Here I attempt to transcribe my initial impressions after listening once to the full album of Cecil Taylor’s recorded poem, Chinampas,and repeatedly (for perhaps nine or ten hearings) to the penultimate track, #6.56. I was drawn to the editors’ invitation to show the “under the hood” work that precedes a smoothly running piece of writing, their interest in how we deal with poems that exist only as sound texts, and their curiosity about what a first reading/hearing looks like.
The “First Readings” series continues with five initial takes on Cecil Taylor’s poem “#6.56” from his album Chinampas (1987). Each entry in the series consists of five such short first readings; we have asked Michael Farrell, Gillian White, Tsitsi Jaji, Donato Mancini, and Jake Marmer to respond to the Taylor piece. First Readings coeditors Brian Reed, Al Filreis, and Craig Dworkin are pleased now to present short essays by Michael Farrell and Jake Marmer, with three others to follow.
The first thing I’m concerned with when hearing a poem read, especially if there’s no text in hand, which of course I can’t tell in this case, is the manner of the poet’s speaking: their pronunciation, phrasing, rhetorical emphasis, tone, accent, cadence, etc. Do they let their words speak, or do they tell us how meaningful each word is by their emphasis? Do they sound completely phony through trying to sound sincere? With a sound poem this is less of an issue; yet I’m still listening for cliché, something I’m less expert at perceiving, however, having heard less sound poetry than spoken word. I’m also more familiar with experimental improvised music than with (free) jazz as such, and I’m not even sure what their connection is. I couldn’t hear a lot of the words Taylor said at the beginning.
1. Fred Moten had it: “I’ve been preparing myself to improvise with Cecil Taylor.” Or something like that. I’m not looking it up. Have I been preparing, and with what? That, perhaps, is the quintessential question that comes up when one listens to Cecil Taylor, kids are climbing walls downstairs and I need the question, that comes up, is who you be, listening — not so much, as Baraka had it, “how you sound” but who you be, or more precisely, pass/assist how, listening, to INCARNATE THYSELF.
2. Overdub is palimpsest in heat. My headphones are not blocking out the noise enough. I am having a good time. I am easy.
3. There’re two voices in this poem, one is melancholy, musing, marveling, fingering some dictionary, the other is more demonic easy more detonated, more disintegrated. Are they talking to each other absolutely not but TO INTERSECTwell then if that’s the case, it’s something to aspire to.
Is a first reading possible? Perhaps a quick reading, or a reading on the fly… Inevitably, even my quick reading has a trail – from learning to read (“sound it out”), to habits learned in school (close reading; theme-based reading; the ongoing baggage of New Criticism), to the informed readings we are expected to practice in essays and reviews. There are plenty of other theoretical, historical, and cultural frameworks that (for me) might become a part of subsequent readings. In this reading, what I mean by a first reading is one that does not reach much beyond my initial impressions and thoughts. Or, another way to think of a first reading is (ideally) a radical empiricism, or a reading that moves in the direction of beginner’s mind.
So, a quick first reading: what strikes me first is the deliberate absurdity of the prose poem’s plot. The prose poem sets up its own logical world, with the ants as the doers, as the ones called upon to solve the divorce difficulties of the unnamed couple – human? something else? It is interesting that what they are is unnamed. The penumbra of the absurd spreads as we read. The first substitution – for lawyer, counselor, relative, friend, advocate – breaks the simple logic of the poem. Until the ants appear — “they give up and decide to call the ants” — all is “normal.”