Performance Poetics/Poetry/Writing

Scene from "The Gas Heart" by Tristan Tzara. Costumes designed by Sonia Delaunay

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).

Certainly, some traditions, such as spoken word, highlight the performance of poems such that the text may seem secondary, a mere script for the performance itself. In more avant-garde traditions, poets and critics explore how the interplay between page and performance can inform each other, such that new forms of poetry and transcription emerge to open up new (and often indeterminate) vistas for performance, where the performance of the poem moves well beyond the treatment of the poem as a static object awaiting vocalization to a thinking-writing-performing through/with the poem (and, importantly, the social contexts of its performance) as a way to activate manifold potentialities in the work, such that each reading is both an interpretation as well as a further investigation into how the poem ‘means’[1].

At the same time, alongside new technologies for multi-media(ted) performance, as well as a general ‘performative turn’ in the art world, we can begin to trace a shift in our post-deconstructionist moment to a much more dynamic and diverse range of modes of performance emerging in the expanding field of poetry and poetics, further blurring the lines between text and performance as well as challenging conventional notions of what poetry is or can be in the contemporary moment. In my time here at Jacket2, I hope to explore some of these emerging practices (many of which of course are rooted in long traditions in theater, music, performance art, and avant-garde literature) and in so doing try to identify some main tendencies and arenas of investigation and experimentation. (I should note from the outset that I write here from a place of ignorance about many modes of performance/poetry around the world, as well as various intellectual and artistic traditions that inform many of the questions I wish to explore. It is thus that I hope my work here can be a kind of public research, learning with and from other practitioners and readers, while attempting to at least frame some provisional questions and problematics for further research and practice.)

At the same time, I also want to interrogate what we actually make of such practices, and how we might begin to make critical assessments (if that's the right word) of such works. For it's no longer enough to simply claim that poetic or extra-poetic work is interesting/vital/'good' simply by being unconventional - by being performative or somatic or conceptual or site-specific or procedural or multi-media or collaborative or aleatory or improvised, etc. etc. While in the early years of the 20th century techniques such as chance operations were important interventions in and of themselves against the fetishized notions of authorship and originality, it is no longer the case that any of these experimental or extra-literary modes of writing are new or that they need to make the argument that they are legitimate forms of poetry [2].

For example, one kind of performance poetry that certainly pushes against received notions of the poetic, is the improvised ‘reading’. Sometimes presented in the form of ‘the talk’ (that great poetic tradition of counter-institutional literary-lecture and performance), the improvisatory poet (think of David Antin, or Steve Benson) tests poetry by allowing the listener (or often, depending on choices about transcription, the reader) to follow another’s thinking and composition in the time of its unfolding in and as speech. When done well (whatever that might mean in this case), such performances can draw out the ways in which ‘the poetic moment’ is both temporally constituted (i.e., composed in real time), as well as socially determined (given the presence of an audience and occasion), and raise questions for poetry about craft, spontaneity, editing, transcription, etc., etc.

And yet, as we know far too well, not all talks or improvised performances are all that interesting. Sometimes a talk is just … well, akin more to a boring lecture by an unprepared professor [3]. And sometimes improvisatory poetry is not all that ‘poetic’ — i.e., the fallback mode becomes unliterary/‘regular’ speech, tending towards narrative storytelling and a focus on content over literary form. After all, a good conversationalist improvises speech, but in other contexts is not necessarily an interesting poet/performer. My point here is that it is not enough to simply sidestep conventions of 'the reading' or 'the paper presentation' in order to claim some kind of innovative intervention in the language arts simply by improvising (or freestyling, or singing, or powerpointing, or or or…). Just like anything, some are better than others at these sorts of things, just as some improvisational musicians or dancers are better than others.

(Big Caveat #1: by 'better' I do NOT mean to imply that I believe there is some sort of clean, clear metrics of judgment by which one could rate artists by 'talent' or whatever [or by historical precedent]; instead I am using the word loosely, to suggest that a, let’s face it, not everyone is equally interesting and/or adept at their craft in different times/places/contexts [though I’m happy to admit that we all can disagree as to who is interesting/adept/etc., just as we do with ‘regular’ poetry and almost all other aesthetic judgments]; and b, that it’s no longer enough to claim that someone’s poetry is interesting simply because it is ‘performative’)

I am also curious as to what extent there might an increased tendency to consider the performative, the live, the embodied, as fertile sites for poetry in response to cultural shifts in our relation to mediating technologies and our increasingly alienated and seemingly disembodied experiences of sociality [4]. Of course, I don't mean that it is as simple or intentional as a poet saying to herself, "I hate the alienation of internet culture — time to get the poet's body front and center stage!' But it does seem to be that alongside the increased interest in highly mediated forms of writing such as conceptualism and other non-expressive or techno-interface modes, there is a wave (backlash?) just as strong making claims for the value of the body, the live, the 'slow,' the real. As such, the obvious risk here is a nostalgia for some kind of authenticity, if not also an outright return to the Idea of the Author - the poet's performing voice/body being the site from which one can claim some kind of unique individuality or genius. Thus, while I am interested in and excited by the wide range of new (or newly renewed) experiments in that space between performance and writing, I remain skeptical of claims on behalf of live and/or embodied language arts as somehow in and of themselves radical.

On the third, or fourth, or jazz hand, I also recognize that the exploration of performance in relation to poetry can be highly political: the politics of the body, with all its historically sedimented markers of gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, memory, etc., are sometimes marginalized in discussions of poetry, since (especially in avant-garde traditions?) attention paid to the materiality of words on the page, separated from the author, makes it easier to figure the poet's body as an absence or abstraction, something that might be referenced to or signified within a poem (with all the attendant problems such modes of signification bring forth) but only otherwise a trace or a vessel for the voice. (There are of course strong counter-traditions to such tendencies, most notably of late coming from disability studies but also within feminist theory and subaltern studies, and we would do well to remember that the turn to performance in some arenas 'matters' differently than the much longer traditions of performance and literature in other [print and non-print] cultures, where the relationship between the performing body and the word is not simply a question of formalism or artistic choices.)

Thus a more explicit focus on performance (whether as a method of composition or as a way of 'taking poetry off the page') can help us attend to the often more tangled and discomforting politics of embodied identity in ways that on the page might otherwise result in more conventional poems about identity/etc. (where the poet remains a disembodied wordsmith and identity a language-concept). Even though I personally tend to be less interested in most USAmerican forms of performance poetry (slam & spoken word), especially when 'performance' has become, in the words of Nate Mackey, "synonymous with theatricality, a recourse to dramatic, declamatory and other tactics aimed at propping up words or at helping them out—words regarded, either way, as needing help, support, embellishment,” I still cannot so easily dismiss identity-driven forms as intensely embodied as, say, ASL slam poetry, where questions of the poet's body (not to mention the poet's 'ear') cannot be but always front and center, as glimpsed in this video.

Again, while my interests here will be less focused on performance poetry forms like spoken word and slam poetry, or ‘the poetry reading’ itself for that matter, I do hope that the complex aesthetic and social questions raised by the wide variety of performative strategies emerging out of poetry (as well as the poetics of new modes of performance in the ‘live arts’) can provide some provisional ways of thinking about our work as embodied writers and performers, both on and off the page, on and off the stage. 

Til next time... break a line


1 cf for example, Close Listening, ed Charles Bernstein & Additional Apparitions: Poetry, Performance, & Site-Specificity, eds David Kennedy & Keith Tuma, as well as Steve Evans' commentaries here on Jacket2.

2 At least I hope so. I know there are some who still resist acknowledging conceptual writing as a legitimate mode of poetry, for instance.

3 and not the good kind of boring or unpreparedness.

4 I hope to explore this hypothesis further in a future post.