On Poetry Theater

I should start by saying that, to me, “poetry theater” is redundant. Until certain literary trends of the mid -20th century turned the serious poet into the suicidal scribbler alone in a bare room, poetry was a performing art. At least it was always presented to me as such since my earliest classes on poetry in high school. Poetry was “an oral tradition.” Our earliest epics are stories in verse, and we all know that the best storytellers are usually the best performers. And though the “poetry reading” has managed to stay around — mostly as a promotional tool for selling a book — the performance aspect of poetry that Shakespeare accepted as part and parcel of poetry has disappeared.

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While working on my undergraduate degree in Creative Writing, we were encouraged by both the fiction and poetry faculty to give readings as readings, to present our work aloud.  We were encouraged to give and receive criticism on how we presented the work aloud, apart from what the piece itself was about.  This was especially encouraged by the poetry staff. This insistence on performance as equal to writing not only improved my writing in that it made me aware of audience in a way that a workshop has never been able to, it also encouraged me to take my work more seriously and — more importantly — my responsibility to my work more seriously.  In short, without the performance aspect that was fostered in my undergraduate years, I doubt that I would have pursued writing as vigorously as I did, to the point of a graduate degree in the field.

In graduate school, my greatest disappointment was a heavy emphasis on “the workshop” with an almost complete disregard for the poem as part of an oral tradition.

When a friend came up with the idea for Poetry Theater, I was immediately captivated to see someone vigorously pursuing the performance end of poetry on campus. My undergraduate work firmly convinced me that the poem on the page is only the theory — the performance is the theory put into action.

Poetry Theater not only pursued the performance aspect, but allowed me, as a poet, to work in a three-dimensional plane.

I have performed as part of Poetry Theater on two separate occasions.  Both pieces have been “one-man shows,” monologues. The concerns of both pieces, A Seminar on Hate and Desire and This is London (Not New York), are the same concerns that run through my written work, but the format of Poetry Theater allowed me to explore aspects that the written page hadn’t. Both pieces were fully scripted — note scripted — yet the page was only a stepping stone. The use of audio tracks (be it the taped phone calls in A Seminar on Hate and Desire or the Russian bells of This is London (Not New York)) let me concentrate on the language without the usual page distractions of “setting the scene.” The use of lineated letters projected on screen in A Seminar on Hate and Desire let me see my work visually in a way I had not seen it before. I think I learned more about lineation that night than I had in the two years that preceded it.  The physicality of This is London (Not New York) allowed me to use my body as an integral part of my work. The use of Wordsworth’s poem, “Composed on Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802,” as the basis of This is London (Not New York) allowed me to make a critique of the poem a creative act.

All this is to say that, without Poetry Theater, my creative learning process would have immeasurably lessened.

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On another level, however, seeing Poetry Theater has been a mixed experience. When the piece has “worked” (even if I didn’t especially like the material itself), the poems have taken on a new life. The performances haven’t made them definite interpretations, but they’ve added to the dialogue. In the same way that every translation of a poem is also a critique of the poem, a good Poetry Theater performance has added to my thinking on a given poem or author. Those are the occasions when the performer/author is

  • self-disciplined or
  • thoughtful or
  • considerate or  
  • damn lucky.

At worst, I’ve witnessed  pieces which have been self-indulgent (if I’m in a polite frame of mind) or boring (if it’s been a long day) or irritatingly obnoxious (if it’s been two long days). Thus comes the question of whether, then, Poetry Theater is for the audience or for the performer.  I think it can and should be both. 

I think if the university were to offer a class in performance art (both history of and performance theory) as a prerequisite for Poetry Theater, some of the less-than-interesting moments of Poetry Theater might not have come to pass because:

1.      a theoretical grounding in the what and why of performance might have changed the thinking of the authors/performers

2.      the need to try out something on a audience because the author literally has no outlet might be suppressed in a class that works out pieces before springing them on a crowd that isn’t receiving credit for being here.

I’m convinced that, if a student understands that performance competent of the Futurists, Dadaists and Surrealists weren’t just there to be outrageous, but rather were logical extensions of what they were doing on the page, I suspect the self-indulgent pieces I’ve witnessed in the past might evaporate.

I see, then, Poetry Theater as both an educational end in itself and as a way to extend the MFA poetry program into new creative bounds and new areas of intellectual endeavor, for on creative and critical levels. But I believe that Poetry Theater as a curriculum item in and of itself will not be enough. I believe the Department should be backing it (with funds, number one) but also with classes in performance and in the history of poetry and performance (both classical and 20th Century).

My MFA Poetry Reading List

I can discuss any of the 30 following poets until you — my conversational partner — are comatose.

Major Poets
1. Baudelaire, Charles
2. Dryden, John
3. Garcia Lorca, Federico
4. Gray, Thomas
5. Petrarch
6. Pushkin, Alexander
7. Rilke, Rainer Maria
8. Sappho
9. Villon, François
10. Yeats, W. B.

Minor Poets
11. Atwood, Margaret
12. Bradstreet, Anne
13. Brontë, Emily
14. Brooke, Rupert 
15. Broumas, Olga
16. Crane, Hart 
17. Du Bellay, Joachim
18. H.D.
19. Hopkins, G. M.
20. Housman, A.E.
21. Louÿs, Pierre
22. Mandeville, Bernard
23. Masters, Edgar Lee
24. O’Hara, Frank
25. Owen, Wilfred
26. Poe, Edgar Allen
27. Rossetti, D.G.
28. Seth, Vikram
29. Wieners, John
30. Wilde, Oscar