A performative turn?

rehearsal for re-enactment of the 2010 "Rethinking Poetics" conference

The nexus of modernist forms of performance/poetics has been around in the West at least since Dada[1], 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.[2]

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[3], 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[4] 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[5]) 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.[6

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?[7] 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. 

2. I’d include Flarf as part of this turn, as well, though others may disagree.

3. And by 'Bay Area scene' I mean only the ('my') mostly white monocultural post-MFA post-avant Euro-american-centric slice of the many poetry communities, coteries, and scenes in the region.

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.

5. Excepting delegated performances, of course.

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...)