Poetry by Lisa Buscani
Tia Chucha Press
Reviewed by C. J. Laity
(The following review was first published in Letter eX back in February, 1993.)
Physically, Jangle is a beautiful book, a professionally published piece of art that both Buscani and Tia Chucha can be proud of. It is a book that struggling poets should be envious of, the epitome of a dream materialized. Its artwork and editing are also to be admired. It is rather thick, proving the artist is not just some two-poem poet. Besides having the titles of the poems in big bold letters stamped right in the middle of the poems, which distracts from the fluent nature of Buscani's voice, Jangle is a perfect representation of what performance poetry is all about. And who better than Buscani to show us?
Buscani may very well be one of the last true performance poets left in Chicago, not afraid to get in your face and present herself with an attitude as a performance poet and nothing less. Buscani thrives on the energy and rush of letting the world know she is alive. When she is watched on stage, she holds the cards and we are awed as she presents four aces. No matter what our objection to the politics of the Slam-system, Buscani's poetry rings true. Lisa has won the National Slam, appeared in Time Magazine, and is planning a national tour. There is no doubt that she is quickly becoming America's premier poet.
One of the difficulties with reviewing the published work of a performance poet is finding that poet's unique literary voice. If you have ever seen the poet perform, it takes some effort to stretch beyond the audio voice. While reading Jangle, I heard Lisa's performance pauses and inflections as my mind had recorded them from Milly's Orchid Show, The Green Mill, The Bob Shop or any other venue in which she had performed. Yet these pauses and inflections are not typically on the pages of Jangle. There are no italics, boldface letters or underlining, nor are the poems written in a monologue prose form as the mind's eye might imagine while hearing her recite. One of her most popular spoken-word pieces, "These Boots Are made For Walking," for example, doesn't contain the same pauses when it appears on the page:
would knock over and dump out
any desk that didn't match her
Usually, my desk.
In the text, we hear a pause after each line, an extended pause after each period, a longer pause where there is a space between each group of lines, and a shorter pause after the comma. During the performance of this poem the first three lines would heard without noticeable pause, and the other pauses would rely more on the timing and rhythm of the performance, so that the pauses become more unique than simple punctuation can illustrate.
Through Jangle, which is concrete proof that performance poetry can stand up on the page, we find a different level to Buscani's work. Chances are you've seen Buscani perform the previously quoted poem. See how difficult it is to separate her literary voice from her performance voice by looking at the following lines, trying to blot out any memory of the way Buscani might read it:
if you touch my desk again,
I will rip out your uterus
and spare future generations
the terror of your spawn
To more easily discover her unique literary voice, let's shift over to one of the less theatrical groups of lines. We find the words contain a certain rhythm which is not present in the emotional outburst which is Buscani's performance style:
And as I bent down to gather
and smooth my interrupted
Where was the respect for my
Where was the willow's tension?
Let me give another example of this literary rhythm:
And she babbled on of Babylon,
spewing what she knew to anyone
who would listen,
it was a terrible slice of real-life
even uglier than colorization
Bette Davis, 1987")
What this difference between oral and written rhythm suggests is that Buscani creates two separate arts when she creates one poem: a theatrical art and a literary art. I use "theatrical" only for lack of a better word, because in her performances Buscani is not known for the use of props, costumes or settings; instead, she relies solely on the tone of her voice and limited gestures. The written word in Jangle is different than the spoken-word in her performances even if every word is the same. It would be useless to examine Jangle by completely detaching myself from her verbal interpretations, so I will be making such comparisons throughout this review.
Buscani has her literary style nearly fulfilled. Here and there she throws in a few catch words like "honey" or "Girl" or "oh" or "and I tell you" or "shall we say" just to let us know that a poem is not created through a computer program or any other dry equation, that poetry is a human art form created as diversely as the personalities behind the pens. There are consistencies within the poems of Jangle, such as the use of repetition. Seen on the page, these consistencies hint that Buscani's work is more mature than those who criticize performance poetry might imagine. Such a style could not be achieved without the artist's full realization of that style. It seems Buscani describes her own writing style in the poem "Scratch":
She carries with her
a warm, harsh memory
reminding her of a night's stretch,
giving to gravity
built on the fire of repetition,
ending with a fold of sand.
"Repetition" is a big part of her style. For example, in the poem "Feeding Big Laquita," lines of poetry are repeated after every two or three different liens:
A beeper went off
Its thin red whine not quite the
needed for impending doom.
A beeper went off
Screaming for some action,
warning of lost order,
wailing of pain and loss
A beeper went off . . .
Sometimes the repetition comes in the form of a group of similes or metaphors:
like the rhythm of blood
like the taste of skin
like the peace of age,
Sometimes in the form of one word:
tip its chin up and teach it to look
feed it with the only milk,
put it on its own feet,
and help it find the time and place
Here is another example of this:
One of the words which receives repetition overdose is the word and. In her one page poem "Drive," Buscani uses the word and fifteen times. Many of the ands appear at the beginning of the lines that are at the end of the poem. Used properly, such use of the word and can give an acceleration effect to the voice of the poem, resulting in tension, suspense, climax and conclusion. This occurs when the acceleration is used appropriately and consistently within the context of the voice established from the beginning of the poem. In the case of "Drive," this is not exactly the outcome. What would be the result of the editing, other than tightness and heightened imagery, if the lines:
And I don't have to worry
about the times when his eyes heat
and his lips thin
and he barks when he speaks.
were changed to:
I don't have to worry
about the times when his eyes heat
his lips thin
he barks when he speaks
Or if the lines:
And because she's the best of the west
and when the outcasts come
For that she's tailed,
and her mail is opened
and she's sweating.
("Val Conquers Korea")
also lacked the use of and at the beginning of so many lines.
There are, however, equally as effective tools mastered in Jangle which successfully create tension, suspense, climax and conclusion. There are odd line breaks in the poem "The Goddess Strikes Again" such as:
Yet, out here in the middle of nowhere, was a
shallow sigh of
relief, an inconsistent little pocket of
miracle that proved us
wrong. A word without mystery
had a heavy dose of pixie dust
tossed in its face.
which virtually keeps us on the edge of our seats trying to solve the mystery of which word is to come next and in what direction the poem is leading. This particular poem is very tight in its beginning, middle and end. Buscani has more success with the word and when she is utilizing it to demonstrate a repetitious or unyielding condition:
And we'll never find happiness!
And we'll never get to Moscow!
And Irina's crying again...
It is also the case that some of the best poems in Jangle, by literary standards, might not be respected on the stage in comparison to the lengthier, story-telling poems which are the Slam-formula winners. In one of the best poems of the book, "Downtime," a shorter, more abstract and perfect picture is presented, one which relies more on written form than narration:
Catch me glassy vapid,
Catch me mooning wordless,
Catch me offtime-focus,
know me blessed and blessed.
On the other hand, some of her most popular performance poems appear much more abstract on the page. The poem "Clown," which is about an encounter with John Wayne Gacey, becomes on the page a less spine-tingling experience than her performance of it is. It becomes a subtle, psychological study. When reading it on the page we are forced to slow down and try to grasp imagery and understanding from individual lines rather than just sitting back and enjoying the piece as a whole, as with the performance of it. When the emotion of oral presentation is taken away, we must rely on the words themselves to carry the poem. We ponder each word longer. We find the symbolism and meaning we think is the author's intention. This analyzing of Buscani's performance poetry does not kill it. Instead, as I've said, it uncovers new levels of her work, unspoken rhythms, damn good stories, suspense, tension, climax and conclusion.
Jangle strongly represents what Chicago's performance poetry community has been producing. Tia Chuch Press has been dedicated to featuring the contemporary poetry of performance poets as well as academic scholars since day one of their existence. Leave it to Buscani, though, to teach the skeptics what performance poetry is all about:
This is not about knots.
This is not about silken ties,
or rice or cake or wine...
This is about smelly hockey gear
and filthy frying pans
and the patience it takes
to get around both of them.
--C. J. Laity, February, 1993
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