Reading delayed by problems


Shalini Puri was determined that the final presentation of her International Conference on… Shalini Puri was determined that the final presentation of her International Conference on Comparative Postcolonialities would go on Saturday night And she wasn’t going to let technological troubles, an ocean and an act of Congress stop her.

“Anything that’s going to work, I authorize,” the Pitt English professor told graduate student Miguel Rojas, whom she called her “tech guy.” “It can be phone, it can be Google Talk, it can be space travel.”

In the end, it was by phone and Web cam that Jamaican poet Jean Binta Breeze was able to perform her dub poetry from a kitchen in London.

The Web cam, however, failed a few lines into Breeze’s first poem. The phone was a cell phone borrowed from an audience member.

The ad hoc arrangement was made necessary by a regulation – part of the USA PATRIOT Act – that went into effect last Wednesday, which requires all visitors to the United States from visa-waiver countries to have a machine-readable passport.

The United Kingdom is one of 27 visa-waiver countries, but Breeze’s U.K. passport, while valid, was not machine-readable. She was not allowed Thursday to board an airplane in Birmingham, England, bound for the United States.

As the final panel on postcolonialism went on in the Cathedral of Learning, Rojas, English Professor Brenda Whitney and Media Services student employee Joe Rogel worked to connect literary agent Paul Beasley’s London kitchen to an auditorium in the Frick Fine Arts Building.

The task proved to be, as Whitney put it, “really, really hard.”

One program produced a quality of sound that was described by Breeze as “like a little girl” and by others as “like an evil witch,” “like talking with Mars” and “like light sabers.”

Another, Beasley was unable to run in London.

“Poor Paul,” Whitney said. “This is not his thing.”

The Web cam picture worked more readily. When Beasley’s face appeared on the wall of the auditorium, Whitney was speaking to him on a cell phone.

“He asks if we mind if he smokes,” she said.

The reading was nearly cancelled several times. Planning went on, though, because of the optimism of Rojas.

“It sounds good, it sounds good, it sounds good,” he said in the face of all evidence.

The reading was scheduled to begin at 8 p.m., but by 8:40 p.m., an audience of about 60 was watching Breeze smoke cigarettes by Web cam.

Puri spoke to the audience as Rojas and Whitney called Beasley’s home with various cell phones, trying to find one loud enough for Breeze to be heard.

“I am personally embarrassed to be in a place where this could happen,” Puri said, explaining to the audience why Breeze was not appearing in person. “I mean the United States.”

A State Department official declined to comment for publication.

Audience member Randi Singer responded to a request for a “very loud cell phone,” and volunteered her speakerphone, which was then placed on a podium next to a microphone.

Rogel battled further sound issues.

“I was millimetering it as far as I could, if that’s even a word, until the feedback kicks in,” he said.

After all of that, Breeze began with a description of the importance of movement in presenting poetry.

“You will understand what the body does and how much of the performance is the body,” she promised.

Then the video froze and did not move again.

Breeze then recited several poems, including “The Simple Things of Life.”

“Setting this up was not one of the simple things of life,” Breeze said before beginning her next poem.

At 9:30 p.m., Whitney interrupted Breeze at the end of a poem, suggesting that she take questions, as the low quality of the sound was making her poems difficult to understand.

Breeze answered questions about the rhythms of dancehall music, the relation of melody to rhythm and the differences between Britain and Jamaica.

“I think the women are much stronger than the men in England, and they don’t take any crap,” she said.

The questioning ended when Singer’s cell phone began to beep, indicating low battery. The audience delivered a standing ovation to the upheld telephone.