Dear PennSound

Listening to letters

image by Noah Saterstrom
(image by Noah Saterstrom)

I’ll begin with a playlist of PennSound recordings having to do with letters. While listening to this playlist on repeat, I was interested in the ways the tracks expanded, derailed, parodied, critiqued, or otherwise complicated the idea of intimate address. The addressees include imagined ancestors, public figures, an owl, various abstractions and inanimate objects, as well as the workings of language itself. Recently I’ve been listening to this playlist on random and I keep noticing new connections and contrasts between tracks.

Ange Mlinko’s Classical Music begins by oscillating between several potential addressees and sites of address (“Dear Soho,” “Dear Orpheus,” “Dear Silenus,” “Dear Sappho,” etc.). Mlinko’s comments on John Wheelwright provide one window into the pleasures of listening to the weave of dictions, times, and figures simultaneously alive in the poem.

In Michael Gizzi’s Dear Double Jehovah I hear the line “absence finds a way of being there” speaking to the power of letters to conjure the missing, the impossible, or the previously unimagined. I’m also reminded by this line of how much Gizzi’s voice is missed by so many. His charged reading of the piece turns up the reverb and accentuates distortions and transformations of sound and image such as: “To write in French about the fluid gain of artists is to universalize the nostalgic tourist and bond proboscisly with the inverse music charts of the unfettered schnoz of Charles De Gauze.”

CAConrad’s Dear Mister President there was Egg Shell under Your Desk Last Night in My Dream! imagines a sexual/political/spiritual transformation of George W. Bush  (“a man with little time for love.”) I hear a hint of Conrad’s more recent Somatic Poetry Exercises (which he describes as “poetry which investigates that seemingly infinite space between body and spirit by using nearly any possible THING around or of the body to channel the body out and/or in toward spirit with deliberate and sustained concentration.”) near the end of the poem, beginning with the lines: “Maybe we could go to the creek and paint secret mud symbols on our bodies like I used to do with my first boyfriend.” Attending one of Conrad’s Somatic Workshops should be mandatory for holding public office.

Laynie Browne’s introduction to Rebecca Letters describes the work as a series of “letters to an imaginary unknown ancestor” who appeared to her in a dream. Browne discovered that there was a real ancestor named Rebecca: “Rebecca was a musician who studied at London Conservatory. I never met her. The omission of Rebecca in family history I interpret as a lack of representation/documentation of women artists.” Listen to Rebecca Letters (pages 11-13) .

Julia Bloch’s selections from Letters to Kelly Clarkson play moments of interiority, spectacle, and desire against one another, with a keen awareness of “the big bank of cultural currency” always at work behind the scenes. The poems explore several connotations of “epic” and “lyric” in a time when “The audience is armed, waving their nude wrists, ready to eliminate someone tonight.”

Eugene Ostashevky’s Dear Owl begins grounded in the language of description but quickly questions its own linguistic and perceptual frameworks: “What is this forest of letters?” “I cannot see who I am, who you are.” “That’s all that remains of the language of language.” I think of the intense, insistent voicing of the poem as a force of friction, eating away at the solidity of the landscape at the same time it’s being rendered.

This recording of Nathaniel Mackey’s comments about and reading from Will Alexander’s Letters to Rosa suggests multiple sites of correspondence: resonances between writers, imagined astronomical entities speaking to one another, rich constellations of sound/image patterns circulating and generating feedback. Mackey’s reading from his own epistolary novel Atet A.D. is a tightly compressed yet open-ended narrative. The multiple dialogues going on (between band members, between band and audience, between music and language, between the sonic and the visual, between private thought and public address) make for a lively, polyvalent exchange.

Eileen Myles’s Dear Andrea poems are full of amazing fused and fragmentary moments. If I understand Myles’s comments between poems correctly, some of the language is being overheard from one-half of a phone conversation. I love the way the speech of the poem turns its attention in so many directions: “I’m not trying/to turn you/on Eileen I’m stretching/What time is it.”  

Stacy Doris’s Love Letter (Lament) appears in her book Paramour, which begins with a note to the reader that I’ll excerpt from: “It was written between 1995 and 2000 in the South of France and in North America by a willful female author who, nagged and baffled by questions of poetic form’s future, set out, as if she had all the time in the world on her hands, to catalogue, through strategies of parody and vivisection, an eclectic variety of Western Prosodic models. For subject matter the theme of love, certainly the most prevalent topic of poetic tradition, was readily selected.”

John Yau discusses some of the thinking and techniques behind his book Borrowed Love Poems (which includes Russian Letter) in this brief clip from a Close Listening conversation with Charles Bernstein.

Although there were no recordings of Dodie Bellamy’s The Letters of Mina Harker on PennSound, I will end by linking to a 1991 reading from that influential work on the Kootenay School of Writing’s audio archive. A quick introduction to the project from Bellamy’s preliminary comments: “Mina Harker is the person in Dracula whose soul is being fought to be saved. She’s this borderline character between human and whatever. All the letters have been written to real people and mailed before anyone has seen them.” The reading is in two parts: Part A & Part B


Playlist (right-click on any link below for download options)

Ange Mlinko Classical Music

Michael Gizzi Dear Double Jehovah

CA Conrad Dear Mister President there was Egg Shell under Your Desk Last Night in My Dream!

Laynie Browne from Rebecca Letters (pages 11-13)  

Julia Bloch from Letters to Kelly Clarkson

Eugene Ostashevky Dear Owl

Nathaniel Mackey reading from Will Alexander’s Letters to Rosa

Nathaniel Mackey from Atet A.D. 

Eileen Myles Dear Andrea poems

Stacy Doris Love Letter (Lament)

John Yau Russian Letter

Dodie Bellamy from The Letters of Mina Harker Part A & Part B


More work by artist Noah Saterstrom here and here.

Also of Interest: Chain Magazine Issue #6: Letters