Photo Credit: Ulysses Gerdes
Friday at Coffeehouse Theater at the CalArts campus, the Friends of JEF (Journal of Experimental Writing), organized by the press’ publisher Eckhard Gerdes, presented our literature on a panel. Eckhard, Carla M. Wilson and Xena Stanislavovna Semjonová sat behind the table, reading excellent, highly enjoyable material.
My way of addressing the boundary-breaking multi-disciplinary theme of the conference was to employ the bodies of reader and listeners in the room as the other tool besides the usual cerebral transmission of writing to sedentary receptacles. To do so, I moved out from behind the table that separated us from the audience and invited the other panel members and the audience into the large open space in front of their seating.
I described my method of using somatics as a writer and recommended it as a something to try at home. When I exercise at home in Berkeley, I often listen to podcasts of literature, such as Drabblecast. We don’t receive literature through our eyes and ears only to our brains – our entire bodies are connected to our brains and respond to the words in physical ways, not just conceptual. We not only want to cry, laugh, or tremble in fear, we want a range of subtle emotions played through us like a dance moving through our neurotransmitters, muscular contraction and relaxations, ganglia in the solar plexus and the gut mind. As I listen to a podcast, I let my body react to it in exaggerated ways spontaneously letting me know how it’s affecting it, so I learn better what it is the it responds to, and how the piece did that, and thus how I can create visceral reactions in my readers, myself, through the rhythms, repetitions, sounds, sentence shapes, progressions of actions, descriptions of gestures, and so forth.
I find that stories that include bodily movements, all the way through are very effective, and that was how I chose the story I read to the group. “Our Travels On Fire” was first published in Bewildering Stories and chosen for their Quarterly Review before being included in my compilation, Lucid Membrane, published by Night Reading. By acting the gestures such as holding up the hands to the wind to see where the flickering flames coming out of the palms lead the two female characters, we had a bonding group experience that created memories based on more than the imagination of imagining scenes we heard. The story was inclusive, and promoted action not only in the subtle reactions but in wild, hedonistic ones, which is what the story was about.
I continued to explain that when I write, I get up often, as so many studies lately have shown is vital to health and longevity, sitting for long periods being as dangerous as smoking, the ideal time prescribed being every twenty minutes. I find getting up from my writing on a clockwork schedule to be counterintuitive, as I want to continue the natural flow through the scenes until the end, but instead, I’ve developed movement as my way of conceiving new ideas whenever I need them, and it works far, far better than staying in front of the computer waiting for the new plot points to come to me, plus it keeps me in somewhat reasonable shape.
I imagine what comes next, both immediately and further along in my fiction as I compose it, from a place of kinetics rather than trying to describe the action while remaining sedentary for long periods. I resonate with big action by acting it out, directing the plot arc with wide gestures to make it dramatic, leap about to cultivate muscular prose, roll around to keep my imagination flexible, interact with the furniture and art on the walls through dance to keep the scenes grounded in the environment, act out the characters’ behavioral quirks and how they express their changing moods, dance the rhythms.
“So we left and followed the green stream of our colors into the jungle and began laughing with the monkeys. We were lit up we were so happy to frolic in the whole land of monkey chins and baboon bottoms and vines that wrapped around our bodies in welcome and gave us kisses like our mothers would give us. Until one vine slipped its little nippley fruit sensuously into my mouth. I spit it out but I was never the same. Never the same.”
How gratifying to be in a room whooping like monkeys, bouncing and hopping and wiggling, words helping us remember we are animal, not just curled around conceptual motivations. I invited the others in the theater on the 29th of March to physically fight my sentences, hug them to them, feel where they wanted them to go next, dance the cadences, direct the plot arc, immerse themselves in the world of the story, become the characters, or mimic my acting out of the protagonists’ actions moment by moment if they wished. I was thrilled by how playful people became, and how gleefully interactive and mischievously inventive. As Eckhard said, “It’s all about the joy.”
That shared attitude is what compelled me to the festival. Even a dog took part in the childlike fun. These celebrated PhDs and MFAs, professors and adjuncts, were willing to be goofy and break out of academic seriousness and usual ways of engaging each other politely while sitting or standing. I couldn’t have asked for a better response from the people in that room, their faces and laughter developing more color.
I was glad to participate in this festival again, after doing the Innovation in a Box at the one in San Diego in 2011. I’m glad an event exists to bring people together who commit avant-garde literature, and I remain impressed by how it works.
I reported back all about the &Now Festival to my Experimental Fiction students at UCLA X Writing Program. In my own Online Writing Academy where I teach more specialized classes, I’ll be incorporating material from my experiences at &Now in the upcoming Somatics for Writers course.
Tantra Bensko teaches fiction writing with UCLA X Writing Program. Her latest book is a Slipstream novella, Equinox Mirror, from ELJ Publications and her next a Science Fiction novel, Unside, from Driven Press. She lives in Berkeley. http://lucidmembrane.weebly.com/