When invited to read my poetry for the 40th anniversary and new location of Living Arts in Tulsa Oklahoma September 2009, I was in the country only a few weeks from a year working in S. Korea. The artistic director and a committee of artists of various disciplines designed an interactive, inter-participatory, intra-media fluxus style party called Kubos-Tesseract. While an ocean away from home and immersed in an unfamiliar language and culture, I wrote no poetry. I welcomed the Kubos-Tesseract invitation to help me transition back into English and rekindle my passion for poetry.
At readings at bookstores, libraries, and universities, I often collaborate on a poem with the audience by guiding them to create a jointly composed poem. They may select lines from nearby books, pull out notes from their pockets or cell phones, reassemble a poem of mine, or move in response to my words. The activity appeals to my dance and performance art background.
With collaboration in mind, I decided to do “live writing.” I set a laptop atop a stand for me to write in real time while a projector cast my words onto a wall. My collaborators were anyone present in the gallery who walked past in conversation or stopped to ask what I was doing. I also drew material from observing guests eye the art and sip drinks and from dancers in tutus roaming the gallery.
“Live writing,” publicly composing, likely goes against the comfort of many a poet. We often prefer to write in the solitude of our home away from peering eyes. The solitary workspace provides a safe and largely controllable environment for crafting initial and subsequent edits and drafts. In privacy, words transpose, images appear and vanish, meaning shifts, syllables get counted, punctuation moves, what I consider a performance of writing. No one witnesses the process with its trials and false starts, its questions and resolutions, the failings and hoped for successes. Only upon reaching a point of satisfaction or sufficient courage do we choose to share the work.
“Live writing” exposes us in process. An audience watches as the poet misspells and corrects, types slowly then more quickly, pursuing a phrase before pondering its removal or replacement, the cursor blinking in tense anticipation of what follows.
“Live writing” is exhilarating. Authorial control of material yields to the forces and persons present. Decisions made in the moment often result from chance, an impulse rising up from the seeming chaos of fleeting perception. The lines of words strung together incorporate much that is random, which may be richly and obviously meaningful or fragmentary.
Writing poetry, in general, is a collaborative process. Poets respond to predecessors and contemporaries, continually borrowing from an evolving language generated by millions of people over centuries. No poem is ever wholly original. However, “live writing” raises the stakes and widens the gates, breaking a poetic fourth wall. The audience not only witnesses the poet crafting the work but also participates in what gets written. The moment of conception is privileged, its aliveness the spark of art.
A highlight of the evening took place when I was writing about the dancers. They migrated toward me, the light of the laptop illuminating my face as I stood like a sentinel at my post. They positioned themselves in front of the projector. My words about them appeared, then vanished from their legs, arms, legs, torso, and hair as they danced. Another highlight involved my mistakes in letters, punctuation, and spacing, and leaving unchanged my slips of thought and fingers.
Active participation by fellow writers contributed to yet another highlight. A poet previously informed about my poetic action mentioned that he, too, wanted to join the writing, but other activities preoccupied his attention until near the end of the evening. Just as he positioned himself at the laptop, his presence cued a few other writers to request keyboard time. I hadn’t anticipated that the impromptu fluidity of my writing would generate a confluence of writers eager to project their lines. Neither did I anticipate a full ceding of authorial control, the last few pages written by a coterie of poets. Is there something innately alluring about the real time act of writing, words wet with the blood and mucus of their birth?
(This writing was originally published in Living Arts Spoken Word Series, Vol 2.)