Happening: The action of happen v.; occurrence (of an event), the fact of taking place.
The very fact of taking place is something to celebrate. To exceed existence or being, but only marginally. To dwell in our edges and crevices: the fold of a page, the frame of a canvas. Here, things happen. They happen because they begin to take on a strange, distinct life of their own, unplanned and voluptuous births seeping forth to make the shape of art.
We come to happen in various ways, one of which poet Arthur Rimbaud described as a ‘dereglement de tous les sens’. Those moments of total abstraction, of a detachment that verges on the sublime, where sensory distortion leads directly to new ways of seeing reality. For Rimbaud, the temptation of Dionysus’s lusty wine was a path towards his ambitions as a ‘seer’ and fuelled his surreal poetic happenings on the page.
Years later, another seer of the art world, Jim Morrison, took Rimbaud’s obsession with creating a disjointed present even further. For Morrison, the possibility of the present as occurrence spurred his vision of a bizarre scene in which chemicals would be filtered into a room of people through air vents, turning those people into the essential ‘artist-showman’ that lies latent in all of us. Not only would this scenario produce a show for spectators, but each participant would be a witness to their own capacity for performance: ordinary people become both artist and audience in a spectacular moment of absolute poetic fulfilment.
Exactly what this looks like, Morrison has to leave to our imagination because his oddly simple plan never quite comes off. If there were such a drug… But its end is clear; he wants to find a substance that will possess us spiritually—all of us— to create the pure experience of art. In his notorious performances with The Doors, Morrison himself would strip naked, posing as a shaman against a myriad of audio effects, whispering lyric as if they had just appeared to him like ghosts that very same instant. Particularly, for me, it was his eerie omission of the final syllable of words that gets closest to reaching inside the potential of a Happening. His sudden exits from a lyric point towards a recognition that words are autonomous, that they are ceaselessly entangled with atmosphere, sound, and the air we collect in, the air that we live off, the air that makes us happen.
Poetry makes things happen. When I interviewed headliner poet Lynn Melnick for the poetry festival, she told me that she writes about '“ancient history”. This fascinating comment spurred my own poetic happening which I hope says something about the kind of place we might try to reach in our artistic experiments:
I write about ancient history. Meaning a childhood of cakes and cameras, of uncles waiting in the wings. And blurred vision, incommunicable hunger and confusion, and the absolute impossibility of choice. Meaning awful teenage years of pathetically flowered wallpaper, and scratched CDs that skip right at the part where the song diffuses into untouchable sounds which radiate around bedrooms and heads and the slender wandering limbs of secret visitors. And the afterglow of youth, the vulnerable-making ambition, the coffee and the car rides home with strangers stronger than you.
These things are important. These things happened. Our bodies were taken by others and the time has come to recover them.
But always I can’t help letting the present burst in
Because it’s so present to me
Is way beyond experience and atmosphere
It’s an actual body sitting right inside the contours of
Mine and pressing, sometimes bulging, against nerves
And veins and skin and getting right inside all the important organs
Naming them again, re-introducing them to one another
Wanting nothing but giving this well-worded blood, imprinting
It in their invisible, obscure systems, and pushing it
Out of my fingers and mouth: all the incredible, silent, potential of now.
At the New York City Poetry Festival this July 27th and 28th on Governors Island, we’ll be exchanging our opium for a glass of thick, white milk in the Milk Press Gallery for Milk Press’s inaugural Milk Press Happening. Lush and pure, mysterious and natural, artists, including Donna Masini, Joanna Valente, Gregg Emery, and more will be making art in real-time, pushing their way towards another consciousness.
Join us for a moment of poetic reverie. As Matthew Zapruder writes in Why Poetry, the state of reverie is poetry, and reverie is ‘just beneath the surface of our moment-to-moment existence’ if only we could find its gate. A happening is always underlying the contours of a laid table, a stuffed sofa, the made lives we make for ourselves; the potential is in their undoing.