Notes on Steve Spence review of Bring the Thing (& 5 other If P Then Q titles)

Steve Spence has reviewed six If P Then Q poetry books over at Stride magazine, including my own Bring the Thing and titles by Holly Pester, Tim Atkins, Geof Huth, Derek Henderson, and P Inman. As he writes of If P Then Q as a project:

if p then q books operate in an interesting corner of the poetry publishing spectrum, embracing a range of experimental and ‘sound-based’ writers of differing persuasions and distinctions. Some of the work here is less interesting ‘on the page’ than it might be performed or read out and this is a problem with print-based material but the risk of publishing is well worthwhile I think and iptq adds spice and variety to the overall picture.

I’m interested how this space of “sound based” poetry – and, by implication, certain forms of minimalism – unfold in the respective spaces of the page and performance. When writing Bring The Thing, a certain space of imagined performance was important in creating the spacing, timing, and rhythm of the book. Having read it aloud publically several times, however, I think that such concerns were almost entirely about the text on the page and the space of the book – and, potentially, the reader. The actual performance in this instance should probably remain a possibility and an impossibility.
Maybe there is a route from the book back into live performance, but I’m thinking that it doesn’t involve reading the text aloud, and is maybe posited on the disappearance of the words themselves, seeing them as a score for something (and someone) else. Perhaps this can be seen in the extract Spence quotes in his review, from Day 38:

there is no certainty what the thing is that must be brought
the thing is certainly what must be brought
the thing can be distinguished from what is not the thing
the thing has something more than that which it is not.

I wonder how this relates to the other books. I saw Tim Atkins reading 1000 Sonnets, going through the book from start to finish (although not reading all the poems). I experienced this as a reading that hypothesised an equality to page and performance – emphasising each word, trying to keep both the presence and the possibility made by both the often one word lines and the spaces in-between. Perhaps with Holly Pester’s Hoofs there is more a sense of the separate space of performance as emergent, how a separate sense of values and experiences come into play, around the feel of/for a word and the rhythm of a text overall.
My own reading of Hoofs enjoys the book in itself, and I’m resistant to the idea that it’s somehow incomplete and less satisfying on the page. My reading (at least so far) of Huth & Inman’s books is that the multiple tonalities and materialities that are key to my enjoyment of these books are most active on the page and the book, and somewhat flattened by performance. I’m aware that distinctions like these may be transformed by some future reading (in both senses), but it does give a starting point for thinking about the point Spence raises about the relation of page and performance in “sound-based” and minimal poetries. I’m feeling my way towards a set of questions:

Where is a set of qualities we identify with performance located? What are those qualities? How much are those about an actual performance, and how much to do with some imagined and conceptual performance? How do these tropes of performance become enfolded into the word on the page and the space of the page and the book? How and in what ways do the performance and the book remain open to a transformation into the other? Is that something to be encouraged and/or resisted? In a poetry which prioritises materialities of letter and sound, what is the significance of that foregrounded stuff-ness and what are the particular ways it constructs meaning and communication?

Having written the above, I came across “From Literature to Performances,” a short note by Scott Burton that accompanied an event he curated at Wadsworth Atheneum in 1970, republished in the splendid recent Collected Writings on Art and Performance 1965-1975. These seemed to offer some ways of thinking about the emergent space of performance – and what has to be enfolded into the text when the page remains (by choice) a primary non-translatable site. Burton observes:

These four pieces [by Vito Acconci, Burton himself, Eduardo Costa and John Perreault] have their genesis in literature but seek to extend that medium. Although the writers’ individual intentions vary, all move beyond not only the printed page but further, beyond the word itself as the unit of expression. An important, often necessary, verbal element remains – whether in the formulation of the intention or the concept, or as an adjunct or a parallel to the performed part of the work – but in no case is there the verbal self-sufficiency of traditional writing, even those in non-traditional styles. These works are not in new style, but in new mode. Their visual and/or aural aspects are at least as important as the activity of reading, and usually more important.

Burton goes on to note that an “element of duration” and “existence in time” is essential to this “performed literature” (he himself puts the term in speech marks). These, he goes on, are works “experienced in extension, as processes or sequences in time, and they control the audience’s length and rate of exposure.” Which makes me think that the relation to (and demonstration of) time in Bring the Thing – and the other If P Then Q books reviewed by Spence- is marked by a contradictoriness (contrariness?).
Large amounts of white space, minimal word count, maybe a foregrounding of conceptual procedures, create a book that in some ways can be quickly “read” from start to finish, but whose components also relate to each other with a possibility & multiplicity suggesting navigation from one word and page to the next could become impossible, if dependent on some kind of working through (putting into action?) of all the possibilities presented, or even their comprehension (for both author and reader).
Is minimal poetry characterised by a mixture of unfurling lines of flight & isolationism? Is performance the escape from this dilemma it is better to refuse? Maybe a personal relation to performance is obtained by a working through of different understandings and combinations of private, public, inner, outer, physical, conceptual, and so on, in whatever ways each of those may manifest in a performed and/or performing literature.
Read about all the If P Then Q books here. A dialogue with James Davies about Bring the Thing is here.


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