Joel Craig with fake mustache

There is recital of poetry, and there is portrayal poetry. Portrayal seems a more fitting word than performance, as less can cling to it. Portrayal brings you away from the page, and the room into consideration, into a physical relationship with language, with the text. It changes the way you interact with a poem, allows for new insights and direction.

Advancement and evolution are also two different things.

Terzo Compagno comes aboard shortly before one social media platform turns its trajectory towards the sun, and another begins to harness you like sunlight. Also, a local news weekly thoroughly misquotes you, suggesting you believe your Thing to be more serious than other Community Things, which is untrue. You only talked about being serious, about the effort you put into programming. You write them a letter. It’s a non-event. But it makes you contemplate where your Thing has been, and where it’s headed. (It’s tempting to list the readers during this period. An expansive list of voices shaping the art and important conversations today—but that’s not what you’re here for.)

More things are starting up: the very popular literary blog named for a harlot starts a Thing, some regulars at your Thing start a reading and performance Thing named for a children’s game. There’s a really, really fast fiction series. Also, sadly, the Separate and Distinct Thing twilights with a trio of compelling events (it’s tempting to list the readers—an enviable list of voices shaping the art and important conversations today—but still, not what you’re here for.)

You feel immediately at ease with Terzo, who brings a new aesthetic lens and sensibility. He translates Italian poets, is a professor, very well read. He also sang in rock bands, and you share significant musical taste. Often, he feels like your cool older brother. Six years in, everything feels pretty well oiled, but hiccups happen.

You book a very Talented Younger Poet with Outlandish Book Title to read with San Francisco Language Poet. Outlandish Title draws an unfamiliar audience and proceeds to get drunk on whiskey, seems miffed at being asked to read first, and reads for waaaaay too long. Unfamiliars cheer and snap fingers after every poem—the room is in a different dimension. Not High Temple. After 45-minutes you ask Outlandish Title to finish (you’re running out of time—deejays start soon). Is it just you, or is the whole room feeling how awkward this is? And why didn’t you step in sooner? In the end, Language Poet has barely 15 minutes to perform, but still manages to include a mini-poetics-theater puppet show, and is above all very good humored about the whole thing. Language Poet, you realize later, has been around the block a few times and probably experienced greater lackings of self-awareness. You also realize you take aberrations like this too personally. Have a chuckle, man.

But too often you experience readers who haven’t yet tested their physical voice. As poets they may understand articulation, but not consider volume or pitch. Or delivery altogether. They haven’t yet learned the relationship between diaphragm, lungs, vocal chords, throat, and skull. That the skull is a drum, an amplifier. It is a learned navigation, whether through vocal training, or innate comprehension and practice. Emphasize practice. And more practice. Oh, hey, wow, you’re becoming critical.

Zweite has been living in New York for two years, but receives funding to curate a month-long local residency of poetics theater at a venerable performing arts incubator. Four noted writer/performers are engaged to each spend a week creating a performance with a local cast, which is then staged for two nights and a matinee the following weekend. You agree to take part, work with a New York-based experimental director, playwright, poet, performer, recognized not exclusively for co-founding a certain error-based London theater group in the 70s, who is presenting the seldom performed Rudens by Zukofsky; based on an ancient Roman comedy, phonetically translated, and combining several strategies for textual conversion, along with a work of her own, a ventriloquial work about two people imagining how each other think, both in general, and about each other. Both are performed, for this festival, with a cast of three.

Let’s be clear, you have never once “acted.” At one time you were a singer, even performed in some opera choruses, but in this way you have never been on stage, nor have you worked with a director. And she IS a Director. A professional. She is used to working with competent, qualified actors. This you are not. And the texts are difficult. Rudens reads something like your first encounter with Middle English when you were thirteen, but drunk on whiskey (the text, not you). The first rehearsal lasts over five hours (in the evening, after work, on a Monday—how do aspiring actors do this?), and you barely get a grasp. You return the next evening, still feeling abyss. Your cast mates’ eyes betray their feelings—you’re all nervous: two more rehearsals, a dress rehearsal, and we haven’t even touched the other play. Director is encouraging, but also focused and demanding. This is not a casual experience. She is not spending a week away from home to take this lightly. By the last hour of the second night’s work, there seems to be a growing aura of coherency. You ride it home on an unusually cold and rainy mid-May evening, hoping for a better night’s sleep, but the mood is short lived. You haven’t even started on the second piece.

A significant part of the challenge is that Director is not rehearsing you toward a specific set of actions, or an outcome to be perfectly repeated for each performance, but rather towards an original outcome that should be reimagined with each performance. Error dramatics, if you will. Or, more precisely, “Please let go the idea of a finished, perfected product. Performance is elastic. Just as you are a different version of yourself when you arrive each day, so is each act, each audience that is seated unique, so let’s mine that actuality for opportunity.” That seems pretty straightforward. Wait, what?

She doesn’t say this, but it’s what her direction impugns. With each performance come notes: lines switched, blocking changed, calls for improvisation. You have never been more nervous, or elated. She wants you to be PHYSICAL. You have an epiphany (finally) walking from the train to the matinee, your last show, that what she’s after is very much the ephemeral you seek in a deejay set. Sure, you can plan a set entirely in advance, the exact tracks and sequence. It could be a great set, have a perfect arc, and sound fantastic, but doing that removes a key element—the room. A room can asphyxiate fantastic. What if you pick and arrange that set with the expectation that a hundred headz will fill the room, and in actuality, only twenty show up, and they’re not headz—they came straight from a baseball game. This room will require some adjustments. Or more likely, your mood changes and some of the tracks you chose unexpectedly don’t sit with you. To play them anyway, you’d be working against yourself. A room senses when you’re not having fun. Negative energy has a way of circling back and intensifying. A good deejay is the conductor of positivity, curiosity. You want to cook with fresh ingredients. Make decisions in the moment, based on sensory input, emotion, and experience.

So, you spend nearly thirty hours wrestling with an experience only to realize the approach is already in your blood. It’s having a physical effect on you, apparently. A posse of baseball bros crosses you as you near the entrance (near a particularly well known stadium). One of them tells you to go back to France.

To say, as a poet, this experience was life-changing, would be mere understatement. You emerge with so many ideas—thematics, use of memory, changing personae. You’re going to make big artistic progress with this experience. But then your life changes. Suddenly your actual brother is gone, everything stops, and you drift through the coming year, through a momentous election, and the financial meltdown that caps it.

You have some great moments. A dear poet friend helps you make a connection with Hero Poet. Hero’s work opened a window when you were young, helped you understand initially what poetry can be. If you hadn’t encountered his work, you wouldn’t be here writing this thing. Oh, and he’s coming through town soon with his remarkable poet wife, and yes, they’d be willing to read at a bar. And yes, they’d love to have dinner beforehand. Hero was Terzo’s teacher many years before. They hung out. It was quite a sweet reunion to witness, in a French bistro, in French bistro weather. Dinner would have been special enough, but then you get to walk and talk in the evening light to the dark bar, and there’s such a big room and it’s skewing younger than usual. It’s clear many are having their first experience with both poets (one young woman asks if he’s the guy from the Minnesota show on NPR, seriously), and it’s electric. It feels like a reward for having done this work for so long, but it’s also a clear reminder why it’s important to do it.

But your head is also wandering to new places. Zweite moves back to town, stages and directs another production—Roussel’s Dust of Suns, a play that like all Roussel’s efforts at theater, fell flat in its day. Zweite rents a funeral home that moonlights as a theater, enlists you along with a bevy of local poets and performers, some with actual acting chops. The script is absurdist, but it’s unclear how absurdist it’s meant to be, peculiarly composed and comprising homonymic play. It’s a strange confection, and often quite funny, and prefigures, to you, elements of New York School. The cast is costumed in a hodgepodge of late-nineteenth-century getups; capes, top hats, eye patches, and loony, overlarge walrus moustaches, which makes for invigorating esprit de corps. You feel like you’re at summer camp for poets, though it’s still March and you’re riding home late on snowy roads.

Summer does come, and you celebrate the tenth anniversary of your Thing. It’s bittersweet, as Terzo decides to hand over the mic, graciously, after more than five years. The following Spring, you’re invited to write and perform a collaborative poem together for the Children’s Game Thing. After spending several weeks on the text, an idea floats in. Terzo’s brother is a recording engineer, has a small studio in his attic, and the idea forms to record the piece. You set up microphones in the living room, kitchen, and hallway, cables running upstairs. Record ten minutes of ambient sound during a rain storm; creaking floors, inquisitive cats, your own bodies shuffling back, forth, and around, then come together to recite the poem as a call-and-response into another pair of microphones as a different take, each in a different room. Fratello Terzo edits and mixes it, gives you a file.

The reading is held at a dance studio, in a third-floor loft. The sun is nearly set as you’re introduced and there’s no light beyond the dusk. You play back the recording. The ambient sound of one room fills another with a mélange of disturbance and downpour, expectation, hesitation, confusion, ruminating in the gallery. (You love it when the audience seems not to know what to do.) Terzo and you initiate your bodies randomly, stare out the window, providing no clues as to what will happen. When your voices eventually arrive in the mix there’s a jolt as the audience is pulled from contemplation. You choose not to engage them at all, rather listen to both rooms, your own voice and Terzo’s, and watch the darkening street play out from above.


Originally Published: May 24th, 2018

Poet, editor, and reading series curator Joel Craig was born in Iowa. In his free verse poems, he uses the cadence of conversation to trace the widening wake of narrative. He is the author of the poetry collection The White House (2012), and his chapbook, Shine Tomorrow, is one of...