Deborah Richards’The Halle Berry One Two (Callaloo Vol. 27, No. 4) introduced me to the closet opera genre. Like closet dramas, these operas are textual, only meant to be “staged” in a reader’s head. Richards’ Halle Berry posits a Johnson-Devil-type encounter between Halle Berry and Grace Jones. Only, the crossroads here is the set for the 1992 Eddie Murphy flick, Boomerang and Grace Jones is syncretized with (or is it the other way round) the mythic Greek Graces. The Halle Berry One Two also features a Prince soundtrack rewritten with mondegreen-like slippages. I love that joint.
I’ve been writing opera libretti since my MFA at CalArts. The elasticity of the form keeps me in there. Jig, published in the collection, Someone Took They Tongues. (Subito, 2016), is not a closet opera, but a pass at slicing a two-act, nine-scene opera down to 12 minutes or less. That opera follows a minstrel (Jiggabooyow) who becomes a hapless radical (Jiggaboobonic) after a no-more-fucks-to-give fit of sudden violence. In the mid aughts, I cut samples and programmed a grip of beats for Jig. Back then it was going to be a concept hip hop album. But by 2012, I had ditched the full-length album approach and, in a commissioned chapbook for A1/Deadly Chaps called SkinMag, the chopped opera-version of Jig showed up. That libretto’s use of performative typography proposes staging—similar to Sucktion and Benbannik, also collected in Someone Took They Tongues.—but isn’t meant to supplant a live performance.
In my previous post for futurefeed, I mentioned GoTo, a closet opera/poem hybrid I was working on for a manuscript called I Imagine I Been Science Fiction Always. At that post’s time—a whopping two weeks ago—I wasn’t sure about GoTo’s future. That’s still the case. BUT! In the meantime betweentime, this poem’s been calling me, so I answered, revising it substantially with an eye toward a more fixed place in the speculative/visual poetic trajectories I Imagine looks to feature. This poem, “One of these mornings,” is almost there!
Since the summer of 2018, I’ve been composing a lot of new poems where my interests in sampling, quotation, comics, rupturing the baseline/grid in typographic arrangement have intersected with questions I have about being a body doing a reading and being read and or mis-read as I’m in my body reading. This has all led to closer study of the tension between textuality and texturality, which, put in basic process-oriented terms means I stopped working with type layout software and began working with photo editing software. “But Black, It Can’t—,” from my first post, is part of this new (for me) approach.
The software/texture/performance connection is this: type-layout software like InDesign keeps the letters smooth as I, say, retype found text, making no visual differentiation between text sourced from distinct places. Now, font may suggest different voices, but texture is much closer in analogue to what sample-based hip hop production is after; which is to say, it isn’t that a sampled bassline is only a sequence of notes. It’s that a sampled bassline has a particular timbre from a set of conditions (including the bassist, sure, but also the room the bass was played in, the recording technology used, how that bass was mixed by the engineers, and the media the sample was drawn from). All of that matters, especially when juxtaposed with other sampled sounds. People who say sample-based producers should just play the notes generally don’t understand that these juxtapositions of textures and ambiances are as much a part of the composition as the notes.
For me, using InDesign is “playing the bassline.”
With something like Photoshop, once I find the text I need, I can copy and collage away. The copy brings with it the texture from the source text. When these different textures—and, typically, typefaces—combine into a single poem, voicing becomes a question. I’m pretty good at doing different voices when necessary, but making vocal adjustments for textural changes between phrases seems aurally distracting where, visually, it seems less obtrusive and more intuitive. That means it would be less helpful to the poem for me to read it aloud if I’m trying to account for the changes in typographic texture through vocal modulation. Which makes it easier for me to not be there to read it. You do it. It’s better that way. Really!
And so: closet opera.
This poem, called “One of these mornings,” got its start late in that summer of 2018. Like a lot of the poems rooted in this period, some of its text came from rejected treatments for live opera projects. Revisiting those projects gave me a way into thinking about narrative, something I wanted to develop in my poetry (see Ecce Cuniculus from Buck Studies [Fence Books, 2016], if you like), but decontextualized from what were often visually dense and wildly layered staging concepts. Add to this a continuing conversation with poet and Marvel Comics scribe, Yona Harvey about poetry comics, and there you go.
“One of these mornings” also features an allusion to Chaun Webster’s GeNtry!fication or: The Scene of the Crime.
Below, I’ve included a detail from the scene I think would follow “One of these mornings.” That poem might be published elsewhere in its entirety sometime.