AN OPERA OF POP-UP CHORUSES: INTERVIEW WITH JENNIFER SCAPPETTONE
by G.C. Waldrep on June 14th, 2014
Here at Arcadia Central we at one time envisioned a gallery of New Media works that would highlight the intersection between pastoral/environmental writing and cyberspace. Alas, this part of our project has fallen into some neglect, largely due to the technological skill sets–or lack thereof–of the editors. This in no way impinges on the wonderful work of Jennifer Scappettone, the parameters of whose work prevented us from including it in the print anthology. As a taster, here is an excerpt from “Exit 43,” from our New Media and New Works gallery:
AP: I’m interested in this idea of a poetic project as “an opera of pop-up choruses”–“opera” in the sense of work, some larger structure or texture. Could you speak a little more to the question of “pop-up” and “choruses,” though? Which is to say, audience (in re “pop-up”: where, how, when, to whom?) and voice (in re “choruses”: the generation and/or selection of the textual components of Exit 43’s panels/choruses/scenes)….
JS: Yes: Exit 43, which I’ve been working on since 2005, was conceived of as “an archaeology of landfill interrupted by an opera of pop-ups”: a response to the invitation to be part of Atelos Press’s cross-genre list, but bound (in retrospect) to overreach the condition of a book, in conceptual and practical terms. I imagined the poem as an excavation, drilling into histories of land- and lifescape obfuscated by corporate interests, fracking into the Halliburton loophole, if you will. But this unearthing effort was to be sporadically disrupted by pop-up pastoral poems. I imagined these pop-up pastorals, or counterpastorals, as jingles interposing themselves in the manner of those pests of advertising, the basis and punctuation of our “free” access to data on the internet: erstwhile windows, now easily blocked and replaced by manic animated .gifs or cookie-chewing stalker sidebars, that compete for our concentration as we scan and scroll for targeted information. The idea was to score the frustration of one’s necessarily digital efforts to apprehend sprawling ecological calamity as archaeology, and simultaneously to disclose the poem’s own contradictory status as both a material and a virtual artifact—as the pop-ups belie traces of nostalgically literal cutting and pasting as well as of digital manipulation.
Naturally the attempt to provoke such an experience in book form poses seemingly insurmountable challenges—and I eventually began conversing with my colleague and comrade Judd Morrissey about possible stratagems for a virtual installation. This piece on the Arcadia Project site represents my own initial response to that conversation (produced with the help of Kelly Packer), while the collaboration with Judd is ongoing and under development elsewhere; curiously enough, the production of a fully digital piece produced not a pop-up on the Arcadia page, but a window to dig into, zooming and scouring for meaning. Though this fragment has been “hidden” online, I have used it in performance on numerous occasions over the past year. I chose not to add sound (at least not yet) so as to keep it flexible for live articulation.
The pop-ups were always conceived of as scores, specifically as scores for choral song—meant to be recited by multiple voices. They were cobbled together as euphonious but possibly specious and surely infuriating choruses of the buried facts, specters and chemical afterlives unearthed by the archaeology. So they are choral both in terms of their origins and in terms of their reanimation.
AP: I’m also interested in the larger question of how research should inform the art and craft–the practice–of poetry, especially for those of us who are interested in our ecological predicament. In your LIT statement, you wrote that Exit 43 “maps the research I’ve (literally) conducted since discovery” of the fact that your childhood neighborhood is part of a Superfund cleanup site. Can you describe in more detail the research you conducted, and the “mapping” process by which that research resulted in the poem-artifacts of Exit 43?
JS: During a year-long stint in my native land of New York after many years away, via an upbeat New York Times real estate article on urban pioneers in toxic Brooklyn, I discovered as if by accident, and over the course of related search strings, both that I was living above one of the largest oil spills in the United States and that I had grown up across the street from twin Superfund sites half an hour East: a wire company had polluted the land, water, and air with tens of thousands of tons of industrial sludge dumped into the adjoining municipal landfill (weeping heavy metals, solvents, oils, PCBs, plasticizers, etc.). My mother was undergoing chemotherapy at the time, and the enduring chemical battle took on harrowing and intimate proportions. But I didn’t aim to produce a memoir-like narrative of individual trauma. Despite the fact that while growing up starved for nature in the land of the Walt Whitman Mall, I was aware that my family and immediate neighbors inhabited a particularly grim and postindustrial plot of terrain next to the Expressway, seeming light years away from the new-money landscaping and bling of my peers in a Long Island suburb, what struck me in belated research was how pervasive the contamination of land and sea has been. I was concurrently revising a complex critical study about modernism and modernity in the city of Venice (now forthcoming), for example, and learning about the poisons lacing storied historic waterways such as the Grand Canal.
The pop-up choruses represent the effort to map the invisible contents of the site as one underbelly of American progress and prosperity, and those of a seemingly limitless series of coincident, co-implicated scandals and disasters. The choruses mean to conduct the voices in collision with one another that were exhumed by trawling through news coverage surrounding this quiescent scandal: they document not only the disaster, but the impossible process of researching the afterlife of garbage, the effects of substances such as benzene and PCBs on bodies, earth, air, and water, a series of often inconclusive EPA reports, the broken chain of accountability for the blight amidst a series of opportunistic sale-leasebacks and “capping” acts, and oral testimonies from the neighborhood of recent immigrants. The logics of Victorian poetasters—would-be romantics and embracers of the absurd such as Lewis Carroll—serve to link these sampled bits in a kind of wired suspension, but the reader is laden with the burden of bridging phrases and deducing the logic or illogic that results.
AP: Elaborating on the “opera” analogy, you’ve even referred to the text of Exit 43 as a “libretto.” Since my own artistic training and background is in music, rather than literature, I wonder: what is gained or lost that these works are silent to the ear? (Unless, of course, my laptop is malfunctioning….)
JS: I suppose that the definition of lyric as poetry that is meant to make a “soft sound,” as Dante puts it in De vulgari eloquentia, is relevant here: this work can be heard in the mind as one grapples for an inner articulation or understanding that is unspeakable.
But a libretto is always also bound for public performance, which is an arena I’ve been increasingly interested in, having been exposed to Poets Theater in the Bay Area in the oughts, working with Carla Harryman (and John Beer, Judith Goldman, Katie McGowan, Elana Elyce, and David Trinidad) in 2008 on stagings of Mirror Play and Kathy Acker’s Requiem, and being in dialogue with various members of the former Goat Island Performance Collective since I moved to Chicago. I’ve been lucky enough to project the scores and to stage collective performances of the work under varying degrees of formality: I performed the new pop-ups in 2009 at the Prosodic Body in Brooklyn, with Robert Kocik, Daria Faïn, and Stephanie Barber; at Naropa in 2010, I was lucky to have Akilah Oliver and Daniel Staniforth in choral recitation; at Red Rover that year, I was joined by Judd Morrissey, Mark Jeffery, and Lori Talley, at times breaking into melody; and in 2012, at the ballroom of the Art Institute of Chicago, tapping the distances between stage and upper gallery, I performed with the trip-up trio of Judd Morrissey, Justin Cabrillos, and cris cheek.
Much more elaborate performances with the extraordinary musicians of the Difforme Ensemble (Marco Ariano, Roberto Fega, and Renato Ciunfrini) took place at Corto Circuito in Cinecittà and at the American Academy in Rome in 2011 (with the voices of Karen Yasinsky and Ersela Kripa), and at Cinema Palazzo in Rome in 2012; and we hope to have the means to produce a recording anon.
The provocation of performing these pieces at the Prosodic Body led, further, to a precious collaboration of several years with the choreographer Kathy Westwater and architect Seung Jae-Lee. We worked for countless hours in the studio and in the field on the mapping and conducting of textual landscapes onto and through the body, toward their articulation as a series of solos, duets, and choruses through vocal exercise and gesture. Numerous pop-ups were incorporated into iterations of the performance work PARK, which staged the translation of distressed landscapes into spaces for the commons, honing in particularly on Fresh Kills Landfill—though gradually that work evolved its own site-specific scores.
In short, working like this to chart an invisible disaster, and to compose something like collective song, has imploded both lyric and the book for me. I’m increasingly enthralled not only by the extension of an invitation for readers to navigate in silence, to search, weave, and zoom out on telling linguistic remnants, but also by the chance to bring silenced ecological “accidents” into the disturbances of song and dance out loud.