The Ear of the Poet in the Mouth of the Performer

Carla Harryman


Performer appears behind podium wearing Daniel Davidson’s Iraqi pin

Dear Kathleen: You don’t have to worry about me going in too many directions—as long as the US doesn’t go and start a big war and addle my/our brains and souls with perpetuation of terror(s).

Act 1:

Senator Byrd quoting Omar Khayyam:  “Nor all your Tears wash out a Word of it”

Well, it has been more challenging than I thought it would be to write on this topic and for the very reason I dreaded.  Who wouldn’t wonder what she was doing in front of a computer within days of the potential commencement of World War III, or has it already begun?

Act 2:

Tears as words washing                                   

[Scenario: demonstration]

Recently I have resorted to agit prop.

   [click to see full-sized collage]      

Here we see that the poet is inside of an enclosure, with a door locked from the outside. A plaque that says “poet inside” with an arrow pointing to the locked door tells me that the poet has made something she can’t get out of. Or, like Antigone, she has been put away. The poet is either dead or alive and in either case is not accessible.  Below the enclosure is a tombstone in the shape of a pin one can wear on a shirt pocket with the word Iraqi printed on it. The pin is itself a tomb marked as in memoriam to a poet, Dan Davidson. Dan Davidson is the poet who circulated the Iraqi pins during the Gulf War. I wore the pin during the Gulf War fairly regularly and was the recipient of largely friendly looks and pleasantly unanticipated conversations from mostly Arab immigrant and Arab American shopkeepers of various religions and nationalities. I was also the recipient of curious questions, like are you from Iraq? Or, I didn’t know you were from Iraq! from non-Arab literal minded American types, like parents at my kid’s school who did not understand the meanings of the pin as readily as those from the Middle East. One of the more curious conversations involved a young woman who took the pin to be a kind of confession, a mixed declaration of guilty culpability and coming-out as Iraqi. It was for her an invitation to exchange confidences, hers being that she had an excess of facial hair and that she was terrified that her husband would find out about it. To me this made some sense, when I thought about it from her perspective. I was an Arab with non-Arab features, so I could hide behind my western looks and thereby avoid scrutiny and possible condemnation visited upon other Arab Americans. She, on the other hand, could use a razor to hide threatening gender-confusing physical characteristics, thereby avoiding unsettling scrutiny and possible rejection by her husband.  We were both, in a sense, in the same boat: we had had something to hide until this private moment of mutual outing, even if I hadn’t been deliberately hiding something like she had.

The people from the Arab speaking world understood the emblem Iraqi as signifying human solidarity with their potential suffering—both as subjects of national prejudice and as people who had personal ties to a world under attack. The pin was also understood as a protest against the U.S. raid on Iraq: a person wearing the pin was understood to align herself with victims of war. It was interesting to see who did and didn’t understand or respond to or responded negatively to Davidson’s signifying game.

Act 2 Scene 2: 

“If I meet a stranger how do I know he is a stranger?” Gertrude Stein

If this were a performance, I would now redirect your attention to another pod of whatever room we happened to be in. You would find yourself in the middle of a play by Gertrude Stein:

Performer occupies a formally unoccupied piece of turf

Second Act: What is the earth
Second Act: The earth is altogether with or without water.
Second Act: With or without thunder
Second Act: No, with or without water.
Third Act: That is what the earth is with or without water.
Third Act: And what are people.
Third Act: People are all over
Third Act: Do you mean all over
Third Act: No I do not mean all over.
Third Act: Do you not do you not mean all over.
Third Act not necessarily sad. No I do not mean all over the earth and even if I did I would not even if I did have it all over.
Third Act: Why not
Third Act: Because not.
Third Act: Because if the people are all over the earth which they are it is not all over.
Third Act: Not all over

       Please kindly notice that “over” is two syllables and that makes all the trouble. Trouble has two syllables too.

In a performance, what would happen in this juxtaposed use of Stein, whose open-to-interpretation values for the performance of her plays I share, is that the discussion preceding the extract from her play would infect the semantic meaning of her work—an inference would be brought forth that at this present moment a poet behind a locked door, a no longer living poet, Iraqi, and people are connected and that there is a simultaneity made between the word “Iraqi” in my exposition and the word “people” in Stein’s play.  Another way to perform this piece would be to deliver each speech simultaneously. Simultaneity, a value incidentally put forth in the Italian Futurist “Synthetic Theater Manifesto” that “captures the confused fragments of interconnected events encountered in everyday life,” is a tactic that encompasses any number of possible outcomes and is a good device for investigating relationships of text to voice to content to context.

(…so formal strategies are not married to content—and if you want to hear more about this please ask me after the show.)

Performer then demonstrates two versions of simultaneity

Act 2 scene 3:

Senator Byrd: “The American people have a better understanding of the constitution than those who are elected to represent it.”

Act 2 scene 4:

Further discussion

The Iraqi pin allowed or dared anybody who had the nerve to wear it to become an artist, a performance artist. The conversations I had at the time with strangers reminded me of some 70’s performance art, for instance, of some of Eleanor Antin’s public performance work of that period, including a piece called something like the King, Duke, or Earl of San Diego, in which she wandered around in a silly get-up—bowler hat and fake mustache and beard piece, the accoutrements of the archetypal Huck Finn confidence trickster nobility—engaging local folks in conversation. I imagine Antin’s performance as an intervention, meant to disrupt the stranger/neighbor barrier in self-guarded sub(urban) Southern California neighborhoods. Her drag/vaudeville, transparent as it was, was probably intended as a user-friendly way of negotiating conversations through gender divides while demonstrating the loosening of the regulations of gender in public space. I thought, I could/would never walk around in a silly costume to attract attention in this way. Well it turns out that’s true, but not true, at the same time.

Performer removes Iraqi pin and applies illegal alien pin here.

Act 2 scene 5:

“There is no curtain because it does happen.” Gertrude Stein

What interested me about the Iraqi pin performance is first that I felt compelled to wear the pin whether I wanted to or not. In fact, I dreaded wearing it just as one dreads the turn of events in a tragedy or melodrama. I the poet like being ignored and keeping my own space in public. Therefore, it challenged me the performer to engage with strangers: I am not constituted to converse with people I don’t know.

I avoided conversations with parents at my son’s school when I could. The person wearing the pin calls attention to the pin and becomes, by virtue of wearing it, responsible to whatever interpretations of the pin one encounters.

The objective of Davidson’s performance was to diffuse the theater of war and to dramatize the real life conflations that lead to the targeting of Iraqi subjects as enemies. As a performer of the pin, one becomes responsible in a local context to major world events. The performer citizen engages in a dialogic meditation that exceeds the limits of conventional narrative and argumentation as she becomes aware of her personhood stripped of reductive theatrics and narratives of identity. As with much performance art of the 70’s, Davidson’s work is partly about the performer’s experience itself; and like the performance values of the modernist avant-garde, it assertively provokes a response to emerging states of affairs. It is combative and sociable, inward and outward looking, dialogic and positional.

Act 3 Scene 1:

Senator Byrd: “Perhaps it is that the citizen’s understanding is not filtered through the prism of election year politics.”

Yet, the challenge of writing anything has been at stake for me since the U.S. response to 9/11 became an excuse to militarize against Iraq. The pleasure in the idea that I could be writing about my own art activity and its genre excesses is contradicted by the loss of a sense of what? Form? Desire? Motivation? What do I mean by a loss of a sense of form-desire? And might this then be the very place to begin talking about the text as written for the page and as written for performance and is there a difference? Or perhaps what I am experiencing is not exactly a loss of a sense of form-motivation, but the signal of a breaking point.

Scene 2 Act 3:

What comes first, the poetry or the theater? What comes first, the poetry or the prose?  First the discourse or the poetry?  The essay or the story?  Narrative or the non-narrative? What comes first, the embodied word or the thrown object? What comes first, the object or the subject? Subject eating the object or the object absorbing the subject?

What is emphasized, the skeleton or the muscle?

I would prefer to emphasize the skeleton. I would prefer the movement to be the movement of the muscles lifted by the skeleton. When the muscles are not lifted by the skeleton they become athletic. One becomes aggressive and competitive. The theater becomes a theater of conflict. And somebody has to win.

Mis en scene:  A redistribution of language as testing ground

Act 4: The Middle:

In 1982, I wrote an experimental essay, which, now that I look back at it, points to the problem of answering this question about resisting type.

The book begins with three short paragraphs:

Who limits herself to “All I can say. All I can say” gives herself over to a kind of conservatism.

This oblique judgment or observation is mystifying to me. But it is very much part of what interests me.

Characterizing the middle where what’s enlarged (subjective) and what’s reduced (external) by speaking gather.

The circumambient considerations of this anti-manifesto, The Middle, involve a critique of tragedy and fated, or unidirectional causal narratives, a preference for comedy and playfulness e.g. multiplicity and change, and a performative display of the values for mediating between the abyss of “expressive” subjectivity (hyper self-awareness to the exclusion of the world) and the reduced value of external reality that the intensification of subjective expressivity can entail.  The 22 pages of The Middle—what I am calling here an anti-manifesto—is composed in the following sub-genres and styles, understanding here that sub-genre and style are conflated: aphoristic prose, story telling, the genre of elaborate and prolonged citation, the genre of fake citation, collage appropriation, drama, dialogue, recit, prose poetry, faked poetry (that which imitates another’s style almost effectively), and false autobiography. The essay is art but it is not purely a fictional or poetic essay and thus it has also conflated art and analytic discourse, as have numerous of my other writings.

It is a little impossible to construct a narrative by which one can pigeonhole the writing, or stabilize it, long enough to be able to say that it ever went from any one genre to another. My approach to writing per se has elicited its variation in genre.

Notes to the director of The Ear of the Poet in the Mouth of the Performer:

First you will have to decide whether or not this is indeed a play or a performance of any kind. Once you have made this decision, consider the following:

I sometimes call the kind of theater I do (and sometimes dream about. but don’t do) “poet’s theater” after the American traditions of poet’s theater from T.S. Elliot to Frank O’Hara, after the longer tradition of theater written as poetry, and after the San Francisco Bay Area Poet’s Theater I took part in from 1978-1984 or so and have more recently refigured in a broader interdisciplinary context.  I could also call it avant-garde performance, a kind of performance that recognizes the sources and values of early 20th c. performance art of Futurism, Constructivism, Dada, Surrealism, Bauhaus, and Gertrude Stein. What I retain of this earlier avant-garde is not a preservation through imitation or slavish copying but an interest—an interest in using live performance as a mode of exploring new ideas or ideas that are difficult, provisional, anti-tragic, in the mode of becoming, on the way, emerging. 

My earlier demonstrative discussion of Dan Davidson’s Iraqi pin indicates something about the intersection between the practice of poetry and performance art that leads to an approach to poet’s theater. However, what is most important to me, as a playwright, is the performative deployment of language in live space. It is language that is itself character, activity, or event of all of my plays. In this sense, the plays are not dissimilar from my other writing.

Each of my plays assumes a different set of problems in respect to language and performance. And a criteria for my plays thus far has been that they have to have an autonomous integrity on the page apart from performance. Since I think paradoxically about the question of autonomy, e.g. “ìt never wins,” I am interested in making plays that in addition to having autonomous integrity as written literary work, must be recreated from scratch each time they are staged.  The staging is never an illustration of the text just as the visual elements of the mis en scene are never made to illustrate the action or meaning of the play.

Of this play and essay, The Ear of the Poet in the Mouth of the Performer, the director will need to understand that its site(s) are not an actual locality: it exists in both discursive and referential space. It is to be situated as the work of a political activist, and it is addressing a kind of homework assignment for authors. The bias of the text is that political activism is necessary to the artist (even if not the artist identified as “author”) and that the homework assignment is peculiarly a kind of medium that allows that artist or (did I mean activist?) to communicate with friends, colleagues, and others who want to think about the maker’s relationship to, yes, medium, and yes, genre.

So rather than creating a boring mis en scene with chalk, blackboard, podium and the other trappings of pedagogy representing the academic community and with this site in juxtaposition (juxtaposition being another futurist theater strategy) with a political site represented by some kind of didactic style sign system of pins, posters, and banner waving, I suggest the following: imagine an ear and a mouth, imagine a poet and a performer. Imagine nothing or what you want to or Senator Byrd’s filibuster and then imagine anybody who might be willing to consider active protest and civil disobedience as an appropriate response to the forthcoming war. Begin counting and do not be afraid to play telephone or to answer the telephone if it rings when you are counting.  Interruption also counts. If you do as I suggest, you will find a way to direct this play and interpret this essay, and it will not be identical to what you have read on this page.

Act 5

“Performance has been considered as a way of bringing to life the many formal and conceptual ideas on which the making of art is based. Live gestures have constantly been used as a weapon against the conventions of established art.”  Rose Lee Goldberg

In her book (now in its 3rd edition) Performance Art, Rose Lee Goldberg begins her survey of the genre with a brief discussion of the early 20th c. avant-garde. Here are some of her claims:

1) visual artists, when they have reached an impasse have turned to performance as “a way of breaking down categories and indicating new directions”;
2) performance has been at the forefront of the activity of breaking away from “successive fields” within the history of the 20th c. avant-garde;
3) most of the early avant-garde movements tested their ideas in performance.

Goldberg here infers a particular relationship between the art object and performance. A wedge is made between the art object and a performative medium that either breaks down categories of art or becomes a testing ground. Subsequently the art object is reinstated—or at least that is her inference—and if one looks at the history of performance art from an art historical perspective, that narrative works to some extent. The place for performance within her discussion then is a provisional place.

An extension of this would be that the performance medium become a more permanent or significant testing ground—that the performance that tests ideas comes to exist as an object per se, or that it exists more legitimately in an in-between position: one that in part fulfills a provisional role, one directed toward the completion of the art object—as a thing in itself, and one that in part fulfills an open-ended, non-objective mobile role that is exploratory, improvisatory, and that takes language as a medium as seriously as it does the other mediums of innovative theater that have superseded language.


“If God’s on our side, he’ll stop the next war.”  Bob Dylan

This is not what I would have written three or four days ago or a month ago, nor what I might have written today. I gave myself two days to assemble the many thoughts I have had on the topic of resisting type. And these are what they are as recorded on October 12, 2002, one day following the senate vote and the day that my son, having turned 18, has become by law required to give his name to the selective service.

And so.

You want to know how and why I write plays when I’m a what? Well, I have figured that since all writing is difficult, any mode is equally available to me. This may be a ruse, but it works. Therefore, I do not decide “now I am going to write a play”—well, unless I have some kind of contract or invitation in advance. What I do is, I think, hmmm…there are all of these postwar French writings, like those of George Perec, that deal with the quotidian. Since the quotidian is a philosophical concept about what philosophy can’t handle, it seems like a great point of entry for a work. A gigantic space opens where anything can happen. So I open a book by Graham Greene because he likes adventure a l’homme (the exotic quotidian) and I get this passage:  “Neither the Spanish costume, which is designed for a flamenco dancer, nor the elaborate headgear is inconspicuous,” and I’m off and running, running circles around gesture and gender and literariness (welcome into this discrete world, La Quotidienne) and it’s all getting acted out by this kind of supplementary excitement—the words are running away with the words—and when that happens, I might decide it’s theater—I can hear this in live space spoken by someone, ideally a cartoon figure in a human body that enjoys being a cartoon when it is not rehearsing for Antigone, or Medea, or Hamlet.

BIO: Carla Harryman’s two experimental novels, Gardener of Stars and The Words: after Carl Sandburg’s Rootabaga Stories and Jean-Paul Sartre are explorations of the paradise and wastelands of utopian desire. Other works include selected writings, There Never Was a Rose without a Thorn (1995) and Animal Instincts (1989). Working extensively in performance, and experimental theater, she has collaborated with visual artists and composers. Her recent play, Performing Objects Stationed in the Sub World, was commissioned by the Oxford-Brookes University's Poetry Center Colloquium, where it was staged (2001) as a reading, later performed at Zeitgeist Theater (Detroit) and the LAB in San Francisco. “Residues or Revolutions of the Languages of Acker and Artaud” will appear in the critical anthology, Devouring Institutions: the Writing of Kathy Acker. Harryman teaches Women Studies, Creative Writing and Literature at Wayne State University (Detroit).

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