Dating from the late sixties, Hannah Weiner’s Code Poems are widely recognized as among the earliest attempts to explore poetry as code and code as poetry (an interest she shared with Jackson MacLow, though apparently neither was aware of the other’s experiments at the time). Weiner’s book uses the International Code of Signals for the Use of All Nations (a visual system for communication between ships at sea), which consists of strings of letters that signify longer phrases that would be commonly used in communications between naval vessels at sea.
In November 2007, Laura Elrick, Rodrigo Toscano and Kaplan Harris performed a version of Weiner’s “Romeo and Juliet” (originally published in Code Poems) at St. Marks Poetry Project for the celebration of the publication of Hannah Weiner’s Open House, edited by Patrick Durgin. Unlike the original performances of this piece (which employed the use of large flags marked with the code), Elrick and Toscano used walkie-talkies to signify the dialog’s coded content.
LE: Patrick asked us to share some of our reflections about the performance we did of “Romeo and Juliet.” It’s hard to know where to begin because Weiner has been so important to so many different New York poets. And I had a substantial relationship with her work for many years too, reading everything I could find when we first moved here in the late 90s, enlisting Kevin Davies to bring all his books to our proofreading job in the basement of a Wall Street financial institution – Clairvoyant Journal, Silent Teacher Remembered Sequel, and Little Indians. Around that time Judith Goldman also shared a copy of her then in-process dissertation about HW with me, later published as this essay. All this is to say that I definitely remember coming across “Romeo and Juliet” a number of years before the St. Marks event, but at that point I was focused on reading it primarily as a textual practitioner, as someone interested in the idea of the code and the predetermined vocabulary as a decentering device.
Later, when we started thinking about how to render “Romeo and Juliet” for performance (quite a different relationship to a text it seems) – this was for the Kenning event at ACA Gallery held in early 2006 and organized by David Kirchenbaum – I remember that we realized fairly quickly that it would have to be some sort of translation, mostly because we didn’t have the resources or the time to construct the flags. However, I’d also been working with voice recognition software around that time, and I was interested in the uncanniness of the computer’s translations of the poems I was voicing into my mic…I mean, so much of the text had a “censored” feeling because the vocabulary of the software program was so antiseptically limited. Yet, the intended meanings would always sort of seep in from the side anyway in a very funny way, so that what was “heard” was then the logic behind the vocabulary limitations. The code speaks. Or what the code negates speaks, through the code itself.
Early performances of “Romeo and Juliet” that I had come across were of course really substantially different from what would later become our version, and I was initially nervous about such a drastic intervention—I think we haggled over it for a night over take out in our living room. While researching the piece in preparation for our meeting, I had read a description of a performance Hannah had arranged in the yard of St. Marks in the late 60s in which players stood on platforms in far corners of the yard, raising flags with the letter strings stitched on them, while shouting their lines. In another version, a video I found from a much later date (but which I am now unable to locate – if anyone knows the whereabouts of this video, please contact us!), Hannah stood alone in a wide green field somewhere in New England at a far distance from the camera, silently raising the coded flags in a slow and repetitive rhythm; only the sound of birds echoed from a mass of trees behind her. Though it is striking how different these renderings are, both versions emphasized the visual nature of the code, as well as the machine-like automation of the “nature” of the user/s communication. In both, distance is at a premium.
In our version, I guess the central feature is to highlight the intimacy of the code, and especially the hilarity of this supposedly natural heterosexual encounter taking place in pure code. It is a technically complicated code (with its roots in colonialism and militaristic “exchange”) that both “ships” speak, but it renders them dumbly unsensuous. The sheer clumsiness of the maneuvers that must be accomplished between the two romantically inclined “ships at sea” with their estranged bodies and official orifices—like the employment of walkie-talkies in the bedroom. I think you first came up with that idea!
RT: Yes, those walkie-talkies. Let’s see, I’ll try and retrace the steps of how we got to using those things…
First, at the first Post_Moot conference (“a convocation for innovative poetics”) in Oxford, Ohio, I remember doing a performance of my Eco-Strato-Static with Tom Orange on a wide stage. I had specified that the mics be placed far apart. And boy did my hosts supply! The mics were so far from each other that I lost contact with Tom’s physical presence altogether. The audio-spatial experience of that evening stuck with me for a long time. The sense that every speech utterance could be thought of as a re-instantiation of a social-psychic “place” (i.e. “and where are you now?” “in which direction are you headed?”, etc)—that was a key insight.
But also, I had been studying the theoretical (as well as practical) outlines of Richard Schechner’s “six axioms for environmental theater.” Schechner defined environmental theater as theater that uses the space (defined as the area and time in which the performance takes place) in accordance with its own properties as well as those of the performers, groups, and content working within that space. The idea was that one had to account for the separate characteristic and performative properties of a given space, even before it is “used” or practiced upon by humans. This a qualitatively different approach to space than trying to bend a given space into a “stage,” however modified.
Added to those encounters, I had been working with Utility Worker’s Union at the Queens training facility (an industrial complex along the East River), and all day long people were coming in and out of trainings using walkie-talkies. I remember really liking the punctuated “over-and-out” style of speaking. Nobody could talk over anybody for even a micro second, which of course, created a special kind of tension for people overhearing an exchange. The affirmative response form (the “copy you”) seemed almost dreadfully fated, so a special kind of humor arose from it. Curious too, was the electronic-mechanical “tsh” that came from pushing the speaker button. Though it was non-semantic—it said something! Many things actually, depending on where the exchange was going.
Ok, so one day, as you and I were trying to figure this thing out (we had actually kicked around the idea of a planned wrestling match between us while performing Weiner’s piece), we saw the walkie-talkies sitting on a bookshelf. I picked one up and read one of the lines. You immediately followed suit—and there it was—the main performance parameter laid down. Or so it seemed!
Well, well first we needed to find a third wheel, and Kaplan Harris was shoe-in. Kaplan can do a great poker face with strange affect mixed in, and with very clear intonation. I had discovered this when he helped out with a Collapsible Poetics Theater piece (“Humana Ante Oculos”) at the Yockadot Poetics Theater Festival a few years before. So once he was roped into it, we were pretty much set. Ok, what was still missing? Oh! Only the space, the people, the “psychic” (deep-ideological—unconscious—unseen) dispositions of the reader-actors! In other words, 90% of the performance!
Funny to think about it now, but it hadn’t really fully occurred to us was that Laura and I were going to be read largely through the fact that “in real life” we were/can be these attention-focus curious scrappy go-lucky fuckers from hell! We were only halfway conscious of that read in the performance, which prevented a sense of real hammy (that was key), you know, we were “earnest.” I think people were laughing with us and at us at the same time as we tried to “clarify” Weiner’s (quite ingenious) critique of hetero schmaltziness. It’s like that being half consciousness of our whole bag between us—the beautiful, the ugly, the clear, the confused, the utopian, the dystopic, etc—all that was played out with our body movements in the actual space. I remember being completely unafraid to pursue and be pursued, to hide out and to pop out of a sudden. All sorts of social gender contradiction “release points” were exposed, so that the firmness of Weiner’s critical text stood out like a rocky ledge seen from a distance, indeed, quite more visible than if we had “owned it” as something to “perform.”
[Text copyright Laura Elrick and Rodrigo Toscano, 2010. Photo of Hannah Weiner, Scott Burton, Anne Waldman, Vito Acconi, Berndette Mayer, Eduardo Costa, John Perreault, L-R, sourced from Perreault’s Artopia blog report on “1969.” Order The Kenning Anthology of Poets Theater: 1945-1985 online from Small Press Distribution, Amazon, or postage paid by ordering directly from the press. Further discounts are available by subscription to Kenning Editions. See also Hannah Weiner’s author page at the Electronic Poetry Center and this opportunity to mailorder Hannah Weiner’s Open House at a discount; read Maria Damon’s review of the book at Kaurab, if you need convincing.]