Commentaries - April 2012

Experiments with sound

Couper catalyst
Matthew Couper: Catalyst 9 cover (2011)

Earlier this year I was sent my contributor’s copy of Catalyst 9 (subtitled “Export Quality”). It includes a CD of poetry recordings by local poets set to music by what producer Jody Lloyd calls “a collection of New Zealand musicians”:

For this production I asked dozens of musicians for sound donations in the form of musical samples – a chord, a series of chords, a solo, a bass line, a drum beat and where those were not available, an entire track: whatever they had and wanted to give. [11]

 To tell you the truth, I’d almost forgotten about the recording session for this particular project. I remember being summoned to some far-off part of town what seems like ages ago to read out a few poems, and it came as a bit of a surprise to see which one they’d chosen (a rather odd collage poem called “Vampires”). The delay can hardly be blamed on the editors of this Christchurch-based indie magazine, though. As Doc Drumheller explains in his editorial:

The production of this volume has been seriously delayed due to the many earthquakes in Christchurch and the Canterbury region. Damage to the CBD has affected the business of our design team and printers and we felt it was more important to focus on the well-being of our families and friends than to rush for the sake of going into print. [9]

Right on, Doc! All power to you and your team for making it happen at all, is what I would like to add. Fellow-editor Ciarán Fox goes into more detail in his own piece about the project:

For many, 2010/11 will be remembered as a time of disaster and loss. Certainly for those in Canterbury life took a turn for the dramatic, reminding us of our potential fragility in the face of vast natural forces. It has also shown us that we can have the kind of community that we dreamed of but thought lost. One where we know our neighbours, support each other, and rebuild together. Catalyst itself has not been immune to the earth shifting beneath our feet. [10]

It was with a certain feeling of apprehension that I actually put on the CD for a listen after all that build-up. And yet the result is, I think, very cool indeed. Jody Lloyd’s samplings and “musical beds” have resulted in some really beautiful tracks – even mine sounds good (small thanks to a pretty weird poem). As Doc puts it in his summing-up: “Now we plan to rival the beef and dairy industry with our Export Quality recording that showcases some of the most interesting voices New Zealand has to offer.”

catalyst cd

These “eerie and moving songlike compositions,” as he calls them, are, of course, nothing new. Poetry recordings are as old as the recording industry itself (that’s if the vague booming noise one can vaguely hear on CD1 of Elise Paschen & Rebekah Presson Mosby’s Poetry Speaks [“Hear Great Poets Read Their Work from Tennyson to Plath.” 3 CDs. Napierville, Illinois: SourceBooks MediaFusion, 2001] really is Walt Whitman reciting “America”). Even the idea of putting soundscapes behind spoken verse dates back at least as far as W. B. Yeats’s fin-de-siècle experiments with harp and lute-playing accompanists.

I can’t help feeling that some particularly interesting things are happening with sound right now, though – that the existence of YouTube and other websites which make it easy even for idiots like me to get audio and video tracks online has added greatly to the mana of the individual poetry performance.

There must, after all, have been a Hegelian moment of shifting energies when people no longer purchased the sheet music of their favourite hit songs to play to their family and friends at home, but instead bought the 45 (or, later, the LP). Musical historians date this moment to sometime in the 1920s, I believe – though of course it must have been different in different places. Are we approaching such a moment for poetry? The moment when all those random poetry animations and CDs and sound and video recordings suddenly coalesce to make a particular reading of a poem overshadow the page it was originally written down on  …

I’m not sure that I entirely welcome the prospect, but for the moment, at any rate, I certainly see a lot to celebrate in some of the poetry recordings that have come my way recently. One of the most interesting is John Newton’s Country & Western album – with his foot-stompin’ band The Tenderizers – Love Me Tender (Auckland: Lefthand Gun Productions, 2011).

Cover: Judy Darragh & Olivia Galletly

Shades of Leonard Cohen, you may say. The difference is that Newton is by no means as confident a singer – he is as ingenious and accomplished a poet, however. While one often feels a more established artist could transform some of these beautiful and polished lyrics into bona fide hits, I think the fascinating thing about his project is the way in which he’s used it to indulge his obviously intense nostalgia for romantic excess – for the world of Hank Williams and Loretta Lynn – while still gently satirizing it with the self-conscious Grand Old Opry excess of the CD cover (art by Judy Darragh / design  by Olivia Galletly).

art by Judy Darragh

It’s a not dissimilar project to his recent exercise in poetic nostalgia Lives of the Poets (Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2010), in fact. In both book and album, Newton tries to set up a context where he can wallow in self-indulgent passion while at the same time framing and fixing his emotions critically with a cold, calculated eye. Whatever the explanation, his CD has been going around and around on my stereo since I bought it the other day.

Camille Martin: Hieroglyphic Night (2008)

Another purchase at the same time was American poet Lisa Samuels’ double-CD Tomorrowland (Auckland: Deep Surface Productions, 2012 - the cover art, Hieroglyhic Night (2008),  is by Camille Martin). This is a reading of her 2009 Shearsman volume of the same name, with musical soundscapes by the author recorded and mixed by Tim Page. It’s nice to listen to, too.

What was really striking about it, though, was at the launch (which took place at that recent Short Takes on Long Poems symposium you’ve already heard so much about from me and others), when Lisa started to read and improvise over the top of her recorded sound-text. Now that sounded really interesting: bizarre and heteroglossic glissades of words and phrases, producing a kind of multiplex of infinite possibilities. I immediately made a mental note of that idea for future performances: Beckett did it already, of course, in Krapp’s Last Tape, but why not overlay one’s own voice over a recording of one’s own voice if you too want that “eerie” (Doc Drumheller’s word) effect?

samuels tomorrowland

Going back a bit in time, I have to say that I hugely enjoyed Charlotte Yates’ two NZ-poetry CDs Baxter (NZ: Universal Music Ltd., 2000) and Tuwhare (NZ: Universal Music Ltd., 2004), where the poems of (respectively) James K. Baxter and Hone Tuwhare were set to music by well-known New Zealand recording artists. I also like some of the more radical free-noise experiments included on the CD attached to brief #36 (2008) – The NZ Music Issue, edited by Brett Cross and local indie music legend Bill Direen. The New Zealand sound poetry back-catalogue is beginning to look pretty impressive.

image by Sara Hughes

Five years ago, in 2006, when Jan Kemp and I began to publish our series of AUP anthologies NZ Poets in Performance (based on two massive recording efforts carried out in 1974 and 2002-4), we ran into a lot of fuss over the precise definition of the word “performance.” Some reviewers thought that only a recording of a live reading, complete with audience shuffle and laughter, qualified as a genuine performance: “The collection (and the subsequent volumes) might more accurately be called ‘New Zealand poets in the studio’, rather than ‘in performance’,” as Jacob Edmond put it in a piece entitled “Not So Hopped-Up” in the Journal of New Zealand Literature 25 (2007): 164-73.

I have to say that that seems to me an increasingly daft restriction on the meaning of “performance.” Of course it’s a different experience to listen to a studio album or a live recording of essentially the same body of work. They offer quite different possibilities – the rawness and spontaneity of the latter as against the studied layering of the former. I do agree with Jacob, though, that the future of poetry recordings lies in an immense expansion of the number of approaches and experiences available. It’s nice to see so many New Zealand poets and sound artists experimenting with those ideas right now.

Bibliographic bunker

Jed Birmingham’s library began with his William Burroughs collection. After he obtained all the books, he started to research and obtain any periodical that Burroughs contributed to, but quickly realized that the small press culture of the little magazines was just as interesting (if not more) than Burroughs’ contribution, and that’s how our little magazine, Mimeo Mimeo, got started. The poets, artists, printers, paper, collating parties, distribution, associations, manuscripts, postcards, and, letters are all part of the overall aesthetic and culture of the Mimeograph Revolution, brilliantly documented in Steve Clay and Rodney Phillips’s A Secret Location on the Lower East Side. There are few people who take the art of mimeo as seriously as Jed, whose attention to detail is more common amongst bibliophiles specializing in incunabula and antiquarian books. In addition to sharing his research, he also shares aspects of his collection and others online in the Bibliographic Bunker at Reality Studio. Check out the Floating Bear archive, for startes, which includes a free, downloadable spreadsheet mapping the recipients of Di Prima and Jones' legendary mimeo magazine.


Uncertain geographies: Caroline Sinavaiana & Hazel Smith in (imagined) conversation

Part of the "Hand Upon Hand" sculpture in Centennial Park, Sydney; poem by Adam Aitken

In her marvelous, odd textbook, The Writing Experiment: Strategies for Innovative Creative Writing, Hazel Smith devotes a late chapter to “Mapping worlds, moving cities.”  Composing in a kind of sociological sublime, she writes in the subsection, “The diasporic city,” of the sub-section, “Cities rather than city,” “As the concept of the nation-state breaks down, people migrate and borders shift.  The modern western city has become a mixture of nationalities and ethnicities: this has transformed food, clothing, customs, art and language” (260).  Cutting to the chase, she ends her paragraph on “the diasporic city” with this pithy sentence: “The diasporic city is as much about displacement as about place” (261).   The neatly structured description of this city hardly masks the layers of discomfort and exuberance to which Smith refers, inviting students to write their own city-selves.   Two writers published by Tinfish Press, one of them Hazel Smith and the other Caroline Sinavaiana (as Sinavaiana-Gabbard), explore that vein of dis-ease.  They have almost certainly never met, as their paths have covered different roads, followed different tides, but putting their work in conversation opens new possibilities for talking about poetries of diaspora. Hazel Smith was born in London, graduated from Cambridge, and played the violin professionally before she and her partner, Roger Dean, moved to Sydney, Australia in the late 1980s.  Caroline Sinavaiana was born to Samoan parents and grew up mostly in the American South, discovering odd affinities along the way with Bob Dylan, J.D. Salinger and other writers.  After attending Sonoma State in California, she moved to Sāmoa, where she taught briefly in high school and then — after earning her Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Hawai`i-Mānoa — for many years at the college in Tutuila.  She has been my colleague in the English department at UHM for over a decade now. 

Smith and Sinavaiana both gravitate toward “the poetics of uncertainty,” rather than attempting to get a fix on self and place. In her poem of that title (“The poetics of uncertainty” with “the” an ironic tag if ever there was one), Smith introduces herself this way: “I was born in Britain but I am not quite British, I have sojourned in Australia but I am not quite Australian. My grandparents left Lithuania in a  hurry, and I am often in a rush, but that doesn't make me Lithuanian. . . I am not an academic though I have a PhD, and I am not a poet though I am often held to ransom by the metonymic. But there have to be some putative commitments, some concessions to containment, some gatecrashing of normality. And so it seems I am Hazel Smith, British-Australian, a search term on the internet, a candidate for lunacy, no more, no less”  (The Erotics of Geography, 31).  More pointedly, she writes that, “You can smell me in the smoke at Auschwitz, hear me in the voices of the Taliban, find me amongst stolen Aboriginal children.  But I am as much predator as prey” (32).  When I looked for Hazel recently at her hotel in Auckland, I was told she was not there.  I insisted, then added perhaps she was there under the last name "Dean."  Again, she wasn't there.  When I mentioned that she was there for a symposium on the long poem, the clerk finally found her in that folder, her name Hazel Dean. As she notes in “The Poetics of Uncertainty,” “Sometimes when I'm buying a washing machine, or booking a hotel, I'm known fleetingly as Hazel Dean” (31).

Sinavaiana's genealogy runs through Sāmoa, Europe, southern United States of America; her experiences run much the same route, if in a different set of directions.  Like Smith, the central theme of her Tinfish Press book is geography, and like Smith, her “topic is the erotics of the inexact.”  Sinavaiana’s inexactitude is physical, yes, but also spiritual; she is a Buddhist.  Buddhists, like Pacific Islanders, claim long lineages, and hers joins them together in a poetry composed of Samoan stories, Buddhist wisdom, memoir, and yes, committee meetings.  (We get our spiritual educations where we can.)  Perhaps the most important living concept for Sinavaiana is that of vā.  “In Samoan epistemology, the space between things is called the ‘vā.’  Relationships are va, the space between I and thou. In friendship we cultivate the vā like a shared garden, that patch of ground between us we planted with bananas and strawberries. Teu le vā. Cultivate the space between us, our relationship” (20). Sinavaiana grew up on an American airbase in the South, her race ambiguous, as she was neither white nor black.  An airbase provides a semiotics of power.  Her later life in Sāmoa involved “A grand canyon of space between the American self and the holographic somebody I stepped into when I got off the plane in Tutuila,” between American power and the colonial nightmare (and its discontents) she found in Sāmoa. And so she cobbled together (in only the best sense of the phrase) a wisdom tradition for herself composed of Nafanua, the Samoan goddess of war, Bob Dylan, Allen Ginsberg, Rumi, and the Buddha. 

Both poets acknowledge that voice is more performative than fixed, more expressive than still.  Hazel Smith collaborates often with Roger Dean (the cd-rom that comes with The Erotics of Geography contains some of them; others you can find here and here).  None of her poetry readings are readings, per se, as they all enact the breath.  Sinavaiana points to Charles Olson's projective verse as a mainstay in her own poetics, citing his ideas as a “revelation” that poetry exists “in a direct link to one's heart” (18).  While Smith engages less in the voice/heart nexus, she can approach that space obliquely, as she does in “The Idea of Elegy,” which begins in lots of ideas, but ends here:

every time I saw Hilary
she added more weft to the warp
I don’t want to cram her into a story
William says that death forms
the outer limit of containment, categories and definition
yet it is also powerful and precise
the bull’s eye of destiny
though I am never in the centre when it hits
if it’s happening in Australia you can be sure I am in England
if it’s happening in England you can be sure I am in Australia

but after this witty diversion into the diasporic, Smith returns to her friend:

I must check first that Hilary is mentioned
in the major reference tomes on weaving
that Rory’s book is on the road
that Kate's photos are pasted up in albums
and then make a note of it in my diary     (51)

Peter Sacks wrote extensively of the interrelation between mourning and weaving; I remember that much from graduate school.  But it's the need to remember that strikes me here, to write down names, references, put down photos, take notes, lest the lost ones be lost.  To think about diaspora is, really, to think about dying.  And then about elegizing.  Sinavaiana notes in her prefatory essay that one of her students had recently died.  She moves from that note to thinking about a lament, to citing John Kneubuhl on the Polynesian lament (“a house ‘of words into which our dead can move and live again and speak to us . . . ’”) and then concludes her thoughts by quoting Rumi on grief.  It's a complicated response, and yet it is not. 

But death and diaspora also lend themselves to humor, and both Smith and Sinavaiana can be very funny, playful poets. Sinavaiana begins her “pilgrim's progress” with the exuberant and funny lines, “farewell, Expectations and False Hope! / on second thought, don't fare well. Fare badly. Fall / & break your wily neck” (38). Her commentary on committee meetings in our fair department, circa 2000, includes #2: “your wish to be right / no matter what—bullfrogs sing / to rotting grapefruit” (62). And in the years since she composed these poems, she has written funny and wise poems and non-fiction pieces on her experience of going through breast cancer treatments. This is writing that discomposes its audience, taking the ground out from under our chair legs, as we hear words read in Sinavaiana's characteristic breath-marked syncopations. Likewise, in “Ought to do,” Smith exuberantly piles words together into one longish procrastinary rant. “The ought-to-do becomes / not-want-do for reason-roam. / Cuty is as duty does she doubts. She will / dither while the do-ought-must berates / the want-ought-won't” (39).

Of course there are worlds of difference between Smith and Sinavaiana, as between other diasporic writers from Sarith Peou, on whom I've written here, to Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, and many many others.  Diaspora is rarely shared, or shared easily, because there are so many versions of it.  Yet, as Adam Aitken writes in lines cast in bronze (oh irony!) in Centennial Park, Sydney:

and from the mouths of the wise ones
custodians sing a Law of living
that writes us
yields its path

and gives us
message of repair
that says
'it’s fine, it’s clear
you are here
your homesickness
will not last
you're home
within us,
clear path to sweet water:

all spirits
be spoken for.  

Diaspora is an economic reality, a cultural tearing apart, often born of political turmoil.  The “message of repair” offered by the poetic custodians, Aitken, Smith, and Sinavaiana, is a spiritual path.  Its “Law of living” is worth the abiding.


You can hear Caroline Sinavaiana read here.  Sinavaiana’s book can be found here.  Unfortunately, it is nearly out of print, and is unavailable directly from Tinfish Press.  YouTube here.

You can hear Hazel Smith perform with Roger Dean here.  Smith’s book can be found here.  Very much in print.

Wild turning

Jill Moser, While Turning, 2011

Jill Moser's show of new painting opens on April 19 at Lennon, Weinberg in New York

The persistence of memory

More reactions to the Short Takes on Long Poems symposium

The persistence of memory
Michele Leggott & her guide-dog Olive

Lisa Samuels, one of the three co-organisers of the Short Takes on Long Poems symposium (with Robert Sullivan, mentioned in my previous post,  and Michele Leggott, pictured above with her guide-dog Olive), writes in to specify that it was she who was responsible for the two words "begin anywhere" which started off our long,  collective, ten-part beach poem the other day:

Nice to see your Jacket2 write-up, and that you used the 2 words I wrote at the beginning of our very very very very very very very very very very long beach poem – I'm sure I am pulling 'begin anywhere' from some co-making moment, and that too is par for the symposium.

Which prompts me, in turn, to claim responsibility for inscribing the four words visible in the picture above, beside Michele and Olive, which were meant to be a quote from the last line of the title poem of Allen Curnow's 1982 collection You Will Know When You Get There:

Down you go alone, so late, into the surge-black fissure.

On the surface, the poem records a walk down Lone Kauri Road to Karekare beach, where the poet intends to gather some shellfish. Figuratively, however, it seems to be reminding us that we’re all going to be taking a long walk on a short pier one of these days, into the "surge-black fissure" of "there" – whatever version of the afterlife we can imagine for ourselves.

You'll note that I failed to remember the correct wording of the poem, and instead wrote "blue-black fissure" (Robert did correct me, but by then it was too late to erase it and start again – wet sand is a rather unforgiving medium).

In fact all the scraps and fragments of poems I wrote on the beach that day seem to have been plagued by misprints: Curnow was only one of the many people I got wrong. After a while I began to think that the only way out was to claim it as some kind of postmodern trope: intentional incorrectitude.

Funnily enough, this matches almost perfectly with one of the papers we'd heard the day before. Susan Schultz of the University of Hawai'i-Manoa (whose own impressions of the symposium can be seen here) had shown us some videos of the very elegant thought experiment she and her two collaborators Jaimie Gusman and Evan Nagle had been conducting with George Oppen's poem "Of Being Numerous." They read out parts of the poem to "mainly friends and local residents who are not poets," and then recorded the words and concepts the listeners could remember: in some cases a lot, in one (very memorable) instance, a little girl possibly perturbed by some of the rude words being used, nothing at all.

Her paper was extremely interesting to me. It made me think at once about the long controversy over the technicalities of the oral transmission of Homer (and the apparently fathomless repertoires of traditional knowledge associated with tribal chiefs and tohungas): of the power and persistence of memory (to quote the title of Dali's iconic 1931 painting). But then, on the other hand, we have the immense lost corpus of Ancient Greek (the missing books of Sappho, the rest of Greek drama, all those plays which have not come down to us) or Anglo-Saxon literature to remind us of the fragility of such mnemonic systems.

What would I remember of the tradition if the libraries burned tomorrow? Precious little, and that contaminated by misreadings and misquotations, as the beach at Oneroa reminded me.

"Poets do not forget," I said in my first post – quoting the Italian poet Salvatore Quasimodo via a translation by NZ poet Kendrick Smithyman. But of course they do. The other day at dinner my father broke into a conversation about my mother's recent eye operation with a long anecdote about the seagulls he used to feed out of the back window of their house (he's now too frail to go out and forage for the left-over muffins and bread-rolls they were so fond of). The truth is that everyone forgets: poets, doctors (like my father), and archivists alike. My father's illness is gradually wiping out all of his memories, new and old. It won't be long before the last residue is gone: our names, his name, where he lives, who he is ... That impassioned recital of the names and attributes of his seagull friends was a Chekhovian moment – sad, and yet somehow intensely poetic at the same time.

Dr John Ross 24-2-09

[My father feeding the birds]

Like so many Kiwi men of his generation, my father has always been a great teller of anecdotes and reciter of humorous verse (much of it composed by him). Some of them I remember myself, and no doubt my mother and my brothers could supplement my recollection with a few more. It's deeply disconcerting to witness the gradual erasure of so great an oral store though. Perhaps I should write them all down while I still can. But then where should I keep them? In a notebook? on the internet?

Which brings me round to the point I’d like to make as a reaction to all this. It’s a critical commonplace that the existence of reliable writing systems – the ability to write it all down (as Governor Grey did with the words of his traditional informants in the mid-nineteenth century) leads eventually to the erosion of formal memory training and memory systems.

The existence of the internet – a kind of immense mnemonic metaphor – has led, in its turn, to the erosion of print archives and physical memory repositories. If it’s stored online, we’re virtually absolved from reading it. It’s accessible anytime, therefore need not be looked at right now.

In his lifetime Allen Curnow (1911-2001) was generally regarded as the most distinguished and internationally recognized New Zealand poet of his generation. A brief web search will reveal to you how little of his work is available online, however. The Curnow estate – quite reasonably – sees his work as far too valuable to put up on sites where it could be copied or downloaded for free.

Kendrick Smithyman, on the other hand, far less widely read – though greatly respected – during  his lifetime, now has an immense website, co-edited by Professor Peter Simpson and Smithyman's widow Margaret Edgcumbe, devoted to his collected poems, with full cross-indexing and critical and biographical apparatus available at the click of a finger.

Despite the (alleged) “difficulty,” the mandarin complexities, of a good deal of his work, Smithyman has thus become automatically the most readily accessible of the major New Zealand poets of the last century. Whereas even the need to check my quote from “You Will Know When You Get There” required me to have a copy of Allen Curnow’s Selected Poems to hand.

What do we remember of a poem, any poem – even our own? Very little, I fear (even if she’d extended her experiment to other poets, I suspect that Susan Schultz would have found our memories for recited verse pretty sketchy): a few scraps of wording, some vague sense of atmosphere and event … The internet may delude us into imagining that we can use it as a kind of external hard-drive devoted to extra memory, and its convenience and flexibility in this regard do mean that we’ll be shifting more and more of our work onto it. Who, after all, can question the value of projects such as the online Smithyman edition?

In the end, though, any memory system or set of storage protocols is mortal: a single mind, a caste of priests, a library vault, or an engraved microchip. Osip Mandel’shtam’s widow Nadezhda kept the memory of his last poems alive by reciting them to herself and a series of helpers till the day they could be smuggled out and published in the West. The only moment in which they truly come back to life, though, is the one when we experience – read or hear – them again ourselves.