Retire the Voice 

Poetry needs a swift kick in the trachea.

Emily Dickinson apparently was such a misanthrope that she communicated with people via a basket on a rope. Folks would put notes in the basket and hoist it up to where she was so that she wouldn't have to come into contact with them.

We have to cut her a little slack, though -- there weren't poetry readings back then, so perhaps the only way to exhibit one's poetic profundity was to be the living embodiment of sensitivity. Were she alive now, no doubt Dickinson would be at the Dorsey's Locker open mike or the Starry Plough, rhythmically talkin' about the first time she got her box munched in the back seat of a car.

The problem with poetry readings and spoken word -- besides the fact that it's the high school drama geek's retirement plan -- is that no matter how far the genre progresses, no matter how it grows and melds and incorporates other mediums, most of it will still be delivered in the same way. You know, that post-'60s Poetry-Reading Voice. It's the guy or the girl, onstage, either chin raised (but not like Mussolini, more like Spalding Gray) or arms at the sides and staring straight out as if to symbolize man's existentialism. They talk smoothly yet forcefully, like someone describing great sex, with the louder and the softer, the pause and the rapid-fire, the meter and the sighs. It's dramatic, potent, attention-getting, and about time for retirement. Get something new, people. Someone could be saying something wonderful, witty, deep, funny, sad, but when it's delivered in Poetry-Reading Voice, what can us cynics do but pay our bar tab and bail?

Yet people love this stuff (usually other poets). Those of us who can't handle the self-consciousness of it will continue to avoid it. Which is actually a shame, because there's some good writing out there. Take Beth Lisick. She has a great nightlife-oriented news and gossip column on SFGate, and she's probably the Bay Area's best performance poet. She's one of us, drawn to her first gonzo poetry reading by the free-flowing beer and heckling, then sticking around to join in. Her poetry pieces are based on seemingly obvious targets: subdivisions, mall chicks, SUVs. But she takes the ideas somewhere. She doesn't just dismiss Silicon Valley males as corporate scum; she's thought her repulsion through, and when she's done reciting we are left with a satisfactory feeling instead of the ol' eye-roll.

She's also witty. "Beth Lisick can just make you laugh at stuff and then she can be totally like-a-knife insightful," says Frank Andrick, poet and host of KUSF's poetry and spoken word show, Pomo Literati. But Lisick uses Poetry-Reading Voice. Isn't it time to take this form of expression further?

Andrick agrees that poetry is in a holding pattern. He dislikes most contemporary poetry, and was drawn to the more daring side of the variety after seeing its resemblance to punk. As a former program director for KSJO in the late '70s, he was on the front lines of new wave and punk rock. He loves Wire, the Cure, and Joy Division, and only now realizes that it was the poetic elements of the music that drew him to it. "I realized that some of it was like spoken word, especially Wire in the early years," he says.

There is something rebellious about digging poetry in an age of sarcasm and irony. Truly, everything about contemporary poetry readings is somewhat subversive. It's just the goddamned Poetry-Reading Voice that is an anachronism. "Art forms have to constantly keep changing, or they become stagnant," says Andrick, who decries the idea that poetry is not supposed to be funny. "I went to see Grotus," he says, referring to Frisco's rotting robot corpse of an industrial band, known for their avant-noise multimedia shows. "And someone was backstage tripping on the vivisection stuff they have. 'Wow, you were like totally insane ... man, how heavy your words are! Are you guys like serious? Or is this some sort of joke?' and someone in Grotus replied, 'Why does it have to be one or the other?' "

Good question. Why does it have to be one or the other? Why call it poetry and use Poetry-Reading Voice? Why not call it "My Show" and read your stuff in a new way? Lisick's done that a little with her band, the Beth Lisick Ordeal, which overlapped her words with a three-piece band's constructions. It's still a bit "Village in '62, man," but no one can deny her talent. If someone can come up with a new way of expressing poetry or spoken word, say, through a tracheotomy box, helium tank, or using a Muppet, then maybe more of us will come along for the ride.


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