QUIET LIGHTNING: spaceship performance (beds, not danger)

Mon Feb 7 11, supperclub

(Evan Karp)

Recently, I’ve started blogging over at SF Weekly, and I’ve been writing for The Chronicle for a while now. For both publications I cover literary culture. Each with its own distinct style and editorial process, there’s at least one thing on which they both agree: “You can’t write about Quiet Lightning.” Fair enough. After all, we’re pretty inextricable. Yet each paper wants me to write for them because I represent “the scene.” Hmmm, conundrum: QL is a pretty large part of the reason for my ‘authority,’ yet I can’t talk about it?

It’s hard to talk about your own show. Here, I link to a bunch of places I do so; I think I’ve written about QL 13 times now. After all, Monday was show number 14! We’ve received our share of press. But never has there been anything critical said … until the review of this show over at SF Weekly.

The review, written by our good friend Benjamin Wachs (Fiction365, Portuguese Artists Colony), does a good job to sum up some of the things that make Quiet Lightning special: we don’t let our authors introduce themselves or otherwise ramble, and we limit the readings to an 8-minute maximum. Monday, for QLclub, we broke our own rules by inviting one of our favorite writers Sam Sax to do the entire second set himself. On paper, this was a little risky—we admit. Part of the reason we did this was … well, mostly because we selfishly wanted to hear Sam do poems for half an hour. And part of the reason is that we don’t want to take our ‘success’ for granted; only a little more than a year in, we wanted to flex a little, to avoid the settling in that comes with “streamlining” (also known as maturity and sometimes rightfully called “staid,” or ‘sedate, respectable, and unadventurous’).

Benjamin’s first comment regarding our decision (after “meh”) is to call what Sam did “Berkeley shit.” I’m familiar with the Weekly’s snarky editorial voice so this parlance doesn’t really shock me, but I feel like it demands some form of qualification. Is ‘Berkeley shit’ so well understood? A poet or two contacted me privately to state their opinions (paraphrased): the performative aspects of Sam’s delivery was too much a part of his poetry; he should rely more on the words. This is a common complaint about performance poetry that is usually made by old-schoolers; they seem to think that poets who go paperless and speak from the heart are necessarily slamming, and immediately tune out or deduct points. It makes me think of my grandparents telling my parents that KISS wasn’t music—a claim so hilariously false that it reeks of obsolescence.

Whatever you think of slam poetry is probably so outdated itself that you should be embarrassed to say the word slam. Have you ever been to a slam? Do you know how it works, the rules, the reasons for the rules? Maybe you should do some research. Sam talks a little about it here. When the movement first erupted, there was a huge surge of interest in poetry; according to some, it had been modernized, rejuvenated, restored to significance. But—and I don’t think many people would argue here—that original slam movement has long been dead. Slam isn’t what it started out to be and is in fact currently searching for its own identity. Look into it: the local chapters are looking for ways to bring in its own participants, offering comedic slams and various other new features to revamp the hype.

If you’re like me, you’re willing to bet that the heavy hitters who either helped establish the movement or the ones who see in it possibilities will set their sites on the rest of the poetry world and make their mark there. This seems like a natural movement and it seems to be happening right now, even as we participate in the same series month after month. I think Sam Sax represents this shift in the poetry world, a bridge between slam and literature. Clearly, poetry readings needed a revamping; part of the allure of QL is that it made readings exciting, high-charged, and compelling. How’d it do this? By foregoing everything but the artwords. By mixing performance poetry with well-sculpted stories. Over 18 new reading series were initiated in the Bay Area alone in 2010, all following (or rather, pioneering) this basic idea!!

I’d like to speak more about this. To date, I’ve described the format as “varying patterns of language” that keep the audience on their toes because they don’t know what’s coming. This allure I’ve explained through appreciation of the written word—in all of its various forms. To express oneself—no matter how. This is the lifeline of all lifelong creators, and my life goal has been (at least since I moved to San Francisco) “to foster feats of expression.” But let’s get more specific. When we listen to these varying patterns of language our brains respond in kind. I’ve described it as a spell, but it’s almost the opposite: a code or chameleonic password that keeps one awake. The result is a shocking to life. Your brain does not speak so much as continue to process, and when you leave there is a ringing that can kick your thoughts into any trajectory—no matter how personally foreign; any of the voices might take over, they all fit together like gears, your processes — so deeply entrenched in your self-understanding — are just a tick away from somebody else’s. You could talk like I do. You could think much differently and form other conclusions. Hey, maybe you tune in to a whole new set of frequencies.

I’d like to thank Benjamin for covering Quiet Lightning, and SF Weekly for running his story. But I would also like to point out that the reviewer reviewed the show from the back corner of the upper balcony, with his face to the performers’ backs. Regardless of what I know about reading series, I can say with confidence that this type of reviewing—outdated since Hunter S. Thompson—should, with the advent of citizen journalism that is clearly here to stay, be completely defunct. Despite the odd comfort of Romanesque beds on which our audience reclined for the first part of the show, I noticed with more than a bit of joy that many left this comfort to join me on the floor, getting as close to Sam as they possibly could. Call his poetry whatever you want; it does more than make you clap politely.

As for the claim that we maybe did Sam a disservice … I think I somewhat agree with this. The room was large and strange for the type of intimacy that Quiet Lightning commands and that Sam brings with his performances. To offer a recent example, I’d really like you to check out his feature at Vetted Word from this very same week.

And to conclude … stay on your toes. The show goes on, but it doesn’t stay the same. Do you?

Townsend Walker

Andrew Paul Nelson

Alex Rieser

Liana Holmberg

Charles Kruger

Nic Alea

Andrew O. Dugas

Candice Novak

Catherine Brady

Sam Sax

Read the whole show here.