Often poets and fans of the many styles of contemporary, populist performance poetry characterize its poetics as "all about identity." Susan B.A. Somers-Willett, in The Cultural Politics of Slam Poetry, one of the first full-length scholarly books on the movement, would agree. But she might add that some of these poets look at personal identity as something you find; others as something you make. (Shameless plug: I review this book in the upcoming issue of Pleiades).
I thought of this distinction when reflecting on a great reading I attended last week at St. Mark's Poetry Project, featuring Michael Lally and Ray DiPalma (himself a master at playing with poetic reading personas).
Lally's powerful style, mixing talk, a jazzy rhythm and pre-hip hop improvisatory rhyme with pure attitude, seemed predictive, in retrospect, of the performance styles to come after his own work began. In fact, reading his work and seeing him perform it over the years, I can't help but think of him as the sophisticated (if at times unacknowledged) literary godfather of all sorts of poets. (I know he influenced my attempts at mixing punk motifs with poetry.)
My Life: a Continual Sequel
At times, the humor and wit in Lally's poems comes from playing with the distinction between the self as discovered and the self as made. One of my favorites, that he read that night, is titled "My Life 2", found in his book It's Not Nostalgia (and on his new CD, Lost Angels). (Note: you can read this poem in its entirety in the sidebar of his blog Lally's Alley here). Here are the first two stanzas:
My Life 2
When I was 10,
I thought I was "Irish,"
even though I was
born in the USA.
When I was 20,
I thought I was "Black,"
even though my skin
is pink & freckled,
and I have no
As the decades proceed, the poem takes us through one mistaken "self-discovery" after another. At 30, the speaker thinks he is "queer", at 40, a "movie star", at 50, "enlightened", -- "even though I wasn't." Then, just when you're expecting the "real" self to be revealed (after all these mistakes), the final stanza declares:
But of course I was
and am -- enlightened,
as I was and still am
The humor here comes from the doubling of self-deflation. In fact, the logic of this poem is perfectly dialectical: statement/negation, statement/negation, etc. -- concluding with "the negation of the negation." One of the ways I read this is: the "self" isn't so much a particular identity, as the act of trying them all on. It's a performance (a truth this poet, who's worked as an actor, knows about firsthand).
Lally's acknowledgment of the malleability of "self" is the the source, not only of the wit in his work, but the poignancy as well. This was the first reading he gave after brain surgery a number of months ago. As Nick Piombino captures so precisely in a wonderful post of about the event (see link below), Lally's perception of the world continually altered in radical ways as he recovered.
For a while, he couldn't understand the John Stewart show because of its layers of irony. Right Wing TV became easier to comprehend (offering him an understanding of Hard Right identity/consciousness from the inside, as it were).
And yet, rather than being freaked out by it all, Lally said he found the whole process incredibly interesting. It's as if his awareness of the experimental aspect of identity was a saving grace. Because with it seems to come the knowledge that, no matter how many personalities are lost and found, lost and found again, in Bakhtin's words "there always arises an unrealized surplus of humanness; there always remains a need for the future..."