It's Bits World
The primary idea here is that we have to forget where ideas come from in order to find them interesting again. Non-English-speaking poets of English will take a text-could be a phone book, could be a love letter, could be the instruction manual for a pocket fisherman-and create astonishing juxtapositions which in turn create narrative fireworks in the mind of an ordinary, pre-programmed English-speaking reader like me. "A comfortable twig for the heroine in the town. I feel more refreshed than anyone. My daughter has arrived at puberty." Their ability to do this rests on their inability to remember or even understand the original context.
W hen the pervasive, mass-produced poetry of (culturally and economically Imperialist) jingles, slogans, and catchphrases is read through a filter of foreign-ness-either cultural or linguistic-what results is something infinitely more imaginative and disruptive. These mutant words and phrases are the visible residues of desire, in that they are produced by the conjunction of the foreign-language longing for the power of English, and the longing of the English-speaking reader for the novelty of otherness. The name "Bits World" is derived from the name of a Japanese stationery brand, "Bits Goods": notebooks bearing slogans such as "I'm an useful and enjoyable stationery. Let's get along with me!" The name also describes the writing/performance techniques I've been experimenting with. (I sometimes use the more academic-sounding moniker "discourse collage.")
In performance, this piece is accompanied by travel slides collected from second-hand shops: pictures of famous landmarks (Saint Basil's Cathedral in Moscow), not so famous landmarks (anonymous obelisks on the side of the highway), people at the beach, road signs in various languages. There's a shot of a wooden Santa Claus cut-out surrounded by palm trees, shots taken from buses and trains, shots of totem poles and castles and flamingoes: typical scenes from the great 20th-Century-Enlightenment project of Tourism. The slides emphasize with irony that this is not a travelogue or a visit to a picturesque alterity: the piece attempts rather to remove the distance from travel, thereby making the exotic obsolete. But the slides are also meant to distract the audience long enough to make them think they are listening to a story. Which, I admit, despite the disparate origins of and inspirations for these sentences, they are.
They were looking for a total transformation of mundane experience into bliss. It had become necessary. The winter came fast and hard, and it stayed a long time. The potatoes froze in the ground, there was not enough wood for the stove, and the modem was too slow. There was a war, and people were being asked to recycle aluminum. It was the off-season. I am so sleepy right now, but I'll tell you something: you should regard every anomaly as an opportunity to be awestruck.
When she was a small child she found a dead pigeon beside the railroad tracks, and later in the same place she found a dead calculator. Her friend went to the hospital. His cornea was wrinkled and it was making his eyelids stick together. It was the off-season. He closed up the shop and went out in search of a sandwich and a malted milk. "Oh God damn it for Christ's sake," he said. Love. What was this thing that so many poets made such a fuss about? When they first met, they stayed indoors all the time. He was agoraphobic and she was afraid to be alone.
In those days everyone had a story to tell. Losing a toe to frostbite or getting one's head stuck in a milk can. Outside, the streets were dirty and cold. They needed distraction. They wanted to see everything, so they would be distracted from everything else. He is a man in fine fettle. He possesses a generous spirit, and she has nice manners. She knew when she got up that morning it would not be an ordinary day. They took a lot of things with them: it was not the things they were trying to escape so much as the origins of things. They had to forget where ideas came from in order to find them interesting again. She justified the trip as "radical chemotherapy for my cancerous soul."
All the hotels were filled with celebrities they didn't know. People were eating their dinners alone in restaurants. The mountains were dream-like and seemed smaller than she had imagined. On the side of the highway there were farmers selling Kool-aid. The amusement park employees were not amused. Of all the rides, the bus back to the city was the one they liked most. There was a restaurant that served nothing but insects, and another one that served only tofu. "Can you drive a standard?" he asked. They drove a Chevy to the levee and drove a Ford to the fjord. They tried to make themselves more interesting by being interested in more things. Some of the maps had to be stretched to make them fit. "You can't get there from here," he said. "It seems like I can't even get here from here," she replied.
Everywhere they went, the souvenirs had been made somewhere else. "There are so many beautiful places in the world," she said. "But they are so disorganized." They couldn't picture themselves in any tragic news reports, so when the boat was overcrowded and barely out of the water, they didn't complain. The hotel room was exactly six feet long by three feet wide by three feet high, and it had a TV. Oh, I'm so drowsy. What should we do? Let's go for a stroll by the river, for a change of pace. Do you want to see a movie? It seems silly to go to a movie theatre. They called home and left messages for themselves. When they found an internet café they digitized postcards and emailed them to friends. Tourism is the greatest gift of the twentieth century, they thought. "The reason I'm always having fun," she said, "is that I'm doing what I like. I'm the happiest loser alive," she said. "My specialty is nonchalance," he said.
Ten miles out of the city they saw the most amazing sight they had ever seen. A lifetime of unspoken, unconscious supplication was finally rewarded. They were late getting back to the train station and the train was already beginning to pull away. They called out for it to stop so they could get on. The conductor said, do you have tickets? Who are you? New man, new woman, feeling lucky to be somehow caught up in this tedious, cruel, and inexplicable existence. New woman, new man, carrying an old suitcase with 30 lbs of brandy-filled chocolates and no spare underwear. Reading books upside-down and backwards. Losing our wallets with a sense of purpose. Sleeping with our eyes open. Haggling over hagiography, canonizing cartoon characters. Boxing with St.Goofy. Paying for dinner with underarm deodorant. Leaving a trail of discarded punctuation marks. Taking out insurance and releasing it into the wild. Fucking on the carpet, between the seats. I am a gentle philosopher of the road, he proclaimed. I am the zeitgeist multiplied by a weltschmerz, she declared. New man and new woman, picking up the pieces and moving on, except sideways this time.
They played Scrabble in the observation car, by moonlight, with blankets around them and strangers sleeping in the corners. They passed a frozen waterfall. They found a newspaper and discovered that there had been an election while they were gone. The war had moved on to a different part of the world. The stars fizzled and went out. The leaves were vivid in a way that made them feel light-headed. Sunrise above the clouds doesn't compare with this, he admitted. "It's so... ineffable!" she exclaimed. "That exclamation mark," he said, "that exclamation mark is the last exclamation mark you'll ever need."
Two people are travelling on a train. Watching tiny villages and fields go by, having sex in the washroom. "It's bits world," she says. It's bits world. Let's get along with me. I am an edifying and enjoyable text-based performance artist, and this is most comfortable performance you have ever run into. Wherever you may be, whoever you are, when you think of usefulness, think of Bits.