Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Collapsible Poetics Diary

Monday, April 28

Weekend in Maryland visiting with Sadie's maternal grandparents, flew back from Washington and arrived at O'Hare around 3:30. (Sadie was golden on the plane and I got to read a good chunk of Gabe Gudding's Rhode Island Notebook, fortuitously and startlingly found while browsing at the Barnes & Noble in downtown Bethesda. More about that in another post.) Homeward, get groceries, drop off Emily and Sadie, and, without having left any time to grab dinner, drive into the city in search of Links Hall, which turns out to be a stone's throw from Wrigley Field. I'm the last to arrive; my collaborators Fred Sasaki, Melissa Severin, John Beer (who's responsible for this whole Poets' Theater business), and dramaturg (poeturg?) Rodrigo Toscano are already upstairs in the shambling old building and moving around the performance space, which looks like a dance studio with bleachers at one end and no mirror or barre. The El goes by pretty regularly outside the row of windows facing east. Quick introductions and then Rodrigo's showing us some video of previous productions of the plays we'll be performing.

I write "plays" and it seems like the right word insofar as we'll be at play; also there are scripts and lines for us to read, along with very precise stage directions. But it quickly becomes apparent that a wide gap yawns between poets' theater and regular-type theater, at least as Rodrigo envisions it. First off, there's zero interest in illusionism, which is why for almost all of the pieces we'll be holding and reading from scripts (though there is one piece dynamic enough that it requires the players to memorize lines--thankfully, I'm not in that one). Rodrigo says he wants the labor to be transparent--"This is not a product" he says, more than once. Another point is that although we each play distinct parts, there are no characters per se, nor does the primary dynamic of each piece--what generates its tension and energy--derive from conflict between characters. (This violates the first rule of drama that I always teach to students: that each character must palpably want something, and the desires of the characters inevitably conflict.) The tension rather derives partly from the good-old-fashioned Brechtian alienation effect
--most of the pieces feature some sort of confrontation with the audience, while deliberately withholding the ordinary theatrical satisfactions of plot or realistic dialogue--but also from the players' own struggle with the language. There's a fair bit of Spanish in the longest piece I'm performing in, which I've never studied--nevertheless, Spanish I must speak. Still, it remains theater: we are bodies moving in space, saying lines, handling props, interacting with each other and an as-yet imaginary audience.

After we watch the videos we get right to running through the long piece that features John, Melissa, Fred, and myself. And there we all are, first kneeling, then squatting, then lying, then actually writhing on the floor, performing the intricate movements in Rodrigo's script. I'm nearly middle-aged, I think to myself as I sprawl there, pretending to stab little creatures on the floor with a pencil. But there's actually little time for self-consciousness: Rodrigo is a professional, he's done this before, he knows exactly what he wants and he has specific instructions and pointers for each of us. And I'm surprised to discover fewer inhibitions than I might have expected from myself. It's liberating to come out from behind the podium, but it also helps that I'm just a player, an interpreter of Rodrigo's work and not my own. I'm a collaborator, in every sense of that word, but not the author. Plus you can't take on a role that asks you to snort like a pig (you'll just have to see it to see what I mean) and worry too much about your dignity. I also haven't eaten anything since a sandwich at the Washington airport hours and hours ago, so I'm a little lightheaded.

We go at it pretty hard until well after the official stopping time; then Rodrigo "releases" me since I'm only in one long and one short piece; the others remain behind to work on two other pieces that I'm not in. I didn't request this, but it's good sense on John and Rodrigo's part, knowing as they do that I have a new baby and job responsibilities this week. In fact, somehow between now (9 PM) and the drive home and tomorrow, I have to prepare for the final workshop of my final poetry writing class, which happens at 9:30 AM tomorrow. So that's going to be two days of rehearsal preceded by frenzied and intense activity. The rest of the week will hopefully be a bit smoother.

Tuesday, April 29

The last day of classes at Lake Forest goes well, and I'm genuinely sorry to see this batch of students go: they're a terrific bunch. The poetry class workshop is always fun; I had been a little more concerned about the final meeting of my senior seminar, which I'd billed as a mini-symposium on creative writing, plus treats (I bring Twinkies, which prove to be literally inedible; one of my students brought homemade brownies and peanut-butter cookies and wins the implicit contest). This could have been a shapeless mess, but it's actually energizing: we discuss such questions as what creative writing is for and why should one bother with certain kinds of writing when film and TV and video games do a much better job of rendering what are essentially nineteenth-century realistic narratives. I don't know if I really persuade anyone that they should aspire to write more like Dodie Bellamy than Sarah Paretsky, but I may be the last voice they hear for a long time that isn't a wholly owned subsidiary of the market.

After class it's time for the annual Senior/Faculty Cocktail Party, which is surprisingly fun. The kids are all dressed up and bursting with pride at their accomplishments, rubbing elbows with faculty in a familial way. I sip a little wine and felt sentimental about my first year as a prof for a while, but soon I have to shake myself loose and shake a few hands before hopping in my car and driving home to Evanston for an hour or so of dinner and family time. Sadie bouncing in my lap while Emily puts dinner together; at one point she opens her mouth and lets out a long, long, catlike yowl, then blinks at us in surprise as if to say, "Who said that?"

Back in the car: rehearsal starts at 8 tonight so there's little traffic, but then I slam into a cacophony of cabs, cops, and Cubs fans: there's a game tonight. I call Rodrigo on my cell and tell him I'll be a bit late, but it sounds like he's just arriving himself. Round and round in widening concentric circles until I find a spot three blocks south on Belmont; not too shabby. Arrive at the hall and meet Rachel Damon, the lighting designer and stage manager: the first part of the evening will be devoted to blocking each piece and figuring out what to light and where. Fred's later than me and when he comes in he tells us why: some asshole slipped into the perfect parking space he'd found just outside the hall. We debate for a moment the respective merits of kicking the guy's ass versus keying his car; the latter option is rejected as being too passive-aggressive. I argue that karma will surely visit an appropriate doom on the jerk. Meanwhile Rodrigo is constantly in motion. He seems to be a little disappointed when Rachel tells him that, because it's a white room, even one light will basically illuminate everything, making it impossible to do much with deep shadows; but he quickly recovers. Improvisation is a big part of poets' theater, after all.

Tonight I'm noticing a couple of things. One is how readily we submit to Rodrigo's direction: you would think getting a bunch of poets who don't really know each other to work closely together like this would be like herding cats, but we all immediately and instinctively bow to his benevolent dictatorship (a dictatorship, in a sense, of the proletariat, given Rodrigo's day job as a labor organizer). He knows exactly what he wants and he's willing to work harder than anyone else to get it: these are prerequisites, I think, for anyone who wants to take on the daunting task of performance, much less directing. He's not shy about making us work, either: "I'm going to work you guys to death," he says with no discernible irony. But he doesn't need to browbeat us: we do it willingly. There's a kind of soldier's comradeship that carries us through; maybe that explains why theater folk are called "troupers." So although my joints are aching from yesterday, and I eventually sprain my left wrist rather badly when I do a clumsy job of moving a table, I don't even think of complaining. The show must go on.

The other thing I'm starting to notice is the nature of poets' theater itself and how fundamentally paratactic it is compared with more traditional theater. Most plays organize the stage space, the actors' movements, the dialogue, and the relationships of the characters hypotactically: if it's done right we are never confused about who's married to whom, or why the count launches into a soliloquy, or whether that chair downstage is supposed to be just a chair or a seat on the subway. Every element is relatable to every other element, and this is a big part of what enables the audience's suspension of disbelief. Poets' theater, on the other hand, bears the same relation to a regular play as verse does to prose, or lyric to narrative: mere simultaneity of being and acting is all that's provided to cement the relationships of players, space, props, and audience. The language is important, but not as central as you might expect: it's just one element in a group of visual and spatial elements. It's their arrangement that is "poetic" and that will evoke, I hope, thoughts and feelings in the audience not easily arrived at through conventional narrative means.

Another hour or so crawling on the floor and bellowing in Spanish: Rodrigo seems pleased with our performance overall, and he's even more pleased with our rendering of a shorter piece that will launch the evening; he says we're setting the template for it. Without actually coming out and saying how badly I'm mangling the Spanish language, he tells me not to worry, because my struggle with the language is part of the piece--translation and the crossing of borders is one of its major themes. So when it's time, at 10:30, to pack up and go home, I'm feeling pretty good about our two-nights progress, in spite of my throbbing wrist.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Sadie Doesn't Speak

...but here are some great pictures of her:

Meeting Lake Michigan.

Too big for the sink.

Pink towel.

Hi there.


As her mom says, "Eyelashes for days."

Friday, April 18, 2008

Sadie Speaks

video

So much to say, and she's not even twelve weeks old.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

A Normal Reading

It was actually an awesome reading. After a windy drive downstate (as a Northeasterner, it takes some getting used to talking about "downstate Illinois" with exactly the same inflection and implications with which one speaks of "upstate New York"), I arrived in Bloomington-Normal and was met by sweet and menschy Gabe Gudding. We then met Gabe's collaborator Kristin Dykstra, fellow reader Juan Manuel Sánchez, Illinois Wesleyan's Michael Theune, and a small gaggle of grad students for pretty-good pizza at Lucca, which is apparently the tiny headquarters of the long-beleagured Bloomington Democrats (the building where the GOP was founded is just a couple of blocks away). The reading itself took place in an art gallery deep in one of the most cavernous buildings of one of the most cavernous campuses I've ever visited, and was startlingly well-attended for a chilly Friday evening--sixty people or more, most gratifying.

Juan read first: his poems are influenced in arguably equal measure by Mexican/Chicano folklore and by Wallace Stevens, a potent combination. Some of the poems were presented in Spanish, then in what are apparently very loose "translations" into English; at least once he reversed the order, which is an interesting move, putting into question which poem/language is the (ab)original. I can't find any links to his work on the web, but he's got work in the new Mandorla (Kristin gifted me with a copy) and you ought to check it out: it's lushly beautiful writing.

I felt like my own reading was one of the strongest performances I've ever given, and it presents to me a kind of challenge to live up to my burgeoning sense that poetry readings ought to be treated as performances, with all the demands on the writer and promises to the audience that that implies. There were a number of environmental factors that contributed: I had a lectern with a microphone and an excellent sound system, which makes it possible to exercise a lot more control over tone and volume than when reading unassisted; I had a large audience that seemed unusually receptive to what I had to offer them; and the atmosphere of a gallery with half-assembled exhibits permits concentrated attention and conviviality while avoiding the sterility of the classroom, the formality of the auditorium, and the tumult of the tavern. I had also, almost inadvertantly, assembled some material that I was able to shape into a performance more easily and with more effect than I've managed in the past. Beginning with some new work with narrative elements and a tone by turns whimsical and sinister, I then moved backward to a piece from the new chapbook, "Lecture on Modernism," which had a similarly playful tone. Then I shifted to more serious ground with an excerpt from Compos(t)ition Marble, a book I've had mixed success from reading in the past (I apparently once bored the pants off some guy at a reading I did in New York soon after that book was published). Key to the success of this reading was in preparing the audience (telling them it was my 9/11 poem, my New York-love poem), and then in presenting just a few lyrical slices of it; the poem is too dense, I think, to be read out loud from the beginning for any but the most patient listeners. Finally, I closed with a poem from Selah, "Infected Elegy," that I've had some practice with, and which seems to be one of the most performable pieces in my inventory.

I learned a lot from doing this reading, and though I don't expect I'll ever be able to exactly repeat it, it's worth meditating on the value of performance when it comes to poetry readings. Some poets, perhaps even most poets, seem either to disparage the idea of performance or else simply don't give it much thought, while others actively and programmatically exercise a kind of anti-charisma in their readings--the idea being, I suppose, to deflect attention away from the poet's personality and back toward the text. I have some theoretical sympathy with the premises of the anti-reading: poets are not extroverts, as a rule, and if we were all natural performers we'd probably choose other lines of work. More importantly, much of the poetry I value most is highly textual in its effects, requiring the kind of rereading or dwelling-with that reading out loud doesn't permit. I would be dismayed if an emphasis on performance and orality were to diminish the already marginal space such work occupies, because I think that's where the real R&D work of the language gets done.

On the other hand, I've been bored, irritated, or enraged by far too many readings, with or without theoretical bases for their anti-performative qualities, to wish to inflict the same on any live audience I might be fortunate enough to have. I see no necessary incompatibility with being entertaining and with doing strong and challenging work. Some poems, or portions of poems, are less oral than others, as I've learned with Compos(t)ition Marble, and I've also had trouble finding a good way to read from Fourier Series, which is primarily visual in its arrangement. But if you do have arrows in your quiver that lend themselves to being guided by the voice, why not fire them? Variety of emotional affect is also key, I think: that's why I started with comic poems and then took a more serious and elegiac turn halfway through. Anything a poet can do to displace or shatter the mild glazed hum that seems to preside over the vast majority of poetry readings is to the good.

To embrace the performer's role at a poetry reading bears with it a number of risks, none greater in my view than in presenting yourself as someone who wishes to please. This is crucially different from wishing to be liked, which I think crushes many poets as performers because of the modesty and self-effacement that goes with that wish. It's also different from the desire to make a sensation that I associate with natural performers, the people who are always "on" whether they have a podium or not. The desire to please means above all accepting, at least for the duration of the performance, the mantle of difference between yourself and the audience: you are no longer part of its community, but a figure with distinct powers and responsibilities toward that community, and you have to risk not just their rejection but your own momentary sense of self-estrangement from that community. It's that little voice in your head that you imagine chorusing in everyone else's head: "Who does he think he is?"

From this fear arises, I think, the instinct to pander--to get everyone laughing and nodding, to deflect hostility in the manner of the class clown. It's a tough instinct to resist, and it's tough not to find it contemptible in oneself or others. But to perform well isn't to pander: a strong performer of poetry is willing to risk offending his audience or making them a bit uncomfortable; s/he's willing to risk emotionality; s/he's willing to risk even boring them a little, or to try and make them think. All of these negative affects are capable of pleasing when bound up in a performance that has some shape, some sense of arc or destiny in its five or fifteen or forty-five minutes length. A big part of this comes simply from trusting your own work: from believing in its potential to move people and, yes, to entertain them, if it's possible to imagine "entertainment" that doesn't partake of distraction. Which links, in ways I don't have time to explore just now, with the willingness to take one's vocation seriously--in public--that so fascinates me in poets like Jennifer Moxley and Jorie Graham.

After the reading there was a friendly gathering at Kristin's house with some of the grad students (alas, I didn't catch their names), and a long wandering discussion of the sort that I have too rarely these days about poetry, poets, teaching, and the movies. I received another gift, this time from Michael: his new anthology from Teachers & Writers, Structure & Surprise: Engaging Poetic Turns, which I think is going to prove enormously useful to my teaching, and we were up quite late (something else I don't do much of these days, except when awakened by Sadie). All in all a thoroughly pleasing and satisfying experience; I'd go back to Normal any time.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

New Things Arise

I'm thrilled to be part of some great new doings in the literary arena at Lake Forest College, namely:
- The creation of Lake Forest College Press and its imprint, &NOW Books (inspired by the &NOW Festival of Writing as a Contemporary Conceptual Art;
- The launch of a new biannual anthology, The &NOW Awards: The Best Innovative Writing, to be published under the eponymous imprint;
- The Madeleine P. Plonsker Emerging Writer’s Residency Prize, offering a two-month residency at Lake Forest, a $10,000 stipend, and book publication for a writer under forty years of age with no major publications (chapbooks excepted).
Exciting stuff! You can read more about it here at the blog of my colleague Bob Archambeau. I'm grateful to Bob and Davis Schneiderman for making me a part of their plans for literary empire-building.

In more personal news I can announce some upcoming personal appearances at which you can hear (and see) me read my poetry:
- On Friday, April 11 I will be reading with Juan Manuel Sanchez at Illinois State University in Normal as part of their Pierre Bourdieu Memorial Reading Series. It will take place at 7 PM in the University Galleries (here are some directions). Thanks to Gabe Gudding and Kristin Dykstra for making it happen.
- On Wednesday, April 16 I will be reading at The Book Cellar in the Lincoln Square neighborhood of Chicago along with Eddie Kilowatt, Robert McDonald, Patricia Stewart, Saadia Ali Aschemann. It starts at 7 PM; the Book Cellar is a nifty little independent store at 4736 Lincoln Avenue, right on the CTA's Brown Line.
- For those of you willing to brave the northern suburbs on a Tuesday afternoon, I'll be reading on the Lake Forest College campus at 4 PM on Tuesday, April 24 in Meyer Auditorium, Hotchkiss Hall, Middle Campus.
- On the weekend of May 2 - 4, I will be a player in Rodrigo Toscano's Collapsible Poetics Theater alongside Melissa Severin and Fred Sasaki to kick off Returning from One Place to Another:
A Poet’s Theater Showcase
at Links Hall in Wrigleyville.
- Finally, my European fans will be able to catch me presenting a paper on Charles Olson and avant-pastoral in Brussels during the Poetic Ecologies Conference that will be happening there from May 14 through the 17th. I'm looking forward to this truly international gathering of critics and poets concerned with, as the conference subtitle has it, "Nature as Text and Text as Nature in English-Language Verse."
So if my infrequent blogging bothers you, chances are you can catch me in person at one or more of these events.

Finally, for all you Sadie Gray fans out there, here are a couple of more pictures off the camera phone:

Looking alert in her car seat.


We've been looking for a new apartment. Sadie seemed to like this one.


Laughing at, rather than up, her sleeve.


Smiling at her great-grandpa.


Looking for spring.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Showeres Soote

No, this blog isn't an entirely vacant space to let, though it can look that way these days. I only wanted to show you that incredible SF name: "Nada Basic, Engineer." An alias of the other Nada's, perhaps?

This past weekend Sadie met my sister, her Aunt Vanessa, for the first time:
And Vanessa was quick to discover that from Sadie's perspective, we're all just human pacifiers:

Out there in the poetry blogosphere people have been talking about all sorts of interesting stuff. There was an extensive and fascinating discussion of the aesthetics and sociology of poetry book covers, led by Kasey and Gary (that's the first entry; see Gary's archives for the rest). At Harriet, Reginald Shepherd has been poking the wasps' nest of avant-gardeners with a sharp stick once again as he talks suggestively about white male technophilia, and is responded to by, among others, Harriet's latest avant-garde blogger, Linh Dinh. "I’d say that the best avant-garde artists and writers are those who reflect their moment in history while simultaneously rebelling against it," Dinh says. "Only lackeys celebrate the status quo."

We might look askance at this last. Is "reflecting" one's moment in history necessarily a celebration of the status quo? Isn't "rebellion" at least as much a question of content as form (to say the, um, least)? I think most skilled poets both reflect their time and are critical of it; I'd rather reserve the category "avant-garde" for those with specifically formal modes of rebellion (I would include "social form" in this category, referring to alternative means of publication and distribution, happenings, heteronyms, et al).

Finished Moxley's The Middle Room, and I have mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, I gradually began to tire of the total immersion narrator Moxley insists upon into every moment and detail of her life preceding the moment she and Steve Evans moved to Providence, R.I., and got married. Though predisposed to admire the seriousness (leavened with some humor) with which Moxley takes her own becoming, I felt in myself arise a being similar to the "anti-Cupid" that constantly sabotages and undermines young Jennifer's romance with Steve, her noir dream. This spirit of anti- was staggered by the colossal self-indulgence the book, in all its length and with all its nineteenth-century sentences, seemed to represent. But ultimately I was moved by what I felt to be the core intertwined stories of a poet's finding creative community and of a child's separation from the (literary but also literal) body of her mother—both figures of outward. I felt intensely, personally involved in this story, not least because of details of my own biography; and when Jennifer's mother Jo passed away into wretchedness and then death, I wept.

Teaching, reading board books to baby, working on the Olson paper I'll be presenting in Brussels—time for blogging passes me by. But I shall not forsake it utterly.

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