Review of: Love of a Past Self
It was another in a series of death defying ice eves on the streets of Baltimore as I headed to the Terrault Contemporary for a series of readings titled For Love of a Past Self. The show featured early composition of four writers, Christophe Casamassima, Chris Mason, and curators Jonah Beram and Matt Williams along with an introductory slideshow on juvenile writing by Alicia Puglionesi and a musical production by Francesca D’Uva and her band that that she wrote also when young.
I had pictured the night to consists of sitting in a soft-lit room lined with bookshelves among individuals bundles in layers for warmth intently listening to lugubriously read pieces from writer’s earlier years. This was not the case. Instead the event took place in a room filled with brightly colored paintings mirroring Andy Warhol subjects, modern Picasso designs, and Jackson Pollock techniques. There was a stage, a foot high, which had a cluttered work desk on it. Williams and Puglionesi sat on the edge of stage making fried eggs with a portable camping stove.
Puglionesi left Williams to the burner to begin the production with a slideshow on the historical background of tonight’s theme: juvenility. She started with: “how to be the right ‘you’ at the right historical moment” then moved on to a writer’s reflection piece, “now I pretend to have reached a clarity of the young writer I was.” The audience tittered. She moved to her next topics, “in modern poetry, the you that’s closer to death is always the more credible you.” The audience responded with much laughter. I was confused. I took it as an insightful statement, not mockery.
Puglionesi specifically set a humorous tone for the night by satirizing juvenility with various sardonic quotes and visuals. The slideshow made clear that the readings to follow were to be relished, poked fun at, and taken lightheartedly.
Williams was next to take the stage. “Rumor has it I played ice hockey for 13 years,” he said, in a spooky, hallowed way as if he were telling a ghost story. The crowd followed him, interested. They were in on the satire with everyone responding from his beginning description of being “decked out” in hockey gear to the story’s closing line “save yourself before your child falls in love with a sport.” I was enthused by the cliché portrayal of his hockey career, but the nature of the event was problematic.
This kind of work —more experimental and process oriented than the usual personal and confessional work is meant to challenge academia but at the same time has become a part of it. W.B. Yeats, the writing of Fluxes artists, Ron Padgett, Postmodernists like Donald Barthelme, and Dada artists such as Kurt Schwitters all make up a long history for such work. In some cases sound will be the driving force or the composition of phrases instead of the actual meaning of the words.
Thus, as a student studying creative writing I have a hard time coming to terms with forms such as these because I am used to reading and writing pieces that are meant to evoke emotion in certain ways. I’m used to “show don’t tell,” an infamous rule many creative writing students are familiar with from workshop classes, that is completely ignored in many of tonight’s pieces. “Show don’t tell” is meant to serve as a guideline for creating well-written works. Rather than explicitly saying what you mean, the writer should paint a picture of it instead so the message can be deciphered and left to the reader to decide. I’m used to pinpointing certain words to use in certain lines due to their definition.
When Christophe Casamassima turned off all the lights in the studio and knelt on the ground with his back turned from us, holding a flashlight to read his journal entries, I thought we would finally get to see a writer reflecting on his juvenility with emotion that held insecurity, confusion, disdain. “MDMA here we go again,” he read with exasperating sound. But as he continued to read four pages of incomplete sentences like “past equals consciousness,” “lazy concrete chooses to move under me,” “8 plus 9 equals hamburger” everyone was holding their stomachs from laughing so hard and I realized that the struggling tone of voice is exaggerated to provoke the audience.
It was confusing as to why no one appeared to be serious. Whenever I resurface poems I wrote in high school, I read them alone in my room, because I’m aware of the ridiculous content but I also still have a hard time coming to terms with the emotions I expressed. I wanted these writers to feel the same way, to show it in performance. The adolescent and teenage years are trying and the years to come are more challenging. Maybe I have yet to part from my own younger self, from my own juvenility, which is why I could not let myself fully indulge in this form of satiric writing.
However, I did empathize with Chris Mason’s readings from Poems of A Doggy and a book of experimental sound poetry, which he had not read from in 30 years. When I asked him at the end of the show how it felt being on stage reading poems he had chosen not to unearth for a while he responded with “it started out sensitive then got less and less so.” Jonah Beram, afterthoughts of the show were less than inspiring. When I asked what he wanted to the audience to take away the night he answered, “I’m just glad no one got up there and broke a leg.”
Maybe I need to be more open, maybe I am a poet who takes things too seriously, but on the basis of this performance I am not yet convinced.