Recently, I experienced a shift in consciousness while reading poetry in a musty university library that seemed like one of those ah-ha moments. I was sitting in a comfy wing-backed chair in a library I can only describe as illustrious in its accoutrements, and as discussed that night, badly in need of artifacts that didn’t remind us of dust and aging. Even so, we writers, poets, students were gathered in a warm circle where the enlighenment of language made everything else disappear. I read first and for the first time felt comfortable in my own skin reading the words that I still believe come from enlightened sources so therefore are given away to the audience in the moment they are expressed. Yes, I know to some degree I own them; however, I don’t own how they land and what they may cause in the way someone listens to them. So this is the crux of the matter. Is it enough for me to have the passion to write, to say I am creating art; therefore, as art, the words stand alone in value. Or should I consider audience at any time in this process? Is my creative process already connected to the audience I want to hear my words? An example of my experience of myself as audience has shown me that I am a interactive audience. They speak and something occurs in my thinking/brain that wants to respond immediately. In fact, I am not a very good audience. I daydream, write lines while they are saying theirs, sometimes borrow a couple of their words, but mostly I write the images conjured as they express their various renditions of life viewed through their eyes and their poetic vision. Some call that inspiration, but I am not sure about that. Seeing images through words and applying your own interpretation of those images may only be the perspective you were born with, the way you view life and the way the power of language makes/creates your ongoing life.
The following is an example of my response and reaction as audience to yet another aspect of poetry–the blending of historical context (public) with a traditionally private domain. Dr. Joseph Harrington writes in, Things Come On, an amneoir (a phrase he coined) that may not have been intended as a strictly political text, but does lend itself to numerous political contexts. The thing that struck me about Harrington’s book is his attention on women, their bodies and the way they view their bodies (realized through the dialogue in the text)–subjects that speak loudly as a subtext, completely compatible with today’s audiences, making the disease that attacks women’s bodies even more important to discuss and to view openly, not as the taboo subject matter they once were. Even though the main topic centers around the grief of a young boy whose observations mirror a highly politicized event worldwide, the real issue for me, one I still find in my face every day characterized by the consistently negative, sometimes demeaning visual imagery of women/women’s bodies used in the media just begins to scratch the surface of what makes the Harrington text a much more complex treatment of women as well as a much more viable political subject, serving to not only historically give us a trajectory of how far we’ve come, but also, a reminder of how far we have to go.
When Joseph Harrington began to read, I was poised to drink in the words as I usually do, and was pleasantly surprised that not only was his technique and delivery interesting but the theatricality of it highlighted a specific historical period that he used as background for a deeper more emotional subject, the death of his mother from breast cancer. In his book, Things Come On, poetic prose he describes as mostly found text re-interpreted, also enlivens a period (the seventies) bringing an intensity to subjects that we still struggle with today. It reminded me that not only does historical context inform our most personal relationships as well as our behavior (i.e. 2001’s terrorism and its aftermath), it also represents the language of the time it reflects. Harrington’s effective use of found texts interspersed with the very personal matter of losing a mother when you are only ten or eleven years old could have been a maudlin, deadly affair, filled with the heaviness and significance of that period’s inability and powerlessness over curing breast cancer, combined with the heaviness of the more personal loss. Instead, Harrington let the language of the period tell the story bringing to the forefront the devastating effects of America’s confrontation for the first time with a flawed Presidency, while using the power of those more public moments to describe the more private instance of a young boy coming to grips with a major loss.
The combination of these two, the fractured dialogues and use of disjunctive ideas that normally would not mix, and the way the voices in Things Come On seem to blend with the thoughts in the boy’s head and his interpretations of his family conversations all contribute to making this book a moving read; however, Harrington’s performance of the words was even better. On the surface, he looks like the distinguished Professor he probably is, but his imitation of Nixon along with the other key characters of the Watergate scandal really made a difference in my understanding of the book as a found text. The voices in this book speak loudly and can be heard as eerie forewarnings of the future of American politics, at least the ethical aspects of political skullduggery. Although Harrington’s unspoken reminders that our individual connections to cultural and societal behaviors often become enmeshed, this does not lessen how they shape our character as individuals and as a nation.
This excerpt from Harrington’s book reflect a few moments of a conversation in a dialogue titled, “ORDERED TO LIE ON THE TABLE AND TO BE PRINTED” that strikes at the heart of the matter without saying it directly.
Mrs. G –: Well, the cancer didn’t kill her, the chemo killed her.
Mr. Friedman: I’m sorry, ma’am, but the President being impeached for war crimes? Aren’t lives more important than tapes?
Mr. Harrington (Kan.): Yes, but the squirrels in the yard didn’t seem to care what went on in the House. I hold that against them, though we didn’t care about them either, I’m sure. But did I watch them, too? Things go on without you, whether you watch them or not, nuts hid, eggs planted.
Mr. Hess: I must admit, I haven’t liked wallowing in this filth. I feel unclean even listening…as I leave you, I’m distressed and I’m burned out and I salute you for performing a useful though distressing service, and I wish you fortitude and a strong stomach.
Mr. Harrington (Tenn.): But there toward the end …incontinence …[grimaces and shakes head]
Mr. Downie: …We felt small …Most of us were dysfunctional the night …It was hard…at the time it was dirty. People weren’t sleeping, people weren’t showering… it was difficult to figure out what was going on. ..
Mr. Harrington (Kan.): …Yet we didn’t camp out in the lounge like other animals. We only dropped in for our nightly visit after dinner at Morrison’s Cafeteria.
Mr. Harington (Tenn.): Well, I had to work–I had to support you.
A VOICE FROM THE AUDIENCE: How you must have felt!
Mr. Harrinton (Kan.): I often had fried haddock with a side of black-eyed peas. Or perhaps carrot-and-raisin salad. I had ceased drinking chocolate milk at this point in time.
A SECOND VOICE: –Verily, a blunt instrument!
Mr. Nixon (sighs audibly): Its all such a bunch of Goddamn dirty shit!
This dialogue reveals so much about the personal and public views of that time in the way it juxtaposes Mrs. Harrington’s husband with the shifty political characters who could just as well be symbolic representations of anything cancerous, anything related to cancer–a growth, a conspiracy, the effects of chemotherapy, the dying cells, the silent and unspoken presence of something “dirty” going on underneath seemingly innocuous conversations, or underneath the ordinary analogy Mr. Harrington makes about the squirrels in the yard all contribute to the rich layers of meaning throughout the text.