Elaborate Versionings: Characteristics of Emergent Performance in Three Print/Oral/ Aural Poets


Literary studies regards the "poetry reading" as a marginal phenomenon. By resituating the published poems of Amiri Baraka, Kamau Brathwaite, and Cecilia Vicuña in performance contexts, this essay proposes that each reading has the dimensions of an emergent performance, with distinguishable oral dynamics. The poet-performers break through into performativity by means of elaboration and versioning. This dynamic activity practice presents a challenge to the dominant practices of literary criticism and the scholarship of print texts.


Amiri Baraka. “In the Funk World.” Recorded 23 October 1996. Analog audiotape. Robert Creeley Birthday Celebration, Hallwalls Contemporary Art Center, Buffalo, NY. Printed in Funk Lore. Los Angeles: Littoral Books, 1996.

Amiri Baraka (formerly Leroi Jones) began to earn renown as a writer within the context of the Beat and then the Black Arts movements, working with other Black Nationalists to produce plays and poetry performances that were both political and populist. Importantly, this reading scene meant that for many writers, oral performance became a significant (usually the initial and sometimes the sole) means of publication. Lorenzo Thomas observes that in the Black Arts period, “the poetry reading as a characteristic mode of publication reinforced poets’ tendency to employ ‘dramatic’ structures and direct first-person address.” The speeches and sermons become like traditional models, so that, in the poetry, “what you hear is the speaking voice that trespasses into song; and an antiphonal interaction with the congregation that reveals the same structures that inform the early ‘collective improvisation’ of New Orleans jazz, bebop, and the avant-garde jazz of the 1960s.”

This short clip demonstrates a skillful play with paralinguistic dimensions of speech as well as demonstrating a cluster of generative or improvisational moves that distinguish an emergent performance from a poetry recitation--indicated by the term “elaboration.”

Cecilia Vicuña. “Adiano y azumbar.” Recorded 11 April 2002. Digital minidisc. University of Texas of the Permian Basin, Odessa, TX. Printed in El Templo. NY: Situations, 2001.

Cecilia Vicuña, a Chilean-born poet and artist living in New York, explores the themes of sound, voice, writing, and weaving in fourteen volumes of English and bilingual poetry (including: Unravelling Words, The Precarious, El Templo, InStan). Her cultural resources range from indigenous poetry and song—to postmodern art; she has edited UL: Four Mapuche Poets and participated in the Whitney Biennial and the Museum of Modern Art. Vicuña frequently prepares the site for a poetry performance in advance by weaving threads throughout a space. Her Texas performance began with the silent screening of a her video featuring dancers weaving on a Hudson River pier at twilight. As the video closed, Vicuña began singing from her seat at the rear of the audience. Rising, she slowly moved to the podium, still singing and using a hand-held light to cast thread-like lines upon the walls, ceiling and audience. (Full audio of performance at audibleword.org).

This clip demonstrates another way a minimal text might be elaborated, through a repetition and variation of patterns already implicit in the source text; the sung performance of the poem might easily be transcribed at twice the length of the print version or 26 lines with 14 repetitions.

Cecilia Vicuña. “Tentenelaire Zun Zun.” Recorded 11 April 2002. Digital minidisc. University of Texas of the Permian Basin, Odessa, TX. Printed in Unravelling Words and the Weaving of Water. Eliot Weinberger and Suzanne Jill Levine, trans. Saint Paul, MN: Greywolf Press, 1992.

This clip documents an innovative bilingual performance of a text published years prior in the familiar, facing-page format of the bilingual edition. Rather than voice the piece as published, beginning on the left in Spanish and following with the right-hand English, the poet/performer dances deliberately back and forth between Spanish and English, creating a new arrangement—a poem in two languages that does not fully correspond to either of the two published versions. Vicuña’s performance cannot be called oral-composition in the usual sense: it begins with a text, and little new material is added. Yet the virtuosic oscillation between Spanish and English along with selective omissions and repetitions present a poem that is quite unlike the print-text. In the active arrangement of the poem’s elements a new work has been constructed—performative versioning.

Kamau Brathwaite. “Angle Engine.” Recorded 19 October 1997. Lecture/Poetry Reading. XCP: Cross-Cultural Poetics Conference, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN. Printed in Ancestors (A Reinvention of Mother Poem, Sun Poem, and X/Self. NY: New Directions, 2001.

Kamau Brathwaite self-identifies as a Nation-language poet, moving in the course of a forty-year career towards the use of an English reflective of the socio-historical richness of Afro-Caribbean vernacular speech. A Barbadian scholarship student at Cambridge, he spent several years in the education ministry of Ghana and earned a doctorate in history from Sussex, publishing an authoritative text in the field—The Development of Creole Society in Jamaica 1770-1820—before making a full commitment to poetry. His life-long poetic project naturally extends, however, from this background: opening up poetry to history, to excluded registers of language and, in particular, to forms of language that sustain diasporic memory or the sounds and physical rhythms of island life.

This clip reflects how aspects of traditional orality serve an emergent function in the work of a contemporary print-poet. A theme of this poem is the spiritual force of sound and rhythm, which Brathwaite conveys through a verbal underscoring of parallelism and the oral vocables, which are also present on the page, are themselves performance keys. The two sustaining motifs of the poem— “praaaze be to / praaaze be to / paaaze be to gg” and “bub-a-dups / bub-a-dups / bub-a-dups / /hah” —establish a rhythm that opens the poem into a spatial dimension, articulate the presence of a speaking body, and even imply an associated dance. The rhythms set in play and the viscerally physical articulation of paralinguistic vocables and grunts do not simply ornament or enrich the text; they mark it as a temporal experience.

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