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.

Poets’ Potluck (@ the Poetry Project)

Please come next Friday, partake of food and drink, listen to some great poetry!

Co-curated by Brett Price, Thom Donovan, & Sara Wintz. The Thanksgiving Poets’ Potluck is an opportunity for New York City’s poetry community/ies to come together for an evening of readings, performances, and delicious food. An array of writers from the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s series as well as other local reading series will read/perform their work. Any one interested in bringing a dish for the potluck will contribute to an amazing Thanksgiving feast. If you’re interested in bringing food, please email Brett Price at fridaynightseriesp [at] gmail [dot]com.

Monday, November 08, 2010

Paul Thek’s "Teaching Notes"

The following is a transcription of Harrell Fletcher's invaluable transcription of Paul Thek's "teaching notes," contained in Fletcher's booklet Thek's Teaching Notes. The notes were generated for a "4-D Sculpture" class at Cooper Union taught by Thek between 1978-1981 (a core class in Cooper Union's curriculum at the time, as Flectcher explains in his introduction). Fletcher's booklet, published at his request by Publication Studio for an event at the Whitney around the current Thek retrospective, comprises a transcription of the artist's notes, and responses generated by Fletcher's 2007 studio class at Cooper Union, which (for lack of a better term) reenacted the content of Thek's original class based on the notes. Being particularly interested in the teaching practices of artists and writers, I find Thek's notes extremely curious, both as a document of his teaching practice and inasmuch as they reflect his larger aesthetic concerns and processes. I also find attractive Thek's approach to art through questions and exercises, which may instigate a process of self-discovery, interrogation, and dialogue with others. Namely, one's students.

Paul Thek’s "teaching notes":

Place of birth
Position in family
Career plans
Parents’ education
Parents’ birthplace
Parents’ religion
Where do you live now? With whom? For how long?
What income do you have? From what source?
What property do you own?
What are your requirements in a friend? Lover? Mate?
What kind of art do you like? Painting? Sculpture? Music?
What do you read? How often?
Do you buy books? Records?
What is your favorite color?
What are your politics?
Have you ever been seriously ill? Serious accidents?
What do you do on a date?
What is the purpose of dating?
Do you believe in premarital sex?
What happens after death?
Tell us about other members of your family.
Tell us about a close friend.
Tell us about someone who inspires you.
Tell us about the most exciting thing you ever saw, did.
How many rooms are there in your home?
How many floors? What floor do you live on?
Do you have your own room? Do you share it? With whom?
What does your room look like?
On what do you sleep? In what? In what position?
Do you take baths or showers? Do you use perfumes or deodorants?
What style or look do you prefer?
Are you interested in sports? Which? How often?
Do you believe in abortion? Do your parents?
What is your worst physical feature? Your best?
What is the main source of difficulty between you and your parents? Teachers? Friends?
What annoys you the most in others?
What kind of teacher do you prefer?
If you were a teacher what would you propose?
How would you grade your students?
What is eternity? What is love? What is art?
What is a symbol? What is religion? What is psychology?
Who are your role models?
Who is the person closest to you at the moment?
Who is the person physically closest to you at the moment?
What in your life is your greatest source of pleasure?
How do you know you love someone?
How do you know that someone is interested in you?
How do you know that you are happy, sad, nervous, bored?
What does this school need? This room? You? This city? This country?
What is abstraction?
What is a mystery religion?
What would it be like if you behaved with absolute power?
Redesign a rainbow.
Make a French-curve rainbow.
Design a labyrinth dedicated to Freud, using his photo and his writings.
Design a Torah.
Design a monstrance.
Illustrate the Godhead.
Add a station of the cross.
Design an abstract monument to Uncle Tom.
What is a good temple? A bad temple?
Who is your favorite character in the Bible?
Who is your favorite character in Gone With the Wind?
Why does an icon have to be human?
What is sacred? Profane?
What is the most beautiful thing in the world?
Make a paperdoll of yourself.
What is theology? What is secular?
Explain the Zen doctrine in your own words. What does it mean?
What does it mean “In the beginning was the Word”?
Can you find a book on making sculptures of paper?
Make a spaceship out of a cereal box.
Make a paper chain out of a book.
Redesign the human genitals so that they may be more equitable.
Design a feminist crucifixion scene.
Design something to sell on the street corner.
Design something to sell to the government.
Design something to put on an altar.
Design something to put over a child’s bed.
Design something to put over your bed when you make love.
Make a monkey out of clay.
Design a flying saucer as if it were The Ark.
Make a large folded-paper airplane, paint on it a slogan which you think will revolutionize your life.
Make an icon out of popcorn.
Pain a balloon gold, paint a balloon silver.
Make a necklace out of coal.
Paint a series of playing balls like planets, be accurate.
Design a black mass out of any materials you can find.
Design a work of art that fits in a matchbox, a shoebox.
Design a new clock face.
What is the difference between philosophy and theology?
Who is Hans Kung?
What is liberation theology?
What is mysticism?
Who was Meister Eckhart?
What is the purpose of art?
What does ‘spiritual’ mean to you?
What is the most difficult thing in life for you?
Can art be helpful in dealing with this difficulty? In what way?
What is ‘service’?
What is the purpose of society? Of government?
What is the surest way to happiness?
Who is Savanarola? Augustine?
What is attractive in a woman? A man?
What are the qualities of physique most attractive?
What are the personality problems of being an artist?
What is it like to be an American in the 20th century?
Who is Roosevelt?
What is action painting?
Pop art?
The Louvre?
What languages do you speak? Spoken at home?
What religious articles do you have in your home?
Make a skyscraper out of inappropriate materials.
Make a prisoner’s pillbox hat.
Make scatological object, or use scatological words.
Illustrate your strangeness, act out your most frightening perversity.
Design a box within a box to illustrate selfishness.
Design a throne.
Why are you here?
What is a shaman?
Make a piece of curative art.
Make a piece of psychological art.
What do you think has been the greatest hurt, mental and physical, that you have suffered?
What do you think are the qualities of a life fully lived?
Can you suggest a project, for yourself or for a group, or for any number, which might deepen your sensitivity to time?
What is greed?
What is verbal knowledge?
What does tactile mean? Can you show me an example of tactile sensitivity in your personal life?
What do you do to make yourself more attractive sexually? Why do you do this?
Do you really like very beautiful people? Do they really have special privileges?
What is polygamy? Explain its function in the society?
Make a design of your favorite literary person. Event. History. Project for Ellis Island.
How much time should you work on a class project? How much time should you think about it? Discuss it?
What do you think of money? Make a structure to me explaining your concept of money, or out of money.
Should art be useful? Useless?
What is pablum?
What is capitalism? Communism? Socialism?
What is leisure?
Make a structure out of photos of primitive people.
Make a structure illustrating anything from the book of proverbs.
Can you construct a functioning lamp that illustrates the concept of freedom?
Can you construct a functioning ashtray that illustrates the passage of time?
What is waste?
Who was Malthus?
How can we humanize the city?
How can we humanize Cooper? How can we redesign the Cooper triangle?
What should the student lounge look like? Where?

Remember, I’m going to mark you, it’s my great pleasure to reward real effort, it’s my great pleasure to punish stupidity, laziness and insincerity.

These marks won’t make much difference in your later life, but my reaction to you will, but the reactions of your classmates to what you do will.

Your classmates are your world, your future will be like this now, as you related to your present, you will relate to your future, recognize your weakness and do something about it.