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Yoga for Losers Part 1
The following is the first of two parts of a keynote I gave at the Advancing Feminist Poetics Conference at CUNY last week…
I have a bunch of things I’ve been reflecting on lately and I wonder what kind of keynote they’ll make. Generally I’m happiest with the off the cuff remarks which are so often planned. I have a number of things and I’ll jot them on an index card which seems a blank postcard to myself perfect little luggage with several of these I sit down and then the utter formality of the poetry world always feeds me. I feel like a predator.
The formal aspect of our world is never the party any of us came for. I’ve been trained through performance and an aspect of my private life to speak extemporaneously (which is actually the thing that is most repressed in the confererence settings except for the person who is getting to speak which is why not getting invited makes us mad – uninvited you’re squashed back down into the public silence of the gathering) and we all teach that way don’t we – a lot. You can always recognize a person who teaches by their unabashed capacity to talk to themselves in front of others – for hours. There’s a kind of oblivious surface they excrete. It’s palpable, you can feel it. Of course you can never more feel it with a high school teacher but people who teach poetry in college are really good at blah blah blah. But somehow when we give papers or keynotes or panels we want to get it right nail it so we tend to write it down.
Jim Carroll just died which is one thing on my mind. He was an exceptional poet performer and he had one trick which I’ve thought about for years which was to look up from the text he was reading from and spontaneously fill you in a little more. To explore in some detail what he had been reading about. It made the audience cheer that they had come because Jim live gave even more than Jim on the page. But if you happily bought his book you would discover that Jim was merely delivering direct to the audience a part of the text but acting as if it were off the cuff. He was spontaneously doing himself. He never said it; it was all delivered in tone. There’s a kind of genius in this, to almost appropriate your own work to your own ends, it’s a joke that you rope the audience into. It’s a con.
Patti Smith, is another poet performer who started hanging around in the late sixties in New York and hit her public stride in the mid seventies. Patti would organize the chaos of her patter into an art. If you listen to her early recordings you’ll hear her babbling about Arthur Rimbaud or Gerard De Nerval and then the babble becomes percussive which releases the poem that is essentially a chant and then it was just bringing the band in but they were already there. She created room for them in the poem. And Patti always came with an entourage to her early performances and her friends would chat with her onstage and she sounded and looked scared and that look evoked a kind of protective fan ship from the crowd both her friends and everyone else. It was Patti’s vulnerability when she performed that was her performance’s single most compelling note. It was a collective inside. It was breathing. She was Patti to an audience of Patti’s somehow. One felt the triumph of us in her earliest performances. Like Yoga for losers.
I’m always thinking another name for poetry would help out at this point and also another name for feminism. Isn’t that the impulse to make schools. I’m hoping in this conference someone will explain it to me. I mean if you’re using something everybody already knows (Language, Conceptual) and putting things in it that everybody already does then I think it’s a store, not a school. Maybe even a chain. It contributes to the history of branding not aesthetics. Poetry just seems like a handful of things and the spark part is how they are connected. I’d like to write about that spark but maybe that is what I’m doing. I’ve been noticing lately after taking yoga classes erratically for about ten years and mostly feeling rage through them as the person is telling me how to breathe and move and I’m freaked out by the intimacy and my inability to pay attention and then how rigid I am in some places. I’m stuck. The teacher gives you little tips. You’re doing something where you hold your knees to your chest and she advises that you stretch your back out and put your tailbone on the floor or spread your shoulders feel it open your chest. These are the things I rarely hear in the present maybe in about one class in ten but years later doing the stretch on my own on the floor the idea comes unbidden and the posture changes and I swiftly move to the next.
When we do a poetry reading we act as if we are unaware of the silence between the poems or that we never expected it would be there when we know perfectly well how long each poem is and when we are moving from one to the next especially if you look at all the post its flapping out of your book. You knew you’d be standing there drinking water leaving us awkward and thirsty. I love that Jim and Patti made those synapses be the life of the show. Jim’s interruptions of the text itself made the moments in between texts be invisible. We know he is our friend. He has opened up to us now and so we’re comfortable sitting here waiting together in time till Jim sees what’s next. I remember that he was a bartender’s son. He knew you were watching.
I remember watching Robert Pinsky give a reading many years ago; pre poet Laureate Pinsky and he wore a beautiful striped shirt that he read a poem about. His entire delivery was smug and well honed; each little anecdote between the poems was planned and had obviously been work shopped through multiple test audiences to see what pleased us and what we could stand. This was not a spontaneous poet. Not even trying to look that way. Tight as a bandbox, kind of a hale and hearty fellow for librarians I thought. He was reading with a friend of mine. He’s horrible I whispered and she got mad that I would say this while he was in the room. But the room was where I was offended. The interregnum remarks of the poet tell us whom he or she is speaking to. If you are uncomfortable with their description of reality you don’t have to stay. They inform us of the nature of the whole production. Is this an intellectual exercise, is entertainment part of it now, maybe it will be, was it ever. Often people think ‘I hate poetry’ in response to these moments. It may be an appropriate response. But poets are the people who enjoy passing through these changes. Again I say Yoga for Losers.
In my Iceland book one of the things I say all the time when I read from it is that its one of the most lesbian books of art writing that doesn’t call itself that. I mean the book was written in bits and pieces over the years assembled I think much like a poetry reading. A reading I think considers the effect of the last piece listens and drops another one into that opening that will address or attenuate or alter the affect that continues to rumble in the reader and the audience’s minds and bodies. It’s an accumulation of things. Yoga for losers, so to speak. I say the lesbian thing because I’m continually (since I wrote the pieces separately) announcing my lesbianity in individual pieces because it was always an opportunity in public to stick that word in the unlikely place in the world when I’m writing an art review or a personal column or an essay. I kept seizing this opportunity to out myself and now I have the problem of putting these pieces together and wondering if I’ve said the word lesbian thirty-eight times or two hundred and fifty times or ninety-seven. Then I realize I can search and I have. I think it’s similar with the phrase language poet. (More tomorrow….)