Tune | Audra Wolowiec in conversation with Karen Weiser |
The preface of “Deep Listening: A Composer’s Sound Practice,” by Pauline Oliveros begins with a quotation by Lucia Dlugoszewski: “The first concern of all music in one way or another is to shatter the indifference of hearing, the callousness of sensibility, to create that moment of solution we call poetry.”
With the methods of deep listening described by Oliveros, I approached the poet Karen Weiser with an invitation to respond to sound. I first came across her work through a reading at Ugly Duckling Presse and with delight, she read at a performance series during my exhibition at Studio 10 in Brooklyn. Karen is a writer whose poetry and prose distills both visual and sonic qualities. Through reading her work, we become aware that she is both an active reader and a deep listener. Her language is embodied and phonetic, it sounds.
“Listening is not the same as hearing and hearing is not the same as listening,” Pauline Oliveros writes. “The ear hears, the brain listens, the body senses vibrations.” Listening requires a sense of awareness, a bodily act of attention.
From the chapter “Ways of Listening”:
Focal attention, like a lens, produces clear detail limited to the object of attention. Global attention is diffuse and continually expanding to take in the whole of the space/time continuum of sound.
If you are speaking, singing, performing with an instrument or otherwise sounding, then you are sending. Are you receiving what you send and also receiving the whole of the space/time continuum of sound?
As you listen, notice the impact and effects of sound throughout the body. Notice when you feel sound in your body
Pauline Oliveros, Sonic Meditations, 1974
In the spirit of collaboration, Audra and Karen chose to "deep listen" to the recording of a reading/sounding with Susan Howe and David Grubbs, “Frolic Architecture" and respond with conversation.
KAREN: Listening to Susan Howe say "every mark on the page is an acoustic sound”—I am looking at these words and thinking of them as marks that sound as I write them. It is a vertiginous feeling, to see language that way. I always think of reading a book from another century as conversing with the dead, and yet for me that conversation has been in the mind, not an embodied conversation, but a mental one. And now I am thinking of how my own voice silently speaks to me in my mind, when I read, but also when I think, or write, [it is] my voice without sound that speaks. I know it sounds like my speaking voice, this silent inner one, but it doesn’t because it doesn’t sound—there is no vibration into the air, no sound leaving my lips. This no sound is perhaps the most important sound, the sound of thinking, of its action, its bird-like flight and landing, as William James writes. We are always perhaps composing a music, a text, a language within our minds in the no-sound of this thinking voice. And while it is in some way un-embodied, being unspoken, it is also entirely confined to the body, having no expression.
KAREN: It is profoundly important, I think, to hear the poet speak the poem, so that we can begin to merge the speech of the poet and their language, as you put it. Some poets have such a distinctive way of speaking and hearing the language that their voice becomes part of your internal soundscape, and when you read their work on the page you can hear it in their cadence. I think of Eileen Myles, or Anne Waldman, M. NourbeSe Philip, or Susan Howe. My understanding of their work is entirely influenced by hearing them read. And I feel so very close to their work, so perhaps being able to hear their voice speaking the poem when I read comes out of a deep connection with the work itself. A deep love. I have this for many other poets as well. This allows me to understand what I wrote above, about my internal reading voice, in that it isn’t always me that I hear. It can morph into another poet’s voice if I know their work. My own work is meant to be spoken and heard, and the music is the heart of it. I was very influenced early on by Kurt Schwitters “Ur Sonata,” and when I was in college there were a couple of us poets who listened it to it so often that we memorized it, and we would recite it to each other. What has stuck with me most since I started writing is my conviction that the music of the poem is perhaps its most impactful content. Can I ask you, Audra, what the place of sound is in your own artwork? How do you think of your work in terms of its music?
AUDRA: As an artist who works with language, I often think about the differences between reading aloud and internally. The very first time I went to a poetry reading, I thought, that’s not how it should sound! I realized that the speech of the poet and the language of the poet are two different things, and as readers, in an almost chance collaboration, we intercept to create a third voice. (Or, as Bachelard writes in The Poetics of Reverie, “In poetry, wonder is coupled with the joy of speech.”) How do you think of your work in terms of its sonorous, spoken qualities?
AUDRA: I’m primarily interested in sound as it relates to the voice and to the body. My background in visual art tied with my personal experience with speaking fluently, is where my interest springs. One of my favorite pieces of yours is from Or, The Ambiguities (UDP) where letters drop and fade in new formations and the name Ishmael appears in a whisper. It reminds me of how Michael Cunningham writes about the first line in Moby Dick (Found in Translation, New York Times): “Let’s try to forget that the words “Call me Ishmael” mean anything, and think about how they sound. Listen to the vowel sounds: ah, ee, soft i, aa. Four of them, each different, and each a soft, soothing note…” He continues, “Ideally, a sentence read aloud, in a foreign language, should still sound like something, even if the listener has no idea what it is he or she is being told.” Do you ever think of your writing process as a foreign language?
Karen Weiser, "Dear Pierre" in Or, The Ambiguities (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2015)
KAREN: I think you are talking about “Dear Pierre” which borrows lines and the voice of Pierre from Melville’s Pierre: or, the Ambiguities. What I think you are responding to in my poem, because I see it often in your own work, is the way erasure breaks down language into sound, and creates unusual visual shapes and objects. How does erasure relate to sound in your artwork? Is it procedural and metaphorical?
AUDRA: I think, like you, these forms of erasure work as a conjuring, a way of communing with the unknown, from the past or the future. Mainly, the process with my own speech impediment informs these decisions, often paired with writing that I admire and seek to converge with. Over the years, I have worked with overcoming a pronounced stutter, so the gaps, breaks and absences in language are the spaces that hold the most charge—places of both visceral tension and potential.
for Susan Howe and Pauline Oliveros
Music, her humming, she is unconscious of
The slight clicking, a high-pitched
Shadow she points to on the
Is sound, has a shape
A sidewalk where we look for the moon
One morning is covered with pink blossoms
Sound of her foot
Directions on the grid
A consonant hides in her hand:
Pick one. Behind my
Crackle of orange leaves
The gods are real, she says, raising her hand
Our room is a letter here
Writing itself on the banks of
My hand on her warm back, the room
Start and end to
Some other hesitation
Where were you when death came
She asks on the walk
But if something causes an effect
Can you say it is that effect
We get at sound
How like meaning it sings
Crackle movement—the mouth
13 feet underground in the cistern
Its walls reflect back StitchMemoryPrayer
Like the surface of the lake
Another instrument the room makes
Another instrument contains us
She along and we between
When the moon lit the lake
A white ball rippling
What contained us then
What a text does
Karen Weiser is a poet who lives in New York City. Her second collection of poems entitled Or, The Ambiguities (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2015) was written in conversation with the works of Herman Melville. Her first book To Light Out (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2010) considered the idea of talking with the unknown while pregnant. She's currently writing a libretto in collaboration with composer Peter Gilbert for an opera entitled You Who Made the Heavens Incline about 9th century Byzantine nun Kassia, who is widely considered to be one of the first famous female composers. Weiser received a NYFA Poetry Fellowship and recent residencies include The Marble House, The Rauschenberg Foundation, and LMCC.