On the Poetry of Performance or Poetic Realness

An abstract photo of rain puddles reflected in blue and red light.

While wearing heels for the first time, I attempted to dash across a busy intersection. Each second was spent looking down at my own deliberate steps, instead of watching for oncoming cars. My corset was tied off, and my tights were red enough to see in the dark. (San Marcos is not known for its abundance of street lamps.) I was Him from The Powerpuff Girls, and I was on my way to a party across town.

For many poets, the act of writing is about the loss of control. An author hopes that those interior ticks responsible for their art will be unleashed on the page and past the urge to tame it. Uninterrupted art is a difficult thing to achieve.

While my performance as Him was successful on the surface, I wasn’t exactly embodying the character’s legacy of power. My confidence was shaken from wet concrete and fast cars.

The similarity to my writing process is not lost on me. I’m often distracted by the elements I can’t control or master, and my art suffers for it, same as my character presentation did—the visual poetics were present, but the performance itself was shaky at best, not at all in unison with my desired endgame.

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To be clear, I’m using “poetic” as a term to embody the elements of a successful performance. The emotional layers, attention to detail, and the sprinkling of one’s self. These attributes are as important for the artist as they are for the audience.

Witness the poetry of performance at a drag scene. One can find any number of clubs across Texas that give space to one of the oldest forms of queer entertainment. Drag can take place under big city skylines or down in the hidden spaces of small town Missouri. If the poetics are working, spectators will laugh and/or cry and sometimes fall in love. (It happened to me.)

The drag scene was once only accessible to those in the know, but it’s become fairly mainstream. The secretive performances happening in red states are of interest to me, as queer folks have to create their own spaces when none are available. Past and present.

Dorothea Lasky, author of the recent poetry collection Milk, often incorporates “white space” between the lines of her poems. This provides room for her audience to project their own emotions based on what the art is saying. While “white space” as a term doesn’t transfer to the sensibilities of drag, the idea is the same. Let’s call it “poetic realness.” An effective drag showing offers room for the spectator to take what they need from the performance, via poetic realness. Although, due to the loud nature of drag, one might not expect to find a moment for personal contemplation. If everything is perfectly balanced, the audience might be unaware of the impact.

ATX artist Hentaii, creator of the surrealistic art show “//sub.rosa,” says there must be a balance between the “stillness and movement” of a performance; quiet is necessary for audiences to find themselves between the lines and understand their own projections, interpretations.

For instance, in a piece titled “Violent Fem,” Hentaii is either nude or wearing new skin. She’s spattered in what looks to be blood (perhaps this is my own projection). Her hair is ghostly, eyes completely obsidian and wide. With poetic realness, she makes viewers project their own fears, fetishes, and understandings onto the art. It’s what any good poet dreams of, or will profess to search for, at least once in their lifetime.

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Starting out as a visual artist, Hentaii’s early work focused singularly on aesthetics. Early in their journey, poets often do the same. They become intent on stylistic choices, the look of the language, until (hopefully) they discover how to mix the needed ingredients. On the importance of learning to mix both visual and music, Hentaii says:

I recently performed a piece to the song “Nothing Compares 2U” by Sinead O’Connor. I always interpreted the song to be a kind of tantrum, in a way. To me, the song is about being consumed by the feeling of wanting something you can’t have. In my head, for whatever reason, I envisioned Godzilla destroying Tokyo with that song playing in the background, and that is exactly the visual I created for my performance. I wore a three headed dragon costume and built an entire miniature city out of cardboard boxes. The visual and the song are so disparate, but at the same time there is a kind of unison between them.

Hentaii’s creative union reminds me of Maggie Nelson’s Bluets. Her prose/poetry hybrid finds a unified space in its numbered format, where realistically, the writing should come off as stilted, trapped. Yet it doesn’t, as both surface and below work together to convey what needs to be said, or interpreted.

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It’s not often a writer encounters their audience in the flesh. Drag artists, however, can wade through their crowds, coming in contact with whomever they wish while having the stage at their disposal. This freedom creates “alive” moments and directions for drag artists.

I must admit that I’m uncertain whether or not drag’s relationship with its audience operates in the same way that a poem does. There’s certainly an advantage, as there’s something to be said for being able to see your audience sweat and dance.

When’s the last time you saw a poem mingle?

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Hentaii becomes a white poodle, pink rose in her mouth. A soft underbelly reveals the combination of human and canine traits, the need to eat, and to please.

Poetic realness.

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While my confidence in heels has yet to improve, I do feel safe in my poems. I can participate in conversations on trauma and danger—real or perceived—while at my barest. Add a stage, hypothetical or real, and things can get muddy. I believe poetic realness, authenticity, whatever you want to call it, is necessary for communities to be built from the art that we present.

Because the thing itself must be running on all engines. Authentic. These spaces, what we as readers or spectators come to understand as gateways for our own loves and beliefs.

Some of us need to walk through those openings, but with a guiding hand or conversation.

For Hentaii, drag is a conversation that’s safe because it’s shared. “… [on stage] you tap into those shared experiences, shared traumas, shared happiness … we feel less alone when we know someone out there’s felt the things we’ve felt.”

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To learn more about Hentaii’s performances, visit their Instagram profile at @prayforhentaii.