We listen with our throats and we speak with our ears

An interview with Leevi Lehto

Editorial note: This interview is part of a feature curated by a.rawlings, “Sound, Poetry”; it began with a request for material on sound poetry as it is currently being practiced in northern Europe. “Sound, Poetry,” however, accomplishes much more than reportage. Poets from Iceland, Belgium, Finland, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom converse with a broad array of Canadian interlocutors; some have even created new work together specifically for this feature. Here, a.rawlings explains the project: 

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.

The wealth of text, audio, and video recordings assembled for this feature is astounding in its range and richness. Accordingly, the five interviews will be published individually in Jacket2 over the coming months. — Sarah Dowling


Leevi Lehto is a Finnish poet, translator, publisher, programmer, performer, and self-taught composer. Since 1967, he has published six volumes of poetry, a novel, an experimental prose work, and a collection of essays. Active in left politics during the seventies, he worked as a corporate communications executive during the nineties. He is known for his experiments in digital writing, such as the Google Poem Generator. Marjorie Perloff describes his volume of poetry in English, Lake Onega and Other Poems, as “consistently amazing, brilliant — and funny.”

Lehto’s translations, some forty books in all, range from mysteries to philosophy, sociology, and poetry, and include works by Louis Althusser, Gilles Deleuze, George Orwell, Ian McEwan, Joseph Svorecky, Walter Benjamin, John Keats, Omar Khayyam, John Ashbery, Mickey Spillane, and Charles Bernstein. His new Finnish translation of James Joyce’s Ulysses will be published by the Helsinki University Press in 2012. Since 2007, Lehto has run a press of his own, ntamo, through which he has published well over 100 books, most of them critically acclaimed experimental poetry.

Lehto also performs his own poetry and others’ internationally. Notably, he has versioned the works of Finnish writers from the so-called “traditional” period. The Finnish critic Aleksis Salusjärvi describes Lehto’s performances as “foregrounding an atavistic, affective voice roaring almost deafeningly … as if performance and voice themselves were the subject matter.” Recently, Lehto has begun performing with drummer Tero Valkonen, bringing his sound deeper into the borderland between speech and music.

Carmel Purkis is a writer, editor, and book lover who has lived in many communities across Canada, and currently makes her home in Ottawa. She has been involved in several sound poetry projects, most recently collaborating with a group of poets on a series of multi-voiced texts called <playback>, a text- and performance-based response to visual artwork, and performed at the National Art Centre’s Fourth Stage.

This interview was conducted in November and December 2010.

Carmel Purkis: You’ve written extensively about the borrowing that happens between languages. Do you think of creating sound poetry out of a certain language, borrowing the sounds of Finnish or English, or do you think of creating sounds towards a new language?

Leevi Lehto: Well I guess my work is still mostly created from Finnish sounds. This actually may be one of the aspects behind my interests in themes of “Barbaric” English: the awareness of how Finnish my own English still is.

Take “Sanasade” (“Word Rain”), my longish procedural sound poem that I’ve performed during the few last years practically all over the world. It is based on an earlier, meditative prose poem of mine, and what I did was take all the words of that poem, sort them alphabetically, and then cut out everything in the beginning of the words that didn’t affect their exact placement in the sequence: “Capricorn,” “Carmel” and “Catalogue” next to each other would yield “pricorn,” “rmel” and “talogue.” The resulting stumped “words” were then again sorted alphabetically, this time based on endings: “talogue,” “rmel” and “pricorn.”

In Finnish, many words end in vowels, so this leads to a kind of Rimbaudian-Bökian display of vowels, a laboratory of their characters and temperaments. In performance I’ve come increasingly to play with the narrative possibilities this offers. Initially, this was more or less limited to the very end of the piece where the Finnish ä sound almost inevitably seduced me to mimic the sounds of an intense family row in its hysterical stages, creating an effect which is both tragic and funny — and paving the way for the first ö sound to trigger an equally hysteric laughter that, in different modalities, would dominate the rest of the performance, up to the final (for the Finns, at least) irresistibly funny äilöö (which most Finnish speakers would hear as derived from säilöö, or “preserves”). I’m currently working on similar transpositions all along the piece, and in my future performances, you will hopefully hear a more elaborate pattern of mental states, attitudes, modes, reactions, and so on.

In my performances so far, the vowels (and consonants too) have been predominantly Finnish. I think this is part of what makes the piece exotically appealing to foreign audiences — I like to joke that the further I go from Finland, the better the poem is understood, even if the many (unintended) subtleties of overlaid meanings associated with the “words” are lost to those not fluent in Finnish. Anyway, there is no such thing as pure sound, or pure letter for that matter. Already to form words — or, as in “Sanasade,” word-like compounds — letters and sounds need to be interwoven into what is usually referred to as rhythm (to me, language is sound + rhythm + pitch). In “Sanasade,” mainly because words are often cut mid-syllable, the rhythm is not Finnish. For instance, the rule of the stress always falling on the first syllable cannot apply. Yet there is a (complicated) metrical pattern, despite the fact that it goes against the “natural” flow of the Finnish language. So I think (or hope) the rhythm pattern in my performances of “Sanasade” is non-Finnish. To me, this pattern is created or dominated mainly by consonants, which are often oddly placed for the Finnish ear. I like to think of them as forming a kind of bass track, and I am now working to accentuate them as much as possible. In some of my earlier performances this led to a kind of overall bossa nova pattern; now I’m working for a more variegated, jazz-like progression.

I could say something similar of another stock part of my current repertoire, my renderings of some works of so-called traditional Finnish poetry by Eino Leino and Otto Manninen [see this 2009 video of me reading a ghazal that Manninen wrote in 1925] and other masters of the National Romantic period, roughly a hundred years ago. I’ve written about the intricate interplay of foreign influences and local identities in that poetry, my basic, pet claim being that their forms were mostly imported ones, working against Finnish language. These guys were radical translinguists and cross-pollinators a hundred years before me! Take “Tuulikannel” by Eino Leino, a fascinating Keatsian meditation on the chameleon poet (“Others got heart, I got the harp”), where the “harp” element is mimicked and strengthened by a heavy iambic-anapestic beat in a “naturally” trochaic language. My generation was always taught to read this and other similar poems by hiding the rhythm, attempting to reduce them to natural speech. I have attempted a metrical translation of this poem into English. My reading of the poem begins from a simple denial of this rule: I just try to make the stress pattern as clearly audible as possible — something which easily leads to an effect that has been described as “rock,” “rap,” or “singing.” This is interesting to me since I always thought of myself as tone deaf and unable to sing: more on this later!

Lately, I’ve increasingly come to play with the stress pattern by adding minor modifications. In the first line, “muut SY-dä-men SAI-vat mä KAN-te-LEN,” I add a very short extra beat: “muut SY-dä-men SAI-vat mä KA-a-N-te-LEN,” something which almost automatically brings me to repeat and modify that new pattern all along the piece, paradoxically making the resulting sound even more like a song, even if there still is no recognizable melody. My formula for what goes on here is “putting music to language,” instead of the idiomatic “putting words to music.” I think this theme has been with me at least since Ääninen (Lake Onega) my 1997 collection of Dantean-Dadaic sonnets. At that time, I read a lot about the genesis of the sonnet and was intrigued by the idea of it being the first Western poetical form where the musical element was inherent in the poem, not added to it through the accompanying instruments and external melody.

Another case of the mixture of languages in my sound work would be my “English” translation of “Pajkerno” by the Swedish poet Lars Mikael Raattamaa. In “Pajkerno,” Lars Mikael took a classic Swedish poem by Anna Maria Lenngren (1754–1817) called “Pojkarna” (“Boys”) and simply replaced the vowels in each stanza by one single vowel at a time: “Jag mans dan ljafva tadan, / Jag mans dan sam a gar, […] Eppe men men ver lejet, / Ech helsen e men bled,” etc. My English version, “Byos,” was done first by producing a conventional, metrical English translation of the original Lenngren poem, then repeating Lars Mikael’s vowel trick. I made sure to destroy the first translation, so it is hard even for me to now know what was there in the conventional translation phase. “Byos” is a translation without an original, perhaps in a double sense. When reading “Byos,” I usually don’t even try to pronounce it the way a native English speaker would (that’s beyond my abilities); yet my vowels are not Swedish either (also beyond my abilities). Instead, they are straightforwardly Finnish. Since it may be that Lenngren’s Swedish syntactically affected my first English translation, my reading of the poem is perhaps a mixture of three languages.

Finally, there is a different kind of mixture or interplay of languages in my Keats piece, “Negatiivinen kyky,” the concluding poem of Ääninen, which is a half-homophonic translation of Keats’s famous “Bright Star” sonnet. The poem “Negative Capability” in Lake Onega and Other Poems is also half-homophonic of the Ääninen sonnet. I’m tempted to make an extreme claim: the process ends up bringing the original English sounds back to an English-like language, yet they’ve been subtly modified in their sense and references, as Michael Peverett suggests in the only Western review of the book so far:

It’s surprising what survives this double mash-up through the sieves of language — the play of double-L sounds, the resumption of the repeated absolute “ever” in the repeated absolute “all,” and the near-rehabilitation of “ever — or” in the last line. But Keats’s vision of swooning inactivity is thoroughly translated away from its tender context of a loved one’s embrace; socialized, it turns into reeling drunkards in a mall and also into human technological progress, e.g. traveling to the moon. Both “stedfast” and both mindless, exactly as per Keats’s recipe, and sarcastically offering a new interpretation to the phrase “negative capability.”[1]

I invite readers to test these claims based on this compiled reading of the three versions I made for Finnish radio in 2008.

Purkis: Several people, notably the German poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht, have described Finland as a "silent" country. Does sound poetry bring voice, and if so, what is the role of that voice?

Lehto: Yes, Bertolt Brecht, who was exiled to Finland during WWII, described Finland as “a nation which keeps silent in two languages [Finnish and Swedish] at the same time.” But allow me to shift the focus a bit here: I’d rather talk about the alleged flatness of the Finnish language in general, and mine in particular. I grew up in a rural environment deep in the province (Häme or Tavastia Land) renowned for the slow speech of its people; I then left that milieu at the age of sixteen (as a high school dropout and a poet who had already published his first book), to live in the capital, Helsinki. I soon forgot the dialect of my childhood, but what I adopted was not the Helsinki slang, nor even the youth speech of the time, but a sort of artificial language more or less based on written Finnish (Finnish differing from most other languages in having this thing called the “literary language,” something residing above most people’s actual speech: my friends sometimes tell me I’m the only person they know to actually speak the literary Finnish). So I still tend to speak slowly, and in a level voice with quite little intonation. Another way to put it — and I realize this is an odd thing for a sound poet to say — I’m an extremely literal and textual person.

In many ways this has affected my learning of other languages. My favorite story here concerns my experiences with French. I never had French in school (nor English, by the way); what I know of it, I learned by translating theoretical-philosophical works. Somewhere in the mid-eighties, having already published translations of the work of Althusser, Lyotard, and Barthes, I decided it was time to acquire the speaking skills as well. I traveled to France and spent six week in the South, trying to learn to speak the language, and even hiring a private language teacher. It turned out to be one of the most humiliating experiences of my life. All the “wrong” patterns of pronunciation learned by silently reading literary texts were rooted so deep that they felt impossible to get rid of. And there was the factor of speed: at one frustrated moment, my teacher retorted in quite an angry fashion: “French just cannot be spoken that slowly!”

This may seem to lead astray from your question, but let me put it that way: yes, sound poetry does bring voice and variety, at least to me personally. More than that, it seems to bring about a change in personality. This is sometimes reflected in the reactions of my listeners. For instance, if I come to give a dry lecture on some more or less theoretical topic, I like to end with a short sample of my sound poetry (like the ending of “Sanasade”). This tends to take the audiences by surprise; they will come to me later, asking, “Where did that Shaman jump up from?” Yes, the sound poet in me is a different personality, and I am more and more allowing him to take over: the somewhat official looking, aging professorial gentleman has been replaced by the image of a (well, aging) rockstar. And I’ve been loosing a lot of weight too … I’m letting my hair grow longer, to quote “Prufrock.” I’ve attended formal cocktail parties in full makeup and I will soon start painting the thumbnail of my left hand red like Tom Waits. And I’m quite enjoying it all!

So, to repeat, sound poetry brings voice, and the voice brings a difference!

Purkis: Is the reaction of your listeners in Finland any different than in other countries? Do you think they hear differently?

Lehto: Yes, I think people in other countries hear differently, both when I use Finnish or Finnish-like language, and when I use English or other languages. For the first case, suffice it to refer to what I said above about the reception of “Sanasade”: here my most gratifying experience was in China, where the audience was adamantly resistant to all the ironic elements of the whole (despite my efforts to explain them in my intro) and simply wanted to hear it as a spontaneous overflow of feelings — of passion, as they described it.

As to using languages other than Finnish: the case in point might be my longish “Norwegian” poem, “Norwegian Ords,” which I wrote with a little help from Google and some dictionaries and performed at the Audiatur poetry festival in Bergen, Norway, in 2007. There are two humorous aspects in this. The day before I left for Bergen, I was talking with my stepdaughter Miina, then in her twenties. She told me that there was a new expression in the Helsinki teenage slang: “to speak Norwegian” was to throw up, to vomit, as when having drunk too much. I evidently couldn’t resist including that in my introduction for the poem in Bergen, and integrating the voices and gestures of vomiting in my performance, starting from the dedication “for Paal B-b-b-b-j-j-j-j-j-ELK-e Andersen.” Afterwards, more than one listener came to tell me they could never speak their own language again without having their vomiting reflexes activated. Others wondered at how I had managed to reproduce the patterns of certain actual local dialects, of which I had no knowledge or experience whatsoever. To this day, I cannot say whether this was caused by my Finnish or by the non-Finnish non-original Shaman in me paying a visit during the show. (I hope the latter: as a prodigal son of a deeply Pentecostal family, I retain a strong belief in being blessed with a gift of speaking in tongues, along with another gift of ventriloquism, or “speaking from the stomach” in Finnish idiom.)

Purkis: When watching your performances, it is clear that there is music in your motives, not just because of the sound, but also because you are always moving, and often almost dancing. This lends a superb theatricality to the performance. Do you think that this theatricality of sound poetry is a necessary part of the performance or simply a pleasurable by-product?

Lehto: Well, to me at least it is a side effect in the sense that I don’t plan it ahead of time. It is the most spontaneous part of the performance, something that I am almost not even conscious of doing. On the other hand, it is also necessary since there’s nothing I can do to drop it. I simply have to move along with the intensity of the rhythm that I manage to produce.

Actually, I should perhaps add body movement to my list of elements of language — and I am not only thinking of performances, but everyday usage as well. Perhaps there is no language without body language.

Purkis: You’ve done some spectacular mash-ups of voice and music, such as your Rolling Stones piece. Do you differentiate music and song from a sounding voice?

Lehto: A nice way to put it! You realize I’ve been edging into the theme of music all along. It is my primary concern nowadays — well, not music as such, but music related to poetry, and the other way round. I always was the non-singer: my early teachers and my family told me so. On the other hand, I’ve always joked about how I might have become a composer if only I wasn’t tone deaf. And, on a third note (pun intended!), my poetry — especially the earlier and somewhat more conventional stuff — has often been described by critics and others as “linguistically musical,” something which I’ve been tempted to see (if there’s any truth in those claims) as a symptom of transference, or skill compensation, as in blind people developing an acute ear. I’ve been increasingly obsessed with the questions around this, and have given in to the temptation to explore the musical component of my newfound sound poet personality. Also, as I like to joke, at this age, I have come to lose interest in the things I can master, to the point of only being motivated by those things I cannot do. After all, they are the only ones where you can learn something.

That is why I wanted to do a couple of pieces where I had no alternative but to at least try to sing. Over the past year, I started with a couple of attempts at fusion between Finnish poetry classics and standard rock ’n’ roll. In the Rolling Stones piece, I use words from a poem by the Finnish Modernist master, the late Paavo Haavikko (adequately beginning: “No one understands me. No one understands me in this restaurant …”); in my hearing, they quite nicely fill in the melodic pattern of “Paint It Black,” although I’m not sure if anyone would recognize the tune in my performance were it not for Keith Richards’s opening riff. Another case is “Lapin kesä” (“The Summer of Lapland”), where I fuse four stanzas from one of Eino Leino’s most beloved poems with “Rock And Roll Music” by Chuck Berry. I’m very much aware that these initiatives are not much more than practical jokes or (not even very bright) novelties, but in a way my point is just that: the challenge is to develop the jokes into artistically convincing and compelling renderings — and to learn about my eventual singing skills in the process. I deliberately put those very early recordings (linked above) online as unquestionable evidence of the absolute (s)crap I started from.

I’ve since worked a lot on these and other projects with a definite musical/melodic component — as part of which (to let you into a secret now) I have even started taking singing lessons. On many levels, this has been extremely instructive, to say the least. My teacher has a certificate in Complete Vocal Technique (CVT) developed by the Danish music educator and human voice theorist Cathrine Sadolin. Her system is an attempt to describe and master “all the sounds human voice is capable of producing” (in this system, the sounds are classified into modes according to their metallic quality, ranging from neutral to curbing, overdrive, and edging, all of which again may be modified by color, effects, etc.). It was nice to realize, and to have a professional teacher testify that even without an ability to sing the most simple melodies “correctly,” in my sound poetry performances I already made use of all those modes and variations, and easily so, without many of the problems with breathing and so on that so haunt many professional singers (and me, in my attempts at actual singing).

This of course introduces the question, “What is music?” Sure, the existence of a recognizable, harmonic melody cannot be the only requisite for music at our point in time. But more than that, my teacher soon made me realize some things that led me to modify what I said above about the “flatness” of Finnish, my own and others’. In short, as there is color and rhythm, there is also intonation in every language and in every speech act. (In fact, while my own speech may be characterized as extremely flat, I’ve always been aware of my sensitivity to intonation in the speech of others — for instance, I’m almost invariably the first person in a group to recognize a nameless voice of an actor or other celebrity in, say, a TV or radio commercial, and I’m still tempted to judge the present political stances of my seventies hardliner Communist adversaries by how well they have been able to drop the scansion so crucial to their previous group identities.) To put it another way, all language speakers are able to control their pitch, so everybody can sing. Or at least the question of musicality has very little to do with singing skills as such. This realization has made me name my sixtieth birthday party a “concert”: “Leevi Lehto at 60 & in Concert With Himself.”

It may be that I’ve already reaped the most important fruits of my work with pitch and melody — I am thinking of some insights into the constituents of hearing and voicing. The main thing about pitch control, it seems to me (and I realize this may be elementary to many, but to me it is not) is what is known as “muscle memory.” The (almost innate) ability to control the pitch of speech implies a capacity to hear it, and consequently to change it, to hear that change, and ultimately recognize the pitch of an isolated note. In principle, this means that not only can everybody sing, but also that we all have potentially absolute ears. Yet this recognition does not happen in the ear only, it is always mediated by the muscle memory of speech or singing. To exaggerate a bit: we listen with our throats, and we speak with our ears.

Purkis: The majority of your pieces available on the Internet are solo performances, with the exception of a few duets (notably, one with Charles Bernstein). Does this work with musicians mean that you will be doing more ensemble work and sound collaborations? Do you view collaborations with other voices differently than collaborations with other instruments?

Lehto: Yes, I think I will be more interested in various kinds of collaborations in the future. So far, I have actually only done one performance with live instruments, with the Russian electronic band Ugol Ratmanova in Moscow, in November 2008. This was an improvised reading on fifteen minutes’ notice, of one of my stock pieces, “Besotted Desquamation,” my Finnish translation of a poem by Charles Bernstein.

For the “Leevi Lehto at 60 & in Concert With Himself” birthday celebration I also plan to do some collaborative work. I’m going to perform with drummer Tero Valkonen, who will play a floor tom, something that will undoubtedly push me both to intensify the rhythmical dimension of my performance and also to pay more attention to the pitch. There is also a plan for an improvised duo performance with the Japanese sound artist Adachi Tomomi, over Skype. And yes, I may venture some actual singing, and the concert will feature my first-ever musical composition, Don’t Be Afraid of Being Afraid, with my daughter Saara, a professional dancer, performing her own choreography.

And, talking of composition, I’ve also experimented with producing my own “melodic backdrops” using digital audio workstations such as FL Studio: you may evaluate the impact of that in this rendering of “Tuulikannel” from last spring.

One more point about collaborations: I’m currently working with a young Finnish composer and folk-harpist, Salla Hakkola, on a project where we will use excerpts from my Finnish translation of James Joyce’s Ulysses, particularly the musically-motivated “Sirens” chapter. This will be premiered at the time of the publication of the translation [editor’s note: this performance took place in August 2011]. I’m rather intrigued by this, not least because the project has made me realize the general impact of Ulysses to my sound work. After all, “Sirens” is all about putting music into language, and Joyce was reportedly unable to listen to music for a time after having finished it. Working with the overall musicality of Ulysses has, I think, sort of reversed Joyce’s reaction: it has made me somewhat impatient before most other texts I come to work with. If I cannot find music in them, I get the urge to add it …

From my present perspective, I wouldn’t see any fundamental difference between collaborations with other voices and those with instruments. Allowing for instruments means admitting that the voice is one too, or the other way around: it means the materiality of language must encompass and accommodate instrumental sounds. I think I used to be a purist here, somehow privileging voice and only voice, but I’ve changed my mind.

Purkis: Do you have any predictions for where sound poetry might veer, as muscle memory increases and as the capacity for listening and voicing grows stronger? What sort of projects do these muscles want to lift?

Lehto: Well, I think with my take on learning, Groucho Marx’s well known slogan sort of ceases to be joke, and becomes a maxim: only join clubs that wouldn’t approve you as a member. So I am a little hesitant to speak about the future of sound poetry, if by that we understand a specific subcategory of the larger whole of poetry or literature. There is such a category or field all right, and there is such a community of people with shared interests. Yet I don’t think of my sound work as dedicated to cultivation of that special field but rather as interventions in two larger areas: poetry in general (or text-based poetry if you will), and, yes, music. I’m always interested in cross-pollinations and my ambition is to create works that are difficult to situate in one single frame.

One aspect of this is that I don’t seem to produce new textual material for my performances but rather use existing work, by myself or by others, found poetry in a way. My renderings of traditional Finnish poetry are perhaps a case in point.





1.  Michael Peverett, “Leevi Lehto, Lake Onega and Other Poems,Intercapillary Space, September 2009.