Mark Goodwin sounds off
In an interview with poet Mark Goodwin and Brian Lewis of Longbarrow Press last year I discussed what using sound could bring to the performance of a poem. At the time Mark was embarking on a project (funded by Arts Council England (ACE) Grant for the arts) with sound engineer Steve Gibbs. Nine months on I went to find out how this had gone.
Describe the project to me.
Mark: It was called Mark Goodwin’s Sound-Enhanced Poetry. There were basically two strands to it. One was for my personal development and my gaining new equipment. The development involved my being mentored by musician, sound-engineer and sound-designer Steve Gibbs. And the other strand was to make new work, largely through collaboration. So on the list was to sound-enhance my own poems. I also wanted to collaborate with another poet and sound-enhance some of their work. I intended to collaborate with Longbarrow Press and a couple of their poets in an outdoor setting. I also planned to sound enhance a novelist reading his work, and to also collaborate with a video artist. I eventually produced 49 new pieces, a bit more than expected!
Why did you decide to do this project?
Mark: Because I had already begun to develop as a poet-sound-artist, but eventually realised that I’d gone as far I as could using my own improvisation and initiative, and that I needed to achieve a certain level of expertise and skill to develop further. I also needed to upgrade my kit, and software to push further. To improve I needed to be mentored, particularly around working with sound engineering software. I also needed a better understanding of the audio recording equipment that I needed to purchase. I also needed time and opportunity to practice using the new kit. So, the decision was made regarding pushing my practice forward.
Why did you choose Steve Gibbs as your mentor?
Mark: I’d already met Steve through working on a commission to produce an audio tour for the Battlefield of Naseby. That was a few years back now. I was asked by Metro-Bolo-Dodo to work with their Watch This Space department. Watch this space is the part of their company that deals with creative interpretation of heritage sites. I was commissioned by them to research the history of the battlefield, particularly relating to the lie of the land, and then write sections of poetry, and prose, that would provide the text for the audio tour. I also worked on that with Metro’s Paul Long, on the final editing down, and I also performed and recorded some of the text. That’s how I met Steve, he was doing the recording. I already had an interest in sound recording, so walking into his studio was very interesting. So, the experience of being involved with making this audio tour pushed me towards deepening my practice, as a poet and writer, but also as a sound-artist. I was so obviously interested in the sound side of things that Steve made an offer that if I ever needed any advice, particularly related to using Logic (Apple’s Digital Audio Workstation or virtual sound-engineering studio), I could come in and try out things with him in his studio. I was very grateful for this offer, but at the same time also very aware of how busy he was. So I suggested that I get some funding so that he could be paid to help me enhance my practice, to have time to mentor me properly. I chose Steve, because I also realised that it would be good for me not to work with another poet or a poet-sound-artist, not that there are many of those about, but anyway I needed to work with someone who works in a very different field. Steve makes dub and reggae music. So, this meant there was much more of a focus on technical expertise, rather than thinking about working with poetry and sound, and actually much more scope creatively, as I needed a creative practitioner coming from a very different direction, so that I’d be pushed more regarding sound, and even music composition… so there was a meeting between artists coming from very different creative places.
The Naseby Audio Tour
How has this project worked in terms of your development?
Mark: Massively positive and far more than I’d anticipated. My confidence in having control technically has really gone up. I don’t consider myself a fully-fledged sound engineer yet, by any means, but I’m really getting there. My creativity with regards to using sound was already going strong, but that too has developed hugely. It’s also broadened my practice as a poet. I’ve become even more precise in the use of spoken language, as far as sound and pronunciation is concerned. My practice as a community poet and community artist has been boosted regarding my confidence to record material and sort and arrange it.
How did the collaboration work with you and Steve?
Steve: It worked really well for me, I’ve done an amount of informal mentoring before, but this was my first formal sound engineering project to run for a period of time with a set goal. So for me the whole process has been very interesting and a great first for me in terms of being an official mentor.
Steve, what have you got out of the mentoring process?
Steve: Like most people who teach, if you’re teaching something you use every day and get to teach that, then you actually learn a lot about yourself. For a start, just by talking about your practice, you’re able to formalise what you think about it. Also, because Mark’s learned a lot from me because I work in a different way… well, the same thing has also happened for me. He’s made me think about some different techniques because Mark is trying to achieve a different end product to the one I’m normally trying to achieve. So It’s made me think up new ways of working with sound. I’ve been working in music for a long time, and I work in a specific genre. It’s a bit like if I were a stand-up comedian, used to doing stand-up jokes and suddenly asked to work in a collaboration with a dancer. This might get me thinking how I might move around the stage when I tell my jokes.
How has the collaboration between the two of you worked practically?
Mark: We’ve worked largely in this recording studio we’re sitting in now. At one point Steve did visit the boat I live on to check out the possibilities of how to record in such a space. But largely we worked in the studio, with all the digital and analogue equipment to hand. Steve would run through the mechanics of things like plug-ins and skills relating to the sound engineering software Logic. Then I would go away and try things out and come back with some questions or we’d start on something else. It was very discursive and organic. It’s also been mostly practical, but with a wee bit of theory.
Steve: Generally Mark’s brought in work he’s been working on and we’ve looked at how Mark is using Logic and what I can bring to it with regards to more advanced techniques.
Mark: So, quite a few of our sessions have been to do with mastering the CD for Steps, my latest poetry book, and that has been really useful. It’s got me to the stage where I’m confident enough to master a CD and make it stand out as clear as it needs to be. With regards to delivering sound in a church, for example, at Grahame Joyce’s memorial service… well, I’ve gained the confidence and know-how to do something like that. At first I wanted Steve to be on hand for that event to help out, but in the end I found I could do it myself.
The fact that you were able to play an outdoor field-recording of Graham Joyce reading his work at his memorial service is quite significant and offers a way of perpetuating an author’s work.
Mark: When I initially made the application to Arts Council England, I had no idea Graham was so unwell. When he had made a temporary recovery we were able to record him reading in The Outwoods, up in Charnwood. It was an extraordinary experience, poignant and hugely rewarding. Yes, it is a valuable way of archiving a writer’s work, and especially valuable when such a popular writer dies too soon. Yes, it was so good that I managed to record Graham when I did. That recording of Graham is precious, not only to the writing community, but very much and especially to his family. This is something very important, and was not foreseen when I first laid out the proposal for the project… Graham’s family found the recording very helpful. I certainly could not have made that recording to that quality without the equipment, or the confidence I have acquired through being mentored by Steve.
You’ve also worked with another poet.
Mark:I worked with the Texan poet Charles Lauder … I say Texan, but by now he’s a Leicestershire poet. A few years ago I mentored Charles on a mentoring project funded by Writing East Midlands, to work towards bringing out his first pamphlet with Crystal Clear Creators. I then became good friends with him. So, we’ve done a couple of recording sessions with him in his house, and we are still working on sound-enhancing a series of his poems. Although he’s originally a Texan his voice is now somewhat moderated by a Leicestershire accent, but there a couple of moments in the recordings when the full Texan drawl comes through. The poems are based around certain trees around his childhood home in Texas. So, I recorded some of his Leicestershire garden in the wind, to use as material to make a sound-bed, and I also recorded his children humming.
The recording sessions were actually focused on mentoring him on performing or speaking the poetry into a microphone so that it could be mixed with other sounds. That kind of performance is very different to reading to a live audience. The sessions were very useful to him and to me.
I also ended up being commissioned to work with poets David Devanny and Andy Fentham, we produced a site-specific sound installation called Pop Goes The Pineapple, for the Falmouth Fascinate Conference Showcase. My being able to work on this was completely dependent on my having the right kit and know-how, so although this project was not initially part of my ACE sound-enhanced project, for me it became part of it as it gave me the opportunity to really practice what I’d learned from Steve, and to learn more for myself with David & Andy. Each of us wrote a number of poems from photographs of objects in the location, a 1970s lounge bar upstairs in Falmouth’s Jago’s Inn. I then audio recorded each poet, on my boat, and sound-enhanced the readings. David Devanny then set up the installation at Jago’s Inn, which involved visitors putting on a pair of headphones that were attached to a kind of Heath-Robinson ghost detector thing – basically trigger technology, you point your detector at a picture on the wall, or plastic pineapple on the mini-bar, and you get to hear a spooky sound-enhanced poem. This project was a very rewarding and hugely informative collaborative experience. The exhibition was also very well attended.
It seems that you have also gained the technical skills to mentor other poets on voice recording.
Mark:Yes, I do feel I’m in a position to show other poets how to audio record themselves, certainly to introduce them to it. And most certainly I’m able to mentor them with regards to reading in a way that’s new to them, in a way that works for digital recording with a view to sound-enhancing that recording. I’ve mentored poets before on how to deliver their work using their voice, particularly to a live audience… that has now expanded to digital recording… and in turn my audio recording experience has enhanced my being able to help with live performance… and it’s enhanced my own live performance.
You also talked about working with a video artist.
Mark: That’s taken place and is still very much ongoing and developing. I’m working with Martyn Blundell making film-poems. I had done some work with Martyn before, but this project has now deepened and consolidated our practice together, largely because I now have more confidence and skills to bring to the collaborative process, to the sound side of film making.
The community project you did with Maplewell Hall SEN school is an interesting one. How useful did you find your new skills in this case?
Mark: This wasn’t actually directly part of my project, but my involvement as a sound-recordist couldn’t have happened without what I’ve gained. I was involved with a Young Roots Project at Maplewell, working with Nikki Clayton and Expresseum Poetics. Nikki brought me in to do workshops about the history of the location, in terms of interviewing and discussing, but also to capture sounds around the school. So we also did workshops with the students, where we played with sound… we went around listening to things and speaking, and I recorded all this. So, for example I recorded some of the students swinging the old school bell in the school’s quad, on a windy day whilst autumn leaves were being blown about. I also did straightforward oral history recordings and reminiscences from some of the teachers and pupils. I turned those into audio labels for an exhibition at the little museum the school has. One part of the project was to transform that museum by giving it an audio element. I was also able to record evaluation feedback for the project and organise it. I had to organise and edit all the tracks for the museum’s audio labels. I also created a sound-collage from those creative workshops I did with the students. I did things like getting the pupils to jump up and down on twigs or a piece of corrugated tin, or to scrunch the gravel walk-way, as well as recording their impressions of crows and sheep, and their naming sounds that we heard. We also did a range of indoor sounds around the schools old building, sounds associated with the history of the place. So, I collaged these sounds and voices, and it was then played to the whole school at an assembly. So this was a very therapeutic and educational use of sound. It was a kind of project and product that I could not have delivered to the standard I did had I not been mentored, and kitted out properly.
What was the effect of that on that particular community?
Mark Because sound is a very direct medium it is ideal for special needs; sound goes directly into your mind and body, and it affects you instantly. It helped make things, objects, parts of their school, just so present to them, and they were then able to hear their own voices associated with certain places and things. Memory is often a problem associated with special educational needs, so it really helps with that. Working with sound recording this way means you can hear your own voice coming back at you again, and you can again hear a certain distinct sound, like the texture of a brick you rubbed with a stick, or the tone of a bell your rang or leaves crinkling across the playground… that textural, sensual connection is very powerful for consolidating learning. For this reason the school saw it as very valuable.
What technical skills have you learned working with Steve?
Mark: I’ve gained a good working understanding of basic sound-engineering, I now have the level of control over handling sound that I wanted, and can see that that control is only going to increase as I practice. I now understand more fully Logic Pro X, the Digital Audio Workstation I work with. My work-flow has improved because of learning certain tricks and shortcuts in Logic. I’ve learned how to manage filing, back-ups and archiving, and how to audition and manage sound-files. I now know how to master an album of tracks to make them ready to burn to CD. I’m now a more able sound-recordist, regarding both indoor studio recording and outdoor field-recording. I’ve also gained skills regarding the delivery of sound in different contexts and in different locations through various speakers, including using the monitor speakers that I purchased. I also have a much better understanding of the sound-engineering requirements associated with sound-delivery in different settings. For example, when I delivered my field-recording of Graham Joyce into the church space I was able to master the audio appropriately for the space and the speakers being used. Regarding the exhibition Longbarrow Press and I put on at The Cube, I now have an understanding and experience of using MP3 trigger boards and setting up listening posts.
It sounds as if there is a great deal to learn to successfully work with sound. Mark, would you like to actually list the equipment and associated skills you now have at your disposal.
Mark: Okay, let’s start with the exhibition. Nikki Clayton and I, as Expresseum Poetics, now own a listening post. That gives us the facility in the community arts sense to deliver creative work made by participants, and deliver it easily in various locations. With regards to recording kit: I now have a much more advanced field-recorder, that can record a number of tracks at the same time, both omni-directional and directional. This means I have much more control over capturing the sound ambience of an environment, and being able to manipulate it. I also have a shotgun microphone, and one of those big furry windshields, like you see the BBC using – I’ve not actually used this properly yet, to make a creative piece, but I’ve been out and played with it, and got some good quality recordings in very windy conditions… but as yet I’ve not managed to get out on The Peak District moors with it, with Longbarrow Press, as I’d intended. But that is certainly something that will happen. And Steve has also said that he’d like to collaborate using this piece of kit. I can now set up my own make-shift recording studio, as I have a condenser mic and the kit that goes with that, a mic-stand and pop-guard, and also a USB interface, or external sound-card for my Mac. It was the condenser mic that I used to record Charles Lauder… which involved hanging up duvets in his living room, to absorb sound-reflection. I also used the condenser mic for my own poem Forced Moment at El Torcal. I upgraded my Digital Audio Workstation to the latest Logic Pro X – that has given me a huge amount of extra manipulating power. I’ve also got a set of binaural microphones, and learned about using those… binaural recordings capture three-dimensional sound-space, imitating the way our ears pick up sound, so you get a spookily realistic feel of surround sound. I’ve got a very good quality pair of monitor speakers, which I’ve used during a live performance to deliver some sound-enhanced poetry, so that gives me much more scope for doing live performance accompanied by sound. In fact when I come to launch my latest book, Steps, in Sheffield, I will be using those speakers to deliver some sound-enhanced versions of poems from the book.
Thinking about the technical skills you have acquired during your period of mentoring, and particularly the exhibition at the Cube, I’m interested in Steve’s part in this.
Mark: Yeah, the exhibition, that was another space Steve came into and was really helpful with, when I was struggling with listening posts and MP3 trigger boards. I learned a huge amount of technical stuff when working with those, and gained much confidence.
Steve: Like most of the things we’ve done, even with the Logic software, this is the type of help I can give just in terms of practical experience I’ve gained over a long period of time. For the exhibition there were so many variables, it was the kind of thing where things can and do go wrong… the type of minor technical upsets which I’ve encountered often, just because of the length of time I’ve been doing this sort of work. If we were working in an industrial environment, and someone was fresh from an industrial course at university, they might find that in the real world certain things may not work in a practical sense. For example you simply might not be able to plug something into a particular socket. So, I’ve been able to offer quite a bit of practical hands-on advice. And there’s also the moral support I’m able to give, because I know how stressful it is to do these things.
Mark: Without you, I just wouldn’t have entertained taking on such a technical project to a deadline, to be delivered in a gallery. Having Steve both in the background, and foreground on a couple of occasions, and working in collaboration we were both discovering things, like the strange things that happen with MP3 coding and how to sort that out. So Steve’s presence gave me a great confidence boost. After the experience I now feel I could approach that on my own and give it go.
There’s are a lot of things to think about in an exhibition. There’s the effect of the sound in the space. Every exhibition space is going to be different, which means every exhibition has to be approached differently. You have an idea of certain pieces of poetry that you want in the exhibition and have to deal with how they sound in that space and dealing with any technical difficulty with things like software problems. So how do you consider these things?
Steve: There’s the content itself that you want to deliver, when it comes to how it sounds in the space, although with this exhibition we just used headphones. The beauty of headphones is that you don’t have to think about how things sound in space, because everyone is using headphones. But you do have the practical problems that come with headphones. The headphones can stop working because there’s a problem with the cables or the MP3 player stops working, the files you put on the MP3 players can go wrong, so can the power and the buttons you use to trigger them. It’s just like the studio in the sense that it’s complicated with lots of equipment. Problems happen to me every day … it can be something simple like the device is just not switched on or it might be far more complicated like two devices not interfacing correctly. The only way you get that knowledge is by practically doing it. The thing about any exhibition or public performance is that it has to happen; the show must go on. So you have to find a way of resolving these problems. So you need to learn lots about how the equipment works and how you can work with it to solve the issues it throws up. The exhibition at the cube was a world first in terms of sound-enhanced poetry in that particular kind of gallery space. The equipment and the space are capable of delivering that, but sometimes it doesn’t always run smoothly.
You’ve really got a large number of ways of recording, manipulating and using sound. This should increase you collaborations, as well as your ability to mentor people in your own field.
Mark: Absolutely! It means I can broaden my practice hugely as a collaborative artist, but also as a community artist working with groups. And yes, I think mentoring other poets regarding sound-recording and digital sound-enhancing is inevitably going to happen as time goes on. David Devanny is not only a poet, but he is able to make apps, so our working together and getting commissions to produce digital literature is hugely enhanced by my having upped my sound skills. I’m now also in a position to work on the sound for film, which I’m doing with Martyn Blundell. Yes, the possibilities of combinations for collaborating with a sound-artist-poet and sound recordist are huge really… so I’m really looking forward to seeing where the sound side of things takes me.
With the level of technical delivery you are now able to achieve, do you think this will increase your listening audience?
It will help, certainly. But it is actually quite tricky to increase the listening audience, there does seem to be a bit of resistance to poetry and sound combined. Although, to broaden the experience of the way poetry can be received has really helped with my latest book. The CD of sound-enhanced poems that goes with Steps is proof of that. I’ve managed to produce and master a CD to an expert level, the work is clear, and more attractive I think because of that sound quality. That CD has already contributed to the sales of the book. People have been very interested in getting a limited edition free gift CD with the book. So my ability to make that CD has improved sales of the book and improved people’s access to my poetry, by giving them the opportunity to hear some of the book’s poems sound-enhanced. Increasing audience overall is a very interesting question. It’s not really until people have listened to the sound-enhanced stuff that they show interest, you have to get them to listen to it first, and that’s not that easy. We had a good audience for the exhibition and very positive feed-back, and particularly from people who’ve never heard poetry before or paid much attention to poetry, their response is extremely positive. But it’s still a slow process of growing that audience. But there has been a noticeable growth in the audience for the work I’ve put out over the last five years, be that my own work or work of other poet-sound-artists. And there has been an even more noticeable effect since I’ve been engaged in this project. For example, I was part of a Skype event at Nottingham’s Festival of Words, because I’ve now gained a bit of a reputation for being someone who knows about sound-enhanced poetry, and this ACE grant has helped hugely to get me in that position. I actually interviewed a sound-artist-musician-singer about her relationship to poetry and sound, an artist from New Zealand called Adair Bruce. So, yes, my profile has definitely been raised because of this project.
Mark, what are your plans for the future?
Mark: I’m going to continue to collaborate with other writers and artists, sound-&-word-wise, as well as continuing playing with my own poetry and voice, and generating interesting soundscapes and making field-recordings. I also want to do more community work around sound and voice, as well as mentoring other writers and artists. The Longbarrow Press collaboration where we are going to record outdoors has not happened yet due to various poets’ various schedules getting in the way, not to mention the weather which blew out the only date we could all get together! So that’s waiting to be done, and Longbarrow and poet Chris Jones and I plan to do that this spring or summer, it will be a piece about Alport Castles in The Peak District.
I’m now really looking out for ways of getting commissions to do with sound and poetry, be that related to apps, installation or film-poem. Poet and digital technologist David Devanny and myself have plans to seek commissions together. Steve and I are thinking about working together on producing a music, poetry and sound installation to do with the urban, or city-rim, and we are planning to apply for funding for that, and that will mean my practice will only deepen, and my skills just go on improving. I might at some point approach some kind of record label, and do an album of field-recording and sound-enhanced poetry… there are a few specialist labels out there that might be interested. And I’m really looking forward to experimenting with the kit more, getting outdoors and playing around with voice in different locations and weather conditions… doing more on location stuff… which reminds me, yes there was the Affective Digital Histories commission I got, which involved me doing an improvised poetry field-recording in a derelict rubber mill, up in Glossop… yes, for that I used the field-recorder, but also the lavaliere mic I now have. So, yes there’s another experience I couldn’t have had without the grant … ah yes, the lavaliere mic, or the lapel mic, that was also vital when recording Graham Joyce outdoors …
Steve: The great thing about the equipment Mark has invested in is that, unlike recording software, it will not go out of date, so it will last for a long time.
So Mark, to round up, would you again quickly go through what you intended to do and what you’ve actually achieved.
Mark Okay. I’d intended to sound-enhance one of my own poems. In the end I did lots of poems. I had intended to sound-enhance poet Simon Perril’s work, but for various reasons Simon wasn’t able to be involved, although we will certainly work together fairly soon. Anyway, I see the work I did with David Devanny and Andy Fentham as fulfilling that part of the project, and in the end I sound-enhanced quite a few of David’s and Andy’s poems, and mentored them as well, with regards to performing to microphone. I’ve also started a sound-enhancing collaboration with Charles Lauder, which is ongoing. I’d intended to sound-enhance Graham Joyce reading from his novel Some Kind of Fairy Tale, that happened, but I also made a pure field-recording of him reading, which has turned out to be extremely valuable, particularly to his family. During the project I made a film with Martyn Blundell. For that film, which has no spoken voice, but rather written text, we needed some very clear mouth sounds, chewing and glugging etc., using the condenser mic under a duvet was the method I went for, and it worked very well, I got some very clear, if slightly revolting mouth noise! I’d intended to put on an exhibition of sound-enhanced poetry… I think we got a bit carried away with that, and in the end presented over 60 artists’ work, but it was a superb experience and well worth it. The symposium that we put on, relating to that exhibition, was hugely informative and really helped to bring together poet-sound-artists and poet and sound designer collaborators. It was a very successful symposium both in terms of attendance and vibrant discussion, and I managed to audio record it. As I’ve mentioned, the only area that I feel I didn’t fulfil is recording out on the moors with Longbarrow… so that area of experimenting and learning is waiting…
And what about the extra commissions you got during the period of the ACE project:
Mark: Yes, I’m sure these commissions, certainly my being able to do them, came about because of the ACE grant. So, I had the Affective Digital histories commission.
I also got a commission from Writing East Midlands to make a site specific sound-enhanced poem.
And there was the Fascinate Conference Showcase commission.
There were also a couple of things I got to do that I hadn’t intended, but were certainly made possible by the project
I’ve produced sound-enhanced pieces for a GPS location based app. I’m now collaborating with poet and digital technologist David Davanny [link to D] on a poetry app, that will involve listening to my sight-specific sound-enhanced poetry at certain locations on the Cornish coast. These tracks are also included on my CD steps / sounds. The working relationship with David Devanny is ongoing, and has been hugely enhanced by my ACE grant.
I recorded a poetry reading for Longbarrow Press… which would’ve been a really good recording, if it weren’t for the photographer present, whose shutter sound was continuous … another lesson I suppose! Although I’ve no idea how to resolve that one, other than banning photographers. But given the photographer in question, Karl Hurst, is somewhat of a genius, that might not be the best option!
I had the chance to deliver some of my sound-enhanced poetry through my monitor speakers, at a poetry reading I gave for Loughborough University, in a pub’s upstairs room.
And, I also recorded the immensely entertaining poet John Gallas reading his poetry at one of his book launches, in someone’s conservatory actually. And I’m very pleased with how my new faithful field-recorder caught the evening. It really is worth a listen, John is on top form, and the intimate audience is also very much involved.