A quick review- the first of many, I hope- of a reading held at Small Press Distribution in Berkeley, California on Wednesday, January 11th, 2017 featuring Kristen Kosmas, Lisa Rogal, Claudia La Rocco, and Daniel Owen.
For years now I’ve lived something in the order of a mere stone’s throw away from (the legendary? I feel like it’s legendary) Small Press Distribution in Berkeley, California. Yesterday evening, for the first time- I am ashamed to admit- I finally visited for one of their many poetry readings. The reading popped up in my Facebook timeline, as these sorts of things tend to do, and since it’s the beginning of the year and I’m still in touch with my desire to do certain things I traditionally don’t, I decided to go*. Also since it wasn’t raining yet, and wasn’t scheduled to do so until midnight or so, I decided to walk. Once there and sat surprisingly comfortably with about twenty or so other folks in SPD’s front office, I realized that thinking about the rain as something schedulable was a bit ridiculous: soon from a skylight I imagine would be extremely pleasant to have during any given work day came the tell-tale pitter-patters of intermittent East Bay raindrops. It was the sort of reading, luckily and however, wherein the anxiety that I might have had in regards to the possibility of having to walk home through said rain never won out over my ability to give my attention to the readers. Also luckily, it stopped raining before I had to walk home.
Kristen Kosmas, playwright, performer, and assistant professor of theatre at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington, began the night with the preface that she wasn’t a poet and a piece that amounted to a fictional-ish letter to an old friend of hers, who turned out not only to be in the audience, but the final reader for the evening (at the time that Kosmas took to the mic, I was not aware that the Dan in the front row was the Daniel from the Facebook event page). Her piece reminded me of a subtle way that (something like) poetry might function like science fiction: in creating an absurd(ish) scenario wherein she claims to have been abducted by some sort of alien that is running a camp for people to stop being “in-effective,” and by issuing with candor the sort of lyricism made possible by the epistolary mode, she managed to do what I want to call shift her subject position to a place that somehow deepens the real feelings the voice of the letter expresses precisely through this bizarro-world (see: not real) scenario. This shift was effected all the more by what was either an extremely well-done performance, or simply real, which I suppose is the crux of the matter: the fact that the question of how real something is, in a dramatic or lyrical setting, is unanswerable: there very well might be this oscillation between fiction and nonfiction, but we’ll never know.
Lisa Rogal’s poetry accomplished something similar, but only insofar as it actually did something in a sort of opposite sense, something that a lot of contemporary poetry seems to do- sometimes effectively, often not. Both Kosmas’ and Rogal’s work had to do with a diegesis; their oppositeness has to do with the fact that while the world of Kosmas’ world was (at least partially) fantastic (see my scifi reference above), Rogal’s was realist. I wanted to say it was that mode of contemporary poetry that is something like creative nonfiction or journalism, something that told you about something you couldn’t really know in a way you wouldn’t normally know it or think it, but that’s not all of it. I think a lot of folks might describe the kind of poetry Rogal does as something that expresses the writer’s “personality,” as in her work puts a personal touch, or spin, on everyday occurrences that we all experience, etc. etc. And honestly? This sort of poetry usually bores me. I’m not saying it’s not entertaining- it actually usually is. Powered by the charisma or the quirk of whoever is reading it, I find myself chuckling along, nodding in that weird affect-exchange space that affirms the fact that I do, in fact “get it.” But I wasn’t annoyed by Rogal’s work. There was something in it that had to do with that undisclosed nature of the oscillation between fiction and fantasy that I felt when listening to Kosmas’, only here the threshold straddled was between that which can be known or experienced, and that which cannot- or should not- between people, either in everyday interactions or when sharing common experiences with others, via poetry or in everyday speech. More than simply the question of whether or not chicken tastes like chicken to you and pickles to me, or whether or not there is such a thing as a one-to-one translation between any words ever, it’s a question of losing track of when and whether or not we slide into and out of each others’ consciousnesses somehow, how something that maybe shouldn’t feel familiar can feel familiar in much the same way a dream just out of reach of memory lingers there on the margins.
Claudia La Rocco- poet, performer, and critic for ArtForum and The New York Times- read third, bringing a certain gravity to the evening. At first, her work seemed to echo the mode of Rogal’s: a strong voice cutting through various daily encounters, either sliding cutting critiques into the gaps left by the various brokenesses of everyday life or creating the cuts herself. I found myself thinking about how I would write about these writers during her first poems, and was thinking this about the cuts, when she introduced her final piece, which was a splicing together of her editorial/ critical notes with notes from her physical therapy sessions. Fittingly, the vacuous question that fuels all narrative was left unanswered prior to the poem, and only fragmentedly so by/ during the poem, which worked to create that space of undisclosed dis/closure mentioned above, with regards to the realness of Kosmas’ drama and the improbability of real-world free-indirect-discourse with Rogal’s work. This time it’s the question of diagnosis, of the urge to work one’s way back from the symptoms, if the text of the poetry-notes could be seen to be anything like a symptom (the documentary mode of notes seeming to better enable this possibility). But the splicing, the enmeshing of two documents atop each other seemed to want to fight against any systematization that might capitalize on allegory. It felt like an anthropological experiment, an inquiry, and observation as much for La Rocco as it was for us; a standing outside of and looking back at herself. Afterwards I perused the few books that were offered for sale, and was particularly taken with a work she edited entitled “I Don’t Poem,” in which sixteen different artists were asked to write, or provide, text/ poems to accompany sixteen color fold out plates of their work. It’s a book I want, and a mode I’m smitten by and haven’t seen enough of (have I not been looking in the right places?).
Finally the addressee of Kosmas’ letter, Daniel Owen, whose work- unlike the three previous readers- eschewed the diegetic or modal emphasis, focusing instead on the surface of its own language, took the mic to finish the evening. This sort of work, work that leans towards being about its own form, as opposed to its content, is usually the sort of work I am drawn toward. In its simplest register it’s wordplay, at the other end it’s extreme gibberish, and in between exist a vast amount of fantastic possibilities along a wide array of competing vectors. It’s here that words, concepts, notions, the bricabrac mechanics of prosaic language are all fucked with either for their own sake or for the magic of nonsensical allegory- that bizarre occurrence in which chaos somehow triggers meanings or sensible forms or even, sometimes, manages to elucidate the real world or whatever it is that’s outside the (experience of the) poem at any given moment. This might be a slapdash explanation of a mode of poetry that misses important things or trips up on problems I haven’t noticed, but at the end of the day a more refined exposition is still liable to accusations that poetry like this, poetry that is described like this, falls under the auspice of the “my kid could do that” realm of letters and arts, and that all criticism extrapolated from this sort of art is but an echo (if not a worsening) of the blather. Of course I think *that’s* bullshit, and one of the reasons is because Owen’s work ultimately fails to construct the sort of fantastic meanings or affect or experience that this sort of poetry is fully able to effect. Mostly it reads as a succession of disparate images or concepts, notions or descriptions that are strung together in an effort to relay whatever lyric experience they’re about, but fails to do so. They somehow obscure, somehow come across as blockages, as opposed to in-roads, to their meanings or my experience of them.
I walked home almost immediately, sauntering down the wetted street through too few streetlights- at least I think I was sauntering- and I realized that I really enjoy poetry readings. Also I can’t tell if I’m consistently growing or just a slow learner.
* This isn’t really true (/ the best way to say what I want to say): I actually do attend poetry readings on a somewhat regular basis. I think the idea of this years’ iteration of the old resolution has to do with the determiner “more,” as in go to poetry readings “more,” go to “more” poetry readings, etc. The desire itself isn’t for something other than what I usually desire.