The Gentle Cacophony of Edwin Torres
by Wanda Phipps
Edwin Torres is a tall, thin, spectacled, goateed poet who has cast his spell over many Downtown poetry and performance hotspots. Whether working with dancers, conducting musicians and poets in his “Poet’s Neurotica” evenings or performing solo, he always creates an intensely explosive yet playful atmosphere by orchestrating lush, luxurious sound. His deep melodious voice forages through rounded vowels, chopped syllables, and stretched whispers.
He’s been found practicing his alchemy at the Poetry Project, Dixon Place, P.S. 122 and the Performing Garage. Recently, he represented New York City in the National Poetry Slam in Boston. This Po-Mo griot also won the Nuyorican Poets Cafe’s First Annual Prize for Fresh Poetry and is the author of I Hear Things People Haven’t Really Said.
New York Press pronounced him Best Performing Poet this year saying: “Torres has become magnificent…innovative and refined. His bent for soul bending language play is without equal.” Ethan Petitt of Nose Magazine says “instead of ‘sounding things’, he ‘things’ sounds, so that words and meanings go ka-plunk like soft percussion.”
Some of his widely diverse influences include Wallace Stevens, Mayakovsky, Duchamp, Dada, Fluxus, and even Butoh.
I had the pleasure of talking with Edwin about his work over Sunday brunch at Mogador Cafe, a very noisy, bustling Loisaida eatery and breakfast the next day at Veselka’s, a much quieter Ukrainian diner.
Wanda Phipps: Edwin, tell me a bit about your background?
Edwin Torres: I was born in the Bronx. I’m also a graphic designer and I’ve been performing since 1989. I created a movement called i.e. (interactive eclecticism). It’s about the theater being the body and dealing with the dualities of that. I’d have movement, audience participation, music, and I’d try and mix words in there somewhere. So the first year I wrote songs and phrases for these performances. Then I discovered the Nuyorican in 1990. Performance opened one world and then reading poetry by itself opened another extension of that world.
WP: I’m curious about your “Poet’s Neurotica” events.
ET: One of the driving forces is a kind of gentle cacophony­p;all of these things happening at the same time and the audience decides what to listen to. Seeing what the audience will put up with, pushing the limits of their listening. You start asking ‘what level of cacophony am I achieving?’ It’s a learning experience. Someone once said that performers dream for those who can’t. If that’s so then who does the dreamer listen to? Maybe he listens to his own dreams. But I’m aware that it has to be more than a catharsis for the performers. You’re in this room and everybody’s getting something out of it. You’re listening more than you might in a normal performance. The poets are listening to the music, the music backs them up but the poets also back up the music sometimes. It was inspired by the musician Albert Ayler. He did improvisational music in the 50’s and 60’s. He died in the 70’s. He played with Ornette Coleman. His musicians had real conversations amongst themselves within the music. It was all happening at once but separately. And it had a real spirituality to it, an understanding…this chemistry that was just so great. And it wasn’t even always the same musicians. He was the driving force. To explain his music he used to say: “It ain’t about nothing.”
WP: Can you explain what actually happens in a Neurotica?
ED: Rehearsals are pretty wild. It is all improv. But there’s a structure. The personnel is important. It wouldn’t work without the right musicians. These musicians are able to make sound as well as music. And they’re very sensitive to all ranges of human emotion. A lot of it is the chemistry. But then there’s some structure, so I have to lead them without leading. I’m the conductor but I still want there to be room for exploration.
WP: How many people do you have performing all together?
ET: An opera singer, handsaw player, drummer, violinist, sax, trumpet, bass and 5 or 6 poets.
WP: You’re teaching a workshop at the Poetry Project now, right?
ET: It’s called “SEEDS SOWN LONG AGO ARE YOU THE LAYER?” I’m exploring ways of thinking and the communication of poetry in performance through exercises. And in those explorations you can’t help but revert to a kind of child-like innocence and play. I want to cover some of the history of poetry and of performance because there’s a precedent..where we’re at now is the natural culmination.
WP: Which performers or other writers have influenced you?
ET: Klebnikov (the Russian Futurist), G.M. Hopkins, particularly. Neruda, of course. I like the rhythm of the Dada poets. Combining the rhythm of Schwitters with the language of Hopkins is the kind of thing that interests me. Throw in some Mayakovsky for passion. All of this fun language play doesn’t mean anything without a real heart behind it.
WP: Are there performers or poets around now that you really like?
ET: That I have to think about…Carl Watson, Matthew Courtney, Dael Orlandersmith, Rachel Rosenthal. I love the Wooster Group. I also admire Ping Chong, Urban Bush Women, David Cale, Paul Skiff, and Darius James.
WP: What would you like to communicate in your work?
ET: Sincerity, I guess. Being sincere in my weirdness, in a love poem or in my actions, being true to myself and what I’m communicating. It’s about centering. There’s a shamanistic aspect to it, being this vessel. There’s a real spirituality involved but it’s not a religious spirituality….in Butoh there are times when you’re given dream images to concoct within your body, and you become hyper-aware of the world inside you. That makes you more aware of the world outside, and more aware of words, getting inside the language. I love making up words for that reason. Good poetry captures moments and puts you there. Every moment, every second is different, so sometimes it [the moment] has to have it’s own word or it’s own letter.
Here’s an excerpt from “ATHENADE BOOSTER” by Edwin Torres:
I hear things people haven’t really said.
It doesn’t worry me, and I feel privileged
that I doo-n’tun-derstan–D everything…but…I end up repeating
what someone said…BUT……they didn’t said it.
(silencio mon amour…
’cause you don’t know what you’re talking about!)
CHOY-CHOY-CHOY–NOTHING BUT CHOY!!!!!!
It’s a non-sexual thing…an original aberration.
An aberration of my hearing…but a victory for my heart.