David Berridge reviews 'Spit Temple'

Spit Temple: The Selected Performances of Cecilia Vicuña, edited and translated by Rosa Alcalá (Brooklyn: Ugly Duckling Presse, 2012).

Reviewed by David Berridge

After reading Spit Temple, I immediately went back to some of Vicuña’s earlier books, her selected poems Unravelling Words & the Weaving of Water, and the writing-drawings of Instan. In documenting a separate, performance-based part of Vicuña’s eclectic and unified practice, Spit Temple also illuminates how to read these other seemingly more page-centric publications.

Unravelling Words, for example, whilst giving space to Vicuna’s installations and actions, is often the conventional bi-lingual poetry collection, English (translation) and Spanish (original) poems facing each other across recto and verso. Spit Temple makes apparent not only how Vicuña herself moves between different languages, but how printed poems and books are fluid, momentary constellations, ever liable to transformation, within ongoing relationships of oral and written that Vicuña describes variously here as “in tension like lovemaking” and “war zone.”
Likewise, Instan’s pencil writing-drawings become elucidated by the reproduction in Spit Temple of sheets of scribbled notes made in preparation for performances. The pages in Instan are much more finished, but both evidence a thought process seeking to “diagram” words, break them into syllables and space, find new wor(l)ds through multiple versionings (Kenneth Sherwood’s term, from his essay here) expressive of how “A poem only becomes poetry when its structure/ is made not of words but forces.”

Edited and translated by Rosa Alcalá, Spit Temple gives transcripts or notes for nine “oral performances” that took place between 1995 and 2002, alongside the editor’s critical introduction, an autobiographical memoir by Vicuña, and a gathering of reports, responses, and reflections by poets and scholars, that also offers a map of how her work has come into a (primarily North American) English language context, part of the 1970s ethnopoetic explorations of Denis Tedlock and Jerome Rothenberg, and, more recently, an engaged, experimental poetics of Nada Gordon, Juliana Spahr, Edwin Torres, and Rodrigo Toscano, amongst others.

Made from video and audio recordings, the contexts vary from galleries, to bookstores, to various university lecture halls, from short sets in events framed as poetry readings, to longer gigs announced as performance-lectures. The transcripts pay attention to environmental factors, noting, too, the inaudibilities and failures of reproduction, less as unfortunate error than as the inevitable ground of translation and mediation through which Vicuña’s work comes to us, and with which it is itself consciously entwined. 

The transcripts also offer scenographic details, most usually about the beginning of a performance, so that, for example, a 1995 performance at The Poetry Project at St.Mark’s Church in New York City is described as commencing when:

A woman introducing Vicuña walks away from the podium. The camera’s gaze is directed towards an empty podium and microphone. Silence. Then, chant-like sounds somewhere in the distance, out of frame. Frame opens and Vicuña approaches, singing, her hands folded behind her back, clutching a manila envelope. She sings.  

If the work in Spit Temple has taken a decade to find book form, it does so at an apt moment. The book’s publishers, Ugly Duckling Presse, have a book series on experimental performance scripts (Spit Temple, however, is part of their eclectic and indispensable DOSSIER series, edited by Anna Moschovakis) and also produce INDEX, an open submission performance annual. In the UK, John Lely and James Saunders’ recent compendium Word Events: Perspectives on Verbal Notation, although more focused on musical traditions than Vicuña’s work, gives critical and historical frameworks to what until recently has been a little commented upon arena of endeavor.

Alcalá notes that the typographical layout in Spit Temple has been chosen to find a page equivalent for aspects of performance evidence on the sound recordings. In this, as she acknowledges, Alcalá’s approach broadly follows the techniques in Denis Tedlock’s essays of the 1970s (many collected in The Spoken Word and the Work of Interpretation, and further demonstrated in poetic texts such as Jerome Rothenberg’s “The 17 Horse Songs of Frank Mitchell”). As Alcalá writes in her introduction:

the transcriptions here attempt a graphic representation of Vicuña’s shifts in register and pauses by means of spacing, fonts, and size of type in order to capture not just what the words say, but how they are being said. In this graphic representation of register I do not differentiate between the spoken languages; this isn’t meant to erase their difference, but to suggest fluidity of movement between them, and to avoid the mark of otherness often suggested by italics or quotation marks.

In Spit Temple such typographic elements are used sparingly. If, in transcripts of the shorter performances, such devices did generate a sense of live performance, in the longer performance lectures I found this sense less vivid, finding that as I read for longer the conventions for depicting speech settled, perhaps inevitably, into being techniques of writing and the page.

Take these two extracts from a 1999 performance at the Krannert Art Center in Illinois, both of which appear in the transcript as distinct sections, separated by a line space from similarly laid out sections above and below: 

Bill McKibben I’m sure you know him
he was telling a story
of how in a place in Tibet
people started planting trees
and this had changed
the speed of the wind
so people instead of being attacked
by a brutal wind
would be
by a soft wind
stopped by the trees

and from later in the same piece, talking about the desert drawings at Paracas, Nazca, in Peru:

And you probably have heard
this is a place
where the people
created these writings
or drawings in the desert
that are sooo huge
that you cannot see them
when you are next to them
you have to either
fly above them in a plane
which means 2000 years
after they were created
or you have to climb
on a mountain
and see them
from the distance
and then they become
as images

If several elements sooo unmistakably shift the text towards being understood as speech, by far the most dominant is the use of the line, whose phrasal units and breaks create a rhythm that, especially in the longer pieces, I experience as somewhere between the rhythm and performed idea of speech, as vocalised by some phantom speaker in my mind (its line-based clarity more evident on the page than in recordings of Vicuña’s performances I found online).

Given Spit Temple roots Vicuña in a history out of (often speech-based) New American Poetry, such debate is informed by remembering the famous disagreement between Robert Creeley and William Carlos Williams, the former seeing the later’s line breaks as score for reading aloud, confounded to hear Williams run over them as if they were not there. Creeley interpreted line endings as oral pause when reading aloud his own poetry.

In Vicuña’s transcripts, this concern over speech is somewhat subsumed within a larger nothingness. The full title of this section of the book is “The Quasars: Selected Oral Performances (1995-2002).” As Vicuña defines the term: “I called the performances quasars because they were quasi per, quasi form/ They were nothingness itself in formation.” 

So a performance begins with an empty podium, and the sound of distant singing, or clapping that continues out of previous audience applause, or a shaken gourd. The monologues that follow reference various immediate contexts, noting the temperature in the room alongside descriptions of newspaper stories, recent travels and dreams, details from anthropological studies, an Egyptian prayer found in a tomb. These combine with Vicuña’s handwritten notes and published books to form what Jena Osman calls a “momentary system of connection.”

Osman is referring to a 1999 performance at Art in General, New York at which general atmospheric noise - particularly highly creaky floors - became a key element of the system. The opening minutes of Vicuña’s performance are transcribed over two pages of Spit Temple, prefaced as “a compendium of creaks and inaudibilities.” The balance is different to the other transcripts, but this text illustrates a porosity that is evident and possible throughout the work in Spit Temple.

Furthermore, the traditions of ethnopoetic notation this book adds to have always accommodated such lacunae - take, for example, Armand Schwerner’s The Tablets, large amounts of which, in printed form, were given over to keyed graphic symbols for “untranslatable” and “missing.”

All this takes different form within the short prose vignettes comprising Vicuña’s “Performing Memory: An Autobiography.” Each of the sixty-three entries - suggestive of diary entries and postcards - document a particular moment in Vicuña’s life and work, from childhood to adulthood, through Chile, London, Columbia and New York. Each moment is titled, presented as both description and insight, something making up the knot of Vicuña, the artist-person. So “Speaking to the Signs, Bellavista, 1952” reads in its entirety:

My mother recounts the day she found me “writing.” No one had taught me how to write. “What are you doing, mijita?” she asked. “I’m painting,” I told her, and went on speaking to the signs.

Such private moments entwine with art movements, performances, books and exhibitions. The spirit with which all of these are connected, is summed up by The No Manifesto of Tribu No, reprinted here, which Vicuña composed with a group of friends in Santiago de Chile in 1967, with its reminder that: “Tribu No’s campaigns are not highly clandestine, and the only visible results for those of us who live-not the no-movement are our stupid works.”

What I found most instructive about Performing Memory is not so much the particular moments - whose potency for Vicuña is perhaps diminished through reading them as schematic fables for others - but the model of the poet-artist that unfolds, necessarily attentive both to the events around them and the impulses of their own making, following where those lead, committed over many decades to the unfolding of a particular lexicon of concern.  

In a launch event for Spit Temple - available online - Vicuña comments how “what I do really passes for nothing, it is nothing, it has always been regarded as nothing.” This seems to add to the notion of quasar an awareness of the artist’s career, its reception by professional apparatus of critics, editors, and curators. Not totally ignorable, but the stories Vicuña tells mostly affirm her priority of that more primary, metaphysical nothing. 

That said, the materials made available in Spit Temple, from an art history point of view, connect, for example, to the recent focus on the work of Lucy Lippard, who appears several times in these accounts, when Vicuña notes her membership of the Heresies Collective in New York, and a performance:

Lucy Lippard invited me to perform in Carnival Knowledge,  an exhibition at Franklin Furnace. I sat on the floor and projected slides of the ancient erotic poetry of the Moche in Peru, but my poems didn’t correspond with them. So, instead of reading what I had written, I began to look for the missing lines. The absent poem, the search for what was not there, became my guide. Imagining the poetry and vision of the ancient Mochican poet-priestesses, the work that history had erased, I improvised a verbal equivalent of the ceramics found in their tombs. 

The final section of Spit Temple gathers responses from  contemporary poets and scholars, whose reflections unfold from their attendance at a particular performance. I was left wondering if this focus on the phenomenology of performance, on theory and criticism deriving from chronicle, is something specific to Vicuña’s work, or a more conscious intention of this generation of poets to re-place the practice and criticism of poetry in sociality and the event.

I also puzzled over what exactly was their connection to Vicuña’s work. Looking at the contributers own books - Toscano’s Collapsible Poetics Theater, say, or Jena Osman’s The Network - there seems little interest in Vicuña’s animism, her metaphors drawn from indigenous crafts of weaving, her traditional styles of storytelling and song, her often anecdotal sampling of diverse cultural practices, that searching for a connection to some “ancient melodic matrix” that recurs across her performances and texts.

Ethnopoetics itself - as originally formulated by the likes of Rothenberg, Tedlock and Schwerner - is also not something I have noticed being mentioned a lot by contemporary poets. If there are ample dialogues with anthropology, these engagements seem to emphasis documentary, investigative, essayistic aspects over the original focus on ritual, performance, and shamanism (I’m thinking of investigations such as Catherine Taylor’s Apart, Jill Magi’s Slot, Kate Eichorn’s Field Notes: A Forensic).

Yet connection there undoubtedly is, and like these poets I’m interested in how Vicuña’s work resonates out of its difference. Toscano acknowledges this contradiction when, after noting all the different poets who have turned out for Vicuña’s performance at Brooklyn’s Pierogi Art Gallery in November 2002 - “The typical schmoozy inattention to any one thing and everything all around” - he writes of Vicuña’s performance:

Whatever it is, it makes non-poets feel poetically able-to.

Whatever it is, it makes poets supremely post-’poetically’ able-to.

Whatever name befits Cecilia’s poetry

I don’t know, or rather don’t remember...

But somehow I remember something that’s (if only slightly) ahead of me... “but that’s impossible!” I say...

(me, Mr. Railer, against so many a meta- and pata- physic)

assembled/ disassembled  

The success of Spit Temple - both Vicuña’s individual contributions and Alcalá’s editorial concept of the whole - is that it keeps all these themes in circulation, like the perpetual dialogue of oral and written itself, both as lovemaking and war zone, that thanks to Spit Temple I can now also see at work in those other books by Vicuña.

In the terms of Vicuña’s own oft-repeated lexicon, this is the move from quasar/nothing into the precarious. It is this precariousness - forming and formative of the “momentary system” of the instan - that connects Vicuña to many contemporary poets, along with her awareness - again in that online launch video- that in the presence of an audience her work becomes “more loose, more silly, more stupid... going any other way.” Which poses the further question why such a position should seem so much our own. 

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