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On the Virtues of Analogy
Perhaps it is the same with you. A simple attraction to ecstasy. The lurching desire for communication. To see eye-to-eye and tooth-to-tooth. To merge. To mess with. At the most exuberant phase of conversation, to laugh too loud. "Exactly!" we might say. "Exactly!" To say exactly is to say that our ideas coincide perfectly; to say exactly is to say that our ideas are perfectly coincidental. Both. We are saying exactly the same thing; what we are saying has absolutely no causal connection. This is the joy of analogy. A writerly pleasure, like punning, like the leap of metaphor. To merge and coincide is to go out.

As you no doubt already know, with the exception of a few thermal-lift moments, writing is slow and careful work, solitary, meditative. It is, in my experience, hesitant. Blind, with strobes of vision. Slightly nauseating, because to write is to vacate multifariously; to entertain ideas is to give them your bed, to move out for them. Right now, speaking this essay, hearing myself mimic the voice of an essayist, it's making me queasy.

For these reasons, there is pleasure in the lightness of performative writing (and often in the moments of performance). With almost no vocal or theatrical training, at an age when I look like somebody who knows better, I've been finding some relief from the deprivations of literature in two very different forms: writing for theatre; and writing and performing poetry with a band called Broken Songs.

Lightness. For my purposes here, I take this to mean a virtuous carelessness. (I'm indebted to Italo Calvino for his essay called "Lightness" in Six Memos for the Next Millennium.) I am heir to Methodist anxiety, a grinding work ethic, a fiscal bondage to my desk. To write for and with musicians and actors is to work with a toy currency. Writing becomes ludic within the special circumstances of a feigned contract.

Actors and directors have a wonderful expression. "Let's say...." In that subjunctive utterance we play House and Politics, we play Love and Anger. We work quickly to generate an excess of words. You will cut many passages from a play, cut lines from a poem to make a song, cut lines from a song to fracture an overwhelming bit of music. I have found in collaboration the delight of cutting, a horticultural pruning. When the words are communal, the nomadic writer sheds all but a stick of wood and a match. To work on a collaboration is to sit about a bonfire chucking in your bit of kindling.

It's a bit like-here, yet another analogy quickens my task-it's like the difference between teaching and learning. Interdisciplinary work lives in the prefix. To be between, to be among. A perpetual novice. When teaching, we take control of the audience/classroom in a power structure. As the star of the show, the teacher must take responsibility for what's said in what language. The teacher determines the ratio of dialogue : monologue. And the teacher must determine what's knowable, what's beside the point, typecast as congenial (or merely obsequious) tyrant.

Students, on the other hand, can be careless. (Students often aren't careless enough.) They posture, deviate, madly appropriate, betray yesterday's wisdom, utter pompous declaratives, yell manifestos. A good student is an anarchist. We speak of our various artistic "disciplines". But a creative student is self-disciplined. And disobedient. When I'm working with Broken Songs, and when I have the rare privilege of working with actors or a director, I wish to be a good student.

Interdisciplinary work is fuelled by analogy. Perhaps the strangeness of the other disciplines makes us more co-operative; the product is communal but we do each have a bit of private property in our various tasks. And the exotic qualities of another discipline such as music, theatre, visual art, dance, are extremely generative. Through the sideways glance into the confines of a colleague's art form, we map escape routes from our own prisons. The analogical relationship rearranges the syntax. And in a combinatorial piece we have access to other emotional affects. A writer, starving on a diet of paper, is given a body, voices, breath, and maybe a microphone, lighting, a stage.

A play is by definition incomplete. Every phase of its development is a process of transformation, the moment of final interpretation endlessly deferred. Every performance differs. Actors memorize their lines and then unremember them so that at each cue they are brought forth as if for the first time. It feels dangerous. The aleatory nature of performance continuously alters the significance of each gesture, every utterance. The intention of each line lives between, an unravelling, on cue. A stage is a forum, the meeting-place where an imaginary game is played. The game's rules are domesticated to the extent that it must, however wildly, appear to be plausible. Living inside a theatrical production, the rules of reality shift to accommodate an imaginative logic, dream logic. "Let's say..."

Dramatic form seemed to me at first to be quadriplegic; in the absence of narration, stuck in real time, without the shadings of interior monologue, seemingly without digression, how the hell does anyone convey a story? In the occlusion of the narrator, significance must be buried, or blooded, embodied in "characters". While the playwright might know what a character thinks of her mother, that information may never see the light of the stage. So much must be suppressed, given to the undercurrents of subtext. Given over to the interpretive abilities of the actor. And whereas a novel can be constructed on the story's delays, detours, digressions, it seems to me that a play must run like water down a mirror, quick, smooth, aslant.

I have, obviously, contradicted my argument that writing for performance is a careless act.

So be it

But when each draft is given over to the actors, it is quite possible to sit about the workshop table and speak casually of "the playwright". Once again, like the absent narrator, the play has kicked me out. And I am grateful. There is a radical shift between the gruelling composition and the next phase, when the text is exposed to elocution. Once again, I can become careless with this creature, this "playwright". I am among my collaborators gazing at the bonfire.

One of the pleasures of writing for actors is that I can write without worrying over my own inferior abilities as a performer. It's like writing a song beyond my own limited register. But when I'm writing for Broken Songs, unless we have another vocalist, I'm writing my own lines. It took a lot of hyperventilation for me to learn that a singer must breathe if she is to sing. A poetics of lungs, the logic of breathing.

Like a play, a song is only partially, coincidentally, a text. The written words are delivered, slightly frayed, but they never fully arrive. The words are tossed up. Their performance is energetic, a sort of heat-death. The audience orders a beer (a poem, taste of brine, sour appeal of second-hand smoke, clarinet solo, strange rhythm), somebody walks by and I wonder (I am speaking a poem) if he hates us, he returns from the washroom at song's end, applauds. Later I see him in the lobby and he says it was cool.


I am not cool. Does he mean "cool" in a McLuhanesque way? Another guy, a lean tanned man in a very nice sweater jingles change in his pant pocket and says, "I think I hear Tom Waits somewhere in there." In the green room, a member of the band who is performing next, a talented singer, a real singer, wants badly to say something positive (not necessarily encouraging; she is an honest and responsible professional who will not delude an amateur), greets me with a wide open face, "So!" and looks desperate, "What do you think they thought?" This is cool. On the messy road between sender and receiver, to shy from the direct message, leaving much to be desired, a cool affair between performers and audience, not by any means a monogamous relationship. The audience of a performance by the Broken Songs band is not invited to be coerced.

"That was very ... weird."


I once asked the clarinetist Lori Freedman how to dress cool. She said, "Just wear things that don't match." She was satirizing herself. Music and words are most often, purposefully, mismatched. We seek to entertain sentiment, to affect the audience, but resist marriage. Flirt. Seek that fracture between the intention of the poem and the intention of the music; this is what I would call carelessness. A song broken, in collision with meaning, diffuse, the shading of parody, a crack in the platter, two fingers behind the Author's head, lending her ears.

The musicians put the texts on their music stands and improvise. Again, the effect is in translation, just as music is comprised of transitions. I see them beside me on stage, in peripheral vision. And in peripheral vision we rely on a combination of the senses, and imaginative deduction. (But how strange this is: musicians look at each other, casually smiling, during the most intense pleasure.) I've never been asked by a member of Broken Songs what a poem means (though the lead guitarist told me I'm not a big laugh). The writer is in a minority. Everybody is speaking Music. I'm in the back seat. A minor. Travelling, the mirrors are different. I'm not coincidental with myself. And I am relieved.


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