In anticipation of this Wednesday’s celebration of The Kenning Anthology of Poets Theater 1945-1985 (edited by David Brazil and Kevin Killian) at St. Mark’s Church, I asked a handful of poets theater practitioners and scholars to respond to the question, “What is poets theater?” The following are extensive replies from David Buuck, Rodrigo Toscano, Patrick Durgin, and Corina Copp, preceded by information about Wednesday night’s festivities.

The Kenning Anthology of Poets Theater
April 7, 2010
8:00 pm
This reading will celebrate the release of The Kenning Anthology of Poets Theater 1945-1985, a superb documentation of the emergence, growth, and varied fortunes of the form over decades of American literary history. The largest and most comprehensive anthology of its kind yet assembled, the volume collects classics of poets theater as well as rarities long out of print and texts from unpublished manuscripts and archives. Editors David Brazil and Kevin Killian will be joined by some of the contributors who will read or perform their work. With Bruce Andrews, Charles Bernstein, Nada Gordon, Ted Greenwald, Sonia Sanchez and Fiona Templeton.

DAVID BUUCK: founder of BARGE (The Bay Area Research Group in Enviro-aesthetics):

PT performances are not plays. Some poets can write good plays, but most cannot and should not. If a poet writes a great play, it should not be PT, but should be in a book instead.

At the same time, neither is PT merely skits or sketches. PT is a scripted event. That is, PT is written solely to occasion the getting together of the cast and the audience.

Writers of PT tend to spend either too little or too much effort on their scripts. The Goldilocks credo should always apply. Remember, it’s (only) poets theater.

PT only occurs during the performance of the piece in front of others (and, often, at the bar afterwards).

No budget. Props and costumes should be homemade and/or cobbled together from what folks have at home.

Anti-illusionism. Props are only ever props, not the things they are meant to represent. “Actors” are not their roles, but just people (or, if you can’t get any people, poets).

Rigorous amateurism. Under-rehearsedness. Minimal stage directions. Serious silliness. Counter-professionalism. Backstage open bar. Improvisation, ad-libs, unscripted laughter, mistakes & missed cues; in short, spontaneous life-art happening between the line readings.

Even if lines are memorized, it’s still a staged reading.

No real actors. If a “real” actor appears in PT, it tends to make the audience blush on the actor’s behalf. There shouldn’t be trying, but being there doing it. Non-actors shouldn’t be expected to play their role, but to play themselves performing their role.

For every performer, at least one friend in the audience.

PT should generally not be recorded. It’s generally not pretty to look at on video, and the audience tends not to fit in the frame.

All PT video, film, or neo-benshi performances should aspire to be at least as interesting as you-tube.

PT tends to have a lot of in-jokes, and tends, for better or worse, to be oriented towards the coterie. Jokes in PT are funny mostly because the audience is laughing together. This is how coteries get to know themselves.

The broader the code, the wider the coterie.

The best poets theater would be everyday life, with each person playing themselves. Total coterie, with everyone in on the jokes. In short, spontaneous life-art happening between the players.

PATRICK DURGIN: publisher of The Kenning Anthology of Poets Theater 1945-1985
Inevitably, the classical intersections must be followed out through their revivals, as when an alternate Noh tradition took shape in Cambridge (with O'Hara and Lang, themselves reviving Pound's avid if orientalist extrapolations on the tradition), and then through Leslie Scalapino (Deer Night also an important appropriation of thematic and formal registers in the Elizabethan theater). First, to me, poets theater means a radical modernist continuation of classical theater, as in the case of say the Living Theatre's productions of Greek Tragedy or Jackson Mac Low's fundamental revisions of Aristotle's Poetics. But it is a very selective admission of and to these traditions. Second, and this overlaps considerably, it is an often ironic delineation and deployment of aesthetic community. I don't mean this just in the classical sense, but as an index of the adjudication of identity, a poetics of belonging and protest. El Teatro Campesino, Black Arts theater, and the conceptualist performance of Adrian Piper or Theresa Hak Kyung Cha need to be considered alongside the contemporary coterie of Small Press Traffic, for instance. Third, I think it can be read as a loosely structured genre that arises out of the need some poets feel to explore the demands of setting, character, dialogue, scene, and other narrative and performative concerns of the theater. This is sometimes temporary (I'm enjoying such a phase myself), or it plays into a durable feature of a poet's overall body of work. From time to time it becomes central to the ongoing development of one's poetics, which is perhaps most vivid in the work of Carla Harryman. But more often than not, it results in "poems." I myself don't often think of "poets theater" as something that is legible in the work of those who primarily identify as dramatists. Its vitality, or the opportune indeterminacy of its generic definition, has to come from the infiltration of poets into the world of the stage. The exceptions that prove the rule stand out immediately: Caroline Bergval, Rodrigo Toscano, Tracie Morris, Fiona Templeton, Pedro Pietri, and others whose work inhabits a liminal space between the historical categories of poetry and performance.

RODRIGO TOSCANO: author of Collapsible Poetics Theater, Fence Books, 2009.
Poetics Theater (PT) as seen from the perspective of the Collapsible Poetics Theater (CPT)

The Collapsible Poetics Theater (CPT) is a particular form and practice of Poets Theater. Poetics Theater is one of the Poetic Arts (other PA’s would include visual poetry, sound poetry, textual-experimental poetry, conceptual poetry, lyrical & song poetry, neo-benshi, etc).

Poetics Theater (PT) (itself a subset of Poets Theater) is largely not made up of characters. The Psychological Theater (Racine, Chekov, Shaw, etc)—and the allied acting disciplines that support the Psychological Theater (Stanislavki, Strasberg, Meisner, Adler)—has only marginal effects on PT. PT, is in the main, a demonstration of language in its social-body making and undoing capacities.

In PT, the players (some I call “entities”) are intelligized & intelligizing sieves for the poetic text itself. Intelligized, because the text has been, after all, made to carve out a (social) space in time. Intelligizing, because the text—as it unfolds for these entities—is the playing. The text’s polysemic qualities, its distant-associative valences, its trope recombinatory potential, its very motility, is what aerates into the performance space, is what comes into “contact” with those in attendance (in “contact zone”).

Reading from the page in hand is the moment one of the PT. The (physical, mental) act of grappling with the page is not to be thought of as a “pre-performative” or “as-yet-unpolished” moment. It is infolded into the art. Perusing the page, fondling it, playing with it, drawing it close, batting it away, all this is the core body-language of PT. All psychic tension, release, lunging and repelling comes from this moment. The tempo of any given PT piece, in fact, is to be found through this activity (and most certainly not through the “the study” of “a character” in “a situation”). And given that each entity is as equally endowed with tempo-power as the next, and given that each is completely independent of the other (herein lies the anarcho-communistic politics of the CPT contact-group) the whole notion of “major” and “minor” characters is anathema to PT. To wit, the threat of each entity completely re-routing or even scuttling a given reading—through intentionally “messed up” intonations of a given text—remains constant.

“Players can be of any age, gender, or accent” is appended to every single CPT piece. This requirement is not done in the interest of “role reversal” (by now, a dicey tactic, “roles” being retro-fitted back into place, once the tactic goes flat) but it is done in the interest of outfolding the CPT’s leveling intents. Everyone at their own speed, gait. A lizard blinks but once—per blink. The immobile calavera (“skull”)—is in fact, moving.

The CPT fits into the poetry scene as a baby does in itchy burlap. The CPT fits in the drama scene as does a little crown, little scepter, little gown, all neatly stored in a metal suitcase (the dings are just dings). The persistent question: Can the poem be tested any further?

CORINA COPP: playwrite and poet
What Is Poets Theater?

I know it’s distinctly American. I know it’s A Family of Perhaps Three and Aria da Capo. I know I prefer the European model of non-specialization: I shall write, without a genre upending another, poems, plays, novels, motion paths, wall text, film scripts, radio dramas, essays, advertising copy, and instruction manuals (cf. Ingeborg Bachmann, Peter Handke, Thomas Bernhard, Elfriede Jelenik [did I mean Austrian model? sorry]). Perhaps it’s a wager against mimetic theater of the past century by playwrights interested in what’s outside narrative and self-containment. Though poets can claim to have been working outside such psychologically motivated terms for far longer. As Mac Wellman wrote recently in a review for BOMB of The Kenning Anthology of Poets Theater: “The truth is, poetry and theater need the spontaneity and rigor each tends to suspect in the other.”

I was seated at a table in the Foundry Theater offices with playwright Erik Ehn the other day; among a handful of other theater artists, we were discussing an upcoming event with the nonprofit FUREE, where we’ll be making a meal for gathering activists who want to increase accessibility to good food and produce in underserved, gentrifying neighborhoods. Erik’s new aim, he said, is to make a “theater of hospitality,” where one’s Pavlovian kick to the word playwright might be salivation. But when asked more directly what a theater of hospitality might resemble, especially coming from a writer whose devotional focus on language and its intrinsic relationship to historical injustice and social action has attributed to him a mythically generous quality of spirit quite rare in 2010 theater circles (as severity and satire continue to mount), Ehn responded, “it’s taking care of bodies in space.” Now we’re (pardon me, pardon me!) cooking with gas. I was reminded of another influence of mine in my search for a personal definition of poets theater (it doesn’t mean writing dialogue with line breaks?): Maria Irene Fornes. Fornes, an original member of the Judson Poets Group, was inexhaustible in her often brutal interrogation of subjectivity—Sontag called her “preliterary” and “chary of the folkloristic,” drawn to found materials and the authority of documents like diaries and lectures—her characters were often types, stripped of self-conscious behaviorisms. They were beings who pause, mutate, betray, double, displace, and overall, do not serve a plot. And while their plays themselves are distinctly their own, both Ehn and Fornes can be said to elevate the text to serve as a form of prayer against a backdrop of inhumanity…perhaps they too are or have been extending Brecht’s Lehrstück, his later, more overt “learning plays.” Erik Ehn takes his graduate students to Rwanda every year to better understand the genocide and theater’s role in human rights; and Fornes was a public artist, replacing didacticism with a “moral toughness” refined through years of decentering audience perspective.

Kevin Killian and David Brazil rightly asked, in the capacious and amazing introduction to The Kenning Anthology of Poets Theater, “Is Poets Theater even a genre at all?” while admitting the anthologizer’s role among the current “trajectories of Poets Theater [that] have continued to proliferate in such a way that to set an arbitrary term is the only possible delimitation.” I suppose it’s obvious that I’m affording myself some heat toward the PT delimitations by showcasing Ehn and Fornes here, two theater artists generally not considered otherwise (EE even insists that he can’t write a poem). Perhaps I need to make a distinction for myself between what touches me and what is “poetic.”

Undermining my own inclinations, however, does not break bread. And I think that truly breaking bread (whatever that could mean, even if we can’t align art and politics on parallel tracks), reimagining the theatrical space, and not (please excuse my current of negativity, here) using theater as “the instrument for self-reflection of the coterie” or engaging in “coterie production” could all make Poets Theater less boring. What I mean is that anything that continues to call itself Poets Theater—whether a play by a poet or a poetic play by a playwright or an experimental movement composition published by a small poetry press or an explosion of an image by Heiner Müller or a performative conception of poetics by a former Marxist community organizer —be not merely an occasion for “in-jokes,” for a gathering of the like-minded, a balancing act between the fun of unsophistication and a potential moral highground of a poet deigning to imbue “character” with “voice,” but a taking care.

Originally Published: April 5th, 2010

Thom Donovan lives in New York City where he edits Wild Horses of Fire weblog (whof.blogspot.com) and coedits ON Contemporary Practice with Michael Cross and Kyle Schlesinger. He is a participant in the Nonsite Collective and a curator for the SEGUE reading series (NYC). He holds a Ph.D. in English...