In case you haven’t noticed, there’s a new kid in town. A new theatre company actually, Conduit Theatre, bringing some fresh new ideas and collaborations to the Great Grand Forks arts scene. The company was started by Jared Fladeland (you can read our profile of him HERE) when he returned to his hometown after adventuring and making art in Los Angeles and Portland, and he wanted to bring back some of the ideas and styles he picked up in his travels back home.
Not one to start slow, Conduit Theatre has already hosted two sessions of its flagship event, The Word Parlor, which are evenings of poetry and spoken word performance. I remember back in my undergrad days when we used to hold regular poetry readings at the Urban Stampede; these gatherings seem to have mostly faded away, and Fladeland wanted to see this type of performance return to the community. And for this month’s event, held Monday, April 20, he decided to bring in some reinforcements: Los Angeles-based Brian Sonia-Wallace. Dubbing himself the “Rent Poet,” Sonia-Wallace set himself the goal of paying his monthly bills with only the money he could make from art and poetry. Six months later, he’s still going strong with new projects and collaborations around every corner.
In addition to the headliner, the event also featured the work of 4 local artists sharing their original work. I wasn’t able to attend the entire event because of auditions for Dixie Swim Club (which I am assistant directing with previous Word Parlor reader, Amy Driscoll), but I did have the opportunity to hear at least one piece from each of the artists. As with any reading, it was a mixed bag. Not every piece is going to resonate with every audience member and that’s not surprising. For me, good poetry should transform or transport: it should either give me a new way of looking at/thinking about some topic or idea or even an experience, or it should transport me into a specific moment and give me a reason to be there. Ever since the days of Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, poetry has never been able to fully escape the shadow of the confessional, and it can be tricky to find poetry that really elevates an experience beyond simple personal narrative. I was pleased to find that most of the artists were able to deliver on my expectation.
One young woman read a piece about complicated relationships, with her mother and with her partner. This one felt the most uncomfortably rooted in confessionalism, but there was a certain directness of language that I appreciated. It had a lyrical simplicity that kept it from becoming bogged down in the language and the piece moved at a brisk pace. Another woman wrote poems rooted in her North Dakota experiences and inspirations, thoughtful homespun creations with a delicate grace that is easy to overlook in a world overpopulated with diary pages and shocking revelations. Still another shared a humorous story about sibling hijinx, getting blamed for making her sister eat a bar of chocolate Ex-Lax even though she was uninvolved, off “minding [her] own evil business.” These three women presented pieces that were all very different in tone and subject matter, but all had some degree of success at either transforming or transporting.
The fourth local artist, the one male in the group, was less successful. His rambling monologue had a few small laughs but was mostly filled with convoluted ideas about the soul and divine makers and the body as “bucket,” a piece that would have felt more natural appearing in a cheap leaflet tucked under copies of The Watchtower in Busy Bubbles Laundromat than at a celebration of spoken word. There are poets who deal very eloquently with the subject of religion; this gentleman, for all his good intentions, was not one of them and he wielded his ideology like a clumsy cudgel.
Ending the evening was Sonia Wallace who approached his reading with a certain energy and bombastic charm that it was hard not to take a liking to him. He’s got all the trappings of an exciting young poet: exuberance, clever word manipulation, and a fearless approach to his craft. Listening to him recite his poems from memory, the pace frenetic, it was delightful to hear his turns of phrase, the way he connects words together into neat little parcels of meaning. He keeps the tempo decidedly up, like a stone skipping across the surface of a lake, and it’s an effective strategy as it keeps you from looking too far down into the water.
“So we can move toward light or we can move toward darkness, but we don’t know what either one is.” – Brian Sonia-Wallace, Word Parlor, April 20th 2015
There is a certain vagueness in the work he presented, a refusal to commit, to take sides or draw lines. It’s a trait I often see in young writers: a sort of hopefulness that underpins everything so that no matter what experience or idea is being elaborated upon is always suffused with possibility. In a less talented poet, this impulse can devolve into naiveté at best, saccharine self-indulgence at worst. For Sonia-Wallace, he’s able to craft it into something clever and entertaining, if sometimes a bit fluffy, that acts as the calling card of a motivated young artist who decides he’s going to do something and sets out to do it. It’s a pleasure to see someone combine delight with an art form and dedication to its study in such a way that it promises some truly great work to come from this poet as he continues to grow and develop in his craft.
The next Word Parlor event is scheduled for May 4, once again being held at the backstage space of the Empire Arts Center. Tickets are $10 for Adults, $5 for students.
Tags: Brian Sonia-Wallace, Conduit Theater, Conduit Theatre, Empire Arts Center, Empire Theater, Empire Theatre, Janessa, Janessa J, Janessa J Champagne, Janessa Jaye, Janessa Jaye Champagne, Jared Fladeland, Miss Jaye, Rent Poet, Word Parlor, World of Champagne