Poets theater is a genre of porous borders, one that emerges about the same time, and involving many of the same artists, as performance art, performance poetry (“spoken word”), conceptual and “intermedia” art. But poets have long been playwrights, either primarily (Sophocles, Shakespeare) or as a platform for postmodern literary experimentation (the operas and page plays of Gertrude Stein, for example). If poetry can most specifically be called, in the words of David Antin, “the language art,” the collusion of linguistic media and dance, performance, music, and the visual/plastic arts might also fall under the purview of poetics as a theater of experiment that may or may not have to do with the genre “drama” as it is traditionally and persistently defined (think of Simone Forti’s collaborations with Charlemagne Palestine or Jackson Mac Low, or Adam Pendleton’s “Black Dada” performances generated in tandem to his privately circulating anthology and publicly exhibited paintings of the same name). Although recognized by two anthologies—Sarah Bay-Cheng and Barbara Cole’s Poets at Play and Kevin Killian and David Brazil’s Kenning Anthology of Poets Theater—it wasn’t since Michael Benedikt’s Theatre Experiment in 1967 that the wider scope of pertinent work to fall under this rubric was fully acknowledged. If poets theater is a form of sociability, page play, agitprop, or post-dramatic theatre, fully distinct disciplinary boundaries have internally divided it as a field, and dispersed our knowledge and the influence of its practitioners.
The Second Annual Festival of Poets Theater aims to remedy this with performances, screenings and readings over four nights, plus an afternoon of talks on the genre and salient examples of it. The first iteration of the festival, in late 2015, featured the work of three generations of writers and artists, including screenings of work by Eleanor Antin and the infamous production of Kathy Acker’s Birth of the Poet in 1985. Avery Young reset Amiri Baraka’s 1968 play “Home on the Range” in reference to #Blacklivesmatter. Heidi Bean, John Beer, and Carla Harryman gave talks on poets theater. And Patrick Durgin explored contemporary debates in performance reenactment while paying homage to Scott Burton and Judith Malina. Others worked with reference to Isadora Duncan and Seneca. The festival’s offerings ranged from Neo-Benshi (film-talking), performative lecture, and experimental re-enactment of a “talk poem” disrupted by hecklers. We aim to maintain the scope of the festival while pushing against axiomatic discernments between text and context, circumstance and production, and obviously those between genre and praxis. Throughout, the fest asks: How does Poets Theater integrate the usually solitary research practice of the poet into the ecstatically open site of the theater? How does performance “do” poetry, and how does it replicate poetry’s gestural openness? And what are the outer reaches of these theatrical gestures; how does Poets Theater fold into dance, painting, sculpture, music, and even back into poetry?
A tentative taxonomy can already be attempted. There are several subgenres of poets theater that have emerged in recent years, all with links to the longer history of the form. Though that history is much longer (ancient, in fact), by the first years of the 21st century, three approaches were visible, and each is represented in this year’s programming. On one hand, you have an operatic approach, taken by Carla Harryman. Harryman’s poets theater work has always involved collaboration, improvisation, and a process-oriented production approach. She deliberately pairs theater people with poets, both of these with visual artists (on set work), and all with musicians who sometimes burst into the scene, rather than merely composing for it. And then there is the coterie approach, which has been a local tradition in San Francisco poets theater for years, under the auspices of Kevin Killian’s work with Small Press Traffic’s “Poets Theater Jamboree,” an annual festival. Here the script is held in hand, rehearsal is practically avoided, and the writing is foregrounded in hilarious and often unique ways. Much has been written about the willful amateurishness of this approach, which ought to remind us that the root of “amateur” is the root of “amity,” friendship, love, and community. And third, there is a neo-benshi approach that more and more folds in lessons from performance art proper. Kevin B. Lee and Jennifer Tamayo incorporate elements of benshi (or “moving talking”) through their use of video and live “voice-over.”
For that matter, film and video have been an important feature of the festival’s programming these two years. Last year we featured neo-benshi by Daniel Borzutzky and video art by Eleanor Antin, as well as video documentation of the infamous collaboration between Kathy Acker and Richard Foreman, Birth of the Poet. Another rarely seen video document will be screened this year, the original 1963 Living Theater production of Kenneth H. Brown’s award-winning play The Brig, as filmed by New York underground cinema legend Jonas Mekas. Mekas’ film takes the viewer inside the action, a perilous place to be given the mayhem of the text and the faithful realism of the production. The Living Theater itself represents an important historical itinerary for poets theater. Dramaturges Julian Beck and Judith Malina began the company as a neo-avant-garde experiment, hoping to bring aesthetic work into everyday life in unprecedented and politicized ways, and their first few years were devoted to staging radical modernist works by poets such as Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, and Jackson Mac Low. The Brig was a pivot point away from what they called “verse drama” toward proper playwrights’ texts elaborated by taking cues from Antonin Artaud’s “theater of cruelty.” They would later become devoted to poets theater by radicalizing classical tragedy, but not before becoming one of the world’s best known and most innovative theater companies, with shows like Paradise Now, a centerpiece of “hippy modernism.” In its cinematic rendition, The Brig connects contemporary multimedia performance to Artaud’s legacy: the discovery of mise-en-scène as a poetic language.
Our programming last year was almost exclusively focused on poets making theater — this year, we decided to also feature performers who don’t come from a specifically poetic background. Taking Harryman’s work as a curatorial guide, we looked to musicians who have expanded on the language based possibilities that John Cage had set up in his work. Robert Ashley was an obvious choice. Working early in life in speech research libraries, and then curating the ONCE experimental music festival in Ann Arbor from 1961 -1969 (an important touchstone for our festival), by the mid 70s Ashley began composing with language as his main focus. His long form television operas — dense with an interior and esoteric language of Ashley’s own—present one possibility for what poetry looks like to someone writing specifically towards sounds. Alex Waterman presents one of Ashley’s later pieces for 5 voices, Dust.
More recently, Michael Pisaro–part of the international Wandelweiser Group — has been using poetry to compose his Harmony Series. Number 17 starts with Kenneth Rexroth’s poem Void Only (“Time like glass / Space like glass / I sit quiet…”) and then gives the musician the following directive:
In a large, open space (possibly outdoors).
For a long time.
A few times, playing an extremely long, very quiet tone.
Pisaro’s scores replicate the poems he chooses by extending them into the sonic dimension. For the festival, he’s created a piece that’s more specifically performative—asking two performers to move through a series of tasks taking 10 minutes. Joseph Clayton Mills has also created a musical piece for the festival, creating a composition for tape recorders, cassette loops, dictaphone, typewriter, and suitcases that takes as its raw material Patrick Farmer’s prose poem Wild Horses Think of Nothing Else the Sea.
Patrick Durgin is the author of PQRS (Kenning Editions, 2013) and The Route (with Jen Hofer, Atelos, 2008). His artist book Zenith was published by Green Lantern Press in the spring of 2016.The Volta published “Prelude to PQRS,” a reflection on his work in poets theater originally presented at the New [New] Corpse event series. His performance piece Interference was featured in the 2015 Festival of Poets Theater. He is currently writing two books: a critical biography of Jackson Mac Low and Hannah Weiner and a collection of poetry. He edits the non-fiction series Ordinance for Kenning Editions, an independent press he founded in 1998. He teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Devin King is the co-director of Sector 2337 and the poetry editor for the Green Lantern Press. He teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago