Commentaries - March 2012
Obra sonora poética, Parte IV
This is Part IV of a four-part essay that appears in Portuguese in Deslocamentos Críticos (Lisbon: Babel; São Paulo, Itaú Cultural, 2011) under the title "Obra Sonora Poética: 1980-2010." Read Parts I, II, and III.
Brazilian Poetic Sound Work: 1980-2010
In the twenty-first century, Ricardo Aleixo and younger Brazilian poets are joining veteran vanguardists such as Augusto de Campos as global players in cross-platform writing. But in the last decade, young innovative poets also have been creating a stylistic register that does not feature the prominent, material use of sound that appears to epitomize this century. Instead, they write lyric poems that are sufficiently skeptical of the mode. These poems paint descriptive, imagistic scenes with emotional resonance, and irony. They dialogue with an international roster of inspirational places and poetic predecessors, and at times fight with them. They shamelessly mull over language and the mundane. They are dystopian, but rooted in place and local light. In these ambient poems, sound comes to be important as tone.
These poets’ choices resonate with the recent observations of Laura Moriarty in A Tonalist (2010). For Moriarty, “Tone suggests musicality and can also relate to accent, emphasis, force, inflection, intonation, resonance and a range of color terms such as hue, shade, tinge, tint and value” (128). She perceives these features in twenty-first century California poetry, along with some looks askance. “Some people write lyric poetry because they just want to and think it is great. Some write it though they think it is impossible. The latter are A Tonalists,” Moriarty wryly observes (121). The feeling crosses continents. For young Brazilian poets on the pulse of global poetics, and grappling with the challenges to lyric in Brazilian literary history, doing the impossible is right at home.
Like Aleixo, poets such as Marília Garcia (b. 1979) share a commitment to innovation, dialogue, and international sources. They also ask creative, social, and political questions, albeit through different means and styles. Freedom in this tonal and atonal work turns up as a consequence of being “post-everything” in the twenty-first century. It is a prospect at once freeing and frightening.
Sound is thus swallowed into perception and self-location. Garcia’s 20 poemas para o seu walkman (2007) digests the external sonic device and the modernist past (the title plays on Oliverio Girondo’s Veinte poemas para ser leídos en el tranvía) into an amusing, internally contemplative title poem. A representative sample from “20 poemas para o seu walkman”:
só ligava para contar do emprego
de matemática – “quase um objeto
poroso” – sair para um concerto de rock
e preparar variações para uma
vegetariana amável que pinta
de branco o apartamento
antes de ir.
[just called to talk about a job
in mathematics—“almost a porous
object”—to go out to a rock concert
and prepare variations for a
sweet vegetarian who paints
the apartment white
The short passage considers multiple forms of listening—the telephone, the rock concert, in addition to the suggestive, anachronistic title. The Walkman is a relic at this point in time, but the book conscientiously dialogues with the idea that in our present day, we often listen before we read. The poem replays that impulse as a choice, and chooses to stay in a book.
The poet also intended the title in the literal sense of a man walking (Personal interview). She imagined the poems accompanying a reader on a walk, playing in a reader’s head as they navigated the streets. She wanted the poems to get under a reader’s skin, and in their ears. The poems are meant to be heard.
Aleixo’s work offers new voices to the poetic conversation, and opens up essential space for participation and connection. The poems of Garcia add to that new ways of listening, now.
I thank Rumos Literatura do Itaú Cultural for supporting this research.
Works Cited in Part IV
Garcia, Marília. 20 poemas para o seu walkman. São Paulo: Cosac Naify; Rio de Janeiro: 7Letras, 2007.
---. Personal interview. 5 Aug. 2011.
Moriarty, Laura. A Tonalist. Callicoon, NY: Nightboat Books, 2010.
Works Cited for the complete essay
Aleixo, Ricardo. “Arquivox: práticas vocais nas poéticas contemporâneas.” 38º Festival de Inverno da UFMG. Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais, July 2006. Web. 14 May 2007.
---. Boca também toca tambor. Galeria Municipal de Arte, Itajaí, Santa Catarina, Brazil. 9 Aug. 2010. akavulgo’s Channel. Ricardo Aleixo. YouTube, 30 Aug. 2010. Web. 8 Aug. 2011.
---. Modelos vivos. Belo Horizonte: Crisálida, 2010. Print.
---. “Música para modelos vivos movidos a moedas.” Jaguadarte – Posse de Ricardo Aleixo. Blogspot, 13 July 2010. Web. 23 Aug. 2011.
Bessa, Antonio Sergio. “Sound as Subject: Augusto de Campos’s Poetamenos.” Perloff and Dworkin 219-236.
Campos, Haroldo de. “Da razão antropofágica: Europa sob o signo da devoração.” Colóquio 62 (1981): 10-25. Print.
Daniel, Claudio. “Geração 90: uma pluralidade de poéticas possíveis.” Protocolos críticos. Adelaide Calhman de Miranda, et al. São Paulo: Iluminuras; Itaú Cultural, 2008. 89-103. Print.
Feinsod, Harris. “Sound Poetry.” The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. 4th ed. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, forthcoming 2012. Print.
Garcia, Marília. 20 poemas para o seu walkman. São Paulo: Cosac Naify; Rio de Janeiro: 7Letras, 2007. Print.
---. Personal interview. 5 Aug. 2011.
Gullar, Ferreira. Entrevista de Ferreira Gullar por Weydson Barros Leal [12 July 1999]. Jornal de Poesia. Ed. Soares Feitosa. Jornal de Poesia, 8 Sept. 2005. Web. 2 Aug. 2011.
---. Toda poesia (1950-1999). 17th ed. Rio de Janeiro: José Olympio, 2008. Print.
Higgins, Dick. “Dick Higgins: A Taxonomy of Sound Poetry.” Poems and Poetics. Ed. Jerome Rothenberg. Blogspot, 25 July 2011. Web. 31 July 2011.
Menezes, Philadelpho, cur. Exposição—poesia intersignos . Pontifícia Universidade Católica de São Paulo, 16 July 2002. Web. 17 Aug. 2011.
---. Poesia Intersignos: do impresso ao sonoro e ao digital . Pontifícia Universidade Católica de São Paulo, 30 June 1999. Web. 17 Aug. 2011.
---, ed. Poesia Sonora: poéticas experimentais da voz no século XX. São Paulo: Editora EDUC, 1992. Itaú Cultural—Arte e Tecnologia—salas especiais—Poesia Sonora. Web. 17 Aug. 2011.
---. Roteiro de Leitura: poesia concreta e visual. São Paulo: Editora Ática, 1998. Print.
Moriarty, Laura. A Tonalist. Callicoon, NY: Nightboat Books, 2010. Print.
Pereira, Edimilson de Almeida, ed. Um tigre na floresta de signos: estudos sobre poesia e demandas sociais no Brasil. Belo Horizonte: Mazza Edições, 2010. Print.
Perloff, Marjorie. Prefatory note. “The Oulipo Factor: The Procedural Poetics of Christian Bök and Caroline Bergvall.” Jacket 23 (Aug 2003): n. pag. Web. 11 Aug. 2011.
---, and Craig Dworkin, eds. The Sound of Poetry/The Poetry of Sound. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2009. Print.
Perrone, Charles A. Brazil, Lyric, and the Americas. Gainesville: UP of Florida, 2010. Print.
---. Seven Faces: Brazilian Poetry Since Modernism. Durham: Duke UP, 1996. Print.
Reed, Brian M. “Visual Experiment and Oral Performance.” Perloff and Dworkin 270-284.
Stewart, Susan. “Rhyme and Freedom.” Perloff and Dworkin 29-48.
Tosin, Giuliano. “Poesia Sonora no Brasil e no Mundo / Sound Poetry in Brazil and the World.” Intellectus 2.2 (Jan/Jul 2004): 19-33. Web. 23 Aug. 2011.
Sydney L. Iaukea, Sarith Peou, Adam Aitken, and the emotional archive
It was one of those days when everything random converged. The evening before, our friend who devoted a long career working with youth at risk talked to us about another friend, a Khmer Rouge survivor, who has spoken to several of my classes. The first time he told his story, he traumatized my freshmen by telling them about a woman bludgeoned to death before her colleagues for asking for more food. He finished the story with a laugh. My students couldn't get over his laugh. It assumed more importance to them, it seemed, than the story itself. “He shouldn't have laughed,” more than one told me. That day things converged, call it last Thursday, I awakened to an on-line citation of a memory card of my own, plucked at random by Joseph Harrington from my new book, based on a story told to me by a man who works as a prison psychologist, whose mother was in the same Alzheimer's home as mine. “He tells me about a [Cambodian] prisoner, 72 years old, stuffed inside a suicide shirt, who screams in Khmer that someone is beheading him.” And at noon, I attended a talk at the Biography Center at my university by Sydney L. Iaukea, whose new book is The Queen and I: A Story of Dispossessions and Reconnections in Hawai`i. Iaukea is a political scientist writing about the trauma of Hawaiian history, the effects of those traumas on extended families like her own. While Iaukea spoke about what she had learned about her family, her family's selling of their land, her great-grandfather's relationship to the last Hawaiian Queen, Lili`uokalani, what impressed me most, in the context of teaching a course in documentary poetry, was her discussion of the archive in emotional terms. My students have discovered that working with documentation does not cut the emotional charge of their projects, but compels it. As Iaukea writes, "To recognize the loss of land as the loss of self is an enormous and very personal endeavor, one that makes historical occurrences very real." The archive offered her a renewed sense of these losses, some of which had been kept secret from her growing up.
In 2007, Tinfish Press published the work of a Cambodian holocaust survivor now serving two life terms in prison in Minnesota for killing two other refugees from the Khmer Rouge. The book is titled Corpse Watching, after one of the poems. The book was sent to me by Ed Bok Lee, who had worked with the author, Sarith Peou, in the prison. Peou's second-language English is straightforward, documentary, the content all the more stark for it. Our designer for the project, Lian Lederman, found out about the archives of photographs of people killed at Tuol Sleng, a school converted into a death factory, and acquired copies of photographs from the Documentation Center of Cambodia in Phnom Penh. It bears saying that Lederman, then an MFA student in art, is Israeli. The chapbook she designed has two sections. Its covers are heavy manila paper, like folders where such photographs would have been kept. On the larger right side of the two screws that hold the book together are Peou's poems, printed in typewriter font; on the left side, making a kind of flip book, are photographs of some of the Khmer Rouge's victims, taken just before they were killed. Lederman talked in one of my classes, one she attended with our Cambodian frirend, Hongly Khuy, about how difficult it was to cull the photographs. She felt that she was consigning the subjects of those photographs she didn't choose to a second oblivion. The archive was drawing her into the horror, not as a passive (if distressed) witness, but as something of a participant (albeit delayed, and less deadly). That many of the victims whose photos are included are young boys and men, some of whom resemble my son (who was born in Cambodia), involves me in that archive, as well. This is family, however extended, attenuated. My son may have come to my husband and me because of that awful time. Cambodia's self-destruction was more than aided by the USA's "secret bombing" in 1960-1970. (That campaign of carpet bombing was performed under the awful name, "Menu.") In 'Scars,” Peou writes that he and his peers named their wounds after bomb craters created by different US warplanes, the T-28, the F-111, and the infamous carpet bomber: “My B-52 didn't heal,” he writes, “until the Khmer Rouge fell, / When we had enough food to eat.”
In “My Sister Ranchana,” Peou writes about a sister he left behind in Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge had taken her to a “work farm” at age seven. Twenty years after their regime fell, she suffers severe PTSD, panic, diarrhea, hospitalizations. But the poem does not stay with Ranchana, rather moves to Mee, “the cadre who mistreated Ranchana.” The speaker in the poem names his dog Mee, abuses the dog, eventually eats the dog. Then:
A few months later
Mee died from delivery complications.
I thought my curse had worked.
Now I feel guilty for misplacing my anger on my poor dog.
The book is full of pain, for which there is no relief. The full manuscript was at least three times longer than the Tinfish Press chapbook, and Sarith Peou has also written a huge memoir, which is in manuscript.
If Peou's writing cannot heal him, then it can traumatize its reader into awareness. His archive, and the archive of photographs, draw in the Israeli designer, the American adoptive mother, and anyone who reads the book. The awful Cambodian decade of the 1970s and its aftermath also drew in the Australian poet, Adam Aitken, who lived with his wife for a year in Cambodia. In “Forest Wat, Cambodia,” he writes, “Who knows if suffering's inquiry leads you anywhere / but back to suffering?” (Eighth Habitation, 86). He stands in a train station, considering the landscape itself as aftermath to genocide: “The tracks were ripped out years ago / by lads who knew more about suffering than we ever will. No end to it.” He notes that history cannot stop itself, even in the face of such trauma.
And yet, you're right . . . the children
still wave here, though hardly a soul over forty,
and those who remember can't quite recall
the historic meaning of their lives, or
how their names are spelt: just
to have come this far, along the road,
just this sack of green leaves, this hammock in the trees. (86)
The only access he has to someone else's pain is to witness their forgetting. (I also remember being taken aback in 2000 when I saw a man on a motor scooter in Siem Riep with gray hair.) Adam Aitken makes his own pilgrimage to Tuol Sleng (S21) to try to recall what happened. He wonders what it means for him to take photos, read the archive:
How to come away from it,
to photograph it, how long to stay there and stare
at the spattered tiles and the ripped out wiring.
To wonder what endless days
reading an archive of ten thousand ‘confessions’
does for the eyes; I’m sick of questions
no-one wants to answer. (105)
At the end of the poem, he compares himself, a poet, with the man who took down the records of those killed in this awful awful place. Aitken’s writing is always limpid, but this conclusion chills to the bone:
I too have to write, wondering where I am
on the chain-link of paranoia
connecting a tyrant to a farmer's son
who was handy with a shovel;
someone like the accountant across the corridor
doing the company's credit/debit sheet —
the guy with all the stories, who
knew how to file, the one who said
he’d done his job protecting his nation
with a few blunt instruments
a fountain pen, and a beautiful signature. (106)
In Peou’s poem, “The Unfitted,” a Khmer Rouge boy at a Traditional Medicine Center is given a pen and paper. He exclaims that the boy draws so skillfully, even as he draws the engines of death, bodies of the dead. The connection between art and genocide is what Adam Aitken calls a “chain-link of paranoia.” It may not ease suffering, because as Aharon Appelfeld writes in The Story of a Life, “Words are powerless when confronted by catastrophe; they're pitiable, wretched, and easily distorted. Even ancient prayers are powerful in the face of disaster.” But the chains at least have links. Appelfeld: “I learned how to respect human weakness and how to love it, for weakness is our essence and our humanity.” It is as record of this weakness that the archive emerges not simply as a place to leave our documents, but also to grieve over them. We may not fully remember ourselves or our histories, but we will see the pieces better for it.
I'll bet most readers of this commentary did not realize that William Carlos Williams made a television appearance. Yes, it was September 4, 1957, and the old stroke-inhibited but still feisty poet went to the studios of WABD (New York) and appeared with host John Wingate on a show called Nightbeat. Today we've segmented the audio version of this recording into topics. You'll note that WCW talks about television for 33 seconds, and about Stevenson, Eisenhower and Kennedy for a minute and a half (already anticipating the 1960 presidential election). Here are those segments:
videos of orignal productions plus Yarmolinsky's preface
These three videos were made of the Blind Witness trilogy at the time of the original productions in the 1990s. They are available now for the first time, thanks to PennSound. PennSound's Ben Yarmolinsky page also has audio tracks for all the operas as well as video and audio of subsequent performances. Just below the videos is Yarmolinksy's introduction to the Facorty School book.
Blind Witness News (1990)
Install the Flash plugin to watch this video.
This is a promo/excerpt produced and directed by Grethe Holby, from the original production in December1990.<br>
Rondi Charlston - soprano, James Javore - baritone, Suzanna Guzman - mezzo, Lynn Randolph - tenor. Elizabeth Rodgers and Steve Tyler played synthesizers; Robert Black conducted.
Allan Kozinn reviewed the show for The New York Times
The Subject (1991)
- Jenny Midnight, The Subject — Carla Wood, mezzo-soprano
Dr. Boris Frame, Psychoanalyst — Stephen Kalm, baritone
- Prof. Daemon Dudley, Director of Social Correction, Center for Normalcy — Thomas Bogdan, tenor
- Piano — Elizabeth Rogers
- Video: Andrew Reichsman
The Lenny Paschen Show (1992)
- Lenny Paschen — Larry Adams, baritone
- Monica Moolah — Darynn Zimmersoprano
- Paul Evangeline — Jeff Reynolds, tenor
- Maria Aquavita — Jane Shaulis, mezzo-soprano
- conducted by John Yaffé
For the Factory School book, Ben Yarmolinsky wrote this preface:
At the end of the summer of 1990, I received a call from Grethe Holby, the artistic director of American Opera Projects. She asked me if I would be interested in writing a new opera. The previous spring I had submitted a cassette of songs to AOP in response to an advertisement, and apparently they liked what they heard. I said that I would be thrilled to write a new opera, and began to think about a subject. Since my early twenties I had toyed with the idea of writing a musical theater piece based on a television news broadcast, and I suggested that as the theme. She accepted.
The next question was who would write the libretto. With only about three months until the scheduled performance, I thought I’d better farm the job out. I remembered the name of Charles Bernstein. The summer before in Tangier, my friend Rodrigo Rey Rosa had mentioned him to me as the leader of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry movement—a movement about which I knew nothing. Still, it sounded intriguing, and I knew that Charles lived in New York. So, I looked up all the Charles Bernsteins in the phone book and hit on the right one after a few tries.
Charles was immediately receptive to the idea of writing the libretto and we met a few days later to talk it over. By the end of our first meeting we had decided on a cast of four singers: Jack James & Jill Johns — anchorman and woman respectively, Jane Jones — weatherwoman, and John Jacks — sportscaster. We also decided on a four-part format of International News, Local News, Weather and Sports. My original title for the piece was “News Songs,” but Charles felt that this title was — in his words — “too bland.” I deferred to his judgment.
The first part that I composed was Jill’s aria “Against the menace.” The words called forth a music that was operatic, dark, and expressive. The rest of the libretto elicited many different styles of music—so many that The New York Times critic called the score “wildly eclectic.”
Early on I decided to score the piece for two electric keyboards. There was no piano in the performance space, and I knew that I wanted a musical accompaniment that was primarily harmonic and rhythmic, but that had some variety of timbre.
The premiere of Blind Witness News took place on December 3, 1990, at the American Opera Project’s Blue Door Studio at 463 Broome Street in Soho. The cast included Rhondi Charlston, James Javore, Susanna Guzman, and Lynn Randolph. The late Robert Black conducted. Grethe Barrett Holby directed.
In December of 2005, Cantiamo Opera staged a revival of Blind Witness News. For these four performances Charles and I collaborated on a new segment based on the national news, including a new aria for the anchorman. I also revised the original score and arranged it for solo piano accompaniment. The performers were Deborah Karpel, Nathan Resika, Leandra Ramm, and Aram Tchobanian. Ishmael Wallace was the pianist/musical director.
In the summer of ’92, Charles and I embarked on a companion piece to Blind Witness News, again under the sponsorship of AOP and Holby. We both realized that the inevitable follow-up to an operatic parody of the evening news would have to be an operatic parody of a late night television talk show. Thus began The Lenny Paschen Show. The concept was that our host, Lenny, would be an outrageous comedian in the mold of Lenny Bruce, and that he would be giving his last performance—his show having been cancelled by the network. His guests would include three celebrity types: a young ambitious pop star, Monica Moolah, a country & western singer, Paul Evangeline, and an aging diva, Maria Aquavita. As with Blind Witness News, we would follow the format of our television model scrupulously, including theme music, announcer, opening monologue, commercial breaks, and so on. The content would be Charles’ typical mish-mash of sense and nonsense.
The libretto was done by June and I took it with me to Normandy and Paris where I worked on it in July and August and finished it in New York in the fall.
In an effort to make a score that sounded like television music, and, equally important, in an effort to save money, I scored the accompaniment for a synthesized band of saxophone, guitar, keyboard, bass, and percussion. The piece was performed to a prerecorded computer-generated accompaniment. The musical styles here are more consistent although there is still considerable variety. The prerecorded accompaniment demanded a very precise performance from the singers.
A staged reading of The Lenny Paschen Show took place in November of ’92, again produced by American Opera Projects at 463 Broome St. The cast included Larry Adams, Darryn Zimmer, Jeff Reynolds and Jane Shaulis. John Yaffé was the conductor. Holby directed.
The genesis of our second opera, The Subject, was different from that of the other two. Nobody asked for it. For some reason I decided that an opera based on a psychoanalytic session would be a bright idea. Just as in the news and talk show formats, a psychoanalytic session has a ticking clock and an inherent real-time structure. It may be filled with almost any verbal content. In discussing this idea Charles and I agreed that it would be a fifty-minute hour (this was before pychotherapists decided to make their sessions 45 minutes long), which would include the recounting of a dream, a scheduling duet, psychiatric advice, and other familiar set pieces.
In homage to Brecht and Weill we named our “subject” Jenny Midnight. Her analyst, a conventional Freudian, was named Dr. Boris Frame (of the Frame Institute). We also decided that there would be an intervention by a second psychiatrist of the non-Freudian, pharmacological and behaviorist persuasion, named Daemon Dudley, and that the two would fight over the analysand. Thus, the opera would become a sort of theater of ideas, in which the two doctors sing about their opposing philosophies.
The character of the music for The Subject is lyrical and intimate. It is scored for solo piano accompaniment.
This opera was composed in Normandy in the summer of 1991. Again, I finished the work in the fall in New York.
The premiere performance was given at a private home on the Upper East Side of Manhattan in February of 1992. The role of Jenny Midnight was sung by Carla Wood, Boris Frame by Stephen Kalm, and Dr. Dudley by Tom Bogdan. Elizabeth Rodgers was the pianist. The City Opera of New York chose The Subject as an alternate for its Vox 2004 reading series, but the work was not performed by them.
These three operas (if they are operas) from the early 1990s represent my ideas about how contemporary American English ought to be sung. There is a consistent attempt in the text-setting to follow the rhythms and cadences of our language as it is spoken. Although I collaborated on the scenarios, suggested some verse forms, occasionally asked for slight changes to the original text, and sometimes asked for a second verse or a refrain, ultimately, the music was evoked by the words.