Essay

Some Poets, Their Plays, and a Moment of Real Bad Taste

An event billed as a “Jamboree” can’t escape the subject of the Iraq war.

by Aidin Vaziri
FEBRUARY, SAN FRANCISCO—Backpacks were piled high against the wall, folding chairs were scattered across the small stage, and the primary source of lighting came from an overhead projector that whirred noisily through the evening. Even in a literary haven like San Francisco, poetry sometimes has to settle for the bare necessities.

The classroom setting at the California College of the Arts proved somehow fitting for the final night of Small Press Traffic’s Poets Theater Jamboree 2007.

The idea of the festival was to expand the role of the poet in a dramatic setting, allowing each author to recruit actors, dream up sets, and direct an actual stage show that took each piece off the page and brought it to life. How could it not feel a bit like a high school drama club performance?

Opening the event was a piece written and directed by Scott MacLeod called Hooligan’s Island, in which five characters loosely resembling the cast of Gilligan’s Island fired off histrionic pronouncements concerning the war in Iraq.

The familiar outfits made the audience eager to provide a laugh track. Instead, the readers keeled over in mock death poses and delivered gloomy lines such as “Nowadays, paradise lies out of reach for us / The rapid spread of war makes foes of us all forevermore.” It was even more depressing than that episode where the Skipper thought voodoo witchcraft had turned Gilligan into a monkey.

The conflict in Iraq weighed heavily on other pieces as well.

“Feed,” a work written and directed by Juliana Spahr, featured three iPod-wearing readers onstage—one playing the part of a newscaster, another celebrity chef Rachael Ray, and a third merely a detached voice from the wings—trading off lines about war casualties, carving up a Thanksgiving turkey, and, er, emitting random shouts of “Gobble! Gobble!”

Spahr evidently hoped to provoke some sense of outrage at injustice, but if there was any great revelation to be had in flipping channels back and forth between Fox News and the Food Network, America would be made up of millions of scholars.

Even wider of the mark was Chana Morgenstern’s “The Death Experts.” Set up as a mock television talk show about the beheading of American businessman Nick Berg, the rambling piece was a poorly conceived spoof of American media and politics. Here’s an excerpt from the opening:
Larry Talktalk:
Hello and welcome to TalkTalk. I’m your host Larry Talktalk, and tonight we’ll be discussing the case of Nick Berg, a 26-year-old contractor beheaded by al-Qaeda operatives last month in Iraq. A video of his killing is available on the Web. It’s been viewed by millions. We’ll watch a clip of that a little later on. I have some very special guests with me tonight. My dear old friend Joseph Campbell is here; he’s just put out a fantastic book on myths of Iraq. Also with us: Georges Bataille, the founder of Acephale, a society dedicated entirely to decapitation. We’ll also be hearing from Nick Berg’s friends as well as key players on the World Wide Web; perhaps they can tell us a little bit more about what might have been going through Nick’s head at the time of his capture and execution—pay tribute to this amazing young man. But first, let’s start with the experts. Georges, talk to us about decapitation. Where does this urge to decapitate come from?
The production was so clumsy that Morgenstern not only failed to satirize any of her intended targets but came off as the most vulgar of all by closing the piece with a long, lingering screen shot of Berg’s decapitated head. Why not just condense the whole thing down to a simple haiku: “Talk shows are sleazy / The war in Iraq is bad / Hey, isn’t this gross?”

Things recovered with a performance of avant-garde composer John Cage’s 1982 radio play James Joyce, Marcel Duchamp, Erik Satie: An Alphabet. Directed by Marie Carbone, it featured eight actors portraying major philosophical icons from the last two centuries, including not only Joyce, Duchamp, and Satie but also Mao Tse-tung, Henry David Thoreau, and Buckminster Fuller.

The dizzying conversation saw the great minds discussing subjects as far-reaching as furniture music and telepathic travel, with all the expected humor, irreverence, and flashes of historical consequence that resonate through most of Cage’s work. It was like the ultimate cover version.

Better still was The Gunfight, a clever character comedy written and directed by Jamboree co-curator Brent Cunningham. Against an Old West backdrop and a classic Ennio Morricone soundtrack, it saw two cowboys facing off in a familiar pose—legs spread apart, trigger fingers at the ready, and a bearded innocent bystander shuddering nearby in a holey barrel.

From there, it was anything but a predictable scene. Before they ever got around to firing their pistols, the two adversaries attempted to trade clichéd insults but quickly got sidetracked by a laugh-out-loud argument over terminology. Cunningham obviously had a blast putting his intricate literary knowledge to use in such an absurd setting. So much so that the line that drew the biggest roar of the night was delivered in a cod Western accent: “You’re getting tangled in semantics, man!”

The piece was nearly enough to make up for the dreariness that hung over the rest of the evening. But there was no getting around the biggest lesson learned in the lecture hall: Sometimes the best thing a poet can be is just a poet.
Originally Published: March 22, 2007

COMMENTS (3)

On March 25, 2007 at 7:02pm NEG wrote:
Sometimes the best thing a pop music critic can be is just a pop music critic.

On March 26, 2007 at 11:31am The Assembly Line Poet wrote:
NEG, thanks for the expansive, witty comment. It changed this reader's take on the piece.

Sometimes the best thing the new Rod McKuen can be is just the new Rod McKuen.

On September 23, 2007 at 5:03pm #1 fan wrote:
that was awsome

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Biography

Aidin Vaziri is the pop music critic at the San Francisco Chronicle. He has also written for Black Book, Surface, Rolling Stone, Salon, and Amazon.com.

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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