that the best parts of our creative energy is often caught up in these very emotions. He believes there are fruitful ways of getting lost and that ignorance should be the place you enter the poem. ‘There’s this huge opportunity,’ he says, ‘and yet we keep wandering around in this tiny garden of knowledge that we’ve carefully walled so that nothing can come in from the great unwashed outside and eat us alive – the ignorance part.’

It reminds me of something Paul Kingsnorth talked about at the recent (and very wonderful) Prophets of Rock & Wave workshop on the edge of Dartmoor, together with myth-teller Martin Shaw. Paul talked about Val Plumwood’s essay, Being Prey, which describes her narrow escape from the jaws of a crocodile:

In its final, frantic attempts to protect itself from the knowledge that threatens the narrative framework, the mind can instantaneously fabricate terminal doubt of extravagant proportions: this is not really happening. This is a nightmare from which I will soon awake. This desperate delusion split apart as I hit the water. In that flash, I glimpsed a world for the first time ‘from the outside’, as a world no longer my own, an unrecognisable, bleak landscape composed of raw necessity, indifferent to my life or death.

To experience the world anew, to claw back the layers of perception and their attendant beliefs, to write our way out of our comfort zones, perhaps we should throw ourselves at a crocodile – metaphorically speaking, of course.

It’s this approach to writing and sharing poetry that I try to practise. In April 2013, Susan Richardson and I are co-leading a Dark Mountain poetry workshop at Wiston Lodge in the Scottish Borders. I’d like to explore Fran Quinn’s ideas of journeying out into unknown territory. I’d like to talk about animals and how far away from them we are. There’ll be a session of mask-making as part of the creative writing process, a sense of play that’s not just intellectual, but hands-on too. There’ll be bonfires, time spent outside, great food. We’ll be sleeping in wooden cabins at the foot of Tinto Hill.

Check out the events page on this website and a previous DM blog for further details. Or email me or Susan to find out more or book a place. There are no prerequisites for attending: absolute beginners to established writers are equally welcome. We’re keeping the workshop small – there’ll be a maximum of ten places, and five are already booked -so that we can have a good chunk of time to share and discuss work. Book soon if you want to join us.

If ignorance is the most creative place to get lost, what might we end up finding there?

I’ve quoted and paraphrased freely from an article on Fran Quinn’s workshops in Poets & Writers, Sept/Oct 2011

The Song of the Secret Name of Doofus the Third

[inscribed on clay tiles discovered by crop gleaners in a ravine outside of the Mount Rushmore Tea Party Tribal Headquarters, Montana Militia Eastern Garrison, Nunavut Confederacy, during the failed harvest season of 2212. Many of the tiles have been damaged by participants in a game called Frisbee-To-The-Death, leading to gaps in the narrative.]

I am Crackfeenster,
Rushmore Tribal Historian,
Recorder of Potato Crop Numbers,
Rememberer of the Great Broken Faces,
Keeper of the Secret Names.

Listen and learn:

The days are growing longer and the heat has withered the potato plants, but we have dug the potatoes, and I have scratched the numbers of all the potato sacks on the windshield of the Sacred Broken Chevrolet Pickup for another year.

Now I sing:

We have many potatoes
White and gold and purple potatoes
We will make it through another burning summer.
Underground with the potatoes
Cool in our potato vaults
Eating potatoes off broken plates
Drinking potato tea out of cracked glasses
For the potato is the root of life, however broken
And we are the broken people of the potato.

[two damaged tiles follow, which contain references to the preparation of potato tea, which seems to be a primitive form of vodka]

Let us get on with it.
Now I sing of Doofus the Third
And his secret name:

The face of Doofus the Third
Is not on the sacred mountain of the Rushmores.
He is not Broken George, whose secret name is
The Cherry Tree Chopper with the Wooden Choppers.

He is not BrokenTeddy, whose secret name is
The Untrustable.
He is not Broken Tom, whose secret name is
Sally’s Partner in Bondage.
He is not Broken Abe, whose secret name is
The Only Good Republican.

I alone remember Doofus the Third.
Without me he would not exist.

I now sing of how hard my job is:

Our time is not a good time to be An Historian.
History is hard to get right in the afterglow of civilization.
The Historian is born to suffer.
It is hard to remember names.
It is hard to do the math.

No one can have a history without a name.
No one can count potatoes without the math.
Without a name, it is hard to affix blame to any one person.

Our brokenness comes to be seen as a series of rolls of the dice
Rather than the product of personal avarice or cowardice.

That is why some people want their names forgotten.
That is why names are important, goddammit.
We need to know whose families to kill.

[broken tiles]

Some say civilization was broken in a place called Persia,
Where the land turned to molten glass,
And the glass flowed all the way to Cleopatria,
Where the stones of the Pyramids
Litter the desert.

Some say it was broken when the Ill-Eagle Bird Flu
Spread from Anthraxico, which lies south of
The heat-shimmering dunes of Kansas.

Some say that the steaming oceans rose over the land
And drowned sinful humanity
Which was most of them.

But the great god P’taah felt remorse
And gave us cool green Antarctica
Somewhere on the other side of the Boiling Sea
South of Anthraxico.

It is hard to get to Antarctica
In leaky rowboats made of cattails
And caulked with melted bits of Interstate.
But if you worship the Giant Potato
In the Great P’taah Potato Cellar
And tithe a tenth of your potato crop
To the Sacred Potato Prostitutes
You get to go to Antarctica when you die.

[broken tiles]

You calorie-obsessed fools
Who call yourselves economists
Are nothing but foodies.
All day you sit around
You swap recipes
And talk about the eternal expansion of the Potato Economy.

You say that money could never exist as IOUs.
You say that money must always be in potato equivalents.
Turnips and squash
Ground squirrel carcasses
And, of course, potatoes,
Which are the best of all possible potato equivalents.

You ask, ‘How can you have money that people can’t eat?’
You ask, ‘Why would people think it was worth anything at all?’
You roll your eyes and say.
‘Doofus the Third, if he existed,
Must have been a minor priest
Of the Church of the Golden Arches,
In the Ancient Order of French Fries.’

Heed well my warning:
Our time is not a good time to be a foodie,
Even one who claims to be an economist.
We will kill you when we find you
And use your fat for our oil lamps.

[a broken tile]

I will now express my disgust
For another useless profession,
The philosophers.

You reality-obsessed fools
Who say you love the truth
Claim that Doofus the Third
Was only a concept used to show
That any human who presumed to talk to the gods
Would bring disaster to his family and his village.
‘The gods are capricious,’ you say. ‘Even Great P’taah.
‘They mess with our potato crops for sport.
‘Only a fool would deliberately try to get their attention.’

Now is not a good time to be a philosopher.
We kill you when we find you
And eat your brains to better understand your big words
And use your Achilles tendons to tie up
The tops of our potato sacks.

[broken tiles]

You ask me
What happened to the lawyers.

I remember the time
In my youth
When we still had them.

Back then was not a good time to be a lawyer.
We killed them when we found them.
And set them on fire where they fell
And sprinkled bits of them our potatoes.

[more broken tiles]

Know, then,
That Doofus the Third walked the Earth
And gave us our broken world,
Crappy as it might be.

Know, then,
You shamans and witch-doctors
Of the Ancient Order of Emergency Room Physicians
Know that Doofus the Third
Was your Founding Father

He replaced an entire health-care system
With your Emergency Rooms
Which welcome the uninsured
Which is all of us
To Antarctica.

Know, then,
You spear-makers and mud hut builders
You scavengers of metal
You sellers of bits of highway
You copper-wire jewelry makers
Know that Doofus the Third
Gave us full employment
Which is a blessing.

When you close a spear wound for two potatoes
And give a copper bracelet for a pumpkin
Trade ten nails for a ground squirrel carcass
Or receive a zucchini for a kilo of asphalt,
Know that Doofus the Third gave you a job
When you needed one.

He calmed the anger of Great P’taah
When Great P’taah was angry.
He gave us our broken world
Which is better than nothing.
No, it really is.

So, in humbleness and terror,
I whisper three times the secret name
Of Doofus the Third,
The Sacred Two Syllables Times Three
That will last forever in their glory: