Tuesday, June 3, 2008

I SEE WORDS PERFORM


Notes on Poet's Theater. Or, how I was transformed into a clairvoyant-cowgirl-poet-outlaw-revolutionary-twin.

In Chicago, it is the season between spring and summer. It is hot and sweaty. Then, there are a few days that feel cool and crisp. I do not know whether to wear my flip flops or wool hat or both. These temperatures of transition create a sense that anything can happen. Everyday is a chance environment.

I am recovering after a nonstop month of Poet’s Theater curated by writer John Beer. He currently lives in NYC but much of the Chicago community knows him from his time curating the Danny's
reading series with Joel Craig. From May 2-25, Links Hall hosted a four week festival Returning from One Place to Another: A Poet’s Theater Showcase.

From Beer’s festival notes:
Drawing inspiration from the operas of Gertrude Stein or the plays of Frank O’Hara, each program consists of a set of works for performance that retain a focus on language and structure while potentially abandoning traditional elements of narrative or staging.
Visiting poets Rodrigo Toscano, Johannes Göransson, Joyelle McSweeney, Fiona Templeton, and Carla Harryman were paired with local writers, artists, and performers: Joshua Corey, Joel Craig, Patrick Durgin, Elana Elyce, Judith Goldman, Laura Goldstein, Lisa Janssen, Julia Klein, Jacob S. Knabb, Katie McGowan, Pamela Osbey, Fred Sasaki, Jennifer Scappettone, Melissa Severin, James Shea, David Trinidad, and myself. Rachel Damon was our glorious technical director and stage manager.

Each weekend a visiting poet performed her/his own work with a different collaborative team. In addition, Fiona Templeton presented writing by Louis Zukofsky and Carla Harryman added selections by Kathy Acker, Frank O’Hara, and Barrett Watten. For most of the programs, collaborators had 3-4 days to intensively rehearse together followed by 3 nights of performances.

The collaborations ranged from reading a poet’s text while improvising movements:

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.
-- Joshua Corey
To encouraging collaborators to write and develop their own parts:

I've always been a big believer in collaboration - not just as in "collaborative projects" (such as the W-Party or the comic book I'm writing with John Woods), but all of my writing, publishing etc. But this just made obvious to me how much more interesting it is to approach art as collaboration, and how strange and curious the results can be.
-- Johannes Göransson
I feel that collaboration is one of the most vital methods for fostering creative and intellectual growth. Collaborative projects push me to take risks with my work that might not happen by myself. Experimentation takes place both on the page and off in the new communities that are formed. When I become immersed in these challenging partnerships, I am forced to interact and communicate in unexpected ways. It changes my understanding and use of language.

In February 2008, I received an email from Johannes Göransson and Joyelle McSweeney about our upcoming Poet’s Theater production inviting me and our collaborators to “grab a couple media and genres and characters and write up/concoct a portion of the proceedings.” Göransson had already written most of the play’s main text, The Widow Party, and McSweeney was in the process of devising her character Hannie Oakley (part poet Hannah Weiner, part cowgirl Annie Oakley). Like many of our writer friends, McSweeney and I were ferociously reading and rereading Hannah Weiner’s Open House, edited and published by fellow collaborator Patrick Durgin. He was at work writing a final Declamation for The Widow Party. Jacob S. Knabb compiled and translated the script’s sound cues. Lisa Janssen and James Shea joined us later to perform the random characters that keep the quasi-narrative moving.

Taking cues from Hannah Weiner’s multivoiced texts, I dreamed up a twin for Hannie Oakley. Annie Weiner would be a sister character, speaking onstage and interacting with the audience whenever Hannie was giving her monologues. I began composing revolutionary letters as Annie Weiner. Letters to Ronald Reagan, Oscar Mayer, and Patty Hearst, historical figures who have appeared as real characters in the drama of America. Letters that I continued writing up until the day of the final dress rehearsal for The Widow Party. Reading on the computer. Reading on the page. Reading from the page in hand. Writing instantly and performing these words. Listening to a voice, a character, a persona, a whisper in your ear, a live moment. The vibration of air mixed with the smell of bodies performing. Imagine the set, props, audience. Writing and reading (are) a performance. Language is a medium. Another space for the in between.

How do you know that you are watching Poet’s Theater? According to festival curator John Beer, you should look at the notes in the program. According to poet and performer Fiona Templeton, it depends which institution is paying your bills. You start to think that these forms of collaboration simultaneously break down genre and construct future genre.

When you see Carla Harryman sit on a stool and read, there are geometrical sculptures behind her made from multicolored tape, fabric, wood, and paper mache. Judith Goldman and Jennifer Scappettone hold hands and sing like little girls in Kathy Acker’s play. David Trinidad is a chain smoking middle-aged widow one night and then the protective male lover of an estranged wife the next.

Does designing a set, create a performance? The wind chimes move outside on the porch and the refrigerator buzzes in the kitchen. I sit at the table in Chicago, finishing this writing half self-consciously, knowing it will become my first blog entry to be published on the internet. A form I have yet to fully engage with or feel completely comfortable in. Kathy Acker’s desk sits in Los Angeles at Les Figues' office. I get curious and ask Teresa Carmody about the piece of furniture. She writes back that Acker “has a photo of Genet taped to the top of the desk” and ends “It's a big chair to fill.”

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