Given that someone else wrote each phrase picked up for a found poem or contributed to a performance poem, who is the author? The person who arranges the lines? The one who shapes the outcome by providing a frame? Can authorship be collective or truly collaborative?
"...what I didn’t realize myself at the time, is that, at the rate of a single line, the self can only express itself as a flicker, at best. Things get equalized..."
This is a very interesting observation to me. Combined with Vivek's request early on, for contributors to read the poems and let him know if 'their' line has been left out, it raises some very important question of authorship which is intricately connected to the issue of selfhood.
Every contributor will recognise her line in the poem. No one listening to the poem, however, will know just by listening to it once (or even reading it several times), who the author of any given line was. This raises some fundamental questions with regard to that loaded word, 'style', which is a unique expression of selfhood. What is the smallest unit of style?
With found poems, where lines are picked up from the oddest sources - grocery lists, advertisements, warning labels, a phrase from a book that falls open at a random page - authorship is even more distant because it is either already obscured or so diluted that it is impossible to separate the 'self' that created a certain order of words from the one that rearranges them. It is and yet is not, like the act of stringing any sentence out of a common pool of words that belong to nobody and everybody.
One question that this throws up for me is, what is the purpose of rearrangement? Is it a quest for 'meaning', whatever that is? If the arranger of lines is finding out things as she goes along, is it apparent in small parcels of revelation, each incomplete and provisional until the next line is placed? Is it an intuitive process where you have no reason in the present moment for arranging lines in a certain way, but retrospectively reasons - or possibilities- suggest themselves?
A question that Falstaff raised was one that I see as a question of sentience. If a machine were to do the randomising, would the audience know? Would they be able to tell the difference between what the machine did and what a human mind - each one individual with its own history of lived experiences; a self, in other words - produced? (Do machines have a sense of self? Is it different from the selfhood of the programmer?)
If agency is a function of selfhood, how does a contributor see her work when it is a small part of a whole which she had no hand in ordering? When I pick up phrases for a found poem, sometimes I cannot even trace it back to the creator. Even if I could, it is unlikely that I would seek permission to use a phrase any more than I would write to the executors of John Lennon's estate to ask permission to name my blog in this particular way. This tendency to quotation and sly reference is so much a part of our consciousness that ownership becomes a very rocky terrain to negotiate.
Approaching this from another direction altogether, it is possible to view this as an exercise in taking poetry back to its incantatory source. If one imagines the contributions as the items to be used in a ritual, each item contributed by a person who will 'give up' their offering and stand back to be a witness to some mysterious alchemy, then the arranger is mage and prophet, seer and wielder of great power. Power that is willingly invested in him or her. In such a scenario, the act of arrangement relies not only on repetition but also on drama, on the liturgical on a notion that agency lies elsewhere, outside the community but invoked by its presence.
I'm not sure how I feel about that. But it occurs to me that poetry emerged out of such situations too often for it to have lost all meaning as process even now. I'm thinking here of the construction of epics, religious texts, and long narratives composed by no one author.
These are fairly unordered thoughts, too long to have left as a comment on Vivek's blog but the nice thing about these discussions is that though they happen piecemeal they contribute to a larger conversation wherever it happens to take place.
Update: It occurs to me that it might help to set out clearly the different posts that this discussion refers to.
1. The Invitation that started the experiment.
2. The lines as they were received.
3. Google Gong, where Vivek sees what happens when uses the search string 'I heard'.
4. And the one really ought to be discussing, I Heard It Is One Of May Possibilities.
5. Also, his Further Thoughts on the arranged poem.
6. Falstaff's post.