Click here to view a full-sized scan of the introduction Caroline Bergvall wrote to her poem “VIA” for the collection titled Fig (Salt Books, 2005). A ten-minute recording of Bergvall performing “VIA” is available at PennSound. Episode #64 of the podcast series PoemTalk is a discussion of “VIA.” I have published a note on two versions of the piece here. A twelve-minute video discussion of “VIA” produced for the open online course ModPo is available here.
I’ve been asked to comment on Ron Silliman’s excellent talk “Your Monsters Are Our Monsters: The Problem of Borders and the Nearness of the American Avant-Garde.” In Silliman’s “L-shaped talk,” the shape itself merits consideration.
“Hell is other people,” and that’s perhaps why Dante chose to write in the vernacular. Mary Jo Bang posits Dante’s choice of demotic Italian over more academic Latin as crucial to her more “pop” approach to the Inferno, as if Dante, in descending the circles of Hell, were literally playing out a necessary descent from the purities of high-culture into the noisy substrata of the low. But for a misreading of Benjamin, in which Bang posits his translational ethics as invested in “sharing what is common to all,” her approach partakes in Benjamin’s notion that, in the zombie “afterlife” of a text, one can only reanimate it through translation in ways that are impermanent and historical.
Amaris Cuchanski, David Wallace, and Laynie Browne converged on the Writers House one day recently to talk about a remarkable performance piece (later text) by Caroline Bergvall, “VIA.” In the piece, Bergvall intones forty-seven English translations of the opening tercet of Dante Alighieri’s Inferno (1321): “Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita / mi ritrovai per una selva oscura / ché la diritta via era smarrita.” She arranges the translations alphabetically according to first word, from “along” to “when,” reciting the translator’s name and date after each. Our PoemTalkers discuss the poem’s pre-textual state as aural performance, the remarkable title which seems to connect every manner of issue and mode, the relative literary value and literary-historical place of individual verse translators, translation itself as inherently open, and, of course, the ur-relevance of Dante’s always-interpretable infernal foray into the experience of being lost in words.
Before attempting to make judgments of specific works outside of any critical framework, what might we mean by performance poetics/poetry/writing? I use the term ‘performance writing’ here to try to generally indicate forms of experimental writing that work with/in/out of performance, and to distinguish such forms from an emphasis on ‘performance poetry’ (slam, spoken word, etc.) or performance art practices that are not driven by non-narrative and/or avant-garde poetics. As we shall see, the term (as far as I know) comes from the UK (where it has become institutionalized, if still purposefully under-defined), where various practitioners have helped formulate some of the questions and fields that inform a lot of my thinking here.
(Big Caveat #2: I am NOT interested in clean definitions or drawing lines between what is and is not performance writing/poetics. However, I do think that provisional semi-pseudo-categories might at least be useful in helping tease out helpful distinctions that different practices bring to the work of poetry in the field of performance [and vise versa]. Hopefully such questions can help elucidate what might be new/compelling/‘useful’ for writers and critics, at least…)
My final commentary focuses on writers reading the work of other writers. I was interested in recordings that did more than simply pay homage or celebrate an influence. The experience of listening to the following recordings was often one of hearing some aspect of the text come loose through the reader's voice instead of hearing the text being inscribed into a fixed state.
In a 1998 recording at the Kelly Writers House, Rachel Blau DuPless reads an excerpt from T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land during a celebration of the Poems for the Millenium anthologies. DuPlessis explains: "The Waste Land isn't in this anthology. [. . .] Because of the price the Eliot estate charges." Instead of reprinting The Waste Land, Poems for the Millenium: Volume One includes a brief commentary contextualizing the poem's relationship to a range of modernist literary movements. DuPlessis continues: "I also wanted to note that there are always people missing whenever there are writers. There are people who aren't writing or can't write or don't write. And sometimes they get absorbed into the writers. And this is a section of The Waste Land that was basically spoken by Eliot's maid, named Ellen Kellend." By reading this passage from the poem, DuPlessis foregrounds the material conditions under which literature is created (or not created) and disseminated (or not disseminated).
Over the course of the next few months I will be performing as a commentator for Jacket2. I will be collecting, recollecting and commenting on a wide variety of digital texts and contexts operating in the inter-zones where digital media, literature, visual art and performance practices meet. Some of these texts may be more about language than about literature. Some may be more about reading than writing. Some may seem to be more about the social than anything. Some may be visual art, or net.art, or media art, or sound art or some other art or all of the above or something in between. Some will refer to the literary without containing a character of text. And some will be live moments, never again to be realized.
There are terms for these ways of working. Writing in networked and programmable media. Transmedia storytelling. Hypermedia. Multi-media. Multi-modal. Cross-art-form. Art Writing. Performance Writing. For me, this last term incorporates all the elements I am most interested in, which is why I have placed the word performance first in my title.
Caroline Bergvall has emerged over the past decade as one of the most brilliantly inventive poets of our time. Bergvall's new book, Meddle English, is multilectical, conceptual, sprung lyric – let's just say pataque(e)rical – extravaganza.
At Sibyl, the English portal of Sibila, we've published Bergvall's own excerpt from the first piece in her new book, which I asked her to send my way as I was eager to have at least part of this work readily accesible on-line. Here are two crucial passages which are for me a kind of manifesto for writing in our time, for the kind of poetries I want: a poetry that doesn't accept English as a standard but as a site for meddling: a meddling that allows for the kind of transformation that is the foundation of exchange. Indeed, Bergvall's comments on voice strike me as getting to the heart of a central concern in the expanded field of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E: the aversion of "voice" in the pursuit of voices, voicings.