Commentaries - February 2013
from Michael Hennessey’s “A Life, Spliced: On the Early Tapeworks of Charles Bernstein,” published in The Salt Companion to Charles Bernstein, edited by William Allegrezza, Salt Publishing, 2012.
“I am a recording instrument” — William S. Burroughs, Naked Lunch 
“Oh Charles, how could you be so cruel. Charles turn that magadget off … I'm gonna get my own tape recorder and I'm gonna tape your conversations Charles.” — Bernstein’s mother, Sherry (from “#4: a portrait of one being in family living”)
More than thirty-five years after the release of his first book, Asylums, Charles Bernstein is justifiably recognized as one of America’s most influential living poets — a fact attested to by his recent career-spanning collection, All the Whiskey in Heaven: Selected Poems (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2010). While, as a pioneer of Language Writing, Bernstein has made significant contributions to contemporary poetics, his work as a scholar, editor, curator and pedagogue are perhaps of equal, if not greater, importance, and indeed, all of these discrete facets work together in a complementary fashion to construct his overall aesthetic, which is equally a product of numerous extra-literary cultural interests including music, film, drama and the visual arts.
One major trend throughout Bernstein’s life’s work is a close focus on sound and media. In a 1994 interview with Hannah Möckel-Rieke for example, Bernstein prophesied that, “[t]he advent of audio on the net promises to make available the sound of poetry in a way that has been previously stymied by the dearth of readily available audio recordings,” and a decade later, he co-founded (with Al Filreis), PennSound, an online archive of recorded poetry that currently boasts more than twenty-two thousand recordings and millions of annual downloads. PennSound is the culmination of several decades of tireless critical advocacy for the integral role of sound within poetics, which also includes the radio programs Close Listening and LINEbreak, the Segue Reading Series (co-founded with Ted Greenwald at the Ear Inn in 1977) and the Bernstein-edited Segue CD, Live at the Ear (1994), along with the groundbreaking volume Close Listening: Poetry and the Performed Word (Oxford University Press, 1998). Likewise, it’s no stretch to see Bernstein’s innovative use of technology in projects as diverse as the small press literary journal L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, as well as the Electronic Poetry Center and the long-running POETICS Listserv, as being temperamentally linked to the aforementioned foci on sound, poetry and novel modes of cultural delivery.
Because of the significance of both sound and media throughout Bernstein’s long career, it’s surprising that his early experiments with audio poetry — both the 1982 Widemouth Tapes cassette Class, and the mid-1970s home recording sessions that yielded the materials for that release — have been largely neglected. Arguably, one can trace all of Bernstein’s sonic explorations back to this fruitful period in his early aesthetic development — when he was not only greatly inspired by contemporary music and tape manipulation, but also considered the possibility of splitting his creative focus equally between sound and poetry — and certainly these recordings are deserving of wider critical attention.
Track 4: “Class” (1976)
In the penultimate, [title] track [of Class], we find Bernstein experimenting with yet another technique, creating a monophonic collage of samples from well-known films, including Marlon Brando's Oscar-winning performance in Elia Kazan's On the Waterfront, a brief snippet of Casablanca's "As Time Goes By," and two songs from the Depression-era musical Stand Up and Cheer ("Baby Take a Bow" and "I'm Laughing"), which are juxtaposed with fragments of his own ambient speech. Unlike other tracks on Class that are carefully constructed from layers of pre-recorded tracks, the cassette’s title track is the spontaneous product of intentionally crude edits.
To create the track, Bernstein used the “very low end mono cassette [recorder]” on which he’d originally recorded the track’s raw materials, and “played the forward and reverse keys, like you’d play a piano” as that machine was fed into his “new fangled stereo cassette recorder.” The resulting sound, riddled with abrupt and unambiguously mechanical lurches, splices and repetitions that jumble syntax and jump across the frequency spectrum, blurs the lines between speech and pure sound. However, this frantic editing, while perhaps the most technically impressive facet of “Class,” is only used selectively through the course of the track, which otherwise consists of lengthy, uninterrupted passages of film dialogue and song. The tension established between these macro- and micro-components allows the listener a momentary respite, and also effectively mimics the interplay of silence and sound (through the split-second drop-outs that accompany each edit) and the vast emotional incongruities between the source materials: the desolation of On the Waterfront, the wistful romance of Casablanca and the blithe joy of Stand Up and Cheer!
The piece's focal point is a stunning and stuttering deconstruction of On the Waterfront’s famous soliloquy — “I coulda had class . . . I coulda been a contender” — as delivered by the once-promising boxer Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando), which evolves slowly over the track’s length. “Class” begins (after a brief excerpt from Steve Reich’s Drumming that also closes the track) with the speech in its entirety, running for a full ninety seconds and coming to a close at the scene’s natural ending, which dissolves into the song “I’m Laughing” from Stand Up and Cheer! (a derisive response from the world to Malloy’s troubles). When the song ends, Brando is back, repeating a smaller portion of the scene ending with the phrase, “It wasn’t him, Charlie, it was you,” which then loops cleanly and completely (an effect not unlike a skipping phonograph record) for forty seconds, before the intrusion of another cheerful song from the musical, “Baby, Take a Bow.” The next brief interruption consists of the opening strains of Casablanca’s “As Time Goes By,” overlaid with Bernstein’s own voice, complaining to an unknown person (“you don’t take any initiative and you expect me to do the whole thing”) — these two tracks alternate once more, with the latter engaging in a brief, ragged loop, before Brando returns again, setting up the track’s sonic climax.
Lasting almost four and a half minutes, this meditation on Malloy’s iconic lines, “You don’t understand, I coulda had class . . . I coulda been a contender . . . I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am, let’s face it,” scrambles the material into an increasingly dizzying and claustrophobic series of cuts that simultaneously efface any meaning whatsoever (appropriately, the phrase “you don’t understand” serves as a refrain throughout), while more acutely reiterating the full emotional weight of Malloy’s situation, each cut accompanied by a thumping punch-in noise that hits listeners with as much force as the longshoremen’s fists which nearly kill him at the end of the film. Bernstein’s extended, virtuosic performance here yields some startling effects, both sonically and syntactically, as evidenced by this transcribed approximation of one of the track’s more intricate passages:
you don’t understand
some money / you don’t understand I
you don’t understan
you don’t understand
money / you don’t understand, I coulda had class … I coulda been a conten
I coulda been a conten
I coulda been a contender
you don’t understand, I coulda had class
you don’t understand, I coulda had class
you don’t understand, I coulda had class
saw some money / you don’t understand, I coulda had class
for you, you saw some money / you don’t understand, I could had class . . .
I coulda been a contender . . . I coulda been somebody
tender . . . I coulda been somebody
contender . . . I coulda been somebody
I coulda been somebody
I coulda been somebody
I coulda been somebody
This section is bookended by longer, uncut excerpts of the speech, with the latter abruptly segueing into a recapitulation of “Baby, Take a Bow” and a closing sample of Drumming.
“Class” is perhaps the most disembodied track on the cassette, consisting almost exclusively of manipulated found materials, and the source of this raw audio — largely television reruns of films from the 30s, 40s and 50s — is notable for a number of reasons. First, one must take into consideration the effect of television on the development of Bernstein’s aesthetic imagination. Loss Pequeño Glazier, conducting an autobiographical interview with Bernstein in 1996 recalls the poet’s assertion that his work “is as influenced by Dragnet as by Proust,” which he interprets as “indicative of the sources of ‘information’ we have in a media culture like ours.” This hybrid embrace of high and low culture, literary and non-literary texts is a key characteristic of Bernstein’s poetics. Elsewhere in the same interview, Bernstein describes his media-saturated childhood idylls: “I liked TV and hanging out at home … some years I missed as many as 40 days. And at home there was the chance for reverie, for sleeping late, for making tuna fish sticks sprinkled with paprika, for watching daytime TV.” “I read TV Guide religiously in those days,” he continues, “and knew all the panelists on the celebrity game shows, all the actors on the sitcoms, and all the comedy shows from the early 50s that I had missed the first time around” Television also served as a vital catalyst for some of Bernstein’s earliest uses of audiotape: “I got my first tape recorder when I was 12 or so,” he explains, using it “to tape TV shows’ themes and the like.”
At the same time, the specific characteristics and limitations of the television medium serve as a vital alchemical component of Bernstein’s tape collage, particularly when further exploited by the process itself, similar to the inclusion of diegetic radio broadcasts in “Piffle (Breathing).” These film samples aren’t purely digital, high-definition artifacts (as we would likely experience them in the present), but rather clips transformed multiply as they are broadcast terrestrially, received by a television antenna (perhaps distorted by poor tuning) and amplified through the set’s tinny speaker, then recorded on one cassette tape which is, in turn, manipulated and rerecorded by another tape machine. In this chain of events, the television set plays an important role, not only significantly altering the timbre of the original sound to produce the sort of “degraded sounds” Bernstein was interested in achieving (listen, for example, to the washed out strings accompanying Brando’s famous lines or the bell-like over-compressed rendition of “As Time Goes By”), but also allowing for a private viewing experience, where one is free to interact with the films in the way that he does.
There are several precedents for this sort of aesthetic — both appropriative and deconstructive — within Bernstein’s earliest work. “Accused,” one of his very first tape experiments neatly embodies both of these characteristics. “In 1974, City College’s History Department erupted into a bitter political dispute in which older faculty members … accused their younger colleagues of disruptive leftist agitation,” Bernstein explains in the PennSound liner notes to this recording. “In this work, I perform the 1975 CUNY faculty senate report on the matter.”  Over the course of forty-five minutes, the poet makes his way through the entire text, working in a fashion similar to the recursive jump-cut style of “Class.” Here, for example, is a transcription of the first twenty seconds of “Accused”: “the problem / background of the problem / the problem prior / prior to / prior to the / prior to the / prior to the 1960s / prior to the 1960s the / the senior members / the senior members / the senior members / members of / of / of the / of the.” The one key difference, however is that this effect is not generated by mechanical means, but rather is Bernstein’s “live imitation of a tape loop or the way I would later ‘play’ the tape recorder.” The resultant effect is reminiscent of both John Giorno’s multi-voiced loop-influenced early appropriative poetry, or Brion Gysin’s “Permutation Poems” (such as “I Am That I Am,” “Kick That Habit Man” or “Junk Is No Good Baby”) — which “exercise … a more mathematical variation of the [cut-up] concept [upon] a short phrase” — and Bernstein indicates that both of the aforementioned poets entered his frame of reference around the time he began his tape experiments.
“Afternoon Tape,” which fills out the 1975 Accused Cassette also employs a milder, more conversational version of this mimicry — effectively pairing it with actual tape manipulation — and other early recordings such as “Coco-Rimbay” and “Sen-Sen” hybridize the technique, wedding repetitions (of both regular speech and Jackson Mac Low-esque gutteral phonemes) with a layering of multiple voice tracks similar to “Piffle (Breathing).” Finally, the epic tape collage, “#4: a portrait of one being in family living,” is perhaps the most closely aligned to “Class,” making extensive use of the rewind-button stutter loop technique on a variety of recordings, mostly self-made, whether familial field recordings, readings from a wide array of cultural artifacts and personal narratives. What’s most interesting here are the myriad approaches that Bernstein takes to appropriation — while some texts are incorporated into the collage in their original forms (a recording of psychiatrist David Cooper, songs by Billie Holliday and Fats Waller, a recording of an argument between the poet and his parents), others are transformed from their origins as either text or sound sources, including Bernstein’s recitation of dialogue from Casablanca and reading from the work of Poe — and the way in which these samples co-exist with the other audio fragments. It should finally be noted that this appropriative approach shaped Bernstein’s early writings as well, most notably the poem “Asylum,” which is constructed wholly out of excerpts from sociologist Erving Goffman’s Asylums: Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates.
1. William S. Burroughs, Naked Lunch: the Restored Text (New York: Grove, 2001), 184.
2. Charles Bernstein, “#4: a portrait of one being in family living,” Early Recorded Works, PennSound, 2009: MP3
3. Bernstein, “An Interview with Hannah Möckel-Rieke,” My Way: Speeches and Poems (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1999), 72.
4. n.b. I’ve been a member of the PennSound project since 2007, when I joined the staff as managing editor, and was promoted to editor in 2010.
5. The entire body of Bernstein’s homemade tape experiments, including Class, is available on PennSound, while an individual page for Class also exists on the site ). All references contained herein are to these versions.
6. Bernstein, e-mail interview.
7. Bernstein with Loss Pequeño Glazier, “An Autobiographical Interview,” My Way, 236.
8. Ibid., 235. Cf. “Contradiction Turns to Rivalry,” in Islets/Irritations (1983), which consists entirely of appropriated TV Guide-style show synopses.
9. Bernstein, e-mail interview.
11. Bernstein, Early Recorded Works.
12. Bernstein, e-mail interview.
13. Jason Weiss, Back in No Time: The Brion Gysin Reader (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan, 2001), 79.
14. Bernstein, e-mail interview. The poet reports meeting Gysin in Paris in the mid-1970s; he’d later appear on the 1980 Giorno Poetry Systems album Sugar, Alcohol, & Meat.
15. Bernstein, “Acknowledgments and Notes,” All the Whiskey in Heaven: Selected Poems, (New York: Farrar Strauss and Giroux, 2010), 299.
The nexus of modernist forms of performance/poetics has been around in the West at least since Dada, and non-Western and minoritarian poetry communities have cultivated traditions of performance poetry where the body/voice is rarely an afterthought. However, in many of American avant-garde traditions, notions of performativity tend to focus on the poetry reading as the primary site for performative innovation. Of course, given the historical emphasis on the musicality of poetry (sound, meter, aurality, etc.) an emphasis on the poet’s ‘voice’ as the instrument of performance (sounding aloud the music on the page, as it were) is understandable, but occludes other forms of performance and embodiment in relation to poetics. In recent years, however, there has been a noticeable increase in the number of poets working with different forms of performance, from multi-media collaborations to poets theater to public interventions to conceptual experiments with the social forms of the ‘poetry reading’ itself.
A couple of years ago I wrote some remarks for the tenth anniversary of Small Press Traffic’s annual Poets Theater Festival, in which I tried to include some initial speculations on some tendencies in/towards performance in Bay Area poetry over the last decade. Here’s an adapted excerpt:
…The development of these newer forms of Poets Theater has influenced what I think of as a more general performative turn in the Bay Area over the last 10 or so years, from the short-lived but influential performance and writing series programmed by Jocelyn Saidenberg and Brandon Brown for New Langton Arts [RIP], to the overlapping reading series at 21Grand [RIP], which occasionally featured films and performance alongside more conventional readings.
The rise of movie-telling and neo-benshi, developed and promoted by Walter Lew and Konrad Steiner, respectively, has further extended notions of poetry beyond the page and into live and collaborative multi-media work. There has also been a sea-change in audience expectations and openness, such that writers feel more permission to take risks and experiment with what a poetry ‘reading’ might be and do, and in many cases this has begun to show up in the writing itself, in works written specifically for such occasions and contexts, and/or troubling out how to move from performance back to text, via documentation, online reportage, gossip, and the like.
I sometimes wonder if this turn to performance in Bay Area poetries — to the live, the embodied, the off-the-page, etc. — might not also be in part a(n unconscious?) reaction to the rise of Web 2.0, of social networking, print-on-demand or post-print reading, etc, for perhaps as sociality itself becomes increasingly mediated through digital reproduction, when the disembodied poet-avatar becomes the memes by which one enters these new social formations, we see a simultaneous (re)turn to the body (live, performed) and the object (book arts, hand-to-hand chapbooks & zines, etc). As the internet collapses space and time, perhaps a re/turn to the local, the social, the coterie, the party, the living room, is indicative of a productive working-out of what poets can do that might counter such generalized anxieties over such developments.
I certainly don’t wish to valorize live performance in contrast to the mediations of web-life, nor I do not mean to suggest that what I’m calling the performative turn can be traced solely to Bay Area poets goofing off on stage. Rather, I’d like to think of this turn in a broader context of new experiments in writing and performance (in dance, theater, and performance arts as much as the literary arts), as well as in newer social formations and understandings of how ‘poetry’ might live within such movements, scenes and communities.
Looking back at this just two years later, I'm less certain about my tentative claims here, and I certainly don't know if such provisional narratives would apply in different scenes and locales. Further, unlike the fertile crossovers between poets and new music composers and underground filmmakers in the 60s and 70s, there is much less collaborative overlap (socially and aesthetically) between poets and other artists in the Bay Area today, which I believe inflects what kinds of experiments emerge in the relatively insulated poetry scene. (Which is not to say that there aren't fertile cross-pollinations between poets and artists through the interwebs; I just haven't seen much evidence of it beyond ekphrasism or the poets-write/artists-illustrate models). Contrast to other scenes: in NYC there's a long tradition of overlap with the downtown music, theater, dance and performance scenes (where avant-garde poetics has an equal footing in collaborations), and in places like Berlin and Paris a tradition of avant-garde writers working in radio theater, for instance. And, as mentioned in my last post, in the UK performance writing has been theorized and to some degree institutionalized for some fifteen years now.
I’m not even sure how I’d test my pet theory, beyond building some evidentiary list of poets who use performance as an integral part of their poetics, which to my mind would not in itself constitute a ‘turn’, in the same way that, say, the conceptual turn in US poetics reflects an intervention into how we think about poetry and craft at a core level.
At the same time, the rise of spoken word, slam, and performance poetry scenes in the US and elsewhere (think of dub poetry in the UK and South Africa, for instance), which in places like the Nuyorican Café has incubated a wide range of incredibly polyglot vernacular poetics, alongside poets working with other media and technologies as part of their compositional and performance modes, seems like more than just a trend or desire for novelty. Despite the rigidity of the MFA industry’s focus on craft and product (the poem, the manuscript) (and here I’d include most ‘innovative’/‘experimental’ MFA workshops as well), poets continue to range off the page and experiment not just with poetic form but the social and cultural contexts in which poetry might ‘live’ as well.
So: to return to my pseudo-hypothesis about the Bay Area scene, I do still wonder to degree the seeming expansion of the field into such wide-ranging performative methods, not to mention the increased valorization of the embodied as such (the reading/performance, the somatic, the improvised), is in part an attempt to work out the role of the body in contemporary culture 2.0, where — at least for the wired and jacked-in, it must be noted — the experience of (seemingly) disembodied, virtual, and highly-mediated sociality leads to increased anxiety about self and subjectivity (even as Web 2.0 technologies allow us to forge ever-greater translocal connections). Thus, even though (it might be argued, if you’ll forgive me the over-generalization) poetry has mostly-always been about mediated communication between individuated subjectivities, I’m curious to what degree a performative turn is as much a return (to the body of the author, if not the Author-function itself) as it is a venturing ‘forward’ into new territories for poetic exploration.
Additionally, at least in my no doubt blinkered slice of the Bay Area scene (and, I imagine, other local scenes), face-to-face sociality is often the locus of poetic activity (as against the romantic model of the solitary genius) and, it could be argued, the site of (often booze-soaked) laboratories of the new(s). Perhaps this is in part because, at least in the US, poetry does not really have a visible and healthy habitus among non-writers in our culture (outside of the academy); it thrives best in the (socialized/specialized) spaces between its believers, who compose not only the ‘poems’ themselves but also the collectively (if unevenly and often fucked-up-edly) built contexts in which the work can live — the independent presses, the reading series, the parties, etc. — and the production of interpretive regimes (reviews, essays, blogs, gossip) that ideally push both poems and poets elsewhere.
So — is there something afoot in poetrylandia that we might be able to call a performative turn? Does it suggest an intervention in/against a disembodied experience of Culture 2.0, and/or the (post-I HATE SPEECH) text-centric emphasis in much contemporary (post/whatever-)avant-garde poetics? A politically inflected foregrounding of the gendered/racialized/classed/etc body in the process of ‘languaging’? Or is it more reflective of a nostalgic desire for some kind of ‘authenticity,’ of the Author, the ‘voice’, even the book-object itself? A retreat from new modes (however implicated with capital) of mediated sociality and aesthetic possibility? Or am I simply misreading a trend for a set of cultural logics at work? Would it help any if I shut up and danced now?
1. see ubuweb for, like, a complete syllabus in these traditions.
4. Big Caveat #3: there is no 'the body' - only bodies. Differently gendered, racialized, sexualized, abled, bodies. We need to find a way to talk about 'the body' in poetry/art/performance/theory/etc without reducing 'it' to the kind of abstraction embodiedness is supposed to combat.
6. Keeping in mind that not all poets live in this kind of 'scene,' and might thus be more reliant on the local academy, &or the internet, for shared spaces of community and sociality. Even if always against, or at least in dialectical struggle with, the academy and its attendant structures of cultural capital (the AWP/MLA orbits. the prize industry, the anthologists, the tenured gatekeepers, etc.)
7. It's outside the purview of these commentaries, but a dare-I-say-it fetishism of the art-book, the letter-pressed, the handmade, the auratic limited edition/singular book-object... might these also not be related to the increased availability of cheap print-on-demand publishing as well as the increased legitimacy of PDF/e-publications? (& I say this as a collector & fan of handmade micropress book-arts...)
Eclipse, the key web archive, has moved. New URL is
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Associate Editor: Danny Snelson
Editorial Assistant: Nella Holden
Intern: Lillian-Yvonne Bertram
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Alden Van Buskirk
[The following is text of a talk I gave early this fall at the Philadelphia conference on Psychedemia (C.S.)]
The point is that a thought — any thought —
The infinitely rapid rush of transition —
the white susurrus of the immediate movement
from one instant to its successor.
To be possessed of a thought —
it is as if there were a station in time
at which one could have a recess from its passage.
One stops to consider.
One places before oneself
that which a thought contains
in order to elaborate, reflect, develop, associate . . .
while holding the position of the original thought.
Time flies on, but the thought remains...
Actually, the thought decays.
The station does not hold indefinitely.
And under an entheogen,
that decay seems almost instantaneous.
I stop to consider,
but the thought I stopped at
has vanished from the ken. What was I thinking?
Even the question refuses to hold.
Some new thought has taken possession
and it too has passed from the scene.
Robert Creeley begins a poem that possibly attaches to this issue: He says
"Either in or out of
the mind, a conception
"in or out of the mind"
pre-empts a whole range of ontological conditions.
Tripping or not.
Convulsed by delusion
or graced by hyper-cognitive capacities
pharmacologically induced or otherwise arrived at;
indeed, mad or sane.
If one is overtaken by a notion of what is so,
there is a conception —
something like an ontological posit —
a thought of how things are —
that frames or grounds,
or as Creeley puts it, overrides it.
But consider the situation of such a conception,
how it lodges beyond one's ken,
beyond what one is conscious of,
how it resists or can easily make a fool of —
our devices to control it,
until per chance it announces itself,
in an event of thought,
as if there were a site less fleeting than such an event,
a prospect or perspective,
a ledge in the mind
that is to say ontological,
over the content of what transpires . . .
There are films by the two great experimental filmmakers
Harry Smith and Stan Brakhage
where they paint directly on the emulsion of the film,
or what would be a frame,
containing a different painted image.
Brakhage painted many of these films, Smith but a few.
But in them —
by both filmmakers —
the following occurs:
The frames flash by at one 24th of a second,
so you get something that approximates the speed of neurological flickering
that underwrites some aspects
of some entheogenic journeys —
sparkles and spicules and lines and shapes and colored swatches
fly by far too swiftly for cognition to stun them,
give them to your mind to peruse,
elaborate, think about.
You can only think about them by turning away.
On a trip it is not so easy to turn away.
Perhaps some of us can do this, but it is not easy, perhaps it is not possible.
during the film,
a single image seems to hover, seems to stand there ..
a circle, like a moon,
probably painted over and over again —
it isn't completely still, its edges wobble and change —
but it seems to be the same as itself —
a constant object that perdures in its identity
in spite of its wobbling, its flickering.
It doesn't stay there very long.
It might be for no more than a half a second,
but a half a second is an eternity when you are watching things fly by
at one twelfth of that duration ....
That moon and how it suggests its self-identity.
You don't have to think about it.
Everything else is still flashing by —
the sparkles and spicules and lines and shapes and colored swatches.
But you see that circle, that moon,
hold its being,
as the same as itself.
Like an object. A Thing.
That's the point.
How it lodges in the mind.
How cognition — how a concept —
lodges in the mind;
how a conception overrides the radically transitory flickering.
How time throws up forms
that countermand its radically transitory flickering.
How there is something
in the streaming of existence
radically transitory time . . .
[TO BE CONTINUED]
A question for Holly Melgard
Sometime around late August/early September, I had lunch with one of the young women writers I see often in New York. She told me she had recently been to a reading in Philadelphia where Holly Melgard had, as she described, “performed childbirth, not actual childbirth, obviously, but just like made noises like she was in labor, and it was really loud, and people were really upset by it.” This performance apparently caused a great reaction. A number of people were furious, some felt insulted; why would some young girl who has never had a baby do something like that? That's what it seemed to boil down to, according to my friend.
Well, only Holly Melgard can answer that. But let's not pretend the WHY question is really just about explanation. Discussion about a controversial choice made by an artist opens up opportunities for all kinds of analysis. And with the sharp increase in people choosing to not bear children, emotions on this issue seem to be running high in our culture. From what I'd heard, Melgard landed herself squarely in the middle of it when she performed in Philly.
The question of child-bearing doesn't come up often in the poetry context, but sometimes it can feel all too central to the daily conversations of women. That's how it sometimes feels to me, a person with a few gray hairs who could produce a revealing conceptual poem listing all the “guesses” people have offered about my reasons for not having children. But I've also heard pregnant women and new mothers say they feel aggressed often and as such. This all plays a part in why I am interested in the intensity of reaction to Holly’s piece.
One could be tempted to ask, has the decision to bear children ever been so politicized? Short answer: probably yes. Even Emma Goldman's essays on the matter show she was of several minds on the issue. So, knowing nothing of Holly Melgard's thinking on this, mostly just hoping for more dialogue on the topic, I asked her “Why childbirth.” Here's her response:
For some reason, this question has been coming up ever since my poem “Divisions of Labor” received disapproving sentiments at the Philly reading last summer.
The vocal audience feedback was surprisingly generous: Laughter, groans, and stink-eyes during the reading, followed by reports that it was “fun”, “boring”, “sad”, “ambient”, “offensive”, “scary” and even “unwelcome”. Minus the details on process, to me the poem sounded generic, like just another Dada sound-poem, alphabetized list, transcription or conceptual poem. But friends and acquaintances told me afterward that “a poem involving childbirth” is “brave” for a “woman who has never been in labor” and “has no children of her own.”
I don’t get it. Was the poem “brave” because it wasn’t an authentic representation of childbirth? As one who participated in my own birth, have I not been in labor before? Are there any subjects who have never been in labor, or just subject positions for claiming that labor? Is poetic labor only authenticated through given subject positions? Although female labor has been historically aligned with the not-yet-articulate feminine, it sounds like the mother speaks louder than any other in the birthing scene. But why throw the baby out with the bathwater? I’m told a poem that says “fuck you” at a reading is somehow a different poem when said directly to a child. How do babies manage to trigger so many reflexes? If the political category of “labor” is a construction site, then what forms of labor go undocumented when “articulation” is only read through single subject positions?
Uncertainty is a liminal but essential ingredient in experimental writing. The sheer range of attunement to the work audible in the acoustic feedback from the Philly audience was an encouraging welcome for the poem. I mean, why not childbirth?