I sit down to write an essay about contemporary poetic performance and I am in the kitchen with my roommate Brendan. He is a white cis hetero Canadian male. Yesterday he was The Man, raking the leaves in the lawn. We live in a college town and bros walking from the frats to the club throw things in our lawn constantly: pizza boxes, beer cans, nail polish. He spotted a yellow sponge in a bush in the yard, he leaned to pick it up and a thorn from the bush went directly into his eye, scratching his cornea. Today he walks around the kitchen differently; he groans and moves slowly. He wears sunglasses and after sunset, the lights in our house are left off, to facilitate his body. Sight is not a guarantee for anyone, but when sight is instantly altered or confused everything changes. What was once order and balance becomes unsteady. This feeling challenges positionality and reinforces the power of queering bodies and thus spaces.
The body is the space occupied. The body is that what cannot be entered. The rock bounced off The Body. Trace your hands across your frame. This is you, your body. For Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, a physical body is not separate from a written body. The woman’s body and a blank page are both empty bodies “waiting to contain. Conceived for a single purpose and for the purpose only. To contain.” Although her analysis relies on essentialist notions, she gives agency to the container. Some bodies are visible. Some remain visible in the heterosexual matrix, others are made invisible. The limits of constructivism remain the boundaries of the body. Can we be a body that is constantly obscured?
Poetic performances undoing the poetry creating Liveness
I’m in Providence, Rhode Island I am at a conference at Brown University called Interrupt 3. I am presenting and by presenting I mean reading poetry. Poetry is always the Problem. No one wants to read it; there isn’t money in it. It’s static. It’s on a page. We go to poetry readings to see a body looking like a page. Looking like text on a page, talking like monotone. Poetry readings reflect a page mimic a page. But, what happens when they leave the page? Poetry readings have the potential to subvert the written text; Poetry the Problem can become a solution.
I’m in Providence, Rhode Island with you getting on the stage. I’m in Amherst I’m teaching
I love my students sometimes but I’m in Providence. I want performance to do many things I can’t expect.
It is here at this time where I see Akiko Hatakeyama. She walks into the room holding a wood box. She takes up the whole room with her body. Silently, she commands the space. She turns to face the crowd and begins singing a song, her voice solid and soft. Her black dress reaches the floor. Her voice, ever expansive. I am enveloped. I am having a memory of being a child and unable to understand what words are in songs but instead filling them with my own words. Hatakeyama is still holding the box. The box glows white against her dress it seems like a funeral to a piece of self, a boxed up self. She reaches the end of the song and gently places the box on the floor. She takes off the lid and places it close to the audience. With her right hand she begins to pull a white piece of string out of the box. As she pulls it a bell rings. She pulls again, another bell. She pulls and pulls, her hand filling with string and the space fills with bells. Sometimes it is okay to remember. She pauses holding string, unsure if she will go on, there is silence. Then, she pulls again. She begins to walk around the stage, leaving string everywhere. Her voice joins the bells. Whenever her body pauses, the music stops; everything stops. She is controlling time with her movement. The pulling of string also triggers the light on the stage. When she pauses, she becomes darkness. Hatakeyama, on the piece she calls “Blind: The World Where I Can’t Be But You Live” says, “ひぐれ Hirure — Higure conveys the feelings of later life, which includes wisdom, fatigue, resignation, acceptance, and relief. It is slow as if someone is resisting the flow of time. Time does not go backwards. It, too, is emotional to hold a ritual to send off lost ones and someone who I may lose in the future. That someone can be me as well.” Time is heteronormative. Hatakeyama centers her body and alters time. Her body speeds and slows, carrying the audience with her.
Crying in the Bathroom at the Performance
Chelsea wakes up and her neck is spasming again, she can’t really move. She goes to the massage school for a cheap massage. It’s not working, she says “harder, harder,” nothing helps.
I drive to New York City, I feel fine. I talk to Natalia all day; she helps me see things clearly. She knew me when I felt like I was in Love with a Boyfriend, the last boyfriend. She was there when we broke up and when I started dating women. She never offered feedback, and my self-policing made it hard for me to talk about the women I loved with her. This trip changed things. I address everything. Talking out prior moments of self-silence helps. I talk so much I lose my voice. I cannot talk at all. I go to Artists Space for their series, “In Visible Architectures: Three Evenings of Performative Poetry Readings.” Tonight, I am here to see Sophia Le Fraga. I have had a crush on her for a while and I want to seduce her but I cannot because I cannot speak. Like one part of my body fails and everything fails.
Le Fraga’s performance uses more bodies than just her own: there are four. They all represent a different color. The performance, called “UND3RGR0UND L0V3R5: A Comedy-Ballet without Dance or Music”, is part video part bodily. The performers hold phones and don’t face the audience. They type vigorously, imitating the text box on the screen. The text is a recording of a conversation that took place on Twitter. They sit next to each other but don’t appear to know the presence of the other. The chat adopts contemporary text rhetoric. They begin by asking each other where they are: “PURPLE: yo where u @?”, “BLUE: I’m right here”, “PURPLE: wait, where?”, “BLUE: right here.” There is constant denial and slippage; performers embody an argument where there is no help of ever reaching an understanding. The performance is the third part of her series, “TH3 4NT1-PL4Y5”. It is an adaptation of the Jean Tardieu’s “The Underground Lovers,” an experimental play wherein people converse on a subway. They scroll and scroll, forever. They are occupying multiple realms of time: they are actors on a stage, they are Real People, they are holding phones, their phones are connected to current time, their script is connected to Past Time. They are physically present while simultaneously avoiding presence.
Lesbian desire creates spaces. We become lesbians with others. Le Fraga is a lesbian, but past that, her performance is queer. She represents desires that are multiplied and confused and unsteady. Her desires push these historic plays past any original hetero-ness through repetition. By repeating altered plays and fucking with form, Le Fraga re-creates. This is queerness. “The weak, depressed, self-critical, virtual self is essentially the endlessly adaptable subject required by the ceaseless innovation of production, the accelerated obsolescence of technologies, the constant overturning of social norms, and generalized flexibility.” Accelerated capitalism continually demands participants fall along series of identifications and significations. By repeating and altering, Le Fraga denies this. Denying identity also denies parts of capitalism where participants are marketed to based on identifications. Le Fraga is eating the It Gets Better Doritos and shitting it out.
I am scrolling down my Facebook News Feed and a woman is dying. We worked together at the grocery store. She moved away and got cancer. She has been dying for a year. Some days are better than others, but most days are bad. She is doing chemo again, she is doing experimental drugs again, she is seeing the naturopath again. She still doesn’t have health insurance, but if you are going to die, why not prolong time with debt, make your body still exist when it is gone.
If you ask my freshmen College Writing students what the number one problem facing this country is they would say cell phones. They keep theirs close (we all do) but they mourn what they see as a lack of realness. They write papers, they make videos, they plead: “put the phone down.” They look around and they see empty parks: no one on the swings. They don’t meet the eyes of another because they are busy looking down. Even the students who spend the hour avoiding a more complete in class presence say they wish they hadn’t looked at their phone.
For them, the phone is the Not Real, their bodies together is the Real. The fight towards real bodily presence is the fuck. But, even when the sex ends, they roll back over to their phone.
The problem is the thought that we were more real or present before all this technology. The only time we were was when avoiding the gaze, anyway. In her book Unmarked, Peggy Phelan presents a way of analysis past identity politics. The movement towards identity politics has created more and more binaries that do not address actual bodies and their movement through the world. Phelan argues against the false notion that marginalized groups can acquire more power through the simple act of being seen, of being “represented”. These groups of people do not need permission to exist from those above them in the hierarchy. Instead, these people create and join together apart from what bell hooks calls Imperialist White-Supremacist Cis-Hetero Patriarchal society.
“Art is a mirror for the looker.” The signifier always fails to get the exact meaning across; the meaning exists in the slippages. The act of looking both obscures and reveals the looker. These poetic performances represent bodies that refuse to return the gaze. Through this, they gain power and autonomy. This is an active vanishing, a deliberate refusal to gain the profit of visibility.
Cixous states in The Laugh of the Medusa, “By writing her self, woman will return to the body which has been more than confiscated from her, which has been turned into the uncanny stranger on display… Censor the body and you censor breath and speech at the same time.”
I am in Providence again and I am seeing my friend Rachel (RRLEW) perform. I have been looking forward to this performance for weeks. RRLEW is a one-person show that typically combines technology (music/voices made by a computer), lights, bodily movement, and saxophone. Her performance that night at a club called Aurora does not disappoint, this one is more masculine than ones I have seen in the past. I am smiling the whole time; RRLEW is in rage, pulsing her body on the stage. I experience the performance and forget it. I don’t remember enough to write a review besides the fact that I liked it. So, for the purpose of this essay, I search for past performances on YouTube and find one she did in Chapel Hill, NC on May 8, 2015. She wears all white and births a red glove. She mimes an effort to get in and out of space when she is interrupted by a masculine computer voice saying, “What the hell are you doing here you fucking dyke. Get out of our house faggot.” She knocks on the door and knocks and knocks but she cannot get in. Her heaving breathing is audible through the microphone connected to her body like Britney Spears. She pantomimes knocking on door then is punched in the face by the computer voice. She falls over she gets up. She tries to enter the invisible door. Laughter like crying seems to come from the audience but grows louder and louder; coming from the speakers. She wears all white, her curly hair in a ponytail. Her reactions to punches begin to lessen, as if she is rejecting the punch or giving up on the punch. She will never enter the door and it becomes okay.
The performance transitions into a poetry reading with background noise, “i’m a big strong girl with big hands.” The poem is a mixture of found text and words that become other. It is “about” bro-culture, heteronormative family, infantilization. The spank is at once erotic and not felt. Words come out of her body but don’t seem to be from her. She challenges the idea of a poetry portraying a situation apart from or past the author and makes it live. She is reading from a sheet of paper, but the sheet has words that come from Her and Not Her. She occupies the voices of many through one body.
After reading for a time, she puts on shoes that have a block of wood attached to them. There is no way she can steadily walk in these shoes, they demand stumbling. The computer says “Rachel are you here?” She drinks water; it sounds as if she cannot breathe. An ephemeral sound high pitched and painful arrives; she lies on the concrete floor but rests her head on bubble wrap. Computer says “do you want to feel cozy” and Rachel wails as if a baby. She is mostly naked on the floor, her saxophone on her chest. She begins to play. The noise of the saxophone begins to overpower the now feminine computer voice. The voice continues to ask her questions beginning with “Don’t you want” she plays and plays as if rejecting the framework of desire presented by her mother. She has left the house, violently, and is in a space I do not recognize. She sweats she plays and plays, the computer voice becomes less forceful, less present. Her performance could go forever in this way, not woke but not asleep. She ends by saying “Thank you” the audience erupts in applause.
Being with a body is rare in 2015. I see art all the time but seldom see the body making the work. RRLEW’s performance wouldn’t work without the body. I am thinking this when I read Hito Steyerl’s writing about presence and art, “The economy of presence is characterized by a technologically enhanced market for attention, time, movement – a process of investment that requires careful choices. The point is that technology gives you tools that allow for remote and delayed presence, so that physical presence becomes the scarcest option among a range of alternatives…” Economics drive art. Performance drives art into the body, rejecting some tenets of capitalism. Making ephemera with the body is political.
RRLEW represents a space that does not exist and does not allow her to enter. Through pantomiming a space, excluding queer narratives becomes a joke. She creates the space with her body movements then critiques it.
What’s Your Point, Laura?
Poetry is dead or I killed it or these women are always killing it. We are killing it together we are letting it go. Poetry without performance is dead.
I’m thinking of the Jill Dolan piece and when they say “Our theater can bridge theory and activism by offering a sexual vernacular for speaking desire in performance, and invite the world to partake with us in the politics of our pleasure.”
I’m thinking of queerness as destabilizing. I’m thinking of this paper when Elizabeth and I get coffee. We are talking about Gay sex when a man at the coffee shop tells us we are making him uncomfortable. I ask if he wants us to leave and he says no, gathers his things, and exits. Only women are left in the coffee shop and we are smiling. Taking up space and forcing our presence felt erotic. I felt powerful. I was thinking of Audre Lorde and the necessity of the erotic. The women at the bar looked at me, winked at me, we, and erotic whole. .
I am just describing a lot of moments. Moments where performances demanded my presence. Moments where we were women (or lesbian or queer or slipping) together.
I’m afraid I’m not Doing Enough Theory, like looking for the center of this paper, looking for my point. Looking past myself when all I ever had was My Self. She is there on the chair in the kitchen. Her mineral tea steams into the cold air her dry hands itch. Elizabeth heals people. She touches them and she knows everything. I want to use my writing to do the touching. She knows I don’t have a place to stay and she rents an AirBnb. I change my hair I do my nails. I want different. It was time to accelerate to the Time the Place where things are Better.
now alone between life and death and my body always faltering. my body exposes me. my body reveals it, the Dark. eczema, ibs, celiac, ohhhhhhhhhh she (my body) has absorbed everything. is it okay for u 2 write this way cis white woman, graduate student, u write about “trauma” like u know it
Taste. looking to consume something to eat something to know this paper has reached the Length Requirement but know I Have said Nothing. “The proof of the pudding, as Brecht claims, is in the eating”
I never said enough. I said the same thing over and over and over. I haven’t found It.
“Don’t you hate it when people ask you what you are? As if you had any idea? All I know is that I am a woman who loves another woman who most people think is a man and that once we were in San Diego together, ok?”
The paper, the apology. And, me. me me
 Cha, Theresa Hak Kyung. Dictee. Berkeley: U of California, 2001. Print. Page 65.
 Butler, Judith. Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “sex” New York: Routledge, 1993. Print. Page 15.
 Ahmed, Sara. Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others. Durham: Duke UP, 2006. Print.
 The Coming Insurrection. Los Angeles, CA: Semiotext(e), 2009. Print.
 Phelan, Peggy. Unmarked: The Politics of Performance. London: Routledge, 1993. Print. Page 25
 Phelan, Peggy. Unmarked: The Politics of Performance. London: Routledge, 1993. Print. Page 19
 Cixous, Helene “The Laugh of the Medusa.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society Signs 1.4 (1976): 875. Web.
 Miller, Tim, and David Roman. “”Preaching to the Converted”” Theatre Journal 47.2 (1995): 169. Web.
 Holly Huges, Clit Notes
Laura A. Warman is the author of How Much Does It Cost? (Cars Are Real Press), DRONE LOVE (Gauss PDF), and WILL GO FAST (Hysterically Real). She is the founder of GLASS PRESS, a publisher of art and poetry on flash drives, and a member of dadpranks, a feminist art collective. Warman has had work in shows at MOCA Cleveland, Time-Based Art Festival, Flying Object, and Open Engagement. She has chapbooks coming out soon from Inpatient Press and After Hours Ltd. lauraawarman.com