for the AWP panel, “Poetry Video in the Shadow of Music Video—Performance, Document, and Film”
Thursday March 1, Chicago Hilton
I don’t know how close poems come to occupying the nearly abandoned, televised space of the music video. I believe what they often occupy, when sent into the frame of the prerecorded visual presentation, is often what ends up feeling so similar to a band like The Jam when, in their song “That’s Entertainment,” Paul Weller sings of this one long day where the city looks to almost come apart, eat itself up to the chin, and him with it, but doesn’t. I could easily, in the context of worsening and hope and entire awareness of place, swap The Jam with the poet Daniel Borzutzky standing headbent in the sunlight in a white walled room, and reading, ”There are small children who live on my block and eat glass. They eat eggshells from the garbage. They eat nails in the wood from the house that was destroyed after it was foreclosed and its occupants decided to bury themselves underground.” I see both of these forms of entertainment speaking of the same distress, striking the head-heart with the same relentlessness and sadness and beauty.
The footage of the voice. The footage that keeps, that remains when someone has something to say. Both Weller’s song and Borzutzky’s poem reject the romanticism of suffering. So in the land of entertainment, a place that welcomes lull and diversion, they are both in jeopardy of being shown the door. But if art is something that takes hold of entertainment by turning its head inside out, stopping time with thought and sight and awe, then the poem, with the poet accompanying the poem with her voice or her re-rendering of the page, is in the process of interrupting the durability of distraction for an instant, just long enough to close in on a life witnessed, a life lived. And the video, that which preserves this instant with the poet in body and voice, expands into territories that were once reserved for the television, the boombox, a few games of Hasbro’s electric and talking Battleship.
We are in an age when the art and the artist are more simultaneously absorbed at the click of a touchpad than ever. I will continue to read alone, but I now have the comfort of the coalesced force that brought the poem into the world. The holographic poet and their agency, their aurality, a double encounter that feels both private and public, performative and resistant to those deadening types of entertainments that look to be purely escapist in nature. In both the music video and the poem, the multiplicity of the experience is endless. This of course has been going on for some time now, in the form of the printed page, on any of the sound storage mediums that have branched into our ears. But what appears to have changed is how we guard our own emptiness with an endless supply of entertainments that wait publicly to be taken in, more often than not, in the private space of our briefest of freed-up moments.
In Paul Chan’s excellent essay, “What Is Art and Where It Belongs,” he stresses the idea of being at “home in the world” by surrounding ourselves with things. “Things are things because they help us belong in the world, even though their place in our lives can sometimes dispossess us,”1 writes Chan. There’s something immutable about watching, on my laptop, a video of a poet reading his work, while I wait for a redeye in an empty airport. This rebroadcast is much different than the page, as it produces much of the same movement and sounds and shifts in light that’s also found in the terminal. There’s a sense of presentness meeting presentness; an animation that seems so reasonable and important in the wiped out rush of an airport. But in the home, too, there is sensible globalization that takes place when, while eating a sandwich at my dining room table, I can engage for 30 minutes with video by Max and Kate Greenstreet, in the presence of my sandwich, my living room, with the sensation building that when the video ends I will create a response. For I believe that’s what the best kind of entertainment does to us: compels us to seek out, to respond. It takes what would otherwise remain as a part of our interiority, and sparks it towards any number of paths that all lead to some engaged outwardness.
Toni Morrison, in her phenomenally moving and instructive Nobel Prize Lecture from 1993 began by saying, “Fiction has never been entertainment for me…I believe in one of the principle ways, we acquire, hold, and digest information is via narrative.”2 And I know what Morrison means, how she’s basically reiterating Williams’s, “yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there,” but, you see, I grew up in the late 80’s/early 90’s. I learned while dunked in media. I sat in my basement bedroom and listened to Ice Cube’s Death Certificate from side A to side B and back again. This is the entirety of my memory of one summer. I didn’t read. I’m sure I played whiffle ball, horsed around and thought about how I wished I could horse around as someone a few years older than I was, etc. But from those days in my bedroom, I know I felt awakened by information, by a variation of ideas, when I heard for the first time:
Now in ninety-one, he wanna tax me
I remember, the son of a bitch used to axe me
and hang me by a rope til my neck snapped
Now the sneaky motherfucker wanna ban rap3
And like Denis Johnson writes in Jesus’ Son, “It felt wonderful to be alive to hear it! I’ve gone looking for that feeling everywhere.”4 The best poetry since Mallarme has always been engaged in some manner of hypertextual tunneling, flea market and sample sale news making, writing between worlds of illusion and reality, entertainment and the serious, inescapable seriousness.
Many of the poets I know, myself included, feel the phantom limb of the musician’s audience, the musician’s reception, within the voice of the poem, out and about in the silenced audience at the polite and attentive poetry reading. I feel the video, when allowed to wean the poet from their possessive self-seriousness, allows for the free flow of both power and vision and play. I, for example, may only realize after recording myself reading a poem where my face morphs into that of a werewolf that I have written something that contains more whimsy than I thought. In realizing this, I have access to my work that a bare reading may not have released for me. The overlay of new forms of amusement to underscore the subtle amusements the poem, as one of its greatest gifts, welcomes. The face and the voice of the poet refracted back on the poet, intense yet blushing, vulnerable yet sneering with a newfound utility.
1Paul Chan. “e-flux.” Last modified 2011. Accessed January 9, 2012. http://www.e-flux.com/journal/what-art-is-and-where-it-belongs/.
2Toni Morrison. “Nobel Prize.org.” Last modified 1993. Accessed January 9, 2012. http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1993/morrison-lecture.html.
3Ice Cube. “lyricsdepot.com.” Last modified 2012. Accessed Jan 9, 2012. http://www.lyricsdepot.com/ice-cube/i-wanna-kill-sam.html.
4Dennis Johnson, Jesus’ Son (New York: Picador, 1992), 9.