Monday, May 05, 2008

Collapsible Poetics Diary, part 3

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"The Makings," by Rodrigo Toscano, Links Hall, Sunday May 4, 2008

Thursday, May 2

Tonight we meet at 6 PM for what's meant to be merely a technical rehearsal. Rodrigo says he's never been in such a professional theater environment before; at first, he's leery of over-rehearsing the pieces (avoiding "product), but we end up doing a full-dress rehearsal so that our lovely stage manager Rachel can get all of the lighting ducks in a row. It's remarkable to run through all four pieces in succession; I'm only in two of them so I get to watch the others work as they do "Spine" and "Humana Ante Oculos." I'm getting more comfortable with the physicality of "Pig Angels of the Americlypse," in which I play the piggiest of the eponymous angels. It will be odd when someone I already know comes to one of these things to watch me writhing on the floor. Two of my old college buddies, a lawyer and an archeologist, are planning to come to Saturday's performance to see the Vogon poetry. I wonder what they'll make of it--is this the kind of thing I want people at my college reunion to know about? It's like playing D&D in public, the more so for Melissa, who has to wear a cape for "Humana" and jokes that she stopped doing this around the same time she stopped rolling 18-sided dice. Of course there's no such thing, but I refrain from inflicting my geekly expertise on her.

It actually takes much less time just to run through things than I'd expected, and since Rodrigo doesn't need me for two of the pieces, I get to leave early again. Browsing at the used bookstore across the street for a few minutes before driving home, I find the old paperback edition of Frank O'Hara's Selected Poems, Kenneth Koch's On the Edge, and Tom Mandel's To the Cognoscenti. Not a bad night.

Friday, May 3

Opening night! We arrive two hours early to hurry up and wait and sweat a bit in the intense humidity, which cracks into tremendous rain about an hour before "curtain." Everyone's nervous but me: for some reason, I feel completely calm about barking "Puercos!" and snorting in front of a roomful of strangers. The fact that I'm not the author, that I'm just a player in Rodrigo's game, feels tremendously liberating. Vanity only comes in to the fact that when I looked at the video I made of yesterday's rehearsal, I saw that not tucking my shirt in would reveal rather more of my pig's tail than I'm comfortable with. So for this evening it's safely stowed.

They hold the house for a few minutes to give folks more time to make their way through the rain, but it's still a sparseish crowd (more than a dozen, fewere than twenty) that awaits when we finally gather on the stage. John introduces the pieces: I haven't heard this before and it's rather instructive to think of what we're doing as a Zukofskyan "test of poetry." While John reads his intro Fred, Melissa, and I stand at three corners of the performance space; I've decided to stand holding my script with my arms at my sides, resisting the temptation to put a hand on a hip or worse, put my hands in my pockets. Not that Rodrigo really calls upon us to be "actors," but I still want to avoid distracting bodily movements or to shrink myself, which is sometimes my instinct when regarded. So I stand there, shoulders back, hands at sides, feeling rather like Jean-Luc Picard on the deck of the Enterprise.

The lights go down, John moves into the fourth corner, and the first piece begins. I only have a few lines to muck up in this one; mercifully, none are mucked. My wrist having more or less healed, I'm able to help set up the stage for "Spine" after delivering the faux-Shakespearean line that concludes "The Makings." Then John and I get to sit and watch "Spine"; again, the actor's ethic I've absorbed from somewhere has me holding my body still (though not rigid), watching the show and resisting the temptation to look at the audience to see their reactions. There are a couple of muffled laughs in response to "Spine," which has a number of funny-uncomfortable moments, but for the most part the audience is silent.

Time for "Pig Angels." The three of us kneel on the floor in a row for a long moment, like samurai preparing to commit seppuku. This was hard for my thirty-seven year-old body at first, but after a week's rehearsal it almost feels comfortable. Then Fred leans over and hits the floor and Melissa and I follow suit. "And these puercos sin destino... que?" I don't know if my Spanish pronunciation has truly improved, but it seems to satisfy Rodrigo--he had advised me to utter the "ques" in the spirit of a New York kvetch, which is something deep in my blood. It's funny how some pieces of direction click and others don't: a director just has to keep trying different approaches until he or she has been understood. It's far more intense to actually perform the piece as opposed to merely rehearsing it: I break into a sweat midway through and when the four of us have collapsed on the floor after a particularly physical moment, we're all breathing hard. Catching onto my cues and hitting each line feels a lot like surfing must feel: you're in the grip of a tremendous force and you have to bend and sway with it or you'll be crushed. And then before I know it my moment's over, the lights go dark, and I again retire to the folding chairs in the corner with John to watch the final piece, "Humana Ante Oculos."

The last piece is followed by a longish film of another of Rodrigo's poem-plays, "Cordoned." I'm glad just to sit and rest and not be the object of anyone's attention; it's a strange effect, having the back wall effectively open outward into a new performance space, with other players (I recognize my Ithaca running buddy David Brazil in the cast). And then it's time to stand and bow, which we do awkwardly and gratefully. We've survived.

Saturday, May 3

After the show last night I checked my messages to learn that Richard Greenfield was unexpectedly in town: his flight had been canceled due to the awful weather. So I got to hang out with him until the wee hours at home, and in the morning he met Sadie Gray. You can see what a natural he is with kids. I'm pleased to announce, by the way, that Richard's haunting and necessary second book, Tracer, has been accepted by Omnidawn and they're working overtime to bring it out early next year. He gave me some very good, very challenging advice on changes to make to my Severance Songs manuscript, which has been languishing for a while now. In some ways that advice amounts to making the "I" stronger in the poems, and also to performing--his word--the tension between the book's clevernesses and the more painful, heartfelt material. Or as I put it to Emily talking about it later, "I have to let them see what I'm hiding." In a way, he's asking me to be more Romantic and more postmodern, and to let go of what you might call my high modernist (not to say fascist) tendencies to exert minute moment-by-moment control over what readers can and can't interpret.

This notion of performance as that which permits the reader's full entry into one's poetic carries through to the evening's performance. The weather is again lousy, but the cast's spirits are high: the stakes seem lower than they were on the first night, while at the same time our confidence in our ability to get through the evening is heightened. Rodrigo has also decided to ditch the film at the end, a wise move that somehow adds to the holiday atmosphere. When we get out there the performance is much tighter than the previous evening's, and to my mind much funnier--yet nobody laughs! I thought, for example, that the moment in "Pig Angels" in which John and I do some improv was pretty tight:

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When we talk about this afterward, Rodrigo says that the pieces' relations to current events can change the quality of tension with which the audience receives them. For example, "Pig Angels" had a much more intense effect during the time of the big immigration-rights demonstrations a couple of years ago. Rodrigo's not after laughs per se, but the laughs he does want are painful laughs, Beckett-laughs.

My Vassar friends Alex Elsberg (the lawyer) and Josh Wright (the archaeologist) go out afterwards. Josh has just come from a conference at UChicago and says that the experience of the plays was oddly consistent with attending academic panels: twenty minutes of words and signs being put into some sort of context, again and again. I tell Josh that the D&D-like game that he ran for us back in college was responsible for my engagement with experimental poetry: the immensely complex narratives he immersed us in, in which we often had a soldier's eye view of conflicts on an at-least Napoleonic scale, increased my tolerance for mystery, and made me more able to plunge ahead and take risks in spite of an incomplete or misleading map of the territory. This perhaps puts me in danger of committing the classic blunder of marching on Moscow, or in agreeing to take part in performances that will lead me who knows where; but I'm still grateful to him for deepening my powers of negative capability.

Sunday, May 4

On the evening of the last show folks are nervous again. Melissa's anxiety about the cape has returned, in spite of her having totally reinvented the way she uses it in the space the previous evening. Fred relates that his four year-old son told him after last night's performance that, "I liked it when you said 'The moon, the moon,' Daddy. But I didn't like it when you said, 'The sun, the sun.'" We're all exhausted, but I'm sad that this little community is about to break up. Melissa worries that closing nights are as bad as opening nights--not that our opening night was bad, but we all agree that Saturday was a high we're unlikely to hit a second time. Nonetheless, poetic theater's faux duress takes hold and I'm as pleased or more pleased with the last show as I was the previous one (though for some reason there are many more El trains passing, and I learn later that my video camera died after twenty minutes).

This is the smallest audience yet, but one of the most appreciative, thanks in large part to the presence of Johannes Goransson and Joyelle McSweeney, who are the poets on deck for next week's performance. Joyelle laughs at all the funny bits and claps after every piece, which buoys our morale and carries us through this last long strange trip. In spite of this, fatigue makes itself felt: I blow one of my cues (John reads a line in Spanish, then English; I didn't wait for the English) and after the show we're all pretty beat. Still, it's my last chance to be part of the troupe, so I join Rodrigo and the others for a late dinner at Rodan in Wicker Park. Rodrigo's very complimentary toward each of us and seems very pleased with how things have gone--apparently our performances have changed some of the ways he'll treat these pieces in the book, Collapsible Poetics Theater, that won the National Poetry Series this year and will be brought out by Fence Books next year.

At ten PM I return to the bourgeois land of husband-and-father-and-professorhood, leaving my theatrical avant-garde days behind. But what I learned about performance and the possibilities of introducing the body--the real body, the whole thing--into poetic ways of moving and knowing will stay with me for a long time.

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Excerpt from "Spine"

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