If poetry is understood as condensed language, what if we treated performance poetry as condensed speech?
»Through the mouth that I fill with words instead of my mother whom I miss from now on more than ever, I elaborate that want, and the aggressivity that accompanies it, by saying … an attempt to appropriate an oral ›object‹ that slips away and whose hallucination, necessarily deformed, threatens us from the outside.« Julia Kristeva
Stephen Sondheim enlarged my teenage vocabulary with apse, gavotte, vicar, stay (of a corset), rapturous (to rhyme with capture us), and recitative. I assumed ›recitative‹ was an archaic form of ›recital‹ or ›recitation‹, something to be spoken before an audience. His songs reminded me of speech already, especially the incomparable »Barcelona«. Actually, a recitative is sung to mimic natural speech patterns. Voice accompanied by music without being bent all the way to precise meter. Musicalized language.
When I began performing at community readings, I balked at poets slogging, hurrying, and swallowing their poems like it was »reading aloud« practice in third grade. Dare I fault the performer, or is not all poetry meant to be recited? How adaptable are written texts to speaking voices? How does printed text compare to vocal reading, phenomenologically? Poemonthepaper exists all at once. The time of its unfolding depends entirely on the reader. It is silent, arranges visual patterns, occupies geographic space, fits to a page. A poem coming out of someone’s mouth has duration, the timing of which is controlled by the reciter. Aural patterns dominate. Text inherits colonial authority and classbased literacy. One’s voice inherits nostalgia for oral cultures, folklore, gathering round Gramma for a tale. These simple (simplistic?) comparisons fascinate me. If most poets write »for the page«, either with a view toward publication, out of stage fright, pressure to conform, or conventionality, what would it mean to write »for the stage« i.e. an audio recording?
Then I discovered this strange, marginal genre: poem videos. I laid my voice over collaged footage and a soundtrack, delving deeper into the relationship between textonpaper and a poem in the poet’s voice. I found a blog, The Poetry Storehouse, that deconstructed, in fact, this falsely profound »poet’s voice«, and I criticized the prescriptive rhythms of slam poetry to a friend. Recording and listening to my own voice folded back on itself, altering the way that I approached writing as I played with slang, dialect, accent, colloquialisms, madeup idioms, and sound effects.
Gag. Hack. Beep. Guffaw. Giggle. Chirp. Cluck. Suck. Yawn. Buzz. Cough. Gurgle. Purr.
Whistle. Wheeze. Hmm. Spit. Click. Whoop. Swear. Gnash. Hum. Smooch. Hail. Burp.
If poetry is understood as condensed language, what if we treated performance poetry as condensed speech? Which elements of meaningmaking can I activate with my voice, apart from denotation? Sarcasm serves as the most accessible example. We have trouble identifying sarcasm from a phrase or sentence alone because its meaning exists in context and intonation. There’s smaller chunks of meaningmaking with inflection; the verb subject changes to the noun subject. I began listening to poem videos with an ear toward how much of the meaning or interest could be found in the voice itself: musicality, intonation, emotion, pausing, breathing, whispering, air quotes, slurs, contractions, etc. I wanted to find not only fair renditions of canonical work, but recitations that bordered on recitative, poets taking advantage of colloquial speech and wielding their voice as an instrument, rather than an afterthought. For example, winter beyond winter (2016) by Jonathan Schwartz features the heartrending reading of an uncredited Cormac McCarthy excerpt by a young boy. The awkwardness of his belaboring voice emphasizes the child’s fragility and need for protection directly explored by the narrative, while the fact of his live reading contrasts with mortality and abandonment.
Psst. Huh? Zzzz. Ow. Phew. Gotcha. Blah blah. Eeek. Ahem. Naw. Nom nom. Ew. Hafta. Gonna. Ugh. Ssh. Pshaw. Gack. Oops. Wazzat? Mmmm. Humph. Grrr. Duh!
Through preparing for live performances or audio recordings, each of my poems changed shape on the page as a consequence of acting more as script than manuscript. I italicized words to indicate enunciation, not emphasis. I underlined to remind me to lift the inflection. I emboldened phrases that needed to slow down. Then I began editing poems auditorily. I’d lay down a rough track, listen, and notice hiccoughs or repetitions that hadn’t been obvious without my externalized voice echoing to me. An external mic and fancy headphones helped. Poems edited this way were easier to memorize and recite, hence audiences reacted to them with more emotion.
Through vocal recordings, I intended to exploit the contrast between denotative meaning and perceptual meaning. Write a love poem designed to be read in a menacing tone. Or a violent narrative meant to be recited by a lilting, naive flirt. In my own practice, as I pick at the notion of consent, this became increasingly rich and fertile territory: transgressing the authority of the poemtext through aggressive characterization of a particular subjectivity. Probably the most successful experiment in this vein is, »Are You Hurt«. With initial concern and compassion, the speaker asks, »Aw, are you hurt?« as though offering assistance. »Someone hurt you«. The concern sours to mocking disbelief, doubting the injury and targeting vulnerability. »I’m sorry! I’m sorry someone hurt you!« Finally, it builds to an uncensored fury, like the injured addressee has the audacity to claim victim status and implicate the speaker. I knew this piece worked when a poet told me she had been »doing« the voice for her friends, as though singing a new favorite song. The poem became something to try on, to try out, to voice. It skipped the page altogether.
Critics who favor subtitlelike text or animated text on the screen believe the silent words leave open multiple valences of meaning. Indeed, one can approach a singlevoiced interpretation of a poem, especially one that you didn’t write, as closing down or freezing a single tone. However, I prefer to think of the vocal track as a place to destabilize, expand, queer, or jolt the poem »as it is«, and invite the audience to consider elisions or excesses created in the gap between wordsonthepage, script, and vocal performance.
Other people’s words lobbed and flung at me. Regurgitated, acidic. Confrontation.
Appropriation. Whose words are they? They sound like my voice.
About the author
Primarily a performance artist, Julian Mithra dramatizes work to trouble audiences. And, as their mentor says, »Being disarming is disarming.« During live and recorded readings, they risk dissolving boundaries to display real-time emotional experiences. Each reading presents an immersive experience, as they appear in handmade costumes, pass out print matter, and perform with »voices« as a way of establishing a cast of characters. Their content centers on those ekeing out an existence on the border, frontier, and margins, claiming pockets of folk authority, and undermining their own earnestness.
Julian’s related creative work – under Sara Anika Mithra – includes experimental videos, one of a kind chapbooks, and ephemera collage zines. In California, they’ve formally studied material culture, narrative, and the mythic American West, earning a Masters of Art in Folklore from University of California, Berkeley.
Check out unsettling audio tracks on Soundcloud.com/sara-anika-mithra and watch soft focus found-footage videos on vimeo.com/saramithra.