Thursday, 18 February 2010

Everybody knows.

I wonder if somewhere, deep down, we all know how to be our best selves - the selves we'd like to be. We just forget so often, and the only way to make us remember is to rephrase it in grand, bright, sweeping, but new language, language we haven't heard before. This is when language ignites us - when it reminds us of something in a way that feels new. (Sometimes, refer to the image above, we are asked to remember something obvious, ancient and precious, but something that for some reason many people have decided not to remember in a long time, maybe ever, and that, if you let them turn their back on it, they will decide to try to forget again.) Words that ignite are usually best when phrased in language that leaves no room for doubt, no room for hesitation - but tells us, in the imperative, a simple truth. This is how to live life properly, you know it, you've always known it, it's obvious, I've just reminded you - so now Go. Live it.

Well here's what I've found about performance that reminded me and made me new:

The following essay contains Magic. It may even contain the power to change you, to inspire you, to remind you of something and to make you see or feel or approach something differently. Proceed with eyes full of caution and wonder.

How to speak poetry
by Leonard Cohen

Take the word butterly. To use this word it is not necessary to make the voice weigh less than an ounce or equip it with small dusty wings. It is not necessary to invent a sunny day or a field of daffodils. It is not necessary to be in love, or to be in love with butterflies. The word butterfly is not a real butterfly. If you confuse these two items people have the right to laugh at you. Do not make so much of the word. Are you trying to suggest that you love butterflies more perfectly than anyone else, or really understand their nature? The word butterfly is merely data. It is not an opportunity for you to hover, soar, befriend flowers, symbolize beauty and frailty, or in any way impersonate a butterfly. Do not act out words. Never act out words. Never try to leave the floor when you talk about flying. Never close your eyes and jerk you head to one side when you talk about death. Do not fix your burning eyes on me when you speak about love. If you want to impress me when you speak about love put your hand in your pocket or under your dress and play with yourself. If ambition and the hunger for applause have driven you to speak about love you should learn how do it without disgracing yourself or the material.

What is the expression which the age demands? The age demands no expression wathever. We have seen photographs of bereaved Asian mothers. We are not interested in the agony of your fumbled organs. There is nothing you can show on your face that can match the horror of this time. Do not even try. You will only hold yourself up to the scorn of those who have felt things deeply. We have seen newsreels of humans in the extremities of pain and dislocation. Everyone knows you are eating well and are even being paid to stand up there. You are playing to people who have experienced a catastrophe. This should make you very quiet. Speak the words, convey the data, step aside. Everyone knows you are in pain. You cannot tell the audience everything you know about love in every line of love you speak. Step aside and they will know what you know because they know it already. You have nothing to teach them. You are not more beautiful than they are. You are not wiser. Do not shout at them. Do not force a dry entry. That is bad sex. If you show the lines of your genitals, then deliver what you promise. And remember that people do not really want an acrobat in bed. What is our need? To be close to the natural man, to be close to the natural woman. Do not pretend that you are a beloved singer with a vast loyal audience which has followed the ups and downs of your life to this very moment. The bombs, flame-throwers, and all the shit have destroyed more than just the trees and villages. They have also destroyed the stage. Did you think that your profession would escape the general destruction? There is no more stage. There are no more footlights. You are among the people. Then be modest. Speak the words, convey the data, step aside. Be by yourself. Be in your own room. Do not put yourself on.

This is an interior landscape. It is inside. It is private. Respect the privacy of the material. These pieces were written in silence. The courage of the play is to speak them. The discipline of the play is not to violate them. Let the audience feel your love of privacy even though there is no privacy. Be good whores. The poem is not a slogan. It cannot advertise you. It cannot promote your reputation for sensitivity. You are not a stud. You are not a killer lady. All this junk about the gangsters of love. You are students of discipline. Do not act out the words. The words die when you act them out, they wither, and we are left with nothing but your ambition.

Speak the words with the exact precision with which you would check out a laundry list. Do not become emotional about the lace blouse. Do not get a hard-on when you say panties. Do not get all shivery just because of the towel. The sheets should not provoke a dreamy expression about the eyes. There is no need to weep into the handkerchief. The socks are not there to remind you of strange and distant voyages. It is just your laundry. It is just your clothes. Don't peep through them. Just wear them.

The poem is nothing but information. It is the Constitution of the inner country. If you declaim it and blow it up with noble intentions then you are no better than the politicians whom you despise. You are just someone waving a flag and making the cheapest appeal to a kind of emotional patriotism. Think of the words as science, not as art. They are a report. You are speaking before a meeting of the Explorers' Club or the National Geographic Society. These people know all the risks of mountain climbing. They honour you by taking this for granted. If you rub their faces in it that is an insult to their hospitality. Tell them about the height of the mountain, the equipment you used, be specific about the surfaces and the time it took to scale it. Do not work the audience for gasps and sighs. If you are worthy of gasps and sighs it will not be from your appreciation of the event, but from theirs. It will be in the statistics and not the trembling of the voice or the cutting of the air with your hands. It will be in the data and the quiet organization of your presence.

Avoid the flourish. Do not be afraid to be weak. Do not be ashamed to be tired. You look good when you're tired. You look like you could go on forever. Now come into my arms. You are the image of my beauty.

Coming Up - Something Very Quiet is About to Happen

March 2nd, 3rd and 4th at the Battersea Library for the BAC at 6pm and 7pm. Here's a sneaky preview...

Found in a reference book from the 1980s or earlier. Something like “A Guide to the Scottish Highlands.”

Hello! It’s been a long time I’ve been staying quiet. There have been scratchy hands, soft hands, delicate hands, indifferent hands, now your hands, which aren’t much different from all the others, if we’re being honest. If we’re being honest, yours are nearly indecipherable from all the others. They do seem to be in a bit of a hurry. Like all the other hands. I’ve tried to get used to that. I’ve had a lot of people hold me with hurried hands. People who have underlined, then erased me. They’re not the worst of course. The worst would have to be the last few people – most everyone I’ve met in the last ten years. I’ve moved around a lot lately, you see, and I mostly end up sitting on someone’s shelf because I’m illustrated, gathering dust. Never getting touched. Never getting used. I was even in a box full of other books just like me owned by an interior decorator for a while, and she’d put me up on shelves lined with others, like me but different, and take pictures of us together in odd places in rooms. It was very embarrassing. A lot of words would go around at times like that, a lot of hands shifting and reshifting me, never opening me, no no no, just touching me, reshuffling me, in too much of a hurry. It’s been a long time, you see, since I’ve been held.

And believe it or not, I’ve only twice been read from cover to cover. Once it was by a young woman, I thought she was one of those decorators, buying me to fill her shelves, because of the picture on my cover. And then one day, out of nowhere, she picked me up in a way that felt very determined, and she opened me up at the very first page, the very first page, she read the introduction, the thankyous, everything, and every few days for about three months she read me. She was quite slow, but I didn’t mind that. In fact, I quite liked it. Sometimes she would even stop reading, hold me in her lap, and just look up and think. I liked that part very much. I could always tell when she was going through the motions, when she wasn’t really interested, when she wasn’t paying attention. I learned her movements well. Her hands would go limp and indifferent, and sometimes she’d nod into me, but I didn’t mind that either, because she would always flip me back a few pages and go much slower than before. She was determined to know everything I had to offer, and I liked that. I especially liked it because she took me to India, and to her friend’s cottage by the lake where I was nearly dropped in the water, but saved in the nick of time by a little boy in a red cap. And she would often fall asleep reading me in bed, where I’d rest beneath her pillow. This is probably regular fare for the other books. The fiction, those smug bastards on those shelves over there. But for me, this kind of attention was very special. An older academic who referred to me often also read me from cover to cover, lovingly, well held, but he was used to that kind of thing. He had me and many others like me, and he pored over all of us, equally. But this young woman, it was something about her determination and the surprise of her attention that charmed me. When I would get lost beneath her pillow and feel the fabric gently shifting up and down on top of me I felt whole and right and purposeful. I have to admit, and perhaps it is embarrassing, but I have to admit that now, every time I am picked up, browsed through, which isn’t very often in this endless, dusty place, I find it very hard not to harbour a kind of hope – a kind of impossible hope – that maybe this person, maybe this hand, maybe they will hold me again and decide to know me for everything I have to offer. You see, it’s sad, but I don’t think I deal very well with these sorts of casual encounters.

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

The Controversy of reading War and Peace when you're under employed

I've been getting major guff lately for reading War and Peace, I suppose because I'm freelance and really need to be looking for work rather than hanging out with the Rostovs. But Come On! I only live once, and War and Peace is on countless top ten lists as being one of the best novels ever written. I'm half way through now and constantly terrified that there may be a nuclear holocaust or that I may get into a terrible accident before I finish it. I've thought about making a piece of performance art about reading War and Peace, it has started to feel so odd and subversive. The crux of the show would be this:

The first half took a long time. I have a feeling the second half won't. I know all the main characters now. I know what I'm doing. It'll fly by. And this, my friends, in every way, mirrors our lifespans in the most terrifying way.

(My friend Rose suggested moving to Chile for 3 months to slow life down. The equivalent of reading a short story by a different author in a different language. But War and Peace will sneak back in. Nobody leaves that kind of book after 700 pages, no matter how terrified they are that it might end.)