But Is it Poetry?

By | 14 September 2009

In this special feature, Emilie Zoey Baker presents the strange and wonderful aural texture that is sound poetry. Sound poetry highlights the phonetic aspects of human speech: it is poetry that has gone way beyond words, beyond the mathematics of language. It can be anything – just the sounds you hear in your head. It's free, alive and nil by verse. Unsurprisingly, sound poetry is primarily intended for performance, but it can sometimes make its strange shapes on the page. Scroll down and enjoy an interesting taster's plate of sound poetry from Canada, the US and Australia.

[audio:http://cordite.org.au/audio/Peter_Murphy_Um.mp3]
Peter Murphy
Um

Peter Murphy writes poetry, short stories, plays and takes photographs. His poetry books include Glass Doors and Lies and Snapshots. His short story collections include Black Light and The Moving Shadow Problem. Murphy says of his own work:

My kind of sound poetry often involves variations on words or statements. I mix obvious jokes, metaphysical word games, one-actor mini-plays in which words break down with an exploration of how sound moves through the body and how the body moves with sound. In a number of poems over recent years, including 'Um', I've been exploring some of the small sounds in the voice which stand out when it isn't loud.

[audio:http://cordite.org.au/audio/Ania_Walwicz_Begin.mp3]
Ania Walwicz
Begin

Ania Walwicz's most recent work, Palace of Culture, is a collection of prose/poetry texts based on dreams. Using abstraction of language, condensation and displacement of subject matter, Ania encodes self-reflecting and self-analytical diary material in a performative mode. This challenging work, strongly influenced by Surrealism, Psychoanalytic Theory, musical composition (language as sound composition) and vocal techniques (performative monologue), immerses itself in sound language textures by re-enacting psychological states.

[audio:http://cordite.org.au/audio/Jeltje_UQ_Them_Took_Us_From.mp3]
Jeltje & Unamunos Quorum
Them…took…us…from…to

jeltje's been convening poetry performances at La Mama Poetica since 2004, and in 2007 produced and performed with UQ in La Mama Poetica: Voiceprints for the Melbourne International Arts Festival, which featured live works by visiting Japanese sound poet and composer Tomomi Adachi, Sydney-based poet Amanda Stewart and groundbreaking performances by 6 Melbourne polypoets.

[audio:http://cordite.org.au/audio/01 I Know Very Well How I Got My Note Wrong.mp3]
Jeltje & Unamunos Quorum
“I Know Very Well How I Got My Note Wrong”

Unamunos Quorum (Sjaak de Jong, Anna Fern, Mark Lewis, Eliane Mortreux and Polly Christie) is a soundpoetry/performance art group that has for over a decade relentlessly followed the path of improvisation in the development and performance of their material. They have worked on a regular basis with the poet jeltje building a repertoire of word- games and sounds- capes that augment her recordings and performances. They write:

Initially, the poems determined the musical forms but the poetic forms, in turn, have changed and/or have been crystallized by the interaction with the music. Sometimes the poetic form actually defines itself in the process. We think “jeltje and UQ” has at times been a true meeting place of poetry and music.

This piece, originally titled ‘Mirror Man’, was written by the late Jas H. Duke (1939-1992) who was born in Ballarat, Australia. He worked as a draftsman/ laboratory assistant/ technical writer and dreamed of becoming a chess champion (but didn't quite make it). As a substitute he read every book that he could find.

In the 1960s he became an Anarchist, wrote short stories and was desperately looking for a way to break-out! He went to England via the United States, where he circulated in the politico-psychedelic underground. In England he sought the camaraderie of Freedom Press; met Ted Kavanagh, Cohn Bendit, Yoko Ono, and Raoul Hausmann.

Duke became a political activist, and an actor who appeared in many underground movies by filmmaker Jeff Keen. He came back to Australia in the early 70s. He published a surreal novel Destiny Wood printed in 1978, which includes poetry translated from the German, and a section of Concrete poems.

He became an active member of Collective Effort Press, where he was involved in many small press publications, including the groundbreaking 925, a poetry magazine for the workers, by the workers, about the workers\' work.

Duke was also involved in the first Visual Poetry Anthology in Australia, Missing Forms, published in 1981 by Collective Effort Press. His last book, Poems of War and Peace, was published in 1989 by Collective Effort Press.

[audio:http://cordite.org.au/audio/Max_Middle_run scrummee.mp3]
Max Middle
run scrummee

[audio:http://cordite.org.au/audio/Max_Middle_Zedders.mp3]
Zedders

Max Middle lives and works in Ottawa where he has been involved in many projects which have as their fulcrum a practice of poetry or m a k i n g . u p (among them the Max Middle Sound Project). His work appears in Shift & Switch: New Canadian Poetry. One of his works is currently being shown in the exhibition 'Blends & Bridges: A Survey of International Contemporary Visual Poetry' in Cleveland, Ohio.

[audio:http://cordite.org.au/audio/Geof_Huth_A Tiny Movement towards Backwards.mp3]
Geof Huth
A Tiny Movement Towards Backwards

[audio:http://cordite.org.au/audio/Geof_Huth_Intense Yields.mp3]
Intense Yields

Geof Huth has lived in Africa, Europe, the Caribbean, and North and South America, all the while using language for his own purposes. His interest in language turned him into a poet, a visual poet, and a thinker on words. He works words in many media: condensation, crayon, frost, object, paint, pen, pencil, pixel, pollen, sound, type, and video.

His most recent books of poetry are “texistence” (300 one-word poems co-written with mIEKAL aND), “a book / of poems / so small / I cannot / taste them” (78 micropoems around the topic of winter), “ENDEMIC BATTLE COLLAGE” (the first publication of a suite of digital poems written in the 1980s), “Gingerbread” (a long poem retelling a fairy tale), and “Eyechart Poems” (27 visual poems).

Huth writes:

Occasionally, I produce sound poetry that is performed off a script, even a script for more than one voice, but those are exceptions. Most of my sound poems consist of what I call extemporaneous poemsongs. These poemsongs grew out of my play with oral language. As I worked around the house or drove myself to and from work, I would sometimes sing a song to myself-the song might be quiet, almost whispered; it might include screaming and pounding on the floor; or it could veer between the almost silent and the screamed. Every part of these songs is invented on the spot: the glossolalic words, the melodies, the occasional rhyme-and most of them are lost immediately upon being created. The best of these I have performed only for myself, though I also end almost all of my poetry readings with a performance, sometimes dramatic, of one of these poemsongs. The point of these pieces – beyond the assumed aural beauty of some of them – is to create a language for song on the spot and investigate that meaning within oral language that exists outside the realm of the word: how intonation defines emotion, how music trains the listener's ear to keep listening, how the physical movement of body sculpts meaning, how generally non-linguistic phonemes (such as clicks and whistles) might be incorporated into supposedly linguistic utterances.

I have saved some of these poems by videotaping my performances of them, and recently I have begun to tape the songs I sing otherwise only to myself. What I've noticed is that this new way of creating is more similar to writing, since I can save what I create and since it is encouraging me to investigate a wider range of sounds. Many of my recent pieces are more spoken than sung, more theatrical than musical. In the end I do all of this to understand and extend meaning, and to entertain myself. For me, the play's the thing.

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