The Operating System

6th ANNUAL NAPOMO 30/30/30 :: DAY 22 :: Brendan Leonard on Charles Mee

HAPPY POETRY MONTH, FRIENDS AND COMRADES!

For this, the 6th Annual iteration of our beloved Poetry Month 30/30/30 series/tradition, I asked four poets (and previous participants) to guest-curate a week of entries, highlighting folks from their communities and the poets who’ve influenced their work.

I’m happy to introduce Janice Sapigao, Johnny Damm, Phillip Ammonds, and Stephen Ross, who have done an amazing job gathering people for this years series! We’re so excited to share this new crop of tributes with you. Hear more from our four guest editors in the introduction to this year’s series.

Hungry for more? there’s 150 previous entries from past years here! You should also check out Janice’s piece on Nayyirah Waheed, Johnny’s piece on Raymond Roussel, Phillip’s piece on Essex Hemphill, and Stephen’s piece on Ronald Johnson’s Ark, while you’re at it.

This is a peer-to-peer system of collective inspiration! No matriculation required.
Enjoy, and share widely.

– Lynne DeSilva-Johnson, Managing Editor/Series Curator

Brendan Leonard on Charles Mee

Cuck_Mee

A poem is not the words on the page, but how it moves its audience. Mee’s plays are not his words, but what artists and audiences imagine because of his words.

Whenever I sit down to write a poem, I think of Wallace Stevens’ plea in the final stanza of “Of Modern Poetry.” The “poem of the mind in the act of finding/What will suffice” must “be the finding of a satisfaction, and may/Be of a man skating, woman dancing, a woman/Combing.” A poem, for me, is a living thing that changes with each reading. A poem must bring about the action of going into oneself. Skating, dancing, and combing all require concentration, but also allow the mind wander introspectively and imagine. A poem isn’t so much the words you hear or read, but where and in what directions the words lead your wandering mind. Poetry then is a dramatic action that plays out in an audience, each member lost in thought, reminded or inspired or confused by what they hear or read.

Well, maybe this all has to do with my life on the stage: singing, acting, and dancing since I was small, but poetry for me is a script for performance. Whether elaborately designed or read simply, I believe poetry must be read aloud/performed and I’ve always been interested in imagining how different poems might be staged. Each poem, no matter how few words, is a world onto itself – an imagined alternate reality for the audience to indulge in, so I’ve chosen a playwright, Charles Mee, to pay tribute to. His plays contain poetic dialogue and display strange worlds that resemble our own reality just enough to see ourselves in them with alarming clarity. Mee writes his dialogue with line breaks and all his characters share the spirit of the poet in how they explain themselves to others and how they understand their world. Mee’s play, Big Love based on The Suppliants by Aeschylus, is about 50 brides who flee to a manor in Italy to avoid marrying their 50 cousins. The play ends with a single wedding, not fifty, between two willing lovers and a poem spoken line by line by two characters, Bella and Giuliano. It begins –

This is why at weddings
everybody cries
out of happiness and sorrow
regret and hope combined.
Because, in the end,
of all human qualities, the greatest is sympathy—

Mee’s plays are poems that distinguish plural voices as characters and aid the reader with stage directions, but nonetheless his work is a poet’s work. Mee allows his words to be changed and reinterpreted with each reading. All of his plays are available for free on his website, the (re)making project, which offers his work to theater makers freely. Of course, if a company were to stage a play verbatim he asks for royalties, but otherwise – he writes, “Please feel free to take the plays from this website and use them freely as a resource for your own work: that is to say, don’t just make some cuts or rewrite a few passages or re-arrange them or put in a few texts that you like better, but pillage the plays as I have pillaged the structures and contents of the plays of Euripides and Brecht and stuff out of Soap Opera Digest and the evening news and the internet, and build your own, entirely new, piece—and then, please, put your own name to the work that results.” This is doing the work that Stevens asked for in “Of Modern Poetry.” A poem is not the words on the page, but how it moves its audience. Mee’s plays are not his words, but what artists and audiences imagine because of his words.

Inspired by Mee, I wrote a collection of poems, Where You and I Becoming And, which I intend to be performed and reimagined. I offer the text as poetic putty for artists and audiences to perform differently every time, whether a simply reading or an elaborate production. The material is inherently a meditation on queerness, gender, and falling in love, but I’m more interested in where minds wander as they experience the text than the words I’ve written. Here is an excerpt:

If I am subjected to this body
And these circumstances
And this praise
And this criticism,
Which wiggles me in
My directions –
What am I when I use my voice to tell
You what I am?

I recommend perusing http://www.charlesmee.org/ or http://cargocollective.com/brendanleonard/Writing and allowing your mind to wander even as you skate, dance, or comb.

Brendan Leonard is a multidisciplinary artist, specializing in performance and writing, but he also makes dances, movies, drawing, and sculptures. He received a B.A. in Theater & Dance and English from Colby College and additional training at the North Shore Music Theater, Headlong Performance Institute, Upright Citizens Brigade, and Gaiety School of Acting. Brendan is a script reader for the Public Theater and resides in New York City

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