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From Word to Sound: Panel

The second panel discussion of the Doing it in Public event on Feb 29, 2008, was moderated by Michael Morse talking to Christian Bök, derek beaulieu, Adeena Karasick, Alexis O’Hara and angela rawlings.

There was audio recording of the sessions but the files are still not online at Trent. This is from my notes and not direct quotes. Some things I missed writing and there are gaps in flow.

This second panel on From Word to Sound was considerably more lively than the first on From Text to Performance with more debate and audience wanting to jump in to disagree with, well, with Bok’s statements, mostly.

Unlike the consensus-seeking casual conversational tone of the last panel. Bok started in with oratory tools, prepared remarks and gambits for making people react, saying, in part, there is something episcopalian about poetry readings. We sit thru the services silently then go away hating poetry.

Bok explicitly rebutted and chastised the underlying self-deprecating apology that others put forward in the first panel of how they got into performance poetry. In other words, he reparsed, if you can’t sing, and if you can’t dance and if you can’t do stand up, well, (head hung) at least you can be a poet.

Is it the lowest choice as a career? The expertise of being a poet is demeaned as a discipline when the audience is too tolerant or if we tolerate and reward as poets low quality.

There’s something wrong with the term performance poetry. Do we have performance music? “It begs the question, do we have that that is poetry that is not performance?” No poem has inspired a riot or set a car on fire and he has a problem with that. If music concerts can provoke, why not poetry.

Alexis O’Hara retorted that he’s going to the wrong poetry events. At Burning Man there are things set on fire to poetry. There were riots and visceral outbursts like he is talking about. People react and engage and love the poetry she’s seeing.

Alexis O’Hara said her entry to poetry was thru punk rock, a populist audience which is not polite. You have to fight to be relevant, to be heard.

You have to take risks and “embrace the transformative power of failure”. When an audience is uncomfortable, they are in their bodies. Pleasure is a salve. Discomfort situates us in ourselves. In risk there are chemicals that load that situation.

Risk is an illusion for her now. She knows too well how to get out of the risk she creates. She has to push to new places. She remarked how military has figured out the exact resonant frequency that will make people auto-defecate without even being able to register hearing a sound. She assured us she wouldn’t do that to us in her performance that night. (The laughter seemed a mix of unease and relief.)

Complacency and perfect is easier. For a while she rejected virtuosity as symbolic of masculine.

She said that in performing poetry there can be some freestyling. In a performance she hung out in the washroom before the show and overheard a conversation and dropped the whole chunk into her performance. The entire audience were those two girls who knew that was for them and it meant nothing to anyone else there. That part is a direct private discourse with those two people. It’s a connection.

Adeena Karasick: In sound poetry and experimental poetry, one is “throwing a wrench into normal discourse and see what happens”. (Which seemed to be more or less the undercurrent gist of debate.)

In context I lost, Karasick turned this phrase: Everyone has the right to speak, but not the right to speak to me.

a.rawlings brought the subject back to the question of Word and Sound talking about automatists and her first exposure to sound poetry – Steve McCaffrey and the mindblow of seeing what was a familiar poem completely deconstructed, uncommon syntax and broken down into the base material of language, the kinetic, the aural and visual.

She said poetry is “the identity inside the blur”. (Or else my handwriting is pure crap there.)

a.rawlings said poetry isn’t the drafting but the getting into with research, thinking, rethinking and 40% of the end end product poem as editing.

derek beaulieu remarked on visual poems as being for the page not a score for audio performance. He doesn’t read his visual poems and convert them to sound. Anyone else can if they like but the performance of poetry is the eye to image, the reading of it. Flatland came as a performance of the act of reading. He went letter by letter over a novel on a light table. The recurrent combinations of letters seemed to form their own rhythms of characters, actions, plot, oceanic vowels [or the occurrence of vowels? my short handwriting could go either way.]

Can you customize a poem to an audience and see how each interprets? Each poem is made by the writer and his job ends there. The audience picks up the task.

When one makes a dichotomy of us vs them, page vs. sound, it doesn’t do either side on the argument any good.

The risk in poetry happens on the page as much as it would in oral performance.

When it comes to a matter of making big bucks from blockbuster poetry, access to people who want to access is what matters. The internet in particular can get work into the hands of a reader who wouldn’t otherwise see it unless they were in the room with the writer. It expands the potential audience. He quipped the internet has expanded his base audience by at least 10.

A man in the audience wondered why is poetry not more mainstream in Canada. In Iran anyone on the street can recite to you Hafiz. Poetry is integrated into lives and the poet is highly esteemed. Why not here?

Bok: Poetry is a high art form but it has become crafter, artisinal like glass blowing or crotcheted doilies. We tolerate a high degree of incompetence in poetry like we would not tolerate in film or music. We give financial reward to music and film like we do not give to poetry as a society. Why should we have the bar so low that selling only 1000 units of poetry is considered a best seller when to have a successful movie the bar and the rewards are much higher.

When we say “good for you for trying” to poor poetry, that’s therapy and not art. In visual art we say, pah, my little daughter could do a better painting than that. Why do we not apply the same critical standards to poetry? We could look at poetry the way a carpenter looks at someone else’s chair.

Bok said poetry should not bore the audience with cliches and should provide something new.
Poetry should be as science and you don’t know what the answer is when you start. It should push epistemology. The exploration not the form is the point.

(That reminds me what Clifford Stoll said, do it once, it’s science. Do it twice, it’s engineering, do it three times and its technician work.)

A poem is akin to an Ikea chair without an alan key nor instructions and the only rule is that you are to make something from it, and hopefully not a chair. You defamiliarize language and exoticize language.

Adeena Karasick: The universe shifts when someone reads these letters. That’s the hope. They reshape someone else subtly. Someone’s perspective on any level may shift. Poetry to change others is a political act. Poetry if it is not semantically followable can still lead thru disjunctures thru a backdoor in imagination and cause an alternate way of understanding.

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