Further reflections on Poets Theater

Further reflections on Poets Theater

Poets Theater 2009Small Press Traffic’s 12th Annual Poets Theater Festival, held this January 18th and 19th at CounterPulse, both continues and refreshes a tradition of poets theater in the Bay Area’s literary communities that dates back at least to the Berkeley and San Francisco Renaissances of the 40s and 50s — with roots in experimental modernist theater, vaudeville, 19th century tableaux, Greek drama, and a sometimes baffling array of other sources. Through the past several years of this often ad hoc and participatory, sometimes confounding, and always energizing and challenging live art practice’s contemporary life, we have been fortunate to have local writer Robin Tremblay-McGaw observing, highlighting, and drawing out the connections as the scene unfolds from the vantage of her blog, X Poetics.

In thinking about what might count as unique or characteristic about Poets Theater, Tremblay-McGaw notes the “local, communal nature” of the productions, the webs of detail in the lived and literary connections animating the spaces between actors, directors, playwrights and audience, as all move in and out of provisional constellations of roles:

The plays are magnets for local history and relation. They are sticky. Vaudevillian…. Poets Theater is akin to the kinds of local, bawdy, participatory theater, circuses, and vaudeville productions that existed prior to the advent of spectacular displays.

Other writers have noted the proximity between this economy of means and anti-spectacular orientation, and the “stickiness” of Poets Theater with respect to public life, history, and politics. Kevin Killian and David Brazil, writing in their editors’ introduction to The Kenning Anthology of Poets Theater: 1945-1985 (available through Small Press Distribution), make note of contributor David Buuck’s definition of the genre in terms of “counter-professionalism, anti-illusionism, rigorous amateurism.” This embrace of an aesthetic whose seams show becomes the basis for a different sort of social force located in performance:Jocelyn Saidenberg as Patty Hearst

The very conditions of coterie production, often enough involving impromptu performance spaces, improvised props, and zero budget, call forth a style of theater whose disorderly elements bring to mind the topsy-turvy “world turned upside down” that Mikhail Bakhtin characterizes in his writings on Rabelais as the carnivalesque.

Obliged, then, to arrive at a conclusion about the genre of poets theater, we might claim that its disorderly hybridity is its genre–that it is, perhaps, a genre in the process of formation, emerging out of the destabilization of sorts of prior forms, social as well as literary. In other words, new scenes of production and new social formations equal new genres. And this is one of them–perhaps, despite its apparently minor character, a crucial one.

Tremblay-McGaw goes on to frame the aesthetics and ethics of this emergent genre in proto-political terms, with this passage from Hannah Arendt:

The polis, properly speaking, is not the city-state in its physical location; it is the organization of the people as it arises out of acting and speaking together, and its true space lies between people living together for this purpose, no matter where they happen to be.

Past instances, noted at X Poetics, of explorations and activations of this space in which people live and speak together, have included:

  • Directors who take the stage to apologize for the mistaken journeys of their actors
  • Subtraction of the male narrator from a hard-boiled detective narrative in order to “set the glittering cast of women loose”
  • “A trip to Mars, complete with silvery sheets of paper, toys, and strap on dildos.”
  • Interviews with sullenly non-verbal painters
  • “Lush and strangely moving meditations on recognition, identity, passion.”
  • Robert Duncan’s “tyrannical intelligence and black cape”
  • A Precious Princess who “turns out to be a Precious Pig who wants to roll in the eternal mud and forge a kind of pigology at the intersection of poetry and philosophy.”
  • A Morton Salt Girl who warns: “They will tell you that the salt is raked from desert beds, or vacuum  evaporated and panned from soaking seas, or mined as rock from the earth-crust; but it comes from me as I eke out this living.”
  • A first date scripted as an Occupy General Assembly

For a program of this year’s events, check out the full event listing at the Small Press Traffic website. And for a wealth of additional notes on incidents, actions, speculations and theorizations of Poets Theater, check out the full text of the festival write-ups at X Poetics:


2008–Nick Robinson on Poets Theater

Dating by Consensus, Poets Theater 2012


2010–Evening Two

2010–Evening One



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