Recently I gave my first poetry reading. Since I am not a poet, this presented a problem.
When asked to participate in the Castalia Reading Series at Richard Hugo House in Seattle, I said yes immediately, since I do enjoy the spotlight. I have not, however, written poetry worth sharing for more than two decades. Yes, I do teach contemporary poetry, and I have published books and articles on the topic, but I have never seriously aspired to be one of those Janus-faced beasts, a poet-critic. They're ubiquitous these days, trying to make their way simultaneously in academia and in the arts; I wish them well, but if I tried to do the same thing, I'd end up slighting my scholarship to produce vanity publications worthy of instant remaindering.
Why, then, did I go through with the reading? Partly because I had students dare me to practice what I preach. That is, I'm well known for grousing about how boring most poetry readings are. They're a kind of downscale theater in which poets step hesitantly onto stage, shuffle papers, deliver long digressive anecdotes between poems, and read either in a monotone or spastically a la William Shatner, rinse repeat. I had to show it could be done differently.
Also, I realized that I could be a cover band. At readings most poets feature their own work. Why, though? Why not read other people's too? On 4 February 2009, for instance, the Getty Research Institute had Oleg Minin, Christian Bök, and Steve McCaffery perform a series of Russian Futurist and Futurist-inspired sound poems. The audience response was enthuasiastic to ecstatic. Could, in fact, an insistence on originality and self-expression help explain why so many poetry readings are morgue-quiet and wholly forgettable? If you're not good enough to be the next ABBA or Hildegard Knef or Marek Grechuta (or Plath or Ginsberg or Brodsky), you can at least try to channel them.
I've recently been thinking a lot, too, about Conceptual Writing, a contemporary literary movement that practices large-scale appropriation and reframing of other people's words. Kenneth Goldsmith's Day (2003), for instance, consists of the whole of the text of one day of the New York Times, reset in a uniformly-sized font and printed as a nine hundred page book. Caroline Bergvall's Via (2000) lists the opening lines of every English translation of Dante's Inferno that she could find at the British Library. Yedda Morrison's Darkness (2012) takes Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness and erases everything except its references to the natural world. If plagiarism and selective omission are the royal road to being a poet in the Obama Era, could I . . . give it a go?
Well, I had fun, I'll say that much. I performed Hugo Ball's sound poem "Gadji Beri Bimba," read my translation of Jan Andrzej Morsztyn's 17th century sonnet "To a Corpse," made my way through Carl Andre's sonnet that consists solely of the word "flower" repeated seventy times, and ended with Wislawa Szymborksa's poem "Metaphysics," first in Polish then in English. None of that felt like "writing" a poem.
But write one I did--more or less. I started with "For I Will Consider My Cat Jeffrey," a section of Christopher Smart's Jubilate Agno (1758-1763) that is often printed as a separate lyric. I decided that it was too long to perform as-was, so I deleted all its references to God and otherwise shortened it. In performance I tried to act out parts of it, even bringing along a toy mouse to wave around. You can read My Conceptual Poem below. I suppose if pressed I would explain My Poem as a response to the zillions of cutesy critter videos on YouTube.
But even typing that makes me nervous. Have I become . . . a poet-critic? Without ever fully intending to? Like most such things, I believe that framing yourself or a text as X or Y is only half the transaction. There has to be uptake, as my colleague Anis Bawarshi would say. That is, somebody else out there has to start calling me or otherwise treating me as a poet-critic before I "really" become one. So please, do not take me and My Cat Poem seriously. In fact, please do not refer to the text below as a poem. Do not consider this blog post to be a work of literary criticism. Nothing to see here. Move along.
For I will consider my Cat Buddy.
For at the first glance of the glory of the sun in the East he worships in his way.
For this he performs in ten degrees.
For first he looks upon his forepaws to see if they are clean.
For secondly he kicks up behind to clear away there.
For thirdly he works it upon stretch with the forepaws extended.
For fourthly he sharpens his paws by wood.
For fifthly he washes himself.
For sixthly he rolls upon wash.
For seventhly he fleas himself, that he may not be interrupted upon the beat.
For eighthly he rubs himself against a post.
For ninthly he looks up for his instructions.
For tenthly he goes in quest of food.
For having considered the sun and himself he will consider his neighbor.
For if he meets another cat he will kiss her in kindness.
For when he takes his prey he plays with it to give it a chance.
For one mouse in seven escapes by his dallying.
For when his day's work is done his business more properly begins.
For he counteracts the powers of darkness by his electrical skin and glaring eyes.
For in his morning orisons he loves the sun and the sun loves him.
For he is of the tribe of Tiger.
For he has the subtlety and hissing of a serpent, which in goodness he suppresses.
For he will not do destruction if he is well-fed, neither will he spit without provocation.
For he purrs in thankfulness when Chuck tells him he's a good Cat.
For every house is incomplete without him.
For the American Cats are the best in New World.
For he is the cleanest in the use of his forepaws of any quadruped.
For he is a mixture of gravity and waggery.
For his tongue is exceeding pure so that it has in purity what it wants in music.
For he is docile and can learn certain things.
For he can sit up with gravity.
For he can fetch and carry.
For he can jump over a stick.
For he can spraggle upon waggle at the word of command.
For he can jump from an eminence into his master's bosom.
For he can catch the cork and toss it again.
For he camels his back.
For he made a great figure in Egypt for his signal services.
For his ears are so acute that they sting again.
For from this proceeds the passing quickness of his attention.
For by stroking of him I have found out electricity.
For, though he cannot fly, he is an excellent clamberer.
For his motions upon the face of the earth are more than any other quadruped.
For he can tread to all the measures upon the music.
For he can swim for life.
For he can creep.