Bowery Poetry Club
November 9, 2007
For the first ten minutes of their reading, the Be Blank Consort sat in a circle near the stage hashing out the details of their performance, while casting glances over their shoulders at the audience as it trickled in. The ad-hoc nature of artistic collaboration in the raw often demands this sort of last minute planning. With the final details arranged, or at least touched upon, the assembled troupe took their seats on the stage.
The Be Blank Consort, a group brought together by Richard Kostelanetz during a literary residency at the Atlantic Center for the Arts, has been performing experimental poetry since 2001 and has produced one album of simultaneous poetry called Sound Mess. They generate many poems collaboratively and employ chance or visual techniques to create performance scores. Their membership fluctuates, with participation hinging on the amount of enthusiasm that veteran members are able to generate among poet friends through mail-art, micro-presses, or other activities. Performing that evening were regular members John M. Bennett, K.S. Ernst, Sheila B. Murphy, Michael Peters, and Scott Helms, along with local poets Steve Dalachinsky, Bob Herman, Mark Bloch, Olchar Lindsann, Bob Holmon, and Ron Kolm who were all new to the group.
Many of the texts are not written explicitly for simultaneous reading, but a performance score might come from an intervention upon the poem, often by another member of the group. Scott Helms and others apply multi-colored highlighters over particular words to designate different readers. There are also the infamous Al Ackerman "hacks" of Bennett poems, like Poem for Six Readers and Dog. These alterations often spring from the original poet’s involvement in a mail-art network in which the poem or text must be altered before it is passed on to others for further emendations.
After a few Bennett pieces were read as canons, in which half the assembled poets read the selected poem in a round, the entire group read Michael Peter’s Big Electric Vowel Tower. A perceptible shift occurred as the poets, their mouths agape, intoned a long drone of vowels that finally careened into a splintering bramble of words, like the crack of a phonetic whip. They’d hit their groove.
The body of assembled poets throbbed and tittered as it continued to read. Peters sat high in his chair lustily overindulging in the word “simpletons” while reading Al Ackerman’s Simpletons Have Lungs, Too. Holman jocularly hemmed and hawed his way through the poems. Bennett bleated throaty R’s and stressed vowels, the sonic doppelgangers of his derelict lettering. The Be Blank Consort welcomes the contrapuntal play of these idiosyncrasies in order to tease out fascinating dissonances and chance harmonies; they act as a correlative to the interpersonal dynamics within and from which the work exists. This game of encounters became even more porous when the poets decided to include the audience in a reading of Peter’s Flüffen Jungle Port No. 13. Each of us chose one of three words/phrases, “cheep,” “port-port-pulliort,” or “porangjist,” to say at random as the poets moved and circled around us. Pore—ooon—jiiist, pore—ooon—jiiist, pore—ooon—jiiist, I found myself saying, though I had no score to refer to, as I nodded and grinned at complete strangers who were doing the same.
The individual poets’ interpretations of the scores also varied. On several occasions slower-paced poets were left reading the last few lines of a poem alone, as in Jim Leftwich’s IF, the simultaneity giving way to a normal recitation. Had the poems been over-rehearsed, moments such as these would have seemed like “mistakes.”
Ever since Huelsenbeck, Tzara, and Janco first penned and performed L’amiral Cherche une Maison á Louer, the simultaneous poem has, as Hugo Ball wrote, illustrated that “an organic work of art has a will of its own.” This “will” is inevitably mediated by the chance encounters of the social terrain surrounding the work—the tensions echoed in a simultaneous poem’s synchronous voices (identities) and overlapping word/sounds (authors). Be Blank Consort, as a performance group acts as a momentary hub for the spindles of a much broader artistic network, enthusiastically showcasing those aspects of community which all creative gestures, whether they choose to admit it or not, are in thrall to.