The Poetry Project

New & Selected Poems of Cecilia Vicuña (Kelsey Street Press, 2018)

Review by Andrea Abi-Karam

Uncontainable maker, resistant to both form and totalitarian regime, Cecilia Vicuña fills the
space of silence is the space with her vast body of work which encompasses poetry, performance, performance-lectures, paintings, and film, to name a few. Throughout her multivalent and vast body of work and lifelong activism, Cecilia Vicuña rigorously asserts that art is not isolated from its social-political context—a force that drives her work to cultimate into a vast, shared net of connection, awareness & knowing. As an artist herself sidelined from print by censorship, Vicuña turns to oral performance as a method to galvanize widespread political consciousness.

These striking oral performance gather the sonic elements across all registers, elevators, creaky floors, street noise, her voice, the voices and movements of audience members to compose a complex, polyvocal soundscape. Vicuña constructs the scaffolding of her performances with polyvocality, or the formal approach of many voices that erupt simultaneously. I can’t possibly describe her performance better than she describes them herself as quasars—a definition that activates voices as forces in relation. In “The Quasar”, freshly recollected in the New & Selected Poems of Cecilia Vicuña published by Kelsey Street Press in July of 2018, where Vicuña writes: “A poem only becomes poetry when its structure/is made not of words but forces./The force is poetry/Everyone knows what poetry is, but who can say it?/Its nature is to be felt, but never apprehended.” This vibrant activation of voices as forces gives them the potential to respond to the urgency of the present.

Through a collaborative build between herself, the environment of the performance space, and the audience, there are often explicit moments when Vicuña invites the audience into the performance space, to become a node of experience or as she writes: “let’s together.” These collaborations, or as I am inclined to say, implications, entangle the audience and the environment into the fabric of the Vicuña’s work. As Vicuña writes of her own practice, “At some point, I began tying the audience with threads, or tying myself to the audience. Who is performing, the poet or the audience? United by a thread, we form a living quipu: each person is a knot, and the performance is/what happens between the knots.” The act of tying herself to the audience and her question above of “who is performing, the poet or the audience” de-centers Vicuña as a performer separated from audience and flattens the performer-audience hierarchy. The subjects present are no longer discrete, they now function in relation to one another. The performance is not predetermined or puppeted by Vicuña, but arrives in real time out of participatory, collaborative process with everyone and everything in the room of many voices, many I’s, that decenters singularity into expansivity. This boundlessness of networked connection enacts temporary, liberatory experience with the audience—that transforms the performance into a temporary autonomous zone.

She’s not a page poet hopelessly buried in the midst of dysfunctional amplification systems and loud street noises, she’s an oral poet constructing complex soundscapes comprised of multiple both verbal and non-verbal vocalities. She listens to and acknowledges the world’s ambient material—a process that brings her voice/s out of the competitive space into one of relation and extension beyond Vicuña’s multiple selves, beyond the audience and the audience’s exponential selves, to outside the walls of the performance space and swells onto the street like the autumn leaves she gathered with friends for “otoño/autumn” first published in the US in Saborami (Chainlinks, 2011) and now again in the New & Selected: “piece the bags and the leaves are everywhere...seeing in this way a person could feel impelled to do creative work, might feel part of greater energies moving in space...working on my autumn piece i experienced joy”

Vicuña’s performances are a site of participatory process a set of forces: of awareness building, of activation, of far reaching voices, of forces filled with potentiality. Unstable, exponential, and activating, like the living quipu,. Vicuña’s performances, as the ever expansive processes of selves merging and creation—awareness take a turn toward the global, as collaborative acts of performance that threaten the social order.

#260 — Feb/March/April 2020