To the editors:
Psychopoetica is not without flaws in its documentation of human fears (Where is a poem about being afraid of catching AIDS? Now that's scary) but any show which tries to cover such a huge subject in such a short time is doomed from the beginning. Still, some things about Achy Obejas' review [June 3] made me wonder if we had really seen the same play, or if one of us hadn't gone to the wrong funeral parlor that night.
How could she have missed the first line of Joyce Caskey's rape poem, which clearly states, "It was nothing like the dream men say we have" (emphasis mine) or missed the fact that the character was supposed to have been long-dead at that point (and understandably more peaceful about the whole incident) or that the subsequent poems, while dealing with violence, had nothing to do with the subject of rape, as Ms. Obejas seemed to think? In any case, if Caskey is writing from her own experience, that her experience is not the same as someone else's does not invalidate either. I'm sure Ms. Obejas would be the last one to claim that it did.
It also puzzles me that someone who must be familiar with Ntozake Shange's For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide should find the concept of staged poetry so strange. (Remember also Spoon River Anthology, an excellent theatrical program composed wholly of the poems of Edgar Lee Masters.) "Would it survive on the page? But considering that this was written for the stage, does that really matter?" she asks, assuming that because the performers are not reading from scripts, their poems have never seen print, and inadvertently implying that it's useless to discuss the poetry of Homer and Sappho because no original transcript of their work exists. As for poetry written for stage--Romeo and Juliet was written for the stage; does this mean that the sonnet in Act One, Scene Five is not really a sonnet at all?
Poetry, sui generis, is language which attempts to embody human experience (as opposed to Rhetoric, which comments upon human experience) and that is what decides whether something is poetry, no matter what form the presentation of such. Ms. Obejas is herself a fine poet and should know this, but nonetheless seems unable to determine just what she is seeing ("There is very little here that would actually read as poetry. . . . much of the text is poetry only because the writers say it is.") and therefore criticize it on its own merits. Perhaps the Reader should have sent a theatrical, rather than a literary, critic to review a theatrical program--or, better yet, sent a critic versant with both art forms and thus less likely to become confused at seeing them both so close together.
Mary Shen Barnidge
Achy Obejas replies:
There's little doubt in my mind, Mary, that we saw the same performance and that we both enjoyed it, although to varying degrees. On the whole my criticisms were quite minor, so I'm surprised you feel compelled to defend Psychopoetica.
But to respond to your concerns: I find nothing at all strange about staged poetry, and to conclude that I was throwing out Homer, Sappho, Shakespeare et al is, well, a hell of a leap. Nowhere in the review did I suggest that these poems or the poets who wrote them have never been published; and are therefore not valid. I find the concept of publication secondary to the work; also, I'm familiar with most of the Chicago Poetry Ensemble members' publishing credits (which are admirable), so that would not be a conclusion I would draw.
It seems to me that much ink and hot air is wasted on defining what is and isn't poetry, rather than enjoying a work for whatever it is and thinking about the issues it raises--and isn't that the whole point of writing, no matter what the genre is? I stick by my original contention that there was very little there that would read as poetry--that is, very little there would strike most people as conventional poetry. That, by the way, was also said of Shange's For Colored Girls, although that criticism was diminished by the sheer power of the piece. It is, as I said in the review, a point poetry purists are bound to make.
And it is, it seems, a constant in the schism between the "published" and the "performance" poets in Chicago's literary community. In looking over the press that the CPE has received over the years, it seems most reviewers spend an extraordinary amount of energy trying to decide whether the CPE is really about poetry. They miss the point: It strikes me that the ensemble's purpose is to enlighten and stimulate, and to stretch the boundaries of whatever poetry is. I really can't imagine the CPE gang setting up poetic parameters.
As to Joyce Caskey's rape piece, yes, I heard the line you quote. I understood the women were long dead. I also respect that it may well be Caskey's experience (although that's a little tenuous given the premise of death). Nevertheless, I found it was not enough, and I found the absence of anger inexcusable.