Wurm im apfel
Concrete poetry is a form with which even casual readers are probably familiar. Also known as ‘shape poetry’, it is dependant on layout and typography as much as more conventional elements such as rhyme or metre.
There’s usually a playful aspect to a concrete poem’s appearance, and an amalgamation of visual and linguistic elements make it something like a mashup between poetry and graphic design.
Of course, there are other ways of combining the visual possibilities of poetry with its linguistic content, something I learn during Wurm im apfel’s latest event in Oscars Cafe Bar on Fishamble Street.
Vicky Langan begins the evening’s performances without a word. She offers no introduction, no attempt at explanation and seemingly no sense of rhyme or reason as she sits onstage behind a mixing desk, creating otherworldly sounds in an intense performance that sets the tone for the rest of the evening.
Before we know it another figure takes the stage, with her back to the audience as she performs her opening piece. “There is no perspective”, she says. “Her face doesn’t matter. It’s the back of her head that speaks.” Máighréad Medbh brings us from one aural plane to another, but she still invokes the visual element of performance to intrigue the audience and interrogate their expectations.
This is perhaps more in line with what one would expect from a poetry night, but by the time Medbh is performing, presuppositions have been thrown out the window. In that sense it has already been a success, having adhered to Wurm’s self-stated aim to present “unusual, different and experimental poetry”.
Inspired by the 1965 concrete poem by Reinhard Döhl from which it takes its name, Wurm im apfel is a poetry organisation which has taken the concept of visual poetry a step further. Since 2008, it has dedicated itself to presenting experimental poetry in its various guises, bringing an eclectic mix of sound and performance to venues across Ireland.
For Wurm founder Kit Fryatt, poetry’s performative nature leaves the form open to multiple avenues of artistic presentation. As part of the International Literature Festival of Dublin, Wurm present this fresh approach to visual poetry in the performances of sound artist Vicky Langan and poets Máighréad Medbh and Clara Rose Thornton.
“Live poetry seems to me to have a natural overlap with performance art,” Fryatt said in a previous interview. “[T]hat can go places way beyond what people might think of as performance poetry. I find a lot of poetry just says stuff, and I want it to do stuff too.”
Which is exactly what happens as Langan uses digital effects to disrupt more familiar sounds during her performance. She relies heavily on analogue equipment and material, the familiar forms of both sound and audio production. Pre-recorded noises are continually relayed via numerous cassette tapes, and at one point she even picks up a violin to play two discordant notes simultaneously.
In fact, we don’t hear a single word from Langan during her performance. The only sounds from her mouth throughout are the ones she sends through the mixing desk to create further layers of dissonance. She occasionally draws on familiar source material: a child’s voice; footsteps; a dog barking.
But these pre-recorded samples are overlaid with more dissonant sounds until they lose their meaning to create something new instead. It’s hard not to compare her use of samples throughout to the words which fill concrete poetry, raw material that means one thing alone, but which offers something entirely new as it is re-shaped.
Medbh’s performance shows how this re-shaping is also possible when written words find themselves in the context of action. Like the conclusion of her second piece, when she describes the moment when the poem’s speaker and subject interact: “Finding and the found together collapse time”. It’s a knowing statement from a performer who is aware of what poetry can do. She uses form and space to create a new kind of artistic dimension, like a kind of performative concrete poetry.
Throughout, Medbh calls on the audience to seek out the meaning of her work, rather than simply bringing it to them. She performs seven poems on themes of space, love, gender and sexuality, all of which challenge regular preconceptions about how each topic is normally presented. Her re-imagining of gender politics in ‘Quantum Politics’ is her most striking example: “I revise the tired feminist lesson/that it is all personal/that behaviour informs the rule”.
Space is also a theme explored by the evening’s final performer, Dublin slam poetry champion Clara Rose Thornton. However, Thorton’s performance is a much more direct affair, as she introduces herself to the audience and provides tidbits of information about her travels, first across the U.S. and then through Europe.
Unlike Medhb she brings the audience on a journey with her, rather than calling them to join her on the other side. Her opening poem ‘Angels’, for example, tells the story of her travels, which she introduces by asking whether anybody else has experienced “Wanderlust” like her. Then, as she performs, she asks “What does does the road do to us?” with a telling emphasis on the final pronoun.
In her description of scenes from various U.S. states and European locations, it takes a moment to realise we’re still in a room on Fishamble Street. Thornton’s performance is an instant reminder of the power of narratives to transcend space and time, and of the elements of chance which delivered her to the stage in front of us to begin with.
It recalls an observation from earlier by Medhb during an introduction to one of her own poems: “liberation changes according to your thinking toward your culture and your situation.” It seems a desire for liberation is what connects the audience with each performer, as they seek out a challenge to poetic norms and the capabilities of performance poetry, one which is well facilitated by Wurm on a wet Sunday evening in May.
By Stevie McDermott