"The Shakers" a play by Kevin Killian and Wayne Smith at Small Press Traffic

The Shakers Backstage--photo courtesy of Kevin Killian
Once again Kevin Killian and Wayne Smith have given the Bay Area the gift of an evening of communal pleasure. It is not the 19th Century, but the 21st, and yet, Killian and Smith's play (set in the 19th century) reminds me of the 19th century's delight in tableaux vivants, but with a difference. The tableau vivant--"the living picture, the tableau historique, the pose plastique, the pregnant moment, the costumed tableau and film still"--according to the University of Chicago's Theories of Media Keyword Glossary, has its origins in "medieval liturgical dramas." The first tableau vivant was staged in 1760 when "Carlo Bertenazzi represented Grueze's painting, "The Village Betrothal in Les Noces d'Arlequin" at Versailles. The tableaux vivants were part entertainment and part educational and informational as they represented paintings and important moments in history and literature. They were "performed variously as a parlour game, a carnival attraction, pageant, pedagogical tool or propaganda image, [and] the history of the tableau vivant is most commonly located in popular entertainments and is usually found within the context of informal social gatherings" (The New Orleans Society for Tableau Vivant). I suspected that these entertainments might have also provided yet another way of enjoying the bodies of women, particularly if the painting being re-produced in the tableau was one with scantily clad figures. The New Orleans Society for Tableau Vivant's history confirms this:

Originally a parlor game for the wealthy, tableau vivant gained wide popularity in the 19th century only to fade away with the coming of radio and moving pictures. There are numerous examples of tableau vivant in European culture ranging from the refined to the crude. In late 19th century London, for example, the still pose of the tableau cleverly by-passed laws on public nudity making it possible for clubs, like The Windmill, to put naked ladies on display for the ostensible purpose of edifying the (male) public by recreating classical sculptures!

In this particular play there weren't any nude bodies, though Walt Whitman found romance by the banks of the river with a Civil War deserter. Killian and Smith's The Shakers reminds me of these tableaux vivants not because they are produced by people with money and leisure, mostly quite the opposite, but because they are collective entertainments that enlist members of the community who are not professional actors. The play is as much entertainment for those collaborating as it is for those in the audience. And yes, tableaux vivants, were silent, visual entertainments, and poets theater is a garrulous, and usually minimally costumed and staged theater, but they seem to bring a form of poetry (rather than paintings and art history), to a broad audience; they have a carnavalesque atmosphere and provide a social and local space for poetry to perform and engage critique, history, pleasure.

Last night, The Shakers playfully intermixed the present (in its self-reflexive commentary on life and literature of the period) with 19th century Massachusetts. Set near Amherst, the play included appearances by the parents of Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman (who had come to the Shaker village to take advantage of the Shakers' industrious workers who would produce his "Whitman Sampler" chocolates), and soldiers who had fought in the recent Civil War. Trader Joe, dressed in surfer/Hawaiian shirt and jeans, showed up with his traveling wagon with good deals on Merlot, Swiss cheese, and other fare. There were lines from Whitman's poems, including references to "I sing the body electric," and his poem about the recently assassinated President Lincoln:

WHEN lilacs last in the door-yard bloom’d,
And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night,
I mourn’d—and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.

Selections from a number of Emily Dickinson's poems including all of "My Life had stood a Loaded Gun."

My Life had stood - a Loaded Gun -
In Corners - till a Day
The Owner passed - identified -
And carried Me away -

And now We roam in Sovereign Woods -
And now We hunt the Doe -
And every time I speak for Him -
The Mountains straight reply -

And do I smile, such cordial light
Upon the Valley glow -
It is as a Vesuvian face
Had let its pleasure through -

And when at Night - Our good Day done -
I guard My Master's Head -
'Tis better than the Eider-Duck's
Deep Pillow - to have shared -

To foe of His - I'm deadly foe -
None stir the second time -
On whom I lay a Yellow Eye -
Or an emphatic Thumb -

Though I than He - may longer live
He longer must - than I -
For I have but the power to kill,
Without--the power to die--

And there were quips about Dickinson's maid and Aife Murray's recent book on Dickinson, Maid as Muse. While the sets were minimal in this play, it made use of excellent costumes (including a living costumed fire sculpture by Matthew Gordon who was assisted by Mik Gaspay) and sound--both songs sung back- and on-stage by the players, and the recorded voice of Anne McGuire and various other sounds--barnyard animals, birds, etc.

The play takes us on a romp through a Shaker village with its competitive innovators--men and women who forgo sexuality and channel/sublimate all that energy into industrious inventions from pegs for hanging things, to brooms and chairs. The Shakers trade with Apple Betty, a 108 year old forest woman who has an 18 year old German son in lederhosen and a newborn at the end of the play. Apple Betty (played by the always amazing Clifford Hengst), in stark contrast to the Shakers' love of cleanliness, enjoys "shuffling through her own Parthenon of dust." And then there is Polly, a young Shaker with amnesia who tires of all the toiling and wants to gaze at the dots in the sky and make lines between them, naming the constellations. She cites Tristan and Isolde and fancies many/any of the men who cross her path. Charles, the community's leader, is discovered  to have fathered one of the Shaker boys while at a Shaker Conference some 20 years+ ago.  The play closed with all players on stage singing "Will the Circle be Unbroken."   Of course, there's more, all that I can't begin to capture. I left feeling tired but high.

Here's the casting info for The Shakers:

Apple Betty, old woman of the woods Clifford Hengst  (Fab! Over the top.)

“Polly,” a young Shaker with amnesia................ Karla Milosevich (Karla's speaking voice is amazing. I could listen to her all day. Twangy lilt.)

Peg, a young Shaker, inventor of the peg...... Jocelyn Saidenberg  (Poor Peg. She loved Luke, but hadn't invented anything since "the peg.")

Ludwig, strange son of Apple Betty Craig Goodman  (Really, he only wanted to kiss those clean Shaker girls)

Sister Ray, eldress to all female Shakers...... Laurie Reid  (Loves her man no matter what)

Elder Charles, her male counterpart............ Rex Ray        (Snaky)

Luke, a young Shaker, Civil War veteran.... Taylor Brady  (So innocent in that blond wig!)

Frank, a young Shaker.. Colter Jacobsen  (Smart)

Nancy, a young Shaker............... Yedda Morrison  (Breathy)

Uriah Lee, a British Shaker, descendant of Mother Ann Lee David Brazil  (Great accent; good electric chair)

Amos, a veteran of the American Civil War.......... Scott Hewicker  (He falls for Walt)

Joe, the trader.... Glen Helfand  (a practical man)

Walt Whitman, poet, nurse, gadabout.... Kevin Killian    (Underplayed suavely)

Belle Adore, worldly woman of Amherst... Lindsey Boldt  (The shoes, the dress, the bar girl posture!)

Edward Dickinson, Congressman with a missing daughter Darin Klein

Mrs. Dickinson, his wife....... Tanya Hollis   (Stunning in black)
Anne McGuire singing on recorded tracks -- that unearthly voice you heard, manipulated by Wayne Smith who selected all the music (and wrote some). (Awesome)

The "fire" sculpture was the product of the artist Matthew Gordon, who was assisted by Mik Gaspay as they crawled all over the stage to create the illusion of the village on fire. (They even crackled)

For more, read Dodie Bellamy's blog entry on the play and lots else!


Sarah Rosenthal's A Community Writing Itself: Conversations with Vanguard Writers of the Bay Area

October 9th, Saturday night, Small Press Traffic will host Sarah Rosenthal and some of the local writers Rosenthal interviewed for her hefty (342+ pages) 2010 Dalkey Archive Press book. The collection includes interviews with twelve Bay Area writers:

Kathleen Fraser
Robert Glück
Barbara Guest
Brenda Hillman
Nathaniel Mackey
Michael Palmer
Stephen Ratcliffe
Elizabeth Robinson
Camille Roy
Leslie Scalapino
Juliana Spahr
Truong Tran

Some of thes authors, such as Palmer, Ratcliffe, Glück, and Fraser are longstanding Bay Area residents; others, such as Spahr, are more recent inhabitants. However, each has been involved in long-term friendships and aesthetic conversations with writers here and elsewhere, near and far. The dozen includes seven women and five men; two writers of color, some who are queer, and two writers who have since died.

Rosenthal begins her book with an introduction that lays out a sketch of the Bay Area’s lengthy history of vanguardism. She then explains the genesis of this collection of interviews:
I took up this project after four and half years of writing a monthly, online column that featured more than fifty Bay Area poets. Increasingly frustrated by the format, which required me to boil down lengthy interviews and a great deal of study into 1,000-word articles, I sought a project that would better communicate my enthusiasm for much of the writing I was presenting. Eventually I landed on the idea of a book of twelve interviews—twelve in part because in an utterly naïve way I imagined that the project would take me a year (an interview per month!)—but twelve, too, because I felt that number would allow me to include a range of poetics within the Bay Area experimental community. Nine years later, as I bring this project to completion, I find myself unable even to begin to fathom the gifts it has given me. Amidst the highway-racing, channel-surfing, let’s-do-lunch, skim-the-anthology tenor of these times, I have had the chance to slow down and dwell in the rich terrain of a handful of poets’ work. I have had the chance, by visiting other artists’ worlds, to view my own poetics with fresh perspective. And I have had the chance to enact some of my own ideals about the importance of deep attention. We all hunger to be read, to be heard, to be answered. We all bear urgent news. Let’s speak. And let’s listen.
As is the case in any interview, these pieces are as much about Rosenthal's interests as they are about each individual writer's. I haven’t made my way through all of these interviews, but I know I will return to this collection. Here are some moments, picked pretty much randomly, but which also speak to and across one another.

from Kathleen Fraser "Placing Silence":

Fraser:...One of the means I developed to get away from the internalized values of "good" English prosody still making its unconscious demands on my ear was to go back and forth between writing poetry with line breaks and writing long sentences and paragraphs to stretch out the sound so it wouldn't be so tightly wound and musically compressed by the old ear habits. In the late eighties and early nineties, after exploring a number of visual and sound devices in the long sequence poems published in when new time folds up, I started understanding that in fact I really loved highly compressed musical textures but I needed to find my own peculiar 'condensations'--to use a Niedecker reference. Instead of pushing them away as threat, I knew that I would work to foreground that pleasure (68).

From the interview with Truong Tran, “I Became the Other”:

Rosenthal: dust and conscience is framed by the poet-speaker’s relationship with the reader. The first poem, which starts “if only I were a dissident poet,” talks about the poet’s role and asks how the poems are going to be met by readers. One reading is that the poem describes a kind of survivor’s guilt—a questioning of whether one’s poetry can be taken seriously if one hasn’t had the horrific experiences of, say, a prisoner of conscience. Another reading is that the poem is challenging the reader to shed any expectations about what the text will serve up.

Tran: For me, it’s the latter. I still encounter the expectation, thirty years into my existence in this country, that I’ll deliver on the boat story. As a writer of color and also a gay writer, I’m not supposed to have abstract thoughts. I’m supposed to tell the story and convey the experience. In that poem I wanted to say, there are going to be some abstract thoughts here—but they won’t be floating around; they’re grounded. I believe we end up writing what we know—but I also believe that as writers, we shouldn’t be limited by what we know. There’s a world of possibility in what we don’t know, and it’s our right to explore that (324-325).

Camille Roy from “Experience is a Demanding Mistress”:

Roy: Experience is like a demanding mistress; it demands that people continually invent new aesthetic strategies just in order to represent it…..I see drama as a concentration of the theatricality and performativity of daily life. We are always making up drama; social life is drama. Performativity and social life tend to be associated with people who are closer to the street, for one reason or another. And performative theatrical language is often street language. Innovations in American slang don’t come from the educated middle class.

Most of the live shows I had gone to before writing Bye Bye Brunhilde were either drag shows or strip shows. My whole sense of theatrics and performativity came from the clubs and the sex industry. So it was sort of a private joke that I ended up writing this experimental play. While the language is experimental, the energy of the work really reflects those origins (257-270).

From Michael Palmer “The Recovery of Language”:

Palmer: So modernist poetry, along with the other arts, was really helpful to me. Also, when I was still young I met the poets of the outside, so to speak, in all their variety, and realized that I was not alone in my interests. I ‘met’ Stan Brakhage through Robert Creeley at the age of twenty. I ‘met’ Louis Zukofsky through Bob as well, though as Clark Coolidge recently reminded me, I’d already read a bit of his work before. So there were these worlds opening up.

And of course I was out here at a very fruitful moment in poetics. When I first arrived, in ’68 or ’69, there was a bit of a lull. The Spicer generation had scattered. The San Francisco Renaissance was no longer in its moment, although some of its poets were doing great work. Then suddenly in the early seventies, as for instance Lyn Hejinian, Bob Perelman, Johanna Drucker, and many others began to gather here, as well as those in opposition to what they saw as the Language movement, there was a lot of very interesting contention about theory, about performativity, about all of these questions, which was extremely useful (184-185).

From Nathaniel Mackey “The Atmosphere is Alive”:

Mackey: It’s one of the dimensions of the way I’ve been working with the pronoun ‘we’ in recent years. That ‘we’ runs the gamut from the he/she couple to larger groupings—you mentioned ‘nation’—that the title Splay Anthem evokes. One of the things that makes the anthem ‘splay’—an awkward anthem, a disturbed anthem—is the fact that one is more than one mind in this desire to be a part of a ‘we,’ whether it’s a couple, a nation, or some other collectivity. This ambivalence splays the anthem, the unifying song of whatever the collective is. The collectivity that these poems seem to be about or to chronicle in some way, the lost tribe that sometimes goes by the name of the Andoumboulou, seems to be some renegade group whose relationship to established collectivities is a fugitive one (156).

From Robert Glück’s “A Community Writing Itself”:

Rosenthal: I’d like to thread this back to the quote I read, ‘A dishonest picture is a traitor, an enemy of the common good.’ Just to be provocative, this sounds like some oppressive and limiting political doctrine. Same with ‘I follow the dictates of my plot, but not beyond by reader’s credence.’ You have a huge sense of responsibility toward this common good or this reader, and I want to know what that stems from.

Glück: I was being provocative, waving a word like ‘dishonest’ in the face of postmodernism. I mean that we should discover in our writing the prevailing conditions. We almost never—perhaps never—experience the world except through the scrim of representations that already exist, that we have unknowingly agreed to. The politics of representation is to bring that agreement to light, or revise that agreement toward a more exact or inclusive experience of the world. So, rejecting the vile mainstream versions of who we were, but also rejecting those sugarcoated versions delivered to ourselves by ourselves. I would say that an honest fiction is one that is mindful of its own power relations. When you enter a reader’s psychic life, that’s power, and you either own that or you don’t. You can figure out how you want to enter the reader’s psychic life; you can make those dynamics apparent; you can manipulate them in order to give the reader choices; you can even try to bring the reader into the process of constructing the meanings that are being generated. You can top the willing reader, producing spasms of genre pleasure. But you can’t will away power. I had the idea that there is such a thing as a common good in the first place. Who knows? Maybe it comes from the Orthodox Jewish tribe I grew up in. First I embraced all these identities with relief. Now they seem to pass by me and I feel even more relief (79-80).

From Juliana Spahr “How Does the Work Get Used”:

Spahr: ….I find those two perspectives you mentioned—the very wide focus and the very small, tight focus—psychologically comforting. It’s part of how the brain works. To be honest, I began playing with moving between these two perspectives because perspectival manipulation is one of the ways that trance states are induced. ‘Poem Written after September 11, 2001’ in this connection of everyone with lungs was deliberately written so as to mimic the structure of trance induction. I was taking a course in Ericksonian hypnosis at the time and I was interested in how much overlap there is between poetic devices and trance induction devices, how both are partial to metaphor and analogy. And then New York City was so unusually complicated after September 11. New York, like all places, has its own particular forms of myopia. The myopia got even more intense after September 11. That event was so large that it was hard to think about other places all that much. My thought was to write a poem that used the structure of a trance induction to suggest to its hearers, its readers, ways to take other places into themselves (300-201).