String Theory

Andrew Hultkrans on a performance with poet Anne Carson

New York

Left: A view of the performance. Right: Poet Anne Carson. (All photos: David Velasco)

If I were to apply a “Thrilla in Manila”–style sports sobriquet to Anne Carson’s reading/performance at NYU last Friday, it would be “The Skein at Skirball.” How else to describe an event where a poet—a Canadian poet, no less—drew some seven hundred people to hear her read while an amiable ponytailed fellow wrapped yellow yarn around her person and three young dancers tied themselves in knots on the surrounding stage? Did I mention that the poet had the audience vote—from three choices—on the correct pronunciation of skein? String may talk, but yarn talks louder. Let’s uncoil it and see where it leads.

Carson, the Lillian Vernon Writer-in-Residence at the NYU Creative Writing Program, has under her name as many awards as books and is one of a very few surviving examples of a nearly extinct species: the famous living poet. (Seven hundred people, Friday night, New York City, poet—any questions?) Her outsize fan base can be partly attributed to the fact that Carson is not really a poet, exactly, or not only a poet. Rather, she is a postmodernist-classicist textual artist, as comfortable writing about Aretha Franklin and Joseph Beuys as about Sappho and Ovid, as likely to deploy spare bursts of arrhythmic prose as dactyls and trochees. Since the 1960s, a playful bunch of Renaissance Faire types calling themselves the Society for Creative Anachronism have carved a place for themselves in the Bay Area. While Carson is not, academically speaking, a medievalist—nor, judging from her slim frame, a mutton-and-mead kind of gal—the title suits her: She is a creative anachronist.

For a writer fixated on the color red, the Skirball Center was a sympathetic venue. The seats lining the handsome, wood-paneled auditorium were upholstered in a fetching fire-engine hue. These were filled by an equally attractive all-ages crowd that radiated the kind of anticipatory excitement usually reserved for rock stars. Without flourish, Creative Writing Program director Deborah Landau emerged onstage, welcomed the audience, and introduced Mark Bibbins, who in turn introduced Carson, announcing that he had made a film to kick off the evening. Quoting Brian Eno, Bibbins said his film was guided by the principle that “it must be as ignorable as it is interesting.” After ten or so minutes of close-up shots of paintings, collages, and pages from Carson’s books, scored by ambient electronic music, Bibbins had succeeded in meeting this standard.

Then Carson appeared, resembling a fashionable student in her naval-inspired jacket, black floral pleated skirt, black tights, and red cowboy boots, accompanied by the yarn man and the three dancers (two males, one female). In a tiny voice, Carson said that tonight was a “neo-post-Fluxus evening,” deadpanning that we were looking at the entirety of the movement. She explained that the first fragments she would be reading were from the subject index of Roni Horn’s forthcoming 2009 Whitney Museum retrospective catalogue, the writers of which, including Carson, had been asked to base their entries on the artwork titles. Carson admitted that she had misunderstood the instructions, writing on individual words in the titles instead. One fragment involved H. G. Wells’s long-suffering wife. Carson read in a breathy, affectless voice, occasionally rolling on her ankles.

A view of the performance.

She then began the titular “String Talks,” “thirteen-second lectures” on far-flung subjects, probably drawn from her 1992 book Short Talks. Topics included Gertrude Stein, trout, Ovid, “major and minor,” rectification, walking backward, hedonism, ducks, and “things that happen again.” She interspersed the talks with fragments from her poem “Memoir of Orpheus,” in which the mythological figure suffers everyday, modern-world problems. Meanwhile, the yarn man spun various asymmetrical loops around the stage, sometimes using Carson’s hands or limbs as a joint, and the dancers did a kind of push-me-pull-you Chaplin/Keaton routine. The relationship of all this kinesis to Carson’s words was unclear, but hey, it’s art, and if I were a poet reading to seven-hundred-plus people in a grand auditorium, I’d want some visual aids, too.

Next, your correspondent was treated to a flush of home-team pride as Carson announced that she would be reading a longer piece she wrote, commissioned by Artforum, on a painting by Betty Goodwin. One of the 1000 Words essays by writers on individual artworks, Carson’s effort consisted entirely of seventy conditional if clauses. After digesting other Artforum pieces, she had concluded that the critics “covered the artwork with an opinion,” and however she racked her brain, she could not muster an opinion of Goodwin’s painting. Hence, her conditional essay about lacking an opinion of an artwork. She apologized in advance for its length—“It’s only three pages, but it will seem endless”—and joked that once we heard the name Freud, it was two-thirds done (“the only time that Freud’s name will inspire hope”).

Seventy if clauses later, the yarn man and dancers lined up chairs on the lip of the stage, facing Carson, and the poet concluded with two final short talks, in which the audience was asked to participate. We said “James Joyce” on cue, completing a rhyme on “Joseph Beuys.” We said “Deciduous?” in response to “Hair on female flesh.” The women in the audience said, “Let’s buy it!” The men said, “What a bargain!” And then it was over. Carson received big applause, and the crowd seemed sated. Not exactly an Obama campaign rally, but given the impoverished status of poetry in contemporary culture, a cause for hope nonetheless.