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