Saratoga Company

at the Space on Foster

Chicago’s theatrical conundrum used to be how to marry performance art and theater, a concern imported from New York. But in recent years we’ve developed our own little homegrown hybrid form: performance art has been dropped in favor of performance poetry.

The Poetic Theatre Project, not unlike last fall’s “Poetry Under the Lights” by City Lit, features words and performances by six local poets, including readings of work by Cyn. Zarco, Anna L. Barbould, and Nikki Giovanni. There’s also a reading of literary criticism by T.S. Eliot. The local poets include Marc Smith, who founded the Uptown Poetry Slam and gave performance poetry a weekly forum at the Green Mill, and Cindy Salach, who often performs with the Loofah Method, a group that bases its work on Salach’s writing but whose shows usually fall more into the mold of performance art than performance poetry.

On the surface the differences between these two forms can often appear minimal. Performance art, as far as I can tell, usually involves more than one medium. It uses some elements of theater but often breaks with theatrical convention. It usually deals with ideas rather than characters or plot. Salach’s work with the Loofah Method has involved film, video, costuming, and the eating of TV dinners.

Since performance poetry as a genre is so new, it’s hard to define its parameters and to some extent even its purpose. Still, certain constants do emerge: It’s often populist, even a little anti-intellectual (when Smith reads from Eliot’s criticism in this piece, he’s met by an angry Dean Hacker, posing as a regular Joe who tears the essay page by page from Smith’s book). It’s perversely democratic, to the point where it’s hard to say if there are any standards at all. It involves reading from memory. Its emphasis is on language, and it takes certain liberties associated only with poetry. The staging is minimal, involving virtually no sets or props. There’s limited movement on the part of the performers. And there’s virtually no characterization, as the performers usually play themselves.

Of course there are exceptions, and not much of what I’ve just described as performance poetry is actually that new. Allen Ginsberg has been known to read from memory while sitting cross-legged and wearing only a raincoat; Audre Lorde and Olga Broumas are well-known for their remarkable and often hypnotic readings. But they’re the exceptions in the literary crowd. Most writers read the way Margaret Atwood does–with her head down, reading glasses on, staring fixedly at the page. Other writers, such as Charles Baxter, try to explain the motivations of their work between pieces (which is usually of interest only to other writers); or like Adrienne Rich, add a little political dogma between poems (usually of interest only to the already converted).

What is different about performance poetry as a genre these days is that it is becoming more and more popular, that writers like Smith and Salach see it as an art form in itself–not just a vehicle to present their published and unpublished writings. However tentatively, it is attempting to define itself.

On her own, Salach performs her writing well within this definition of performance poetry. But Smith is the master. Although it may still be fashionable among certain writers’ circles to bash Smith, his commitment to the idea of performance poetry can hardly be questioned. He continues to serve as master of ceremonies at the Green Mill, he conned the city into sponsoring a poetry contest that sent a local wordsmith to Japan, he was instrumental in establishing a national “slam” competition, and he’s performing his heart out in The Poetic Theatre Project. (But he’s hardly getting rich from all this.)

The show’s two most riveting moments belong to Smith. In “Doctor Spray’s Life” he uses a relatively elaborate set and costume to play out a former Chicago coroner’s perverse paean to liquor and life. It’s a romp. Later, in “Ground Zero,” he suggests the mad helplessness of an everyday guy by merely running in place, looking over his shoulders a few times, and just seething with rage. The piece, about a guy who runs to the White House to deliver a guided missile that’s been following him, is bitter, smart, and outrageous.

Perhaps appropriately, the evening begins with Smith reading from scraps of paper on which audience members have completed the phrase “poetry is . . . ” The other poets, who are sitting in the audience, tell him that they don’t understand, that what he’s reading is bullshit, and generally that he should get off the stage. But Smith endures, because, if we’re to understand it right, poetry is ultimately a very common, very beautiful, very personal thing. The rest of the show has the writers taking turns reading from their own and others’ work.

Some of the writing in The Poetic Theatre Project is truly stunning. Every time Sheila Donohue began to recite, the audience sat up. She was cynical, vulnerable, and original. “There Is No Recession,” which could have become a cliche, stayed fresh, even painful. “Dearly Beloved” ravaged personal relationships, and her game of “truth or dare” with Salach expertly alternated between being funny and sad. Most of Donohue’s material was very simply staged. For one piece, she merely stood at stage center and read; for another, she circled the room. Only during the piece with Salach, and later “Cafe Mocha,” performed by the whole ensemble, was there any staging to speak of.

By contrast, Tina Wright proved a more able performer than writer. Her rendering of Giovanni’s “I Wrote a Good Omelet” was wonderfully languid, but Wright’s own writings didn’t give her much to hold on to in performance. The exception was “Smut Magazines,” an angry, funny little feminist tirade that followed Marvin Tate’s sexist and mean “25 cent Peep Show.” That piece concluded with the line, “And now he won’t breathe into her deflated body because he’s afraid that you, you, and you, and even I, might find her attractive.”

For the most part, Tate used his voice in compelling fashion, but the material he presented was often shockingly flat and familiar. Most of what he read about has already been done better by others, notably Amiri Baraka and John Oliver Killens. Particularly striking was the total lack of irony in Tate’s delivery of “Who Sold Soul?” in which he pointed the finger at everybody from James Brown’s jailers to James Brown, for selling soul to a mostly white, middle-class audience. Perhaps Tate still lacks confidence in his material; he played for laughs on almost every piece, not for substance.

Still, he was engaging, occasionally touching, and always fun to listen to. Not so Hacker, whose presence in the program was a complete mystery. His “Mama What Happened to Dad,” about a son’s questions to his mother about a long-gone father, was amateurish at best; “Pretty Blue” (which included a list of “pretty blue” things, such as kisses and lips) was the kind of poem most of us wrote in junior high. None of his other work was much better.

Salach finished off the evening with her best work in the show, the self-effacing and clever “Poetic Tendencies,” about poet stereotypes. It was precisely the kind of piece the evening needed to signal that it didn’t take itself too seriously. Salach, as usual, was an expert reader–precise, vulnerable, and fresh. Unfortunately, she’s outgrown most of her other material in The Poetic Theatre Project, particularly the naive “Reasons for Androgeny.” Yet it seems she’s much like performance poetry itself: right on the verge of something.