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The Scholarship of Poetry & Performance

By Harriet Staff
Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz and Stan Mir at Kelly Writers House in 2011.

Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz and Stan Mir at Kelly Writers House in 2011.

The idea that art—especially in performance—might question or break down the boundary between artist and reader/viewer or creator and consumer isn’t new. In Towards a Situationist International(1957), Guy Debord writes that “It is not a question of knowing whether this interests you but rather of whether you yourself could become interesting under new conditions of cultural creation.” It’s easy to point to art projects that explicitly focused on participation as performance. We’re especially fond of projects like Adrian Piper’s Notes on Funk I and II (1982-84) and Hall Foster’s Chat Rooms (2004). But the prevalence of theorizing participatory dynamics in the art world by both critics and artists only makes the dearth of scholarship attending to audience and participation in poetry more startling.

Enter Nick Moudry, who has written a provocative and detailed article for Jacket2 about the intertextuality of poetry readings and the sociology of reading. According to Moudry, poetry scholars are paying more attention to live readings and the media they produce —a development we welcome. We get just as much (and maybe more) information about contemporary poetry from attending live readings, listening to recordings and watching videos on YouTube as we do from reading print publications. But despite the increased scholarly attention on live readings and their resulting digital documents, Moudry points out that critics such as Peter Middleton, author of Distant Reading: Performance, Readership, and Consumption in Contemporary Poetry, “rarely analyze actual poetry readings.” Moreover, he continues, they rarely consider the experience of audience members. For this reason, he argues, “scholars of contemporary poetry would be well served by adopting methodologies from the field of book history and performing ethnographic studies of actual poetry reading audiences.”

We’re intrigued by this idea—it reminds us a bit of how cultural studies scholars turned their attention to punks and punk music in the 1980s—and wonder which poetry readings or styles of reading might become the object of scholarly attention. Moudry is particularly interested in moments where the relationship between poet and audience breaks down and “the audience members become part of the performance itself.” He points to a reading at the Kelly Writers House on September 13, 2007 by Bernadette Mayer and Lee Ann Brown as an example of how the line between reader and audience can be blurred. Moudry’s description of what happens in this reading is helpful, since some listeners who were not present at the event might have trouble following the dynamics of the recordings:

Eschewing the traditional format in which the younger poet reads first — usually for a shorter period of time, much like the opening act at a concert — Mayer and Brown trade off, each reading one poem at a time. This structure resembles the way poets Clark Coolidge and Michael Gizzi would often stage joint readings, a structure Coolidge and Gizzi acknowledged stemmed from the concept of jazz musicians stepping forth to trade solos. Mayer was good friends with both Coolidge and Gizzi and had staged innovative readings with Coolidge in the past. During an event at the Poetry Project in New York on February 24, 1971, for example, which was billed as a reading featuring Mayer and Coolidge, audience members were treated to a film of Mayer and Coolidge chasing one another around Coolidge’s house while reading from the work of Gertrude Stein, with both poets often off camera. A few turns into the their 2007 reading, Mayer and Brown deviate from their established structure when Mayer reads a poem requested by audience member CAConrad. The poem is Mayer’s “Sonnet (You jerk you didn’t call me up),” and she dedicates the poem to Conrad, to whom she refers by first name. After reading the poem, Mayer playfully notes, “We also have the jerk here,” and asks if Conrad wants to read the poem as well. Before launching into a relatively inspired reading of the poem, Conrad says, “You have to imagine twelve — not two or three — twelve electric guitars. There’s this whole thing I have planned for this one day.” Initially an audience member, Conrad becomes part of the performance itself in much the same way that an audience member might sit in with a jazz band for a particular number. In doing so, he takes the nontraditional reading format a step further in reimagining the piece as a sort of performance art rock opera.

Moudry’s analysis of this performative moment is both scholarly and personal. As it turns out, he was in the audience at that particular reading:

The intertexts are thick in this brief interlude. First, there is the nod to Coolidge and Gizzi and their roots in jazz performance. There is the undoing of the standard format in which the older, more established poet serves as a headlining act, a move that highlights the symbiotic aspect of Mayer and Brown’s working relationship. Then there is the sense of poetic lineage on display, Mayer’s feminist critique of the sonnet tradition expanded in this case to include Conrad as an audience member and serving as a nod to the overtly queer content of many of his own poems. My interpretation of the event is informed by personal knowledge of all three parties involved and my own experience as an audience member, but the performance can be taken as a microcosm of what generally happens at poetry readings. The reality of poetry readings is that the majority of audience members are simultaneously producers and consumers of poetic texts, even if they consider themselves amateur rather than professional producers. The moment during Mayer and Brown’s reading in which the barriers between audience, performer, and text breaks down exemplifies the sort of generative community that is formed at such events. The dense intertexts in this moment also suggest the need to pay closer critical attention to these communities.

The intertexts don’t begin and end with performance, of course. Moudry turns his attention to the sociology of reading to ask “What is the point of poetry in contemporary society?” The answer, he suggests, “might be found in looking more closely at poetry’s reception.” More to the point, Moudry wonders why “scholars who are interested in the sociology of reading [are] not focusing on radical readings of radical texts, namely, audience receptions of contemporary poetry.” We wonder about this, too. There are already two decades of scholarship on fan-fiction examining the genre as an example of radical, participatory reading (see Henry Jenkin’s Textual Poachers from way back in 1992). A productive dialog between literary studies and cultural studies seems overdue.

Moudry agrees. Citing Charles Bernstein’s discussion of cultural studies in “What’s Art Got to Do with It? The Status of the Subject of Humanities in an Age of Cultural Studies,” Moudry acknowledges the relevance of cultural studies while sharing Bernstein’s critique that the works analyzed by cultural studies scholars “often play second fiddle to the critic’s particular methodology.” He writes:

My concerns here are very similar to Bernstein’s. I am not against the study of the sociology of reading; as I hinted at before, I consider it to be one of the most fruitful recent developments in the field of literary studies. At the same time, however, the fact that book history and poetry studies have tended to ignore one another is a huge loss to both fields. My goal here is to take a small step toward uniting the two.

Uniting these two fields for Moudry involves a more nuanced analysis of the “role of poetry in the public sphere.” Or, rather, the roles poetry plays in numerous public spheres even as the genre continues to be relatively marginalized. Drawing heavily from Hank Lazer’s “The People’s Poetry” (2004), Moudry is enthusiastic about the idea that we may be living in an age of a more democratized poetry, but he worries that Lazer’s “stance is compromised by its emphasis on aesthetic value and preference for more elite forms of poetry.” Moudry’s critique is worth quoting fully:

He praises the film 8 Mile(2002) for giving “young listeners a visceral experience of the vitality of poetry,” but it is clear that he has little knowledge of — or experience with — the sort of work portrayed in the film. Instead, Lazer presents the “poetry-rap” (Lazer’s term) on display in the film as a starter kit for more academic forms of performance-based poetry, particularly the “important Socratic inquiry” of David Antin’s work, most of which pre-dates that featured in 8 Mile. In short, even the most well-meaning poetry critics tend to be out of touch with the times and dogged by personal preferences. Lazer’s analysis would have been well served if he had sat down with the young listeners of 8 Mile to gain an understanding of the uses to which they are putting that visceral experience. The very fact that people do listen to poetry, and that they consider the act of doing so to be an alternative to participating in dominant cultural forms, means that these groups should be seriously studied. We should not only be asking what are they reading or listening to, but how are they reading or listening to it. What role does poetry play in shaping or giving meaning to their experiences?

In the end, Moudry argues that contemporary literary scholarship should attend to “what poetry readings have meant to different audiences in different places and times that scholars in the history and sociology of reading have given to the reading practices of other subaltern cultures.” We encourage you to spend some time with this article in its entirety over at Jacket2.

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Posted in Poetry News on Wednesday, February 20th, 2013 by Harriet Staff.