The New Perform-A-Form: A Page Vs. Stage Alliance
The performance body, via breathing and gesture, dramatizes form. It makes it theater. It makes it action. It makes it living, alive, as in “get live,” as in “all the way live,” as in lyric. The idea body, via text and thought, flattens form. It makes it fixed. It makes it language. It makes it literature, an imagined living, as in artifice. The work of the performance body is not without craft, control, or form. It is not lowly. The work of the idea body is not without attitude, improvisation, or flow. It is not closed. A perform–a–form occurs when the idea body and the performance body, frustrated by their own segregated aesthetic boundaries, seek to crossroads with one another. This coupling, though detrimental to aspects of their individual traditions, will repair and continue the living word.
The old style of representing “likeness” is over and perform–a–formers, though appreciative of metaphor and simile, etc., no longer need either to express nuance in poetry. The matrimony of page and stage insists on eliminating the false functions between the line and the limb. All rhyme schemes reborn as gesture, all gestures as sculptural integrity.
A perform–a–form line breaks many times, verbally, before it breaks the last time visually. If written, it is written more like blood than bone. If spoken, it is spoken more like stutter than song. Perform-a-forms do not lie (on the page or on the stage), frozen in little boxes or voices, unable to interact with the reader or listener, as if on a table in a morgue.
Perform–a–formers seek a path around both academic and slam poetry; to eliminate the misconceptions between them; and to balance the professional opportunities (in publishing and employment) opened to each. The utterance, paged or memorized, is only a schema in need of diverse modes of respiration.
Against the narrowness of linearity, a perform–a–former will subject its own composer-sition to the rigor of audience participation. You can’t workshop a perform–a–form, but you can participate in its creation and correction. Able to surrender to the collective sensibility of community, not the critic’s scalpel, the last great perform–a–former was Sekou Sundiata.
A well-crafted perform–a–form will continue to pour after it is written or performed. This pouring, akin to echoing, should reclaim the original attributes of poetry from nature and cinema. Despite history, the perform–a–former seeks carnivorous wholeness, a gluttonous diet of the anatomy of the art–i–verse.
And while it is rare to attend a poetry festival or a conference and see poets (established and emerging, white and black, gay and straight, academic and non-academic) being treated as equals, consequently it is even rarer to discover literary editors and publishers open to “all” levels of class intelligence. The first task of activism of any perform–a–former is the removal of all one-dimensional judges of craft.
Thomas Sayers Ellis grew up in Washington, D.C. and earned his MFA from Brown University. He is the author of Skin, Inc. (2013) and The Maverick Room (2005). He co-founded the Dark Room Collective in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and received a Whiting Award in 2005. Ellis has taught at Sarah Lawrence College, Case Western...