Twelve years ago, in collaboration with New Langton Arts and the (sadly missed) Jon Sims Performing Arts Center, Small Press Traffic helped organize a Poets Theater festival, with several plays and panels in multiple locations around San Francisco. Though initially intended to be a one-time celebration of plays from the 80s and 90s, several younger poets were inspired to re-animate the tradition, and the annual SPT Poets Theater fest was born.
Under the ambitious leadership of Elizabeth Treadwell Jackson, and with the volunteer labor and enthusiasm of SPT board members such as Kevin Killian, Brent Cunningham, Stephanie Young, and too many others to list, Small Press Traffic provided a stage for plays and performances encompassing (and widening) the long Bay Area traditions of Poets Theater.
Poets Theater in the Bay of course has deep roots, in several traditions and scenes, as well-documented in the Kenning Anthology of Poets Theater (1945-85) edited by Kevin and David Brazil, and in the narratives and re-enactments of 80s and 90s PT coming out of the Language Poetry and New Narrative scenes (among others).
The last twelve years of Poets Theater festivals at Small Press Traffic— produced entirely by volunteers and with no budget — have pushed those innovationsand traditions forward, with annual plays by Kevin Killian, along with new plays and archival works by writers and PT veterans such as Leslie Scalapino, Alan Bernheimer, Carla Harryman, Camille Roy, and many others.
At the same time, the last twelve years of PT at SPT has served as a laboratory for new experiments in theater and performance,while extending that particularly Bay Area quality, the community component of the PT festival – the ‘gathering of the tribes’ where local poets are both participants and audience,are performers, volunteers, directors, producers, curators, and BYOBers (sometimes all at once).
This singular social-poetic formation is difficult to fully comprehend outside of the context of the communities within which Poets Theater lives, where the seemingly absurd formula of ‘avant-garde theater meets amateur night’ somehow works, if only because we all come together to see that it does, and to see to it that we all have lines to contribute (whether on stage or at the bar afterwards). There are no curtains in Poets Theater, or certainties, beyond the annual ritual of local poets coming together to push the tradition forwards.
I remember Jocelyn Saidenberg’s screams, I remember Arnold Kemp’s play done entirely in the dark save for the performers’ headlamps, I remember the audience throwing their shoes at me, I remember Summi Kaipa crawling over the audience from the back row to the stage, taking off her clothes as she did so, I remember Una Lomax reciting her lines by memory as she asked for money, I remember raffling off parts to a set of Danil Kharms plays that were then put on for the benefit of two diners sitting on stage,eating the desert that Brandon Brown had made during intermission, I remember Yedda Morrison’s silent nature theater.
The development of these newer forms of Poets Theater has influenced what I think of as a more general performa- tive turn in the Bay Area over the last 10 or so years, from the short-lived but influential performance and writing series programmed by Jocelyn Saidenberg and Brandon Brown for New Langton Arts, to the overlapping reading series at 21Grand, which has featured films and performance alongside more conventional readings.
The rise of movie-telling and neo-benshi, developed by Walter Lew and Konrad Steiner, respectively, has further extended notions of poetry beyond the page and into live and collaborative multi-media work. There has also been a sea-change in audience expectations and openness, such that writers feel more permission to take risks and experiment with what a poetry ‘reading’ might be and do, and in many cases this has begun to likewise reflect itself in the work itself, as works written specifically for such ofcasions and contexts, and/or troubling out how to move from performance back to text, via documentation, online reportage, gossip, and the like-this.
I remember the interplay of live re-enactment and archival footage of Carla Harryman’s play, and Steve Benson’s dancing in the original, I remember Leslie Scalapino singing in one of Kevin Killian’s plays, I remember Suzanne Stein’s voice coming out of the fireplace, I remember CA Conrad astrally projecting himself into bottles of Fiji water for folks to drink and then write their lines, I remember Arnold Kemp blowing out a candle as the lights went out on my Gitmo musical, I remember Lindsey Boldt’s poetry jukebox, I remember Sarah Anne Cox as Gertrude Stein, replete with a stuffed Basket, I remember getting spit on by Erika Staiti on stage, I remember various after-parties…
I sometimes wonder if this turn to performance in Bay Area poetries — to the live, the embodied, the off-the-page, etc. — might not also be in part a(n unconscious?) reaction to the rise of Web 2.0, of social networking, print-on-demand or post-print reading, etc, for perhaps as sociality itself becomes increasingly mediated through digital reproduction, when the disembodied poet-avatar becomes the memes by which one enters these new social formations, we see a simultaneous (re)turn to the body (live, performed) and the object (book arts, hand-to-hand chapbooks & zines, etc). As the internet collapses space and time, perhaps a return to the local, the social, the coterie, the occasion, the house, is indicative of a productive working-out of what poets can do that might counter such generalized anxieties over such developments.
I remember backstage whiskeys, I remember dozens of Kevin Killian plays, I remember Stephanie Young kissing Lara Durback’s giant bunny head in Bhanu Kapil’s “Bunny Butoh”, I remember eating a sandwich while playing Dan Rather, I remember hearing about Taylor Brady breaking his arm in the middle of a play, I remember Deborah Rich- ards doing live on-the-spot direction of her play, having only arrived that afternoon due to a delayed flight, I remember Margaret Tedesco correcting Colter Jacobsen’s storytelling, I remember Bill Luoma dropping his drawers and putting his nut-cup in, I remember the hand coming out of someone’s ‘vagina’ during a CA Conrad play, I remember Brent Cunningham as Garrett Watson…
I don’t mean to valorize Poets Theater only in contrast to the mediations of web-life, nor I do not mean to suggest that what I’m calling the performative turn can be traced back solely to Poets Theater. Rather, I’d like to think PT in a broader habitus of new experiments in poetics and performance, as well as in newer social formations and understandings of how ‘poetry’ might live within such movements, scenes and communities. On with the show!