Friday, November 11, 2005

One of the benefits of the model that Temple University uses for its poetry readings – pairing up one of its students with the main reader – is that the audience (me, for instance) gets an opportunity to hear a new voice in an interesting context. For reasons I don’t quite understand, the very best readings I’ve heard from Temple students came immediately prior to some of the very strongest readings I’ve heard in that series from “major” poets – thus this was where I first heard Pattie McCarthy, right before Charles Bernstein, and more recently Brennen Lucas was taking no prisoners in advance of Christian Bök. Divya Victor fits very neatly into this same tradition, having offered a superlative performance of a multi-voiced text in advance of Rodrigo Toscano a week ago Thursday. Possibly it’s knowing that one is reading immediately prior to a great performer that ups the ante, but whatever the cause, Temple does a great job fitting readers together & getting the “student readers” ready for prime time. (Half the secret, of course, is that “student readers” like McCarthy, Lucas & Victor are that only by the accident of going to grad school – all are young poets well on their way to serious careers. That Temple is able to attract such students is another interesting tale all its own.)

That Victor offered a text for three voices in advance of Toscano, whose “reading” included pieces for three & four voices, was fortuitous. Both readers offered a chance for me to contemplate what a multi-voiced reading actually does, and how it operates. It made me sorry that I couldn’t get up to the Bowery Poetry Club last Saturday for a show of multi-voiced pieces. And it made me think of the times in which I’d written – and participated in others’ – pieces scripted for more than a single reader. The most recent of those, a couple of years back, was a piece by Jena Osman that Bob Perelman & I helped out on, in the now defunct Tredyffrin Library reading series right here in my home town.¹ But it’s been nearly 30 years since I last wrote a piece, technically a “radio play,” for an evening that Steve Vincent curated at the Grand Piano in the Haight.

To call my piece something for multiple voices is plausible only because I needed a text to thread together the spatial & sound effects that were the work’s actual focal point. With Tom Mandel, I had been curating the reading series at the Piano for around a year when Vincent proposed this evening – part of his thinking process that went into his anthology, The Poetry Reading – and I knew the room, such as it was, all too well. Thus I had both phones in the place – this was pre-cellphones – ringing, David Melnick in the audience whistling some music from the opera Lucia, Rova sax great Larry Ochs wandering past the large window front of the café on Haight Street playing his horn, while in back a thoroughly terrified Tom Mandel was setting off firecrackers in the restroom sink. Do I remember what was said? Not a word of it. Yet at least some of us – country singer Patty Hume & I who were working the phones, maybe Mandel – had speaking roles. ²

One of the things I became conscious of in the production of this piece, which was not more than six or seven minutes long, part of a much larger evening of such events, was that I actually had to think about the relationship of text to voice & to character, really for the only time anywhere in my writing. And I’ve thought about that every time I’ve listened to a multi-voiced performance since then.

In general, the poets I know don’t write for character in such pieces – this was true for both Victor & Toscano at Temple – a fact that by itself creates some interesting dynamics. In one piece, Frank Sherlock, one of Toscano’s voices, called upon his deep south Philly roots & gave his share of the text an accent that Rocky Balboa would have been proud of. But in general readers in such events tend to be content to “be themselves,” so that Alicia Askenase will sound different than C.A. Conrad simply because she always has & always will.

In this sense, performance pieces – Toscano termed one of his texts a “radio play” – differ as sharply from traditional theater as they do from sound poetry. It’s convenient to think of them inhabiting some theoretical position in the middle, but I distrust the metaphor of the spectrum here. If you look at Doings, the wonderful new collection of Jackson Mac Low’s half century of involvement with performance pieces³, you quickly realize that these text-and-voice-centric readings are just one slice of what is possible with the form. Indeed, if anything, one could argue that Victor & Toscano, sticking to recognizable language, the elaboration of themes, are playing it far safer than Mac Low ever did.

Once one gets beyond issues of character, multi-voiced texts often strike me as having issues of “aboutness.” Multiplying voices seems to invoke the question of reference, or at least pose the issue of distinction between parts in a way that implies it. Often, as with Victor’s work at Temple, the result feels existential in the way I often think of Sam Beckett’s work as existential, perpetually probing its own being. When the language occurs in short segments, as it did for much of this evening, the divide between reference & vocabulary is reduced to an absolute minimum. Perhaps the most important element in the work the rhythm of movement from one speaker to the next, dictated largely by the length of text accorded each.

This is where Toscano’s maturity as a poet & mastery of the form shines through. His sensitivity to pacing is nothing short of stunning. Further, he manages to set up a second rhythm through the text predicated on humor, literally the time lapse between jokes – although many are not jokes, so much as they are sardonic twists. As an aural experience then, it is more complex than just listening to the polyvocalic text of a single speaker – and yet it is instantly graspable to anyone in the audience. The two rhythms play off of one another in ways that foreground both the language & the interactions between voices.

Toscano’s sense of play, as well as his recognition of the role of contrasting elements in the work, shows up in one of the critical essays that he read at the start of his performance, a piece penned for the recent noulipo conference at Calarts in Los Angeles entitled “De-Liberating Freedoms in Transit,” which begins in part:

Two formulas of constraint for text-making:

Formula number one (vroom)

All poetic installments must index the wiles (as well as vagaries) of current global class struggle as currently being acted out in the text-designer’s actual locale of habitation. All installments must allude to—own up—flesh out the text designer’s directed institutional or random institutional bodily relation to that drama. All installments must in situ deconstruct at least two competing representative strategies to that drama. The text designer must deploy LIP, as in, “You givin’ me lip?” “Yeah I’ll give you lip!” “Yo, he’s givin’ us lip!” as the building blocks of the drama. The text designer must create a distance between LIP, the drama, the text designer, and THROG. Throg must tug. The words “Haitian Revolution of 1791” must be liberally plopped onto every installment without regard to either grammatical or logical sequence. Shipping is still a precarious business. So too is Literature.

Formula number two (vroom vroom)

All poetic installments must put on display at least ten proper names that reference the flow of European Art-Wares to Atlantic-American Cultural Trusts. All poems must delineate a nuanced correspondence between such a flow and liberal-bourgeois democratic tree-cutting practices. The words “Haitian Revolution of 1791” must be strenuously avoided. Any references to the text designer’s secret stash of cash must be sublimated into SLOG. Slog must slip. And slide. The Cyrillic alphabet may be used. Although the words incunabulum, perambulistic, and defenestration have little tug on the masses THROG, they are to be slipped onto every installment. The robe may be worn loosely. Or tightly. When the time comes to kiss the installment good morning, the text designer must simply say, good night. When the wood-pile is ready for shipping, call us—for an estimate.

That’s Toscano in about as unitary a voice as you’re ever going to find. One of the multi-voiced pieces that Toscano performed at Temple is “Truax Inimical.” The other, “Eco-Strato-Static,” can be downloaded in PDF format from Toscano’s EPC website by right-clicking & doing a “save as” on the title earlier in this sentence. The one truly multiple voiced work I can find a sound file for on the web – on Toscano’s PENNsound page – “Balm to Bilk,” is really a different creature from the works Toscano performed at Temple.. Co-read with Laura Elrick, the reduction to a dialog of gendered voices creates a sexual undertone not present in the works at Temple & demonstrates just how rapidly the parsimony principle generates character, as such. But it’s fabulous to listen to & will prove my point about Toscano’s mastery. Right click on that title above to download the MP3 or right click here to fetch the PDF of its text.


¹ Paoli is one of several towns incorporated into Tredyffrin Township, a level of government that exists between the town – which has no government beyond a post office & olunteer fire department – and Chester County. I haven’t run into this model of administration elsewhere & believe that it dates back prior to the colonial period. It makes some Pennsylvania towns very nebulous. The “town” immediately east, Wayne, which New York Times house reactionary David Brooks has memorialized more than once as “Paradise” in books such as Bobos in Paradise, is a jurisdiction like Paoli, but manages to exist in three separate counties: Delaware, Chester & Montgomery. marker on Route 30 notes that Wayne used to be known as Luella. Regional differences around such things can be quite marked. Hardly anybody in Oakland, California, can tell you where “Brooklyn,” the town in which Gertrude Stein grew up, was before it got incorporated into the city, tho that happened sometime in the past 120 years. Many residents of Paoli, however, can tell you all about the Corsican separatist for whom the town is named, noting that there was a political subtext to naming a town after a separatist in the decades prior to the American revolution.

² If any text survives, it would be in the archive at UC San Diego.

³ The first collection I’ve ever seen that enables one to see how a performance poet’s work actually evolves over time.