Sunday, January 10, 2010

Kevin Killian and the Poets Theater

In the 40 years I've lived in San Francisco I can't remember a book that has already met with such universal and completely well-deserved acclamation as THE KENNING ANTHOLOGY OF POETS THEATER: 1945-1980, edited by Kevin Killian and David Brazil and published this month by Kenning Editions.

The anthology of works from this fascinating literary genre, overlooked by mainstream criticism but not any longer, includes a selection of plays ranging from Black Mountain to the Harvard-based Cambridge Poets Theater, to the West Coast Beats and San Francisco Renaissance, and from there to the langpo performances at the Grand Piano in the 1970's.

To quote from the book's advertisement: "The largest and most comprehensive anthology of its kind yet assembled, the volume collects classics of poets theater as well as rarities long out of print and texts from unpublished manuscripts and archives. It will be an indispensable reference for students of postwar American poetry and avant-garde theater."

In advance of the poets theater festival to be held at Small Press Traffic to be held on January 15, 22, and 24, I asked Kevin Killian about the new book and and the upcoming launch party on January 22nd.

Kevin, how did the Poets Theater book project get started?

In February 2008, Patrick Durgin contacted me from Chicago, asking me if I would edit this book for him. After some initial hesitation, I agreed, and brought on a young collaborator, the Bay Area-based poet and editor David Brazil. The two of us (well, the three of us, for Durgin has done more than either David or I to put this book together) worked like dogs in the months that followed, right up into and past the very last deadline. Kenning (the press) had never done a book of this scope, and I kept testing the waters as we discovered more and more plays we wanted to put into the book—would there ever come a time when Durgin put his foot down and told us no? That never happened. It's a big old son of a gun, the book, and I have found it useful for propping open doors as well as, you know, being the ultimate resource in US poets theater work during the Cold War era.

You've been involved with writing and producing poets theater yourself for many years—what sparked your interest in this fascinating but more or less widely overlooked literary genre, and what keeps you involved with it today?

I owe my initiation into this world to an amazing pair of Language poets, Carla Harryman and Tom Mandel. Well, we called them Language poets at the time. They both lived in the Bay Area in those years (1987 or 1988) and they asked me to act in their play Fist of the Colossus, which had its premiere at Small Press Traffic when it was still a bookstore at 24th and Guerrero. I had so much fun entering their world, and it hit me that, although up to that point I had found the poetry of Mandel and Harryman difficult (in different ways), I absorbed it like a fish when I was actually acting in their writing. I learned a valuable lesson about collaboration through that experience. I stopped thinking of my own "voice" as being of particular interest, even to myself, and decided to try to push the envelope of subjectivity by bringing it onto the stage. So I began writing plays of my own and have written about—I don't know, fewer than 60—since then.

What are some of the plays we're going to see at the Small Press Traffic festival here in San Francisco later this month?

I am directing "The Corpse," by Russell Atkins, a Grand Guignol play written in 1954, about a wealthy woman whose husband has died, but once a year she visits the mausoleum with her servants and has the crypt broken into so she can visit him once a year. Russell Atkins and John Ashbery are the grand old men of our anthology—still alive, still active. Atkins is a musician, educator, a million things, a great poet who lives in Cleveland where, in 1950, he founded the first black-owned magazine of avant-garde writing and poetry, Free Lance. Getting him for our book was a fist punching hole in air thrill for me, and I owe it to our man on the spot, the poet Tom Orange who approached Atkins on our behalf and followed through.

So we'll have Cliff Hengst playing the mad widow—he is the most extraordinary stage presence I've ever seen—always fabulous—"The Corpse" will come alive once again like some crazy dream of Poe! But also the evening will include other short plays by Robert Duncan, Joe Brainard, Bruce Andrews, and a world premiere, a scene from Barbara Guest's 1967 play Chinese Ghost Restaurant. And of course David and I will be there to sign books. And even Patrick will be there, our publisher, all the way from Chicago. Come on down!

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The Kenning Anthology of Poets Theater: 1945-1980 is available at Small Press Distribution in Berkeley.

Small Press Traffic presents a poets theater festival on January 15, 22, and 24, which will include a book launch and signing on the the 22nd. Details for these events will be posted at the Small Press Traffic website.

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