Niall O'Sullivan

high brow, low brow, none of that stuff in the middle

Spalding Gray – The Evacuation of Phnom Penh

Posted on | February 25, 2017 | No Comments

Content Warning: The video above features descriptions of genocide

For most performers, water is a means to keep the throat from drying out. They take occasional sips from branded bottles. No thought is given to its significance. The glass of water placed on Spalding Gray’s desk for the entirety of each of his monologues was different. It was his temple bell.

In the monastic traditions of Zen Buddhism, the temple bell is not just a signal for monks and meditators to shift from one activity to the next. It is also a reminder to let go of thoughts of past and future and exist within the moment. Gray’s glass of water functioned as an emblem of purity and wakefulness. He sipped from it at the beginning of each performance and at particular intervals as they progressed.

There was a monastic austerity to Spalding Gray’s setup. All of his raw and funny confessional monologues were united by his standard stage layout – a desk and chair with a cheap notepad and the aforementioned glass of water.

Despite being from a Christian Science background, Gray was often misidentified as Jewish due to his comic evocations of neuroticism and anxiety. Whether he was speaking about feeling compelled to learn to ski (It’s a Slippery Slope); exploring complimentary medicine in order to avoid eye surgery (Gray’s Anatomy); failing to write a novel about a man who failed to go on holiday (Monster in a Box); or buying the worst rural cottage ever built (Terrors of Pleasure) – one could easily imagine an actor of Gray’s calibre leaping about the stage at the most animated moments. This is why it was so effective for him to remain seated. The table and chair helped to reign in Gray’s performances. It kept his energy focused and local.

Swimming to Cambodia, Gray’s most famous monologue, draws from his experiences of playing a role in Roland Joffé’s The Killing Fields (1984). This performance was filmed by Jonathan Demme at The Performing Garage, a small venue in Soho, NY where Gray was a part of the resident company, The Wooster Group. It also became Gray’s venue of choice when, through repeated performances, he developed his one man shows from 45 minute concept pieces to 90 minute finished products. During this particular interval in the monologue, Gray shifts from delivering comic anecdotes about the shoot to retelling the events that the film was based on.

Gray uses three other props for this segment – a map, a retractable pointer and a folded letter. When he leans back from his desk, using the pointer to indicate sections of the map of Cambodia, his speech becomes factual and dispassionate. As he leans forward he becomes more emotional and vivid with his descriptions.

When he retells the details of the Khmer Rouge’s genocide, there is a sadness and sympathy that underlies his tone. Similarly, his timbre turns serene as he unfolds a piece of paper and reads from it – reciting Prince Sirik Matak’s words to the US government that had abandoned him and his people to imprisonment and death. Gray only adopts a severe, staccato voice when reenacting the commands of the Khmer Rouge soldiers as they entered the city.

This subtle modulation of Gray’s voice and posture mirrors how our moral attitudes to world events shift with the scope of our focus. The map reflects the “wide view” – the familiar image of generals moving figurines across its markings with little recourse to the suffering that they cause. The letter reflects the opposite – a missive from one soul to another that we have come to rely on for the emotional and human truths of war and terror.

This idea that our moral attitudes change with our point of view is illustrated when Gray recalls a discussion with Joffé about the importance of the film:

And Roland Joffé came to me and said, “Spalding, I hope this film has taught you that morality is not a moveable feast.”
I get dizzy – cause I see it moving all the time.

Ask today’s Spoken Word artists to speak of innovation and they may point to mixed media and cross-artform collaboration. At the same time, with all this fancy wrapping, very little innovation happens with the central speech act.

Spalding Gray demonstrated that real innovation can occur when the performance is stripped down to its essentials – a handwritten letter, a map and pointer. A desk, chair and notepad. A glass of water.

This is the latest in an ongoing series of posts that work towards a criticism of the Spoken Word. I will be looking at all forms of Spoken Word — not just poetry readings and spoken word/poetry performances but stand up comedy, confessional monologues, academic lectures, speeches, wrestling promos and any other act of public speech that rings my bell. All posts will appear under the Toward a Criticism of the Spoken Word category. Click to see if new posts have been added and for any you may have missed.

Pauline Pearce – Hackney Riots 2011 (NSFW) 

Posted on | February 21, 2017 | No Comments

In 2011, Mark Duggan, a young black man, was shot dead by armed response officers in Tottenham, North London. Anger at the events sparked off riots and looting that spread throughout London and other English cities over a number of days.

Many expressions of outrage at the riots were conspicuous for the privilege of those that mouthed them. Boris Johnson spoke of how appalled he was by the violence while refusing to cut short his holiday. Theresa May’s references to “sheer criminality” and “thuggery” borrowed from the lexicon of ruling class disdain for the underclass. The broomstick brigades that assembled each morning to clean up  were mainly gentrifiers, eager to step on the toes of public service workers while keeping property values at the desired rate. When Darcus Howe refused to condemn the riots on national television, he was treated with contempt by an aristocratic anchor who couldn’t get his name right.

It was this gulf between the moral breakdown on England’s inner city streets and the moral bankruptcy of the outraged upper and middle classes that created fertile ground for the effectiveness of Pauline Pearce’s speech. People that would normally ignore the street corner wrath of a working class black woman suddenly paid attention as the video of her rant went viral. Politicians and public figures clamoured to be associated with her.

Stood at a street corner, in front of FUCK CAMERON graffiti, Pearce’s setting could be a backdrop for a theatrical production about Broken Britain. Leaning on a walking stick while shaking her fist, she condemns the looters while acknowledging the event that sparked the unrest. The first comment of the recording (we should remember that she probably mouthed her first words before the record button was pressed) is “This is fucking reality” . While this was intended as an expression of reproach for the rioters, in the speech’s new context as a viral video it becomes a sign of reproach for all those judging from a safe distance, geographically or economically.

In expressing her anger, Pearce does not shy away from profanity.

“This is fucking reality”
“This is about a fucking man who got shot in Tottenham”
“You lot piss me the fuck off”.
(transcript from urbanruralfabric)

This plays an important role in her not assuming moral or societal superiority over those that she addresses.

At the same time her expressions of rage are interspersed and appended with calls for understanding and unity.

Lo’ up burning people’s shops that they worked hard to start their business
Ya understand
She’s working hard to make her business work and then you lot want to go and burn it up
For what, just to say you’re warring and you’re bad man
[…]
Get real black people get real
Do it for a cause
If we’re fighting for a cause lets fight for a cause
[…]
Cause we’re not all gathering together and fighting for a cause
We’re running down Foot Locker and thievin’ shoes

It is the combination of anger, profanity and proactiveness that highlights Pearce’s authenticity. She is not talking down to the looters, nor arguing from a place of assumed moral authority. Theresa May’s language reflected the power dynamics of the ruling class. The bourgeois disdain of the “riot clean up” groups reflected the power dynamics of middle class gentrifiers. Pearce’s anger, and her expression of it, comes from the same sense of powerlessness that triggered the riots in the first place.

The recording ends shortly after Pearce concludes her speech and turns to leave. She later stated that she feared for her safety in that moment but couldn’t contain her anger

In the years to come, those that wanted to be associated with Pearce’s authenticity were quick to distance themselves when she turned out to be a little too authentic. As gentrification ramps up in the later years of the same decade, could this video be seen as the last cry of the inner city working class?

This is the latest in an ongoing series of posts that work towards a criticism of the Spoken Word. I will be looking at all forms of Spoken Word — not just poetry readings and spoken word/poetry performances but stand up comedy, confessional monologues, academic lectures, speeches, wrestling promos and any other act of public speech that rings my bell. All posts will appear under the Toward a Criticism of the Spoken Word category. Click to see if new posts have been added and for any you may have missed.

August Kleinzahler – Sleeping it off in Rapid City

Posted on | February 18, 2017 | 3 Comments

In the last post we looked at how an all pervading sense of decorum, reverence and importance impeded a Derek Walcott poetry reading. In this post we look at how a similarly renowned poet manages to overcome these stifling conventions.

August Kleinzahler’s reading takes place at Harvard University. It is part of the Phi Beta Kappa Literary Exercises, an annual commencement address that goes back to the 18th Century. Eminence, reverence and importance are not in short supply.

In the image from the review of the event from the Harvard website (note the barbed, wounded tone, perhaps a sign that Kleinzahler had not paid due deference?) we see a grand academic venue. Warm mahogany hues abound, save for the red vestments of the dignitaries sat on stage, overlooked by a forefather’s statue.

I could not find a recording or description of Kleinzahler’s introduction, but, due to the prestige of the engagement, we can make some informed assumptons. Members of faculty would have been name checked and thanked. Kleinzahler’s works, achievements and commendations would have been listed at a length that no dust jacket could accomodate.

In this context, Kleinzahler’s opening statements, delivered from a lectern as he is flanked by the great and the good, seem casual and irreverent:

Sleeping it Off in Rapid City…errrm….there’s a lot going on here but, erm, [there is a pause where Kleinzahler looks to the audience and widens his eyes] you look like a clever lot and I’ll let you find your way.”

The space between the announcement of the poem’s title and the poem itself can be a fraught and loaded moment. To fill this space by playfully questioning the audience’s ability to keep up initiates an informal mood that is at odds with the setting.

The opening lines deliver a series of disparate images and declarative statements, all seeming to eminate from a variety of viewpoints and and personas. We know from the title that the poem is set in Rapid City, South Dakota and that someone, perhaps the poet himself, is having a kip, or at least trying to.

A few lines later he is making shrieking velociraptor and grumbling triceratops noises. It turns out that these are references to a recording on loop, but for a moment we are invited to imagine two actual dinosaurs in the Rapid City setting. The lines could have referenced the medium before the message, but what fun would that have been?

By now, the listener, if she is as smart as she looks, has worked out that Kleinzahler isn’t setting up a narrative or line of argument – he is establishing an attitude and an aesthetic.

After describing the stuffy confines of a bible shop in comparison to the lively cacophonics of the dinosaur shop he states:

This is a sacred place, a holy place
4 a.m in sacred place,
I can tell this is a sacred place, I needn’t be told
It’s in the air
I feel it

The declarations of sacredness continue throughout the poem and we, being generous listeners, accept their sincerity. This first impression is soon thrown into doubt when the poet informs us that:

The Lambs of Christ are among us
You can tell by the billboards
The billboards with fetuses, way out on the highway

Blessings are also bestowed, and, just in case the listener hasn’t worked out that Kleinzahler is taking the piss, they fall upon Richard Nixon, Mao Tze Tung and Kevin Costner.

The poem talks about the heart of America, but this heart is contradictory and whimsical. Descriptions of vast, humbling landscapes collide with nods to high kitsch. This is the postmodern attitude of the poem. We are never sure which exclamations are sincere and which are ironic.

This ambiguity as to whether Kleinzahler is sincere or taking the piss that can be transposed onto the frame and setting of the reading itself. If we cannot be sure about the ideas of sacredness and blessings within the poem, can we also be sure about the eminence of the venue and its grand commencement traditon? Every time that Kleinzahler asserts that this is “a sacred place”, how can the listener not be similarly cogniscent that this also applies to the institution, even on an unconscious level?

It is in this sense that Kleinzahler is able to overcome the stifling sense of importance that plagued the Walcott reading. The audience are now able to approach the poems in their own way. Perhaps some may still find the poems to be of importance, while others may find that they don’t like the poems at all, which is absolultely fine. Some may even, heaven forbid, enjoy themselves.

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This is the latest in an ongoing series of posts that work towards a criticism of the Spoken Word. I will be looking at all forms of Spoken Word — not just poetry readings and spoken word/poetry performances but stand up comedy, confessional monologues, academic lectures, speeches, wrestling promos and any other act of public speech that rings my bell. All posts will appear under the Toward a Criticism of the Spoken Word category. Click to see if new posts have been added and for any you may have missed.

Derek Walcott – UCSD Convocation

Posted on | February 15, 2017 | 1 Comment

In the first blog in this series, I wrote about literary poets buckling under the weight of poetry’s importance. It’s not the poets’ fault, the literary poetry scene has been led this way by a publicity stategy built around prizes. It has been led this way by vague and toothless criticism from journalists who feel they are saving poetry from extinction. It has been led this way by all the strange and unnecessary rituals of the academic poetry reading. But most of all, it has been led this way by the most ridiculous and compromising prop in the history of spoken word. The biggest share of blame must fall squarely on the lectern.

If lecterns were all similar to the pulpit that Orson Welles speaks from in John Huston’s adaptation of Moby Dick, I would have no beef with it. But most lecterns we see at academic poetry readings are not as ornate, nor do they necessitate that the poet has to climb a ship’s ladder in order to access it. Their main purpose is to stand as a bland, impenetrable barrier between the poet and their audience.

And then there are the dual antenna microphones, normally set to a hypersensitive maximum volume as if the poet has given specific instructions that they intend to mumble while reading with their head bowed. Or, if they choose to read in a low-volume “poet voice“, the mics will pick up all the wet, clicky noises inside their mouth with perfect fidelity.

If the academy aspires to be the secular, bloodless parish of the post-enlightenment, the lectern is its altar. Therefore, it follows that there should also be a priest.

At the UCSD Concovation, Derek Walcott is introduced by the provost, Allan Havis. Here, we must already count our blessings. Many academic readings begin with a senior member of staff introducing the visiting speaker whose job it is to introduce the main speaker. It’s like a little Russian doll of introductions. However, as one introductory speaker could introduce some economy and brevity to the event, Havis endeavours to pad out the introduction with as much redundant information as possible.

He begins his introductions by thanking a lot of people. I’m sure that they are all warm, intelligent and well-mannered folk. I just do not understand how the recitation of their names will enhance my experience of a St Lucian Nobel Laureate reading from his long poem in which the narrative conventions of Homer are filtered through the feuds, loves and losses of a small Caribbean community.

After two minutes, the provost has finished reciting names and has now embarked on a long list of everything Derek Walcott has written and everything he has done. He could have just read the blurb on the book cover and everyone will be just as prepared.

Introductions can sometimes stoke the flames of excitement before the grand entrance of the poet onto the stage, no matter how laboured they can be. Therefore, someone has made the decision to have Derek Walcott stand awkwardly beside the provost during the entirety of the introduction.

I concede that the provost is redeemed by his apparent boredom, as well as his lack of superlative-laded blurb speak that we often hear from visiting speaker’s introductions – micro-essays that seem to exist for the sole purpose of demonstrating all the clever things that they can say about the main speaker.

None of this is in the name of poetry but in the name of the importance of poetry. This reading will not be fun, it will not be informal, any emotion will be invoked and examined from a position of academic neutrality and rigour. It will be important.

If you haven’t already guessed, this isn’t really about Derek Walcott’s peformance but rather how Derek Walcott’s performance is framed.

I read Omeros over a number of years because it deserves to be read carefully and the eye (and ear) can easily skip over the lines because of their pleasing evenness in tone and tempo.

The same is true for his readings. The combination of his lyrical style and his mellifluous voice can lull the reader into a numb daydream. It is up to the listener to stay alert and listen carefully to each line. That’s everything I need to say about Walcott’s performance style. The same can be applied to Heaney too.

The next post in this series is another lectern assisted reading. However, in this instance the poet manages to burst the bubble of importance and carry off a fun, energised reading. It is the same poet who once said, after winning a major prize (I quote from memory): “What I like about poetry is that it’s a lot of fun, it’s not important and it’s not for everyone.”

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This is the latest in an ongoing series of posts that work towards a criticism of the Spoken Word. I will be looking at all forms of Spoken Word — not just poetry readings and spoken word/poetry performances but stand up comedy, confessional monologues, academic lectures, speeches, wrestling promos and any other act of public speech that rings my bell. All posts will appear under the “Toward a Criticism of the Spoken Word category. Click to see if new posts have been added and for any you may have missed.

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