Haikus Written on Living Skin

Commentator Andrei Codrescu explains that there's an ancient art from the Far East that has made its way to the Gulf Coast. It uses the human body as a canvas for the written word. It is called "Skin Haiku."

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

There is an ancient art from the Far East that has made its way to the Gulf Coast. Commentator Andrei Codrescu has a great appreciation for its practitioners.

ANDREI CODRESCU:

A form of poetry pioneered by ancient Japanese poets is taking off in New Orleans. At the Goldmine Saloon, a local perf poetry venue, poet Herbert Kearney wrote haiku on performing artist Andrea Garland's body. Haiku is a form of poetry that notes with great precision and melancholy the passing of life and seasons. Its subject is transition and illusion, and its ideal medium for expression is the human skin. The Japanese skin haiku poets of the mid-18th century exhibited their models at fairs in mountain villages, where audiences stood mesmerized by the swift brush work that turned beauties into books. The ephemeral nature of the brush work was in keeping with the tenderness and fragility of the form. Unfortunately, the practice took a dangerous turn when certain poets tattooed, incised or burned their work on the model's skin. Such living and permanent books were a perversion of the brush stroke method that involved as part of its process the laving of the model in spring water so that she or he might re-emerge new and rewritable. This sort of thing is far removed from the original practice of composing directly on the skin with brushes and colors.

The New Orleans event was the maturing of a fashion that began with the tattooing of words on their bodies by textually inclined young people. The majority were drawn to pictographs. But a minority enjoyed incising and letting flow over spine and arms citations in Hebrew, Arabic, Spanish and Celtic. Most of this text came from holy books of verse or proverbs with a quasi-universal meaning and as such it was related to T-shirts and samplers, an old form of public performance of text. Written be people must be read, which is why all such inscribing is a public performance. Often though, the written can't even read themselves, not even with a mirror.

Happily, the awareness has now dawned amongst writers that there are no permanent texts, no universally valid words, no prosody that doesn't, like skin, age. The brush stroking of haiku by its impermanence and guaranteed renewal is paradoxically the most enduring form of body writing. The poet creates something new, the model experiences something that can be rectified if it is ungainly, and he or she can even participate in the process by speaking words and pointing to their ideal placement. The documentation allows the book to read itself before dipping into spring water, and the work endures digitally even as the medium is renewed. The book that cannot read itself is dead. Long live the book of summer in New Orleans.

SIEGEL: Andrei Codrescu teaches at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge.

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