BY PUMA PERL | When I first heard about Kiss Punch Poem, a weekly series at the Magnet Theater that merges poetry and comedic improv, my initial reaction was that there were two ways this could go: painfully bad or insanely hilarious. I am pleased to report that my experience reflects the second supposition.
The blend of a talented group of improvisers, known as the Kiss Punch Poem Ensemble, with featured writers performing original work, accomplishes its goal of bringing about the unexpected in both comedic and poetic ways.
The event follows a specific formula, beginning with an exquisite corpse poem written in collaborative fashion by audience members prior to the show. Exquisite corpse is a poetry game that originated in the Parisian Surrealistic Movement, in which a paper is passed around and each player writes a word or image and the end result forms a poem. In this case, each participant writes a line, and a volunteer reads the finished product. The Kiss Punch Poem Ensemble then improvises a scene based on what they heard. This first improv, pretty much a warm-up for the show, is followed by the first of three featured poets. An improv takes place after each reading, and at the evening’s conclusion one or two of the poet members create a brand new end poem for the audience, inspired by the show.
On the night that I attended, I was honored to be one of the three features, along with Taylor Mali, a well-known poet, educator and teacher advocate, and Mason Granger, a talented poet who describes himself as “part comic and part hip-hop.” Both Mali and Granger were familiar with the format, so I paid close attention to their choices. And then I agonized. I had selected a poem that was rich in narrative and imagery, thinking that it would lend itself to improvisational work, but listening to Mali read a poem called “Undivided Attention,” I wondered whether my subject matter was too dark for the audience to enjoy. Learning that Granger’s piece was entitled “Dr. Seuss” did not boost my confidence.
I grabbed my book and quickly chose a lighter poem. I recited it in my head and rejected it. Selected another. Not quite right. “First thought, best thought,” Allen Ginsburg intoned in my head, and I resignedly returned to my original choice. Mali was concluding his poem, about the distraction of watching a Steinway piano being moved out a window while he was trying to give a math lesson, and ending with the haunting line “Let me teach like the first snow, falling.” The troupe raced onto the stage as he exited. My next task would be to stay focused so I could take my place center stage just as they concluded their final improvisational skit — if my timing was off, they would return and continue. Meanwhile, troupe member Nathan was playing the part of the piano, hanging from a window that’s part of the simple set, as a combination of wit and slapstick kept the audience laughing. And thinking.
I managed to get onstage in time to read a poem called “Gallery Walls,” about the experience of viewing photographic images of my past at a gallery opening, and feeling invisible in my present. As I said, a bit dark for this sort of thing, but the audience was quiet and attentive. “Photographs lined the gallery walls,” it began. “Kids pushed carts down abandoned streets.” I finished, the troupe raced on, Kiss Punch Poem co-founder Alex Marino leaned back in his chair, crossed his legs and remarked to two troupe members, “Yeah, those little effin’ brats and their shopping carts,” and they were off.
The painful aspects of my life that the poem reflected were now hilarious, as presented by The Surreal Three Stooges. When I told Alex later about my trepidations regarding my choice, he responded that they loved to be presented with serious matter, as it offers a different kind of challenge than a humorous piece, which is already funny. Perhaps a lot of money could be saved on therapy if poets simply bring their angst to the venue and watch it dissolve into the ridiculous.
The final piece, “Dr. Seuss,” brilliantly performed by Mason Granger, inspired even broader dimensions of farce and silliness, sort of The Surreal Three Stooges On Acid — and then it was time for the end poem. Poets Thomas Fucaloro and Jared Singer traded off lines, creating a duet of sweet sensibility, picking up words from one another as segue. Although they are very different types of writers, a cohesive piece emerged, including elements from the poems read by the features and highlighting the Dr. Seuss character, Sam (of Sam-I-Am) as an innocent voice. “There is an angel to be found in all of us” was one of the parting lines.
Kiss Punch debuted in 2011 as part of an experimental performance show the Magnet Theater called “Test Drive.” “If you had an idea for a show you could pitch it, get a slot and try it out,” Alex explained. “If it worked, you would get another chance.” Kiss Punch played to a packed audience, receiving a standing ovation and, eventually, proving its potential to capture an audience. Alex was already teaching improv at the theater when he met Meghan Plunkett, a “poet slinking around the Bowery Poetry Club,” as she put it. She started to attend the initial performances and became interested in the fusion of poetry and improv, convincing Alex to visit the Bowery Poetry Club and meet her poet friends. The two decided that their poet and actor buddies needed to get together and create something, and that’s how the improv group fused into Kiss Punch Poem, with Alex and Meghan co-producing the resulting project. They both participate in the performances as well. The popularity of the series has won it a weekly slot at the theater, and the troupe has toured around the country.
When asked the ways in which improv informs her work as a poet, Meghan responded that a lot of her poems have been inspired by scenes that come from the show. “Improv allows you to look at life with a different lens,” she said. “One of my favorite things to do is to write the end piece, a poem that is written while the show explodes on stage. Having fifty minutes to write a poem based on improv ignites a beautiful kind of creative panic. There is not time to censor yourself, and you begin to wonder, ‘Why did I ever censor myself?’ ”
It was Alex who originally came up with the idea of the end piece. “I had always been really in love with the idea of someone watching the whole show and writing a poem on the spot. I thought it would be so cool if someone could improvise that end poem, and one night we were all playing pool at some bar and Jared Singer said, ‘You know, that’s what I do, right? I started doing poetry by improvising poems for my college improv troupe.’ So that’s sort of how he got involved.”
The bonds of friendship and a shared sensibility create the trust that must exist with any group operating without a net. The cast includes performers with credits from NPR, The Onion, Second City and other respected venues. It has been favorably reviewed by Time Out Chicago and The American Reader, and praised by Mark Smith, founder of Slam Poetry. “Their performance took me back to the formative years of the slam,” he wrote. “It was exhilarating.”
What I like most is the blend of the raw and the personal with the giddy feeling of jumping as high as you can without knowing where you will land — or when, or if. One of the qualities that separates a great poem from a good one is the element of surprise, and Kiss Punch Poem, on a weekly basis, aims for greatness and brings the audience and the guest features right along with them.
The next “Puma Perl’s Pandemonium” will be Fri., June 19, 7 p.m. at Bowery Electric Map Room (327 Bowery at Joey Ramone Place). No cover, no admission, 21+. Poetry and Rock and Roll featuring poets Ted Jonathan, Corrina Bain and Linda Rizzo, musicians Jeff Ward and Sarah Amina, Puma Perl and Friends and more. Visit pumaperl.blogspot.com.