Thrill Screen: Poetry and Performance

April 27, 2010 | 4 3 min read

My career as a poet began in 1983, when the most influential music video of all time aired on MTV.  “Thriller” was a 14-minute horror film set to music.  Situated vaguely in the 1950s and drawing from a variety of archetypes connected to the horror genre, “Thriller”‘s plot traces the misadventures of a ponytailed teen girl whose date with Michael Jackson quickly derails into a running, screaming nightmare through a broken landscape populated by the breakdancing undead.  The king of this world is the King of Pop—leather-jacketed and befanged, a werewolf with an entourage of corpses leaping in perfect unison beneath a harvest moon.

The song and video conclude with a blood-curdling spoken word performance by horror film legend Vincent Price:

Darkness falls across the land
The midnight hour is close at hand
Creatures crawl in search of blood
To terrorize y’alls neighborhood
The foulest stench is in the air
The funk of forty thousand years
And grisly ghouls from every tomb
Are closing in to seal your doom
And though you fight to stay alive
Your body starts to shiver
For no mere mortal can resist
The evil of the thriller

Consider that when this video premiered on MTV, I was four years old.  “Thriller” broke all kinds of new ground for the way it merged storytelling, music, and filmmaking, but all that was nothing to the absolute crater this video—and Vincent Price’s reading—left on my tiny, brand-new imagination.  It literally blew my mind.  There was something about the alliterative qualities of “the funk of forty thousand years,” coupled with the tattered lace skirts of the girl-corpses, and the way Jackson’s face seemed to break open at the crest of each chorus.  I realized it was already inside me, working its evilness.  The way each dance pattern happened over and over.  It was horrifying in its exactitude.  It was beautiful in its exactitude.  I have a memory of watching this video, and having such a strong feeling—of revulsion mixed with delight—that I could not stay in my seat, but moved as close to the television set as I could, especially when the video cued itself up to play again, and Jackson’s famous disclaimer blazed across the screen:

Due to my strong personal convictions, I wish to stress that this film in no way endorses a belief in the occult.

At four years old, these words weren’t yet words to me.  Instead, they were tall, ghostly hieroglyphs leading me back to that same path through the woods, where I walked, conversing with a dreamdate who was also a dead man.  In my life as a poet, I’ve never quite gotten away from this feeling—that language is supposed to take you somewhere exact, that it should transport you with its sounds to a place where you can strike your heels on real stones.  To read a poem aloud is not simply to “act it out” on the stage, but to Make.  It.  Happen.  To see it break open in someone else’s face.  Music videos were the first art form I experienced in which two huge creative acts—composition and performance—came together in service of a productive goal.  Musician and filmmaker worked together to make a cool, appealing video that would mean something to the viewer.  Before I ever read William Carlos Williams’ statement: “a poem is a small (or large) machine made out of words,” I had experienced music videos as machines made of light and sound and celluloid, little conveyors that could tell stories and take you all kinds of places.

A thing that can tell stories and take you all kinds of places.  That would be my definition of a good poem.  When I’m on stage reading from my work, I want the sounds that I make to take you somewhere.  At the moment of composition, I imagine myself reading aloud, and I put each of my poems through several oral readings.  Speaking and writing are processes which are integrated at every stage of my poetic practice.  I conceive of the poetry reading as a chance to make my own kind of music video, to interpret what is written into what is said.  Until I’ve read a poem aloud before an audience, I feel that I only know half of its personality.  The other facets of its character are revealed as my voice encounters the topography of that poem’s new nouns, its line breaks, the way images may bleed or leap around in their quest to make meaning.

The fact that poems are finite, that they must come to some sort of end, heightens the congruence I perceive between the way I perform my poetry and my background as a watcher of music videos.  I like working in a form that is its own container.  I like being able to bring whatever I want into that capsule, to flash it before you as an image on a screen—to bring it to life, and to bring your life closer to it.  I cannot conceive of doing anything else, really.  It would be impossible for me to compose a poem in silence.  To write a word is to bring it into time, to welcome it into the present.  To say a word is to move that word forward, into the contained stream of language which is the poem.  And the result should be beautifully, terrifyingly, exact.

is the author of Fort Red Border. She lives in Iowa City. You can read her poem "Afro" here.


  1. That Vincent Price ending terrified me as a kid. “And though you fight to stay alive / your body starts to shiver…” and of course, the most terrifying thing, that laugh at the end. Can you imagine a poet ending with that laugh? Thanks for writing this – I’m planning an upcoming reading right now, and this just reminded me how important it is put the effort in to turn readings into performances. I’m a fiction writer; poets usually have performance more in mind, although in my grad school that often corresponded with the use of “poet voice”, which sounds a little false, a little expected, a little like painting inside the lines. But in fiction the readings often come off like academic lectures just because writers don’t consider it their job to perform. In New York, I’m seeing the start of a movement in the opposite direction.

  2. Kiki, I loved this essay! You conjured up vivid memories of my own first impressions of the Thriller video. I can still feel the impact of Price reading “the funk of forty thousand years.” It was really interesting to learn how you discover the personality of your poems and how you view reading them aloud as so integral to Making. It. Happen.

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