Crosstalk–What can a canceled Berkeley Poetry Conference learn from San Francisco’s theater scene?

…or, You Won’t Believe What She Reveals About Clickbait at the End!
#BerkeleyPoetryConference
#CrosstalkColorCompositionABerkeleyPoetryConference

En route to the Lambda Literary Retreat in LA, it was only thirty bucks more to add an open-jaw ticket through San Francisco, and when you have friends willing to host you a side trip is a no-brainer. Especially since the Berkeley Poetry Conference was slated for this week, a commemoration of the 1965 Berkeley conference fifty years ago that featured Allen Ginsburg, Jack Spicer, et al.

20150619-014710-6430345.jpg

But then add one controversial experimental poet (Vanessa Place), subtract three-quarters of the other speakers, who pulled out in protest, and what you have is a big mess of pain and political correctness blowing up in your face. Regardless of your take on the related issues, what’s been happening at Berkeley is a sure sign that the poetry world is in a state of flux and change equally as pressing to what occurred a half century ago. Conference kaput!

But then last week, thanks to the hard work of a handful of Berkeley organizers, a phoenix rose from the ashes: Crosstalk, Color, Composition: A[n all new! all different!] Berkeley Poetry Conference.

A Brief Pause for Sound Bites (and Thought Bites) Heard Today at Crosstalk
(in no particular order)

“Armed Cell” “economic crisis”
“it’s a question of competing archives”
“colonization theory” “colonize” “decolonize”
“what is the human condition?”
“I felt policed as a young poet”
“I don’t need someone to say to me I have meta-concerns and concerns”
(–a blighted redwood being chainsawed; a blighted redwood falling alongside the creek that runs through campus–)
“I feel like there are bodies all over the floor”
“it’s like you’re a theory translator!”
“poetry offers the space to be nimble”
–are we _really_ post-crisis?–
“everyone has a spam poem–even Ron Silliman”
“what do we lose when the impulse to take on the socio-political overwhelms the poem as creative artifact?”
“I felt profoundly devastated, and I was rescued by you all”

Today I went to Brian Ang’s Post-Crisis Poetics workshop, as well as to the wrap-up discussion covering the last four days. Picture a circle of wooden chairs in stately Wheeler Hall, poets of all stripes and ages sitting around as if in group therapy (and perhaps it was). Laura, a professor from Sierra Nevada College, would later describe it to me as akin to “the Quaker meetings [she] grew up with.”

Coming from Philly, I find the comparison quite apt.

In the formal discussions there was a lot of jargon and academic gobbledygook tossed around–people being very, very careful not to offend. I got the sense that the organizers were still stinging from last month’s protests and that the participants were treading carefully (and quite politely) in their comments.

The role of social justice in poetics is an important and timely consideration. Yet I couldn’t help thinking it’s not an easy thing to discuss, especially in an age when we have to look over our shoulders to make sure some anonymous #HashtagWarrior isn’t stabbing us in the back.

That’s not to say the conference wasn’t valuable. For me, the value came mostly in the little moments, the more-intimate discussions with strangers at lunch when people’s guard came down and they spoke to communicate rather than to lecture or publicly perform. (Like the Australian grad student who told me about her LA research project. Or the Filipino guy from Oakland who joked about his misgivings identifying as a poet. These were moments of real connection.) Later too there were moving confessionals in the official wrap-up. These brought sympathetic nods (and tears) to many.

My time at the conference was brief but valuable. As one woman said, conferences like these can provide the “leap between the local and the global”. An irony, then, is that those of us traveling from outside of Berkeley to attend the conference (Philly, LA, Nevada–even Sydney) had such trouble getting details about what was happening until last week. One organizer confessed that this “conference 2.0” purposefully stayed off social media in planning and disseminating the updates out of fear of potential protests. Which begs the question: how do you create a “global” coalition when you’re not a part of the Berkeley phone tree?

I guess that’s a question for another conference. I don’t know if any of the initial protesters came, or if what sprang up in the original conference’s place would have pleased them. I can say I was very much impressed by the good intentions of the organizers, as well as the spirit and statements of the participants. These people are my tribe, no matter their race, their age, their gender or nationality. No matter if they are actually strangers.

And yet I worry. If we continue to fight so stridently amongst ourselves, to pick each other apart through social media, then maybe the machinery of the one percent has already defeated us. Their socio-economic machinery, their war-industrial machinery. In my dark hours I imagine a cabal of one percenters herding us, with our iPads and cell phones and endless media channels, into an ADD stupor of distraction. If we fight among ourselves, how do we fight them? Are the very tools that empower us fundamental to our undoing?

#HashtagWarrior: Kristina Wong?

20150619-014341-6221959.jpg

Which makes me want to mention last night’s totally-unrelated-except-in-a-zeitgeist-sort-of-way premier performance of Kristina Wong’s “Wong Street Journal” here in San Francisco. Wong, a performance artist based in LA, hits on some of these very topics: how do we fight for social justice from our armchairs and our iPads? She has much to say about privilege and ‪first-world #‎HashtagWarriors‬ who vie for social change so long as it adds to their tally of “likes” and “retweets”.

She also skewers Western notions of race.

The show centers largely on three weeks Wong spent in what she initially calls “the country of Africa”. She was actually sent to Uganda to help a charitable organization micro-fund business opportunities for local women. Bizarrely, however, she ends up getting roped into managing the career of an aspiring Ugandan rapper. From the moment she steps off the plane, Wong’s identification as a person of color gets turned on its head. As she tells BlogHer.com:

“I had been told to expect that I’d be a Mzungu (or ‘white person’) over there, but I didn’t realize how white I would feel. There are several incidents that I humorously recount in the show about what ‘white guilt’ made me succumb to.”

Though a bit uneven, Wong’s show asks some very provocative questions: How real are our values in an age where we capitalize on them as clickbait? It’s as true a question for performance artists as it is for poets.

#LoveAndInformation

Which brings me to tonight… and another show. This time at the Strand Theater, a newly rehabbed bright spot in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district. (When your host is an arts and entertainment writer, you truly luck out with free tickets). “Love and Information” by Caryl Churchill is the American Conservatory Theater’s inaugural production in their new home. The play is a series of vignettes centering on love and (dis)connection in the Information Age.

Each segment functions almost like a visual tweet, a short textual and synaptic burst, non-lineal but connected in a layered way. In one, a pair of young girls compete over who knows the most facts about their shared celebrity crush. In another, first-date talk goes deliciously wrong as a researcher describes slicing chicken brains into slides to study how memories form. In another, ontological issues are debated between a true-believer and an atheist.

Throughout the show information is shared both interpersonally (secrets divulged; suspicions confirmed) and through numerous technological devices (cell phones, laptops). A giant media screen hovers above the stage to periodically interact with live actors, who are racially diverse and play a multitude of roles. Segments accrue meaning by lapping against each other like waves.

Churchill’s writing is elliptical. Characters finish each other’s sentences; what is left out of an exchange is often more important what what is put in. In the playbill, a sample of the script is provided. There are no character names, no stage directions. On the page, “Love and Information” reads like a prose poem or an interior monologue between opposing parts of one’s brain. On stage, under the deft, inventive direction of Casey Stangl, it’s a kinetic mashup of human wants and desires, a careful contemplation of how technology assists and impedes our efforts to make connection, often at the same time.

It’s the kind of play I’d like my poet friends to see.

In a time of online petitions and protests against poets and ideas we do not like, Wong and Churchill remind us with humor and invention that sometimes the best social critiques are the ones made manifest in art. Theirs is the kind of socially-engaged art-making today’s poets ought to be doing. No doubt today’s best poets already are.

20150619-014403-6243333.jpg

20150619-014403-6243789.jpg

Advertisements

One thought on “Crosstalk–What can a canceled Berkeley Poetry Conference learn from San Francisco’s theater scene?

  1. Pingback: Poetry Means Making: The Empathy Machine | Kelly McQuain

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s