Thrill Screen: Poetry and Performance

- | 4

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.

National Poetry Month: Kiki Petrosino

- | 1

Kiki Petrosino’s first book of poetry, Fort Red Border, will be published by Sarabande Books this summer.A line of poetry by Kiki: “You can’t lie to a machine. You can travel anywhere, in the right machine.I would like to talk about trumpet cases. And toolbelts. And those large, leather folios for carrying architectural drawings. I would like to talk about safety goggles, driving gloves, tap shoes, bowling bags. I would like to talk about all the cool stuff that cool people carry when they are about to do cool things, like scale mountains or make lithographs or filet enough tuna to feed a hundred wedding guests. Equipment, I mean. Accoutrements.One of the most frustrating aspects of being a poet is: I don’t get any stuff to play with. The craft of poetry involves surprisingly few physical materials. Good paper, a pen. Yes, certainly, a computer. But everyone uses computers; unfolding your laptop at a cafe is not necessarily a poet’s gesture. The presence of such machinery in the public sphere denotes only the idea of work, the broadest sketch of occupation. Sometimes, when I am writing poetry, I find myself wishing for the fluorescent orange belt I once possessed in my youth, when I was a “safety” at the crosswalk, ushering the smallest kids past the hot front grills of cars and school buses. I want other people to notice me and know that I’m a poet. Frank O’Hara says: “if/I ever get to be a construction worker/I’d like to have a silver hat please.” Totally!A poet moves through the world and no one realizes who she is. The things she touches, she touches. There are no silver hats, and therefore no rules, to govern how she addresses herself to the world. Srikanth Reddy says: “The present is a word for only those words which I am now saying.” Sabrina Orah Mark says: “I did not fear them until I wanted to be afraid.” A poet moves fiercely through creation like the Biblical Adam, naming things as she goes along. Like the poet, Adam is naked except for his imagination, and in a 5th century ivory diptych, the toes of his left foot stretch beyond the frame, as if to say that Adam is already too big for the britches he’s not wearing, already halfway out of Paradise and into the wide world, where no distances may mitigate his naming. Just so, the poet’s power is located somewhere inside the immediacy of creative action. The poet sees. The poet speaks. It’s here, in this freedom, that surprises begin.I know a chef who cultivates a sheaf of delicate knives. I know a painter who loves his linseed oil. These people make virtuosic use of their tools, moving beyond the limitations of our concrete, workaday world to bring something entirely new into it. This strange alchemy makes sonatas rise from plinths of wood and ivory; transforms a plaster wall into the face of the Virgin; makes marzipan appear where once were sugarwater, almond meal, and little else.For the poet, this transformation happens in the darkness of the braincase. There, we each shelter a secret trove of language; there we swing our special hammers of rock crystal and solitude. Virtuosity, for the poet, comes from locating that sweet lexical vein in the rock, where our true words live. I mean our real language, the words that belong to us and to no one else. There’s a point, in every poem I write, when I begin speaking my own language for the first time. It’s when I feel the poem’s heart beating out its bigness, or its littleness. It’s when I feel a bunch of sharp little stars gathering in my own chest.Who can deny that poems come from other, inner worlds? When Alice Notley says: “No one can sing the blues like no one. Believing in paradise which is red like fire,” she is giving us the gospel from her own planet. She is speaking a language that comes directly from her bloodstream. There are no silver hats, and so no way to predict how a poet may come into her full truth. There are no silver hats, and so any one of us may come to poetry with new songs in our mouths. Charles Simic says: “It was the age of busy widow’s walks. The dead languages of love were still in use, but also much silence, much soundless screaming at the top of the lungs.” Unlike other tradesmen, the poet is at her best when she doesn’t quite know what she’s making, whether her song will be silent or screaming. A master goldsmith takes the recipe for “wedding ring” into his own body, so that he can fashion one the right way, each time. But the poet has mastered her craft when each poem travels to radically different places, when the sand at Margate is just as golden, as illuminated, as the sand at the bottom of the Frito’s bag.Are you a poet? If you are, you don’t need to carry anything more than your secret song-engine. If you’re one of us, we’ll know you by the top of your lungs.More National Poetry Month at The Millions