"I performed at Lollapalooza many years ago, around 1996," recalls New York poet and sound artist Tracie Morris, "but the most recent time was a workshop I did at Stetson University." That a casual question from Orlando Weekly about her past performances in Florida can generate such polar opposite answers is part of the genius and versatility of the work of Tracie Morris.
As a poet, musician, performance artist, sound installation artist, writer and academic, Morris has effortlessly broken through boundaries of high art and popular culture, equally at ease presenting her work at gritty venues like New York's Silent Barn and Knitting Factory as she is at the Museum of Modern Art or even the Whitney Biennial. Morris underplays it all with a laugh: "I just follow my passion and it's taken me to some really interesting places."
Following her passion has enabled Morris to have perhaps the most unconventional career arc of any practicing poet today, and it's part of what makes her work vibrant and challenging. Morris emerged as a poet as part of the scene around the Nuyorican Poets Cafe in the Lower East Side of New York in the early '90s. She remembers fondly hanging out with the Black Rock Coalition and a vibrant Nuyorican mix, with "a mélange of different types of people from all different backgrounds" coming together to create, where luminaries like Amiri Baraka, Gwendolyn Brooks and Anne Waldman would regularly drop by.
Early on, Morris' work was influenced by the new hip-hop music that was swiftly becoming the sound of the city. "I grew up in the early days of hip-hop, she says, "so I was very much inspired by the sonic and textural qualities as well as the descriptive elements of hip-hop." (Watch a performance of her iconic "Project Princess" piece on YouTube and get chills.)
In the fertile underground of New York City at that time, Morris found herself in the company of avant-garde musicians and artists like Elliott Sharp and John Zorn, and it inspired her to push her own performance style even further. "Over the years I slowly applied these ideas to more experimental sound-based work," she says. "I didn't know what I was doing, I was just figuring out my own voice. And then avant-garde artists started to embrace my work."
In the singularity that was the "alternative music explosion" of the '90s, Morris even had a brush with the mainstream, playing the aforementioned Lollapalooza, touring with Maggie Estep and appearing on MTV's Unplugged. "No one told me until it was too late that I was only supposed to do certain things," she laughs.
What distinguished Morris from many poets and spoken-word artists of the time was her restless desire to keep pushing at the bounds of her voice and the sounds and ideas it could convey. "I love language, I love words, I love sound," she enthuses. "And I love finding new ways of putting them together." This restless desire for constant evolution led her into creating sound installations and even a journey into academia; she's earned several advanced degrees and is currently a Professor of Humanities & Media Studies at the Pratt Institute.
Morris is headed to Central Florida as part of the Atlantic Center for the Arts' Master Artist Residency program starting this week – the 170th (!) installment of this prestigious program – where a small group of area artists and students get to undertake intensive study with a practicing and boundary-pushing artist in several mediums.
During her stay, Morris will conduct a workshop she's been developing for several years now, to assist writers with connecting their "page-based voice with their actual embodied voice." Morris explains, "You have a lot of writers who don't necessarily apply aspects of connecting to the body to performing. That's what my workshop seeks to do."
Morris will do a free public performance, reading and Q&A at the Atlantic Center for the Arts Downtown: Harris House on July 3. She promises a program that will span her more conventional written pieces and performance poems and perhaps even a fully improvised sound poem that she'll create on the spot. ("I like to challenge myself.") To Morris, her work is simply poetry, no descriptors needed: "I like poetic forms! From avant-garde poetics to sonnets to haiku. I'm just a nerdy poet from Brooklyn when it comes down to it!" firstname.lastname@example.org