This post is the first of what will be a few write-ups of my experiences at the Poetry Off the Page Symposium, held at the University of Arizona Poetry Center last weekend (18-20 May). Rather than provide a comprehensive account of everything, the following and subsequent posts aim to get my thoughts, musings, ramblings and questions into some kind of articulation. If any attendees end up reading this, I welcome input through comments on the event!
By way of introduction, The symposium ran from 18-20 May 2012, and was organised by the University of Arizona Poetry Center (whose Executive Director is Gail Browne). The event curator was Annie Guthrie, who did an outstanding job, both in her programming of the event and in keeping events as much to schedule as could be reasonably expected given the performance nature of so many events. My thanks to both Annie and Gail for this event – a departure from the poetic norm for which I hunger!
The symposium’s reception was a time to mingle and and check out the installed works throughout the Poetry Center’s library and upstairs areas, including Christine Hume’s installation piece Pillowtalk (Covers): a Sonic Insomnia, a table of pillows with integrated speakers that encourage participants to sit, heads firmly on desk pillows, and play the work into their ears. Perhaps it was the reception Corona, but there was not much of a chance of me surviving such comfortable participation for longer than 5 minutes without waking up several hours later. I had to keep moving!
Christine Hume, “Pillowtalk”
Of particular relevance to the readings that were to follow were Claudia Rankine’s The Situation series of films. The symposium site describes these short films as
video essays [that] speak to national and international moments in contemporary culture and address our visually saturated culture by bringing language to the images we consume. The series attempts to juxtapose temporal memory alongside historical critique through the layering of sound and image.
The moments captured or represented on the screen were therefore highly charged with their social, cultural or historical contexts. Particularly in the cases of Situations 1, 3 and 5, I found that the layers of noise or visual effects fragmented these moments and their temporal specificity, introducing an abstraction compounded by occasional repeated phrasings. The famous World Cup Zinedine Zidane incident, for example – a flash of a moment in literally the final moments of the footballer’s career – is stretched across several minutes, with the stop-start frame stretching making the incident an achingly slow build-up whose climax is at once the basis for the film yet at the same time relatively inconsequential in the scheme of the holistic work. Likewise, with Situation 3, the screen noise, garish and technologically foregrounding, masks and then reveals horrific, graphic depictions of the dead.
Rankine’s presentation further contextualised the works, showing an additional film not (as far as I could tell) focused on a specific historical moment as in the case of the The Situation films, but instead reciting the accounts of several black interviewees relating their experiences of being pulled over by the police. Alongside this, a suitably quotidien coverage of black youths in a clothing store – pointedly mundane and inconsequential.
Prior to Rankine’s talk, Christine Hume gave a performance of her sound work, Speech Talks Back, a documentary-/essay-poem whose spoken text was placed in dialogue with the materials being used alongside. References to Gregory Whitehead were well placed in the piece, as Hume (I believe?) used some Whitehead, before using overlapping and looping of archived speech / interview language, including 911 call sound from the Travon Martin incident, and Steve Reich’s Come Out, which utilises a short quote from one of the Harlem Six to overlap itself, slightly out of sync, before becoming increasingly distorted and unintelligable. Eventually these looping structures transition into seemingly pure rhythm, overriding the semiotics of the phrase. The sentence looped begins to sound like a distorted heartbeat, or a piece of industrial machinery. This is perhaps a suitable comparison, since machinery can also mean the apparatus at work behind abstract systems, such as language and culture / politics, and these are the very machinations that are being interrogated.
Cecilia Vicuña was up next, and gave a (semi?-) improvisational talk for the symposium. Beginning by literally threading the audience with long strands of woolen material, she then spoke through various degrees of noise, volume and clarity to deliver the talk. Imagine a gentler-sounding version of Diamanda Galás’ vocal gymnastics and you may get an idea in terms of the noise/clarity dichotomy, though that comparison is admittedly inadequate. Vicuña’s account of the process noted that, despite her desire to “thread” the people of Tucson in her preparations for the talk, the heat meant that there were hardly any people to thread. Instead, she threaded landscapes and other animals, and of course, us, the audience, into her poetic body.
It seems appropriate to consider a thread of my own to close the post. To me, what ran through all three of these performance-talks was the importance of the noise element to sense, and to the delivery of the voice as carrier / personalisation / ownership of language. Noise seemed to me to be fundamental in the foregrounding of its opposite – of those intense moments of clarity of language and/or historical significance. These were subsequently often humorous (Vicuña) or, as in the case of Hume and Rankine, horrific. Yet they always complicated themselves through the displacement of vocal authority either through displaced recitation (the relating of accounts of experiences of release from prison, and being pulled over in Rankine) or through noise filtration (the dynamics of the voice in Vicuña or the source materials of looped / filtered vocals in Hume).