What might a reading do?
What is the scope of our insistence on the plurality of address in contemporary experimental poetry? What are the implications of articulating, either by direct or inverse means, a polis whose basis is the entrainment of a readership into a productive and necessary milieu through which to act, to respond, to engage? How does this process relate to poetry’s designs on the folk, the people of which a community of poets is always a slight but inevitable instance? What are the designs of the people upon the poets? What are the ramifications of the activation of space in a play called The Reading for, in the first instance, the people who were there and for whom that space becomes radically theirs, and in the second instance for everybody else? How much does everybody else even matter, or do they remain a they, a kind of vaguely intimidating, abstractly regressive and unproductively somnambulistic Das Man until entrained into the utopian projection of our superabundance of desire? What, in any given reading or performance, can possibly be said to be assumed?
There are two things, I think, to come to terms with before attempting to untangle this deafening masque. The first is that in order to bridge the void between subjectivities the social space which subtends, contains and often undermines those subjectivities must be addressed holistically as well as fractally, preferably at the same time, or at least in the same breath. The second is that the notion of “preaching to the converted” is nonsensical when applied to the Arts, and poetry in particular, first because it assumes that there are only two possible states of play at stake, those of pre- and post-conversion, after which the infinite variety and radical potential of language slides like dribbles of iced latté down the polyethylene meniscus of the initiate's perception; second because “preaching” re-enforces a performer/audience dichotomy that is far less interesting than the active listening which is the axis of social space and of which both speaking and remaining silent are variegated articulations. This is to say that the potential for “creating culture” as opposed to, or perhaps parallel with, “reproducing it”, in Marianne Morris’ terms, are not diminished or somehow reduced in power or scope because the same people go to the same readings all the time. This is not a memorandum to my friends in the business, and I am not advocating an insular and reductive micro-dystopia of writers and performers selected for their collective genome’s compatibility with the esoteric knowledge of experimental poetic technique. Rather, I mean that the very cognizance of friendship, our ability to know each other and to express that knowledge, to work and thrive in the sun of it, is what could be at stake at readings and performances that enact certain desires and put such forces into play. The important question is not how to get more people interested in experimental poetry, but what to do with the ones that already are. In any case, I don’t believe that the same people do go to the same readings all the time; but I do believe that it is a certain quality of poetic disclosure that enables access to that “we” I want to talk about, as well as to its constituting subjectivities, whoever comprises and constitutes “us”, all of whom “I” desire to know as far and as productively as possible.
This then, is a political activation, however we qualify the instance of polis. What we can do to activate the space we inhabit. “My true readers”, says Dorn in the foreword to his Collected Poems, “have known exactly what I have assumed”, and Morris makes a similar, collectively appropriate point:
“a poetry like ours – that’s mine and my poetic colleagues’ – in fact relies on shared experience, both in criticism and engagement with performance as well as in a tacit understanding that a way must be found in poetry of speaking with more than one voice. This is why you see the first person plural pronoun in so much of this poetry – my own included: the ‘we’ that creates community, even where there is none…”
Morris, writing in the face of a deeply cynical, throw-away attack on the Infinite Difference anthology in the TLS, is keenly aware that the views expressed in the “review” were not meant to engage in debate or productive discourse, but simply blank and irreproachable, a derisive snort in the direction of a casual public whose proxy nostrils are cleared by the chummy, hairless tone of arrogant condescension, and as such her comments on the work to be done are directed to her poetic colleagues – Know your enemy is less useful didactic knowledge here than Know your friends, and less important. What then, should we assume? I said just now that it is a certain quality of poetic disclosure that enables access to this “we”, and stopped short of defining poetry as a constitutive force of the reflexively defining first person plural as Morris does. This is because I believe that whilst poetry can give ourselves to each other more truthfully than the static notion of self could bear, the skin-line not a burr thrown up against the world but finally a series of valves or ultra-porous access points through which we contain, refute, are filled and desired by the world, the potential for affinity must surely be pre-requisite for a community to come together and to effect that constitutive “we” in the first place. Community cannot just be created “even where there is none”, but only where “we” desire it to come into being by knowing each other more profoundly than we could by merely having similar preferences for original modes of language use? First of all, we must desire it. We must desire the dialectics of difference to be put to the use of poetic knowledge in order for our capacity for love to be more fully realised. The point is perhaps pedantic and in any case may be elucidatory instead of contradictive. And the first person plural pronoun can of course be put to other uses than those of highlighting our particular historical and collective endeavour, not least to worry that conception and keep us wary of complacency, to indicate other, perhaps more subtly mendacious and illusory methods of collective identity that the widest “we”, the human race, are constantly compartmentalised into, whether productively (not to mention usefully, willingly, falsely or painfully) or not.
Posie Rider & Jow Lindsay’s reading on Friday night assumed much less than it would perhaps be safe to assume a Cambridge Reading Series night of experimental avant-garde poetry would assume, but by this very play was able to open up a space in which the performance of the reading constantly flirted with, insulted, disparaged, castigated, comforted and barely became a means of effecting a communitas based upon what was already there, what we already have, and what we might possibly become. Recent national political discourse was both appropriated and mocked, but also re-constituted into the political space of the reading, tracing a line of constant watchfulness over the machinations universally predicated upon and in the name of the folk whilst at the same time tragically powerless to prevent those machinations from organising/mobilising satirical negations & refutations of constructed collective identity. The creation of the radical experimental “we” through such a gathering was tempered with a dangerously isomorphic “we” of satirical invective and absurdist comedy, the laughter of the audience perhaps the most realistic effect produced by the Wagnerian, mythological, polysemous diatribes flitting between the two barely realistic personas of the poets. The potential for a delineation of a universal WE to be reductive and obscurantist is enormous, and these are the precise means by which corporate advertising and party political affiliation seek to homogenise humanity into demographics and target audiences destined only for differences in the vagaries of their consumption and tactical voting preferences. To say, as I believe I heard Posie Rider say, that “we are the poets laureate” in the midst of an exhausting and increasingly overwhelming dialogic code is a re-appropriation of a political right and the creation of, or at least the exciting image of, a fragile community existing, fleetingly, in the heart of the multi-national flux of assumed identity. What is “assumed”, that is, taken as given, a priori, implicit, hereby becomes inverted to be that which is passed over in haste, ignorance or ambivalence, and what must be attested in the act of the reading is the (newly) human capacity for engendering caucuses of radical community so that we may attain enough trust to assume in the positive sense once more. The figures of Jow Lindsay and Posie Rider are mythological tricksters, ever playing with our trust in assuming that we are assuming the same thing/s as the poets we heed. We are not simply given to assume that we can all trust each other and can therefore sing together the firmament of the new world, but rather the intimidation and awkwardness these trickster aspects produce in the audience (for example, naming specific people in the audience, something I’ve seen Lindsay do a number of times both in improvised performance and in published work) work to make the sense of place more malleable in order that we may mould new ways of listening to and being with each other. Those moments of joyous augmentation, (self-)plagiarisation and re-organisation result in a mixtape-like quality that presents not only a plurality of voice, but voices of real collective experience and instantaneous memory.
Only by carving difference into the universally reductive notion of humanity itself can we become truly human, and by dint of this, humane. That is the axiom at work on the macro-level of experimental poetry communities and the micro-level of the individual reading.
This is also how readings act theatrically without becoming theatre. The creation of such communitas is contingent upon its only lasting as long as the reading itself, its durational nature perhaps the key to the feeling of common endeavour, even if only articulated negatively. Lindsay’s exhaustive prose performances are, I think, a beautifully doomed attestation of the occasion of the reading as the productive mechanism by which communities are made, defining themselves against both an undifferentiated humanity-at-large replete with built-in sensors to detect love, companionship, truth & beauty as well as by more positivist means declaring a space for the activation of radical subjectivities inexpressible within the nexus of the everyday uses of language. The temporality of the reading as play is therefore the crux of the meaning of the performance in terms of its delineation of our time, our language, our wound, our response. It is the proper occasion of song which frames and therefore reveals the event itself as constitutive of a collective grand narrative forged from the desire of those for whom pre-packaged national, gender, ethnic or sexual identities have become useless and restrictive.
How might all this relate to wider conceptions of the people, the folk, the inhabitants of Universe City? I’m as yet unconvinced that it does, or even has to. I am convinced, however, that these trousers somehow contain the answers we all seek.