November 01, 2009

On Jazz or Comedy

As regulars here will know it is only in recent times that I have begun to do readings. Previously I had taken the view that the work was specifically written for the page, with effects for the readers’ eye and silent voice. When I wrote “Mirror Canon Snips” for Melbourne the idea that it would be performed by moving readers through the installation caused me to become intrigued with the question whether it was possible to make them stumble by making the language of the poem too complex to read while walking. But then when I was persuaded to read at the Other Room, I discovered that there were things that I could learn from performing the poems which weren’t evident in silence. There were also dramatic effects that I discovered that were more for the entertainment of the audience – particularly the way Reykjavik opens when you read it. I remember recording the first part of the performance for me to review any insights in that reading, having not anticipated that it was also videoed by the Other Room and then put up on the website. While the things I needed to learn were captured by both recordings, it occurred to me afterwards that the movement of unfolding in Reykjavik or the reason why I wrote the poem “Lassitude” which informs the aural understanding of it would no longer be unexpected to future audiences. Around the time, I recall a comedian commenting that, while it paid much better than live performance, TV was very consuming of material. A routine on television could only be used once, with thereafter audiences knowing the jokes. Obviously having films and recordings online is an artistic resource, part of the poetic dialogue and an extension of a poetry readings meagre audience, but is there a down side? At Ron Silliman’s afternoon lecture at Birkbeck when he was over for the Text Festival, I asked him about this issue: whether each performance captured and broadcast online was in anyway like the consumption of the comedian’s material. Ron’s view was that the poetry performance is more like a jazz improvisation, with each reading being a fresh interpretation of the material.

I think this is probably true but the Oxjam reading last Sunday (again recorded) I was looking for something else again. I started the reading with “Doubt” from 50 Heads. Then the sections from the new book “Space The Soldier Who Died For Perspective”. For this reading I wasn’t interested in comedy or jazz.

I have referenced before William Carlos Williams analogy that writing (art) is like bridge building – the artist constructs the artwork cross a stream or mountain gorge, with the purpose of crossing: “Don’t blush to write a poem, stand up to it, provided it is a structure, a structure built upon your own ground to assert it, your ground where you stand on your own feet, in every man’s despite”. Expanding on his metaphor, he goes on to the next barrier to continue his journey, with the experience of previous bridges informing each subsequent solution. The function is the crossing. As Picasso said, it is for epigones coming after to make it look better. It is the job of critics to describe the bridge. It is for governmental hierarchies of mediation to erect signs and health & safety barriers to make sure the bridge or even obstacle of the stream are not perceived as worth crossing.

Often, especially if an artist’s work is not easy to fathom, I ask myself: what question (what gorge) is this artist trying to answer(bridge)? It is obvious I think for instance what question the Language Moment attempts to address. Although Sue says I shouldn’t say anything about the north west winner of the Olympiad commission – the Projected Cloud by Anthony McCall, because it will sound like sour-grapes, when you look at it from this perspective its question would seem not really worth asking. Most of its substance would appear to be engineering and technical – how the cloud is generated, how the projections work on the cloud, how it will ever exist in the windy environment of the Mersey estuary – not artistic. If the question context is the public realm question of the Monument, the bankrupt refuge of UK public art in the celebration of scale (Angel of the North, B of the Bang, Mark Wallinger’s White Horse, etc), the question to which all these refer has already been answered with more conceptual rigour by Lawrence Weiner with ‘AS FAR AS THE EYE CAN SEE’. Coincidentally, having been brought up on the ‘Cheshire plain’ where presumably you will be able to see the new work, I can’t see how it can better than the steam columns of Fiddler’s Ferry Power Station (my Dad worked on that construction). This landscape was actually the inspiration for my poem “Yggdrasill” in 50 Heads. Maybe that was my answer to the question – deeper than McCall’s column will be, but depth wasn’t what the Olympics wanted obviously, maybe they wanted comedy.

Anyway, I digress. My reading of “Space The Soldier Who Died For Perspective” had a different function. By the time I came to read 50 Heads and Reykjavik I had lived with them for about 2-3 years, whereas Soldier was only finished in June. While some sections of it date back to exhibition installations around the world, the bringing them together, the re-structuring, the integration as a whole work are still as new to me as the audience who heard me read. A while back there was an argument going round that the radical understanding of the reader/audience was the most important aspect of contemporary poetic development. This is of course bollocks. It is the radical understanding of the writer that is most important. So the reading wasn’t a comedy or jazz, it was a test installation, it was stretching to grasp something spatial in the language - and so I wonder whether that is something that needs to be recorded.

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