'Schlock!' Mesmeric, shocking, and over-ambitious
Having grown up in a household where Yiddish words were bandied around readily, it came as a shock to find this one sidling in among the Best Words, Best Order poetry titles of the other readers, in the gently arty surroundings of Snape Maltings. An intriguing shock nevertheless, one that required further investigation. For “schlock” means, more or less, rubbish. Cheap rubbish, in a cultural sense.
Knowing nothing about this performance poem (I had been booked to see Jen Hadfield who was still sitting on a airfield in Shetland waiting for her plane never to take off) I assumed that poet, playwright and performer Hannah Silva – pictured at an earlier event on the poetry of disobedience at Aldeburgh - was not referring to her own work in these terms. I assumed correctly.
The word refers to the novel Fifty Shades of Grey by EL James, copies of which were shredded in a pile on the stage. As the audience entered the performance area, Silva was sitting cross-legged on the floor and tearing pages of this soft-porn novel out with her teeth. So far so good, I understood - although I haven’t read the book I live on this planet - so I understood.
After that it got harder. Schlock! is a performance commissioned for the Aldeburgh poetry festival, and is composed of Fifty Shades of Grey, and In Memoriam to Identity by Kathy Acker, who, Silva has said, wrote by splicing together “schlock” – true-life stories in magazines, science fiction, horror stories and pornography – with “good literature”. Acker wrote:
Our sexuality isn’t human
This is the deep secret.
And the non-humanity of our sexuality seemed to be the theme of what followed. The performance involved different sounds recorded by the artist on stage and then set to repeat as a background to the reading (heavy breathing, sighs, lamentation and dirge-like sounds). Lines of the work being spoken were projected onto a screen for the audience to read, but these lines lagged behind the real-time reading. No doubt part of the effect - but it split the audience focus away from the performer. The poet used British sign language too, which I found quite hard to follow as I don’t read sign language.
Hannah Silva’s work is mesmeric. She worked incredibly hard, throwing body heart and soul into the performance. Shlock! tries incredibly hard to prove its point - but what that point was exactly, I found harder to determine.
Here were a few of the themes I discerned, or thought I discerned, during the performance: pornography; male domination; sex (pain mental and physical as a result of); loss of female identity through the process of childbirth; recycling of male dominant attitudes through the process of sex and childbirth; loss of woman’s ownership and entitlement to her own body during the process of sex/childbirth; patriarchal attitudes in the medical profession; cancer, breast removal, alternative therapies, death.
These are all massively important subjects, and far too big for one performance poem to deal with effectively. The male baby, that is not yet old enough to talk, seems in this work to imbibe a tendency to control and dominate the female while still in the womb – a theme which Lionel Shriver also touched upon in her novel We Need to Talk About Kevin.
What about the female baby? I don’t think there were any in the poem but presumably they grow up to recycle the same old, same old. There were no men in this poem either, except those cast in the role of rapists, abusers or potential abusers. The handout for the performance described it as “literary terrorism”. I applaud the “literary terrorism” that wants to cast pornography back into the pit from which it emerged. But in seeking to rebut the “domination/submission” objectification culture of Fifty Shades, Silva falls into a trap that has historically ensnared many feminists, of trying to support and encourage women by casting men in the role of the baddies. Sometimes that is justified, sometimes not.
I found this work tried to deal with too many huge issues and that it was compassion-lite towards 50% of the human race. Additionally, while there was an immense amount of performance, there also needs to be poetry. When we emerged from the performance my colleague asked me: “But where was the poetry?” I found it a hard question to answer.
Schlock! is produced by Penned in the Margins and will tour in 2015