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Poetry Beyond the Page

a stroll through noticing

Jayne Fenton Keane


your attention please

Several poets gather, take their seats in a licensed coffee shop, order a cappuccino, beer or wine and rummage through folders for loose white sheets overlaid with poetry. In the cafe, hotel or bookshop, the most popular sites of poetry readings, the audience happens to find itself in a room streaming with poets who pull folders, books, laptops or journals out of their bags. A dedicated person, usually another poet or a poet’s lover, is found pacing around a makeshift stage wrapped in leads and jacks, with hands full of speakers. He is the aural mechanic for the day—the person responsible for making poets’ voices sound good.

Now because there is activity in this space, people who would ordinarily walk past this coffee house or bar may choose to come in and order a beer, a latte or a blueberry muffin—perhaps out of curiosity or maybe as a result of that strange attraction called congregation.

Tap tap tap

Testing testing

Ladies and gentlemen…

The poetry reading has now become a ritualistic space—one of the few remaining sites for speaking poetry in western culture. Unlike the private ritual of the page, where poet, reader and text meet in a ménage à trois between paper sheets, the act of sharing poetry through the “tissue of signs” that is our bodies, creates rich possibilities for form, meaning and relevance—if relevance is to be thought of as important. [1] If we amplify this scenario we create the marvellous and horrifying events called poetry slams, poetry readings and poetry festivals.

The question is: what happened to the beer-swilling, blueberry muffin-eating, latte-drinking public who took their lives into their own hands to enter this poetic ceremony? Did we manage to connect with them, sell them books, touch their inner unsayables or did they flee the room with their hair standing on end with a half eaten blueberry muffin abandoned on their side plate and napkin sprawled on the floor like a symbol of the reader’s corpse—because yes, it is not only the author who is dead but also the reader. And if we were to believe the publishers, funding bodies and writers festival organisers, the poets, would be single-handedly responsible for this murder!

Beyond the page includes the page, just as the page includes beyond the page. A poem often exists outside of its text. Between lines 10 and 16 the poet may have gone overseas, or hung out the washing or whispered an incomplete poem into the ear of a lover. Between lines 7 and 9 how many hours were spent on the internet, how many pages of reference material were consulted? Between lines 37 and 63 how many other lines titillated or tormented the poet before being dropped into a Charybdian oblivion—where all the devoured lines spend eternity waiting to be trawled back to the surface through the watery realm of the poet’s subconscious? Isn’t the finished poem therefore, just like a painting or a song, one of the most incomplete objects ever created? A poem is often only a snapshot of the poem that surrounded it and that was actually never written, because our real poems are always greater than our capacity to capture or represent them. This is one of the reasons we have themes that we keep returning too, both individually and collectively.

Books and poems encode destinations that are never fully attained but they thrill and satisfy because of the spaces they leave for interpretation. The challenge for poems beyond the page, manifest through a speaking body, is that they tend to remove some of the mystery at the same time that they add the possibility of other mysteries and the experience of connectedness. Whether this is a result of more literal texts, the poet’s public interpretation of their work within the speaking, or the addition of sound and image in the case of internet poetry, is difficult to tell. Perhaps this is one of the reasons for the antagonism between performing a poem and reading a poem in recent history—that is, since the printing press helped define how we should write poetry. Now that we have the internet, the possibilities for reinventing poetry publishing are opened up, yet we are still bound by the concept of the book. For examples of poets reading their poetry, please visit www.poetinresidence.com and follow the link to The Stalking Tongue Book II; Slamming the Sonnet. [2] Alternatively you can search for recordings online. The audio aspect of a live poetry reading, is however, only one of its dimensions. This paper aims to look at the gestalt of a live poetry reading that cannot be experienced fully through documentation. [3]

The experience of reading a live poetry event engages a range of critical potentials that parallel those involved in a text-only reading. However, there are different and perhaps greater fields of analysis available to criticism aimed at a live reading. This stems from the entourage of discourse attached to the body speaking. For audience members who attend a poetry reading to be entertained, to hear the stories and see the bodies of the poems, or to feel a sense of communion / community, the live nature of the poetry is likely to be central to their attraction. This is an underdeveloped market, a site that has diminished in value since poetry’s commodification by the market forces of the publishing industry. This ‘survival of the fittest’ through publishing and associated merchandising has resulted in many different styles of page poetry. Although the book has helped poetry develop into the wonderful, complex art that it is today, this severing of the live arm has limited other poetic possibilities.

Text and performance are not in competition with each other. They share much common ground, but because value has been placed more emphatically on one, the other has in turn been devalued. The reasons for this are worth investigating. Inspired by the internet and the poets who have maintained their commitment to the art of speaking the poem, poetry is in a state of evolution.

Tap tap tap

Testing testing

Ladies and gentlemen…

vapour trails

Performing poetry is a subversive act; subversive simply for its occupation of a public space that can annihilate the poetic through strategies of surveillance and commerce. When Plato banished the poets from the Republic he banned them from public space, believing it to be dangerous for citizens to have their passions ignited by dangerous bards. Poets in public spaces can challenge government policy or social conditioning and are therefore often unwelcome. A recent example of this was Laura Bush’s cancellation of a traditional White House library symposium in February 2003, because she feared most of the invited poets would read poems that protested against the government’s plans to invade Iraq. Public space is also the arena for race, class and gender conflicts, and as a result, it is a terrain of both control and resistance. The use of public space to serve corrupt political and commercial regimes is challenged by its use as a site of poetry for these reasons.

When poets step into public spaces they refute one type of author’s death. They refute Deleuze and Guattari’s body without organs. They refute Barthes’ and Foucault’s construction of us as author-functions, and they refute the anti-poets’ fantasy that poetry is dead. Live readings resist silence and absence. Foucault rightly asks “What difference does it make who is speaking?” [4] I believe there is a difference, one that underscores this paper. Foucault’s revision of the question highlights an opportunity to critique his conclusions that expression is a production motif that ultimately results in the disempowerment of the individual. Yet the subversion associated with taking up a microphone in a public space and feeding it poetry is tempered by awareness of Bakhtin’s observation that

No utterance can be attributed to the speaker exclusively; it is the product of the interaction of the interlocutors, and, broadly speaking, the product of the whole complex social situation in which it has occurred. [5]

Bakhtin explains that the utterance is a product of an intense conflict between one’s own and another’s word where words perform a ‘clash’ of ‘social accents’ in ‘little arena[s]’ where ‘living social forces’ interact in the ‘word in the mouth of a particular individual [who] is a product of the living interaction of social forces’. [6] This manifests the source of play between the signifier and the signified, making what performance poets do important, aside from the value of their texts—although the quality of the ‘text’ is central to the word poet and the success of the experience. Poetry readings are theoretically and existentially disturbing because they reside in the pores of both analytical and experiential understandings.

Oscar Wilde rises and shakes his dusty bones to tell you that “All bad poetry springs from genuine feeling” and when you ignore him he taps his cane on your forehead and disappears. [7] But the ground above the old canon has been disturbed. The old words that were elected as the wise words take over the stage.

Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things. [8]

Go home and learn how to write! If you have neither personality nor emotions you are either dead or a psychopath so where does that leave your poetry?

influential rumours

The poet of popular culture is often accused of being a dogmatist who cares more for the message potential of a poem than the poem itself. If you cannot think of anything to say stand in front of a microphone and be silent, for it is utterly important to resist: to resist the audio mulch of what often passes as spoken word, to resist the acquisition of subjectivity and to resist the forces of the monolingual, mono-cultural, mono-gendered, male oriented constructs of identity and desire purveyed by the Hollywood blockbuster machine.

Imagine Hélène Cixous standing next to you at the microphone. How will you contend with her insistence that there is no such thing as individual subjectivity, in terms of a coherent and stable self, as she declares that you have been “turned into [an] uncanny stranger” through the confiscation of your body, even though allegedly you don’t have one to confiscate? [9] Even though Cixous’s discourse here is concerned with the female body, the logic of culturally rendered gender scripts is equally applicable to the male body. The body’s relationship to selfhood has been challenged not only by structuralism and postmodernism, but also by the mind-body-spirit split of ancient western discourse and the religious doctrines of both east and west. The body as a vessel for the soul or spirit, as metaphor, and as social and cultural script, is frequently kidnapped from its own materiality. This is what makes it difficult to confiscate. If you aren’t speechless in front of the microphone yet, such provocative innuendo may leave you stammering your poems in a string of incomprehensible pronouns. Perhaps you used to feel safe in the space of the ‘I’. Resistance is not futile. Step into the space of culture and speak. Enter the dwelling of a poem and live.

obstinate bodies

Performance places the poet’s body at the centre of the stage as a fictional, material body that resonates with the strange harmonic of an author’s (as opposed to an actor’s) body in a scene of readers, who recreate the author’s body in front of their eyes. Performance poets are interrupted by appropriation and transformation as they autograph their texts and subjectivities loudly in public spaces. Voices, bodies and spaces, their interiors and exteriors, are more than technologies to produce and invigorate texts. In addition to the culturally inscribed texts that manifest the relational bodies of self and other, the body contains its own sonic and somatic language and text. A form of corporeal literacy that is pre-lingual and pre-symbolic, therefore we have no means to describe it. It is an unsayable poetic that speaks in metaphor, energy and intuition.

constitution

In his introduction to the anthology Close Listening Charles Bernstein says:

To speak of the poem in performance is, then, to overthrow the idea of the poem as a fixed, stable, finite linguistic object; it is to deny the poem its self-presence and its unity. Thus, while performance emphasizes the material presence of the poem, and of the performer, it at the same time denies the unitary presence of the poem, which is to say its metaphysical unity. [10]

This idea of the poem as a manifestation rather than an object of static representation, is a foundational motif of this paper. Spoken or enacted poems are the most obvious candidates for the nomenclature of performance poetry but quite a number of critics and writers have made a case for writing as an act of performance in itself, making it difficult to argue distinctions based upon pure vocalisation. Whilst accepting that this indeed may be true, for the purpose of this critique I am limiting the definition of performance poetry to the creation, activation, enactment or engineering of a poem in a space outside of a traditionally printed page. It is an arbitrary distinction but one that serves this current story.

There have been criticisms levelled against performance poetry—criticisms that are identical to those Reuven Tsur articulates as common amongst critics and theoreticians of visual poetry:

[F]irst, that it is “artificial,” “eccentric,” “extravagant,” “manneristic”; and second, that its appearance in the history of literature is discontinuous: it tends to occur in certain historical–social–cultural contexts and is absent from others. [11]

Slam poetry, one of the most widespread forms of performance poetry in the USA at the moment, is often accused of being ‘artificial,’ because of the sporting model imposed upon it, ‘extravagant’ in its delivery style and ‘manneristic’ with its gestures and corporate functions. Performance poetry as a genre has indeed had a discontinuous history since its early traditions. Perhaps interest in it has re-emerged because culture compels us to express ourselves on a stage space, in response to our understanding that almost everything is a construction; including our identity. Inside the performance resides a critique of the space of the stage.

deviants

The term ‘performance poetry’ is applied in most discussions that endeavour to explain the difference between a straight poetry reading and a reading that expresses additional attributes. It may be superficially appropriate but it encompasses too many fields of practice to be critically viable. ‘Performance poetry’ is most commonly used to indicate that poetry is being acted out in some way: through the use of voice, dramatic styles (such as comedy and cabaret) and a familiarised text, that is, one that may or may not be memorised but one with which the poet is familiar enough to engage the audience. ‘Performance poetry’ is non-specific in terms of authorship and it is culturally defined, being expressed differently in different cultures. Performance poetry is a multifarious interplay between poet, culture, text and audience that establishes embodied subjectivity as a core research position for critical discourse concerned with the spoken word. Performance is not something bestowed upon poetry to create the phenomenon known as a performance poem; rather, it is intrinsic to the creation of the work, even if the performance comes later. When writing a poem, it is natural for poets to consider medium, space and audience. Poems perform, with or without a poet’s presence, and this awareness influences the writing of a poem and the choices that are made about placing it in a particular place: whether it is to be performed on the page, in a multimedia environment or on a ‘stage’—which may simply be a corner in a coffee shop. Poetic language naturally performs through its

… hierarchy of signs: grapheme–phoneme–word–meaning (each later item being the signified of the preceding one). [12]

However, when translated by the authoring poet in a live reading, the label ‘performance poet’ is given to some poets but not others. The term fails to accurately represent the range of practice taking place within it.

In Close Listening, Charles Bernstein invokes an excellent compass for mapping and discussing the inscriptions of informants practicing and critiquing performance poetry. Bernstein approaches the term ‘performance poetry’ from the point of view of a reading. Inside this expansive view of performance poetry lie key sites for critiquing the sonic aspect of the form. The sonic aspect relates to the ‘”total” sound of the work’, ‘the relation of sound to semantics’, [13] the material and immaterial qualities of the voice and its production, the mutability of the style of the utterance, the acoustic context, the ‘expressivism’ [14] of the reading, the embodied field, its lexical, iconic and prosodic features.

Poetry readings in the last hundred years, have segued through various formats: salon, cabaret, theatre, open mic, festival, feature, audio, film, hypertext, flash, machine generation and an infinite variety of expressions of these within aesthetic demarcations and ideologies. Poetry has turned into the perfect vector for conversing and experimenting with conceptual, linguistic and technological developments in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. It has also, through styles of public reading, become a place of gathering and distributing poetry in a more localised fashion. Poetry readings bring poets into contact with the public and with each other, and they help the formation of

generational and cross generational, cultural and cross-cultural, links, affinities, alliances, communities, scenes, networks, exchanges, and the like… The reading is the site in which the audience of poetry constitutes and reconstitutes itself. It makes itself visible to itself. [15]

page versus stage

In the performance poetry community the ‘page versus stage’ dichotomy is problematic, as it creates another point of conflict in an already conflicted scene. To overcome this, some performance poets use the phrase ‘poetry beyond the page’ to explain the practices that involve poetry which is not practiced on the page. In performance poetry, the subject becomes the object in an acknowledgment of the commodification of human experience in the capitalist world. In page poetry, the object becomes the subject; the surrogate displaced body, the embodied idea, the body on the page. Arguably then, what determines whether a poem is ‘beyond the page’ is not whether or not it is spoken or sounded, but whether the poem’s aesthetic, intent or expression resides outside of the page. If the medium of publication or expression remains aligned with the page, it might be difficult to claim it is beyond the page, except for the fact that it is being spoken. How then does one differentiate between a reading and what is taking place in a performance poem?

Poetry written for the page that is read aloud, with or without the printed matter, is only beyond the page in the sense that it is extended. It is an invigorated text. There is a difference between a poem embellished by presence and a performed poem. Although there is widespread acknowledgment that performance poetry requires a sense of poetic integrity—an ability to work on the page—this essentialist view of a poem does not encourage experimentation with the possibilities created by the performance aspect of the genre. When I am preparing for the performance of a poem, I am struck by its potential to incarnate its unsayable qualities through the device of my body. It may do this in ways I did not anticipate while I was writing it, and in ways that are difficult to represent within its text. For example a textual stuttering is experientially different to witnessing or embodying a stutter.

texts in space

Part of the reason why performance poets may be drawn to traditional representations of their poems may be because they already feel outcast by the poetic academy. By becoming wise to the canon and proving a capacity to mimic its styles, performance poets are able to create a livelihood, relevance and a pedagogical pathway. They are also creating their own canon—one that enacts the act of speaking, on the page. On those terms alone the page is capable of being valued by even extremist performance poets. The potential for orality to engage with language and the sonic imperatives contained within the utterance, combines with the textual features of form, rhythm, image, tone and rhyme to make performance poetry an exciting site of experimentation. Performance poets often speak of their love for poetry and books and language, but it is rare to hear a ‘page poet’ speak enthusiastically about the virtues of performance in poetry. There is a lack of precedence to facilitate an appropriate engagement with the idea of a poem in performance. Performance poetry doesn’t travel well. Video and audio documentation never represents the experience fully. Performance poetry is not conducive to repeat readings, which makes it difficult to investigate. Perhaps this is why there is a lack of critical discussion about performance poetry.

In the same way that electronic literature embraces concepts of interactivity, networking and non-linear narratives, the body of the poet who practices ‘beyond the page’ is a networked, collaborative body that interacts with other artists, scientists and theoreticians to create multiple expressions of the poetic. Reading a performance poetry event and understanding the role of the poet’s body in writing its text in performance, is of critical value in helping understand spoken word / poetry. The performance of poetry on the internet has helped create another expression of poetry beyond the page, adding further support to the sense that poetry is undergoing a current phase shift.

Poetry is not simply a noun, as the dictionary tells us, but a constellation of nouns blazing with written, spoken, sung, arranged and conceptualised relationships to language. Poetry is also capable of being extended beyond linguistic associations into sites of culture and dreaming through spatial and transcendental understandings of the world. It contains a copulative verb(al) quality that links being to language and it contains all the subjective qualities of an adjectival expression. Performance poetry is not necessarily contingent on orality, as is often declared by those with a spoken word aesthetic. A shift of poetry away from pedantic doctrinaire towards an open gestured practice that seeks to communicate with more than literature graduates, need not imply a deterioration—which is a common but mendacious criticism. Performance poetry is a problematic label that marks a continuum stretching from the sublime to the abominable, which is why hip-hop, Slam and spoken word artist have emerged as some of the terms representing schools of practice within its shifty magnitude. Performance poetry will not realise its full potential without a critical framework with which to approach it. Although, for example, Shakespearian productions are performance poetry events on one end of the continuum, they are rarely critiqued as such.

doppelganger

Performance poetry represents a challenge to postmodernist theories that situate the site of authorship solely in the reader. While such poetry enacts Barthes’ idea of authorship being invested in spaces outside the author’s body—through audience participation in ‘writing’ poems by scoring and applause—it controverts his and Foucault’s projects to displace the author’s body from the scene of writing. This is just one example of the many contradictions operating within the field of performance poetry. The body is not only a material system, it is also a well-endowed theoretical and theatrical spectre. It exists as a material object, a phantom of culturally determined ideas, a scene of influence and as a system of genetically programmed grammar. It is also much more than that. Its role in the determination and expression of authorship has been well debated. In focusing on corporeality as a core substrate of a spoken poem I’m not trying to close off readings or commission an argument for denying the role of the reader in writing the text, but am exploring the experience of writing from the biotic lingua franca of a speaking author’s body. Performance poetry is an integrated, unique medium, one that demonstrates a capacity to re-invigorate poetry in the sites of popular culture.


Jayne Fenton Keane is a multi-award winning poet working across genres. She was awarded a Griffith University Postgraduate Research Scholarship (2002) for a PhD in Three-Dimensional Poetic Structures. Membership conferred in 2002 to the International Golden Key Honour Society for academic excellence. JFK has three published collections of poetry and has an extensive track record of publication in significant anthologies and journals. In 2002 she was funded by the Australian High Commission to tour and perform in South Africa. In 2004 she took up a post as the first ‘Poet in Residence’ at Cornell University’s Ornithology Lab.


Notes

[1] Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author,” in Image Music Text, ed. and trans. Stephen Heath (London: Fontana, 1997), 147.

[2] You will need pop-ups enabled to enter the site, Internet Explorer 6 or higher and the latest Macromedia Flash Player, which is a free download from http://www.macromedia.com/shockwave/download/download.cgi?P1_Prod_Version=ShockwaveFlash

[3] The term gestalt is used here to express the experience of a live poetry reading as something so integrated that it cannot be described simply through an explanation of the parts that comprise the whole.

[4] This is Beckett’s question: “What matter who’s speaking” appropriated by Michel Foucault in his essay “What Is an Author?” in Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews, ed. Donald F. Bouchard, trans. Donald F. Bouchard and Sherry Simon (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1977), 113-38.

[5] Mikhail Bakhtin, The Dialogical Principle, trans. Tzvetan Todorov (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), 30.

[6] Mikhail Bakhtin in The Bakhtin Reader, ed. Pam Morris (London: Edward Arnold, 1994), 58.

[7] Oscar Wilde, “The True Function and Value of Criticism,” in The Nineteenth Century: A Monthly Review 28 (July-December 1890): 123-47.

[8] T. S. Eliot “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” in The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism (London: Methune, 1920), 17.

[9] Hélène Cixous, “The Laugh of the Medusa,” in The New French Feminisms, trans. Keith and Paula Cohen, eds. Elaine Marks and Isabelle de Courtivron (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1980), 250.

[10] Charles Bernstein, Close Listening: Poetry and the Performed Word (Boulder: Oxford University Press, 1998), 9.

[11] Reuven Tsur, “Picture Poetry, Mannerism, and Sign Relationships,” Poetics Today 21, no. 4 (Winter 2000): 75.

[12] Tsur, “Picture Poetry, Mannerism, and Sign Relationships,” 75.

[13] Bernstein, Close Listening, 3.

[14] Ibid., 10.

[15] Ibid., 22.