Rules of Engagement: What the Chinese Shuffle Teaches us about Poetry
I’m getting too old for this shit.
It’s the last Sunday of the month, I’m in Munich, and “That’s right, ladies and gentlemen, it’s time for another session of Absolute Beginners,” a local variety show based on the poetry slam/Gong show format that some close friends and I have cobbled together for the local ex-pat community. We’ve just breeched the two year mark, and word is finally starting to get out about what happens—or, rather, what can happen—on our stage. Here, anything short of a Jim Morrison impression –circa Miami, 1969—is allowed to flaunt itself on the stage, and often does. Magic, music, comedy, poetry, martial arts demonstrations, it’s all game. It has to be, because the community we’re reaching out to is limited to the English speaking community.
It’s not a poetry show, but, with no apologies to Mr. (Harold) Bloom, poetry has been known to grace our stage. Sometimes we’ve had to hog-tie it to get it up there, but as the muse is not exactly the most demure among possible loves, it only seems fair to give as good as we get. And tonight’s show looks to be one of those nights when the only thing that’s likely to do the trick is to bring out the whips and chains and go at it. We seem to be just a little more interested in spontaneous overflow than we do tranquil recollection.
That’s to the detriment of our current act, one “John,” who has made the unfortunate decision to brave our stage and trot out the same material he’s been hashing through for the last three shows running. Half the audience has already heard these jokes, and the other half is too keyed up to much listen. Throw in a vocal minority that is not only heckling the performers, but is quite willing to storm the stage and put on their own show, and you’ve got a recipe for disaster. These latter, a knot of five people who have positioned themselves in the middle of the crowd, directly across a narrow passage that serves as the sole point of egress for the better percentage of the audience, is comprised of a very loud German couple, one of which is given to laughing, loudly, at inappropriate moments, a very tall black man who has just been informed that the show is running late, thus he will not be given a slot, and two Ukranian girls who appear to be interested in starting their own show offstage—one that looks to borrow heavily from the poetic school of Beate Uhse, Germany’s most successful chain of erotica shops.
John is bombing. Badly. I’m host, and wondering if I shouldn’t step in and give him the heave-ho, but instead I hover, joining in the general discomfort the more attentive members of the audience are feeling for him. From far in the back of the audience, behind the international anarchist contingent, a British man very politely invites the Ukranian girls to keep their clothes on and quote “Shut the fuck up.” I’m in full repression mode, my hands gripping the barstool I’m sitting on much as a drowning man might grasp a piece of driftwood, every thought focused on resisting a deep urge to commandeer the microphone long enough to tell the rowdies to leave the establishment. And I have to admit that my motives for not so doing extend far beyond any principled stance regarding freedom of expression for all—after all, freedom’s a tricky word, and in terms of the present discourse, the antics of our resident anarchists are not exactly conducive to the free expression of less manic viewpoints, so it could be well argued that they’re the ones stifling expression. No, my real motives have to do with John. I want to learn from him. I want to see, first hand, how a performer fails to handle an audience.
And I am. I’m learning it so well it’s becoming painful.
John’s gig is stand-up comedy, a medium in which, unlike poetry, the ability to handle hecklers is not only pre-requisite, but often comprises the better portion of the individual performer’s repertoire. As is well known to both John and myself, one of the audience members tonight is a slight German woman named Dagmar, a long-time supporter of our efforts and a talent scout for a local English comedy club. Dagmar regularly points local comedians our direction, a mutually beneficial arrangement in which our show gains good acts and Dagmar is provided with a venue in which to watch comedians audition. In return, I regularly attend her shows, where I act as ticket seller and help to promote the following month’s show in exchange for free entrance. Over the last year, I have watched a wide variety of British acts on her stage, some of which were solidly centered around audience feedback. I think particularly of Mike Gunn, who played Dagmar’s venue the previous November, and based very nearly his entire show on handling the hecklers. “Bollocks. He says it’s bollocks. Of course it’s bollocks. Some of these are even jokes. You must be great fun to see a movie with: ‘That’s bollocks. There’s no way the Millenium Falcon made the Kessel run in less than twelve parsecs.’” John knows that handling hecklers is part of the gig. He also knows he’s blowing it, and knowing that isn’t helping him. He’s freezing.
John is currently trying to set up the local segment of his routine, a self-depreciating riff in which he comments on his paternal line, which is German, and ties that into the Nazi legacy. He’s just managed to get around to the Nazis when he stops cold, his gaze fixed solidly on the knot of anarchists at the center of the audience. I follow his gaze, and find that the less vocal half of the German couple, a 40-something man with a head shorn entirely of hair, has raised the Nazi salute. In Munich, this is not only impolitic, it’s illegal. The black man reacts instantly, the anarchists suddenly turning upon themselves, jumping up from his barstool and forcefully slapping the man’s hand from the air. For a moment, it looks as if there’s going to be a fight, but the two just end up glowering at each other for a good half-minute while John says, “Oh yes, the salute. Very nice. Gene, I think I’ll cut my losses now, if you don’t mind. Thank you all, you’ve been a lovely audience.” He replaces the microphone, clearly shaken, and hastily retreats from the stage.
I have to admit to a deep sense of relief at seeing him exit, even in so ungraceful a fashion. That sense of relief is only intensified by the fact that our anchoring act, a Turkish magician with the stage name of Memo, is a solid veteran and consistent favorite on our stage. For the remainder of the show, the anarchists, having tripped badly over a set of social boundaries they’d steadfastly refused to acknowledge until that moment, remain relatively quiet, and Memo performs in his always competent way. Memo, though a magician, has taught me more about poetry than he probably knows. He has taught me, primarily, about the performer’s need for an audience, regardless of medium.
I knew about audience coming into this gig, understood that defining one’s audience is one of the most crucial moments in any poet’s development, but I don’t think I really understood how that audience shapes the poet’s work. I also know that there are those poets who would disagree with my take on the matter, poets who argue that the audience is—and should be—irrelevant to their work. While I can respect that stance, on an individual level, I have, in my own engagement of the art, encountered a number of difficulties in taking that approach to heart. There is, primarily, my own sense of poetry as being a form of dialogue, and while that dialogue may take the form of a dialogue with the self in the initial stages, there comes a point at which the wider community should be engaged. That point occurs long before one reads one’s poems before a live audience. It even occurs before we set pen to paper. It occurs as soon as one shapes one’s interior dialogue in the form of language, for to engage language is to engage the community of humans. Language is a shared medium, one that we can manipulate to fit the individual vision, certainly, but only within certain boundaries. In our own thoughts, we can use the word “duck” every time we mean the word “table,” but to extend that particular vision, we have to engage other humans long enough to persuade them that they should see a table when we say the word “duck.” And it goes deeper than that, because both words are nouns, so even were one to make the substitution without offering explanation of same, we could still make grammatical sense of the results. Replace “table” with “of” or “do” or “the,” and the resulting cultural artifact will very likely present further roadblocks to understanding. Of course, poetry is all about stretching those boundaries, and a competent hand at the pen might well make something memorable of such substitutions, maybe even one that speaks to the wider community, but even in stretching the boundaries, we engage the rules of language. And those rules, whether they be entirely separate from social convention or determined by social convention, still remain something independent of the individual poet. We can shape them through our work, maybe even fundamentally alter them, but to do so, we first have to engage them.
The individual poet can—and should—decide, early on, to whom they are speaking. And while I’d make the argument that there is much more of real value—in terms of both the individual’s development and the interests of poetry as a discipline—to be gained in moving one’s focus outside of one’s own skull or garret or coterie of poetically minded friends, I can understand why some might see any such attempt to engage a wider, potentially less informed audience as being somewhat vulgar. It strikes me as a bit snobbish, but there are plenty of snobs to be found among the extroverts, as well, so I’m not likely to dismiss a poet’s work just because it doesn’t play well on a stage in front of a crowd of beered-up philistines. There’s plenty of bad poetry on both sides of this divide, and it’s a given that you’ll have to read—or listen to—your fair share of swill to get to what’s good. For my money, though, there’s a lot to be learned from other creative disciplines, some of which must engage an audience to reach full development. John’s attempt at comedy, and Michael Gunn’s success at same, is a case in point. The art form measures the success of one’s work in terms of an immediately accessible, physiological response: laughter. It has to communicate. And, all grandstanding about our “elitist art,” as Mr. Bloom would have our poetry be, aside, there’s real pleasure, and real worth, in poetry that communicates beyond the university classroom. But the worth of audience runs deeper than simply speaking to a wider community: it is an aid to the individual poet’s development.
Consider, for just a moment, Memo’s work, which consists, primarily, of sleight of hand, but which has, as a necessary component, the art of narrative. My favorite moments invariably occur after the show, when my general state of mind is one of assessment, measuring the merits and demerits of a particular show, but doing so in a very social atmosphere—pressing the flesh, so to speak, thanking the audience, the judges, and the performers, individually, when possible, for their contribution to the whole. Of the many people I might choose to socialize with in this atmosphere, Memo is by far my preferred company, because he genuinely enjoys his work, and is unafraid to share some trade secrets with me. A passing theoretical knowledge of the tricks themselves certainly provides lubrication for these conversations, as I’m usually perched somewhere in between the audience and the magician—I can’t do the tricks, having failed to develop the necessary physical skills, but I can usually spot the mechanism by which they are performed. For Memo, this is valuable because I can offer an honest assessment of how well the mechanism was disguised. In return, Memo adds to my theoretical knowledge by illustrating the manner in which the tricks are performed. On more than one occasion, he has shown me a trick that relied not on sleight of hand, but solely on narrative—tricks that would be unimpressive if not accompanied with a story that builds them up far beyond anything they’d merit if the mechanism were exposed. There is, for example, the “Chinese shuffle,” which Memo builds up by performing a series of shuffles, most of which are straightforward. To forestall any politically correct objections regarding the name of the Chinese shuffle, he throws the audience a self-depreciatory bone by demonstrating “the Turkish shuffle,” in which the deck is cut into two, the top cut is placed on the table, then is picked up again, airily describing a circle over the bottom half, finally to be placed back on the bottom half of the deck, leaving the deck obviously unchanged in any way. The Chinese shuffle, on the other hand, is by all appearances a complete disarrangement of the deck as a whole, in which the cards are flipped, in groups of four and five, back to front. In reality, the entire deck has been neatly halved into two segments, one of which faces the bottom of the deck, and the other facing the top of the deck. There is nothing special to performing this trick: it is merely a matter of knowing how the cards will align themselves, and building a narrative that suggests they have aligned themselves in a less orderly fashion.
And building a narrative…well, even should one fancy poetry a particularly honest art, one that eschews the evils of misdirection and illusion, building narratives is something poets can generally relate to.
There’s something else, though, in Memo’s work, that speaks directly to my own efforts in writing, and it has everything to do with his need for an audience. Memo is among the most regular contributors to the show, and he is genuinely grateful for the chance to work on a stage. And unlike some of the poets who have wandered across our stage, this has almost nothing to do with an exhibitionistic turn of personality. What Memo needs, to develop as a magician, is a live audience upon which to test his tricks. There’s a simple reason for this, and while developing the particular narrative necessary for a magic act does factor into it, it’s much more mechanical in nature. Put simply, Memo knows how his own tricks work. He can watch for “the angles” in a mirror at home, but, in a direct reversal of the conundrum one faces when using a mirror to see what one looks like with their eyes closed, Memo will always see the card, because he knows where it is. To test the trick, to smooth out the hitches in his own delivery, he has to engage someone who does not know what the trick is. For that, he has to have an audience that knows less about the discipline than he does. And, although I’m sure, were I worthy of notice, I would be roundly criticized by Mr. Bloom for drawing such a vulgar analogy, there are a few vital connections between what Memo does and what poets do. We misdirect. We represent things in a manner other than they are. And above all, we build a narrative. And, if we’ve done our homework properly, we know our own tricks, and can’t quite manage to not see the sleight of hand when our only audience is our own reflection. To get past that, to know that our efforts are effective, it’s necessary to engage an audience that knows a little less about those tricks than we do. It’s not a lowering of the discipline. It’s a test of whether the discipline is even relevant to anything outside of our own community.
On that point, tonight’s show sends a rather mixed message. The presence of a rather irritatingly self-involved group of loudmouths in our midst rather speaks to our basic irrelevance. But in the afterglow of what, as it turns out, ends up being one of the rowdiest shows we’ve ever produced, I find myself in the entranceway to the bar, trying to encourage John to push further, to push past one horrible night and to get to where he’s wanting to go, when one of the audience members interrupts us to shake my hand. “Hey, many thanks for putting this together. I really enjoyed it.”
“I’m glad. And thank you for coming out.”
“Absolutely. I’ll be back. You keep doing what you’re doing. This is the best form politics can take.”
I have to admit, I’m not sure whether the man was referring to the content of the show, or the show itself. I’d like to think the latter, in which case I could say, “Yeah. Yeah it really is.” A space in which everyone—even drunk, hairless, middle-aged German men given to raising the Nazi salute—is given their chance to speak. And, perhaps more importantly, is given an audience who will tell them exactly what they think of what was said.