Listening to Stephen Ratcliffe

Stephen Ratcliffe's notebook. Photo by Jonathan Skinner.

In his 1951 preface to Paterson, William Carlos Williams writes that the long poem “is also the search of the poet for his language”: in the long poem Williams found a form whose discursive capaciousness lends an ongoing quality to that search both in speech and on the page, a search whose desired object — a text, a kind of speech — is never completely bounded. We search for a certain kind of text, but Williams also seeks to draw upon the rushing, watery noise of the Passaic Falls, which he says “seemed to me to be a language which we were and are seeking.” The Falls in their ongoingness mimic the modern search for language as much as they also teach us something about how we are constituted by that language.

This intersection of place and language could be said to inform the work of poet (and surfer) Stephen Ratcliffe, whose ongoing project to document, frame, and reframe daily detail now occupies thousands of pages in print and online, from 2002’s Portraits & Repetition to 2011’s CLOUD / RIDGE and in three 1,000-page books — HUMAN / NATURE, Remarks on Color / Sound, and Temporality — available at Editions Eclipse, and whose work Jacket2 here highlights in critical appraisals, reviews, interviews, photographs, and recordings.

Along with commentaries on Ratcliffe’s poetry and critical prose by Vincent Broqua, Michael Cross, Norman Fischer, Ariel Goldberg, and Carol Watts, we offer conversational interviews between Ratcliffe and Linda Russo, Jonathan Skinner, and Jeffrey Schrader; two essays by Ratcliffe that offer extended meditations on sound and the materiality of the word; poems by Ratcliffe from his forthcoming Selected Days (Counterpath Press); and a number of recordings newly available at PennSound, including extensive conversations between Ratcliffe and Robert Grenier that were recorded between 2001 and 2010. (You can find those recordings and more audio and video at Ratcliffe’s PennSound page.)

In his 2000 book Listening to Reading, Ratcliffe gives us a model for how to think critically about the intersection of sound and text, how to ‘hear’ the relationship between sound, shape, and meaning in poetry that is testing the boundaries of what language can do. The work here explores how Ratcliffe has continued to ask these questions as he writes long poems that test the boundaries of the reading (and hearing) experience. In “The Longing of the Long Poem” (published in Jacket 40), Peter Middleton writes: “Modernist long poems resist the support institutions of poetry. Expensive to print; tricky to handle digitally; too long to be read in their entirety at poetry readings; too big for anthologies; much too big for little magazines to be able to publish anything but short sections; almost always too long to teach within the constraints of a timetable; exorbitantly demanding of a reader’s time; and sometimes barely readable until extended scholarly labours have provided guides and critical readings. And yet the long poem continues to represent the peak of poetic achievement just as early epics did.” Middleton points to the inherently resistant qualities if not downright anti-institutionality of the long form, qualities Williams certainly understood when he wondered simply in Spring and All, “What about all this writing?” What about the sheer volume of a work like Stephen Ratcliffe’s 474-page REAL, which exhibits much of the genre hybridity ascribed to the tradition of the long poem yet whose insistence on procedural patterning and Courier typeface suggests a fidelity to order in the midst of the demands the text makes on the reader? Or one of his fourteen-hour performances available on PennSound? The pieces in REAL and Ratcliffe’s related projects have been variously described as serial poems, epics, documentaries, essays, translations, or musical scores; Ratcliffe, whose relationship to Gertrude Stein was most pronounced in Portraits & Repetition, frequently employs recursivity and portraiture in pieces whose dailiness also claims a genealogy with work by Larry Eigner and James Schuyler. More chronicling than epiphanic, the pieces also evoke work by poets like Bernadette Mayer who set out to record how we hear language even as we “seek” its verisimilitude with experience. Jacket2’s Ratcliffe feature also challenges reader endurance by publishing Jeffrey Schrader’s 36,000-word email interview with Ratcliffe, which we have reproduced (along with Ratcliffe’s poems) faithfully in Courier, the vehicle Ratcliffe describes here as an “‘equivalent spacing’ font/typeface in which each letter, space, and mark of punctuation has the same width.” Many parts of this feature are resistant texts that demand immersion and reward sustained attention.

Ratcliffe was my master’s thesis advisor at Mills College, and I still in a corner of my office have taped up a copy of a (short) poem he handed back after workshop. After underlining the poem according to its more obvious attempts at sound patterns, he began drawing lines between disparate parts, connecting words and lines that he saw resonating with one another in shape and sound despite distance on the page: one l recalls another two lines down; two lines similar in length suggest a pattern in space. The result looks a little like one of fellow Bolinas poet Bob Grenier’s drawn poems, with the more staid Hoefler Text submerged beneath the hand-drawn lines, curves, circles, and dashes. Stephen taught me how to treat the page as a shared sonic space even if the experience feels like a private one, how to listen to reading and writing, how to write in and toward the sounded possibilities of language.

Sound, poetry: The feature

Photograph by a.rawlings.

She was a visitor

I write this introduction after ten years researching sound poetry, two years traveling in Europe, North America, and Australia, and three months of heightened requests for me to speak publicly from the position of a “sound poet” about my work and the work of other practitioners. I write enthusiastically, with awe and love for this work and for its creators. But I write this enthusiasm into a fraught, trembling exterior where a term like “sound poetry” may no longer adequately contextualize or clarify what it is intended to represent. It seems a useful moment in the history of this term to reflect on what it means, conjures, describes, encapsulates, and wishes to hold within its reach. It seems personally useful to reflect on the relationship between gender and sound poetry. It feels politically responsible to consider this term in relation to geography.

At the recent North of Invention festival, after I voiced my discomfort with categorizing the work I do as “sound poetry,” the poet Jeff Derksen suggested that it could be useful for me to reclaim the term; I’m considering the implications of his advice. Recent Q&As, panels, and private discussions have encouraged me to articulate the itchiness I feel with the term “sound poetry.” I’ve been on a decade-long quest to locate work generated by women in the combined media of sound and text. This quest began when I was an undergraduate at York University; my poetics professor did not include any historic or contemporary examples of women who practice sound poetry when he lectured on the topic, even after I asked in class.

And so, this feature proceeds from the following questions:

Are there women who self-identify as sound poets? Who are the female practitioners of sound poetry? Where do female practitioners using this term live? Why don’t more women utilize this term? Why is the term so popular with male practitioners? Is work by women, or the rare mention of their work, a tokenist gesture so the field doesn’t seem quite so androcentric? Is there a reason why the term “sound poetry” is not an accessible, acceptable, comfortable, reasonable term for female practitioners? Is the term overly masculine somehow?

Is “sound poetry” an overly North American or English-language category? How does an English-language, Canadian and/or American sound poetry differ from klankpoëzie, klangpoesie, poesie sonore, lettrisme, parole in liberta, zaum, lautgedichte …? How do we navigate the definitional differences between North American-style “sound poetry,” twentieth-century “sound poetry,” and a more general category that attempts to include historic, ethnopoetic, and pan-cultural works using elements of sound and language?

What do we mean when we use the term “sound poetry”?


See Vaasa; visit her

Part of my quest to locate female practitioners of sound and text led me to receive a Chalmers Arts Fellowship, through which I spent some of 2009 and 2010 living and working in Belgium and Iceland. Sarah Dowling was aware of my travels and pursuits, and invited me to curate a feature on sound poetry in Northern Europe for Jacket2. Her invitation proved a wonderful opportunity for me to enthuse about work I’d recently encountered and, once more (with feeling!), to fret over the discomfort I have with the term “sound poetry.”

And so, how to fulfill Sarah’s generous request? Whose work might loosely fit the categories of “Northern Europe” and “sound poetry”? How would I determine whose work exists within the geographic border of Northern Europe? What could be included in the space known as Northern Europe? Would I consider nationality, current residency, and/or linguistic content of work as factors when determining what fit within the geographic classification?

In the spirit of encouraging dialogue, I extended the opportunity to savvy sound-poetry enthusiasts, keen questioners, poetry practitioners, and activist-artists. I put together my dream conversation pairings, and contacted North American and European poets whose work and interests often explore the materiality of language.

Over the next few months, conversations between the following practitioners will appear in Jacket2.


Eiríkur Örn Norðdahl (Iceland) and Cris Costa (Canada)

Cris Costa and I share a kinship, bonded by the Toronto poetry scene in which our love for textperiments was fostered. Her creative and academic work led her to relocate to Vancouver, where her papers, prose, poetry, and performances have blossomed into beasts with teeth. Cris’s scholarly rigor, dedicated arts organization, and community activism have made her a natural fit with Eiríkur’s political work that shifts between languages and cultures. Cris and Eiríkur also share a deep connectedness with the experimental gesture, and have been active in supporting literary scenes despite (or perhaps because of) their at times itinerant lifestyles.

Born and raised in Iceland, Eiríkur Örn Norðdahl lives with his family in Helsinki, where he works on articles, poetry, novels, and translations; his own work shifts between Icelandic and English. We corresponded for a while before finally meeting at the Nýhil International Poetry Festival in October 2007. In a subsequent engagement at the Scream Literary Festival in Toronto, he performed solo and with Paul Dutton, receiving a standing ovation and the first demand for an encore performance that I’ve witnessed at a literary event (and yes, he delivered!).


Maja Jantar (Belgium) and Oana Avasilichioaei (Canada)

Oana Avasilichioaei and I met at the Brandon Ecopoetics Symposium in the spring of 2006, and I was instantly smitten with her careful observations and deep listening skills during panel discussions. Her poetry, translations, and collaboration with Erín Moure have positioned Oana as a writer I follow with excitement. In 2009, Oana informed me that she was embarking on sound research; we then spent a charmed December morning in vocal improvisation with the birds, rocks, and waves of a Kitsilano shoreline. She shares multilingualism, collaborative tendencies, and Eastern European origins with Maja Jantar. 

Maja Jantar and I met at the 2008 Krikri Polypoetry Festival, which she co-organized. We quickly discovered that we spoke the same language (and I don’t mean English, though it’s possible to share many languages given Maja’s multiple fluencies). Our collaboration Órói and her performance work on Kirkjubæjarklaustur with Vincent Tholomé and Sebastian Dicenaire situate their linguistic play within Iceland, while her project White takes on the native language of the place in which it is performed. Maja has become my primary sound collaborator over the past two years, and her gifted interdisciplinary work has flagged her as the embodiment of what excites me about twenty-first-century “sound poetry” gestures: she is competent in multiple disciplines and languages, flexible as a solo and collaborative performer, eager to create both improvised and heavily structured rehearsed work, and impacted ever so slightly by an itinerant existence.


Leevi Lehto (Finland) and Carmel Purkis (Canada)

Carmel Purkis has an irrepressible enthusiasm and insight that I’ve benefited from encountering since we met in April 2006 at the Ottawa International Festival of Authors. She has worked with both sound poetry scores and improvisation with different poetry collectives; indeed, while working on this interview, Carmel wrote me, ebullient over a recent all-female collaboration in which she’d participated. Carmel’s experiences with publishing and poetry lead me to think she would get a particular thrill out of encountering Leevi Lehto’s longstanding dedication to arts and letters in Finland as they’re both true community players and rigorous thinkers.

Leevi Lehto is a profound figure of contemporary Finnish letters, and I found him the epitome of understated grace when we met at the Krikri Festival in 2008. In addition to numerous publications and performances, Leevi is the publisher of the prolific press ntamo, is the programmer of the Google Poem Generator, and is working on an ongoing Finnish translation of James Joyce’s Ulysses. His sound works truly delight as they stretch between and beyond language.


Jaap Blonk (Netherlands) and Gary Barwin (Canada)

The enduring curiosity, discovery, playfulness, and multidisciplinary flexibility displayed in the works of both Jaap Blonk and Gary Barwin rank them high on my list of inspired and inspiring sound+text practitioners. See Jaap or see Gary or hear Jaap or hear Gary or see Gary or hear Jaap or gary Jaap or jaap Gary where Gary jaaps at Jaap’s gary when Gary’s gary is Jaap’s jaap and here I am with Jaap and there I was with Gary.


Caroline Bergvall (UK) and Rozalie Hirs (Netherlands)

I had the pleasure of encountering Rozalie Hirs’s work first at the Krikri Festival in 2008. Rozalie is well known as a poet and as a composer of chamber, vocal, and electronic work. In 2010, Maja and I traveled to Amsterdam to perform at Rozalie’s encouragement; at this time, I was deeply impressed with Rozalie’s questions and observations — particularly her concern about female practitioners of sound poetry. At a time shortly after, I dreamed of how incredible a conversation between Rozalie Hirs and Caroline Bergvall could be, skating through their experiences as multidisciplinarists, pedagogues, polylinguists, poets, performers, and women.

In 2001, Steve McCaffery invited Caroline Bergvall to perform and lecture at York University when I was a student. It was an early exposure to multilingual poetry by an international creator; Caroline’s work has become seminal for me the last decade. She founded the performance writing program at Dartington College of Arts, has created numerous multidisciplinary projects, collaborates with frequency, bends genre, and has homes in many geographies and hearts. 

What more is there to say?



The discussions collected here are transatlantic in scope, and feature both current and future practitioners whose contributions to the thought-realms of sound and text have been, are, and (I predict!) will be significant for stretching and imagining what is meant by the term “sound poetry.” I wish you the utmost marvel as you listen to and read to these gifts. Bless, bless!

Collaboration and possibilities

Reviews of chapbooks by Dan Beachy-Quick and Srikanth Reddy

Between 2009 and 2010, poets Srikanth Reddy and Dan Beachy-Quick published two collaborative chapbooks. The first, “Möbius Crowns,” was published by editor and bookmaker Andrew Rippeon for QUEUE books (a chapbook series adjunct to the journal P-QUEUE) out of Buffalo, New York. The second, “Canto,” was the first in The Offending Adam’s chapvelope series, edited by Andrew Wessels, and accompanied by a postcard and a microbroadside. 

With literary collaboration and its possibilities in mind, Jacket2 invited Andrew Rippeon to review “Canto” and Andrew Wessels to review “Möbius Crowns.”

Wessels notes the construction in “Möbius Crowns” of “a bridge […] between poem and world,” where the poems simultaneously make things and the forms which hold those things. Where “I” is said by both poets as an act of making and creating. Where, as Wessels writes, the collaborative “I” turns into an “O” indicating that “their condition has changed in the process of writing these poems.” In his reading of “Cantos” Rippeon picks up on these “composite” and “collaborative” facts of the speaker[s], recasting the writing process as one of both construction and reconstruction, where Reddy and Beachy-Quick investigate, problematize and ultimately, reinvigorate the lyric form, and in turn challenge the field to come up with alternative reading and writing practices, to consider “what lyric itself thinks.” As Rippeon makes clear in his piece, many of the questions Reddy and Beachy-Quick work through are those of lyric voicing and logic, tied up in our understanding and expectations of the lyric. 

Next year, 1913 press, edited by Sandra Doller, will publish Conversities, a collaborative book length work by Reddy and Beachy-Quick.

Time's loop Andrew Wessels
What lyric itself thinks Andrew Rippeon