Niall O'Sullivan

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

Jean Binta Breeze – The Wife of Bath Speaks in Brixton Market

Posted on | March 16, 2017 | No Comments

There are two performances taking place in this video. The first is from the dub poet Jean Binta Breeze, recited towards the tiny black hole of the camera lens, constructed from many separate takes. The second performance is from the market itself.

Breeze adopts the persona of a Caribbean take on Chaucer’s Wife of Bath. In the words of Tom Waits, she’s been married so much she’s got rice marks all over her face. The viewer that she pictures on the other side of the lens must be a relative stranger (otherwise they would know about her many marriages). At the same time, she is comfortable enough around this stranger to freely express her sexuality. The poem is funny and provocative.

Brixton Market, filmed in 2006, bustles about her. At one moment, she clasps her bosom and exclaims “What I do with my body is my own business!” – causing a woman to stop in her tracks and glare back in disbelief. Kids, kept close to their mothers’ sides, can’t help but to look back and smile. A bare chested gentleman double takes with genuine puzzlement at what is going on.

Others see her as a momentary obstacle – a young man with a bag over his shoulder storms past, clipping the poet’s elbow. Breeze shrugs it off without missing a beat. Most continue among their day to day affairs. Over the years, the market has seen far more perverse and boisterous public outbursts than this. If anything it is not Breeze’s performance that draws the odd glare, but the presence of the camera that she confides with.

In Live Poetry, An Integrated Approach to Poetry in Performance (a book that heavily informs my attitudes and teaching), Julia Novak defines this kind of setting as a borrowed space. A borrowed space is simply a setting that normally has another function, distinct from poetry performances. It could be a football pitch, an oil rig, a cave or a call centre.

There is something about the Brixton Market of ten years ago that makes me think that, as a space, it could not be borrowed. It was never a surprise back then to see someone singing, dancing, ranting or telling everybody that they were going to hell. Energy never stayed pent up for very long.

The tension between the market itself and Breeze’s performance is due to her not sharing her energy with the space. She is sharing it with us and all the other viewers distributed across space and time. From our vantage point, the market is the backdrop that frames Breeze’s generous and brave performance. From the vantage point of the market, she is sharing her energy with the camera and the camera is a gateway to countless outsiders. Perhaps this disconnect is intensified because Breeze’s dialect is one of the most recognisable of the many languages that were spoken at the market at the time.

Most performers would get the jitters performing in any kind of borrowed space but Breeze shines. We only get a sense of nerves at the end when she lets out a laugh that seems to exclaim “What the f*** did I just do?”

Today, Brixton market, at least one side of it, has become a haven for gentrifiers. As the old cash and carries and old school butchers and fishmongers were priced out by rising market rents; single origin coffee bars, organic delis, even champagne and cheese emporiums have coloured the area affluent and much, much whiter.

So goes the dialectic of displacement – rough becomes edgy, edgy becomes vibrant, vibrant becomes desirable.

Maybe the time is ripe for someone to call Jean Binta Breeze’s agent and get her back down to recite this poem amongst the hipsters, yummy mummies and creative freelancers?

Would their mouths gape open? Would they remain as aloof as they normally are to the old locals? Would they call the Police? Or would they raise up their phone camera – a clutch of little black holes peering blankly and blamelessly at each other?

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.

Allen Ginsberg – Ah! Sunflower

Posted on | March 6, 2017 | 1 Comment

When I started out as a lecturer, one aspect of modern academic life disconcerted me. As I fumbled through my sophomore powerpoint presentations, I noticed that most students’ faces were illuminated by their laptop and tablet screens. I soon learned the difference between the attentive frowns of those that were making lecture notes and the fixed half smiles of those checking their social media feeds.

My stepdad, a man with considerable teaching hours behind him, overcomes this issue by using a clicker to change slides while standing at the back of the room. That way he can see what’s on every student’s display.

I didn’t adopt that strategy, but I found a video that helped in making students more aware of their present environment and how digital media can dampen that awareness.

In this excerpt from the Ah! Sunflower documentary, Allen Ginsberg sits in a London garden and delivers a short address to the viewer. In the same way that Pauline Pearce’s rebuke of Hackney looters gained a new significance when it became a viral video – Ginsberg’s speech gained a new level of relevance in the digital epoch that took place after his death.

Ginsberg begins by describing his immediate physical state and then reminds the viewer to become aware of theirs (-transcript from The Allen Ginsberg Project):

If you will keep your mind on the image that is in front of you, which is my face in the camera or in your tv tube or screen (tv tube) and realize (now) that I’m looking from the other side directly into a little black hole imagining that you are there,

In the 21st Century, the viewer isn’t watching this on a cathode tube television. There is more chance that the viewer is watching Ginsberg on a small glass rectangle, or possibly an interactive smartboard in a sterile academic setting.

Ginsberg muses on the nature of this act of communication.

and also imagining what would be possible to say that would actually communicate, through all the electricity and all the glass and all the dots on the electric screen,

Ginsberg speaks with a low, animated tone from his serene garden setting. He points to himself and then to the camera to differentiate between his me and the me of the viewer. He then makes a number of frenetic gestures to imply the physicality of the media that convey the message. He has already signified the screen or “TV tube” with the hand gesture we often use to signify closed gates or doors. He invokes electricity and glass with the same gesture of opening his hands and quickly bringing them together, signifying a kind of compression. The dots on the electric screen are signified by a series of prodding finger gestures – as if he is making those dots himself.

so that you are not deceived by the image seen but that we are all both on the same beam, which is, you’re sitting in your room, surrounded by your body, looking at a screen, and I’m sitting in my garden, with my body, with noise of cars outside, so that we’re, at least, conscious of where we are, and don’t get hypnotized into.some false universe of just pure imagery,

Ginsberg once again uses gestures to great effect, drawing a curved line with his finger around his own face when speaking of the “image seen”. Pointing gestures continue to differentiate between “me” and “you”. Hocus pocus gestures signify “hypnotised”. He waves his hands up and down to signify the “false universe of pure imagery”. The basic message of all these words and gestures is: I am here picturing you. You are there watching my image. We must not become distracted or entranced by all the processes that come in between.

Here, with this deceiving image and false universe of pure imagery, Ginsberg is speaking from a quaint familiarity with television and cinema. He surely couldn’t be aware of a universe of pure imagery that incorporates Virtual Reality, Clash of Clans and Snapchat. He surely couldn’t be cognisant of a deceiving image that can call out, or buzz in your pocket, when it demands your attention. He states again that only an awareness of our mutual environments in conveying or receiving the image can save us from this grand deception:

you’re taking the film in front of you as an image, with a grain of salt, as an image rather than a final reality, and so you don’t get deceived by either my projections or the projections of the newscaster who will follow

Doesn’t this perfectly describe the digital world and the willing deception that it enables? It hinges on mutual acceptance of a phantasmagorical realm, an imaginative world that unites the content provider and the content consumer. Both are complicit in the denial of the real world.

There is something startling in that, when confronting my immediate now while Ginsberg confronts his – we are both living in the present despite our experiences of the present being a half century apart.

On another note, this video has helped me to deal with my own particular issues about being filmed. I’ve always been comfortable around audiences, even audiences that don’t like me, but I’ve never been comfortable with cameras. There was something disconcerting about that “little black hole” that was the camera lens. Now I can simply remind myself that I am not performing to a machine, I am speaking to the person of the other side, in their own world and their own body.

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.

CM Punk – The Pipe Bomb

Posted on | March 2, 2017 | No Comments

Today, honouring the website’s maxim of “high brow, low brow, ignore all that stuff in the middle”, we’re looking at the underappreciated art of the wrestling promo. If you haven’t a clue as to what a wrestling promo is, no worries. I’m going to define a few conventions while pointing out how CM Punk subverts and reinvents them with the legendary Pipe Bomb promo.

A wrestling promo is a speech or staged conversation that furthers a wrestling storyline. Without storylines, a wrestling match is simply a spectacle of athleticism.

The story is simple. We have the good guy, the face and champion of the WWE, John Cena. CM Punk, the villain, is set to challenge Cena for the title at the next Pay-Per-View and has just interfered in one of Cena’s matches. Typical baddie tactics. But things swerve dramatically from our expectations as Punk takes a seat and delivers his promo.

Wrestlers should emphasise qualities of strength and masculinity in their promos, bad guys can display characteristics of hypocrisy and cowardice but should do so without compromising those traditional masculine characteristics.

Most people entertain a common image of the wrestler flexing their guns and bellowing into a microphone.

Contrast this with Punk, sat cross-legged at a platform opposite the ring. His voice is casual and conversational. His posture is passive. This is more Berkeley campus protest than war boast. His figure resembles that of a typical, health conscious man rather than the tanned, baby-oiled musclemen that typified the WWE look.

An adherent of straight-edge in real life, Punk made it his villainous gimmick – lecturing audiences about their unhealthy lifestyles. This became an advantage when the WWE clamped down on steroid and painkiller use after a series of shocking early deaths from active and retired wrestlers.

The story being serviced by the promo should be a simple one of good vs bad.

We all have an internal image of the good guy/bad guy wrestling promo. On one side there’s Hulk Hogan – flexing his pythons while telling the kids to say their prayers and drink their milk. On the other side there’s the Million Dollar Man – boasting about his wealth as he talks down to his personal valet and bodyguard. The first thing that will become apparent is a mutual loathing that can only be resolved with a big boot, a leg drop and a 1-2-3.

Compare this to the words addressed to by Punk to Cena:

I don’t hate you, John. I don’t even dislike you. I do like you. I like you a hell of a lot more than I like most people in the back.

No reference should be made to backstage goings on. The promo should purely concentrate on the story. The illusion must be sustained

For the rest of the Pipe Bomb promo, Punk refers to himself as the best wrestler in the world, drawing out his pronunciation of wrestler. What is significant about this is that for many years, WWE had been shying away from the word wrestling and its derivatives. Talents were superstars or divas, depending on gender. The product was described as Sports Entertainment.

Punk mentions names from backstage, many of whom have not featured in storylines such as the talent relations executive, John Laurinaitis. He mentions Hulk Hogan, albeit in a derogatory sense, who was also not being referenced by talents as he was working for a rival company at the time. He ponders aloud as to whether he should quit and join Ring of Honor or New Japan, companies never mentioned aloud in WWE before.

The crowd also have a role to play and the speaker should play to or influence that crowd’s role.

By this time, wrestling fandom was made of of two cultures, the first being the casual fans. They showed up at events, bought the merch, cheered the good guys, booed the bad guys. They followed the storylines and showed no interest in what goes on backstage.

The second culture consisted of fans that frequented websites that traded in backstage rumours.

The internet fans were audibly jubilant because Punk was mentioning many things that had been covered on wrestling rumour sites but never before mentioned on WWE programming. This made things even more intriguing as Punk addressed those same internet fans with the same derision:

Oh hey, let me get something straight. Those of you who are cheering me right now, you are just as big a part of me leaving as anything else. Because you’re the ones who are sipping on those collector cups right now. You’re the ones that buy those programs that my face isn’t on the cover of. And then at five in the morning at the airport, you try to shove it in my face and get an autograph and try to sell it on eBay because you’re too lazy to go get a real job.

The promo ends with Punk about to point out the hypocrisy of the WWE’s anti bullying campaign only to have his mic switched off. Moments later, the show goes off the air.

I remember how I felt at the end of that promo, I asked the same question that millions of fans around the world asked, Was that for real?

The answer was that it was for real, but it was still planned. The promo was given with the consent of the powers that be, while at the same time, much of what Punk said was genuine. This became apparent when he quit for real a few years later in similarly controversial circumstances.

So why am I sharing a post about wrestling promos in a series that concentrates on Spoken Word artists? Because I have already mused on the idea of authenticity and I would go further and say that there are few speech acts in Spoken Word and poetry that are as authentic as this.

Could you imagine, for a second, someone from those scenes going off against their benefactors and patrons in as visceral and vitriolic a fashion? Of course you can’t. You know why? Because wrestling is more real that life.

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.

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.

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