“A free-form, open-ended communal play experience”: poetry, film, and the Typewriter Underground

an interview with Marc Zegans

Marc Zegans head and shouldersMarc Zegans is a poet, spoken word artist, and creative development advisor to artists, writers, and other creative people. He’s the author of five collections of poems, La Commedia Sotterranea della Macchina da Scrivere (AKA Felt’s First Folio from The Typewriter Underground), The Book of Clouds, Boys in the Woods, The Underwater Typewriter, and Pillow Talk; an e-book, Intentional Practice and the Art of Finding Natural Audience; and two spoken word albums, Marker and Parker, with the late jazz pianist Don Parker, and Night Work. He has been the Narragansett Beer Poet Laureate and a Poetry Whore with the New York Poetry Brothel—which Time Out New York described as “New York’s Sexiest Literary Event,” and has performed everywhere from the Bowery Poetry Club and the American Poetry Museum to the San Francisco 40th Anniversary of Punk Rock Renaissance.

As an immersive theater producer he created the Boston Center for the Arts’ CycSpecific “Speak-Easy” and Salon Poetique: A Gathering of the “Tossed Generation.” He has also been MC and co-producer, with Aaron Shadwell and Brendyn Schneider, of The No Hipsters Rock ’n Roll Revue, and co-producer, with Karen Lee, of Burlesque for Books.

His latest project, The Typewriter Underground, is a bit like the sorcerer’s apprentice, spawning not only a print publication—the aforementioned La Commedia Sotterranea della Macchina da Scrivere (Amazon), but also a number of films, live performances, and even a thriving online community of fans taking on the roles of living characters in its universe—a brilliant example of life imitating art, since the central conceit of this collection of verse fragments and collages is the spontaneous emergence of a subcultural phenomenon. According to the publisher’s description, the verse fragments appearing in La Commedia have the quality of the early gospels—personal accounts of authors who lived contemporaneously with the Underground, and were among its early apostles.

Marc tells me that the Typewriter Underground is at its heart an invitation to participate in an open world of infinite jest. But when I interviewed him by email earlier this week, it quickly became obvious that he’d put a lot of serious thought into the larger issues at play here.

When did you first start working with film- and video-makers, and how did that come about? It looks from your website as if that interest somewhat predated the Typewriter Underground.

It began when I wrote a poem called “Woodshed” that functioned as a musical score when turned on its side. I shared it with Peg Simone who’s a multi-talented recording artist, filmmaker and publisher. She loved the poem and the challenge of translating its score into an arrangement, and a recording. The music Peg recorded inspired her to create an absolutely mesmerizing stop-motion video of the same name.

My next foray into this world was with Jenn Vee, a wonderful visual poet working out of Oakland California. I met Jenn when she videotaped a reading I did for Nomadic Books. A short time later, I invited her to direct a film of a poem from my collection, The Underwater Typewriter. Jenn created a remarkable video called Broken Lines. Her film  hooked me on this sort of collaboration, because she made the poem entirely her own, visualizing it in a novel way that lent depth, resonance and meaning to the underlying text.

When Jenn reads Broken Lines in voiceover, her character becomes the poem’s fictive “I.” In doing so, she dramatically expands its possibility space. She gives us a female voice narrating the experience of a female character. One watches without any inkling that the poem on the page is by a man, voiced when I share it at readings at readings in a distinctly male voice. The film makes “Broken Lines” her story. There’s something wonderfully expansive about that.

For the Typewriter Underground, which came first, the texts or the films? If the former, were there instances when they were modified by the exigencies of filmmaking?

The texts definitely came first. I wrote them with the hope that they would stimulate activity by filmmakers and other artists. Regarding your second question, the simple answer is, yes, the poems were modified. The interesting bits are why and how.

In Ellen Hemphill’s and Jim Haverkamp’s remarkable films Manicotti and The Danger Meditations, from Archipelago Theatre/Cine Productions, the filmmakers hew strictly to the text.  Yet the poems are inevitably modified by their translation of the poems from words on the page to words-in-air. The narrator’s pacing and emphasis in these films sharply reduces the range of possible interpretations available to the viewer, because the vocal component of the film is a reading, not the poem itself. The relationship of voice-over to visual imagery further bounds the interpretive space of the poem. In the film, the poem is more fully imagined than on the page, making it both more accessible, and more limited because its setting and characters are explicitly defined on screen.  The film perhaps, though, is more provocative, more memorable and more emotionally connected, as a consequence of its direct appeal to the senses.

Eric Edelman’s animations of the first two verse fragments from the Typewriter Underground modify their source poems quite differently.  In each of these films, text from the poems is displayed visually, rather than delivered by voice-over. A Clack in the Tunnel opens with the poem’s first stanza traveling onto the screen from right to left like a pronouncement from the Oracle.. It hovers shakily long enough for the viewer to read and partially digest its contents. Later on, the poem’s second stanza rises from the bottom of an arched window casement and remains long enough for the viewer to make some sense of it. In the film these stanzas are represented as sentences, disregarding the line breaks that I employed in the poem. Edelman’s use of the text in this instance adheres strictly to its original content, but not to its form. Perhaps more significantly, the film visually incorporates only the first two stanzas of a nine-stanza poem.

While I would describe the visual representation of the text directly employed in the film as a modification of the original, I would characterize its use by the filmmaker as an appropriation. Edelman appropriated the elements of the poem that enabled him to realize the film’s purposes as he saw them, rather than simply seeking to realize the poem qua poem in animated form. Via appropriation of critical elements, Edelman, like Simone and Vee, takes ownership of the poem, and yet, his nominally incomplete rendering accurately establishes for the viewer the fundamental meaning that required nine stanzas of text on the page.

Edelman’s next film, Typewriter Underground Second Fragment, introduces the poem’s text in a different fashion, a scrolling background to an elaborate, animated scene set outside a train station. While the film presents the entire text of the poem, its function as a stage-rear scrim, backing lively action in the foreground, and its introduction in scrolling sections does not preclude, but hardly encourages, its complete reading. We see the text here as both source of and context for the action, providing us with passing clues to what’s going on in the larger underground, without bearing the burden of the telling the whole story.

As filmmaking strategy Edelman’s move is brilliant, calling attention to the text as frame for the visual world he has established, while placing the film’s vital action outside the text. Edelman took my premise of text as catalyst to heart, rendering this meta-function in the film itself.

The other films from the Typewriter Underground are closely keyed to the underlying text in their visual design and progression, and one, Incomplete Sentences, superimposes a single line from the poem on the action, but none of these poems directly communicate the body of the text to the viewer either by voice or words on screen. This can be accounted for in part because the films were produced to be elements in a theatrical production with live readings of the source poems on stage, but the films function well as silent entities with no direct reference to the text. Accordingly, one might read these as coherent visual responses to the underlying poems, a procedural reversal of ekphrasis in which a poem describes a scene or a piece of art.

How did the collaborations come about? Was film part of your vision for the Typewriter Underground from the outset?

Film was definitely part of the vision for the Typewriter Underground. The project envisions an entirely subterranean culture, one that invites participation in its rendering and in its ongoing life. My aim was to stimulate art, music, theatre, dance, film and community.

These particular collaborations came about because Janice Blaze Rocke, the director of the Typewriter Underground’s first theatrical production, integrates film with live action in her literary performance art. (That’s one of the reasons I wanted to work with her.) Janice and I agreed that I would reach out to half a dozen filmmakers, and invite them to make films that would stand on their own, but could  be fully incorporated into the larger production.

In fostering these collaborations, I was interested in variety. I wanted people of different ages, filmmaking styles and genders, hailing from different parts of the country, so I reached out to people whose work I respected and invited them to make films from my poems. I was fortunate that the folks who signed on delivered superb films that traveled stylistically from film noir to theater of the absurd.

What was the role of live performance in shaping both the poetry and films?

That’s a great question. Live performance was crucial to shaping the poems in three ways. First, I constantly voiced the poems as I built them. I tend to process language best when I can hear it, so voicing poems in in development is a natural element of my process. Second, part of my strategy in bringing the Typewriter Underground to life was to introduce the poems in live readings well before making the films, staging the show (and subsequent theatrical experiences), and publishing  the book. I did this most consistently in readings at the San Francisco and Los Angeles Poetry Brothels, but also at poetry readings in more conventional settings like bookstores, cafes, and Venice Beach’s legendary literary venue Beyond Baroque.

Live performance was an element in some of the films, and an anticipatory component in all. The films were designed so that they could be incorporated into a live show with a full-sized cinema screen positioned above the stage on. To give you a sense of what this involved, here’s a single photograph from the show at Henry Miller Library in Big Sur. Jenn Vee’s film Hypergraphic Dakini-Prolixity (top half of the frame) is playing in parallel with Carri Newhouse’s live interpretation of the same character directly below.

live performance of the Typewriter Underground

photo by Sean Shadwell

What can digital poets, including videopoets, learn from the physicality of typewriter production?

A critical lesson is that verse can drive and can inspire physical action. A second lesson is that verse admits to physical interpretation. As I mentioned earlier, such interpretation both animates and delimits an audience’s experience of the underlying material. That being the case, if you want to make poetry that inspires creative action, it’s worth considering with care whether the language you’re shaping invites physical interpretation, and what paths that interpretation might take. The aim in this is not to prescribe the one right way to bring the poem to life, but rather to provide structure and cues that generate fruitful interpretation and that defeat translations and visual renderings that would do it harm.

In The Danger Meditations, I was struck by the images of blindfolded people air-typing, which seemed so to resonate (and contrast) with the way legions of people interact with their screens in public now. Was this your idea, or the invention of the filmmakers?

That was the invention of the filmmakers. As part of her preparation for the film, Ellen Hemphill, who has decades of experience in dance, studied how people go about typing on manual machines, isolated their movements, and then amplified them in the air-typing sequences you see on screen, turning the characters, like the machines they fetishize, into a gathering of typists as the undead—typewriter zombies.

In both Manicotti and The Danger Meditations, transcendent creative geniuses exist somewhat apart from a transgressive underground scene. Is this mainly an exercise in nostalgia for past avant-garde movements dating back to the Romantic revolt, or do you see it as a pattern of continuing cultural relevance? I ask because a new generation of extremely ambitious, prosocial, digital-native poets seems to be challenging many of the guiding assumptions of the poetry establishment, while in practice continuing to compete as lone creators for the same narrow, conventional goals (prizes, print magazine publication, books, academic tenure). Are there serious lessons for poets (and filmmakers) in the Typewriter Underground?

I feel definite warmth toward the bohemian communities of yesteryear.  The characters in the Typewriter Underground are clearly driven by a yearning for the freedom, community, and scruffy life represented by those subcultures. The outstanding figures of the movement share with the Romantic revivalists an indomitable drive toward uniquely individual creative accomplishment, while, as you note, the transgressive scenesters who permeate the Underground are not particularly original, and rather parasitic.

At the same time there are important differences between the Underground and the avant-garde. Avant-gardes were creative movements consciously seeking to reconstruct art and culture on novel terms. Their central motive was to be out ahead of the culture, and they advanced their agenda in dialectical fashion via manifesto. In this sense members of the avant-garde were part of an expressly modern system dynamic. By contrast, the larger world that members of the Typewriter Underground inhabit is post-modern, networked, digitally mediated, increasingly virtual, massively subject to hive mind, and characterized by exponentially accelerating technical innovation. In such a context, the notion that art’s meaning lies in subverting static social convention is absurd.

Consequently, members of the Underground seek meaning and validation by other means, in particular their rejection of the virtual in favor of the tangible. Typists in the Underground do not find solidarity in a quest to be ahead of the crowd, but in an urgent desire to return to the self, to intimate acquaintance, and to passionate pursuit of individual expression, although their aims with respect to the latter range widely. For some, individual expression is a vehicle for making sense of one’s experience (as Mechanical Rust strives to do in the Danger Meditations); for others, a means of arriving at and communicating one’s truths; for a few, like Prolixity and others that you’ll discover in the First Folio, it is a path to transcendence, and for others, simply a form of exquisite indulgence.

There’s a meta-question implicit in your query about continuing cultural relevance: “Why do I make these damaged, driven creative geniuses central figures in the life of the Typewriter Underground? What am I trying to accomplish by putting them there, giving them life, cataloguing their experiences, describing their accomplishments and the social effects of their actions?”

I put these people in the scene because I believe fervently that in a world shaken loose from its foundations, we urgently need strong poets in the way that the late philosopher and cultural critic, Richard Rorty (following Harold Bloom) talks about them. We need determined individuals who aim not to look ahead, but to be real, to be true, to be themselves—not in a dissipated consumerist sense, but in the sense of active cultivation, realization and full expression of their creative potential. And who possess the capacity to do so with the fiercely ironic awareness that everything they do (and everything they believe) might, in the end, be wrong. Such self-possession flies directly in the face of the careerism that you attribute to the ambitious new poets you’re observing in the digital realm. These folks, on your account, are driving radical shifts in form, poetic method, and standards of evaluation, but are procedurally guided by conventional pathways, incentives and rewards. I conceived the Typewriter Underground as a humorous partial answer to that concern, one which, despite its lightness of touch, I hope and believe, will have durable relevance.

How so?

First, by demonstrating the project’s underlying premise that verse can be a creative catalyst for others, rather than simply an exercise in efficient rendering of language; control of the tongue; language and form presented for critical consideration, or, by its tools, tricks and devices,  a song to be enjoyed. Not that these are bad aims, but for me, they are not enough. As cognitive linguist George Lakoff has made plain, our reason is grounded in metaphor. Consequently, as poets, I feel that we ought to make our metaphors count, and that I can make them count best by offering them as the basis for new thinking, fresh imagining and novel action, and by actively inviting others, especially those who work in other media, to explore them with me.

Second, by illustrating in practice how a working poet can make verse catalytic. In the case of the Typewriter Underground, I aimed to do so by imagining a recent, but lost, subculture that is revealed by surfacing fragments of verse. The material that appears is decidedly incomplete, and in places obscure, self-contradictory, laden with references and allusions, not all of which are readily attributable to their original sources. By consciously leaving such gaps, I’m inviting creative minds to fill them, to flesh out the stories, to fully imagine the characters, to dig into the material as a treasure hunter might—exploring where the maps, artifacts and trails of crumbs might lead. I think that’s why these poems appeal to filmmakers and artists.

Underneath this particular procedure lies a deeper set of choices about poetry’s aesthetics and operations. Undertaking this project, for me, entailed a commitment to using verse as a stimulus for a free-form, open-ended communal play experience. In order to invite and secure participation—and for the verse fragments I had created to work their effects—this project had to be funny, but it also had to be fun. Funny is something that makes you laugh in the first instance, fun is something you arrive at through active participation. Given vastly limited resources, for the project to succeed in lowering defenses, provoking curious inquiry, and prompting active creative engagement, it required a rather cracked and deeply layered sense of humor. (In much the same way that the tiny budget for Monty Python’s Holy Grail drove the filmmakers to substitute coconuts for horses in one of the film’s funniest and most memorable gags.)  You can find a lot in Felt’s First Folio if you do the spade work and really dig into the verse.

A central implication of my commitment to using verse as catalyst was that I had to step back from the conventional role of a poet and embrace a different set of challenges and anxieties. If I merely presented this material in book form, then I would be offering it as a book solely to be read, not as evidence of something larger to be engaged, discovered, and explored. If I bound myself to conventional standards of poetic accountability, I would have to make sure that the work was witty, concise and precise, free from stumbles, devoid of cheap puns and other crude devices, and that it pointedly put language first. I could make it playful, but as a “poet,” I would have to take it out of the realm of play.

While that would have been more familiar and far safer, doing so would have destroyed the project’s innovative potential and larger relevance. So I stepped back, and offered the collection as a set of verse fragments, varying in quality, method and style, penned, supposedly, by a group of largely anonymous authors. Rather than putting my name on the cover, and presenting the material as a collection of my verse, which, at the outset, would have demolished the project’s premise, I gathered some of the verse fragments into a First Folio putatively published by a dandy named Swizzle Felt, and his partners in crime Horace Nepenthe Jones and Edamame Phelps. By withdrawing  from convention in these ways, the collection and the verse it contains force us to engage with difficult but promising questions: “What is this thing? And how do I make sense of it?” That’s where the fun begins.

Achieving that kind of fun, and enabling lots of people to join in, isn’t an easy task. Not everyone is going to know where to begin, how to unpack the mysteries or fill in the gaps. For the premise to work, additional operations and procedures are necessary—but what kind?

The obvious strategy would be to turn the Typewriter Underground into an old-fashioned, manifesto-driven movement, but that would take it out of the realm of play and place it squarely back in the realm of aesthetic dialectic. The next close-to-hand strategy would be to make the Underground into some kind of game, adding structure and rules that showed people how to play, in addition to giving them well-delineated points of access, clear boundaries, modes of collaboration and meaningful choices. Turning the Typewriter Underground into a game, though, would undercut its deepest purpose, which is to draw people into a world of strong poetry, and perhaps discover the strong poet in themselves.

“What if instead,” I said, “I see the verse as seeding a larger conversation—and a variety of activities that grew out of this conversation?” The success of the verse would be determined then not by its linguistic efficiency, its elegance of form, or the beauty of its music, although those might be necessary to its effectiveness, but rather by how it was taken up, and what was done as a result.

Who, then, in particular, might be willing to take up verse in this way? Who might want to join in the fun? The answer for me was people who wanted that kind of play experience, people who wanted to explore the bohemian side of life—hence reading to patrons of the Poetry Brothel—and artists, living that life, who might find in the verse and the premises that spawned it vital sources of inspiration.

Marc Zegans at the Los Angeles Poetry Brothel (photo by Amanda Hoskinson)

Marc Zegans at the Los Angeles Poetry Brothel (photo by Amanda Hoskinson)

The idea of using the verse to seed a larger conversation, meant, to my thinking, that I’d have to invite folks to come play in the Typewriter Underground and start contributing to its legend and lore before the book came out. That’s what led me to invite the filmmakers and other collaborators to get on board more than a year before the book was released.

The project, as it turned out, also needed a watering hole, a durable place where people could meet, participate and join in, so about a year ago I created a virtual watering hole in the form of a Typewriter Underground group on Facebook. Ironic? Definitely. It took me a while to take this step because it seemed so counter to the world I was describing, and that I had invited other artists to help me fashion, but I had grown up in the days of punk rock, and during the early years of modern skateboarding. Those experiences significantly influenced my decision to proceed.

A favorite film of mine is Stacy Peralta’s Dogtown and Z-Boys, which documents the origins of the skateboard scene in Santa Monica during the 1970s. There’s a great line in the film delivered by Craig Stecyk, the photographer who covered the scene as it was unfolding. He describes the kids involved as appropriating the urban infrastructure and bending it to their purposes, much as Eric appropriated stanzas of my verse and turned it to his ends. So I said, let’s do the same thing and adapt this piece of social media infrastructure to our purposes, creating a widely accessible portal into the Typewriter Underground. At this point, the group numbers just under 800 people, not huge by social media standards, but man are they real, and man are they interesting. More importantly, the conversation in this group has led to tangible Typewriter Underground activity in real watering holes, most recently in the form of a vaudeville that incorporated several of our films at the Normal Bar in Athens, Georgia.

Returning with a full sense of irony to your point about ambitious digital poets competing to achieve conventional goals within the rather rigid validation structure of the poetry world, the Typewriter Underground is winding its way through those channels as well; it’s just not limited or controlled by them. That I think is a key lesson for poets and filmmakers. Meet this apparatus on your terms, and to the extent that you engage it do so for ends that you value.

Crafting a novel play experience, especially one that isn’t rule-bound, requires more than defining a premise, supplying content, inviting people to play, and giving them a place to hang out; it also demands active nurture. People must feel welcomed, artists well met and appreciated, and stories about shared experiences must be told. As a founding artist, you have to breathe life into your people and the project until it can breathe for itself.

At the end of the day though, the decision to build the Typewriter Underground around an aesthetics of play, rather than elevation of language, and the operational strategies I developed as a consequence would not have been effective if the world, the story and the characters I created did not connect. The people I work with have taken the Typewriter Underground to heart because I’ve introduced them to them strong characters—people with profound limitations, disabilities, and damaged souls; wounded outsiders, who nonetheless have it within them to travel deep underground and emerge from the rubble as strong poets. These are qualities that as people and a culture we will always need. So are these characters and the life they embrace relevant? Yes, now more than ever.

This has certainly been an amazing project, and I love that it’s taken on a life of its own and spawned maybe the first fully formed fan poetry (as opposed to fan fiction) community. It will be interesting to see what other creative projects emerge from that. But what’s next for you as a poet? I mean, where do you go after something like this? I think if it were me, I might just retreat to the proverbial garret and try my hand at a crown of sonnets.

Your idea of retreating to the garret and writing a crown of sonnets has great appeal to me. I did something similar after last summer’s theatrical activities were over, and the book was not yet out. I wrote a very spare chapbook called The Snow Dead.  The method was bone-bare minimalism, extraordinarily careful word choice, and a very precise form.  In contrast to the aesthetic of fun that animated the Typewriter Underground, The Snow Dead’s governing principles are purely poetic. It is innovative, though, within the tradition.

The collection can be read either as twenty-two very brief poems, each on its own page, or as an extended poem, each line, or cluster of lines, placed in a field of snow, its design visually echoing the chapbook’s subject matter and content.  It would be interesting to see how a filmmaker translated this material to the screen. I could imagine a variety of approaches, one would be something very spare and elemental, natural in a Japanese style. I’m very open to ideas about that. Meanwhile, I’m presently in discussions with a fine publisher, and hope to have the collection in print before too long.  I’m also interested in what will happen next in the world of the Typewriter Underground. I do have verse ready for a second folio, am having conversations with theatrical producers on the East Coast, and am eager for new collaborators who want to join in the fun.

Dave Bonta

Dave is the founder of Moving Poems, and posts videos for his own poems (along with lots of other stuff) at Via Negativa. Here's a bio.

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