- Poet's Theater:An Introduction
This special issue of Postmodern Culture takes up a subject until now only rarely discussed in the annals of academic scholarship: that of contemporary American poet's theater. But what exactly is a "poet's theater"? Is it primarily a type of writing done by poets for the stage--trying their hand, so to speak, at a theater genre, as the novelist Henry James once did, winning no public acclaim? Is it any poetry presented in a public space before an audience, thus including, for example, both the modern poetry slam and the classic poetry reading? Recent critical studies devoted to the latter have helped us hear the multiple reverberations of sound and aurality particular to American poetry.1 But what we mean by a "poet's theater" in the articles of this issue has not been the focus of those writings. Rather, for our contributors here, poet's theater is a theatrical event that is scripted and preconceived but also open-ended and site-specific. Its meanings unfold not according to some predetermined narrative or social situation, but rather performatively, informed by local contexts, audience makeup, and performance conditions. In their own attempts to define poet's theater, Kevin Killian and David Brazil, editors of the just-published Kenning Anthology of Poets Theater, 1945-1985, suggest by way of definition simply that we "try and catch it performing its social function" (xiii). We agree with that active assumption.
As we consider what we mean by a poet's theater, we might also consider why multiple instances of poet's theater have emerged in such a variety of U.S. regions, performance spaces, and venues in the past six decades, with several adopting some version of the name "Poet's Theater" as their official moniker: the Cambridge Poets Theatre, founded in 1951 by V.R. "Bunny" Lang; the New York Poets Theatre, a.k.a. the American Theater for Poets, founded in 1961 by Diane di Prima, LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka, Alan S. Marlowe, John Herbert McDowell, and James Waring; the Hardware Poets Playhouse in New York, 1962-1964, founded by Peter Levin, Audrey Davis, and Jerry and Elaine Bloedow; the Judson Poets' Theater, founded in the 1960s by Al Carmines; the Nuyorican Poets Café, founded in 1973 by Miguel Algarín; and the San Francisco Poets Theater, 1979-1984,2 founded by Nick Robinson and Eileen Corder and associated with the Bay Area L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E (or "Language") writers. In virtually every case, poet's theater seems to have been not so much a coherent artistic movement as a creative outlet and countercultural community that brought poets, dancers, musicians, visual artists, theater artists, and performance artists into productive collaboration with one another. And yet placing these activities within a longer historical trajectory reveals key similarities from which we might begin to offer a definition.
The cross-pollination of artistic media and political ideologies that fostered postwar poet's theater was enabled in part by the social and artistic conditions of the 1950s. As Stephen Bottoms explains in his wonderful study of underground New York theaters in the 1950s and 60s, Greenwich Village, and especially the East village, allowed bohemian artists of all stripes to mingle in the smoky haze of its lively bar, coffee house, and jazz-club culture. These provisional spaces hosted poetry readings and theatrical performances outside of the institutionalized structures that, in the economic pinch of the postwar period, hesitated to support anything not guaranteed to be a financial success. Small casts, spare sets, and simple plots made these productions amenable to slim budgets, and they could easily be performed in modest bar and coffee-house spaces. Such aesthetic choices may have been driven by economic necessity, but, as Bottoms notes, they had the additional effect of focusing the audience's attention on the bodies and speech of the performers themselves, since there was little else to distract from these (16-18, 125). Similar low-budget, performance-centered aesthetics also characterized Action Painting, jazz jams, and poetry readings, and indeed artists, musicians, and poets frequently constituted each other...