This last Thursday, I was fortunate enough to attend a poetry performance by Amalia Bueno, Donovan Kūhiō Colleps, and Noʻu Revilla titled, “Interventions of Experience and Memory: When Poetry, Life, and Documents Collide”. This presentation was part of The Center for Biography Brown Bag Series, which has, apparently, been running for around 22 years at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa (Bravo!). Together Noʻu, Donovan, and Amalia delivered a reading that challenged my idea of the typical structure of an academic poetry presentation, which is usually cerebral, often stimulating, but rarely emotive.
The three poets began by standing in a line running parallel to the front row of the audience, and in turn announcing that they wanted..., which brought so many of my conflicting thoughts on poetry swirling to the surface. How do we acknowledge that our poetic excursions often revolve around desire?
Donovan wanted to know about the stories of his grandfather. He was particularly interested in those stories as they intersected with the file cabinet his grandfather left behind, which was full of documents that chronicled various aspect of a long and varied life.
Amalia wanted to share some of the stories of women incarcerated in the prisons of Hawaiʻi, which was, of course, also linked to story of prisons in Hawaiʻi. Amalie gave us an effective mix of personal narratives and the statistics that may inform us of the broader picture, but often fail to give us the human face behind the numbers.
Noʻu wanted to investigate the town of Kahuluhi on the island of Maui, where she grew up. She also wanted dig through the genealogies of the maternal line of her family. She did this through a combination of interrogating her childhood memories and researching documents related to the conception and creation of Kahului.
Perhaps you’ve noticed the common link between these three readings? All three poets were students in Professor Susan Schultz’s class on documentary poetry, which challenged participants to find the poem in the everyday document. These documents could range from photographs, to blue prints, to certificates, to advertisements, to instruction manuals, which makes for interesting aesthetic possibilities, particularly as the presentation is related to the written word. How then, did they transition their compositions from the page to the stage?
The translation of works written to be read into something performed is often taken for granted and/or ignored in the literary world. I can recall more than one occasion when I have gone to a book reading with every intention of buying the book, and then decided against it after the author read their work. Why? Usually, because the writer was so obviously under prepared and appeared to lack any sort of commitment or connection to the piece of writing they were so laboriously reading. If they’re not committed to their work, then why on earth should I be?
Callous and unfeeling, am I? Maybe. Probably, but I’m not completely unsympathetic. Except for the rare souls among us, who are gifted with a tendency towards unabashed exhibitionism, most of us find it difficult to reveal ourselves in front of a room full of people, for understandable reasons. The performer, inevitably, feels judged by the audience, which is usuually an accurate assessment, but it does not necessarily follow that these judgements run toward the negative.
So if we are presenting our poetry to the attending masses, how should we overcome this obstacle? Perhaps flipping that emotional script could help sooth the worst of the jangled nerves. What if the performer stops worrying about what the audience thinks of them, and instead worries about what they think and want of/for the audience? What if the performer considers the welfare of the audience, irrespective of their designated relationship perimeters?
Perhaps this turn in perception is a no-brainer for some areas of the performing community. Been there, done that. However, I rarely hear this addressed in literary circles. My guess is that most writers do not consider themselves as performers, but if you ever have to get up in front of people to peddle your wares, you should be performing. After all, you are asking them to invest something of themselves in you. You owe them an intentional and practiced performance, so I ask these questions, in part because I think it is imperative that performers consider their positions, and take the welfare of their audiences into consideration whenever and whereever they perform, but also because the performers I witnessed this past Thursday embodied this approach. When Donovan, Amalia, and Noʻu decided to perform their investigations, they gave a gift to their audience. In their turns, they confronted us with their considerations, their vulnerabilities, their indignations, their sorrows, and their dreams. Yes, they asked us to think, but they also invited us to feel.
They added access points to their performances with powerpoint presentations, which defied the bullet point stereotype. No’u, Amalia, and Donovan integrated technology into their readings, but they did not allow it to become their readings, which is always a danger when you invite a projector into your lineup. Donovan used the layering images of his grandfather’s life through documents as a rhymic counterpoint to his poetic re-visioning of the instructions on how to use a nebulizer. Amalia gave us the statistical story as a visual backdrop to her recounting of stories from some of Hawaiʻi’s incarcerated women. Noʻu, whose pieces often flirted with abstraction, used powerpoint as a way to ground her poetry and concretize her imagery. These three writers wanted to give us an experience in memory through poetry and performance.
When I go to a poetry reading, I want to be moved and inspired, and I’m happy to report that last Thursday that is exactly what happened.