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Monday, February 29, 2016

Desperately Seeking Rimbaud

The Civilians’ production of Rimbaud in New York, written and directed by Steve Cosson, with poems by Arthur Rimbaud translated by John Ashbery and produced by BAM with major support from the Poetry Foundation, runs at the BAM Fisher from March 1—6.

By Steve Cosson

Last season I had the good fortune to direct Joely Richardson in the one-woman show about Emily Dickinson by William Luce, The Belle of Amherst. That show, originally created for Julie Harris in the 70s, invented a kind of theatrical language for making theater about a writer and a writer’s work. I learned much from this form, and learned even more in the rehearsal room with Joely as I followed her emotional and mental intelligence into a deep excavation of the poems.

While working on The Belle of Amherst, I wondered about how I would go about creating a show based on poetry were I to start with the text and have free rein to go from there. Specifically, I was curious as to what might be gained by not centering the show on the character of the writer herself or himself. What might be revealed if one worked from the poems and how they are read, rather then how they might have been written? Is there a way to stage the multiple meanings of a poet’s work and the numerous and contradictory resonances a poet has for different readers and in different eras?

These questions lingered in the back of my mind when BAM approached me with the invitation to make a new show through this first-time collaboration of BAM and the Poetry Foundation. I was thrilled by the idea, naturally said yes, and we embarked on a process to choose a work of poetry. After considering many possible paths, I ultimately chose Rimbaud’s Illuminations in its recent translation by the great American poet John Ashbery. There were many reasons for choosing Rimbaud, but at the top of the pile is the fact that reading these poems did something to me. It felt like an action; it felt physical—a sense of being taken through a visceral experience of image and sensation.

Even more than that, Illuminations stretched my mind to see the unseeable, to try to think the unimaginable. Like stepping just partly into another dimension, these poems gave glimpses into another universe with very different laws of physics. Such an experience cracks open the ordinary world we live in. His poems are in a sense a gateway drug, but in the best possible way—a gateway to possibility, an escape hatch out of all that is boring or oppressive, and a bridge to life lived fully awake.

In choosing Rimbaud I also have a ripe opportunity to try out my ideas for how to make a different type of show about a writer. It is of course very tempting to consider putting Rimbaud himself on stage. His life was nothing if not dramatic. But I think, perhaps more than any other poet, Rimbaud suggests a show that is the exact opposite of character-centric. Rimbaud’s poems create and populate worlds. His poems have had a profound legacy with later readers and cultural movements that he could never have imagined. The poems are there with the Surrealists, the New York School, the birth of punk, the downtown scenes of poetry and visual art, and of course among writers and readers today.

Rimbaud may have only had a tiny audience for his work when he was alive, but since that time his influence has been vast, particularly considering the musician/poets he’s influenced such as Patti Smith and Bob Dylan, and others who have brought their own Rimbaudian visions to new publics. And although Rimbaud himself never came to America, he has been and still is very much present, particularly in “downtown” New York City (wherever that may be now that affordable artist communities have been pushed out and dispersed).

In creating the Civilians’ show Rimbaud in New York, this presence of Rimbaud in downtown was my way in. I interviewed many poets, artists, and performers: Eileen Myles, Dael Orlandersmith, Adam Fitzgerald, CA Conrad, Ariana Reines, David Wojnarowicz’s biographer Cindy Carr, and John Ashbery, to name a few.

I immersed myself in the work of the founding mothers and fathers of downtown performance and film—Jack Smith, most significantly. And then I gathered a group of performers, songwriters, and designers to make our show, a show which we’ve set in the multiple layers of New York’s downtown cultural scenes. But the center of the event is the living, very present voice of these extraordinary poems.

Reprinted from February 2016 BAMbill.

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