Dave Caserio is a poet, but he is best known in Billings as a performer of poetry.
In the past 10 years he has collaborated with musicians, dancers, actors, painters and other poets to create improvisational amalgams of creativity unlike anything else available in this part of the world.
Caserio said he tries to capture what art was like in an oral culture, when movement, music and speech were all one, an unconscious fusion of forms.
“All these things come out of the same root for me,” he said. “There really isn’t a distinction.”
Caserio will be performing again this Thursday during a gathering to mark the publication of “This Vanishing,” his first book of poetry. The book launch and signing will run from 5 to 7 p.m. at Buchanan Capital, 201 N. Broadway.
He will read some of his poems accompanied by his frequent collaborator, bassist Parker Brown, and a couple of other musical guests.
Caserio is a native of Chicago who lived in New York, Seattle and San Diego before settling in Billings in 2003. He has worked at Bistro Enzo during all his years here, making for a startling contrast between the demure waiter and the frenetic performance artist.
He was at his incandescent best in “A Feast for the Hunger Moon,” presented in 2008 and 2009 at what is now the NOVA Center for the Performing Arts. He would read — or declaim or act out — some of his best poetry while a troupe of experienced jazz musicians played off his words and each other’s music to create one-time-only songs that were alternately soothing and explosive.
Other poets read, too, and during different parts of the evening free-form dancers would give writhing interpretations of what was being spoken. Painters did something similar, creating a work of art in just a few minutes, based on whatever poem was being recited.
Caserio opened the performance by wandering into the audience, seated dinner-theater style, looking and sounding like a possessed street person, raving incoherently before bursting forth with bits of poetry or wisdom. Every time, there were clearly some in the audience who didn’t know who Caserio was and seemed to be thinking, “I knew I shouldn’t have come to Montana Avenue!”
But it was an unsettling performance even for those in the know, so completely does Caserio lose himself in his characters. Another highlight of the Hunger Moon series was Caserio’s recitation of scenes from “Beowulf.” Dressed in a tunic and carrying a staff, Caserio made Old English seem like a living language, showing how much meaning is held just in the sounds of words, and using dramatic gestures and expressions to convey the rest.
Other collaborations were presented at the Yellowstone Valley Brewing Co.’s Garage Pub. In “WordSongs” and “Arc of the Communal,” Caserio and other poets, some of them quite young, performed on stage with musicians.
“I Conjure a Stubborn Faith,” directed by Patrick Wilson and presented at the 2013 Fringe Festival, was a described by Caserio as “a play for voices,” and also involved live music. At the Yellowstone Art Museum, he performed for teachers earning continuing educational credits, and he has teamed up to perform with the Terpsichore Dance Company.
He has even won a Tuney — the music award created by the Billings Outpost — for best spoken-word artist. More important than the award, he said, was the acknowledgment that poetry can be considered part of an evening’s entertainment, not merely a bookish indulgence.
“It shows that it’s included, the way I think it should be,” he said.
Caserio has also taught writing workshops for cancer patients and survivors at Billings Clinic. There, he was paired with a therapist, not a dancer or musician, but again there was collaboration and discovery.
“We did the same thing from different angles,” he said of working with the patients, “and that was not intended.”
Caserio has given readings at the High Plains Book Fest in Billings and will be taking part in the Festival of the Book in Missoula in a couple of weeks. Later in October, he’ll be reading at the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival in Newark, N.J., which over the years has hosted Nobel laureates from around the world.
Caserio prefers not to describe or characterize his poetry — “Come see it live; come hear it” — but fortunately other people have done so, including this complimentary review from Sunday’s Gazette.
Martin Jude Farawell, director of the Newark festival, said Caserio’s poems “connect us again and again to the thousand different things that, like us, are vanishing, and remind us that that, even while vanishing, we can sing.”
Tami Haaland, of Billings, Montana’s current poet laureate, called the poems in “This Vanishing” “earthy and gently articulate … streetwise and elegant.”
The book of poetry involved other collaborations Caserio is eager to acknowledge. The cover painting, “Thought Transference,” is by New York artist Michael Zansky, whose “Insomnia” exhibition showed at the Yellowstone Art Museum last year.
The back cover photo is by Jessica Jane Hart, formerly of Billings, and the cover was designed by Peter Tolton, of Billings. Tolton has performed his own poetry at Caserio’s events, as has James Hickman, who designed the book’s interior.
Editor’s note: Ed and John Kemmick, friends of Caserio, will play some music with Parker Brown during Caserio’s performance Thursday evening.