Thursday, January 10, 2008

Short Thoughts on Performance and Poetry

The Hindu Literary Review this week has - count them! - five articles on poetry, with at least one that only tangentially touches on the poetry. This is astonishing, because if poetry gets mentioned at all the Lit Review, it is when books are reviewed. At least one part of this issue's emphasis on poetry, I suspect, is because of the Poetry with Prakriti Festival.

In the lead article of the LR Rajaratnam says of Vivek Narayanan's readings, that he

strolled across the bookshelves in Landmark “assaulting” the unsuspecting public with his verses. His reading was experimental (as is his poetry), often defying notions of fixity and permanence. Laced with humour, cynicism and bold stylistic devices, his reading up-fronted the element of theatricality, avoiding passivity of objectification.

Now, I must confess that in Prakriti's enterprise of 'taking poetry to the unsuspecting public', this aspect of how one ought to approach a reading is the one that had me baffled. And location has nearly everything to do with this question. Art Galleries, for instance, are spaces where people are not likely to wander in without purpose; whereas bookshops or cafes definitely are. So it would have been safe for me to assume that the audiences at Forum or Apparao were there because they wanted to be and not because they were 'unsuspecting' and unaware of what was in store for them. That puts me, the reader, in control of the proceedings.

But what of Landmark? How ought a poet to approach an audience that is not traditionally arranged - in chairs in front of the reader, listening with rapt attention - but scattered, and though occupying the same space as the reading, wandering in and out of it through stages of attention and diversion?

Vivek's approach of refusing the stage and wandering around with the potential audience while engaging them in conversation before reading out a poem is one way. It is radical and different from regular performances where readers take the stage, either sitting or standing and either recite their poems from memory - as Anjum Hasan does - or read them out while occasionally notating their work with brief sketches of the circumstances of the poem or a few words about the poem itself.

I thought back to other readings. And the thought occurred to me that such a radical involvement of the audience is possible even while never leaving the designated spaces that divide audience from author.


I know most of my poems. I don't often need the book in my hand except as moral support and because I'm eternally pessimistic and expect disaster (what if I forget my poem!) This gives me ample opportunities to look at the audience. I know who has their eyes closed and their feet up but who will look up sharply when there's a sudden change in tone; I know the restless ones, the one surreptitiously checking text messages, or doodling; I know the ones who look at me while I'm reading but look away when I look at them.

It's this last bunch that I've been thinking of. Why would they look away? I've taught in classrooms and read other people's work in front of audiences, and in those cases nobody looks away when I catch their eye. Why, then, would poetry affect them this way?

Could it be because poetry occupies territory that appears dangerously personal (people often want to know of poets, how much of their work has its origins in the quotidian events of their lives) so that to speak it aloud and look someone in the eye while doing so is to say, 'You're a stranger, but I'm letting you into my life. Listen.'?

Does reading poetry impose an intimacy on the listener that is tolerable only to the extent that they maintain the illusion that they are distanced from it both spatially and emotionally? That is is okay for the audience to watch the performer, but the minute the performer watches the audience watching her, some barrier has been dissolved?

And what does this say about methods of performance and how to adapt them to locations where such strategies are not possible - such as Landmark, where eye contact is not possible except where it is imposed on the listener by other means such as Vivek adopted?

I don't know. Any thoughts?


??! said...

As somebody who was not there, I'm all for the idea of a poet wandering round the shop declaiming verse. Innovative and brilliant. However, I rather suspect if I was there, I'd have a terrible compulsion to sock them one for disturbing me while I was quietly browsing, or at the very least, hush them loudly.

Also, I have this hilarious picture of you trying the same as Vivek, jumping out of corners at unsuspecting people and going "When I say you, I really mean I...". Tooooo funny.

swar said...

'why do they look away?' i think its less to do with poetry and more with a very common reaction. we like observing people surreptitiously. we like the fact that our object is unaware of our attention. it gives us the power to observe ruthlessly and imagine our own conclusions. but if the object gives back the attention, the power has to be shared and as we are occupying a civilized environment, accepted norms of politeness have to be followed. it takes quite sometime to give up that power and the best way to adjust to this immediate change is to look away. looking away is determined by things like: own self of worth and knowledge of the object. lets say a poet is my object, i know poetry insufficiently, i am shy but i am in a crowd. i will use the comfort of the crowd to observe the poet but i know little of all the buzz goin on. the poet by chance turns to me. i will turn away. why? damn, my face must be showing i was just watching because it was fun and not listening. AND i don't want to engage in something i don't know much. guilty pleasure sorta. and those ding-dong questions - why did the poet decide to choose me for a gaze-on? m i looking stupid? will other people also start looking at me now because this damn poet is staring at me? how m i supposed to look back now? should i nod or should i smack my lips? see, its lotsa effort to be the aware object. didn't i just come for a poetry session? not some poet stare? the mind is tricky, huh.

swar said...

is narayanan a good performer?

thats the most vital question for me. whether he is assaulting with verses or silence.

??! said...

The more I think of it, the more I believe having you stalking around bookshops orating poems to people is a brilliant idea.

Please can somebody convince her? And please can they also film her? Please?? I'll pay!

equivocal said...


Thanks for this. Since neither you nor any of the commenters thus far were actually there at the performance, I'd like to clarify some things. :)

I personally don't mind members of the audience looking away at all (i do so myself when listening to a poet)-- as long as I have their ears. Looking away, which includes self-protection, is an audience member's right, and it may assist in the grasping of the poem! Rather, eye contact is something I , as someone reading his poetry, feel I owe them. Can I look them in the eye and believe in what have I written? Might there be words or lines of mine that, when said to them, fall false? These can be read in my eyes also.

The landmark thing (or rather, the opening minutes of the landmark thing) had two parts--

1) with a cordless mike in hand I go up to individual people, maybe in the greeting cards or stuffed toys section, and ask them if they can remember any poetry, do they like it, would they mind if I read them a poem? The challenge for me here was the terror of reading (and speaking) to a stranger one on one. Would he or she run away from me? Could I, from among my set of poems sometimes considered "difficult", find poems that would speak to him or her? In these two trial performances, this meant Account of his Fall, Homeless Man Washing His Foot in the Bathroom of a Bus Station, and Shireeza, the last of these poems reserved for men, especially young impressionable men.

I thought people might run away from me, yell at me, or look at me with that baffled, hostile, suspicious look I often get from official poetry audiences. One man did run away from me before I could read him anything – a literary type I suspect – but everyone else listened with close attention and patience. There were no absolutely ecstatic replies, a little embarrassment, some appreciation and only one person who joined the official audience area.

Each reading was a test – we are all intimate with our poems -- I was happy to have done it and I would do it again. In part this idea was somewhere triggered by that wonderful anecdote about Walt Whitman declaiming Shakespeare at the top of his voice on the New York city trams, to build up the courage to release Leaves of Grass into the world! Now that’s public poetry for you—who would be so lucky as to have heard Walt Whitman reciting Shakespeare on a tram! I would recommend this one to all—regardless of personality. You don’t have to hide and jump from somewhere!

-2) since I had a cordless mike, whose range reached most of the store, the whole of (1) was meant as a kind of introductory “poetry radio” for a remote audience, sitting in the official audience area or standing elsewhere in the store, near the speakers. This audience certainly didn’t have to look at me, nor I them. I started doing that not because it would be a good gimmickry, but because there were a couple of poems that I wanted to read that were too intimate – one in particular about the deaths of some friends – to read directly. In fact, this is the part that also unnerves many— some say they feel like the voice is coming from inside their head— but I mean it as an honest exploration of remote performance and of trying to establish an intimacy with sound alone: a situation where, precisely because of the lack of eye contact or even visibility, neither the performer nor the audience member feels a pressure to perform.

??! said...

Dem. And here I was thinking the whole thing involved you cornering people and spouting poems, at which they would run away because of the wild gleam in your eyes, forcing you to chase them round the store...still spouting away.

Will someone please make a short of this scenario?

That said - good going. That must have taken some guts. Am glad it worked out. Would you do it again, though? And if so, how would you do it differently?

equivocal said...


How I would do it next would depend on where I would do it, I guess.

That's about all I can say-- it seems next to impossible for me to tell by myself whether my performances worked out or not, since I never saw them. Anyway, the "good" or "bad" performance discussion only interests me up to a point. It would be lucky to have a genuine and honest piece of distilled communication, rare as that is.

equivocal said...

Oh-- and I should mention that even when I was reading close to single strangers, I was fine with them looking down, or away, especially when listening. So I guess it's not just about looking but also about presence or absence-- "address" in all its senses.

lekhni said...

Why would I look away? Well, as long as you are looking elsewhere, I am still an anonymous member of the audience. If you start reciting poetry looking at me, it feels as if you are singling me out. Any moment, I expect everyone's eyes to turn towards me. So I look away.

And anyway no one in any scenario is comfortable with people staring at them for more than a second or two.

equivocal said...

Lekhni-- yes, and I think the single people I read to in the store were more comfortable and themselves since they and the official audience couldn't see each other.

Space Bar said...

??!: Just for one minute, you gave me a heart attack. I wondered where you'd read that poem until I remembered Muse. :D

Swar: Yes, that is it. But, though I have no way of backing this up, I still feel there's a difference between other kinds of communication, where the listener is obviously 'receiving' something (as in a classroom) and a performance, where s/he can be detached and watching until a direct look pulls her in and makes her complicit.

I agree entirely when you say it's about the power.

Equivocal: Just to clarify - I hope I didn't make any statements about your performance out of ignorance. I was trying to understand what the strategies of communication should be in places like Landmark. And the reason I have been thinking about it was because my approach was clearly wrong; and I can only rectify it in retrospect, in my list of hat-ifs.

You make some very interesting points about poetry being heard in the presence of the poet, about 'owing' the listener eye contact about some poems being to private to be read where people can see you and you can see them. There's much to think about in your response - thanks.

It appears that the less intimate the space, the broader the gestures of inclusion need to be. So while mere eye contact can make a regular reading intimate, other spaces would need other strategies.

Lekhni: that is certainly one part of it. But like Swar said - see above - there are so many other micro shifts in thought that occur that are fascinating to separate and thing about.

??! said...

you gave me a heart attack
heheh - one is nothing if not ingenious.

Back to the main topic (more seriously this time) a listener, I think I would be one of those who wouldn't look at the reader. Partly because of the reasons described above, but partly because I prefer to hear them without distractions - a bit like listening to music with your eyes closed.

Yes, the poet's facial expressions may add to it, but I tend to find more nuances in just listening.

swar said...

equivocal: A genuine and honest piece (of distilled communication) comes out of a good performance. we must not be so naive to assume that the the goodness of the heart and intention are the only tools to deliver a piece honestly. we must also not underestimate the critical instinct of a single or collective audience assessing an act. drawing out a conversation and inserting a performance into it is NOT common human behaviour. it falls under the broad definition of ACT. and ACT needn't be seen as a pretense. Take it as a legitimate instrument used to achieve a discernment. It is like the phenomenon of reflection. You propagate a word, a gesture or a mood to the audience - the surface. the audience will throw back something to you, which you will receive and use it to either examine the response or your own ACT. you don't need to step outside the performance to know if it worked or not. you just get it and you just know it. the more you perform, the more you will pick up these tiny, intangible shrapnels from yourself and the audience. thats how a genuine, honest piece comes out. from consistent grinding. it comes neither by luck nor with those good shepherds of the Lord.

If you deceive yourself thinking 'Oh, I am not performing. I am just reading my poem honestly.', you won't have much to give to the audience and they won't give you back much in return. by audience, it can just be the single person you caught with a teddy bear or those on designated chairs.

trust me, its possible to do it one on one, even if its a 1000-seater audi.

km said...

That film that ??! wants to finance...well, I want to watch it.

dipali said...

If not film, then an audio recording at the very least, pliss.
I have never attended a poetry reading.(Confesses sheepishly).
I might look away, I dunno.

Space Bar said...

km/??!/dipali: what fun! shall we do it? make a film with poets chasing folk down the aisles, reciting their poetry. and for effect, perhaps one person should stop somewhere - maybe near a display of swiss knives - and recite Invictus" in retaliation.