This is a story about how I ended up reciting poems in an echo tunnel wearing a blue suit -- or, how I came to be engulfed in the surrealistic chasm of 'iMMi', a collaboration with artist Kaspar Schmidt-Mumm.
My poetry for 'iMMi' is the actualisation of a idea I've long held about collaboration that comes from my research into ekphrasis. Ekphrasis is basically writing poetry in response to a painting. The problem is, mostly, that you can't ask the painter what sort of poem they would like. This leads to various interpretive speculations, a lot of research into the art-historical context of the painting, including the biography of the painter, their intentions (perhaps, but this is dangerous territory), and a lot of contemplation (and re-contemplation) of the painting. But, when you get a chance to work with an artist at every step of the artistic process, from the conception, through the production and finally in the exhibition, the poet (me) is able to make a response to the artwork that is much more informed and that (perhaps) achieves the sort of synthesis that is so prized (or completely unattainable) in writing poetry in response to a painting -- that it can become part of the artwork, not something external to it.
Kaspar wanted 'iMMi' (titled to highlight the common prefix in words like: immigration, imitation, imagination) to be about creating a new hybridised culture by appropriating the archetypes of existing cultures. This extended the cargo-cult metaphor taken from various Melanesian tribes who attempted to rebuild objects left behind by colonial explorers, but devoid of any useful function; employing a 'post hoc ergo proptor hoc' logic, relying upon pure appearance.
This drew upon Kaspar's own experience as being someone who came to Australia as a child and had to grasp at whatever pervading cultural norms he could in order to try and 'fit in'. He reiterated often, that there is no textbook for culture, it just morphs and re-morphs. The idea was to create an experience that was like a fake anthropological exhibit at a museum. One absurd coup that followed as part of the exhibition was getting John Carty from the Museum of South Australia to come and give a talk at the opening.
The poems that I wrote for this exhibition came from conversations with Kaspar about what his main influences and references for the project were, to help me establish some content for the work, and about how the work was going to be presented (as video, as performance, as an accompanying book) to hone in on the form of the work. There are three poems and each coincide with a section of the video, which is available below.
I wrote the first with the intention of cutting it up in post-production, so each line was intended as a stand-alone phrase. A lot of the imagery in this section was taken from anecdotes that Kaspar told me about his childhood. I also included a number of foreign language phrases - the German phrase is from a Sesame Street song ('one of these shapes is not like the other ones'), the Italian phrase is from Ungaretti, a poet of the first World War and translated means, 'just an illusion that will make you brave', and the French phrase is a quote from Rimbaud's Illuminations, 'only I have the key to this savage parade'. The poem may read in a strange way here, but the video makes much better use of this reservoir of non-linear, fragmented writing. For the video, I read each phrase into a microphone and then let Kaspar treat the soundbites however he wanted as he continued to editing process.
wheels up: naming, throbbing
clutching at straws with thirsty fingertips
I’ve never been a video
there’s two kinds of onions in this salad
the first obstacle is bubble wrap
the spectacle is lunch
what have you brought?
swimming in the shallow end
we do things different here
keep driving until you find some music
like the ocean but murkier
you write it in the margins
this diamond is diffracting
my mouth is a door
with the hinges falling off
je suis seule a tenir la cle
de ce défile sauvage
flattery and sincerity on arrival
this feels like a foreign country
for christmas I bought you pegs
who are we hanging today?
repetition is another recovery
the prince has peeled before
beside their selves
this is the altar native
where’s your ticket home?
where should we put the snapping turtles?
how do you spell temperature
where you’re from?
take another slice, really
you’re more fruits of the forest
than rocky road, don’t you think?
ti basta un’illusione per farti coraggio
even though it’s concrete
it’s mostly tasteless
the half-life is still impressive
pearlescent flutes are playing
we play we play we plunge
you can’t camp in this absence
what do you figure for this?
Eine dieser Formen ist nicht Kike die Anderen
it might just be a town full of sand
asleep by the traffic cones
the crescent moon caught you
by your collar (hold on!)
what’s going to come in handy later?
waiting for a power failure
who are we waiting for?
life has been a slow morning
in the dream we are eating
broken glass together
it’s a yard sale of imagination
a yoyo only for special occasions
filling a room means never having
to vacuum that place again
don’t let’s get carved up encore
I wish the meal wasn’t served cold
freeze the seagull first
spinning like a gentle typhoon
beware the grapefruit’s bite
it’s going to be hard to put this
on a wall I used to believe
could this be the new new?
the approach is a potato gun
keep out the shadows
this sounds like an echo
in a tunnel
am I accountable?
a fuzzy elaboration
a crispy realisation
this seems like
a good break for applause
The second part of the video features another poem which I wrote for iMMi. Kaspar kept talking about a 'blue screen of death', which is what happens when a computer is completely at the point of collapse. The aesthetics of this part of the video will appear familiar to anyone who has experienced such a frustrating technological breakdown before. I wrote a piece of flash-fiction about a dolphin in the Port River called 'Jock', who loved the tourist boats so much that even though his fin was mutilated by one of them, he always kept coming back to swim next to them. This desire for affection and acceptance in spite of horrible consequences was something that I wanted to explore as part of Kaspar's experience of trying to understand a culture that was foreign.
There’s a dolphin in the port river called Jock. Jock would follow the boats along the river, he would swim right up to them. Year’s ago, Jock got tangled in some fishing line. He was run over by a boat. Jock’s dorsal fin was mutilated. He still comes to swim with the tourist boats and all of the tour guides know him and point him out to tourists. His horribly disfigured dorsal fin makes him instantly recognisable.
trance and transcendence wear the same cloak, don’t you think? It might
in some circumstance, against your will, your eyes might be closed. don’t panic. go with it. our going across will at least be together
trance: from the latin ‘transire’ means go across. try crossing the border another way.
The final poem, in the last scene of the video is a poem written to sublimate all of the ideas that we had been talking about in one (almost) coherent poem. The structure of the poem is supposed to follow a choreography where the speaker is retreating further and further into themselves: from this initial naming and grasping at objects, the iMMi actor has no choice but to retreat into obscurity -- in a way that 'successful' immigration is unfortunately often considered as assimilation. The attempt here was not to suggest that culture cannot survive migration (in fact, a lot of what Kaspar is trying to express by making a work so closely linked to his own story, is that is CAN), but that this video, played before the exhibition's official opening, placed the iMMi as history, which allowed the exhibition itself to take the form of an anthropological survey. The poem twists and turns, turning back on itself with each emphasis of the word 'BUT', which is the beginning and ending of each stanza. It maintains a syllabic structure (one on the first line, three on the second, nine on the third) in each stanza that through repetition gives it some illusion of structure, as well as suggesting how easy one becomes three becomes nine -- how the expansion of culture can be so rapid.
out of town, in your mind, on the edge
we’re only always about to sink into ourselves
watching the planes fly overhead and feeling nothing but nausea
eating the onions to try and acclimatise
the way you remind me of home
patterns so vivid it’s hard not to believe the painted world
listen too closely
to the river, to the radio, to your conscience
we’re only always about to find something new
brewing coffee on the ceiling sweating in a new shirt
attentive and anti-inflammatory
the way the comfiest pillows are always white
black dots that follow your eyes across the page
past the illusion
the plinth, the plaque, the traffic cones
we’re only always one more masque away from being truthful
worrying about the air conditioningbathing in patchouli
I think there’s more than meets the eye
I want to believe in something that hasn’t arrived yet
the safest thought is still years away from being here
some other story
don quixote, catch 22, the go-between
we’re only always a word or so away from meaning
emigrating the first time was harder and not encouraged
the windmills got closer and we made names for things
I know the kettle rattles the loudest just before it boils
I guess I’m just improvising
Taking a lesson from books
I’m not ashamed anymore
If you want one I can make it for you
the experience is to display experience
try too hard
to get it, to feel it, to own it
we’re only always arriving the same day as the postcard
it stops being about me or about you or about expatriation
I’ve cooled and cooled again, I’m leftovers
I’m exotic until I’m fed-up
I’m filling this box with darkness
I’m drafting you an email
I’m prepared for the influx
I’m slipping deeper and deeper into my weltzshmertz
as I go
deeper, deeper, deeper
So this was my attempt at hybridisation -- at the level of cultural hybridity, but also at the level of interpersonal creative hybridity, working with Kaspar.
Kaspar's work is available here: http://kasparschmidtmumm.com/IMMI
And this is the video here: