Transatlantic Howl! An Interview with Mary Kite

Spring '05 TOC

On October 14, 2004, a unique event took place. Transmitted via the Internet, spanning nine time zones, Transatlantic Howl! A Dedication to Allen Ginsberg was an international poetry reading that made literary history.

How did this happen? It starts with screens. Movie projection screens, computer screens. Split those screens into six segments, one for each of Paris, London, Newark, Ann Arbor, Boulder and San Francisco. As poets in each location read one by one from Howl (and, in the second half of the event, their own work), their performances are broadcast, in their own segment of the screen, on the Net. As the program of events progresses, live audiences watch performances in their own locations, as well as on-screen transmissions from other sites. And throughout the world, from Anchorage to Auckland, people watch live on their computers: in offices and IT labs and coffee shops, in their pajamas. A recording of the event is archived at arts.internet2.edu/howl.html.

Transatlantic Howl!'s artistic director and co-producer was Boulder-based poet Mary Kite. Via email, Andrew Wille interviewed her about the organization and meaning of this extraordinary event.

How did you conceive of Transatlantic Howl! A Dedication to Allen Ginsberg?

Allen Ginsberg's poetry readings were incredibly powerful. With a poetic presence so vibrant and resonant, for him death seemed an impossibility. Because a sense of immortality was fixed in his poetry, I never felt it was important to write to him or be introduced. His reading of poetry was enough. It said it all. He seemed too alive to leave the planet. Some believe he has not.

Last year, I co-produced and coordinated Transcontinental Poetry Reading: A Dedication to Kenneth Koch through Internet2. It was a golly-gee whiz tech event where streaming video and audio connected audiences at seven university sites not only with each other, but also with anyone else observing via the Net.

The U.S. presidential elections were creeping up and the poetic community needed to do something. Is there a better way to awaken sleepy voters than by reading a true piece of crystallized knowledge, Howl, as presented by a few high priests of poetry? Patently not! Then it dawned on me, "Okay, I can create a reading of Howl from San Francisco to Paris . . . and transform this transatlantic poetic happening into a political statement. Ha! On the Internet, the FCC will not be able to block anything Amiri Baraka, Anne Waldman or Ed Sanders say! On the Internet, Howl can be read for the first time during non-pajama hours since the mid-80s!"

I had no idea of what I would need to do to make this happen.

So, how did you make this happen?

Every event involving poetry as its primary focus is a missionary endeavor. The true question is . . . how does one throw an international poetry reading without any money? The logistics of this event extend beyond a year's worth of detailed inventory. It primarily involved San Francisco State University, University of Colorado-Boulder, University of Michigan, New Jersey Institute of Technology, Birkbeck and UCL at the University of London, and, in Paris, ENSAM.

My train of thought was this: first, find out where the technology for Internet2 exists in England and France; second, locate universities who have people on staff (preferably full professors) who are interested in contemporary poetics and unafraid of technology and events; third, locate key poets in the United States who knew Allen Ginsberg, adore his work and feel this is a worthwhile happening; fourth, time the event so that it does not interfere with religious holidays or major sporting events or (last but not least) occur late in the school semester, when everyone is burned out.

Were all these tasks easily achieved? What was the greatest challenge?

It will be difficult for me to explain France. I'm still slightly confused about France. However, I'm accustomed to . . . being confused. I actually enjoy confusion. I now believe the folks with whom I was working didn't understand Internet2 technology was bleeding-edgely, chokingly expensive and couldn't be sent over standard telephone lines used for video conferencing. Fortunately, at the last minute we were able to locate a venue with the corresponding technology, called Renater.

How did things go on the day?

Transatlantic Howl! A Dedication to Allen Ginsberg was a beautiful expression of poetry through an unfamiliar medium. It was very successful here, in Boulder, and, I believe, across the world.

Michigan's theatre was a forty-thousand-dollar extravaganza. At CU in Boulder we had a good crowd in an elegant carpeted hall meant for poetry readings and lectures, with the only source of light bouncing from the screen. It provided the perfect Deleuzian "time-image/movement-image" effect. Our audience was incredibly animated. They cheered at Anne Waldman's excellent MC-ing and reacted with shouts and whistles at Amiri Baraka's performance. Some wept at others. Many found Jacqueline Cahen-Sergent and Alice Notley's bilingual interpretation of Allen Ginsberg's work to be especially moving. Ann Doyle and I have been receiving letters praising the poetic happening and stating interest in forming another event. From a sociological perspective, the reading was unique.

The biggest divergence was the fact that we, as poetic community, couldn't all go out afterwards as a complete group. After the event, Joanne Kyger and Robert Gluck went dumpster diving around SFSU and found "some great pictures of Ezra Pound, Castro as a young man, and a falcon with a mouse in its mouth, along with lots of Renaissance art." Anne Waldman, Anne Carson and Ken Mikolowski had a party at Ken's house in Michigan. I hope Stephen Mooney and his UCL and Birkbeck friends went to the pub. It was still early in the afternoon in Colorado, so folks went back to work. I don't know exactly what everyone else did.

Someone mentioned the reading felt a bit vacuous, describing a sense of frustration in not being able to hear the response of audiences in other locales or being able to speak freely with other readers in distant places. Flashback to a scene in The Wizard of Oz where Dorothy is trying to communicate with her Kansan family locked visually in the witch's crystal ball—a true feeling of dislocation. Another person said that compared to radio there was much more information given, and a sincere sensation of satisfaction was held in this visual warmth—a warmth that would have never happened had it not been for this technology.

Did it successfully transmit a political statement?

Did it make our poetic community stronger?

The warmth of those human moments: the toilet paper that seemed to rip too soon in Stephen Mooney's performance. The connection falling at one point: could we redial fast enough? And don't you think we saw more than we expected of Alice Notley's handbag? Such glitches merely highlighted the spontaneity of the event and fostered a very special intimacy.

Heisenberg said, "The world appears as a complicated tissue (tissue paper?) of events, in which connections of different kinds alternate or overlap or combine and thereby determine the texture of the whole." This idea is not something new but has been understood by Hindus in the Mandaka Upanishad. In Buddhism, the Avatamsaka Sutra further illustrates this idea as a cosmic web which plays a central role in Tantric Buddhism . . . Tantra, a Sanskrit word that means "to weave", refers to the interdependence of all events and things. So the intimacy you and others were experiencing from our international poetry reading was a condensed version of the universe as we know it. What we were witnessing was the technological mirror of a mystical experience we commonly acknowledge in nature through poetry . . . as embodied in Alice Notley's handbag and Stephen Mooney's ripped toilet paper.

You've also organized a number of live multimedia events, such as Tyger! Tyger! on William Blake in 2002 and Surrealist! on Jean Cocteau in 2003. Did Transatlantic Howl! differ significantly from those?

Holy handbag. Holy toilet paper. What was singular about Transatlantic Howl! was that it was the first time in the history of literature that a poem had been read across the ocean! Howl is also a political poem that stirs people up. I chose to orchestrate this event in order to express my frustration with the current U.S. administration and our occupation of Iraq. I also knew other poets felt the same. Since I was not willing to sit in the middle of Times Square and set fire to myself, the Howl event was the most powerful means of reaching a lot of people through poetry that I could conceive. The other events were, by comparison, apolitical.

So what's next? Do you have plans to organize any other events in the near future?

Ann Doyle has already approached me to do something involving Internet2. Anne Waldman mentioned that she and Anne Carson would enjoy presenting a piece based on Aeschylus. In the immediate future, I'll be presenting performance poetry involving the Meta Skateboard Team and KimOlson/SweetEdge for the Mariposa Collective. The dancer Ana Baer and I are scheming about an installation project at the Getty in Los Angeles. There are always possibilities. Simply writing poetry is such a pleasure!

How do you find the production of live performance-based events interacting with your own writing? In your own work, do you always write with performance in mind?

Ha! I write with the hope that someone will eventually invite me over for drinks. But, truly, everything affects what I write. The majority of events I construct are biographical. In order to formulate content, I've spent a great deal of time in libraries researching topics such as the music of Paul Bowles, the spiritual inspirations of Allen Ginsberg and the illustrations of William Blake. These periods of study are meditational. By allowing my thoughts and ideas to follow a natural course during many hours of reading, I'm sucked into a void that is profoundly absorbing.

Many ideas strike while I'm walking my dogs. Because Hosky, my 120 lb. Bouvier, is very protective of me, I find remote mountain trails that are habitually exposed to terrible weather (another reason for wanting to be invited over for drinks). I constantly find myself wandering over topographies that are nowhere but met with a cerebral everywhere. This "cerebral everywhere" provides corridors of interpenetration into information communicated through the illumination of imagination. This is how I process my research into creativity. Everyone should adopt dogs and start hiking! It will do wonders for finding new ways to present our poetry.

Do you think it is possible to overemphasize performance at the expense of the pleasures of the solitary reader sitting in an armchair with a book in their hands?

No. Our society needs to communicate outside of the page, movie theatre and television set. The critical skills of the general public are melting more quickly than polar icecaps. Is attending a poetry performance healthier than D.H. Lawrence? It certainly is if you have a hot date. Read Sons and Lovers during the week!

If resources and possibilities were endless, what would be your dream event?

An endless series of red wheelbarrows, filled with gold lucre exclusively directed towards the purpose of promoting poetry?

Is this a beauty pageant question? Yes. I think it is a beauty pageant question! My "dream event" would be a multicultural extravaganza of William Blake. Initiated as a Broadway musical based on William Blake's poetry and illustrations, it would be a coordinative effort of the Metropolitan Museum and the Tate Gallery. Admission would be free! An animation-infused film, inspired by the original Broadway hit based on William Blake, and directed by Jim Jarmusch as a twist to his Dead Man, would be released after the show completed its run. Finally, a panel of international experts with associated friends from the Writing and Poetics Department of Naropa and their families would take a transatlantic journey on the QE2. This symposium would be conducted as a floating campus and writing workshop for the purposes of fully examining Blake within a modern context. The ship would be equipped with a library of 30,000 books . . . all about William Blake. A massage therapist will make rounds for those who have studied too hard. Nova Scotian dance bands, the Kronos Quartet, Rjd2 and others would provide music. Food designed by the Culinary Institute of Art would be served. Several publishing houses would also be on board to get things moving for new books.

The revenue generated from all of this activity would pour into several well-organized philanthropies to sustain the scholarships of emerging poets and writers.

When do we depart?
Thanks, Mary!

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