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.