— Lucky Pierre, Actions for Chicago Torture Justice
Another potential use of the score which I’m increasingly interested in is in the realm of political activism. How might the performance writing form of ‘action’ expand beyond the recognizable activist performance model (scripts for street theater, etc.) and/or the much more militant and confrontational modes of direct action which are generally discussed in terms of efficacy (symbolic &/or material) rather than ‘as performance’ (as if the latter threatens to turn the political into the ‘merely’ aesthetic)?1
One recent example of new thinking along this continuum uses the instruction-art model to propose actions that range from the more conventionally confrontational political activism to ‘symbolic’ art-actions to the seemingly impossible/ ‘imaginational’2/ ‘unthinkable.’
I didn’t start reading or writing poetry until I was in my mid-twenties. I didn’t study avant-garde art or literary history/criticism until after college. I did, however, read Yoko Ono’s Grapefruit sometime during my John Lennon phase in junior high, so though I wouldn’t have known the word, I’d been fluxed to a certain degree. Though Grapefruit is, well, kinda hippy-cheesy, I do think that it ‘holds up’ as an exemplary model of a book that transcends its avant-garde context, something that (like Joe Brainard’s I Remember) achieves that rare mode that can be understood and mind-opening to kids and aged seen-it-all’s alike.
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.
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…)
Performance has always been linked to poetry, and it could be argued that in many literary traditions it preceded it (or at least certainly preceded written poetry), as oral traditions not only served as the (always embodied) archive of a culture’s literary practices, but also fundamentally shaped ideas of form (meter and rhyme of course being crucial to crafting verse that could be passed on without writing). Nonetheless, when discussing performance in relation to poetry in the contemporary moment, performance is often considered that which occurs after poetry: you write it, and then you perform it. As such, most critical writing on performance and poetry tends to focus on the poetry reading (and to a lesser extent on sound poetry), where the emphasis shifts from the written to the vocal (which still can often elide the performing body, as when we feel invited to “close your eyes and listen” to a performance, where the voice becomes the disembodied carrier of the poem).