Poetry News

BOMB's Jeff Dolven Checks Out 14 Person Poem at the Whitney

By Harriet Staff

At BOMB, Jeff Dolven documents the process of "bringing poems into the social space of 'Root Sequence. Mother Tongue,'" Asad Raza's installation at the Whitney Museum, "on the first Sunday afternoon in June, 2017." The event featured poems by Tracy K. Smith, Mónica de la Torre, and Monica Youn. "The trees, the totem-objects placed at their bases, and the caretakers who had been tending them for two months—all were regulars, but Raza also invited a collection of weekend guests to inhabit the room for a few hours each," Dolven writes. Let's pick up with him there:

The 14 Person Poem took up the invitation, bringing a group of poets and readers together for a collective experiment in sharing a poem in physical and social space. Eight poems were written for the occasion, a new one for every quarter hour of the two hours the event lasted. The fourteen readers in the room at any given time knew only a single line of each poem, and were charged with sharing it with as many visitors as possible. The visitors met the poems as a series of personal encounters. Only after an interval of mystery would they hear the whole assembled, perhaps still mysterious, but also already familiar.

Poetry readings are ordinarily a hierarchical affair, with someone in the front of the room reading, everybody else listening, nobody moving too much. The arrangement serves the art well, but bringing poems into the social space of "Root Sequence. Mother Tongue" seemed to call for something different. The choreography of the 14 Person Poem activates potentials that ordinary readings tend to neglect: combinatorial poetics, à la Raymond Queneau, reorganizing a poem on the fly; the pathos of the fragment, the poem scattered like a Sappho lyric, recovered only in pieces; the private circulation of samizdat; and perhaps the peculiar, up-close intimacy of the ancient mariner, with something unforgettable to share with you, only you, and now. On that particular Sunday, watching the room from outside was like watching a text diffusing through a culture in real time. Many of us who participated wondered afterward where else such a distributed, communal reading might work: on a subway platform, in a park, on the street? The single line is a hook, a way for the poem to get across and to get to you before you know it is a poem. What about other lengths, shorter or longer than the day's sonnets and pseudo-sonnets? Poems more site-specific, or less? Would there be ways of turning listeners into readers, even on the spot? There is room for more experiment, and poetry asks experiment.

Read more, and the poem, at BOMB.

Originally Published: June 12th, 2017