Heavy cold spring rain beat down upon the grey exterior of St. Marks Church that evening in mid-March. But inside, for the souls who braved the sodden workday New York City weather, was their reward: an unusually innovative hybrid-arts performance. In this non-commercial arts venue, I was among that audience, and had the pleasure of witnessing one of the most original collaborative “poetics” events I have experienced in New York. Writers Carla Harryman and Steve Benson joined with film and musician collaborators from San Francisco to present a multi-media spectacle -- mixing words, music, film, and the visual image of the verbal text.
I have followed Harryman’s performance-poetry work for a number of years now. Author of at least 14 books of hybrid poetry forms of lyric, prose, theater and theory, Harryman is well known in the avant-garde poetry world for the arresting experimentation of her multi-media and conceptual work. I’ve written most recently about her poet’s theater tour de force, Performing Objects in the Subworld, in the recent issue of How2, in a section entitled “Reading Carla Harryman” (edited by myself, with support provided by Dell Olson, How2’s general editor in London). I have long admired Harryman’s radicality as a poet. Her poetry plays, in particular, yoke together visual installation art as well as music and movement, in a way that challenges poetic form itself. Her published texts bring together poetics with narrative, “non/narrative,” and conceptual art practices – and inevitably make one question any position through which “voice,” subjectivity, or even the “reality” of the object world emerges. Harryman is by my definition one of our greatest living American post-modern poets. Her work forces us to keep asking new questions about the very grounds upon which poetic texts thrive and are created and then “exist” -- for a consuming public, “academic” or not.
So I was glad to have been among those who ignored the downpour and rushed to St. Marks to see Harryman (who lives and teaches in Michigan, near Detroit) on stage and in action. But as with any of Harryman’s performance endeavors, the work that I found to be an unexpected feast for the eye as well as ear was happily decentered, multiply injected and infused with other artist energies. Its multiple “players” were diverse – both in terms of bodily presence within the performance arena and the reproduction of sound and vision from so many sources, modes, instruments, methods, treatments. As I listened to the cacophony of sound and sense – playful sound at the edge of sense, or on its rim, so to speak -- I was also stunned by the added dimension of experimental “motion-picture.” The members of the Jon Raskin Quartet provided the haunting multiplicity of instrumental acoustic play. But filmmaker Konrad Steiner provided what was called a “scripted live film narration piece” on two scenes featuring a young version of the French actress Jeanne Moreau. And the “film” was accompanied by the live poetic “voice-overs” of Steiner and Harryman in dialogical debate.
A primary piece first initiated this pattern of structured improvisation for both voice and visual text, a collaborative poetry work by Harryman and Benson – old working comrades who go back to the San Francisco poetry theater of the early 1980’s – with their “alternative” visual-text projected in the background (mirroring but also rearranging their oral duet). In the second film-vocal piece that followed, by Steiner and Harryman, Steiner’s visuals borrowed from the Moreau films Eva (1962 -- dir. Joseph Losey) and La Notte (1961 – dir. Michelangelo Antonioni), first generating images of Moreau as a lithe, sexy “blonde” in a scarf, who disrobes, takes a bath, picks up “matching” books, all to the rhythm of lines by Harryman like:
She’s learned to regard her fragility as the only reality in the world
You own the camera ... when you are before it. ... Do you own your body, your own body?
Early ‘60’s Venetian blinds create shadows behind the female-form / image, reminiscent of film noir’s mysterious effects and enhancing their gender-questing re-use of the film frame. The “re-cut” film then “cuts” itself – in half, if you will -- to scenes of Moreau walking in a post-war city, or banlieu – the wretchedly poor “suburbs,” where a scrappy fight between two young men takes place with Moreau behaving in these sequences more like a female flaneur than emotionally engaged emotive-sexual figure. These sequences concluded with those reproducing the shooting off of rockets in a battered field. Steiner’s voice sings:
Can’t say no to Jeanne Moreau ...
Steiner’s and Harryman’s scripted lines anticipated a follow-up improv piece, in which Benson masterfully generated poetry lines, the “spoken word,” in tandem with the instrumentalists' “response” as well as a new series of film sequences edited, then re-edited on the spot, by Steiner (using, he later told me, a Final Cut Pro program called Motion).
I saw this final piece as self-reflexively performance-visual – in a triangular arrangement: Benson to the stage’s left (from the audience’s perspective), the four members of the quartet with their various crooning and sometimes whining instruments to the far right (Raskin on reeds and electronics, Liz Albee on horns, John Shiurba on guitar, Ches Smith on percussion and drums), and Steiner in the middle -- his back to the audience as he “played” the pre-cut “new” cut “film” (a compendium of shots and sequences from about 30 films) on his digital console. Steiner, too, created improv out of his film reel, generating sudden double exposures, for example, speeding up or reversing film frames – special effects that seemed to jar against a sudden snare drum, the howl of a saxophone, and Benson’s strangely luminous impromptu lines:
Skin contact is very important ...
We own a space by rubbing against the limits of it wherever we can find them ...
It’s not a matter of pretending at all ...
This form of “spoken word” poetics in collaborative invention with the other media worked to push the possibilities of film, the instrumental “chorus,” and poetry all to their own artistic limits. Images of classic movie stars (Cagney, Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor) blended with images from Andy Warhol art films in a “bricolage” effect that mirrored one long memorable sequence: of water, beach, shorelines, doorways ... in which all boundaries became artificial and porous, “the document doctored,” as Benson spoke. The entire effect left the “reality” that is film and poetry both strangely coupled and musically “tuned.” The film effects showed the strangeness I always know exists (as a film critic who teaches classic cinema’s editing elements, like “suture”) behind the so-called “classic” film style. That strangeness seemed especially accentuated when it was wedded with the art-film clips, then reinvented through Steiner’s eerie but likewise enchanting improvisations. The layering of acoustic instrumentals only added to the unusual, unexpected “wedded” union of all three genres and forms. When Elizabeth Taylor writes the words “No Sale” in a big lipstick scrawl on a mirror, I felt the emphatic necessity of this anti-commercial language – a mirror of “languages” that was in action that evening inside St. Marks.
Besides excitement with what I had just seen and heard for my 8-dollar ticket, with what feeling did I leave the performance?
I left with a renewed sense of the complexity of poetry in fusion with – but also “rubbing against the limits” of art – art as “space,” to reframe Benson’s words. This work was less a “wedded” effect than a continual “rubbing against.” Beautiful, haunting, challenging, scratchy. -- LH