why am i doing multi-voice poems?


note: i just discovered this old essay, which (like many writings) i started, worked on, and filed away; that was 8 years ago ... the points it makes won't be new to apgistas, i would imagine; but it might be of interest anyway to various folks, especially maybe casual readers of the blog --

-mark prejsnar


The performative aspect of poetry is important; it is as important as any other; But it has been treated as unimportant and derivative for a long time; if you look in the arts section of any newspaper, that of a large city, say, or the official or student newspaper at a university, (like the one where I work, ) you will certainly see event listings for many “performing arts” ; in fact, sometimes each of those arts will have its own section: music, dance, theater, etc. ; but not poetry; this is as wrong as can be; poetry is most interesting, and most exciting, when it is part of a performative involvement; the whole slam thing is one of the worst things that could have happened to poetry, because it emphasizes a false performative élan, a reduction of poetry’s resources to the barest minimum, conflating it with stand-up comedy and generalized social acting-out (giving those things a veneer of structural complexity, because the pieces generally do have a bit of overall shape). so the commercial mass media (which has much the same worldview, and view of culture, and which uses many of the same techniques, as slam) can point to the slam phenomenon as a true (“popular”) contemporary incarnation of poetry. But it ain’t that: like all the arts, poetry is at its best when it uses all its possible resources. What we need is for our best poets, who are good at playing with and extending those resources, to be involved more of the time with a performance framework.

There is a second part to what I’m doing: the use of multiple voices. Here my motivation is similar: first off, multiple voice poems heighten the performative energy. Secondly, there really is no intrinsic reason for poetry to speak in a monovocal line. It is no exaggeration to claim that the tyranny of the monovocal is an arbitrary and highly distorting, highly undesirable attribute of poetry in our culture. Let me clarify: I am not saying that all poetry should be polyphonic; just-- that it should be understood what an important, and even “natural”, option polyphony is. Thirdly, since every poem is (in some way) an intervention in a social world, the monophonic (when the poet considers it to be her only option) seems to me to limit the existential/political thrust of the work. We live in a social world, and the best contemporary poets, (they are the ones called (even by themselves, often) “experimental” and such phrases...which i find unhelpful) wish to emphasize, and extend, that social aspect. This is in part because (like me) they embrace values that are left, often radically left. Yet i believe that they limit the social richness of their work, by writing mostly in the monovocal line. Many of them have demonstrated their interest in extending beyond the monadic self-basis of poetry, by engaging in collaborative work. This is one of the most exciting and productive and important features of our contemporary poetry. But i believe that transcending the hyperindividualism of our culture, can also involve using the structural resources of the poem itself: the poem in multiple voices creates a social nexus that more fully engages the unremittingly social aspects of our life-world. This is a structural/prosodic component i’m referring to, and so it obtains even when the “different voices’ all issue from a single individual, as in many of my recent taped poems, where overdubbing is used to create polyphony. (Though it is also true, at the same time, that i am attracted by working with ensembles.. First, because of the greater range they provide, with voices that display different timbres and different expressive particularities. Second, because it is sometimes fun, and enriching on a number of different levels, to work with a group.)

june 2000


  1. a few responses:

    thanx for posting this, this aspect of the APG is a trademark, if you will, i don't think any other collective in American poetics has come close to mining this rich territory as well as the APG, the only other folks i can think of coming close would be Bufffluxus.

    are there any historical precedents to these polyphonic operations?

    i think many people would debate with you about your statements concerning Slam poetries, Thomas Lux of GT would be at the front of the line -- that said, i also find it somewhat discouraging that Slam poetry has assumed the definitive defintion of spoken poetry in most American minds.

    what's wrong with stand-up comedy?
    that aspect is crucial in trends of contemporary avant practices like Conceptual poetics & Flarf -- a little "Cheech & Chong" not only injects a bit humor/gesture/slapstick, but also makes "difficult" work more approachable & accessible for "non poetry readers" -- doe this "dumbing down" sicken you? do you consider it a "compromise" & detrimental overall regardless of any gains in readership?

    i love the polyphons, the few LangHarm events i've attended have been what i'd term a psychedelic experience, narcotic, stimulating,hallucinatory, rich in textures, living the language, alive and writhing -- i'm not ashamed to say that i believe in magic, altho that term is so degraded by now it's lost its original meaning; i consider the polyphons to be a form of magic, looklistening at the event conjures an alterartion in psychic reception of language, a hypersite of cognitive dissonance(an apt description from one of the LangHarm flyers)

    much more than mere mumblings, they are.

    one could say thay are operations in the Cagean field of presenting sound as unsound, voices as voiceless -- the language we hear everyday but don't listen to, a highliting of pure lingual materiality, a glottal time stoppage.Pointing to the pointers themselves & saying:


  2. troy:
    thanks for the response
    i think there are many precedents for polyphonic work: cabaret voltaire (the place, not the band), 4 horsemen, konkrete canticle (for some modern examples) and of course the chorus in general (ancient example)

    i like standup comedy

  3. James, thanx for taking the time.

    You are aces.

    You bring out the
    seafood lover in me.

    i was alarmed to read :
    "an end of the eye of the line
    and is commenting us out of the world load"

    Your bugsbunny is top-notch, thatsa compliment, truly.

    As always, the sizzling rice shrimp is a sweet fulfilling treat.

    Dairy Queen don't do Empire, the world graceless.

    But back to peanut buster parfait,
    commentators have generally called this ringtone 'The Shong of the Shword', ... 1) The form of this ringtone approximates that of an oracular ballad.
    2) Its hip contemporary language ensures the block is kept hot -- not flossy neither nor glossy, but crunk'd up greasy-ass grits mixed with bacon on flavor of fullest funk sunk under the dusties in madhot line by lines.

    Please disregard this notice.

  4. Troy,

    James has already invoked the Four Horsemen and other predecessors, so I'll leave that aside.

    Now as to whether folks would debate Mark about his comments about slam, sure. But my immediate thought about this comment is "so what?" What isn't debatable? If I say that Beat Poetry is dead in the water and that when I hear some describe what they do as beat poetry in this day and age I can only think of that moment in the Woodstock Movie when Sha-Na-Na walks out on stage, *someone* will immediately rise up and want to debate. "Sha-Na-Na were the true spirit of the times Daddy-O!" & think of how many are still avidly "debating" whether evolution should be taught in schools. & Thomas Lux, well, again so what? I own or owned a book of his, I read it as I recall, I've heard a bit of his stuff since then, but on whole, given that what he finds valuable and extols in his practice is virtually the antipode of what I care about in poetry, the fact that he would debate this slam question seems about as pertinent to the accuracy of Mark's descriptions as whether Bush would debate that the Iraq Debacle is about U.S. oil profits and control of petroleum.

    I guess I am being prickly, but I get this sort of thing in the classes that I teach quite often. My students will be asked to make arguments or refute arguments simply analyze arguments and what I get instead (all too often) is "but that's debatable" but as a mere fact this says nothing and in no way can be substituted for an actual counter-argument.

    My own take on slam is akin to Mark's. It seems to favor (if not enforce) a sort of lowest common denominator in terms of its humor and its poetics. Beyond this slam often seems much more about the performance of personality than about the words themselves, which is why so little slam poetry works as poetry on the page at all. The really unforgivable thing about it for me is the combination of pandering to audience response and taking language for granted, treating it as an unproblematic, neutral tool for all the foregoing.

    I remember when I first heard about slam poetry and how the news media ran a variety of stories about it, extolling the populist aspects and cheering for the way in which slam initially allow for booing people off stage if they didn't maintain sufficient audience interest. I thought to myself, 'ah, look here, the notion of the capitalist market has finally landed in the poetry reading with both feet.'

    i think that when you mention Flarf and so forth that you are correct to posit humor there - much of that work makes me laugh at times too. but stand-up comedy is far more likely to make me groan. I'm happy to nominate Lenny Bruce as a poet, but not Jeff Foxworthy - neither is comment on how funny these two are. I cannot speak for Mark as to your question about dumbing-down, but I doubt that equates humor with such, tho pandering for laughs, maybe. As you mentioned Cage I'll deploy one of my favorite Cage stories here - forgive me if you know it already - Cage at Mozart festival, they play the Hallelujah Chorus, everyone leaps to their feet and applauds when it ends, Cage remains seated, person next to him says "What's wrong, don't you like the music?" he says says the music is fine, the person asks "Then what's wrong, don't you like being moved?" Cage replies "I don't mind being moved, but I don't like being pushed." With a few substitutions for each case this gets at why I mostly dislike standup comedy, tear-jerker movies, "entertainment" and much else in our hyper-manipulative social world.

    kind regards,
    John Lowther

  5. hey John -

    thanx for the indepth response, it peel'd my lids abit & snapped my braintrain to back-on-track, i often fall victim to over-generalizations & blanket-statements -- yr comments were crucial in a self-realization that i frequently leap before looking, only to end up on the jagged rocks of redundant statement : if something is already pointing to itself, why should i point there too?

    bonus points for a Sha-Na-Na reference! (LOL) it illustrated yr point to a keen edge.

    Re: Lux
    yes, of course he's a good poet, his early surrealist stuff in particular, but when he makes proclamations like this:

    (pardon the long quote, but it kinda pissed me off -- it pisses me off b/c he's a "distinguished expert" & holds a position of influential sway & his statements come off as ignorant in my opinion)
    "Mr. Lux acknowledges that for decades, poetry was often obscure, felt uncomfortably like riddles requiring decoders. Thanks to his efforts and those of a growing cadre of increasingly popular poets, poems are, once again, alive and accessible. The result has been an explosion of interest in poetry, in the venues where poets read, dozens and dozens of new publishing houses and more and more contests with grants available.

    What happened? Mr. Lux gives a lot of the credit for today’s worldwide poetry revival to “spoken word” or “performance” or “slam” poets. They brought poetry back to the human voice, its ancient home, and their poems were comprehensible -- they no longer made people feel stupid.

    But we don’t love poetry just because we understand it, Thomas Lux says. We love it for the crazy stuff it does for us, how it moves us, the way it reminds us of how we are human. He’s convinced that the best poems are understood both on a literal level and by the reader’s body and gut and heart. He has taken as his mission to write poetry that does both. And he’s eager to be a good servant to language, mindful that he is never its master."

    i consider such statements pertinent b/c such a figure holds the "keys to the canon" & if he's teaching this topical stuff as the "most relative thing in poetics today", i think he's doing his students a disservice as well as further propagating the already done-to-death myth that poetics is about "expression" & "feeling".

    am i too eager to draw my blade? should i not concern myself with a stance of opposition? are such "actions" a misdirection & waste of energies?

    Re: arguments
    i'm lacking the vital skillset to frame a well-appointed argument -- that's why i'm eager for discourse such as this, itsa learning experience, so thanx again.

    Re: slam
    " It seems to favor (if not enforce) a sort of lowest common denominator in terms of its humor and its poetics. Beyond this slam often seems much more about the performance of personality than about the words themselves, which is why so little slam poetry works as poetry on the page at all. The really unforgivable thing about it for me is the combination of pandering to audience response and taking language for granted, treating it as an unproblematic, neutral tool for all the foregoing."

    spot on, if anything, slam is retrogressive toward medieval jesters -- but it is caustic in alluring people to such a stance; the phonocentricities are devalued as well as the abandonment of "actual" writing, they're not writers, maybe not even poets.

    i had never come across the Cage story before, so thanx for the relay & point taken.

    "hyper-manipulative social world"
    damnstraight right about that.

    thanx for continuing the convo.

    23 skidoo,

  6. Troy,

    Thanx for all the thoughful comments. John has done such a great job replying about slam, humor, etc., that there's very little for me to add there. I agree with just about all his points. I really liked your remarks on the APG and polyphonic work ... it's fascinating to me to re-read something i wrote 8 years ago, when 96% of that work was still in the future... (and a lot more to come from this point on) .. Anyway both your positive comments and your disagreements are very useful ! --mark p