Mar 18, 2014
“WHITE” comes from a few narrative sources, one of which is recent thinking about questions of address and form in the making of art and poetry. These are a few questions I’ve been considering lately: What is possible in delivering one’s poetry? This is to say, after the work is written, how might one deliver the “finished” work beyond holding up a book or a piece of paper, and reading a text out loud? Relatedly, is the poem, or even the book, actually the source text for its performance? And how can addressing these questions help to reveal the activities around what is being made and how the art-object as poem, audio-piece, movie, film complicates the subject matter of the work?
I recently delivered a poetry reading at Brown University, before which my host, the brilliant fiction writer and Professor Renee Gladman, asked me to read from my first book, Narrative of the Life of the Brown Boy and the White Man. I decided, somewhere along the line of this request, that I would read only a few sentences from the book and to “read” against and through these sentences, musical tracks (a series of freestyle lectures, raps, songs) that I designed around the formation of the volume—they were mostly centered around concerns I had when I first constructed it, and how or if these concerns (particularly about race, sexuality and representation) traveled with me through new experiences, art-sound-image-making, and larger practices as an artist.
As part of the reading, I played these recorded tracks “live,” layering and mixing them, all the while giving an improvised lecture around the book as a different means to reach out to the audience. At this “reading,” I also took off my shoes and socks before the presentation, danced some barefoot, reframing the book, the very idea of reading it, within the realm of conceptual performance.
My relationship to the “reading” as conceptual performance is not an ambivalent one, but, rather, it marks a way for me to maintain the freedom and spirit of creative energy as a constant source. The late, great poet Stanley Kunitz writes that “If the terrain were familiar, the poem would be dead on birth,” in his incredible book of essays, The Wild Braid. In some ways, for me, the need to constantly shift the performance of poetry stems directly from a similar impulse to create and work with living material, fresh thinking, nimble ideation. This is tied to unearthing the unexpected thought in the work, to creating open spaces for finding out what is engaging, and what engages with the very questions that prompt the project in the first place.
One of the things I attempted to work on in the making of “WHITE” was to pay particular attention to the tercet form of my poem: “White Notes: A Warning Song,” embedded in the video and included at the end of this document. Working in the three line stanzas through each of the scenes was a constraint that helped me to find and create narrative drama, length, timing and (to a certain extent) a kind of story that moves throughout the stanzas and the film. The poem, constructed in Word, evolved, grew, was cut, modified, rendered both on its own, and simultaneously in synch and in counterpoint with the movie’s construction. The shape and form of the poem’s lines and stanzas were also partly determined by the content of the film’s clips: the color of the plants, the way the cliffs are captured in the scene, the sound of the shore, the texture of the light, the sun, Mary J. Blige’s song I danced to in the background, and my own body moving within the space of the scene.
“White Notes: A Warning Song,” itself, explores a number of questions I am engaging around whiteness, the idea of its standards, its power players, plays, the fear that comes along with confronting its tricky manifestations, the ramifications of critique, the joy of this engagement, the act of troublemaking, disruption, “reading” [as in I READ YOU.], and what this all means in navigating the fields of such an identity politic in the writing public, particularly as someone attentive to whiteness as an aesthetic category, a zone of inquiry, a realm through which to protract, pull, shape, re-shape the poem, song, film, the work of art.
But what are the stakes of “blackness,” “brownness,” “pinkness,” “blueness,” in what I see in its concomitant relation to “whiteness,” and for me a poetic-filmic landscape where the racialized and sexualized body is fluid but often misheard, culturally mismarked, and impossibly managed. What to do in the face of fear, insecurity, the need to retaliate, to go in, how to exercise power, strength, or even ambivalence?
And if a poet can dance in the face of it all (Hip-Hop, House, Banjee-Boy, Ballet, Whatever), film it, record it, eavesdrop while doing it, de-face; or if one sings along to these acts, and captures the process in layers, more recordings, mixes, what are the stakes as one returns to ultimately present the work in multiple modes of address? What is the work? What the Work? What, Work? Work.—What? Work.
As I make what I am starting to think of as film, I realize this involves a different, but related set of concerns around making “poetry.” Location, weather, costumes, lighting, the landscape, all make a difference in terms of what is ultimately not just shown but rendered in the resulting film, AND in the real time of making the video in the world. For instance, shooting film in gorgeous temperate Santa Cruz in winter is very different than shooting on freezing cold Long Island in the same week, the light, the wind, the onlookers, who pauses, who stays, who ignores, the shifting of boots on the dried mud path, or numbing toes on asphalt.
In the poem, all these things matter to me, of course, but figuring this out in the field, shooting, reveals different amplifications: as in, when and how you might go outside, looking like what—Is it safe? —This is especially of concern if I am dressed up as TEAR-E-AVATAR in my heels, mask, or wigs, with all my video equipment, precarious on sand and/or on most piers. Slits between boards.
What does making poetry promise? I have always built this question into my working practice as a poet and have talked about this before: that the work I do is inspired by performance art, staged/un-staged performances, and the idea of being in the world as a third person subject, evaluated from the first, contending with the second and reporting this through writing, dance, film—I know, tricky—but I think that these shifting modes of subject position provide me with a certain relationship to the objective self in a formalized way that begins to be sophisticated enough to address the challenges of writing from the perspective of a marked, racialized and sexualized being (I mean we all are), but I am interested in articulating how, why, what matters, for whom and for what.
So how might working in various mediums enact what the poem realizes— I am thinking here of Eve Sedgwick’s notion of the “peri-performative”— and the ways that numerous sites of language and meaning move around the very utterance, which may help what could be figured around the poem, how it is organized, revealed, and realized. What was said, fulfilled, unfulfilled, enacted, undone, engaged, disengaged as the primary text, in both its making, and the text in and as performance.
What are ways that one can move beyond the constraint of the three-stanza poem as it presses into the world beyond the page, beyond paper, beyond screen? Where is the work in this? What are the terms of address and, to add to this, the terms of expectation? The following photo is some evidence, a still image of this struggle/playground while I am constructing “White,” drafting notes around the poem as a source-text for the film. The tercet re-formed in the slowed-down sound of editing, by hand, other poems—my recording the music and conversations at Starbucks on 347A, related in ways I’ve yet to explore in my next video—the confusion just now of the cars outside in South Bend that sound like the sea, the brief baseline between clips of me in white moving to “No More Drama.”
—even change routes, to escape attack.
But in the mask, sand sticks to sweat,
and the hard linen drifts in the shot.
A little cheap, but still the knees bind
and fat is cut from paper, so that noise
is texture, too. I don’t lose the fight.
Drawn to shadow boxing. Get—
out-ob-here. No patience to name
what’s over your head, or behind you.
I eat plainly, run, stretch, plank in pink
Run, holding a bone, in a yellow slip.
Spring to the shot, however quick:
it fades to what matters, the question
or curiosity. I don’t care, but I set it up,
as if I were there. As if I want to follow
the call beyond ticking. I eat the sky.
Where’s my RAW shirt (Sushi) for the shoot?
Or blue-black, black and blue, the steak: Red
toes freeze at the pier, on the cold coast.
For the backhand, the arms open. The line
across the shoulders symmetrical, the follow
through—a horizon deleted for debris.
To construct an identity, me, a balance
point, this body—stuck to pine and long
redwoods: a knock on a door, a warning shot.
The threat is a constant agent—in the other
dimension, trust. The cam twists off: I collapse
the tripod. I tell how much the light is changing.