Essays

I Killed, I Died

Banter, self-destruction, and the poetry reading

Douglas Kearney
Series of stills of author doing a poetry reading.
The author in performance at a poetry reading in Hudson, New York, 2017.

This lecture about being funny. Funny at poetry readings.

This lecture about how to be reading poetry at poetry readings is to be being funny.

This lecture about the tripartite poetry reading ecosystem, where the n in “econ” is silent, especially when the N-words are not. This lecture about how revealing what one’s fixed to begin often falls between an ending and “this next one’s called” at a poetry reading, and how funny it can be to find yourself, there, banked before and betwixt poems. Let’s call that space of potential revelation an interstice. And when one acts into it, let’s call it banter.

And by way of that banter, you mean to reveal something more about what you’ve revealed in the poem itself, which is why you’re where you are. Before something. Betwixt others.

Say you feel your poem says it all, maybe you say nothing, save: “This one’s called—”

And if you feel your poem says it all, maybe you still say something more.

Let’s call that funny.

This lecture about how when I say funny I mean like telling jokes: Why did the chicken cross the road?

And this lecture about how when I say funny like telling jokes, I also mean: Why did the poet keep reading poems about a miscarriage?

And funny like: Why did the audience clap?

And this lecture about how to be funny funny funny reading poetry at a poetry reading somewhere. So: as the applause frittered, this poet quipped: It’s okay to clap. The baby would have been Black.

My next poem is called—

This lecture about Nina Simone’s mojowork and the Black Took Collective’s collective shade.

This lecture about dancing bears and an eight-inch thick, award-winning concrete wall in Tucson.

This lecture about a miscarriage.

This lecture’s going to be funny as all hell. This one’s called “I Killed, I Died.”



Being funny at poetry readings is easy because poetry readings are already funny.

Lesson one: show up at poetry reading and read poetry.

You hilarious.

This lecture’s called “I Killed, I Died.” But it’s called more than that, otherwise you may not know what I’m fixed to begin.

In standup comic argot, some say to die is to have a shit set. You perform seeking laughter, yet get none. Conversely, to kill is to work a great set: the crowd reacts exactly as you’d have them. In this rhetorical order, being funny smacks of combat. I offer that the “funny” that doesn’t mean joke, but “funny” as in an effed, uneasy dynamic—the ill feel below many poetry readings—is also ontologically violent. That violence comes up without even having to dredge a masculinist grammar, à la comedian Cristina Ouch, who marked in her essay “Stand-Up Comedy Is Not Dying, Your Privilege Is” that U.S. standup been rooted in white guyness since Twain. Trust, a bit on ontological violence kinda sorta coming soon, but patience: the bear is not yet in its rumpled tutu.

All this to say, the violence folded into this lecture’s title is not baggage; that is, it needs no sly unpacking. Still, the subtitle, falling there between it and the lecture, opens the bag.

This lecture about: What happens at the reading when we come to unpack what we think we packed in the poem and find the poetry reading itself is just another bag.

Only, a trickbag.

This lecture is called “I Killed, I Died: Banter, Self-Destruction and the Poetry Reading.”

A joke: What do you call it when people who can probably read come to an event to attend other people reading what they’ve often already read? But seriously, folx. Let me tell you about this one time in Tucson at the University of Arizona’s Poetry Center for The Poetry off the Page symposium. That was 2012, but for years prior, my wife, Nicole, and I were a heterosexist white supremacist’s dream come true: a Black woman and man who only fucked each other but were infertile!

That’s called killing two crows with bum bones.

Haaaaaaaaamburger. [Alonzo “Hamburger” Jones]

I was doing these poems about the miscarriage of who would have been our firstborn child. A girl. We had tried and tried—IUI: Intrauterine Insemination. Turkey-baster. It took! But then, the baby girl was taken. Nicole named her Hope. All I could think was, We lost her.

Daaaaaaaaaaaamn. [Chris Tucker]

You know, folx, writing these poems took more than a little bit. I tried and tried. The miscarriage was in 2008. But in 2011, the process finally bore fruit after many failed attempts. Which seems terribly appropriate.

I ain’t scared of you muthafuckas. [Bernie Mac]

Banter works like this: You speak to the audience before you begin the poem. This actually could be about anything, but most often you open the poem up for the audience. A vivisection of sorts, but we were using a baggage image system—and don’t let me be misunderstood. Perhaps you describe how the poem came to be, what motivated you to write it. A fact at its heart and how you came by it. Perhaps there’s a craft matter to make plain. A prosodic schema. An allusion.

Yet why come all this?

Is it your awareness that in the time it takes to read the poem live, vital information might breeze past? Banter, you figure, tethers the poem against that. You reckon, perhaps, if a poem isn’t itself precisely narrative, it might need a membrane of story to resonate in communal space. You might also be flexing. Oh yes, flexing. Perhaps there’s a lit-crit pedagogical moment. You wish to prove that you are serious, that you have done work, even when that work—and its attendant seriousness—might not be apparent in the elusive passage of the poem. Possibly you suspect your poem is “difficult” and you seek—via anecdote, explanation, or prolepsis— to make it “easier,” lest you die up there, rictus slick with flop sweat.

And maybe—since AND not OR is a default in Killing and Dying’s context—you’d like to be funny. For one way to gauge engagement is by laughter when you’d have it. Funny while feeling funny in the funny situation of a poetry reading.

What wasn’t funny, but funny, and a little funny, was during the three years of writing miscarriage poems that themselves didn’t work, I had been working at writing a poem that would make the reader hurt as much as I had.

That poem would’ve killed!

Ha Cha Cha Cha.

The impulse guiding that poem reminds me of something from Maggie Nelson’s The Art of Cruelty, a Mike Kelley quote: “I make art to give other people my problems.” Instead, the “Miscarriages” were the sum of the takeaway that I couldn’t, then shouldn’t, make anyone feel what I had felt. And why? I would love to say that it would be to avoid cruelty, but you’ll see, if you haven’t yet, that ship sailed, that ship sank. Rather, it would place Hope in deepening circles of precarity to have her loss cut by larger catastrophes, binning her as a tchotchke in trauma’s marketplace. Funny funny funny.

But this is not a lecture about poems! This is a lecture about “Banter, Self-Destruction and the Poetry Reading”—and I’ll tell you about poems, yes, because that’s what the banter was and sometimes still is for me. So: At first, I meant to hurt the reader as I hurt losing my daughter. I learned I couldn’t and shouldn’t do that. Instead I made the poems funny.

The Miscarriage: A List of 10 Euphemisms for Use in Stage Banter

foxes looted the coop!

God marked your copy!

cherries dammed the flume!

a kite fell in April!

an apple burst the nest!

some Seminoles fled the field!

our wagon crashed but we just saw the heart in the furrow!

four alarm beat three days ago and next the doll factory!

roses week is Father’s Day choke the cabbage!

red ants blitz the sugar bowl!

The University of Arizona’s Poetry Center has the Poetry off the Page gig archived. Watching the video, I see I opened with an early draft of “The Miscarriage: A Magic Trick.” And though I have, on occasion, written bulleted notes at the tops of poems—dates to keep straight, people to attribute—the banter, here, comes off ad-libbed. I hadn’t decided what to read before taking the mic; I was riffing, riffling pages for the poems at the lectern.

When you are onstage and need to fill time, it’s called padding. “I’m going to begin—um with—uh—some cheerful poems—um about aaaaahhhh well—miscarriages.”

There’s a groan.

A titter.

As published in Patter (2014), “The Miscarriage: A List of 10 Euphemisms for Use in Stage Banter” is the first poem in a series of seven, most of which I’ve read for over a decade now, frequently from 2011 to 2016.

In that time, I’ve whetted the banter to a keener edge.

A wiser poet than I once said you should begin a poetry reading with delight.



after that tucson reading,
the brilliant poet Lillian-Yvonne Bertram approached. They looked furrowed, thoughtful, working something rough over and through, like they do. They said, firmly, yet without rancor, “You are cruel to us.” Eight years later, they went farther. “Not just the audience. I meant to yourself, too.”

Doing the miscarriage series over Patter’s cycle, readings grew funnier to me. Poems lit out for the margins of why I’d book a reading, caught up instead with what fell between them.

In this way, this lecture will be, at times, about cruelty. To the audience or to the poet?

There is no “OR.”

Another lesson: Silence is nigh the frightfullest thing at a poetry reading. Especially when someone paying you to show.

Banter is “better” than silence, provided you edifying and/or engaging.

But banter’s no poem, usually, and if you don’t poem at the poetry reading you are not reading poems.

Caveat to the previous statement: “Just read the damn poem!” they may shout. Lots more think this than shout it. Some may generally be fine with banter but come the hell on.

Many people who detest banter are the poets themselves. “Just listen to the damn poem!” they would shout, or “Just pay me for writing the damn poem!”

Banter is of unknown etymological origins except that it is reckoned to come from British vernacular during the mid-seventeenth century.

LECTURE!

It is a possible anglicization of the Gaelic term Bean—meaning “woman”—

LECTURE!

This would LECTURE! suggest that LECTURE! banter bears LECTURE! associations with LECTURE! “women’s talk.” LECTURE!

People who dislike banter likely don’t know this etymology. Mostly, I wager, they want the poem to speak for itself. Which is funny because:

What do you call it when people who can probably read come to an event to attend other people reading what they’ve often already read?

It’s an inconvenient truth that poets are not always sensitive readers of their own work. Sensitive to all types of shit—including the roomful of people making to listen. Since unlike almost every other spectator event in the United States, many poetry readings are spectated by people who, generally, can do the same thing the people in the spotlight can, which is read a poem aloud. Compare this spectacle to watching professional athletes play basketball, trained dancers perform ballet, practiced pop stars in concert. Banter—particularly when it provides insight into process—is a reason why the presence of the poet might make some sense, beyond maybe making cents.

Yet commerce is but one angle of what most poetry readings triangulate. Edification and engagement, like Avon and Marlo, hold their corners down, too.

The first, edification—it is good for us to be assembled together, and to gather for poetry is even better! We will get cultured, educated, incited to be something more than what we were. This promise lubricates as it imbricates the next.

Commerce, why, don’t you look ravishing? Capital will change hands. A cover charge? Books, merch, refreshments sold? The venue may attract patrons via the poets it invites—the academic institution’s visiting artist list, or the cultural center’s seasonal collateral. Reputation, vis-à-vis the roster, becomes capital.

Next: engagement. That poetry is beloved by organizers of poetry readings does not preclude its instrumentalization. Many a soul singer cites love and being used on a scale of mutual pleasure. Such tilt may feel uncomfortable here, as poetry, being underfunded, in capitalist love-language is therefore underappreciated. The inverse is that in po-biz’s nominally anticapitalist ethos, this disinterest makes it appreciate more. Therefore, even edification is a bourgeois anti-spice, a totebagging of poetry into an aspirational, organic supraconsumable.

Mea culpa: triangulating trades do the most to me by their ruthless drive at meaning to turn some beauty into more ugly, and should you believe in that route as an inherent, immutable contamination, there’s some other shit we must talk dirty about.

Hold on: the bear still needs its fancy cane.

This one’s called: Amaud Jamaul Johnson knows what’s up.

When we are writing about pain, what is banter? Awkward-ass jokes? Trigger warnings? What does it mean when we’re triggered by our own work?
—Amaud Jamaul Johnson (email)

Reading the miscarriage poems over and over made readings feel funnier than usual.

What had happened was I grew more and more angry. With myself first, for writing the poems. Then for reading them, for using them to kill audiences.

So I altered my banter, to play it straight, to unpack—but the incongruity between the poems’ tone and disclosure made me feel cheap, there before the audience sharing grief and then doing a magic trick, a minstrel show, a bar joke. This made the poems appear, at best, cathartic—we can all laugh now—and they weren’t. They aren’t. They may numb me, a kind of dying, a kind of killing. But they relieve nothing for me but a compositional problem.

Banter serves, too, as a compositional problem when seen in a structural relationship to the poem it precedes and, sometimes, follows.

I had used banter as many do, as a guard against the audience turning on me.

To turn on you suggests, in comedy, betrayal. In poetry, however, it suggests a volta.

With Patter, I turned on the audience.

In comedian Christopher Titus’s 2017 special, Born with a Defect, right around 45:57, he self-interrupts a characteristically twisted bit with what sounds like a bantered aside:

I’ve gotten to a very sick place with comedy, I’ve done this so long now—this is my seventh special—I want you guys to know something. So: I want you guys to laugh. And I’m used to that, I’ve been doing that a long time. Now I’ve gotten to this weird place like a guy who’s had way too much sex where I need it a little weird. So, I’ll write a joke…where you guys go— ha-ha-ha—oh-ooohhh.

Titus mimics a spectator’s game laughter, before abruptly pulling a look of their dawning dismay; then Titus is Titus again, doing a victory gesture that reads, I’m getting off.

Note the disclosure of his joke-writing process. Next, pausing for this aside creates an interstice that he fills with the banter’s tricky metacommentary.

My wife and I have dug Titus’s stand-up for a minute. Met him in a Target, back in California when we lived in the Valley— waaaaaay before Born with a Defect. This would have been around the time of the miscarriage.

We would have seen Norman Rockwell Is Bleeding (2004) at that point. That’s the one where Titus is building a bookcase, which sets his girlfriend off! Explaining why he’s building it, Titus says, “Book”—his mouth falling open like a bladder emptying itself.

I’m about to talk about banter and self-destruction. My studies in banter and self-destruction are, however, accelerations of the latent negation implicit in banter at a poetry reading.

In Target, he was shucks over our low-key yet earnest compliments. Still, he looked startled at first. Dismay abruptly pulling into dawning laughter.

The crowd howls after his confession and pantomime in Born with a Defect. “I know, I know.” He says, shuddering off the illicit pleasure, returning to the act, “I have a problem. It’s not good.”

He’s killing them!

The thing, though. When the bit within the bit started? When the audience groaned their dismay? He was laughing. The only one laughing at an awkward-ass joke. Was that dying? Or, did he want their buttoned silence—thus, killing?

“OR” has no place with the funny I am talking about. This messy funny too much many.

I’m about to talk about banter and self-destruction. My studies in banter and self-destruction are, however, accelerations of the latent negation implicit in banter at a poetry reading. LECTURE! Banter facilitates a dialogic relation between the poet and the audience; yet this is false, the poet speaks to the audience as auditor. LECTURE! Rather than seeing this as the poet given essential “power” in the context of the reading, the triangular exchange structure described above posits the terms of power are administrated through commerce. LECTURE!—

What I’m saying is, even though it looks like the poet is in power because the poet is the one with the mic, the option not to speak is actually the sign of power. The poet in characteristic U.S. American readings is the “object” and “consumable” of the reading, the product/service. Their utterance is a site to be judged—by the audience, not a site that exacts power or generates law over the audience. The conventions of the poetry reading are the source of order. The audience’s option to “utter,” then, becomes a mapping of their krísi-critico (suggesting judgment—decision/accusation—and criticality) engagement and evaluation of the poet’s compulsory “utterance.” This is an activity of judgment, anti-spiced as “appreciation.” Banter accommodates and expedites this krísi-critico function by laying bare/breaking down (stripping and taking apart) the poem as a site of motivations and procedurals for the poet. Thus, the poet takes on the conflicting roles of witness/criminal, debunker/ magician, craftsperson/seer, critic/artist—as prolepsis, a preemptive defense against or accommodation for the audience’s evaluation. These pairings are kept as “OR” conditions by the shored border between “banter” and “poem”—“Now,” the poet seems to say, “I am a witness to the crime of the poem. Here’s how it was done.”

“This crime’s called—”

LECTURE!

LECTURE!

LECTURE!

LECTURE!

————

Recall the proffered structure—banter, poem, banter, poem, banter, poem?

Then, the notion of voltaa turn, marking a change?

Here’s the volta in my poetry-reading praxis. I no longer put a slash between banter and poem. In fact, the reading has become a site in which I attempt to reproduce the associative space of poetic composition publicly.

The results have been funny.



i’ve a habit of laughing
at my own jokes. The sound goes ts. An almost shame.

My son does it, too.

I think it’s because if I try to be funny, I’m trying because of anxiety. A desire to please.

I rarely laugh at my own jokes during my banter.

Once, though, it struck me to do so. I was reading at a library in Hudson.

A quick note on structure versus form. In a poem, structure speaks to the cognitive path the poem takes. Image to question? Past to present to shitty epiphany?

Form recommends how many and what kind. How many lines, syllables? How many rhymes? How many repetitions? What kind of syllables and in what kind of sequence? And so on.

Back in Hudson, I was in the middle of banter, riffing, and it happened that what I said had the structure of a joke. In that instant, I decided to laugh. Rather, bark out the form of a laugh. A mirthless laughter about how painting sidewalks green in gentrifying neighborhoods would make it easier to edit cops out of their own police brutality selfie vids. Something terribly not funny, but funny. This made the reading even funnier.

The structure of a joke—as comedian Hannah Gadsby says in Nanette, is two parts: setup and punchline. The setup, she asserts, is a question, the answer for which—the punchline—is a surprise. For Gadsby, many of these questions are “artificially inseminated” with tension. “I make you all feel tense, and then I make you laugh, and you’re like, ‘Thanks for that. I was feeling a bit tense.’ I made you tense. This is an abusive relationship!”

She continues: “Do you know why I’m such a funny fucker? Do you know? It’s because I’ve been learning the art of tension diffusion since I was a children [sic]. Back then it wasn’t a job, it wasn’t a hobby, it was a survival tactic. I didn’t have to invent the tension. I was the tension. And…I’m tired of tension. Tension is making me sick.” That the poetry reading is funny

funny

funny

doesn’t make it stand-up. Yet the funniness is a source of tension.

Banter, by presencing the poet (I’m here to tell you about the poem and not just read it to you), is meant to ease one funny tension (the poet’s reading may not help us appreciate the poem as an autonomous, aesthetic object) yet activates several more, like:

—edification with a desire to dismiss a language of instrumentalization

—an engagement of judgment

—a series of self-undoing gambits on the poet’s part

The banter is there to help the audience get the poem (like a riddle, not a joke) and for the poem to be got (like a gift, not a baby). If we note incidental tension in banter, it is often when something goes wrong.

If I were to adopt Gadsby’s structural critiques as tactics, I’d get at how poems need not set up anything, answer anything, or resolve in the way we understand a narrative or rhetorical progress tromping doggedly along. People may prefer poems generally that do some combination or singularity of all of these. Some may come to love them a poem—and be surprised they do—when it does any of these things in any combination or isolation. That hill’s no stage I mean to kill or die on.

This lecture about: “Banter, Self-Destruction and the Poetry Reading.”

In Hudson, what I was setting up was a joke that had already been told. And I was the only one laughing.

I had already died. And all I could do was keep dying till it killed. What does it mean when we’re triggered by our own work?

Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha!

When a performer laughs at the wrong time during an act or scene, it’s called “corpsing.” Which, in theater, specifically describes an actor who can’t stop laughing when their character is meant to be serious, played straight, or, as some report the term originates, dead.

The bear nearly has its tap shoes on.

When I laughed that laugh that wasn’t laughter at something that was funny thus not FUNNY, as with tense banter revealing a wrongness, I hoped to see and disclose a structure. Not the poems I had packed; instead, the arrangement that had brought me packing and packed the audience in. I ain’t Carver this peanut. You can find it in Brecht and in BAM, in Punk and in Piper, and, by and by, the Black Took Collective and Nina Simone.

At the same time, in Hudson and elsewhere, I didn’t plan to do what I did. I just didn’t stop myself from doing what occurred to me under the circumstances. This is very similar to where I try to be when I’m writing. I follow an association, put a line down, move a collaged piece of text between two others and half-bury a fourth. Then, from that move, I make the next, hoping to synthesize the smaller gestures into something shaking with both centrifugal and centripetal energy.

With this new banter, composition includes my body, my acoustic voice, the room and its contents, the poems, and the audience. Yet I am not composing a new poem, but refining a lifelong poetics—my body, observed in a space. I’m a professional at that.

Professionalism, as a convention of disciplinary discipline, is eschewed first in this new banter. A risk inherent in pursuing the associative in real-time in real life.

Put finer: I don’t know what I’m going to do. Which means neither does the venue. This decenters the composed poem(s) with what plays like an uncomposed act of performative riffing. It isn’t composed (prewritten), but it is composed—in the sense that it is self-possessed.

As Arthur Jafa puts it in “My Black Death”:

Classically, jazz improvisation is first and foremost signified self-determination. This actually precedes its function as musical gesture. For the black artist to stand before an audience, often white, and to publicly demonstrate her decision-making capacity, her agency, rather than the replication of another’s agency, i.e., the composer’s, was a profoundly radical and dissonant gesture.…This signification of one’s “self-determination” is in turn premised on one’s “self-possession.” There is no “self-determination” without “self-possession.” And, “self- possession” is the existential issue for black Americans.

I may die. I do not corpse.

ON ARCHITECTURE: The Poetry Center in Tucson was designed by the architect Les Wallach, FAIA of Line and Space, LLC. Isabelle Lomholt, writing for the United Kingdom’s e-architect, notes the center’s knotty needs—light to read by, but not too bright. Intimacy, despite ginormous holdings, functional accessibility, and ready security. These contradictions seem fit to me as principles of a house housing poetry.

The last time I was at the Poetry Center was in 2017 for the Thinking Its Presence Conference, founded by Prageeta Sharma. I was in a keynote collaboration called Fodder, with the pulled-up musician Val Jeanty in the Humanities Seminar Room. The transparent walls flung wide, chairs spoked out from Val’s turntables with aisles like rays dividing the larger seating sections. We were in our set, about to do a poem called “Runaway Tongue.”

“Runaway Tongue” is at the kid’s table in a banquet set by Harryette Mullen’s poetry and critical essay Runaway Tongue: Resistant Orality in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Our Nig, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, and Beloved,” along with ideas about fugitivity. Peppered throughout the poem’s open field is the phrase “Get it.” That phrase could suggest a joke told, but also, here: a code caught, something escaped and reclaimed.

But I didn’t say any of that on October 20, 2017. Instead, to explain the poem, I ran.

A fifty-foot sprint from the Humanities Seminar Room toward the library’s wall of concrete masonry laid in a “stack” bond pattern. This smooth, gray surface—eight inches thick—is what I ran into.

And why? If I avoided the wall, there would be no reason to stop running, would there? It would not have made what we could call dramaturgical sense. I figured that out mid-sprint and prepared to hit the wall.

I jumped some and splayed the flats of my forearms and palms in front of me with some slack, just to absorb the shock. The grace note? My glasses somersaulting from my face, clattering to the ground. I followed.

But what then? If I went to the left, there was an open parking lot and I’d be back to the situation in which I’d have to just keep running. If I slunk back to the stage, running would have been rhymeless, a thorn line. So I looked to the right and there—reddish, orange—a guard rail. I ran smack at that and found it, thankfully, securely bolted to the ground.

Now my poetics had a form and a structure.

I ran back toward the seminar room, slamming into the merch table. Then, the last leg of the square route, I headed back to the stage, a tongue returned to work at the mic. Turns out, this direction, the same direction as the parking lot I saw after the first wall?

North.

When I’m at a poetry reading, I feel like the bear and the person there to wrestle it.

Sometimes poems do things we don’t intend. And if one’s banter becomes a kind of poem-making, the same applies.

I ran at LSU earlier that year. Not because of “Runaway Tongue.” I can’t remember why, honestly. Had I run through the audience into the reception area, I would have seen platters of hors d’oeuvres. I promise you, I would have grabbed one of those platters, returned to that grand room in Baton Rouge, and begun serving the guests.

Sadly, I ran behind the staging area. I, too, was confused.

What would the gesture of carrying the tray have been? Presencing a racial history in the context of giving a reading in the grand old room? Gadsby, who self-identifies as a gender-nonconforming lesbian, argues that for people from historically oppressed identities, self-deprecating humor isn’t humility, but humiliation.

What about, however, when it’s not FUNNY but funny?

Introducing the dancing bear!

The Dancing Bear is an intervention formulated by Tisa Bryant after reading Aimé Césaire, who, in Notebook of a Return to the Native Land, writes, “A man screaming is not a dancing bear. Life is not a spectacle.” Bryant opens Césaire’s bear into a more gender-fluid field, connecting it, in a personal email, to “the numerous anecdotes from Black women writers, from Octavia Butler to Gayl Jones to Toni Morrison to Toni Cade Bambara, in which a teacher doubts that the Black schoolgirl indeed wrote the short story submitted for the grade, because such intellectual ability cannot belong to Black girls.” On spectacle, she goes farther:

“Dancing bear” is a spectacle, and perceived as spectacular, on the part of the bear, not as unethical or as torture, on the part of the person holding the leash and the lash.…“Dancing bear” is also a metaphor for the spectacle of Black people, often men, being human and excelling in a field that racists perceive as being beyond a Black person’s ken. Said Black person is seen as exceptional, wondrous entertainment, and the spectre of the trainer, with leash and lash, operates in the racist imaginary, and is often conflated with the spectator themselves.

Y’all know something? My grandfather on my father’s side used to wrestle bears in a circus. Where, Bryant notes, Dancing Bears were “real fodder.”

When I’m at a poetry reading, I feel like the bear and the person there to wrestle it.

Would negrotesquely serving little shrimps on toasts between reading poems also make me the person holding the leash, the lash?

No OR! No OR! No OR!

Poking the “Dancing Bear” trope seemed like something the Black Took Collective was particularly into. Duriel E. Harris, Dawn Lundy Martin, and Ronaldo V. Wilson’s use of masks, multimedia, discursive engagement with minstrelsy—in Tin Pan Alley and the Ivory Tower—are interventions, queer, negrotesque, heated, and funky: monkey wrenches into what Bryant calls “the persistent doubting of ability, originality, motivation, innovation, dignity and distinction [that] Black people contend with daily.” I saw them off-site at the same Poetry off the Page symposium I attended. They typed live, projecting text onto screens flanking the stage. The audience dismayed and laughed to see fragments of their own conversations blown up, their voices as text, displayed as show, the show. The krísi-critico function script flipped on the spectator, leashed into the spotlight.

The rupture of a poetry reading was the starting principle, informed as Harris/Martin/Wilson are by poet Erica Hunt’s “Notes for an Oppositional Poetics.” But in action, a poetics emerged that— unlike banter’s urge to break down, or a poem’s fate to metonymize— created excess out of the structural brac of the reading.

Nina Simone, observes Malik Gaines in his book Black Performance on the Outskirts of the Left: A History of the Impossible, deploys “three distinct elements of her mode of performance: her intertextual material, her shamanistic technique, and her theatrical presentation.” Locating centrally the spells she casts operates for me as the linchpin of a possible banter corrective. As Gaines notes, “In Simone’s oeuvre, anecdotes abound of her scolding her audiences, appearing late, and other divalike behaviors.” The cost of these acts in her acts thrusts us back into the edification/commerce/engagement triangle.

For the engagement to be on Simone’s terms is difficult to parse without reckoning engagement as combat. Simone’s iconic banter on “Mississippi Goddamn”—“This is a showtune but the show hasn’t been written for it yet”—is a languid-seeming threat, with the show ambiguous as a metaphor for coming conflict or the white-washed dismemory of it, retuned for show. The banter gives nothing away and, in its irony, relieves perhaps only Simone.

But relief? Even temporary? Simone still knows that she, in this concert hall, must be the wind that blows the ship in and the current that heaves it. To recall Amaud Jamaul Johnson’s question: “What does it mean when we’re triggered by our own work?” What is the calm before the storm when you are the storm as well?

Irony—in banter—is still a presence of self in a concert hall (read: poetry reading).

Simone as shaman shifts the dynamic because to put someone under a spell is to engage them with a power that is, actually, not you. A misdirection. The audience comes thinking they are there to attend the poet; the poet, however, refocuses their attention on something else. Many believe this must be “the poems,” leading, I’d offer, to thoughtful and intentional decisions about avoiding banter and projecting a neutral-coded reading affect. However, I don’t know that most audiences, or poets, go to readings for poems. They may do so for the potential of finding poetry in the reading’s triangulation. But that is not the province of poems alone.

Yet the bill will come due. A joke can be a yoke if your grip on it slips. And unsettling one audience is fine. But if it costs you each time, though the audience is fresh, you aren’t. The destruction accrues. Ramming your body against a banked stage two taller people easily mounted in Boise, Idaho, then dragging yourself around to the stairs behind the stage, where you claw yourself downstage to the mic and pull yourself up before saying, “I’m Douglas Kearney.”

At that gig, 2019, Boise State University, they gave me bottled water. Which is good, because all that crawling had made me powerful thirsty! It was LIFE WTR.

Uncapping it, I noticed LIFE WTR’s brand name is stylized sans the A & E. What a delight! I ad-libbed: There’s no A and E here, so I guess this is Life Wtrrrrr. Don’t worry, I’ll provide your A & E for the evening! My people are great with Arts and Entertainment, especially when brought to you by water! Every so often during the reading, I’d improvise a LIFE WTR/Middle Passage commercial. And at one point, I realized I’d have to pour some on my head. To choose not to would be to remain within the criteria of a poetry reading instead of seeing the poetry reading’s arrangement and running north for the parking lot. The poems took care of themselves and I didn’t take care of anybody. Not even, I guess, Douglas Kearney.

Which brings us back to funny funny funny. “I Killed, I Died: Banter, Self-Destruction and the Poetry Reading.”

Douglas Kearney has no business at a poetry reading, yet poetry readings are central to the business of poetry. A concern. The pain that concerns so much of my work, reckoning with intimate biological and social losses, may find representation in a poem. It may consume a poem. It may be all there is. But that poem is not a bottle. It cannot contain any of my pain.

That’s what I’m for.

Like you, I show up when that poem, being all it is, somehow isn’t enough. So I come, now, to make poetry. Poetry that includes me and my body, the space and the audience’s bodies. Whether that’s to tell awkward-ass jokes, give trigger warnings, describe the rhyme scheme, run into concrete masonry, scream till I taste nickels, wheel a recycling receptacle through the audience to collect a dropped iced tea bottle, play the role of dead body at countless murder scenes, have a domestic argument with a book that thuds from a music stand, explain why I did what I did, read the poem like I’m lashing the bear, being lashed, watching it dance, dancing, being grappled and grappling, like I’m trying to kill to keep from dying.

I’ve seen how this ends if I keep being in this same joke. I saw it the first time I almost puked while reading the poem “Well Hung.”

I thought, If I throw up, I need to keep going. But then there will be vomit on the stage.

And what, Douglas Kearney, just what will you do with that?

Ha! Ha! Ha!

Ha! Ha! Ha!

Ha! Ha! Ha!

Ha! Ha! Ha!

Ha! Ha! Ha!

Ha! Ha! Ha!

Ha! Ha! Ha!

Ha! Ha! Ha!

Ha! Ha! Ha!

Ha! Ha! Ha!

Ha! Ha! Ha!

Ha! Ha! Ha!

Douglas Kearney is the author of seven collections, including Buck Studies, winner of the Theodore Roethke Memorial Poetry Award, and Sho. His operas include Sucktion, Sweet Land, and the American Modern Opera Company’s Comet / Poppea. He lives in St. Paul with his family.
Originally published:
June 28, 2021

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