Approaching the Poetics of Play, Part 1

[This is part one of a two-part series of essays in which I explore poetry as a vector for play. I discuss the dynamics of author and reader, the form of poetry as a “field” for active audience participation, creativity, exploration, performance, cooperation and playful modeling of systems. This first piece deals with explicit, mediated audience participation in physical or online spaces. This will foreground a discussion on hypertext and other digital poetry in part two.]

Back in April 2013, I attended SpokenWeb’s “Approaching the Poetry” Series Conference at the VAV Gallery, the exhibition space connected with the Fine Arts department of my alma mater, Concordia University. I actually only attended the poetry reading component of the conference, offered as extra credit by my Canadian Literature professor. I thought I would at least get some mild enjoyment out of it, and—hey!—extra credit. But what I didn’t know at the time, sitting on a plastic fold-out chair in a sterile, angular, white gallery space, was that I would be given much to think about in terms of play.

Approaching the Poetry was really more of a multimedia exhibition than a simple poetry reading. Artists played audio recordings of famous dead poets and then responded to them with verse of their own, re-situating them in time and space. One visual poet, derek beaulieu, made us howl laughing with his lively reading of “Please, No More Poetry”, using the medium in order to ironically castigate its own pretensions. But the one I knew would resonate with me the longest was Danny Snelson’s reading, not for any of the poems in particular, but for their charming delivery.

The young, energetic University of Pennsylvania grad approached the lectern with a pep in his step and a huge stack of paper, each one bearing a different poem. Prior to starting, he explained that this reading would be a little different. Instead of having us sit quietly, respectfully attentive to his voice, we would be active participants. There were rules. The first was that anytime Snelson perceived a noise, be it a sneeze in the audience or a siren out on the street, he would immediately change to a new poem. This noise could be accidental, but Snelson also encouraged us to shift, laugh, snort and cough, if the place was too silent. But this implied another rule: we could make a noise, even several, for Snelson to obey, but a cacophony would make it impossible for him to keep up and the game would simply fall into chaos. For his part, the requirement to switch poems meant that he was also trying to finish them before someone interrupted, which meant also reading them as fast as he reasonably could. This was part literature, part theatre, part game.

Snelson sped through the poems so quickly I don’t remember any single one of them. But it didn’t matter, because the poems themselves were not what created tension, feeling, humour or meaning from the experience. It was the spaces in between that created symbiosis by undoing the fourth wall, allowing for a more active, Boalian model for audience participation in live performance. Here, you don’t have spectators but “spect-actors”, who don’t just observe a performance playing out, but have an active role in exploring and transforming that performance.

This kind of theatre-as-game, has been seen not only in Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed, but in interactive theatre pieces like Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More or Deirdra “Squinky” Kiai’s  Coffee: A Misunderstanding. This method approaches meaning that is emergent and created out of both the dynamic between the “players” involved and random chance that can occur in any live space. But I suppose it seems obvious that theatre, with its players and its all-the-world’s-a-stage, lends itself to audience participation and improvisational play more easily than a poetry reading, which, more often than not, is structured like a lecture. The poet reads, inflects, implies; you listen and stifle your sneezes out of respect.

A great deal of poetry (barring, say, the epic narrative poem) tends toward the economical and abhors distraction. Each word is imbued with meaning, out of necessity, since a poem is often such a concise and constrained form through which to convey feelings and ideas. Often, words are chosen because they syntactically or phonologically provoke specific, urgent feelings; yet the power of these words always exists within a unified, whole context. The form itself speaks to precision, to a distaste for derailment.

But poetry is, in many ways, conversant. There’s an understanding among writers that, like any text, poetry gets most of its strength from being read, so there’s something transitive going on between the verse and its impact. And I don’t just mean lofty, interpretive, abstract stuff, either. There’s an explicit and implicit grammar to poetry; there are spaces and pauses in which readers are made to contemplate, to see where words are organized in line and in syntax to create some kind of meaning. Where words are placed in proximity to each other in a line, and also how they’re punctuated and spaced out, will all contribute to how those words are read and how their context is then understood.

The words transition from an author’s argument to a reader’s interpretation, and often, reading a poem by myself, I find I have to sound out the verses—pauses and all—to get how the words are fitting together. It sometimes happens that a poem doesn’t “click” for me until it’s read aloud, or changes meaning for me depending on changes in pauses, in emphasis, and so on. In other words, how a poem sounds has as much to do with what meanings it carries as how it’s literally written down.

In Snelson’s reading, the pauses, the hanging silence of the audience, the shifting of seats and the accidental and deliberate noise, all modulated the tone of the experience and brought upon it humour, depth, kinship, a magic circle, a feeling of congregation. It turned the focus onto us, made us complicit in something in a way that felt transgressive. It made people nervous! You don’t do this at poetry readings. It was, in many ways, a lived interpretation of Charles Olson’s influential “Projective Verse,” a prose-poem and treatise for poetic embodiment in which he describes the importance of the breath:

“And together, these two, the syllable and the line, they make a poem, they make that thing, the—what shall we call it, the Boss of all, the ‘Single Intelligence.’ And the line comes (I swear it) from the breath, from the breathing of the man who writes, at the moment that he writes, and thus is, it is here that, the daily work, the WORK, gets in, for only he, the man who writes, can declare, at every moment, the line its metric and its ending—where its breathing, shall come to, termination.

The trouble with most work, to my taking, since the breaking away from traditional lines and stanzas, and from such wholes as, say, Chaucer’s Troilus or S’s Lear, is: contemporary workers go lazy RIGHT HERE WHERE THE LINE IS BORN.

Let me put it baldly. The two halves are:

the HEAD, by way of the EAR, to the SYLLABLE

the HEART, by way of the BREATH, to the LINE”

Playing with grammar in poetry, like weird comma placement, or sentences that carry over into new stanzas without punctuation, is functionally understood as playing with the way the reader is supposed to breathe when they read out a poem. Grammar can be described as breathing in text form—a comma is different from a period in that it implies a shorter breath between words—and so it’s interesting to me that, as much as he could, Snelson did not breathe a whole lot. Rather, he modified his breathing according to the punctuation added by ambient noises. If the room fell silent, perhaps not out of reverence but out of insecurity, he would steady his pace. This only happened occasionally, but when it did, it was like he was giving us an aggravated cue to make a noise and move the performance along. More often, the breaths and pauses and breaks were provided by us, the audience, and so taking Olson’s view, I can safely argue that we collectively provided the grammar. A nervous giggle? Snelson flipped a page and started a new poem. An accidental seat shift? Snelson obeyed the same rule. At one chance point, a persistent ambulance siren down the street forced him to leaf hastily through a small pile of poems until things were quiet again.

Where there is no grammar, there is no making sense of words in context, and so there is no poetry. Snelson’s performance put into stark relief the idea that the audience is always participating, at least with the ear/head/heart, and that the making of meaning is a cultural group effort as much as it is a personal one. Without the dialogue, poetry is robbed of its power to impact.

But is the dialogue going away? It’s true there’s a lot of languishingly unread verse, but I balk at the idea that poetry as a form is “dead”, that no engagement is taking place with it. I’m not sure that poetry really is dying, but it might be changing in unexpected ways, ways which are reflective of how modes and cultures of communications have changed.

The audience, as the digital age has shown us, doesn’t just need to provide the breath or the ear. In a digital age of more explicitly responsive or interactive media, the audience may also produce these metacultural interpretations or interactions with poetry on a line-by-line basis, given the invitation to do so.

Poet Patricia Lockwood notes in a profile by Jesse Lichtenstein, “The idea about readers being too lazy to read poetry—they just need an in, a voice they can trust.” I’m inclined to agree with Lockwood. Too often there’s this assumption that poetry is too niche, too high-brow, too old-hat, too stiff-upper-lip, for “most people” to even be capable of participating in it. I’m, in the face of all evidence to the contrary, still guilty of some lingering humanism, and I think people do give themselves over to rhythm, to fancy and to wordplay, when given the opportunity. I’ve contended (and still do) that a more explicit, contemporary example of play can better be understood through the ways verse treats language elements as design objects. These design objects are used not just to communicate ideas, but to create fields (the “mind palace” metaphor works here) in which the reader can explore, or play with, modes of thought, feeling, and meaning.

This idea of “composition by field” actually shows up a few times in “Projective Verse,” which Olson uses to describe a liminal space in which a poet transfers energy to their audience through verse. Since fields are usually dynamic, multidimensional spaces, I think it’s also important to recognize that neither poet nor reader occupies a static or absolute role, that the two are constantly in dialogue with one another, and take constantly shifting interpretive and communicative roles. This shifting manifests in writing, delivery, feedback, emulation, accidental or deliberate distraction, invitation to participate, long-form essay, and on and on.

This is what Lockwood’s “Live Nude Dads Read the Sunday Paper” lays bare. By creating a simple, self-explanatory premise and diffusing a hashtag on Twitter, #NYTpoem, Lockwood set the rules for participation. In return, she received over 890 lines of Twitter poetry, with which she set about curating and forming into the lines of a free-verse poem. The private act of writing poetry was turned into a loose party game, where the constraints of both the premise of the poem and the form of the tweet helped influence the behaviour of the participants, and the intimacy of creating a poem was shared across geographic and temporal boundaries, among a huge range of individuals. For Lockwood’s part, going through so many tweets and editing them meant reading, interpreting, ordering, reinterpreting, framing—in poets inside the magic circle of that game, creating wildly imaginative lines while operating many ways, being a reader as much as being a poet. Lockwood’s readers each became within an overall context.

Like Snelson, Lockwood turned poetry into collaborative play, rather than an individual effort, and created something of a game out of the ever-serious endeavour of writing a poem. But what’s worth noting is that Lockwood is still acting as a kind of Dungeon Master, setting the tone and rules for participation, while still leaving room for a personal, creative touch. Not too much silence, not too much noise. What’s created is a jaunty, funny, untortured kind of Broken Telephone, where each participant’s take on the premise reveals something evocative, hilarious, contemplative, and even a little sad.

In beaulieu’s “Please, No More Poetry”, he wryly writes,

“The Internet is not something that challenges who we are or how we write, it is who we are and how we write. Poets—being poets—are simply the last to realize the fact.”

Sure enough, the nature of the internet is that it externalizes the fluidity of culture and provides documentation. Like, an existentially scary amount of documentation, as digital archaeologists are able to demonstrate. Like Boalian theater, poetry can offer us a form of play which draws attention to our need to congregate and to feel a part of a collective moment, of being allowed into something personal and raw and honest with other people. But it also allows us to mediate individuality within a group with the need for common goals and common good. When I read beaulieu’s line, I’m reminded of another line from Olson’s essay: “Form is never more than an extension of content.” It sounds inverted, but I think what’s meant here is that forms can be created to accommodate expressive needs, and beaulieu is arguing that, while poetry is an old form, to write poetry which speaks to and challenges people, you have to understand, well, how people actually speak to each other. In a room full of people listening, the primary mode of expression is body language, so: breathing and coughing and farting and laughing and things people generally do when they are alive.

On Twitter, the parameters for interaction and exchange are much more tightly mediated. This limits how much “chance” is possible in terms of constructing fields of creative play and imaginative exploration, but doesn’t entirely remove it. More specifically, Twitter’s trick is to cajole people into producing free content by seducing them with pretensions of “authorship.” So, bending and playing with how Twitter makes islands of us all can be said to characterize Lockwood’s #NYTPoem game, which complicates the idea of authorship by using Twitter’s own formal rules to collectivize it.

Poets, if they are going to make “spect-actors” of their spectators at a reading, or collaborators of their audience in an even more standardized, commodified online space—and yes, I am now making the argument that a poetry reading can offer more expressive leeway than Twitter can—must understand how the architecture of those spaces influence people’s behaviour. But, they must also know how behavioural expectations can be subverted, interrogated, perverted at the level of formal constraints in a poem, rule constraints in a game or architectural constraints in a place real, virtual or imagined.

Poetry, by its often urgent and impractical nature, can embody the complicated sensations that these overwhelming systems can conjure in us, presenting them to us miniature, putting words to them. Poetry can help us grasp, through textual devices and visual and aural techniques of some very complex ideas. But combining poetry with collaborative play using sound, text, space, form, authority, the body and the voice as its tools, allows us some latitude within those structures, to understand them through the dialogic field of poetry, both in terms of how they act upon us, but also imagining ways we can act upon them. Or at least, we might be decide to breathe, and to let the minute hang in an awkward pause, until by chance a siren wails from down the street.