How to Bring the Funny and Then Stop

Hilary Gan is an MFA candidate in Fiction at the University of Arizona, and the Field Trip Intern for the UofA Poetry Center. This is her first major foray into performance.

I chose my poem because it was funny—funny in the way that I liked: ironic and absurd and not immediately obvious as funny.  Good poetry evokes feelings, and I certainly consider “amused” to be a highly desirable feeling to evoke.  But funny in poetry is not enough, and my poem, “After working sixty hours again for what reason,” by Bob Hicok, really brings it home in the last line, when the brother who has been taking lessons from the speaker in how to get paid to do nothing, gets up and shaves, “as if the lack of hair on his face has anything to do with the appearance of food on an empty table.”

I, on the other hand, did not exactly bring it home in the last line.

I managed the funny! I did.  In my first performance of it, people laughed. They laughed the loudest at the funniest line.  And they were laughing at the words and not at me.  But the last line, I swallowed. I hadn’t thought of what to do with it.  How do you make the switch from funny to serious, or for that matter, from any emotion to its opposite?  Poetry executes this about-face well.  Performance has the potential to do it well, but by its very nature performance is different every time and so there is a lot of room to really blow it.

So when I returned to practicing, I spent a lot of time thinking on the last line.  What did it mean? I put it next to the title: “After working sixty hours again for what reason/as if the lack of hair on his face has anything to do with the appearance of food on an empty table.” There are so many ways to see this! Technically, a clean-shaven face doesn’t bring home any bacon, not even the clinging post-meal bits; technically the speaker is right, and they have nothing to do with each other. But it is a fact in our society that appearing neat gets you a job and a job gets you money and money gets you food.  Why work sixty hours? For food.  It’s a good answer.  But the speaker of this poem got his money by doing nothing, by doing two opposing, pointless jobs that ultimately canceled each other out. Is food enough of a reason to work?  Or should the work also have a purpose? Should you have a good reason to shave?  I don’t know; but the question is good.  And I decided to try to bring that question to the last line.

And ultimately, to be funny or to be grave is to ask for work from the audience.  You must ask them to see the absurd in juxtaposition with an ideal, and they will laugh if they see it.  Or you must ask them to see the failure in juxtaposition with an ideal, and they will get serious, maybe sad.  There are three known human responses to new, jarring information: laughing, crying, or a change in perspective.  You must give them the words in a new way, in your way, which is a way they probably haven’t thought of.  You must ask them to look for the change in their perspective.

So I played with it; I tried slowing down, overemphasizing the last few words that stuck out to me: “food,” and “empty.”  But it wasn’t right, it was boring and expected.  It sounded like the end of the poem.  I rushed through it in a monotone voice, just to get the words, maybe notice a new one, and I heard something.  I had made it sound as though there were more lines coming, but there weren’t.  It sounded like a question. It was the answer.

Please click on the video below to watch Hilary's performance!         

Created on: 
Tuesday, October 2, 2012
Arizona Board of Regents