PEN World Voices: Saturday Night Spoken Word

Saturday night at the Bowery Ballroom brings another sell-out PEN World Voices crowd, this time in a party mood. Nadine is in the house. Salman is in the house. Anne Waldman is in the house too, and slam poet Gary Mex Glazner is whooping it up somewhere in the back. We’re psyched for a rare appearance by playwright Sam Shepard, and we’re wondering if Sam and Salman and Nadine are Saul Williams and who-knows-else are going to join headliner Patti Smith for a big “People Have The Power” singalong, which actually doesn’t sound like a bad idea.

This is the same nightclub where Patti Smith does a raucous New Year’s Eve show every year. But we’re at a PEN reading now, so there’s a two-hour time limit, and the audience is a little itchy after five days of festival cheer, so I’m not sure what to expect. A costumed comedian named Nona Appleby opens the show and bombs badly. We’ve already been told that this is New Yorker cartoonist Victoria Roberts in disguise (which kind of ruins the whole joke), and Nona’s “weird old lady” outfit makes her look like a Dame Edna impersonator. The material is not fresh enough for this crowd, though a few members of the audience attempt to chuckle in sympathy for a few minutes until poor Ms. Appleby has the good sense to run off stage and let the poetry begin.

It gets better fast. Free-jazz musician Oliver Lake and Chinese poet Huang Xiang deliver a captivating short set of untranslated poems accompanied with blurts of saxophone and flute noise. Huang has a distinct style: he shouts, pleads, contorts, screams, or emotes every word, twisting his face into exaggerated masks of expression. I don’t know what he’s talking about (translations of his poems are on every chair, but the room is so dark they’re impossible to read). I don’t need to read the translations anyway, because primal screams are pretty much a universal language. I like this Noh-theatre-inflected style of performance poetry very much, though I’m sure it’s not to every one’s taste.

Mexican writer Guillermo Arriaga follows Lake and Huang with a straight reading, a scene from a novel, but I’m still tingling from Huang Xiang’s set and don’t find any traction here. Clearly, this night is going to be a fascinating mixed bag.

Spoken-word hero Saul Williams comes up next, decked out in a rock star jacket and sporting some odd sort of mullethawk hairstyle (Travis Bickle up top, Kim-Jong II in back). Saul proceeds to kill the crowd with a ferocious and totally on-spot performance. I’ve caught Williams at group events before, but this is the first time I see what all the fuss is about, and I am now a Saul Williams fan. He’s angry at the government, he’s angry at hiphop, he’s angry at placid people everywhere. His rhymes are impeccable, his voice loud and strong. He goes on too long, but I really don’t mind.

Sam Shepard doesn’t do many live readings, and I’m more eager to see him than anybody else here (I’ve caught a couple of his plays, Curse of the Working Class and True West, and have always liked his sinewy, minimalist approach to drama). He comes up to the mic, tall and rangy and plain-spoken, and begins reading quietly from his Motel Chronicles, not attempting to compete with Saul Williams’ previous theatrics. The crowd is with him, eagerly applauding prose selections that hint at social satire and political disaffection. His style is all masculine reserve (remember, this is the guy who played Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff) and zen cool. He doesn’t wow anybody, but Sam Shepard has never been a “wow” kind of personality. It’s simply good to hear his words in his own voice.

Patti Smith is the big closer this night needs, but she looks surprisingly subdued and reserved as she hits the stage. Now, let me make it clear that Patti Smith has done enough amazing things in her career that she can do any kind of show she wants and I’m not going to criticize her for it. I also know that she’s not a performing monkey and can’t reach the heights of exstatis every night. But, I am very disappointed that she chooses not to bless this audience with the kind of performance I’ve seen her deliver many times before. Where’s the laughing warmth, the climaxes upon climaxes, the sense of risk and adventure? She starts with “Dylan’s Dog” (dedicated to her former live-in lover Sam Shepard, who she says told her to write down the dream that became this poem), then follows with another great oldie, “Piss Factory”. She complains that the mic stands aren’t the kind she likes, offers a short intro to a long poem about the Iraq War, and then finally picks up her acoustic guitar and sings a song about William Blake. It’s nice, it’s poetry, but I was hoping for some major punk-rock tension and release (and, honestly, I was hoping to see Lenny Kaye join her on guitar). I leave disappointed, because this is the first time I’ve ever seen Patti Smith turn in only half a performance. Maybe she thought a PEN poetry crowd wouldn’t want or couldn’t handle the Full Patti, but if so she’s wrong.

I head home, facing up to the fact that I am too exhausted to go to the PEN event I was hoping to attend on Sunday, featuring David Grossman and Nadine Gordimer (who never got to sing along with “People Have The Power”). Saturday night was a good show, but overall it was a GREAT festival. Let me sum up as simply as I can: major, major props for Caro LLewellyn, Francine Prose, Salman Rushdie and all the other good people who organized this amazing series of events. PEN World Voices is absolutely *not* just another literary show-and-tell to fill up the readings calendar. It’s one of the most comprehensive and progressive happenings I’ve ever witnessed, and I’ve witnessed a lot. I’m already looking forward to 2008.

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