I performed at the museum the other day. I yelled at people. Got all up in their faces. Made them really uncomfortable and then made myself really uncomfortable too.
Several months ago, I was invited by Jaimie Gusman, founder of MIA and poet extraordinaire to participate in a group experiment of ekphrastic poetry at the newly christened Spalding House nee The Contemporary Art Museum. Aaron Padilla, Curator of Education at the Honolulu Museum of Art, Spalding House, extended the invitation to Jaimie, with the request that MIA (for this performance this included Jaimie Gusman, Evan Nagel, Donovan Colleps, Tom Gammarion, Scott Abel, Noʻu Revilla, Serena Simmons, and me) produce poems that respond to the exhibited artwork and offer a dynamic and interactive presentation. These are dangerous words to be delivered into the hands of a poet.
I felt this truth a hundred fold as I marched into a crowd of unsuspecting art lovers turned hijacked audience screaming about Goya and all his fantastic perversions. When people backed away from me, looking more than a little worried, my anxiety barometer soared.
Oh no, I thought, I’m just terrifying them.
And then I thought, but isn’t that exactly how we wanted them to react? When I write we, I mean Noʻu Revilla, Serena Simmons, and me. Months earlier, the three of us decided to collaborate on a spoken word griot and we were all drawn to the dark, anguished, and often-misogynistic illustrations of Goya that are part of A Thousand Words and Counting exhibit at Spalding House. The goal of our text, and subsequent performance of that text, was to capture some of the visceral and disturbing imagery found in the Goya exhibit.
I was functioning as the icebreaker for that griot, which meant I had to grab the attention of a potentially wandering audience, until Serena and Noʻu joined me, so I yelled in a performance space that resembled an echo chamber.
I am not a stranger to yelling at people. My experiences as a slam poet have left me well equipped for such an endeavor, but I found there was a significant difference in the space of that performance when I, by necessity of choreography and the chance behaviors of people, had to advance in a fashion dripping with verbal violence on a group of unsuspecting spectators. Another significant difference: they could run away from me (a seated audience is far less mobile), and a few of them did, not hysterically, but with decided trepidation.
Yes, because we were channeling an interpretation of Goya’s work, we wanted to spice our performance with discomfort, but could we have achieved our aims in another way? I found out later that our audience had actually enjoyed the confrontation, but what if we had walked among those museum-goers and whispered our poetry? What if we had kept our distance and adhered to audience expectations? What if we had walked up to them and just started speaking conversationally in a normal tone, at normal levels, about all the perversity we excavated from a few illustrated panels?
These questions are not intended to condemn the method we chose. I know Noʻu, Serena, and I enjoyed ourselves, and I think we got as much pleasure from the process as we did from the performance. However, if we want to continue pushing at the boundaries of where and how we perform our poetries, we need to ask these questions. We need to create a long list of what, why, and how. We need to speculate on what will happen if I’m in your face and what will happen if I’m whispering to you lying on the floor.