Poems, places and soundscapes describes itself as ‘An international exhibition of digitally produced sound-&-poetry focusing on place & soundscape’. It is a description that does not do justice to the depth of sensory texture the visitor experiences from the combination of media in the meticulously curated exhibition of work from an extensive range of poets and presentations.
This type of work is also available online, but there is something of a sense of occasion walking into the intimate Cube gallery in Leicester’s Phoenix arts complex.
Tell me about why you put this exhibition on and a little bit about it.
Mark: One of my motives is that I’d like more people to start making this kind of work. I’m amazed by the variety and ingenuity of the of sound-enhanced poetry that’s already out there, but , even though in the last few years I’ve seen this kind of work grow, there is still surprisingly little of it. Poets are very sound-sensitive, and it seems obvious to me that they would be good at playing around with all kinds of sound … and it’s actually not that hard to do technically, and especially so if you team up with a musician or sound-designer. So, yes, one of the main aims of this exhibition is to show poets and other artists what’s possible. Never before have poets had such easy-to-learn technological power at their disposal – we can now stretch the sound-stuff of words, and place a word or even syllable with precision amongst other sounds … we can push poetry across new boundaries. Robert Frost talked of ‘skilfully breaking the sounds of sense’ – in the last few years I’ve seen, or rather heard, poet-sound-artists discovering new skills and ways of manipulating that ‘sense’ that sound carries. Around 2010, I started the ‘Air to Hear’ group on Soundcloud, and began collecting digitally produced-sound-&-poetry … I worked quite hard at trawling online to discover the ‘who’ and the ‘where’, and indeed the ‘how’. I soon found there was quite a bit of it around the world, and in various languages. ‘Air to Hear’ now has a collection of over 700 tracks, from artists from places as far away as New Zealand, America and South Africa. So, I suppose this exhibition is a result of that four years of listening.
Are these professional poets?
Mark: It varies considerably from gifted beginners to professional musicians and sound designers used to working with more experienced poets. There’s a massive range of expertise, from someone who possibly started just last month but just has a flare for sonic composition, to the likes of Melbourne-based David McCooey, who has won numerous awards. He does all the production himself, which is very plush and high-level, the kind of produced sound-design you often find in the cinema. He does, in fact, call it ‘soundtrack poetry’. So it’s delightful to hear that range of artists’ work. Some pieces have no music at all and it’s all based around sound or field-recording, whereas others are more music-oriented – for example, The Little Typists from Nottingham (John Marriot and Matt Spandex) who I’m a huge fan of. John provides the poetry and vocals and Matt, using digital software, provides all the sound. In a technical way they make me think of the ways Kraftwerk combine spoken word and synthesiser music, although I’m sure that analysis would really amuse them! They make very good use of juxtaposition and timing, and so make the music serve the words, in a way that enhances John Marriot’s already dangerously dry poetic wit. I love the way they do that. They take the elements of pop music and make those elements do very intelligent and mischievous things. The Little Typists give a fine example of how music and poetry can be merged into one. It is not just a poet reading whilst music is played in the background. I sometimes get that kind of stuff sent to ‘Air to Hear’, but I don’t accept it … you see, I’m after a melding of poetry and sound … something I’ve tried to call ‘poesonus’ … although by now I’m not sure I should be ‘trying’ to call it anything … what to call it is a whole other fascinating can of worms. Anyway, on ‘Air to Hear’, you’ve got music and poetry working together and you’ve also got pieces that could be called sound-sculpture, where field and voice recordings are unified.
I did notice that in the exhibition, there are pieces where the pictures might be the opposite of what the words are saying or where the relation to the poem is very oblique. There are also occasions where the words of the poem may be visible on screen but contradict what the poet is saying. I found it very hypnotic, but at the same time had to pay attention to what was going on to enjoy the full effect.
Mark: This is the kind of play that interests me most. I’ve done, myself, some Radio 4 style pieces, where all the sound is placed, not just to simply illustrate, but to carry you along, by putting the words into a sound-bed. I have a huge admiration for that Radio 4 style. However, I much prefer making the kind of pieces where you have to listen intently to the intricacy of sounds, where the listener has to pay attention and listen creatively as words and noises coincide, and even sometimes collide and intrude upon each other. Or the words may be harmonised with other sounds in various ways, that are surprising and even distracting. This kind of work is demanding, and demands to be listened to repeatedly … as long of course as it’s your cup of tea.
Brian: What I noticed when co-curating the exhibition was the striking differences between audio production and video production. For example, it’s possible for me to make a sound recording with Matthew Clegg in Hillsborough Park (Sheffield) and convey a sense of the environment. But when you start to work with poetry film – as distinct from documentary film – you have to ask what you’re adding to the experience of the poem. It’s one of the reasons why I’ve made far fewer poetry films than I have audio recordings. I’ve made something like 25 over the last two years. Some of those have been relatively straight documentary accounts of poetry walks, performances and readings, whereas others are collaborations between photographers and poets, sequenced by me. So essentially I’m not originating those images, and acting more in a curatorial capacity, which is another interesting area. This is how poetry can open up quite an extensive area of collaboration.
For example, if I’m doing a straight recording of Matt, reading a single poem, I don’t see that as a collaborative process. That’s more a technical support role. But as soon as you involve people with special responsibility for sound, people who are producing images specifically to accompany that poem, it becomes very interesting. Some of the works in the exhibition list four or five people on the credits. Conversely, you’ve got people like Dave Bonta who seems to be doing everything himself. That’s a considerable challenge for one person to be able to interpret their own work.
Again, the poetry film is an interesting proposition for the poet. But having not been on the poet’s side of the relationship I don’t know how it would be to be presented with a visual representation of your own poem. In some cases, I have produced films without any prior discussion with the poet, which raises the question as to whether it’s a genuine collaboration. Perhaps it relies more on levels of trust between the poet and the person presenting their work in this way. I’ve never put anything out there that the poet wasn’t entirely happy with. The most recent Longbarrow film has already become our most popular, and in a very short space of time. It was a film for Matthew Clegg’s poem ‘The Power-line’ that documents a walk around Flamborough Head on the East Yorkshire coast. The audio recording of Matt was made in the same location. Matt was also present when the filming took place. It was a series of six, more or less static, shots of various points on and beyond the headland. Matt and I had gone out expressly to record him reading the poems for a podcast; it was more an audio assignment than a film assignment. So although Matt was aware of me filming the footage, neither Matt nor I had any sense that it might be used. I just happened to have the camera with me. It was only about nine months afterwards that the film actually happened. So we were both pleasantly surprised by that.
But I think there are so many different approaches to collaboration.
Longbarrow Press has built up quite a catalogue of videos and podcasts, which play around with images and sounds alongside the poems.
Brian: Yes, and one of the interesting things about this exhibition is that although it doesn’t feature much Longbarrow work, I was involved in the curation. Mark invited me at a relatively late stage in its development. Part of my job was to make a further selection from the initial selection that Mark had made. Mark had already selected two Longbarrow films, so it was interesting to have someone else make that decision for me. It was a decision I didn’t challenge, because I was quite happy to go with it.
One of the things I found interesting about the process was seeing the Longbarrow work in a relationship with the other work, particularly in the film programme, which showcases so many different approaches. We have films with text on the screen and some films where there’s no text, and sometimes the texts on screen and on the soundtrack are different. Equally, the audio tracks highlight a range of approaches, including digitally-enhanced poems that have been placed in a new relationship with the landscape to which they refer.
My approach with Longbarrow, over the last five years or so, has been largely non-interventionist, but I freely admit to a small amount of postproduction with some of the field recordings. In the first of Matthew Clegg’s Flamborough podcasts, for example, we alternate between commentary and sonnets and then continue and develop that pattern throughout the whole podcast. That is a consciously structured programme of work, and nothing is occurring in the order in which was originally recorded. So, the techniques of sound protection are vital to developing work, to –paradoxically – give that naturalistic feel when it’s not actually a ‘natural’ process at all, but highly structured.
Mark, do you have any ideas of the particular balance of naturalistic work to more carefully treated work that’s in the exhibition?
Mark: Yes, I do. I wanted to be able to show that range, from one extreme to other, and include what’s in between. So, we have David McCooey’s work, which is musical, very highly produced and appears to be very mainstream, although it actually has quite a challenging edge; and then there’s something like, ‘In Slate’s Hands’, which is one of my own pieces. This has no music, or at least no ‘conventional music’, it has much more of a raw field-recording feel to it, a little ragged but nevertheless very carefully constructed. And then there’s someone like Michael Myshak (aka Swampmessiah) – his track, ‘Insects’, is somewhere in between, and combines more ragged textures with a studio-production feel. Lina Ru’s piece, ‘Walking Barefoot as Clouds Sing’, that has a gentle, hypnotic, produced smoothness to it, and yet she allows little bits of sonic grit to get through. So, that’s the range of work that I want to get across to people who visit the exhibition.
I can see with you, Mark, why you started using audio with your poetry, because your poetry plays with sound. As far as Longbarrow Press is concerned, Brian, how did you get into the audiovisual side of producing poetry?
Brian: It was something which had intrigued me as a possibility for some time. But to produce anything worthy of repeated viewing is a much more complex process than editing a sound recording, in terms of both the technology and the skills required. The audio recording and editing software is wonderful, even at entry-level, which I think is obvious from such an interesting range of work being produced by people with very limited means.
You talked earlier, Brian, of collaboration. Something I noticed about the exhibition is that the balance between the different media is very precise. No one element seems to overwhelm the other. That must be a very difficult balance to achieve. How do you both address this particular issue in your work?
Mark: I tend to leave the making of film-poetry to the filmmakers, but I’m very impressed with this set of films because of the lack of illustration and the extra communication the film element brings. There is only one film-poem that might at first seem to be in the category of illustrative, ‘Discharged into Clouds‘, which is an animation, and yet even this film does things kind of slant-wise and so surprises. I find it very interesting that that film is not as illustrative as it first appears. The big mistakes can often be seen with live poetry and music, where a poet is working against a backdrop of music, and that can happen also in digitally produced audio poems, and films of poetry readings, or supposed film-poems where what is happening in the film competes with the poet’s images, rather than enhancing them. So, yes, it is all about balance, it is vital that the different elements talk to each other, rather than against or over one another. I’ve heard live performances of poetry and music where the listener’s head gets split between the ears – one ear is pulled to struggle to listen to the poet struggling, and the other ear is pulled towards the music getting on doing its own thing … but then I’ve also heard live performance where the musicians and poet, and singers, genuinely collaborate – a superb and haunting example of this was Kelvin Corcoran and Tria Kalistos, in Sheffield at Bank Street Arts a few years back.
Brian: Yes, that was a real ensemble performance, rather than musicians simply supporting the poet or a poet giving some kind of poetic sheen to the musicians’ performance.
Mark: Yes, and actually that kind of live collaboration amazes me. It’s so much easier when you have a Digital Audio Workstation to play with, when you can bring a level down or take the level up. You’re then in the luxurious position of having plenty of time to listen and judge, and then manipulate what you are listening to. Still, you must use your instincts to listen.
But that’s the point isn’t it? It’s like playing a musical instrument. Surely you need a sense of rhythm and tone?
Mark: Exactly, there’s lots of skill needed but it’s definitely mostly about instinct. You’ve got to listen and feel. It is about rhythms, and musicality, but above all it’s about working instinctively with the materials of sound and the emotions that those materials make.
The exhibition is on until the 25th April 2014