Following the break, an afterword by our own Jackie Wang.
Poetry readings. Whether you love them or hate them, they can sometimes be an uncomfortable or bland affair. Some contemporary authors are committed to reinventing the format of “the reading”—using vulnerability, performance, and other attention-grabbing techniques to pump a little life into these often humdrum happenings. But video artist Laurel Nakadate takes the “the reading” to a whole new level.
In the video Untitled, Laurel has porn actresses read poems by Dora Malech. The interplay between Dora’s poems and the premise of the video is brilliant. The poems grapple with the tension between corporeality and disembodied intellect—being pure body or pure voice, being of the flesh or of the mind, but they settle on neither. Laurel’s video project and Dora’s text collapses those distinctions, using the body itself to speak. “If you give me a dollar I’ll take my top off / and let you see my heart,” reads actress Robbye Bentley. The body is not that which is mute, but that which sings. Another poem speaks to the ecstasy of being an embodied human with the line, “Believe me / when I tell you I’m kept / awake by the light / from my body, splayed star.”
The porn actresses in the video were asked to come to the “audition” (the audition being the final video itself) wearing their usually business attire: lacy lingerie, bright color bras. One woman—Robbye Bentley—even delivers her poems topless, covering her breasts with the poem “script” about a woman taking her top off for money. In recontextualizing the poetry reading event by having porn actresses read poems in settings like bathrooms and bedrooms, the video also dashes another expectation: that the porn actress is somehow less intellectual than the poet. The pairing of poetry and porn initially seemed unnatural to me. On the phone I asked Laurel, “Did the actresses think it was weird to be asked to read poems? How did they react?” She said no, that they loved it, that they were excited to be a part of the project.
Dora Malech—who has a new collection of poems titled Say So out later this month—provides rich material for the basis of this video. Her poems use tongue-in-cheek sentimental clichés and idiomatic language in a way that is playful and trangressive. I read these poems as the type of “female” narratives that embrace messiness and the failure to properly perform femininity. In “Face for Radio,” she writes, “If I were an operation, I’d be fly-by-night / and very bloody.” The subject of the poem is unreliable (“late for dinner”), messy (“a regrettable houseguest, wet towel on the bed”), “poorly executed,” and flighty (“going going gone”). The title “Face for Radio”—essentially a colloquialism for “ugly”—conceptually plays with the notion of the disembodied radio announcer, but turns the phrase on its head by depicting a subject who speaks with her body: “the yapper, if you will—and I will—on the cusp / of bikini season.” Language—disembodied—can approximate the thing it speaks of, but it ultimately fails to capture the rapture of embodiment, the “miracle-cum-miracle.” In “Inventing the Body,” Dora writes, “We called the heart the heart / because we could not say its real name, / even to each other, even in the dark.”
What immediately struck me was the vulnerability of Laurel’s video. It makes you feel uncomfortable. But when I watched the video again, I thought about this question of vulnerability some more and realized that the discomfort I felt was located within myself, not in the delivery of the poems or the performers themselves. I’m not much of a reader myself—I stutter and ramble incoherently. Whatever endearing vulnerability people may find in my delivery could be directly attributed to my utter discomfort with physically being on display. But I realized that the women who were reading the poems were totally comfortable in their bodies, more at ease being physically present than I could ever be. The vulnerability lay within my expectation, as a viewer, that the actresses would feel uncomfortable reading poems, near-naked and visible. Kate Kastle, Stacey Dollar, Robbye Bentley, Lucky Starr, and Stacy Adams—the women that read the poems in this video—unsettle the viewer with their understanding of embodiment, visible in their physical comfort. Jointly, Laurel Nakadate and Dora Malech explore potential of the flesh made text and the text made flesh—not either/or but together, as bodies that sing.