Our online programme producer, Will Barrett, talks comedy & poetry with National Poetry Competition winner Eric Berlin ahead of his Autumn online course, Stand-Up Poetry Studio.
Hi Eric – it’s open mic night at the Goofy Moose. What’s your opening joke?
Eric: Well, I think most people actually hate jokes. Being told a bunch of jokes is like being mugged for laughter, repeatedly. Actually, I once laughed while being mugged, but that’s a little different – that was just bad judgement on my part. Long story. The mugger asked what was in my backpack, so I said I books and mentioned being a writer, and he said, “No kidding, me too,” then recited one of his poems while emptying my wallet. I honestly couldn’t pay close attention to the poem and just laughed at the strangeness of it all, which he apparently mistook that as judgement of his work.
Your upcoming course is about the intersection of stand-up and poetry. Tell us about it.
Eric: I’ve always been attracted to the borders between genres. The head of the English department in my poetry MFA 20 years ago scoffed at my proposal to study oral literature, and instead challenged me to scan Blake’s Songs (my second “mugging” by a poet). That was when I vowed to become so skilled in prosody that I could articulate the many ways in which standup and hip-hop actually offer better demonstrations of the principles of rhythm – better because in living language and evidence of an intuition honed by experience. And gradually I realized that the division between the page and the stage was artificially constructed to enforce divisions of class and race.
So I started applying the tools of poetry to standup routines, scanning the syllables for patterns. George Carlin’s routines were so tight, I suspected something subtle was going on, and they held up to scrutiny. I listened to all the interviews I could find and watched different versions of the same routine to see what changed and what stayed the same. Gradually, it became clear that he had a poet’s ear for the rhythm and interesting juxtapositions of words, and he painstakingly wrote and memorized his routines. But the vulgarity serves an essential purpose by disguising the poetic nature of his writing, because the last thing a comedy audience wants to hear is poetry.
Much of the material in this course will have some element of humor, but our focus won’t necessarily be on comedy. The course is based on the premise that standups are unacknowledged griots, and that poets who write for the page can learn about the musicality of effective language from writers who perform for live audiences and receive immediate feedback in the form of laughter or silence. Like natural selection, the performer’s trial by fire weeds out the versions that don’t work. So, whether comics articulate their craft or not (and some do), most develop a powerful intuition about how to make their words sing while talking.
I admire work in both of these genres for being expressive and subversive. In the examples I’ve collected, I looked for a fluidity and tightness to the writing that was probably missing from the artist’s earlier drafts. And for each technique, I point out applications in stand-up and in poetry and provide some prompts. To train our ear, we’ll practice identifying various devices and then using them ourselves.
Who were some of the first stand-ups you admired?
Eric: Ironically, Bill Cosby was one of the only comics my dad let us watch, because he was “clean.” Also, we were allowed to watch Victor Borge, who mainly joked about punctuation, which I later shared with my teenage stepson, causing him to hate standup forever. But as a teenager myself, I loved Steven Wright, the impossibilities he proposed and the humility of his understated style.
Which stand-up routines have you seen, in your opinion, that have come closest to poetry? And what poets have come closest to a stand-up performance?
Eric: In terms of rhythm, Carlin’s routine on euphemisms rolls into and out of a 4-beat measure so smoothly you’d hardly know it’s not prose. Louis CK’s acceptance speech for the Moth Award is gorgeous and deeply moving. Also, I admire the routine where Margaret Cho imitates her mother describing an out-of-body experience. For poets, I’d say Ian Bavitz, Thomas Lux, Philip Levine, Emily Dickinson, Gerald Stern, Larry Levis, Elizabeth Bishop… all of whom add a heavy dose of the tragic too, which is one of the freedoms of poetry as a genre, the broad emotional range.
What techniques should poets be learning/stealing from stand-up comedians? (I’m thinking particularly of improvisation)
Eric: That’s a good question, but that will be the meat and potatoes of our course, so I won’t get spoil it here. But yes, improv is an important skill/mode to internalize for the writing process, but different performers use it to different degrees in their shows. Stewart Lee, for example, in How I Avoided My Certain Fate, criticizes Eddie Izzard for not doing “true” improv. But I think it’s important to also recognize that there are different types and degrees of improvisation. Griots and bards memorize much of their material but leave gaps of different sizes and types for themselves to fill in the moment of performance/composition. Lord and Parry studied bards in Yugoslavia, and concluded that the Iliad showed many of the same traits, such as the use of epithets and formulae, which suggest orality. Basically, because poetry was originally an oral literature, this course looks to today’s griots to find ways of infusing our writing with the vital energies of their living rhythms.
In one of our emails we referred to stand-up as something like ‘the new rhetoric’. What do you think this tells us about current affairs and public discourse more generally?
Eric: For some people, entertainment is a requirement – if news isn’t fast-paced and flashy, many viewers turn elsewhere. Our mind space is saturated with ads. And we’re vulnerable to manipulation, much more than we realize. Look how Orwell’s essay on the Politics and the English Language teaches the same lessons as Carlin’s routine on PTSD. “Rhetoric” implies argument and persuasion, and I wouldn’t say that comics are exactly seeking to persuade their audience. Even when Carlin is using oratory to point out hypocrisies, it’s his music more than his logic that entrances and subverts our thinking, I think. So standup has potential to be very subversive, especially when it plays with discomfort.
Also, in this digital age, I’d bet there are more people listening to videos of poetry readings than buying poetry books. And orality has typically been linked to cultures with high illiteracy, but social media has caused a resurgence of orality. And the work has a life as sound again. People are looking to be moved in those ways and have returned to their ears and bodies as part of the experience.
So, it’s nice to see those embodied aspects returning to the art form, but I think people are only open to those aspects of the language as a result of being manipulated in more ways than they realize. As a visual analog of standup, Banksy does great work in this area too.
No one really understands what laughter is or why it happens, from an evolutionary perspective. And the definition of laughter is tellingly circular – ‘the action or sound of laughing’. What does laughter mean to you?
Eric: I agree that laughter is a mystical experience, sometimes leading to the transcendence of individual and even group self, but I disagree that no one understand laughter’s evolutionary purpose. I think it has something to do with social cohesion. Studies of mother and child dyads have been done about entrainment. And some interesting theories have been proposed by neurolinguists as to its evolutionary origins. Robert Provine in the States and Sophie Scott at UCL, for example, believe that laughter is basically a social cue, a ritualized version of the breathing that occurs when tickled, that acts as an invitation to play, a sort of metalinguistic behavior that may have also allowed language itself to develop. In my reading in linguistics, I was excited to see that laughter occurs in syllables too, complete with pitch and patterns of rhythm, just like poetry but nonverbal, emotionally articulate and infinite in nuance. Apparently, rats and chimps have their own type of laughter, not only when playing but also when anticipating play. I wonder what a rat joke is like.
But I guess laughter is what I love most. My son’s laugh. I live for that.
George Carlin has a famous routine about the ‘seven words you can’t say on television’. What are the seven words you can’t say a poetry reading?
Eric: Ha. Good question. I guess it depends if the reading will be televised? I don’t know, but I’ve been told not to say “puppy” or “rainbow.” And not to shout “fire.”
In your course description, you refer a lot of orality and the ‘music’ of words. How important is the sound of a line to its sense?
Eric: It’s essential, but not as decoration – mostly as a way for the poet to get drunk on the sounds of words so that associative leaps can start to occur. So it’s completely important, but it’s not the whole thing, if that makes sense. In other word, it must always be an option, but the poet at different times can choose either music or image or idea as ways to advance the poem. Sometimes all three simultaneously. But it’s all-important to be receptive in case your words offer you a musical direction for the next line, because there’s two parts to the brain, the left half is busy encoding and decoding information, while the right half is intuitive and musical and a pathway to memory. Dr. Radke at University of Kent, who studies what she calls the “speech-to-song transformation,” found that repetition of a word or phrase can activate a different part of the brain, the part related to music and memory. So it’s important not just to convey information but to dip into the musical realm at times because that lubricates our associative mechanisms and offers more fully immersive experience.
There’s a long history, from Roman times to the present day, of both using humour and poetry (often together) to skewer figures of rank authority, point out injustices and underscore fairly subversive ideas. What is it about these art forms that make them so suited to this task?
Eric: In 4th grade, I wrote with marker on a fence post, “Brian Kelly/ has a big fat belly,/ and when he laughs/ it shakes like a bowl/ full of jelly.”
Catullus was feared by Caesar for his invective iambics, casting an idea in a rhythmic form that could be recalled and passed on, spreading like wildfire.
Brian’s mom called my mom to complain. I think I was mainly tempted by the ease of the rhyme, because I actually liked Brian and enjoyed his laughter. But I couldn’t articulate that then. I just apologized over the phone. Then he became a powerlifter, and subsequently a prison guard. Nice guy though. Just want to make that clear.
Barry Sanders mentioned in a lecture once, referring to Lenny Bruce, that he could ‘change the look of reality’. Is this also how you see poetry as functioning?
Eric: Yeah, Carlin admired Bruce for “looking into the wound” and bravely documenting the ugliness he found there. I think conventional ways of discussing uncomfortable topics gloss over the intricacies of the ugliness. So yes, I think poetry finds ways to break through the scar tissue and the ruts of habitual and conventional thinking.
I think Emily Dickinson must have been pretty funny – tell the truth but tell it slant. She had a rich interior life. I don’t think humor is about cleverness, it’s about that slant, putting a personal difference on reality, as fully as you can describe your natural impressions from the perspective of your truly unique existence.
Have you tried stand-up? Did it go well?
Eric: I haven’t done stand-up per se, but I have been laughed at in public.
Who is the funniest poet you know?
Eric: An underground lyricist named Ian Bavitz makes me laugh the most often. e.e. cummings. Larry Levis, I’ve heard, was hilarious. Even though his poems are devastatingly sad, you can sort of tell he had a deadpan sense of humor, or humour… my apologies. It’s hard to find a funny poet because humour and laughter are social, but the writing of poetry is so solitary. Jane Springer. CA Conrad. Elizabeth Bishop. Thomas Lux. My mother, Susan Berlin.
What are you currently working on?
Eric: Probably too many projects. A series of interviews with poets and standups. A book of close readings and analyses on the poetics of stand-up. And I’m wrapping up my first volume of poems.
What never fails to make you laugh?
Eric: Maybe warmth more than cleverness. Harpo’s mirror scene, Groucho dictating, Keaton in Young Sherlock Holmes, Chaplin in Gold Rush, Sascha Baron Cohen as Borat or accepting the Chaplin Award, John Cleese in Ministry of Silly Walks. And when I was a kid, our parents bought me and my brother a breakdancing mat in the hopes we’d learn from a book, maybe? It was a 4’-by-4’ sheet of vinyl printed with the image of a brick wall that had been spray-painted “For Breakers Only”. So now we have a Polaroid of my grandmother on her side as if she just finished a windmill and froze in that pose. Oh, and this was the week after her hip surgery.
At the dawn of civilization, all poetry was spoken… it was used as a technology for preserving information. So when tribes needed to pass down knowledge and values through generations, like a detailed itinerary of an 80-year cyclical migration in Aboriginal Australia, rhyme and rhythm had very real mnemonic value. Otherwise it would be like that telephone game where the information just falls apart as it gets repeatedly misheard while making its way around the circle. They can both be anything. But the cultural conventions that surrounds them have to be addressed differently.