Surrealist Doodle

Surrealist Doodle
This was used as the cover of Karawane in 2006 and I have included it in on a number of bags and postcards over the years. Someone on the subway asked me if it was a Miro. I was very flattered!

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Tupac Shakur and Kurt Schwitters

In challenging the "canon," Ishmael Reed poses the question "why can't Tupac Shakur be studied alongside T.S. Eliot?" [ii] I would ask why we don't study Tupac alongside Kurt Schwitters.

Re-appropriating the Avant Garde

One of the most potentially fruitful avant garde movements for spoken word practice is Dada. A collection of artists throughout Europe during and between the two world wars, Dada's literary and performance aspects were deeply intertwined and are difficult to speak of as separate entities, much like current practices of spoken word and performance poetry.

e.g. bailey, writer, performer and one of the founders of the Minnesota Spoken Word Association (MnSWA) once said to me that all spoken word comes from the African diaspora. Obviously any blanket statement like that requires skepticism, and the traditions of performed poetry in Ancient Greece and in Japan, as well as Native American storytelling refute his blanket assertion. But within contemporary practices, built on jazz and bebop in America, and the European avant garde's affinity for African art, there is an idea worth considering here.

"Dadaists recited so-called 'negro songs' . . . Mostly sacral texts from indigenous African and Oceanic cultures meticulously collected from anthropological literature in an attempt to guarantee the highest grade of authenticity" and also "from the slums of the North-American metropolis: Afro-American rag-time, cake walk and jazz." [i]

While poetry slam and hip hop borrow from African (American) rhythms, including bebop and jazz, as well as dealing with issues of ethnicity and racial heritage, we rarely see in contemporary practice the kind of language experimentation of Hugo Ball or Kurt Schwitters or linguistic explorations of the sources mentioned above. In challenging the "canon," Ishmael Reed poses the question "why can't Tupac Shakur be studied alongside T.S. Eliot?" [ii] I would ask why we don't study Tupac alongside Kurt Schwitters. Given the tendency and desire of early literary avant gardes such as Dada and Surrealism to borrow from (what they perceived as) African Art and rhythms, an art practice that works more directly those traditions would have much to offer contemporary practice, tied in as it often is with hip hop. And with criticisms these avant gardes as "appropriating" from other cultures, it would seem natural for those coming from a diasporic aesthetic to revisit those techniques and ideas and reclaim them for themselves.

The outsider stance of the poetry slam aesthetic also has much in common with a movement such as Dada, which was very critical of and reacting against the literary and artistic "establishment."

"The Dadaists' disenchantment with the cultural and political status quo was so fundamental and deep-seated that they felt they could no longer express it within the boundaries of existing artistic and communicative conventions." [iii]

One of the hallmark activities of the Dadas was the performance cabaret, most famously, Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich. The cabarets were designed to push the endurance and tolerance of the audience and challenge their ideas toward art. They would include sound poems composed of "nonsense" verse and syllables, declaim their many incendiary manifestos from the stage, perform skits, and in one instance, created a riot by creating and then erasing an artwork by Francis Picabia on a blackboard. [iv] Confrontiation was the hallmark of their work, and confrontation is necessarily a face-to-face, live endeavor. And so while they published their own journals and pioneered visual poetry as well, Dada poets were meant to be heard!

At the same time that Dada was meant to be performed and performative, one of the methods to the madness was to challenge norms by challenging normal thinking, which meant challenging the modes of language in which thought is possible.

"The avant-garde, by means of several devices, tried to create a realm based on three forms of novelty: 1. new forms of perception from the point of view of the subject/author; 2. new forms of communication by placing words and objects in a different order for reception; 3. new forms of reception and perception, from the point of view of the recipient." [v]

Dada shared with Formalism its disdain for "subjectivity" "understood as a solipsistic individuality in art and social life." [vi] Like the Formalists, they too sought a denaturalized language, deconstructing representation in language the way it was being deconstructed by the visual artists in their midst. The Dadaists' goals was to "try to trigger and stimulate change within the individual, hoping that they could get the audience . . or readers . . . to rethink their positions, to make them confront habitual thinking structures, to question their attitudes toward literature, convention, and perhaps even social order." [vii] So deep was their "disenchantment with the cultural and political status quo . . . that they felt they could no longer express it within the boundaries of existing artistic and communicative conventions." [viii]

As I talk with people about Dada writing and performance and its application to contemporary practice, it's fairly common to hear things like "Well, Dada was great, but it's over now," or "Dada was out of its own time . . ." Interestingly, this discussion most recently came up with Bob Holman, director of the Bowery Poetry Club, who was at the same time, scheduled to read Dada poetry at MoMA the day after I met with him, as part of their Dada exhibit. Holman has also been quick to invoke the spirit of Dada, for example in his manifesto-like introduction to Aloud! Voices from the Nuyorican Poets'Café:

"Hear this book with your eyes! When the Mouth marries the Eye, the Ear officiates (see Tristan Tzara's "The Gas Heart." Better yet, perform that tiny masterpiece!)" [ix]

There is, in fact, unfinished work to the literary avant gardes. Language has not been fully deconstructed the way the image has. In fact, poet Bryon Gysin is famously noted for declaring that "writing is 50 years behind painting." With the stranglehold on language that we see in phenomena like myth, spectacle and simulacra, we cannot declare the experimentation of Dada, 'zaum, Formalism, Surrealism irrelevant until they have fully borne fruit. There is still, as Michael Moroni calls it, "an unfulfilled project,"

" . . . the possibility of art participating in social-cultural processes, understood in the widest sense (social emancipation and the transformation of language and of perceptive modalities of reality) . . ." [x]

Charles Olson's calls for post-modern poetry to go back to its origins and come forward again down a different path, "beyond Melville and Romaticism . . . To go back is not to seize the origin, to recuperate some paradisal space, but to begin the 'deed and misdeed' signified by writing. Olson's new beginning rejects (figuratively) everything that lay between Homer's writing and Melville's . . ." [xi] In our time, perhaps we need not to reject everything that came between Homer and Melville, or even between Tzara and Bernstein, but it is certainly a call to revisit the possibilities of the past, to look for unfinished revolutions and business left undone, and see where those threads can be incorporated into our own work.

[i] van den Berg 33
[ii] Ishmael Reed, 3.
[iii] Schaffner, 118
[iv] For particularly good descriptions of Dada events and cabarets, see Annabelle Melzer's Latest Rage: The Big Drum and Dada and Surrealist Performance as well as RoseLee Goldberg's history Performance Art: Futurism to the Present.
[v] Moroni, 9
[vi] Moroni, 4
[vii] Schaffner, 125
[viii] Schaffner, 118
[ix] Algarin and Holman, 1
[x] Moroni, 21
[xi] Riddell, 162

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Academia and Poetry Slam

This is from my summer 2006 research trip and is a draft (read, in-progress, unfinished) of something that will work its way into my dissertation. I recently read someone else's brief blog posting on poetry slam and thought it would be interesting to post some of what I'm working on with my dissertation here.



Academia and Poetry Slam

It seems that academia has a very uncertain relationship to poetry slam. There is the appearance of a certain level of hostility between the two spheres, as poetry slam, and consequently much spoken work, promotes itself as being anti-academic and on the margins of the literati. Looking at anthologies from the "heyday" of spoken word and slam in the mid- to late-1990s, including Aloud: Voices from the Nuyorican Poets Café and Listen Up!, it becomes obvious that many, if not most, of the poets who have been promoted as "stars" of this movement do, in fact, have literary backgrounds and are educated in poetry and literature. It is something of a "stance" on the part of many of these artists to portray themselves as unschooled and from the streets. Miguel Algarin, himself, founder of the Nuyorican Poet's Café, teaches Shakespeare and Rutgers and did so even in the early days of the Nuyorican, when he was holding readings at his home. Zoe Anglesey's Listen Up!, includes a foreword by "Pulitizer Prize-winning poet Yusef Komynyakaa," which is touted on the cover. Anglesey's own introduction goes to great pains to place this work not within the literary canon of Harold Bloom (who has accused slam of "ruining art"), but very much within a modern "canon" that includes the Harlem Renaissance, the Black Arts Movement, and the Beat Generation.

At a June, 2006 performance of "Louder Mondays" in Bar 13 in New York, this ambivalence was very apparent in one of the featured readers, 30-something white male poet who had just finished his MFA at The New School and announced to the audience that he wanted to "bring hip hop into the canon" as an alternative to "academic bullshit." A poet who teaches hip hop poetry to public school students, his work lacked any audible hip hop rhythms, although it did make reference to the rapper Old Dirty Bastard. Based on extensive conversations that I have had in panels and informally at the conferences, I suspect that many people in academia—particularly those who teach poetry and literature—are anxious to "critique" spoken word and particularly poetry slam.

I suspect, given the strong ties to hip hop and to marginalized cultures, such as the African American community, the Puerto Rican community that was the impetus for the founding of the Nuyorican, etc., that white academics are loathe to critique performance practices from an outsider position. At best, they seem to see their best course of action as trying to "embrace" the slam aesthetic in their work and in de facto making it part of the curriculum, having an opportunity to impact the work. I wonder to what degree this acceptance into the canon will actually neutralize this work, and if that isn't in fact some aspect of the goal. One of the major claims is that of community. When I attended both slams and open mics at the Nuyorican, the café was packed each night—standing room only. At the open mic, the room was very friendly. I ended up sharing a table with several women who come regularly to the Café and who were quite friendly and chatty with me. More often, though, people sat with people that they already knew or who had come to hear them read. There was not necessarily a sense of unity in the room or that there was a broader group of people who necessarily came regularly to see and support one another. There was also a great deal of time spent "warming up" the crowd, as with the slam several nights later.

While there may be sense of fun and camaraderie at these events, there is also a very passive spectatorship model, and the audience is there to experience and appreciate the creativity of the performer. Poetry Slam, Inc contends that "Slam is engineered for the audience, [emphasis mine] whereas a number of open mike readings are engineered as a support network for poets. Slam is designed for the audience to react vocally and openly to all aspects of the show, including the poet's performance, the judges' scores, and the host's banter,"[i] a claim which can be a bit misleading, even disingenuous. While judges are chosen from the audience to "score" a slam, nonetheless, the dynamic of a slam is still that of spectatorship and their participation is based on response. PSI's site further explains that the audience might even be instructed on how to react. At the Uptown Slam at Chicago's Green Mill Tavern, where poetry slam was born, the audience is instructed on an established progression of reactions if they don't like a poet, including finger snapping, foot stomping, and various verbal exhortations. If the audience expresses a certain level of dissatisfaction with the poet, the poet leaves the stage, even if he or she hasn't finished the performance. Though not every slam is as exacting in its procedure for getting a poet off the stage, the vast majority of slams give their audience the freedom and the permission to express itself."[ii] This definition also denies that there is an analogous audience interaction at an open mic or other type of reading, and of course overlooks the fact that anyone wandering in off the street can sign up to read at an open mic and the fact that at an open mic, the audience makes itself known by talking through a poet, leaving the room, and often interactively through banter with the poet onstage, as I have observed on many occasions. The rule at Voices From the Well, the open mic I came up through in Minneapolis, was to "respect the audience" while there was never an exhortation to respect the poet.

"[W]hen poetry and the poet move too far from their origins in communal expression--too far from participatory performance and the expectation of shared human feeling, too far into a regulated and predictable literacy bound up in academic role playing, where the reader is either passive appreciator-student or judgmental critic-professor—they are again in need of invigoration." [iii]

At the slam I attended at the Nuyorican, much time was spent encouraging the audience to "show their love" for the performers, rather than expressing themselves about the work. Where audience expression was encouraged, it was to show their dissatisfaction with the judges for not giving high enough scores. (This despite the fact the no poet that night received lower than an 8.9 out of a full 10-point range.) How would the dynamic change if instead of being exhorted a dozen or more times to clap and "show your love," there was a call and response poem, a spontaneous live creation of poetry, or an exquisite corpse that went around the room--some kind of dynamic that would engage the audience in the creative process and make them feel more like a part of the art? As Comte L'Autremont said, "poetry must be made by all," an ethos that the Surrealists insisted on. This was not a facile call for everyone to simply pick up a pen and start writing out their innermost feelings or their bad day, the "I wrote this at the table" poem so common at open mics. It was a call for techniques that released the imagination to be shared with all, rather than remaining the provenance of trained artists and intellectuals. Where better than a packed room at the Nuyorican Poets Café to put a call like that into practice? How can practices like this, borrowed in many cases from literary and performance avant gardes such as Dada lead performers to rethink their own work and their approaches to their work, the emphasis of them on stage as the "stars" and solitary geniuses (and isn't that the modernist ideal that questioning the canon is supposed to lead us away from to begin with?), as well as engendering a creativity that helps the audience question the "givens" of the world around them. This is not merely a panacea, an easy fix, for performed poetry, but it is one element on which the current model of poetry slam can be critiqued against its own rhetoric.

Despite the emphasis organizers put on community, there is no denying the doubled-edge sword of competition in poetry slams. Many poets try to downplay the competitiveness, pointing to academia and the competitive nature of getting work published at all. In Poetry Slam, the Competitive Art of Performance Poetry, contributing writer Jeffrey McDaniel points out that most poets hoping to see a first collection of their work in print must do so through the mechanism of contests, many of which charge entry fees as high as $20 or more.[iv] It is a common defense among slam poets that their approach is no more competitive than the rest of the literary and publishing world, only more open about it. Australian poet Liz Hall-Downs sees the duality of this competitiveness:

"Especially in the Poetry Slam movement, the American experience is that the arrival of spoken word on MTV has raised performance standards but has also raised the stakes. Writers can sometimes find themselves caught up in aggressive competition that serves an audience's desire to see blood on the floor but does little to enhance the writing community's cohesion and can shift individuals' focus from producing innovative work to being a kind of human joke machine or jukebox in the (I feel, misguided) belief that poetry might actually pay in the long-term."

Marc Smith, one of the founders of the slam and former head of Poetry Slam International, insisted in his manifesto that the slams are about building community, rather than competition.[v]
"The slam does not exist to glorify the poet, but rather to celebrate the community of which the poet is only a small part. . . ."

"We must all remember that we are each tied in some way to someone else's efforts. Our individual achievements are only extensions of some previous accomplishment. Success for one must spread to success for all. . . ."

[i], accessed August 1, 2006.
[ii], accessed August 1, 2006.
[iii] Alicia Suskin Ostriker, Stealing the Language: The Emergence of Women's Poetry in America, . 239, quoted in Athanases 124.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Why people think art is elitist

So a couple of months ago on MySpace (where I also have this blog . . .) I wrote this:

My Theatre History seminar this semester is focused on political modernity and there's a lot of talk about attitudes toward "modern" life and aesthetics, which I want to talk about with you, along with my thoughts on some Fringe Festival pieces I saw this summer and also my experiences at the ATHE conference in Chicago (Association for Theatre in Higher Education).

I now actually don't remember as much about political modernity and modern life that I meant to talk about it. I think it might have been about the alienated life of urban areas vs. the anonymity it offers to reinvent yourself. I might after the semester is over go over my notes, because I know that I really DO want to revisit some of these ideas.

But for now, while I'm avoid writing my paper--and I really don't know why, because I'm writing on Djuna Barnes & the refusal of sentimentality in a feminist/liberatory theatre in contrast to the political uses of melodrama (ha!)--so it's an interesting topic--but yet, here I am dinking on MySpace, and on several of My spaces no less, rather than writing the paper, and since I'm doing that, it seems an opportune moment to revisit the topic on why people think art is elitist and of course I can justify this by saying that I'm "warming up" to write and warming up my brain to think and maybe that's not entirely wrong because maybe I try too much to jump in and not enough to warm up like an athlete who always runs marathons without stretching and then wondering why they get charley horses and here I am all the time with these brain freeze mental charley horses so hmmmmm maybe it's not a rationalization at all or maybe I'm just rationalizing my rationalizations.

It's hard to unravel your motiviations sometimes.

But I digress.

But aren't digressions ocassionally fun? Isn't the climax often anti-climactic?

So over the summer two events within a week of each other. At the Minnesota Fringe Festival, a very popular local performer revived his impression of a blue collar worker who likes to do modern dance. Of course, the guy had on plaid and one of those hats with the flaps on it and stood all slouchy with a stupid look on his face and that dumb guy voice and his "hobbies" were wildcat strikes and marrying his sister and then something ultra conservative too, which was interesting because really, most union folks, people apt to go on strike, are very liberally-oriented. I come from Illinois which is, or rather was, a huge working class state with a lot of factories and is also one of the most liberal states out there, except for maybe New York. It went way more liberal than Minnesota in the last election. And I watched these people get screwed in the 1980s with the farm crisis, which threw International Harvester completely out of business and made places like Caterpillar tractor have to turn to more and more defense contracts to survive and watched people pack up and move across the country for jobs and break up communities and lose their medical benefits and struggle to support themselves. And even if I don't always agree with the life choices or the opinions or politics of everyone in these situations, they are certainly people who deserve a great deal more dignity than what this kind of portrayal offers. And then of course the big joke at the end is that this man likes to do modern dance -- and then does a ridiculous modern dance.

But how much more pathos AND humor could you get from the situation if he actually did have some dignity, was a decent honest person, perhaps a little afraid of what his friends would think if he admitted in the factory or the office or the garage that he liked modern dance and then gave them a demonstration that was not ridiculous, but possibly awkward, maybe with some good moves and some clumsiness.

When middle class, university educated artists get up and make fun of ordinary people, at the same time performing for a giant room full of other people who think exactly like they (the artists) think, and who share this kind of elitist attitude, is there any wonder that these folks (the ones being mocked) think that we are elitist and out of touch and don't care about them and is it any wonder that they are easily talked into not funding art and into believing that art is all degenerate and out to destroy them and their values, when in reality most of us PROFESS to wanting to have dialogues on society and culture and what should change and how to challenge normative values that constrain us, but the way we do it is by mocking individuals who work hard and do their best and who could and would benefit the most by access to art. I say that as an artist committed to the surrealist idea of the liberation of the imagination and who more needs their imaginations liberated than those stuck in jobs and situations that don't stimulate imaginations, that don't warm up their brains, that don't give them a chance to think outside of the everyday? I don't think it's because we do work they don't understand. I think it's because we either talk down to them or ignore them altogether as being unable to understand.

In that regard I applaud people like Mark Nowak who apparently does art and writing projects with and for people who work in factories. THAT is walking the walk in a way that most of us who like to perform for like-minded audiences who "get" what we do without having to explain it all to them, don't ever do. When Daniella Gioseffi, New York poet and editor of Women on War, complains that no one ever reads poetry, my response is that no one EVER read poetry, that it was always first and foremost an oral form that was transmitted through speech not through paper and that's only been in the past 100 or 200 years that it was more of a published written form and if you really want to "reach the masses" get your ass out of the bookstore and out of the coffee shop and into the park and into the street and go where people go and quit whining about how stupid they are.

The second experience . . . at long last . . . was at ATHE--the Association for Theatre in Higher Education. And once again, the boring old saw was presented about taking children to the theatre (for their own edification, but ostensibly for, as one of my friends pointed out, building an audience for the future of theatre, which really means for often deadly regional theatre and bourgeois theatre, let's face it) and how important it is to "educate" people--not just children, but all people--on how to be "good spectators" at the theatre. That is so classist I just want to throw up. Frankly, this is a culture built COMPLETELY on spectatorship and people in this society, if anything, need to be taught how NOT to be passive spectators--of media, of film, of drama. How much do we complain that our children are fat because they sit on their asses watching television? I will acknowledge that people talk too much at movies and maybe in general, and don't know how to stop listening to the sound of their own voices talking into cell phones and talking on the bus and whatever. But frankly, this argument has been around long long before the cell phone, for example, and people don't need to be educated any more on how to see theatre than they do on how to be considerate at the movies or sitting in class. The idea that somehow theatre itself is higher than all that and requires educating, or that someone going to theatre for the first time is too stupid and lowbrow to figure out how to be a spectator is absurd and ridiculous and insulting and it's time we put that phrase completely to rest.

I will acknowledge that if you are doing avant garde work that totally breaks convention and is confusing, you may want to bring your audience along with you and help them understand your method or expectations or how they should view this differently than everything else. But even then, I personally think there's something to be said for a healthy sense of confusion and befuddlement as well and allowing your audience to wrestle with your work. The story of Jacob wrestling with the angel, and even winning--taking on a semi-divine being, the gaining of consciousness through wrestling with something or someone alien, etc.--comes to mind, and while I believe in a sacredness to art to be sure, comparing the art piece to a semi-divine being itself even feels wrong to me, making it still too lofty and out of reach of the ordinary, so there's something subtle but important that I'm saying badly here. But I hope you all get the idea.