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I’m like a sniffing dog

Mojca Kumerdej

All the versions of this article: [English] [slovenščina]

An interview with Nicole Blackman.
Delo, Kultura, 21 September 2005

The New York poet Nicole Blackman is a spoken word artist. She maintains the tradition of the Beat Poets and at the same time belongs to the generation of contemporary slam poetry. But what makes her special is that she presents her poetry in the form of music and theater performances. For five years now, she has been touring festivals and art centers around the world with Courtesan Tales, a performance she presented last December in Ljubljana as part of the Visions of Excess art event, organized by Aksioma and Galerija kapelica. Apart from her book of poetry Blood Sugar which was reprinted several times, she has recorded twenty albums in collaboration with various artists, including Alan Wilder, Diamanda Galas and Lydia Lunch.

MK. The authors who influenced you most are probably the poets of the Beat Generation?
NB. I was lucky to have met the right and my only creative writing teacher at the right time, William Packard, a poet, novelist and founder of The New York Quarterly literary review who in the 50s and 60s hung out with the Beat circle of Alan Ginsberg, Kenneth Patchen and Kenneth Rexroth. During my studies I attended his evening classes on literature and after two weeks of the program something clicked in me and the poems simply burst out. A year after that I went to one of the New York clubs that organized slam poetry matches (and spoken word). I never had any intention of performing but did it anyway and won.

MK. How did you form your style of writing which is very direct, has no metaphors and offers a powerful identification for the reader?
NB. Maybe it was influenced by my wish to become a journalist, but I later decided to pursue communication and public relations studies instead. Although there is no description in my poetry and little account of my characters since I am more interested in what they do, feel or say, it sometimes happens that someone walks up to me and starts telling me, for instance, of the poem about the woman in the green dress. That is when I smile to myself because there is no such description in my poetry and the reader alone constructs the image by making associative connections. I meet the reader or listener halfway, and the way a certain individual reads or listens to the poem cannot be repeated by anyone else. Similarly, children create their own worlds when they are listening to fairytales.

MK. Rather than presenting your poetry in book form you are more interested in other forms; your poems are available on the internet, but you mostly perform them in music and theater pieces. How did you develop your format of theater performances?
NB. I did theater when I was young and later I channeled the pleasure of being on stage into poetry. Apart from doing other things I performed at a spoken word and music festival, De Nachten, in 1998, just before Nick Cave. Although I was not afraid of the crowd of three thousand people, it is always good to feel some anxiety before you go on because then I know the performance will be good. Actually, anxiety is what keeps me going, things always have to be a little bit out of my control.

MK. You collaborated with some of the top contemporary artists, including Diamanda Galas, Lydia Lunch, Scanner and Alan Wilder. Who sticks out the most for you?
NB. Alan Wilder, definitely, the former band member of Depeche Mode, because with him the creative process was so close and open at the same time. Alan saw one of my performances and sent me some piano and percussion demos which I wrote the text for. The result was the album Liquid, released in 2000 by Mute Records which featured Diamanda Galas.

MK. Do you usually write the text for existing pieces?
NB. With music and text projects I normally get the music in advance, but sometimes it is the other way round and the musician relates to my poetry. That is why the twenty CDs that I collaborated on are so different. How did Courtesan Tales, the performance you presented last December in Ljubljana, come about? Although I feel very good performing in front of a big audience, I was more intrigued by an intimate format rather than engaging in a massive show as Laurie Anderson does with text, music and video. And intimacy can be most consistently played out in a pair; that is in a relationship between me and a single visitor, which is, after all, not that different from everyday situations like a confession, a visit to a prostitute, therapist or hairdresser. The seven courtesan tales are like a bar in which everyone can pick a drink to their liking, but everyone will react to it differently.

MK. This means you do this less than 10-minute long performance for a single visitor differently every time?
NB. The structure is similar but the delivery depends on the way an individual reacts. When my assistant helps you pick a theme in the waiting room and you enter the space, close the door, sit down on a chair and put a blindfold, you have made a decision to hand over the control of the situation for that short time to me. I do not want the visitor to feel threatened, so there is music and the scent of incense in the dim space. This should open them up and relax them as much as possible. Depending on the theme the visitor has picked, I start a story which I whisper in the visitor’s ear - they cannot see me because of the blindfold - and while doing that I touch them with my hands, different objects and materials, according to the story... But you do not slip into a tautology; you present the relation between the words and the physical contact through associative connections which generate a new message... That’s true. I avoid making direct connections between physical contact and words. I also watch the visitor closely from behind the curtain as they are entering, and while I am narrating I pay attention to the way they breathe, to their physicality, if their hands are trembling, if their facial muscles are twitching and so on. And from that I can tell how they feel, many things, for instance, their social status also from what kind of clothes, watch, jewelry, perfume or cologne they wear. When I’m telling the story I’m like a sniffing dog.

MK. Do women react differently than men during the performance?
NB. Generally, yes. Unlike with men I have never had any complications with women. A gentle touch on the face can make even those women who don’t react to touch when I am narrating cry. Maybe that is because, older women, especially, they simply forgot about the possibility of accepting tenderness. The visitors on the BDSM scene, of course, expect a tougher "approach", which I do not always fulfill because during the performance I want them to discover layers within them they are not really aware of. One of my most avid fans works for the US army, in the Pentagon. He drives five hours from Washington to New York every week to hear two stories of mine. He is one of those people who understand my work best and after every session he emails his comments to me.

MK. Where in New York do you perform Courtesan Tales? Like in theater your 10-minute story probably has its price?
NB. Most frequently I perform at the New York Center for Contemporary Art P.S. 122. The entrance fee is 20 to 30 dollars. The fact that the visitor pays to take part in the performance has an important psychological effect because, bearing in mind how intimate the event is, they don’t feel they owe me anything. A frequent motif in your poetry is the mother-daughter relationship, the mother in some cases being good, in other cases evil such as in the poem Dark Daughter: "Don’t you churn at night and wish you had the choice again? Don’t you dream of laying a pillow on my face and throwing me out with the trash in the morning?"
I have no children, I’m a mother to a cat, and I’m, of course, also a daughter. I dedicated some of the poems to my mother and her partner who she took care of in the final stages of his disease. When my mother read it, she cried without actually realizing the poem had been dedicated to her because she identified with it. But the poem Dark Daughter where these lines are from is about a relationship in which the mother sees her daughter as a rival. I deal with the image of the woman a lot, I have very different characters, all of these women might or might not live in the same city but they are all parts of me. And that’s why I want the readers to be careful with my poetry.

MK. Careful in what way?
NB. Everyone is free to interpret my work in their own way but I don’t want it taken out of context as was the case when a group of anorexic girls published one of my poems that talks about this illness as their manifesto on their webpage.

MK. Has Blood Sugar been translated into other languages?
NB. Individual poems have been translated into different languages, including Flemish and also Hungarian because my poetry was included in the curriculum of the Contemporary American Poetry Studies at the University of Budapest. Plus I’m contacted by students who are doing assignments about my work, and artists who approach my literature in their performances.

MK. So you also live off of your art projects?
NB. I earn a living with my voice, recording radio and TV commercials, which I live off of very well, but at the same time it gives me a lot of freedom. Wherever I travel I let my producers know beforehand, so that wherever I go I organize my studio recording time in advance. Then the producer sends me the text that I need less than two hours to record, and the time I have left is for my own projects. I can’t believe I’m that lucky!

Translated by Dražen Dragojević


Mojca Kumerdej