Commentaries - March 2012
in Art in the First Person, SVA BFA in Fine Arts series, curated by Suzanne Anker, Feb. 23, 2012
First reflections & preliminary definitions
The notes that I’ll be contributing to this space over the next few months will be devoted to the Penelope-like task of weaving and unweaving what I call “the phonotextual braid,” that intertwining of timbre, text, and technology that presents itself to us when we attend to recorded poetry.
My objectives are to distill some of the thinking I and others have done on the topic, especially in the years since the launch of PennSound, to test some of the hypotheses and habits that have guided that inquiry to date, and to wonder aloud about the directions phonotextual studies might productively take in the near future. I also have in mind to share some real-time reading notes on a recent double issue of the journal differences devoted to “The Sense of Sound” and to poke around in the sonic archive of the 1980s in advance of a conference that my colleagues at the National Poetry Foundation and I will be hosting this summer.
To define the phonotextual object as a threefold braid of timbre, text, and technology is already to reduce it — as a moment's reflection on any of the component terms will demonstrate — but more than a Hegelian penchant for triadic presentation motivates my choice here. For even if each strand of the braid reveals itself to be a multiplicity in its own right, rich in historical and phenomenological complexities that deserve (and usually have indeed already received) independent treatment, there is a certain heuristic value in holding such complexity in abeyance just long enough to entertain the thought that our object — the phonotextual object — may exhibit emergent properties not entirely explicable by reference to its constituent parts and thus stimulate us to pose new questions, as well as older questions anew, about it.
By way of getting started, a few words about each strand of the braid:
I will use the term “timbre” to organize a set of reflections on “the voice” as it is encountered in recorded poetry. Initially at least I’ll accept a definition that errs on the side of naiveté in hearing the voice as an sign that indexes — before, alongside of, and beyond other meaning-making — the condition and situation of the body that produces it. To err on the side of indexicality, immediacy, and physiological (if not necessarily psychological) individuation is to hear “voice” as rhyming with “noise,” specifically the noise emitted by the human animal situated somewhere along its trajectory toward death, in a condition of finitude shared out along the (by tendency asynchronic) spectra of physical dis/ability and social dis/enfranchisement. The necessary corrections to this initial standpoint aren't very hard to formulate: the voice, after all, is more than a physiological given; it is subject to as many modes of making (of poiesis) as it is simultaneously the object of many modes of training (of technê). Moreover, timbre can no longer credibly be conceived as preceding texts and technologies that are later derived from or applied to it. The seeming immediacy of “the voice” is — to use the kind of dialectical formula beloved by Adorno — itself a mediated effect.
One way of approaching the phonotext is as a translation from the graphemic domain (marks on a page) into the phonemic domain (noises in the air) as “witnessed” — which is to say simultaneously altered and preserved — by a recording device of some kind. In this scenario, the text is anterior to the voicing of it and the voicing is anterior to the scenes of technologically-mediated audition that the recording makes possible. It is important to remember, however, that many kinds of performance practice demote or dispense altogether with the anterior text (a typical scenario for so-called “sound poetries”); that sound-engineering practices shift the function of the recording device from the passive registration (as in the “field recording”) to the active generation of new textual permutations; and that technologies for the reconversion of the phonemic to the graphemic (e.g., “machine transcription”) have been extant for some time and will soon become ubiquitous (making it relatively easy, for instance, to automate the process of transcribing every sound file hosted at a site like PennSound). The field of textuality is further widened when we take into consideration the kinds of "paratextual" evidence that Gerard Genette called attention to in Seuils (1987; translated as Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation in 1997) — making the necessary adjustments for his print-based orientation — and the many discourses of framing, describing, and rendering “findable” (including through the generation of “metadata”) that are meant to make archives and databases intelligible and navigable to their users.
The secular miracle of separating a sound from its source, storing it, and releasing it into a new spatio-temporal context has by now become so routinized that it is hard to remember that we’ve only been able to reliably perform it for a little less than 150 years. The technologies by which this feat has been accomplished are numerous and constitute a complex series in which acoustical gains and losses are seldom separable from economic ones. One consequence of the hyperactive cycle of innovation/supercession that stretches from Edison to our times is that specific recording and playback devices (and indeed entire “formats”) become “vanishing mediators,” as when a track on first released on phonograph is taped to reel-to-reel, then dubbed to cassette, duplicated several times, and later converted from analog to digital before being uploaded as an mp3 to a server like Ubuweb or Pennsound and downloaded by an individual user to iTunes. Though the spectral timbres of the superceded technologies can, on occasion, be heard in the digital “delivery instance” (to update a term out of Jakobson) — as when the distinctive sound of a stylus traveling a groove less than frictionlessly can be heard in one's earbuds—for the most part we're content to discard such data without a second thought, just as we discard the signifiers on our way to “understanding” messages in ordinary discourse. I’m not sure we're wrong to do this — after all the decay of one phoneme is the precondition for the emergence into audibility of a next — but I am curious to know what a commitment to investigating the technological (along with the authorial) provenance of phonotexts might contribute to our ability to situate, evaluate, and intrepret them. And I'm even more curious — because my starting point is even more ignorant — about the possibilities for analysis and interpretation opened by advanced computational instruments that promise to quickly and exhaustively identify salient features of the phonotext that an individual interpreter could in the past easily have spent hours compiling. How might technologies for pre-treating and graphically presenting phonotexts supplement our practices of “reading” them? And in what ways might they come to transform those practices?
As I trace out some of these threads in the coming months, I hope that those of you who share an interest in the subject will feel free to be in touch. J2 commentaries do not automatically allow for direct response, but I am always happy to receive them (my contact information can be found along the right-hand sidebar) and will from time to time gather up and include them in this space.
On July 1 and again on July 11 in 1974, Michael Koehler recorded Larry Eigner reading twenty-seven of his poems in Swampscott, Massachusetts. The recordings were later released by S Press, as tape number 37 in their series, under the title Larry Eigner: around new / sound daily / means: Selected Poems. A number of university libraries — and of course individuals — own copies of the recording; but it is fairly rare at this point. Among the libraries with a copy is the special collections archive at the University of Connecticut, where the tape was apparently part of the materials Cid Corman gave them to form the Corman Papers there. I located the Eigner recording in the Corman finding aid, asked the UConn librarians to copy it for us at PennSound. (Many thanks for Melissa Watterworth Batt, curator of Literary, Natural History and Rare Books Collections there.) Soon after, with permission from Richard Eigner, Larry's brother and the executor of the poet’s literary estate, we digitized, uploaded and then segmented the recording into individual poems. They are now available for both streaming and downloading at PennSound’s Eigner page. We wish of course to acknowledge S Press for having made this recording available originally.
- Dying (0:38): MP3
- A Structured Field (0:11): MP3
- A Temporary Language (0:20): MP3
- Love Children (0:09): MP3
- Magnetic Lines (0:11): MP3
- Common Sense (0:32): MP3
- Tolstoi's Kept On (0:28): MP3
- To Negotiate (0:13): MP3
- Music is Human (0:19): MP3
- Unyielding Rock (0:37): MP3
- Paper (0:32): MP3
- The Sky (0:15): MP3
- Snow Flakes (0:26): MP3
- Trees Stand (0:22): MP3
- Time Flies (0:06): MP3
- Birds (0:33): MP3
- How Much a Squirrel (0:37): MP3
- The Sun Goes (0:17): MP3
- The Cat's Ears (0:27): MP3
- You Gotta Have Steam (0:38): MP3
- At Death Olson's (1:31): MP3
- Tribute to Cage (1:25): MP3
- Around the Frames (0:15): MP3
- Open Road (0:12): MP3
- Enough New (0:11): MP3
- Contact Communication (0:12): MP3
- Everybody Dies (0:04): MP3
Linh Dinh, "Eating Fried Chicken"
Linh Dinh playfully and bitterly engages food, war, and race in a poem called “Eating Fried Chicken.” The poem appeared in his book American Tatts, published by Chax in 2005. For PoemTalk’s 51st episode, Thomas Devaney, Susan Schultz (visiting from Hawai'i), and Leonard Schwartz (visiting from Olympia, Washington) joined Al Filreis to talk about this work of apparently straightforward address yet tonal complexity.
During the discussion Tom especially wrestles with the problem of tone. There’s plenty of humor in the poem, he notes, but one can also read the speaker as a person who has “taken all the trouble inside of him and he’s internalized it.” Thus the “debts you owe me” — debts presumably the “brother” of line 1 owes the speaker — remind Tom of a tonal double strategy (particularly on questions of race) that Linh Dinh has learned from the early Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) and from Etheridge Knight: “going on the offensive," as Tom puts it, "and yet implicating himself fully.”
Pressing his reading of the poem’s antagonist as a Vietnam War veteran, Al asks someone to describe how matters of family, honor, country (and “blood”) pertain to food, whereupon Susan, thinking about Hawai'i, notes Asian American funerary practice which entails bringing comestibles to the deceased. Dinh doesn’t want to be marked, she says, as an Asian American writer per se but “he's willing to play with that identification between food and identity precisely to call it into question.” “‘I dare you,’” Al summarizes, “‘to make me mean something by what I eat.’” So what in the poem is the significance of the crispy chicken as alluringly “fast,” so alluring as to disallow expectation and erase memory? Leonard observes that here Dinh is a poet who “steps from the street into the curb” and “looks down at formless stuff, and picks it up and starts playing with it” in the (modernist) tradition of Walter Benjamin (the “ragpicker who collects urban detritus only to turn it into poetry” — a key phrase from The Writer of Modern Life: Essays on Charles Baudelaire), except that here, in Dinh’s world, the supposed junk “has been manufactured to look like that,” as Leonard puts it, “manufactured to appear formless, junk in its very origins.” And so junk food is obviously part of the aesthetic of the poem.
Clearly this is an occasion when the speaker is ostentatiously yet blithely willing to lick and consume food that is “not generally available to mankind.” But “there are also times” when he (on principle? because of his sense of racial and international justice? because of a traumatic experience with people in war?) will “refuse” this easy, thoughtless gluttony. Such an ethical stance then puts his poem in mind of the scarcity of fresh food — the apples of line 12 — and of the riots non-ritualized (literal) privation causes. Yet, again, the showiness of the speaker’s consumption in the first lines of the poem carries the intrepid but blithe conversationalism of the language all the way through until the very end when the breathing of the poet brings him up short, for the air enabling these utterances conjures the memory of war, from which eating fried chicken is presumably a great distance: lungs of “gun powder and smoke.” Listen very closely to this audio recording — turn the volume way up — and you should be able hear Linh Dinh’s special kind of breathing: a subtle although very basic form of urgency.
Dinh’s PennSound page includes several performances of “Eating Fried Chicken.” The recording we used was made during an extensive “Studio 111” reading in Philadelphia in December of 2007. We invite PoemTalk’s audience to compare the nuanced ethical tone of this poem with those of several other American Tatts works performed at the same time: “Sudden Death Overtime” and “Bearings,” for example. And for the context of Linh Dinh’s critique of commodification and political power — and for a sense of his recent movement somewhat away from poetry — we recommend the hour-long talk he gave at the opening event launching an exhibit of his photographs in January 2011 and also his ongoing photographic blog, State of the Union.
The editor of this episode of PoemTalk was, as always, Steve McLaughlin.
Gary Snyder in Honolulu, March 2000 / March 2012
“I did it, first of all.” That was Gary Snyder's response to our distinguished visiting writer, Shawna Yang Ryan, when she asked him where he got the idea for the poem he’d just read. The poem was “Changing Diapers." As she said, diaper poems are not what one expects from Snyder. Or perhaps this one is, given the sharp contrast between the father changing his son's diapers and the violent, nay imperial, context of the background, a poster of Geronimo holding a Sharp's repeating rifle. The poem goes like this:
How intelligent he looks!
on his back
both feet caught in my one hand
his glance set sideways,
on a giant poster of Geronimo
with a Sharp's repeating rifle by his knee.
I open, wipe, he doesn't even notice
nor do I.
Baby legs and knees
toes like little peas
little wrinkles, good-to-eat,
eyes bright, shiny ears
chest swelling drawing air,
No trouble, friend,
you and me and Geronimo
The Apache Geronimo, whose family was massacred by Mexicans, massacred them back; the Geronimo who fought the fight he could not win against the USA: this is the backdrop to the loving action (also a repeating action, but not a violent one) of changing a baby's diaper. That “Operation Geronimo” was (well after the fact of this poem) the first name for the US action in which Osama Bin Laden was killed only complicates an already complicated narrative of violence and counter-violence that Snyder taps into here. What is there not to worry about?
Snyder is the last surviving member of the trio who read at the University of Hawai`i at Mānoa Art Auditorium on March 2, 2000. Playing jan ken po (Americans not from Hawai`i call the game "rock paper scissors”), Snyder, Nanao Sakaki, and Albert Saijo read to one another and to a large audience. All three men performed Zen-inflected poems about the state of the world and—more importantly—the state of being in the world. Local Hawai`i literary activists, Richard Hamasaki and H. Doug Matsuoka published the reading as a cd in 2003. This was, to my knowledge, the last time Albert Saijo, who died in June, 2011, read in public. Bamboo Ridge published his book Outspeaks: A Rhapsody, in 1997, and City Lights was slated to publish a follow-up book, but Saijo retreated (in all senses of that term) to Volcano Village, cancelling his contract with City Lights. When I went to ask him for work for Tinfish, he said no. When literary historians asked to come interview him, he said no.
Yesterday, Snyder told Yang Ryan's students that he had often been asked to write poems for particular purposes. “Write us a poem against the Vietnam War,” someone would demand. Despite his firm opposition to the war, he said, he could not summon up a poem. But in the 2000 reading, Snyder was clearly concerned about global political issues. The first poem he read, namely “Oil,” came out of his travels with the merchant marine in the Persian Gulf and that Pacific. Written in 1958, the poem struck me as current twelve years after I heard it performed in Honolulu, and over 50 years after it was written. One phrase sticks out: “what all these / crazed, hooked nations need.” In "Dillingham, Alaska, the Willow Tree Bar," he wrote about Alaska, where salmon run and "pipeline workers are "Drinking it down, / the pain / of the work / of wrecking the world." Then, in “Magpie's Song,” Snyder brooded on oil-bearing shale as he drove across Nevada in the 1970s. He also read and sang a poem called “Mother Earth: Her Whales,” which appeared as an op-ed in the New York Times (1972) in the wake of a conference on the environment in Stockholm. In this poem, no nation-state goes uncriticized by Snyder, beginning with the Japanese:
The whales turn and glisten, plunge
and sound and rise again,
Hanging over subtly darkening deeps
Flowing like breathing planets
in the sparkling whorls of
And Japan quibbles for words on
what kinds of whales they can kill?
A once- great Buddhist nation
dribbles methyl mercury
in the sea.
That evening, many of Saijo's poems were rants, too. He delivered attacks on government (oh my, he sounded a Ron Pauline note in “Procrustes”), against bad water and other poisons, against laws the forbid the smoking of marijuana.
Amid all the rants were moments of levity, many of them dark, but coming out of the poets' Buddhist training. Saijo read about a “bush bunny baby,” a perfect bunny, except that it was dead and its head had been cut off; he performed a poem called “Numbnut” about his favorite cat, a tom: “Time to hang up the gloves, guy,” he read, before offering the slogan, “Be empty and see now.” Saijo and Sakaki both made serious play with advertising language. In “Top Ten of American Poetry,” Sakaki (in heavily accented English) recited the language of the American constitution and of McDonald's, Bell, Monsanto, Coke. Only a sign about private property was anonymous. He later read a poem in which a dinosaur, trapped in the earth, became a plastic tree in contemporary Japan. Happy Meal, anyone? And Saijo took on a Microsoft ad that claimed that doing things in a hurry “leaves more time for happy.”
These poets recognize the difference between "happy" and "happiness." The Zen Buddhism they all studied is a guide to the latter, not the former. I asked Snyder yesterday about the effect of his spiritual practice on his poetry. He beat a clear path away from my question, referring the "stink of spirituality" in bad Zen poems, some of which he read gleefully to us. Today I realize that it was the right question but on the wrong subject; poetry is not the end, for Snyder, but a means. He means to save the world, not in an egocentric, but in a very literal sense. In his essay, "EcoBuddhism," he writes that, "The biological health of the planet is in trouble. Many larger animals are in danger of becoming extinct, and whole ecosystems with their lakhs of little living creatures are being eliminated. Scientific ecology, in witness to this, has brought forth the crisis-discipline of Conservation Biology, with its focus on preserving biodiversity. Biodiversity issues now bring local people, industries, and governments into direct and passionate dialogue over issues involving fisheries, marine mammals, large rare vertebrates, obscure species of owls, the building of huge dams or road systems—as never before." In response, he proposes awakening "the mind of compassion." This compassionate mind is not still; it is active, activist: "The actualization of the spiritual and political implications of ecology—that it be more than rhetoric or ideas—must take place, place by place. Nature happens, culture happens, somewhere." He concludes by asserting the significance of place: "All of us can be as placed and grounded as a willow tree among the streams—and also as free and fluid in the life of the whole planet as the water in the water cycle that passes through all forms and positions roughly every two million years. Our finite bodies and inevitable membership in cultures and regions must be taken as a valuable and positive condition of existence. Mind is fluid, nature is porous, and both biologically and culturally we are always fully part of the whole." Or, as he told us last night, we are surrounded by many plants and animals, and it behooves us to learn their names.
On his recent visit to our campus, another western Buddhist poet, W.S. Merwin, talked about the tree as itself a place. Snyder's supposition that we can be as "grounded as a willow tree among the streams" extends our concept of place outward from where we are at this instant--I am in K āne`ohe, Hawai`i as I write this--to the larger world. But we need to be here to be there. So both these poets urge us to consider the earth beneath our feet in order to honor the earth entire.
You can hear a 2009 reading by Gary Snyder at Berkeley here.
Timothy Gray wrote an excellent book on Snyder, Gary Snyder and the Pacific Rim. Iowa City: U of Iowa Press, 2006.
I blogged more extensively about Saijo on Tinfish Editor's Blog, here.
Joanne Kyger reads Albert Saijo's “Bodhissatva Vows” here (click at the bottom).