Poem off the Page: An Interview with Elastic City Founder Todd Shalom

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You’re the founder and director of Elastic City, an organization whose m.o. has been the participatory walk for nearly six years, and you’ve been leading such walks for over a decade. In what way do you see your work as an artist who facilitates experiences for and with other people as being connected to your background in poetry?

For me, the walks are a poem—just taken off of the page. I wrote a lot of poetry about 12-15 years ago. My poems were functioning more like songs, perhaps better heard than read. With other poets and audiences, I wasn’t getting the dialogue I wanted. My work was both personal and coded. It’s what I needed to do for me. (I was in my 20’s). After getting over myself a bit, the desire to connect with people became more urgent, and the walk form gave me the opportunity to both learn from and share with the audience, as they became active participants in the work.

Why did you decide to get an MFA?

I got an MFA in poetry at an art school (California College of the Arts) because writing was my way into art school. It was the only art form that I could do. Or thought I could. I used to re-write lyrics to songs that I loved when in economics and business classes in undergrad (in Boston). Over the past ten years, I’ve been more interested with poetic decision-making than in writing poetry.

What did you find useful or inspiring about the world of contemporary poetry and/ or creative writing MFA culture, and what would you like to burn in effigy?

I loved the mentorships in creative writing MFA culture. Other than that, I really had one foot out the door. I was less interested in contemporary poetry and more interested in sound and performance. Further, I found that I was more appreciated as a poet by artists in other disciplines. That said, I now teach at a new MFA in Writing program (at Pratt) and am inspired by the vision of its chair, Christian Hawkey. It’s full of writers, artists and activists. I feel lucky to have been brought into a wonderful community. Its next goal is to make the program free for all of the students.

Your walks incorporate a number of techniques that I identify as being rooted in poetry: using found text, using dialogue, adding text to images, focusing on one sense at a time; are you drawing consciously on tools you found useful as a [page] poet, or do you think poets are a little chauvinist to imagine that these tools belong only to them?

Some of the techniques I use are rooted directly in text-based poetry (i.e. making poetic phrases in the moment out of text we find on awnings and street signage), but most prompts I give participants employ techniques that are used poetically (as opposed to techniques from poetry). For instance, we might pair up into groups of two and use our fingers to draw frames around things, creating instantaneous compositions on the street. One person makes a frame; the other ‘names’ the composition that was just framed. This can be argued to be a technique from drawing, photography (composition), poetry (titling), performance (the making of the frame), etc. But all the categorizing can be tiresome, so I prefer to use the word ‘poetry’ poetically.

What’s it like teaching writing at Pratt from the particular perspective you’ve found as an artist? Are your students already inclined toward opening the notion of creative writing to include the visual arts, music, etc? What have been some of the ways you’ve worked with these students that have been of particular interest to you as an artist? 

The program just started, and I’ve only mentored one student and been involved in crits. I start teaching tomorrow [ed: last week!]. That said, it seems that the students know that “writing” isn’t just an act that exists solely on the page, or only with text. I ask my students to lead a participatory walk as one part of their final project. I then present these walks through Elastic City. The other part of the project is that they have to submit a document outlining all of their poetic decision-making throughout the walk. Why did we turn at this corner? Do this exercise? etc. I want them to focus on making purposeful choices. I think this will translate within other genres.

The Internet has made amateur performance more shareable, and maybe in turn made performance feel less scary and hierarchical for the average person. Do you think that’s had an impact on the way writers – especially writers who choose to enter an MFA program – see themselves as artists? I’m thinking, for example, of the bump in poetry videos to accompany book releases, performance tours, and online movements like #blackpoetsspeakout.

I’m not sure if amateur performance on the internet has had an effect on how writers might see themselves. I bet it has, but regardless, I think everyone is an artist. I think that all decisions in our control have the potential to be creative ones, from what we name the folders on our desktops to what next comes out of our mouths. That doesn’t mean we are all making compelling work, but we are all making work. Getting back to categories, I don’t like to linger too much on labels. It’s only useful for me in that once I’m labeled as something, it’s an invitation to break free.

What would be your advice to a performance-curious writer thinking about getting an MFA?

I’d say, first scope out who you’d want to work with and/or where you’d want to be. Don’t limit yourself to the U.S. You might realize that someone you want to work with doesn’t teach at a school. So, go and work for them. Or work out a trade: you help them out and they give you feedback on your work. There are lots of options. If going to school will mean entering into a lot of debt, then pick a school that’s public, inexpensive and/or offers scholarships. To get back to your question more specifically—Pratt is launching a Performance/Performance Studies MFA (for those who want to both write *and* perform). I believe it’s launching in Fall 2016.

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Todd Shalom works with text, sound and image to re-contextualize the body in space using vocabulary of the everyday. He is the founder and director of Elastic City. In this role, Todd leads his own walks, collaborates with artists to lead joint walks, and works with artists in a variety of disciplines to adapt their expertise to the participatory walk format. He often collaborates with performance artist/director Niegel Smith. Together, they conceive and stage interactive performances in public and private environments. Todd is also a ringleader of Willing Participant. Willing Participant whips up urgent poetic responses to crazy shit that happens. Todd’s work has been presented by organizations such as Abrons Art Center, Brooklyn Museum, Creative Time, ISSUE Project Room, The Kitchen, The Museum of Modern Art, The New Museum, P.S. 122 and Printed Matter. He is a graduate of the MFA Writing Program at California College of the Arts and also holds a B.S. in Business Administration from Boston University. Todd is a member of the core faculty in Pratt Institute’s new MFA in Writing.

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