Poetry News

Poets' Theater open to interpretation

By Harriet Staff

TimeOut Chicago's John Beer talks to Kenning Editions publisher Patrick Durgin about The Kenning Anthology of Poets Theater, 1945–1985 released in January and edited by Kevin Killian and David Brazil. Beer points to the early days of theater, in which the idea of "poets' theater" may have seemed redundant.

The modern theater, however, tends to be a more prosaic affair, with the novelist’s concerns of motivation and rising complication privileged over juggling iambs or constructing showy similes. But while bards other than T.S. Eliot may be scarce on Broadway, the poetic fascination with theater has never really gone away.

Finding the place of poets' theater in modern times is a bit more of a challenge (hint: try looking for it in the Bay Area) but it may be experiencing its moment if this anthology and recent festivals devoted to the form are any indication.

“I’m trying to find out what poets’ theater is,” [Durgin] says. “That’s why I commissioned this book.” One central idea, in his view, is that such work offers a way of extending the poet’s writing practice into another format. “These performances are an extrapolation of the written page; they don’t simply take direction from the page,” he explains.

In practice, that can entail work of dazzling abstraction, as in Carla Harryman’s Mirror Play, a piece for four performers that uses choral recitation and enigmatic snippets of conversation to create glittering, ephemeral symmetries. Or it might lead to riotous, inside-joke-riddled pieces such as Duncan’s The Origins of Old Son, which references poet Charles Olson’s reverence for Ezra Pound.

This weekend, even Poetry is getting in on the action in Chicago, also the home of Durgin and Kenning Editions:

To mark the 600-page book, which collects work by Ashbery, Robert Duncan, Barbara Guest and the bulk of the Bay Area’s avant-garde Language writing community, among many others, he’s partnered with the magazine Poetry to present a singular performance. Six local writers—Daniel Borzutzky, Duriel E. Harris, John Keene, Jacob Saenz, Leila Wilson and Tim Yu— will collaborate over this weekend to develop a performance inspired by the anthology. Their Sunday 5 performance at Oracle Theatre will follow a roundtable about the form.

Originally Published: December 2nd, 2010