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, June 16, 2010

The Audience/Reader and the Spoken Word Poet

The nature of reading is that it is a private act, and so reader response critiques and those theories that came after it are necessarily concerned with the identification of the reader with the story, of inner meaning, Freudian psychoanalysis that turns the reader ever inward. Spoken word performance, however, is more interactive and public and the performance itself has much more in common with theories of audiences than readers. Yet, most spoken word artists still consider themselves to be poets first, whose work has private meanings to other listener (reader) and author. Hence, the need to “bare one’s soul” to express one’s innermost thoughts, with the belief that someone in the audience will relate and through their relating, will be moved, will see themselves represented on the stage too, hear their story told, a feel a sense of solidarity and in that way, the poet will have effected some political change.

This anticipation of solidarity is heightened when the poem is performed for a room full of people, either at a traditional poetry reading or a poetry slam, where there is audience energy and interaction, where audiences can feed off of one another’s reactions such as gasps, hoots, laughter, disdain, etc. A response, voluntary or involuntary, from one member of the audience can elicit responses from others. This is in fact, encouraged by venues such as the Green Mill or the Nuyorican Poets’ Café, where varying amounts of time and effort are put into not only making the audience feel invited to respond (as opposed to a more traditional poetry readings for which there can be definite rules of decorum), but that response is expected. At the poetry slams at the Nuyorican Poets’ Café in fact, a good deal of time is devoted to whipping the audience up before a single poet even takes the stage.

When I was there in 2006, the host of the Nuyorican poetry slam described the Nuyorican as the “real McCoy” of poetry. He then went on to devote a great deal of energy on warming up the audience, exhorting to clap, and the right ways to respond. Instructions were given on how to score. The host asked questions like Do you feel like shaking hands with the poet vs. shaking the poet?” and “How do you put a number on someone’s pain & expression?” There is a lot of emphasis here, again, on the personal aspect of the poetry slam and on the unique status of poetry as the expression of the poets’ private experiences. Then there was both a “spotlight” poet who was featured and didn’t have to compete, and then a “sacrificial” poet to warm up the audience and get the judges ready by practicing on this poet. All told, this warming up of the audience took about 20 minutes before the actual slam itself began.

In Susan Bennett’s Theatre Audiences: A theory of production and reception,” she discusses the work of directors Piscator and Meyerhold, whose politically-oriented work sought to involve the audience, to indicate them to action, a “virtual mass hysteria,” as she calls it, that instead controls and manipulates the audience into proscribed responses, instead of encouraging the audience to step back and examine the issue and genuinely think for themselves. In that way, she contends, their work was doing largely the same thing as the mainstream, bourgeois theatre of their time, foreclosing reflective thought and enforcing group acceptance of the theatre’s message, only this time it was revolutionary thought rather than normative.

Bennett then discusses Wolfgang Iser’s theories regarding the work of Samuel Beckett, particularly Endgame, which seems particularly pertinent here to avant-garde poetry and performance:

“The constant obliteration of linguistic referents results in structured blanks, which would remain empty if the spectator did not feel the compulsion to fill them in . . . [making] it possible for a decentred [sic] subjectivity to be communicated as an experience of the self in the form of projects continually created and rejected by the spector.” (Bennnett 47)

“Iser finds Beckett’s plays ultimately dissatisfying . . . an attack on the macrosmic interpretive community of audiences.” She goes on to explain that his interpretation of the process of non-fulfillment of audiences’ desires as naïve, because in fact, audiences have become more accustomed to Beckett’s practices. This has a number of implications for spoken word poets.

Spoken word poets have a stake here, a somewhat real economic stake as for the first time since the Beat Generation, and the first time in our highly mediated culture of the past 30-50 years, poetry is a career again, thanks to doing shows, touring, and having cd’s, as well as more highly visible elements such as Def Poetry Jam, McDonald’s commercials, etc. My own “poetry band” the Bruitists were contacted several years ago about auditioning for a Chili’s Baby Back Ribs commercial (we declined). Spoken word poets now can actually achieve the dream of becoming a rock star, becoming known and getting paid for their work. It’s no wonder that spoken word poets want to be understood, transparent, not obscure in their work. Yet as with Bennett’s comments about Iser and Beckett, audiences will come along with you, will adapt. It is not necessary to work at the level of the understandable, but to bring audiences to new levels of understanding and appreciating poetic work, what Jauss calls the “horizon of expectation.”

In the horizon of expectation, “the work is measured against the dominant horizon . . . the closer it correlates with this horizon, the more likely it is to be low [or] pulp . . .” (49). I contend that it is by moving the horizon that we can move society forward. I think that the horizon can be moved in negative ways as well or that there can be negative consequences, so I don’t want to unreflectively champion this notion. But it’s an interesting notion and it bears mention here, particularly given the way in which culture—poetry, literature, film, television, music, etc.—is the first area in which we find the horizon to expand. And it keeps the onus doubly on us to expand it in worthwhile ways that liberate, rather than appearing to liberate but only end up creating greater structures of oppression.

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