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Rooftop Roars & Riverside Revolutions

A reading project I organized uptown Manhattan in late aughts.

Like the name says, on rooftops that it took place (before rooftop films, I must say), and along riversides…

Often, we asked the readers to also read from a banished or marginalized writer, on top of their own…

Write-up below…

{From Rooftop Roars…}

A bassadiga is a short interventionist interlude with minimal props and readings meant to present to participants (through delicate cajoling and seducing of said audience) inroads into artistic and/or literary innovations and alternatives. The bassadiga consists of readings, oral expressions and, occasionally, brief mini-lectures and minimalistically performative interactions engaging SAs (sudden actors) or IAs (immediate agents), as well as a rotating ensemble of ‘players’ into the fabric of its unfolding. The bassadiga remains constantly open to the expansion of its own boundaries, and the revision of its own tenets and aesthetics. Bassadigas are born of despair and laughter, firmly implanted in the necessity of—or the illusory conviction of the need for—continuation and overcoming. Because? Because. Because there are few resources and there is no time. Few allies and little recourses. No end in sight. Because one must incite and enlighten and provoke and survive and do it in playful manners and in provocative manners and in ways that bring lightness, joy, reflection. Because people want to gather and listen and feel. Because they want to grow and get together and go on. Because that’s enough, always enough: of the tales and the choking and the naming and the tolls. Always enough, that the cry. Because it’s always possible, since so minimal, and because it’s part of traditions, and their extensions: street theatre and communal gatherings and vaudeville and rituals since the dawns. Doing with what you have. Because it’s necessary. Because you want to go, on: and must, but also know there is no real consequence, no victory, no result. Maybe not even euphoria. The condition, of us all. The cry: enough already! To what? Maybe to particular events and situations, but really, to it all: it all it all it all, multiplied by infinity. Bassadiga. Because? Because. 

4th February 2008, 08:31 pm

The rooftop roars are coming up and I’m on the roof.

Of the gallery that is, checking out the space, checking out the logistical considerations.

How did you come up with that name anyway, one of the ladies working in the offices says, I like it.

Thanks, I answer, it was, you know (how did I come up with it, I’m thinking), it was a combination… I was thinking of a cool place to have an event, and so I thought why not the roof…

That’s cool, she says, I’m looking forward to it.

Thanks, I say, so am I, I think…

*

She laughs and goes back into the office and I walk around the perimeters. The garden on the roof is actually very inviting and cozy. Enough room for folks to sit. Enough room for folks to hang and listen and be enraptured…

So you’ll have food and drinks and, I ask the coordinator of events and the director of the gallery.

We’ll take care of it she says.

So you don’t need any type of help or anyone else coming before to…

We’ve done many things like this before, she says, perhaps a lot more patient than she needs to be with yours truly, although she’s also realizing that I’m trying to be very helpful, and full of grace…

Great then, so we’ll be here what, half an hour before or…

It’s up to you, she says, we’ll have everything set up, it’ll all be set up and ready…

All right then, I repeat, this is a great space by the way, really great space… and then: can I just take another look at the…

Sure, she says.

And I take another look at the interior space and: so in case of rain maybe…

We’ll set up inside too, in case it rains or in case there’s anything wrong.

Perfect. Thanks again, you guys are great…

*

The rooftop roars are coming and I’m waiting for the bus to get here and ride it for five minutes or so. Why don’t I just walk, I think… But the longer I stay, the longer I should stay. Meaning, the longer I stay, the more the chance that the bus gets here. Something like that. Laws. And I’ve been waiting, so I keep waiting…

I must be one of the first people there and I say hello to the fellow behind the glass at the front. I’m here for the event, I say. Sign here, he says. I sign. Can I put this up, I ask. He peeks from behind the glass. What is it, he asks. It’s a flyer about the event, I say. Sure he says. Thanks, I say.

I put up some flyers and then ask him if he could direct people upstairs in case they’re not sure where to go or how to get there. ’Course, he says. Thanks again, I say.

Elevator up and it opens unto the floor. No one there yet, except for some of the residents.

Hey, you’re having an event tonight here?

Yes yes, please stay…

You guys gonna be reading in Spanish too?

Spanish? We could we could.

That’s great man, real great.

Yeah! So make sure you stick around!

He says that he actually lives here so it shouldn’t be much of a problem and so, don’t worry, he’ll stick around.

Great, I say, and he moves away, hobbling on one leg…

 

Cool, I think, to have a reading on the roof of a residential building. People can just go from their apartments unto the roof and listen. I’m already thinking of another type of event: Roomful Readings: where residents from a given apartment complex all open their doors and multiple readings are going on simultaneously and the listeners can actually move on from one room of one apartment to another room of the same apartment or to other rooms of other apartments. Good idea this, I ponder even though the first Rooftop Roars hasn’t even occurred yet…

(Inside the rooms, we could only read books that had been banned at one point or another, including my own! Cool, this… We’ll get to it one of these days…)

*

I try my best to be the impresario of the Rooftop Roars. I welcome everyone. I thank everyone for coming out. It’s great to be out here, I say. It’s also great to be out here with interesting writers and… I emphasize the fact that writers forever have been chased and …

I read the official script and motto of the Roars, but not before telling everyone how the name got stuck but that frankly, don’t have the abbreviated version. ‘We thought about it,’ I explain we thought, the RooRo’s, RooRi, the … But we’re kind of going with The Roars…

First reader is Patricia Eakins. I give her a worthy intro and Patricia goes on. Nice presence she has about her, and since she’s the first ever reader of the Rooftop Roars, she’s also realizing that it can get kind of loud with the occasional plane flying over, and the occasional fire-truck rushing through the streets, not to mention the other sirens and shouts and screams that come from all parts. She projects well and she’s got a strong voice, so all is a’right…

“The breath of the dead rich man has risen to join with the breaths of the poor,”  she reads from her story, ‘Death in My Country’, “to mingle with the smoke of their burnt bodies. But his breath is fat and lazy. And when the other dead sing like silent birds, trilling the name of Jesus, the rich man’s voice hits neither the high notes nor the low notes, but only the easy ones in the middle. And when the other breaths float up above the sky to sit at His Father’s side with Jesus, the fat rich breaths fall back on the earth. Sometimes you see where they have fallen, little wet grease spots in the dust.

Someday all the Jesuses on earth, the ones on crosses in houses and churches, the ones on rosaries in pockets, all those wooden Jesuses will rise to join the real one whose body and breath are living in death. All the crosses will suddenly be empty. So we will burn them, burn the rags He had been wearing at His loins. And the smoke will rise with the smoke of our poor dead. The ashes we will place on our tongues as bread, and in this way we will be fed.

(P. Eakins, Death in My Country, in Reading Patricia Eakins, Presses Universitaires d’Orleans, France 2002)

*

Councilman Martinez makes a surprise visit. He comes in the middle and Ofelia is happy to see that so many people are actually there. Councilman Martinez’ office gives money for community programs and well, this is a community event! Ofelia introduces him and he speaks for a minute or two. Seems like a decent enough fellow the councilman. Will be happy to know that we’re reading from the poeta himself, Pedro Mir…

Ofelia, actually is reading from Pedro Mir now in Spanish after Patricia’s forceful rendition of Mir in Spanish. During the Roars, each writer is to read from their own text, and the texts of a ‘banished’ writer – however one were to define ‘banished’. Patricia had chosen the Dominican poet Mir, who had been exiled for a while, and now Ofelia is reading, in Spanish (I’d brought the book, knowing this could happen!)

Ofelia is very powerful. She’s completely feeling it, for real. Deeply and powerfully and with passion and emotion. He was from my hometown, she says in her introduction, he was from my hometown. I hope the guy who asked me earlier if we’re reading in Spanish is out there, I’m thinking, but I don’t see him. Where the hell did he go, I utter to no one in particular, but he’s not there, not there to hear Pedro Mir:

“Y un día,

En medio del asombro mas grande de la historia,

Pasando a traves de muros y murallas

La risa y la Victoria,

Encendiendo candiles de jubilo en los ojos

Y en los tuneles y en los escombros

¡oh, Walt Whitman de barba nuestra y definitiva!

Nosotros para nosotros, sobre nosotros

Y delante de nosotros…”

 

And we go on…

 

“¡oh, Walt Whitman de barba levantada!

Aquí estamos sin barba,

Sin brazos, sin oído,

Sin fuerzas en los labios,

Mirados de rojo,

Rojos y perseguidos,

Llenos de pupilas

Que a traves de las isles se dilatan,

Llenos de coraje, de nudos de soberbia

Que a traves de los pueblos se desatan,

Con tu signo y tu idioma de Walt Whitman

Aqui estamos

En pie

Para justificarte,

¡continuo compañero de Manhattan…”

(Pedro Mir, from “Contracanto a Walt Whitman”, Edicion Premio Nacional de Literatura, Ediciones Fundacion Corripio, Inc, Santo Domingo, 2005)

Ofelia even struggles holding the book, so much passion and energy that she has. She even mentions that she doesn’t have her glasses! That she can’t see well. That she apologizes! Don’t know what you would do if you did have your glasses I say after she’s finished!

 

Rodrigo Toscano is up next. Reads from Mahmmod Darwish. Rodrigo’s a cool guy I recently met and his writing is very ambiguous and obscure, in my opinion. Difficult even, but that’s what I liked about it and why I thought he would be an interesting reader. Puzzling and demanding attention. Challenging.

First, he reads from Darwish. I never asked him why he wanted to read from Darwish, but he did. At a point in a Darwish poem when he mentions “clouds”, he points to the clouds. Describing clouds is not a talent I was given, he says, but he does quite well. What I’m thinking is: how cool to read about the clouds and listen about the clouds while sitting under them and looking up at them and watching them pas by. This Rooftop Roars is definitely a good idea! (And when he mentions ‘Respect for the Lord”, he points his finger to the heavens, once again visible.)

“A small

American Town

Large mall

horniness

 

a poetry subscene’s

objects

 

laid bare

 

–a shoplifting spree

 

deep inside you

 

…”

This from his own In-Formational Forum Rousers—Arcing (Satire No. 4)

“Steeple top barely visible—

Santo Catzo

In the holding pen—

A rather gruff bloke

Of about 80 (going on 20)”

 

Midway through Rodrigo’s reading, there are more airplanes and lots of noise. Someone yells ‘louder’, but RT had already started to go louder. His movements also are quite interesting. And more: there’s something really strangely cool about the airplane noise drowning out the reading. The voice becomes part of the overall fabric of the many tonalities at play; the reading itself becomes part of the overall fabric of events: another platform on which reality unfolds. We, all, become imbued within the overall unfolding of the world. Not separate, not isolated, not taking refuge, but within, and with.

And then from

Fourteen Superimposed Pockets of Formally Unified Subjectivity as Mass-Aggregate Social Subject, or, Politesse Politique, or, Monologue of the “free Radical”

 

“5.

doubtless, will remain the same (I can’t know really—you’re right, but)—it’s an ill-fitting robe this thing of Conscious Response…if you don’t mind, I’ll—

 

6.

…there…

 

7.

oh, this funny undergarment here, it’s

 

8.

Human Nature!

 

9.

un chien

mange un autre chien

(raaar)”

 

Ambiguous, fragmented and suspended – maybe very realistic, after all… All of these I’ve cited from his book Platform (Berkeley, Atelos, 2003)

Break for food. Surprisingly, there is a lot of it, and it’s good. People take advantage though hand some even leave. Long break. Getting wine. I have a dolor de cabeza, someone says to me, nosotros los dominicanos decimos: ‘Lo que no mata engorda.’ Yo sé’, I say, ‘mi esposa es dominicana.’

Mónica de la Torre is next. After several readings, she goes into something very unusual and provocative called Imperfect Utterances, where the different accents and pronunciations of two simple words (the most fundamental ones?) radically change the meaning of the utterances:

 

Imperfect Utterances

 

 

no no, sino…

 

no no, sino sí

 

no sí, sino…

 

no sí, sino no

 

si no sí, no

 

si no sí, nono

 

si sí, no

 

si no, sí

 

sino, no

 

¿sí, no?

 

¿no, sí?

 

si nono, no

 

si nono, sí

 

si no nono, sí

 

si no nono, no

 

¿nono, no?

 

¿nono, sí?

 

no no no, sino nono

 

no sí no, sino sino

 

sino

 

I even joke to myself (and her later, although I’m not sure it’s a joke), that it would be a fun to translate. (And emblematic within the theory of translation, and its impossibility).

She’s got the English versions though, and it goes something like this:

 

not no, but… / not no, but yes /  not yes, but… / not yes, but no / if yes isn’t the case, then no / if yes isn’t the case, then the ninth / if yes is the case, then no / if no is the case,  then yes / if it’s yes, then no / if it’s no, then yes / fate, no / indeed, no? / no, or indeed? / if the ninth, then no / if the ninth, then yes / if it’s not the ninth, then yes / if it’s not the ninth, then no / the ninth, no? / the ninth, indeed? / not two nos, but the ninth / not yes and no, but fate / fate

 

My turn finally but it’s getting dark but I still I start outside. I tell everyone a bit about about Hedayat. Guy’s become sort of Iran’s national writer, a pretty preposterous category, which also made me hesitant. But he was also pretty depressed and went into exile and killed himself. He merited being in the bunch.

(Still made me think that even within our event, meant to bring back and celebrate writers who had been banished, the canon sort of rules. How to go beyond the canon? The question… )

 

We go inside after my reading of Hedayat. It’s too dark and I can barely see. Chairs set up inside and it’s not bad at all. Cozy now, lots of folks have left. Perhaps appropriate that we end with some cannibals. Of the Drive-by sort.

 

‘Ostrich in a Cadillac! Ostrich in a Cadillac!’

The call like a cuckoo’s metronomic exactitude (a tic and a toc, a tic, a toc) spews from the inner reaches of our curmudgeonly cuckold’s throat. Like a cock’s dawnish cue rises from deep within as he stands proudly and alone upon a raised patch of dirt (O how solitary he seems, so nostalgically ‘treeest’ – French for sad) – and crows! Like a crocodile’s (the swamp, the muddied waters surrounding his imaginary hovel), tears stream down his cumbersome visage. Like a… Well, it would serve the reader enough to learn that the crooning does get somewhere, what with the coup de grace given by the swerving before him of a car, seemingly out of nowhere. Certain about the seemingly? I am – although it appeared as if, literally from some dreamland or daze, it had stumbled upon the confines of the tale.”

Pause and skip. Tell them a bit about the book and then again…

‘There! There!’ thunders again the man, pointing to the bottom of the hill, ‘an ostrich in a Cadillac!’

The lanky guy looks down. He still hasn’t said a word, but there, indeed, no doubt, none whatsoever, he spots the rear end of a white Cadillac, at the bottom of the hill, its front end hidden by the thick foliage of a tree it seemed to a)have been deliberately parked under (but how, O how! – and why, O why! – if that indeed were the case), b)have skidded to by accident.

He turns his head back to the crooner, no sooner has stopped half-way and like a brooder turned around again, that he checks out the improbable event, then turns again, uttering, thinkingly:

‘An ostrich? Are you sure?’

Staccato, the query. With gusto and gumption, yet not aggressive. Surprised yet without sentiment. Curious, yet uncaring – at the same time. Wondering, and somehow… oblivious.

‘Yes, yes!’ the hero says urgently, ‘there is an ostrich in that Cadillac. An ostrich I tell you, in the Cadillac!’

Pause of the driver. Quick glance down, quick glance back. He wants to say, well what the hell is an ostrich doing down in that Cady and what in the hey are you doing up here yelling if you know it, but he says: ‘But… the whole ostrich? I mean, shouldn’t it be just the head, isn’t that what ostriches…’ but he trails off, uncertain and muted, beset, basically, by further doubts. (Not his fault, that’s how we’re taught: Not his fault/that’s how we’re taught/not to doubt/just to shout/that’s our lot/do your part/or be shot/not necessarily/just metaphorically/either/ – sings hiphopishly, spokenwordishly, with bent fingers distorted extended fragmented momented, in all directions on hands gesturing with contortions on arms flowing in gyrations, the narrator in the midst of the tale…)

The guard is frustrated: the nerve of this fellow! ‘What do you mean,’ blathers he, ‘I’m not believed! I’m offended! Of course the whole damn ostrich is in there, if I’m telling you!’

O vagaries of chance!  O despicable cruelties perpetrated by the weary, the wicked, the demonically devious among us! O senseless tragedies spun from group dynamics! O irresolvable dilemmas of humanhood! Shall the laws governing the fragile fabric of our firmament rear once more their ugly heads? Shall we bear witness to another in the gory annals of power-grabbing, power-sharing, subsequent betrayals, assassinations, coups, overthrows, civil wars, consolidations of powers, new laws and games and names and the labeling of somebody as something undesirable? (Maybe.) Reader, are you willing? Shall you avail yourself? Or have I given away too much already?”

 

Long evening, fun and weird. Dark out now but we’re all in.

In this first (and who knows, perhaps only) instantiation of the Roars, a number of writers were invited to read both from their own work, and from the work of at least one other writer who had in some way been ‘banned’ or ‘banished’. A main idea was to keep alive the spirit of contestation and risk-taking inherent in innovative literary enterprises, to bring to audiences the works and voices of those who, so often working in and through silence, were not silenced by the most powerful and cruel of machines. Without meaning to be too over-the-top or corny, the Roars point to how there is a real dimension where in their own meticulous ways, a certain species of poets and writers combat grand powers and established ideas, and perhaps more importantly but less dramatically, challenge, with a sligh grin and a despaired yet wonderfully celebratory gaze, established narratives, inherited conceptual frameworks, outdated categories and paradigms. All so often in fabulously inventive and delirious ways.

We were delirious in our own way. A subdued delirium. A form of gathering comprised of readings, performances, and overall provocative exchanges. Ours really took place on a rooftop – although a metaphorical approximation of a rooftop or river is fine in the absence of real versions. An open structure of performative exchanges, in multiple sites, an unfolding – with bodies and breaths…