Friday, November 12, 2010

The New (Chor)us

This past week I attended two readings at the St. Mark's Poetry Project on Monday and Wednesday nights. These readings featured Jennifer Karmin, Brandon Shimoda, and Dana Ward. Jen and Brandon read on Monday night and presented a perfect pairing, curated by Macgregor Card who is currently the Monday night series curator at the Poetry Project. What was striking between Jen’s and Brandon’s readings was that, in very different ways, they were both evoking forms of chorus. Jen did this literally, through a dramatic, polyvocal recitation of the first six cantos of her book, Aaaaaaaaaaalice, which I participated in. Brandon evoked the chorus through his reading from a scroll of poems that included pieces others had written for or about him, and which he has published (or intends to publish) under the (collective) name “Brandon Shimoda.”

The first poem read during his reading was in fact not read by him, but by the poet Kate Greenstreet, who was in attendence. So that after Brandon was introduced by Macgregor the first person you saw—as though a stand-in for Brandon—was Greenstreet, reading one of Brandon’s poems or one of her own (I am not sure which). There was an uncanny effect about this substitution, one perhaps telling of Brandon’s subject, which relates the historical and personal repercussions of Hiroshima/Nagasaki for the poet. Another substitution that occurred during the reading was when Brandon read a review of his book, The Alps, written by the poet-videographer Brandon Downing, who was also in attendance. In conclusion to his review Downing pronounces Brandon Shimoda "dead," a pronouncement I felt to be sublime within the context of Shimoda's reading, where Shimoda, as present as he was, seemed nowhere to be found--a continuous flutter of others' voices and autonomous imagery.

I wonder if this move to the chorus, and to substitutional performance modalities, is a return of sorts to the “death of the author” problematic which writers and artists have taken on in fundamental ways for the past half century, or if in fact what these writers are getting at is something different. In the work of both Jen and Brandon, a presumed author does not just become "decentered" or "obscured" in the course of a reading through the performance of appropriated texts, but dramatize their situation of address with those with whom they feel affinity, friendship, and a sense of community. In Jen’s case, as she travels to read in different cities she contacts a group of poets to perform her work in situ with her. In Brandon’s case, via the uncanny substitutions to which I have been referring, he evokes a multiple-singular subject, the use of a name to enfold others, to evoke the presence of their company, conversation, and particular relationships. Like Marguerite Duras and others before him, there is a sense that the 'self' in relation to others is labyrinthine rather than linear, refractive rather than reflective, polymorphous rather than univocal. The result is that one must ask the Nietzschean question “Who is speaking?,” which concerns the author function, yet it is also to recognize the author/person/subject—"Brandon Shimoda”—as a construction of correspondence and exchange, if not of love. The pursuit or process of love at least—a distribution of the ‘person’ or of the proper name as indication of collectivity evoking the heterogenous multiple.

Why the recourse to chorus now? Two other poets who have recently taken to choral modes of performance and aesthetic production are Robert Kocik, whose ongoing Phoneme Choir with choreographer Daria Fain includes professional and amateur performers from backgrounds in music, poetry, dance, visual art, and somatics/body work—and Jennifer Scappettone, whose recent collage work, which she will often read with a host of other performers, is imagined as a “pop-up chorus.”

My sense of the chorus offering a common form among recent poetries culminated this week with a reading by Dana Ward. In Dana’s work, multiple levels of discourse are put into play, narrative pov dissolving in an arduous path in which Ward encounters commodities in storefront windows, or recounts an encounter with a stranger on a plane in which he tries to explain what he does “for a living.” One very clear touchstone of Dana’s work is Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, a sense that commodities are something Janus-faced, that they contain a dialectical tension in which both redemption and despair, fetish and use value, are replete with one another, in which they in fact produce a third quality held-up by the aesthetic object. So too, Dana's works takes-up New Narrative writing as a kind of template, and particularly the work of Bruce Boone. Who doesn’t hear Bruce’s legendary story, “My Walk With Bob,” in Dana’s recent chapbook, “Typing Wild Speech.” What I have been calling the choral mode of recent poetries (perhaps for lack of a better term) is most startling in Dana’s work where he reads letters he’s written (and some he’s received), foregrounding correspondence as a crucial moment of (his) process. By relating correspondence as he does through the format of poetry (in the name of poetry?), Dana radically destabilizes distinctions between private and public spheres, interiority and exteriority, and most of all formality and informalism (I am particularly fascinated by the ways that Dana uses informality as a rhetorical technique in his poems and during his readings, which both ingratiates his readers/listeners and commands their attention, which also plays in exciting ways with notions of decorum, elocution, and manner in regards to the poetry reading as a received format).

Life and writing meet in Dana's work, mediated by shared exigencies. The risk is a bad faith through which one's friendship and participation in community could ossify into an object, a potential consequence of process-based and participatory art that I see Ward rigorously resisting and foregrounding, trying to find a solution to, an exodus from. It will be exciting to see how his forthcoming books address this problem when they come out next year, since Dana's work has existed “off page” for the most part, circuiting in relatively private channels such as email exchanges and limited edition chapbooks (something he and I talk about here), and of course through the poetry reading itself as a mode of exchange and distribution.

Dana’s work is important for our moment—I believe it is anyway—because it is showing us again how the autobiographical and the socio-political are codependent, and how delicate the dramatization of this codependence is through a body of printed, non-circulating, and entirely oral (and aural) works. In this way, perhaps more than almost any other younger writer, he takes up the largely unpursued problematics of New Narrative writing: How to invent forms of writing which can combine autobiographical disclosure with critical analysis? How can forms of story become life-forms themselves? How can narrative formalize the process of a writer's non-alienation from a world of others? During a time when so many corners of our society demand that we identify and brand ourselves, Dana’s work—like Jen’s and Brandon’s—seeks transformation in a kind of radical porosity, a giving over of the work to others, a desire for vulnerability and openness, for lack of control, for infusion and dissolution in discourse, distribution, and modes of reception outside of appropriate/d channels.

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