Saturday, May 06, 2006

Day Eleven

One of the difficulties of writing about spoken word is also one of the more interesting aspects of it as a genre: the fact that it's not obvious which artists, writers, or performers should be included. I've been focussing mainly on poets in my research, partly because many spoken word artists identify themselves as poets, and partly because it's just easy that way. But it makes sense to include theatrical traditions in the history of spoken word as well, and for me the artistic development that is most significant to spoken word is performance art. In fact I think that much of the work done by spoken word artists I know has more in common with that tradition than with poetry. But there more definitional questions arise because not all or even most performance art is text-based, so where is the word to be spoken? Also there is the issue of populist vs. "serious" work, which somehow seems to be more easily dealt with in poetry. Spalding Gray and Eric Bogosian, for example, are theatre practitioners whom I would include, and I would include a performer like Laurie Anderson, who uses speech, but other artists like Vito Acconci or Carolee Schneeman or Jenny Holzer for example fit only partially. It demonstrates, perhaps, that spoken word is not a category but a behaviour (sort of like homosexuality?) So there are many examples of performance which we might consider as spoken word under certain circumstances. Lenny Bruce should be cited, for sure, but are all stand-up comedians a part of it? Why not? Is it Bruce's subversiveness that is important? There is also the entire category of the rock-star spoken word artist, like Lydia Lunch, or Henry Rollins, whose approach is so different from the "seriousness" of performance art - his approach is quite serious too, but aimed at a different audience.

All of this is a preface to mentioning Karen Finley, whose book, A Different Kind of Intimacy, I've just been reading. The thing that makes Karen Finley's work related to what we normally see as spoken word is not that she writes and uses spoken text in her performances, but that there is an identification between her work and herself as the artist figure, which separates it from traditional theatre. Finley doesn't always speak autobiographically (although she uses autobiographical elements), and she certainly plays characters, but at a Karen Finley performance it is still Karen Finley on the stage. At the same time, her career is an interesting example of the blurriness of serious art performance and entertainment. She says in her book that early in her career she took what she did very seriously and had not much of a sense of humour about it - especially when it came to defending her work against censorship. Later on, it's not that she doesn't take it seriously anymore, but she starts to see that it was always a form of entertainment as well - that is, she realizes that her "fuck you" to the audience was also a kind of seduction. She goes from insisting that if she takes off her clothes and pours chocolate all over herself, that shouldn't be construed as sexual, to making erotic performance central to her work. One of my favourite parts of her book and her career is her piece that parodies the entire saga of going to the Supreme Court to challenge the NEA's revocation of her grant under pressure from conservative politicians like Jesse Helms. She portrays the conflict as a long abusive relationship based on Helms' sexual harassment of her - coming to grips in the process with her own complicity in the abuse. I think an awareness of the reciprocal attraction of performer and audience, and of the implications of that for the art as entertainment, is an important insight to be gained from performance artists, something that poets often overlook.


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