Thomas Sayers Ellis: Perform-A-Form: A Page Vs. Stage Alliance

Goodness, you gotta give Thomas Sayers Ellis some props for his manifesto: “Perform-A-Form: A Page Vs. Stage Alliance,” which is up at the Poetry Foundation here.

The performance body, via breathing and gesture, dramatizes form. It makes it theater. It makes it action. It makes it living, alive, as in “get live,” as in “all the way live,” as in lyric. The idea body, via text and thought, flattens form. It makes it fixed. It makes it language. It makes it literature, an imagined living, as in artifice. The work of the performance body is not without craft, control, or form. It is not lowly. The work of the idea body is not without attitude, improvisation, or flow. It is not closed. A perform–a–form occurs when the idea body and the performance body, frustrated by their own segregated aesthetic boundaries, seek to crossroads with one another. This coupling, though detrimental to aspects of their individual traditions, will repair and continue the living word.

I commend him for really expanding and exploring that space between page and stage and speaking to the the perception that performance is lowly and undisciplined. This in-between space I believe most of us really do inhabit; for me it is something more like a spectrum between page and stage. Within this spectrum, we don’t occupy a fixed point.

For those of you who may not know, I did indeed start out in “spoken word,” and yes, as I’ve previously blogged here and here, I don’t at all agree with the hard line drawn right down the middle. It’s divisive and it’s imaginary. But I was into “spoken word” as a young poet precisely because “poet” was such a daunting if not terrifying thing to be, given what I believed a “poet” need know, especially given my inability at the time to “get” Shakespeare, to “get” the English in which Chaucer wrote, for example. I didn’t think I knew anything about poetry, and by extension, about the English language, about proper English. Ironically I was one of those Honors and AP English kinda students back in the day, so really, I must have known something about English.

What I did know for sure: I was writing what I felt, what I believed, and that reading Ntozake Shange, Jessica Hagedorn, Jaime Jacinto, Gloria Anzaldúa gave me permission to do this. I did know that audiences were responding to me, my words, how I delivered my words. Spoken word then.

But I am increasingly annoyed by the term, because of that othering we are made to feel, having been brought up outside of English literary traditions. In high school, I could rarely ask my parents for help on homework, papers for literature classes and all, and this made me feel rather other, as if I’d come from a totally ignorant and uncultured family which is ironic because I am sure my mother was taking me and my sisters to museums and ballet performances all the time, since we are talking about “high” culture. In the meantime, my family is perfectly literary, if you want to talk about having read, for example, Jose Rizal’s novels and memorized and performed his poetry in declamation contests. In three languages.

OK, I know I’m not talking about Thomas Sayers Ellis here, but I believe in his manifesto’s effectiveness, if indeed all of us who read it are questioning where our assumptions about poetry were born, from whom did we inherit them? And what are we doing about unlearning them?

I admit I am a little resistant to some of his points, mainly about nuance no longer being necessary in his perform-a-form. I have to think this through more thoroughly. I do realize part of my resistance has to do with my relationship to/with book, how I love being an author (or being with book), how I am sentimentally attached to book. More on this soon.

In the meantime, I’d like to point you to the perfectly lovely conversation that JeFF Stumpo and I are having here.

More soon, but would love to have more conversation with you all.

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Barbara Jane Reyes

Author of Gravities of Center, Poeta en San Francisco, and Diwata. Adjunct professor in Philippine Studies at University of San Francisco.

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