When Jeff Kass contacted The Chronicle about his upcoming one-man show, “Wrestle the Great Fear: A Performance Poetica,” we were particularly intrigued by this statement in his email: “The piece includes a lot of physicality in the performance, including a great deal of wrestling.”
A one-man poetry performance with a great deal of wrestling? Yep, we were hooked. So we met with Kass recently at the Liberty Athletic Club, where he showed us exactly what he meant.
Kass has been a leader in local poetry circles – he teaches creative writing at Pioneer High and works with the Volume poetry program at the Neutral Zone, where he serves as literary arts director. But this is the first time he’s attempted a full-length, continuous narrative, complete with music, video, directors and intricate choreography. This ain’t no three-minute poetry slam.
Rather, Kass has crafted a play of sorts, shaped thematically by 28 poems that explore the relationship between students and teachers, in all its joy and angst. Kass says his effort is a convergence of several things: 1) a desire to show his former students that there are ways to push your art beyond the poetry slam, 2) the work he’s doing while getting an MFA from the University of Southern Maine, and 3) the realization that much of his current poetry is about students and teaching. He could have compiled his poems into a book, he says, but chose to perform because of his strong emotional attachment to the spoken word.
The show looks at what it means to stand up in front of a group of kids, day after day, with the expectation that you’ll deliver to them wisdom and knowledge. The interaction between teachers and students can be like a collision – after it happens, do you retreat into your respective corners, or do you investigate the crash? Kass is all about wrestling with the aftermath.
The wrestling metaphor relates to his own struggles as a teacher, and by extension, to the same challenges that all teachers face: Preconceptions, an unwillingness to make emotional investments, fear of young people. This last one, Kass contends, results in efforts to control kids with dress codes, surveillance cameras, hall monitors and the like – actions that have proved controversial at Pioneer. “To me, that comes from a place of fear,” he says.
Wrestling those fears, plus his own personal fears – of lacking empathy, of not working hard enough, of balancing family and work – informs one layer of the performance.
Kass also evokes the Biblical image of Jacob wrestling the angel after defrauding his brother Esau of his birthright – a story that some interpret as Jacob’s internal battle over his actions. That image is one used on promotional materials for his performance, and Kass notes that “great fear” is one possible translation of the Hebrew word for “angel.”
There’s a literal wrestling connection as well: Kass was a wrestler in high school and, briefly, in college, and coached the sport as well – he notes that there aren’t many Jewish wrestlers. It was a way of differentiating himself from his father, an intellectual force and successful environmental lawyer. Rebelling against his father is similar to the way students rebel against teachers, Kass says – but there’s more to it than that.
Just after college, Kass was living at home and going through some boxes in his parents’ basement, looking for old baseball cards, when he came across his father’s undergraduate thesis. Its title? “Wrestle the Great Fear.”
The title was a jolt – a connection with his father through something that Kass had used to set himself apart. The thesis explored how American literary heroes evolved from the physical to the intellectual. But where his father saw a dichotomy of those two traits, Kass believes the two need to merge: “You have to be in order to increase your capacity to know.”
Though this is a one-man performance, there are many others involved. The show is directed by theater veterans Ben Cohen and Glenn Bugala – Cohen is the choir and drama teacher at Greenhills School, and Bugala has directed and acted for the Ann Arbor Civic Theatre and Performance Network. The show will also feature poetry performed by Angel Nafis, Maggie Ambrosino and Ben Alfaro, and music by Nick Ayers (of The Macpodz), Greg Burns and Sean Duffy.
We end this article with one of the poems Kass plans to perform on April 29. As for how he incorporates wrestling moves into the performance of his poetry, well, that’s an art form that defies written description. For that, you’ll have to see the show.
Reversal (by Jeff Kass)
You can't execute a successful Granby Roll if you can't believe you can be a wrecking ball and bounce Pop your hips toward the sky make your body an A-frame post your weight on your left hand Ready yourself for your quake hop your left foot in front of your right, now blow your house from its moorings, duck your head and make your break violent The Granby Roll will not work if you don't have faith in your own momentum, you cannot quit halfway, your naked shoulders exposed to the mat's cold mercy You must believe you can ravage your own symmetry and survive Now try it from standing up you are human, tall on two legs and you can dive and spin from upright too it's hop, hop, go Don't let your fear of falling failure, falling, failure, don't let fear of falling fail you, failure fall you, dive, dive – trust your dive, and roll.
“Wrestling the Great Fear: A Performance Poetica” will be performed on Wednesday, April 29 at 7 p.m. at the Lydia Mendelssohn Theater in the Michigan League, 911 N. University Ave., Ann Arbor. Admission is $5. To reserve tickets or for more information, call (734) 223-7443 or email Jeff Kass at email@example.com.