Sunday, January 24, 2010

from "The Humble Listener" (in chapter 2)

If spoken word is a public, communal experience, we still perceive it individually, and it is necessarily made up of private interpretive experiences. Many times I have sat, or stood, with a few other people, or in a huge crowd, as we listened quietly, or applauded loudly, as writers read, or recited from memory, their own words, or the words of others. And sometimes while I listened, not always but quite often, something peculiar has happened to me, or to my way of thinking. It has happened at events advertised as poetry readings, and also at events advertised as spoken word shows, and at poetry slams, cabaret shows, book or CD launches, lectures, sermons, panel discussions, anti-war rallies, and plenty of other events where single voices addressed a crowd. It has happened in bars, lounges, theatres, and galleries, in bookstores, malls, hotels and restaurants, in classrooms, auditoriums, libraries, churches and community centers, in apartments and lofts and suburban living rooms, in basements and on roofs, on street corners, on the lawn in parks, in tents, and once on a barge. And it has happened to me around the world, in big cities and in small towns.

What happens, when I listen to a voice addressing me as part of a crowd, is that my synapses start to spark: my mind begins to look for and draw connections, to wander in tangential directions, to churn productively. There is something about being spoken to without any expectation that I will respond—without even any necessity that I understand—that produces this lucid mental state in me. Or perhaps, when someone is speaking to me, my mind instinctively manufactures a response even if it is a non-sequitur that I keep to myself. This phenomenon—let’s call it “productive listening”—seems to me to be induced most frequently by performances of poetry, but then, my bias is that I have been studying performance poetry for some time, and it would make sense for me to become inspired while watching it. Still, I think it is a real effect, and I think I am not alone in feeling it. It is something quite different from the effect of being impressed by the work of a particular performer. David Groff, whom I quoted earlier saying that “a poem performed is no substitute for a poem read,” had this much positive to say about poetry readings in the same article: “there is undeniable power in simply having to listen to words that are measured out at a specific pace, don’t always make marketable sense, require you to sit still, summon only your ear and not your eye, and unfold, fleetingly, in the company of others.” It is hard to say whether this “power” might originate in the speech itself, or in the writing of the speech, or in the situation: perhaps simply sitting in a quiet crowd listening to any kind of white noise would have the same effect. I suspect, though, that it is a combination of the situation and the words. Groff argues, essentially, that one of the most valuable things about poetry is the intimacy of our interaction with it. This is no doubt true in some sense, but I would simply suggest that such a personal contemplative response can happen in public just as easily as in private and be inspired by performance just as easily as by text on a page.

More interestingly, the intensity of productive listening does not seem to depend on my judgment of what the voice is saying. It happens when I listen to texts that I find brilliant and fascinating, but it also happens when I listen to texts that I otherwise find banal, obtuse, confusing, boring or objectionable. Perhaps this only means that I have a short attention span and an active imagination; my intent here is not to analyze the workings of my own mind. Rather, what I want to ask is this: what exactly are the advantages in listening to performances of texts that we find appealing, and might there be benefits in listening to performances of unappealing texts? What are the differences between them? I want to weigh the value of listening to what you do not understand, what you do not enjoy, and most importantly, what cannot be easily laundered in the markets of cultural capital.

As I noted at the beginning of this chapter, for many people, at all cultural, educational, and economic levels, spoken word (and poetry readings in general, but particularly spoken word) falls squarely in the category of “unappealing.” Such anti-fans are often vocal about their dislike of spoken word, although when asked to explain it they may have a hard time. Typically, these are the words they use to describe it: Boring. Predictable. Formulaic. Cliché. Clique-y. Pretentious. Self-indulgent. Self-righteous. Unrefined. Juvenile. Hokey. Forced to attend a spoken word event, they roll their eyes, they fidget, they grit their teeth. I’m particularly fascinated by the intensity of this almost visceral reaction, and by the vehemence of aesthetic judgments generally. Is it really so painful to listen to spoken words? There is something peculiar about it, especially considering that in our daily lives we manage to put up with a constant barrage of spoken noise in the form of advertisements, announcements, sidewalk solicitations, sermons, speeches, and spiels.

It seems, in fact, that the disgust produced by hearing a bad performance far outweighs the joy produced by a good performance. This makes sense in light of sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s well-known theory of taste introduced in Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste. “Tastes,” he writes, “are perhaps first and foremost distastes, disgusts provoked by horror or visceral intolerance of the tastes of others” (56). Bourdieu describes tastes as the product of social influences: an individual’s habitus—the sum of the economic and cultural contexts in which the individual has become socialized—guides aesthetic choices within the boundaries of cultural fields. The real revelation of Bourdieu’s theory, though, is that tastes are not simply dictated by social status; they are also vital tools in our efforts to gain, maintain, and enhance social status. Rather than simply expressing natural preferences, our aesthetic judgments serve to identify us as belonging to certain status groups and not others. As he puts it, “Taste classifies, and it classifies the classifier” (6).


This concept of taste as a tool of social distinction also explains our anxiety over how our tastes are perceived. Music critic Carl Wilson has written an excellent book that undertakes a critical project similar to this one in many ways, except that his topic is a pop music icon he loathes. In Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, Wilson writes about his struggle to understand his distaste for Celine Dion, drawing on Bourdieu’s Distinction among other sources to explore the idea of individual “taste biographies” and communal “taste worlds” within the “taste universe.” He relates his discomfort with listening to Dion’s album in his thin-walled apartment, where he knows his neighbors will hear. “It’s a minor voyage of self-discovery,” he says: “it turns out that I am not so bothered by having strangers hear me have sex, compared to how embarrassed I am by having them hear me play Let’s Talk About Love over and over” (135). A poetry performance event is capable of producing a similar social anxiety, and this is particularly true of spoken word because its cultural status is so indefinite. The participant becomes interpellated into a social structure where the lines of cultural capital are indistinct and shifting, and the result may be resentment and fear – fear that one’s status might be jeopardized, or that one’s identity might be dismantled or commandeered.

Of course, this anxiety is also based on the idea that attending a particular event or listening to certain kinds of texts can be taken to signify approval. It is assumed, in other words, that a participant’s primary relationship to an aesthetic experience is evaluative judgment. Carl Wilson worries that his neighbors will assume that he is an avid fan of Celine Dion, rather than a music critic doing research for a book. Other people worry, on some level, that if they attend a spoken word event, others will assume that they are there because it’s their “thing”—they like it, and therefore it somehow defines them. However, part of the argument I’m making about spoken word is that it tends to undermine the assumption that evaluative judgment is the natural primary relationship to the performance: as I have said, spoken word de-prioritizes aesthetic judgment in favor of accessibility and diversity.


This, I think, is one of the most significant things that spoken word has to offer: by juxtaposing work of so many different styles and artists at many different levels of ability, spoken word helps to disabuse us of the notion that the only way to interact with a poem or artwork is by classifying it according to taste. I think that Bourdieu’s work accurately describes the function of taste within a socially, culturally, and economically stratified society, and it is true that “art and cultural consumption are predisposed, consciously and deliberately or not, to fulfill a social function of legitimating social differences” (7). However, I also think it is important to recognize that art has other powerful effects besides social classification, and that our relationships to it can be rich, multifarious, and sometimes contradictory.

I think that there is something uniquely valuable in exposure to forms that lay outside one’s usual aesthetic criteria. It is worthwhile, in other words, to hear “bad” poetry—or to hear poetry read “badly.” Is spoken word sometimes boring, cliché, pretentious, painful, absurd? Yes, it is, and the same can be said of most if not all poetry readings, because what we find to be “good” or “bad” poetry is dependent on context, on our level of engagement, and on the communities we belong to. The ability to listen productively to both appealing and unappealing texts requires a certain kind of humility, a suspension of disbelief in other people’s versions of aesthetic reality. It is somewhat analogous to John Keats’ notion of Negative Capability, “when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.”

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

from "Difficulty and Boredom" (in chapter 2)

From the list of critiques commonly leveled at spoken word, I want to focus for a moment on one adjective in particular: boring. In popular culture, “boring” is usually reserved for aesthetic experiences that are relatively quiet, slow-paced, minimally stimulating and requiring persistent concentration — like the experience of reading poetry silently to oneself, for example — so it is with a degree of irony that the label is applied to spoken word, which is often loud, accelerated, short and snappy, and is always at least aloud and kinetic. Opinions may vary about whether spoken word is necessarily intended to be “entertaining,” but I think that when critics call it “boring,” they are reacting to it as failed entertainment. The implication is that the most attention-getting performative elements of spoken word — the musicality, the expressiveness, the “flash” — are in fact so cliché and so lacking in substance that they are devoid of interest for a connoisseur of language itself; hence, boring. Work that is less flashy and less eager-to-please, that requires a greater investment of concentration from its audience, is on the other hand referred to as “difficult” work, which among those same connoisseurs of language is generally used as an honorific term. It seems to me that the relationship between these two rather glib terms — boring and difficult — invites some examination.

In terms of boringness, no spoken word piece measures up to the work of Kenneth Goldsmith, the self-described “most boring writer that ever lived.” His “uncreative writing” has consisted, for example, of copying text from a newspaper (Day), transcribing his own daily utterances (Soliloquy), or describing his every movement in minute detail (Fidget). Yet in avant-garde circles a sizable contingent sees his work — with good reason, in my opinion — as some of the most interesting writing happening today. It is hard to imagine, furthermore, that Goldsmith would continue with his practice if he didn’t also find it interesting in some way. In his essay “Being Boring,” he draws a distinction between “boring boring,” which means doing something we don’t want to do or watching something we don’t want to watch (such as “having to endure someone’s self-indulgent poetry reading”), and “unboring boring,” which is a conceptual boredom with quite a few precedents in 20th-century art. John Cage, for example, famously had this to say about boredom: “If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all.” What this suggests, of course, is a voluntary surrender to boredom, and that is the significant difference for Goldsmith: the boring can become the unboring when we are not being forced to endure it.

The same attitude is also present in David Antin’s talk poems. While his practice of composing rambling personal stories on the spot is both innovative and daring, sooner or later his texts become boring, and he seems to anticipate this and even encourage it as an important part of his process. His stories are drawn out, constantly interrupted, and often essentially pointless: the definition of “bad” storytelling. In “The Noise of Time,” Antin says that “because what im doing is entertaining ideas not people im quite happy for people to feel free to get up and leave whenever they stop finding this entertaining and that’s how i know im a poet not an entertainer […] in my case i always imagine i should put a sign over the door that reads ABANDON ALL HOPE YE WHO ENTER HERE." His declared indifference to entertaining the audience is hard to accept at face value, however. Many of his talk pieces make reference to particular people and scenes — often the same people and scenes for whom the piece was conceived — so his unique process actually makes it possible for him to tailor the “writing” to the audience, which would seem the opposite of the conceptual autonomy he wants to claim.

What makes “boring boredom” into “unboring boredom,” then, is the reader/spectator’s level of engagement; making something “unboring” simply requires that a bit more voluntary effort be expended. Another common way of saying this is that “unboring” work is more difficult. Usually, when poetry is described as “difficult,” it implies that the work is at a higher level of sophistication than the speaker can easily process; work lacking in sophistication is more likely to be called “boring.” But what the “unboring” work of Goldsmith, Cage, and Antin shows us is that even the most unsophisticated, the most semantically impoverished texts, can be transformed by a sufficient level of engagement. Kenneth Goldsmith’s uncreative writing, for example, is about as unoriginal, unsophisticated, and ungenerous to the reader as it gets; it can be considered both “boring” and “difficult.” These two terms, in other words, are not as far apart as they first seem: they are both categories of poetry that require a significant input from the reader.

Poetry is considered either boring or difficult when people don’t “get it.” Which label it receives, though, depends more on the attitude of the reader/spectator than on the inherent qualities of the text. When the speaker is engaged, the poem is “difficult”; when the speaker is not engaged, it is “boring.” Furthermore, the terms operate in opposition to one another, as tools of social distinction. Saying that a work is boring functions as a class dis-identification (“I do not belong to the cultural class that would be interested in this kind of art”); it effectively dismisses the validity of the criteria by which the work is valued in a different cultural context. Calling a work difficult, on the other hand, functions as a claim to identification and engagement, but also as a claim to cultural superiority. It says, “This kind of art can only be appreciated by the elite class to which I belong.” A poem is unlikely to be labeled “difficult” by those who actually find it difficult (they would more likely consider it “boring”); rather, the term “difficult” implies that the poem is difficult for others, those who do not enjoy the same level of cultural capital. A relational approach to criticism reveals that these two categories, like “sophisticated” and “unsophisticated,” have no empirical reality in the text; rather they are social constructs that reinforce a hierarchy of relationships to culture.

From this point of view, a criticism of spoken word as “boring” can be seen for what it is: an attempt to validate the evaluative criteria of one cultural community by invalidating those of another. My main point here is this: a spoken word performance perceived as “boring” is actually a source of unacknowledged difficulty, and the boringness may even be a form of difficulty itself, in the same sense that extreme length, arcane diction, or complicated syntax are commonly valued as forms of difficulty in traditional poetry criticism. What we call boredom is sometimes only an evasion of difficulty. Of course, literature, by nature of being composed of abstract symbols (whether letters or sounds), is inherently difficult: before we can get anything from it, we need to put in the work of deciphering the language. The only exceptions to this may be concrete poetry and sound poetry; in this sense, these avant-garde forms are the most “accessible,” least “difficult” forms of literature, although I suspect that few mainstream readers or auditors would say so. Performance implies spectacle, but when the performance is primarily text-based, it becomes a uniquely unspectacular spectacle. When we go to a reading or literary performance, on some level we anticipate difficulty; we are volunteering to be bored.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

from "The Inevitable Question" (in chapter 1)

Given all the variables involved, it is probably better to define spoken word as an activity or practice — something that one does — rather than as a class of literary product. I’d like to offer three basic criteria, which create a sort of framework for understanding spoken word, even though they are not universally applicable. The first one I have already mentioned: in spoken word, the performers are the writers. Occasionally a performer may present a text written by someone else, but this would be the rare exception to the rule. This is one indication that spoken word performers are appreciated, first and foremost, for their skill in composing words. Whether or not the text of the performance is ever written on paper, spoken word artists are primarily writers, not actors or singers. Another reason why spoken word performers don’t do more “covers” might be that spoken word events often have a cabaret atmosphere, with a relatively long list of participants, so that each performer is limited to a brief window at the microphone — typically five to fifteen minutes. With time so restricted, performers may be reluctant to spend it on the work of another writer. Furthermore, not only do spoken word artists use their own texts; they mostly perform them as their own texts: they inhabit themselves on stage — or at least, that is the effect of the performance.

The second criterion echoes my conclusions about the importance of the microphone in earlier in this chapter: spoken word is a communally interactive activity. In spoken word, there is usually a microphone for the performer to use, whether it is acoustically necessary or not, and if there is no microphone, there may be some other method of indicating that the participants will speak in turns. In most cases, the performers come from the audience when it is their turn and go back to the audience when they have finished, rather than staying in a backstage room separate from the audience, as in theatre. Furthermore, the performer nearly always addresses the audience directly, giving an introduction or some other informal speech that is ostensibly distinct from the work itself. All of these elements serve to establish that a spoken word performance is a collaboration between all the participants in the room.

If the first two criteria differentiate spoken word performers from actors, the third one differentiates them from writers who simply read their work: in spoken word, the performance is as important as the text. While a traditional reading is a performance, and I have heard it argued that any public reading of poetry should be considered spoken word, I think that these two activities demonstrate a fundamental difference in approach. Poets with more traditional (i.e. text-centric) attitudes towards performance commonly criticize spoken word by disallowing the performance as an evaluative criterion: “it may work in performance, but it doesn’t work on the page” (and therefore it’s not good poetry). From the point of view of spoken word this doesn’t make sense, since good performance is valued in itself — although most participants will agree that good writing is at least equally desirable. In a sense this last criterion presents a counterpoint to the first one: spoken word artists are not simply performers, but they are not simply writers either.

These three identifying characteristics parallel Bob Holman’s three rules for the creation of spoken word, which I heard him recite at a talk at the Banff Centre Spoken Word Program. Holman was closely involved in New York City’s initial boom in spoken word, but he seems to have concluded that, for him at least, spoken word is just another way of saying poetry, which is the object of all his energies. His rules are: 1. “Write the poem yourself.” 2. “Immediacy of our work balances the literature-longevity dynamic.” 3. “If you call it a poem, it is.” The second rule is vague but intriguing; I think what he is suggesting is that spoken word happens in the present — somewhat akin to what Nicholas Bourriaud calls “time-specific” works (after “site-specific”) — in other words, it is specific not only to the location but also to the crowd and the moment in which it happens, and this means that it has different aims and uses different tactics than literature that aspires to a long life on the page. The third rule avows an omni-directional openness in terms of form and content that could be applied to poetry or spoken word — although in the same talk, Holman also suggested a more rigorous test for identifying poems, by quoting William Carlos Williams: “If it ain’t a pleasure, it ain’t a poem.”

Monday, November 30, 2009

from "The Death of Art" (in chapter 2)

...There are a number of other complex and interesting issues that arise when the long-running border dispute flares up between performance poets and (for lack of a better term) page poets. To look at a few points more closely, I want to examine a particular skirmish in the war that took place online in 2008, on the blog of the Toronto poet Paul Vermeesch. It began with a post entitled “Rant: Why I hate ‘Spoken Word’ poetry,” which I will do my best to briefly summarize: spoken word performers are often, if not always, poor writers who hide the ineptness of their compositions (which Vermeesch refuses to label poetry) with exaggerated, stylized vocal performances and hand gestures; the only appreciative audience members for these performances are the performers’ friends. Spoken word, he says, “does a disservice to actual poetry by calling itself poetry.” Furthermore, he advises that “if you want to read your poem to an audience, read your poem the way it is written.” He asserts, in short, that poetry is a written art form first and foremost, and that spoken word is not poetry: “The word ‘poetry’ means something, and that ain’t it.”

At first this “Rant,” and the subsequent pages-long debate in the commentary, appears to be a conflict without any real consequence: it is possible for “poetry” to mean and be many different and contradictory things at the same time, and Vermeesch’s conception of poetry is irrelevant to your decision about what to call your own writing/performing practice. As such, Vermeesch’s chicanery is pretty obvious: he declares that his definition of poetry is objective and universal, and that (guess what) your poetry doesn’t make the grade. This unsupported declaration is not inconsequential, however. Any attempt to define poetry in exclusive terms is a fundamentally conservative gesture and usually also serves, whether consciously or not, to reinforce a hierarchy of privilege. In the comments added to the post, including Vermeesch’s responses, it gradually becomes clear that the strong feelings on both sides of the debate are motivated, at least in part, by anxiety about the prestige of the brand “poetry” — among those who would like to seize it for themselves, and those who worry that it may be diluted by newcomers. Several participants in the debate demonstrate this anxiety, which is manifested most often in the assertion that the term “poet” must be reserved for those who have paid their dues: “People should not call themselves poets if they haven’t devoted themselves to studying the craft…”; “people confuse spoken word–slam–Chuck Barris–style–Gong Show ravings with the long humble apprenticeship and sharp longing to make true art that is poetry”; “there is a history and tradition, and skilled techniques and a studied craftsmanship that today’s spoken word ignores…”

The backdrop, of course, is the lament among the page poets that the general public, and in particular spoken word audiences, “don’t really read or buy poetry books,” which is also repeated almost as a taunt by some of the pro–spoken word respondents: “It just so happens that [spoken word] is a form that is more accessible and interesting to more people than page poetry is”; “In Toronto their [sic] are 3 monthly series averaging audiences of 50-150 bodies… does that sound like any of the ‘literary’ reading series?” This is a struggle over audience share, in other words, in an audience that is small enough to begin with: much of the enmity arises because spoken word is perceived as an amateur movement in a field where even the professionals do not get much recognition. Or, as the previously quoted Connecticut poet puts it: “the appreciation of serious poetry suffers when it is forced to compete for public attention with this kind of vulgar display of second- or third-rate work.” Occasionally, what is at stake is not just attention but money: for several years there was a pitched battle at the gates of the League of Canadian Poets over whether spoken word poets who had not published books could be admitted to the organization, and allowed access to the same funding opportunities as page poets.

Anxiety about labels, and the privilege or disenfranchisement they often represent, is one source of the discomfort I mentioned earlier. To me, it is reminiscent of rhetoric used by some of the more “tolerant” opponents of gay marriage in the US: go ahead and do what you like, but just don’t call it marriage, because if that word is applied to what you do, then it will have less meaning when it is applied to what I do. (“The word ‘marriage’ means something, and that ain’t it.”) Social status only has value to the extent that it is exclusive; one couple’s declaration of marriage doesn’t really prevent another couple from enjoying their marriage, but it does lessen the power of marriage as a tool of social exclusion and status accumulation. Similarly, calling spoken word “poetry” doesn’t prevent anyone from enjoying other kinds of poetry, but to those for whom poetry is their main signifier of status, it is very frustrating.

Monday, November 23, 2009

from "The Talking Stick" (in chapter 1)

On the evening of our first group performance [at the Banff Centre for the Arts Spoken Word Program], I noticed that Rebecca, who comes from a theatre background, was the only one among us who took a bow while people were applauding at the end of her piece. It struck me, and I pointed it out to her later: spoken word performers do not bow. For her part, she was struck by the oddness of using a microphone, when she usually didn’t use one on stage and it didn’t seem to her to be really necessary. She wanted to know: why the mic?

The use of microphones became a sort of theme during the Banff program, partly because some of the participants, notably Moe Clark, were working on electronic voice looping techniques that require not only a high level of control of one’s voice and timing, but also a familiarity with the technical capacities of the equipment. Ian Ferrier, who has considerable experience as a poet, musician, and technician-producer for Wired on Words, the spoken word label he runs, led a workshop on mic technique that covered the different kinds of mics a performer might run into and guidelines for using them. I repeat some of the salient details below because I eventually came to the conclusion that microphones are more than just equipment for spoken word performers.


A fundamental concern with recording live vocal performance is echo and background noise, which is why mics are categorized according to their pick-up pattern (basically, the range of angles at which the mic will detect sound): there are, on the one hand, unidirectional or cardioid mics, which are only sensitive to sound from one direction, as well as hypercardioid, supercardioid, and shotgun mics, which have an even narrower directionality; these are all designed to minimize ambient sound. Live vocal performances are usually recorded with directional microphones, in order to prevent crowd noise from leaking into the mix, and particularly if there are musicians on stage that might get picked up by the vocalist’s mic. One problem with using directional mics, though, is that inexperienced users tend to make mistakes that affect the sound quality in obvious ways: standing too far from the mic or too close, or speaking off-axis—that is, outside the mic’s pick-up pattern.

On the other hand there are omni-directional microphones, which pick up sound from all directions at once. They reproduce the entire sonic environment, and they are very easy for anyone to use.

Perhaps it is already obvious, from the preceding description, how the nuances of microphone technology and usage suggest a rich metaphoric language for the conceptualization of spoken word’s social significance, and in particular its status within literary culture. Any expert in the field will agree that there are a variety of methodological approaches to sound engineering and a wide variety of microphones designed to work well in different contexts. There is no one “best” technique, and the trick is to choose the right device and the right methodology for the source. However, there are certain evaluative hierarchies within the field of sonic interpretation. Cardioid mics are favored for performance because they focus attention on the sound source and exclude extraneous signals. If you are recording a professional, distinctive voice—a canonical voice, let’s say—then your goal will be to eliminate, as much as possible, the distracting contextual noise. It’s best to do this in a controlled environment, such as the recording studio; it is easier to isolate the subject in this way rather than attempt to record them in front of an audience. But suppose that you are recording an open-mike poetry reading. You can’t move it into the studio without destroying the circumstances that make the event what it is. You could set up a cardioid mic on a stand to record each poet, but many of them will be inexperienced in mic technique and you may end up with uneven levels. You won’t want to use an extremely sensitive mic, either, since you know that it will get jostled every time someone adjusts the mic stand. An omni-directional microphone, then, would seem to be the best choice. It will be accessible, since no special expertise is required, and it will pick up the sounds of the audience—the applause, the laughter, the heckling, which, after all, are a part of the experience.

The predominant mode of poetry studies for at least the last half of the twentieth century might be referred to as the cardioid approach: the study of canonical texts, isolated from the context in which they were produced. But spoken word is a form that demands an omni-directional approach. It requires moving the analytical apparatus out of the studio and into bars, theatres, and cafés, and it requires listening to voices coming from more than one direction. In fact, every voice in the room needs to be heard in the final recording, not just the ones on the stage. The omni-directional microphone is an apt emblem of spoken word for many reasons: because of the multiple vectors of spoken word’s development, its generic instability, and its potential to evolve in virtually any direction, but mostly because spoken word scenes are polyphonic in the Bakhtinian sense: every voice is distinct, but no voice is isolated. Ultimately all the voices interact and influence one other as part of the same mix.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Day Seventeen

Okay, as is pretty obvious, it's not day seventeen. But I'm smart enough to figure out the next number in the sequence, usually. How do I know I'm smart enough? Well, the exam that I've been preparing for all this time took place at 1 pm on May 17th in the thesis room at the CUNY Grad Center, and when it was all over and the dust settled and the jargon stopped flying, I had passed with distinction. So I breathed a sigh of relief and left for Canada to perform at the conundrum press 10th anniversary anthology launch and then to start teaching at Bishop's.

I may return to this site to discuss some of the books I haven't discussed or future readings as I work toward writing my dissertation, because I find this exercise useful, and because I like continuity in certain forms.

Onward, as R. Creeley would say. But sideways this time.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Day Sixteen

Jack Spicer: San Francisco Renaissance poet (along with Robin Blaser and Robert Duncan) whom I find both delightful and sometimes misguided. In his After Lorca he talks (in one of his letters to Lorca) about creating poems out of things. Not in the W. C. Williams sense ("no ideas but in things") but in a much more literal, concrete sense, a Kurt Schwitters sense of pasting newspapers and lemons together to make a poem about newspapers and lemons. This would be better, he suggests, than using words, because the only usefulness of words is to bring the real into the poem. The words cling to the real and vice versa. Other than that, words have no value. The perfect poem, he says, has an infinitely small vocabulary.

These letters to Lorca are obviously poems in themselves, more than they are serious attempts to theorize his practice, if serious means unambiguous. But Spicer seemed to be one of those writers - a true poet, if you will - who was incapable of distinguishing much between the poetic and the theoretical. His A Textbook of Poetry his explanations are surreal and concerned with things like ghosts. In his lectures, his apparently earnest - albeit intoxicated - attempts to explain his practice continually call on esoteric forces - whether ghosts or Martians, some external force - as the inspirational factor in poetry-writing. At first I thought this was a conservative sort of mythologization, an attempt to turn writing into a kind of transcendental, inexlicable religious experience, which in practice would only reify the exalted aura of the poet. It bears a resemblance to what Creeley talks about as poetry by dictation. However, taken another way Spicer's philosophy can be seen as a determined attempt to evacuate intentionality from the writing process. This is not so different from the thoroughly post-modern and (I think) progressive aleatory practices of John Cage or Jackson Maclow, or of the Oulipo writers, and not so unrelated to the Death of the Author. It may be just Spicer's way of saying, as Derrida does, that language is never entirely in our conscious control.

Spicer also seemed concerned that poetry be an act of communication, although he thinks this is incredibly difficult and rare. Communicating with the dead seems to be the most he consistently hopes for. In the Lorca book he dedicates every one of the poems to someone he knows. This, he explains, is to ensure that each poem will be able to find an audience of at least one person.

Day Fifteen

Kenneth Rexroth, American poet once referred to as the father of the Beat Generation (he rejected the label): I read a couple of his essays that clearly demonstrate how wide-ranging and encyclopedic were his knowledge and understanding of the modern world. (The story goes that he read the Encyclopaedia Britannica every year, "like a novel".) One of them, "The Making of the Counterculture" (1969), is interesting in how adamantly it rejects the conservative notion which Rexroth thought was common in the 50's, that the age of experimentation in literature and culture was over. Instead he suggested that the political and aesthetic revolutions that were happening and would happen made Modernism look modest by comparison. He said that the culture - particularly the writing - that really mattered was happening not in the academy or in bookstores but in small copied magazines and readings, and was produced by and dominated by youth culture. He could have been discussing spoken word when he said that the vital poetry of counter-cultural readings "has no life beyond the immmediate occasion." The Beats, he said (he classified only four writers as Beats: Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs, and Corso) were significant not so much as literature but as social history.

"The most significant, if not the best by older critical standards, literature in America today is to be found, not in books, or even in the established literary magazines, but in poetry readings, in mimeographed broadsides, in lyrics for rock groups, in protest songs — in direct audience relationships of the sort that prevailed at the very beginnings of literature. The art of reading and writing could vanish from memory in a night and it would not make a great difference to the poetry, or even much of the prose, of the youngest generation of poets and hearers of poetry. This is the new world of youth which so disturbs the oldies. Rightly so, it is a world they never made. In it they are strangers and afraid — totally unable, most of them, to comprehend what is happening." —from "The Making of the Counterculture"