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.”