Tuesday, September 28, 2010

In Case You Missed It: A reading report on Ariana Reines

by Steven Lance

Ariana Reines did not walk onstage in a pantyhose helmet. She wasn’t wearing a burkha of trash bags over a scotch-tape bra that crinkled her boobs and refracted the spotlight. As the audience clapped and finished red cups of prosecco, Ariana did not rip through her black plastic outerwear, break her stick-on nails and dig the stumps into her arms until they bled, “saying something about women and fashion.”

That had been the plan, though, she said.

As it happened, Ariana Reines took the stage modestly in a black sweater and black pants, with a fifth of Old Grandad as her only accessory. She had stayed somewhere downtown the night before, she said, somewhere cheap; bedbugs and “fucking the guy from the hotel” had kept her from finishing her ensemble in time.

“But this is a poetry event,” Ariana said, “so we can still appreciate it conceptually.”

She promised scary surprise for the end of the night. I can only imagine what everyone was imagining. Then she asked any audience-members who could already tell they weren’t going to like her to leave. It’ll save us all time, she said. She waited. No one moved.

I sat in the shadowy safety of the comfortable seats, wishing I could be Ariana Reines, lusting after Ariana Reines, fearing Ariana Reines. Her performance at CCA last Friday was, among many other things, sort of early punk: glammy, visceral, abrasive, smart, funny. I came away feeling as if I had split my night between an intellectualist literary thing and an grungy house-show in Oakland.

In the contemporary poemosphere, Ariana’s work is unique, partly because she does things many poets seem afraid to do. She talks about fucking. She risks things, emotions. She valorizes “the work that humiliates itself.” But there’s more to her than scandalizing the bourgeoisie. She’s obscene, yeah, but she never comes off as sensational; she’s emotional, but never sentimental — and she’s intellectual, but not quite academic. I think she’s our Catullus.

Or our Exene Cervenka. It doesn’t really matter whom she’s channeling; she seems to be a writer who is always, necessarily, what she is. I’m misquoting a line from one of her poems by saying this, so I’ll throw the real thing in here:

“When I am on all fours and I have to pee and he has to pee and he fucks me the tension in our bellies and the blood in our middles makes us have to be what we are.”

I like this line because I would never have written it in a thousand lifetimes. And also because it’s really complicated. What it’s describing is a sex act that leads not to transcendence, godliness, soulification, but to something like ecstatic incorporation. Not toward a soul but a body: the penetrating force is Sebastian’s arrows, not Christ’s wounds. It’s a figure of dualism conflating itself and becoming whole. And this seems to rhyme with something I noticed in the reading.

At least since Wagner’s innovations at Bayreuth (most essentially, killing the house-lights and nailing down the seats), theaters have been structurally and systematically turning audiences into voyeurs, performers into spectacles, depersonalizing everyone. The theater last Friday at CCA, with its movie-house chairs, convincing spotlights, and elevated stage, was fully equipped to do the same — but Ariana refused to be aestheticized. Every time she felt the fourth wall descending, Ariana attacked it like a German kid with a sledgehammer, or Don Rickles. She talked to the audience, inviting questions after almost every poem, passed the Old Grandad to a friend in the front row, and interrogated anyone who looked like they might be heading to an exit.

“Goodbye, Mister,” Ariana stopped one poem to say. “Everyone, we have lost the man in stripes.”

“I’m just peeing,” said the man in stripes (who later proved his good faith with involved questions about Ariana’s translations).

Ariana never failed to be funny in these exchanges, and was usually comically self-deprecating (she did her best to minimize even her most formidable credentials, such as translating the writings of Anarcho-Zionists Tiqqun, and serving as French interpreter on a UN relief mission to Haiti) but I found myself wondering whether the moments of banter between poems weren’t themselves literary events, or at the very least, somehow, expository. Thinking about this during the reading, I typed unnecessarily cryptic notes in my phone: “Persona as poem.” “Body = Body of Work.”

But I was probably missing the point, because the poems were holding it down on their own. Ariana is sexy and charismatic, and seems to have strong ideas about how her work and her public persona should be experienced, but the poems would be good even without all of this.
Another thing: I get the impression from hearing Ariana read that she’s an expert in Medieval French literature, which would make sense in a very neat way. Besides being our Catullus or whatever, I think she’s also something like a troubadour: she writes in the vernacular, she makes art of her romantic adventures, she spreads poetry beyond the clerics, and, also, secretly, she sings.
Troubadour-like, she invited the audience to come closer before she started reading Friday. She began and ended the night with covers. The first was spoken: she read the lyrics to Kurt Weill’s “September Song,” which became an incantation in her hands, more magical and just as melancholy as the well-known Jimmy Durant interpretation. “Oh, the days dwindle down to a precious few / September, November / And these few precious days I'll spend with you / These precious days I'll spend with you.”
She stood while reading this, but knelt for her own poems. If issues of stability and the less-than-half-full bottle of Old Grandad were a factor in her decision, then I can only say that Ariana is a very classy and subtle drunk.

Explaining that she had read from The Cow last time she was in San Francisco, Ariana performed only works from Court de Lion and her new book, Mercury, which is coming out in four installments from Fence Books.

I was especially into a poem called “Palace of Justice,” which is going to be part of Mercury, so I was happy to find a selection from it on Fence’s website. Here’s a selection from that selection:

You shake your head like Stevie Wonder when you come
Your wife says I am a skank who looks like a rat
I have to admit I agree with her
And I do not understand altogether
My tendency toward violent disclosure
As though I deserved it or
As though you did. This does not matter however
Because inside the Palace of Justice
There sits a craggy man
Whose desolate honesty belongs to the earth and to earthly things
And in this respect his desolation is accorded to the evil
Only of earthly things

If I were in grad school right now, I would write a paper called “Neo-Neotericism in the Poetics of Ariana Reines.” Since I’m not, I won’t, but I will say that Ariana’s poetry gets to me in a way that most other new work doesn’t. Yes, I do like that it scandalizes my bourgeois decorum, but it’s more than that.

Last spring, when Ariana was the visiting Holloway Poet at UC Berkeley, I was lucky enough to take a workshop with her. And the Ariana Reines I got to know a little in this class was a revelation.

Ariana Reines, the one in the poems, is superhuman, superhumanly vulnerable, and impossibly cool. She’s the bloody-nosed older sibling every girl and boy wants to be, the one who has a lot of sex and is famous and probably carries a knife.

In the workshop, Ariana was still inalienably cool, but she was also kind, responsive, fanatically well-read, and a talented teacher with expansive tastes in poetry. She encouraged us to break free from the workshop’s mandate of safely-departicularized vagueness. She challenged us to write poems that risked something, poems that made us uncomfortable, poems that made us weep. She fought against slickness, against retreating into jokiness. And she exhibited very good taste in the work she brought in to share with us: I still have most of these photocopied sheets at home. The whole experience was a wonderful treat.

I should get back to describing the reading, though, and here’s a good point for re-entry. Remember the scary surprise Ariana mentioned at the beginning? It turned out to be not all that scary, and sort of wonderful. Last time I saw Ariana read, she was denouncing The Watchmen for injuring Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” by playing it over terrible superhero sex. She called for a moratorium on its use in media. And then I remembered reading, in Cour de Lion, something about listening to Leonard Cohen to feel “the popular emotions.”

Everyone has a special relationship with Leonard Cohen, I know, but I might speculate that, for Ariana, he is linked to an ideal sincerity, a personal emotional register of pain and beauty. Maybe not. Maybe I’m saying more about myself than about her. Either way, the scary thing turned out to be “Hallelujah.” Ariana brought a guitar from backstage, apologized effusively, then sang the haunting song in what one audience-member called “a wonderful quaver” and other audience members described as an honestly good voice. Even her finger-picking was impressive, at least to me. It was really a moving experience. Like Don Quixote calling to his Dulcinea, Ariana was identifying and saving something beautiful from years of abuse.

After the reading, when the audience spilled out to have a weekend night in the city Ariana stayed behind for a long time, talking to the people crowding around. And this was the Ariana that I remember from our workshop, the Ariana who sang “Hallelujah” and in doing so undid a generation of media exploitation and cheapening. She was warm, sincere, and kind — what she is. I walked out and into the misty nighttime, feeling very lucky to have been there.

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