Vom 24. bis 26. September findet in Berlin KOOK.MONO statt, eine Veranstaltungsreihe, die neue, performative Formate für literarische Texte schafft. Autor*innen, die dort auftreten, denken bei uns im Blog über ihr Schreiben nach. (Hier die Website zur Reihe.)
Most poetry is written to be read quietly. Some poetry is written to be read quietly and sometimes gets read out loud in front of a community of people. Sometimes poetry is written, where this reading out loud is part of the way it is written. Where the text becomes a kind of performative score, the skeleton of something larger. More and more writers think beyond what happens on the page. They think physically, performatively, theatrically, conceptually, visually, architecturally, anatomically, musically.
When we say “reading out loud” we refer to volume. In this saying “reading out loud” there is a direct relationship to the amplification of the voice. As if in order to be heard we have to crank the voice somehow to be heard beyond one’s inner and outer ears. And when text is read using the amplification of a PA system, often the voice is not itself being loud, but rather spoken at “room volume” into the microphone, perhaps even whispered. Amplification can then take over the job of making “loud” what is read as if intimately to a friend. So often the challenges of “reading out loud” change depending on the conditions, the environment of the reading out loud.
So whether the poet is intentionally working with her voice or simply reading out loud or out quiet as best as she can, once there is a willingness to let text leave the page, there is a transference of experience from the quiet to the loud, from the inner voice to the outer voice, from the mind to the body, from the page to the room, and from a singular experience to a collective experience.
Making the experience of text physical opens up the text’s potential. Even the first step, of ass on chair, fingers on typewriter, types striking ribbon to whack carbon or ink onto paper, fingers on hot laptop speed-dancing on keys of keyboard, eyes itching from staring at illuminated screen, foot pedaling letterpress so inked type can bite paper, and fingers cramped around pen scribbling onto notebook balanced on upper thighs: these are all part of the physical experience of writing. So why, if reading and writing are intrinsically physical experiences, do we often leave our body when engaged with reading and writing?
There is a dissociative quality that shows up when reading and writing that has to do with the magic of words triggering the imagination and propelling us elseplace. Easily we forget our physical body when slouched in a chair absorbed by a book, not noticing the strain on the eyes because of poor lighting, a pinched lower back, a jammed throat. Instead we are on a raft assembling a collection of containers, on the 32nd floor of a high-rise watching a thunderstorm, or sitting on a bed trapped inside an insect. Perhaps as we read, our body is increasing its heart rate and our pituitary is dumping endorphins, maybe there is a tingling on the tongue or a smile on our face. Do we notice that? Does that become part of our experience?
Becoming disembodied or splitting our attention from the physical while engaged in language is part of the magic of reading and writing. But reading and writing, and especially reading “out loud” and “performing language” can be enriched and the experience of the words heightened by shifting the attention onto the experience of the physical body and the physical space. This becomes especially important once there is an intention for the text to go beyond the page. Once there is an intention to be “out loud” or “in space.” How do we go about this process of infusing the experience of language with the physical?
Since the process of writing and reading is a physical process, it is perhaps mostly noticing, directing one’s attention to include the body, which amplifies the somatic experience. Sometimes when we include the body, especially when trying to move and read at the same time, or move and speak, or move and sing, the body freezes up. But the body doesn’t freeze up because being frozen is the natural state of the body when engaged with language and making sounds. It is habit that shifts the body into stillness. And sometimes you do want and need stillness when you are reading and writing. Stillness is performative and electric and provides the necessary focus. But for it to be electric, it has to be alive and for it to be alive there has to be movement and attention, even if those movements are hardly visible. It takes practice to get ready for performance. I know writers aren’t used to a rehearsal process the way performers and musicians are, but it is a process that is incredibly helpful and will make the actual situation of reading out loud or performing out loud much more pleasurable.
Go to a room with your text and/or action. Practice that action at different volumes, using different postures. Take on the body of a giant and practice. Take on the voice of an ancestor and practice. Experiment with making sounds. Make ghostly sounds to gently get your vocal cords going. Airplane sounds to add some high frequencies to your voice. Yawn to open up the back of your throat. Read your text yawning. Read your text with your thumb between your teeth. See how much of the space you can inhabit with a word or sound. Crawl all over the floor and talk to the floorboards. If you are going to perform in an amplified situation, make time for a sound check. Hang out with a microphone and figure out how it responds to your words and translates those sounds. Try out words with lots of p’s and “ssss” sounds. Most of all, find out what you want to focus on in order to prepare yourself for a performance situation. Set an intention for a reading.
As a songwriter, the texts I write are mostly linked to the physical action of music. To the relationship of words to voice, pitch, rhythm, to the coordination of voice to hands to instrument, to fingers on strings, to the sound of other voices or instruments being played by other musicians and to the space in which the song happens and the people, the audience, the bodies that are also present in the same space. When I first started writing songs, I knew very little about music. I did not play an instrument. I had considered myself a poet since I was a teenager. I studied literature and in my early twenties attended Naropa University’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics. I was also curious about performance, dance, and working with my voice. So when I started writing songs, I mostly approached writing songs as a poet who wanted to sing her words. In the beginning, I took texts that I had already written. Prose poems mostly. And started to sing them and set them to music. “Set to music” sounds like I knew what I was doing. I didn’t. I just plucked my guitar, probably out of tune, never more than two strings at a time, going back and forth like a metronome. I imagined myself a kind of Minnesänger, a poet of the middle ages traveling the land collecting stories and news and singing them to whoever was willing to listen. I started touring shortly after I started writing songs and so there was always a direct relationship between the writing of the songs and performing them. I often performed them when I barely knew how to sing them. I started to get better at playing two strings at a time, and found friends to show me things. Like how to string and tune my instrument. How to “count in” a song, how to play simple percussion.
After shows I often couldn’t talk. I was pushing my voice too hard, would strain my vocal cords. I liked this feeling. It made me feel like I had worked. Like I was sore from effort. But it also worried me, so I began to ask singers all kinds of questions about what they did to take care of their voices. I studied with a jazz singer who encouraged me to learn tongue twisters, and I studied with a vocal coach who taught me the subtle changes in resonance that take place when paying attention to different parts of the vocal cords and body. My intention was always to have the words be super present in my songs. So I didn’t want to become too singerly. I often use a kind of Sprechgesang to recite my songs, something between singing and talking, but employing pitch.
Even though I am very curious about technique and the anatomy of the voice, exploring the larynx and vocal cords, trying different techniques of articulation, working with the tongue, mostly I have found there is no correct or incorrect way of doing things. It is all about curiosity and attention. Feeling the pressure of the breath against the vocal cords, sensing the diaphragm move, being attentive to the way I let tension flow or not flow through my body. Feeling the air around me and how my voice and breath, my movements are moving the air. Keeping my ears sensitive and moving like the antenna of a snail. Paying particular attention to my larynx and how it connects to my ears, my jaw, my tongue. Feeling the whole apparatus and engaging with the sensations that surface. Tremors, and nervous shakes, my stomach bubbling, my fingers tightening, the heat of stage lights on my face.
One of my favorite things to do before a show is to drink a lot of fizzy water so that tiny bubbles start to climb up into my throat while I sing. I try to balance the bubbles and silently burp them between phrases. This always makes me feel very playful and mischievous and on the edge of fucking everything up, which feels exciting. Fucking up feels exciting. It’s something that I can’t control. I think one of the reasons I don’t beat myself up so much about mistakes is because for the longest time I performed with just the crudest knowledge of what I was doing. So I never expected to make it through a show without a ton of mistakes. This gave me a good basis to be open to the things that simply happen. The sudden sound that feeds back, the string that buzzes because it was pulled too hard, the voice that cracks or goes sharp, the fizzy water bubbles that interrupt a phrase.
I have always been interested in being able to understand sung words. To decipher them in a song I am listening to and to have them be super present in the songs that I am performing. Here are different strategies I use:
- I use very sparse arrangements to accompany vocal parts. In a way it helps not being a proper instrumentalist. I pluck here and there and that naturally leaves a lot of space. But when working with other musicians, this is more of a challenge. The more musicians I am working with at a time, the less I ask them to do. A drone here, a boof there. To become more musical and move into a band sound is always seductive, so it helps to work with limitations that leave a lot of space in the music for the language to stay present.
- Diction is also an important strategy to make words stick out. To practice diction, I pay attention to my lips and my tongue, my jaw. I practice songs with a cork or a thumb in my mouth. I visualize the words on a page.
- Awkward syntax and lines that go beyond the rhythmic meter of a song also add to language literally “sticking out” of a song. I find myself counting syllables in a way that I never have before. But in order to keep my words from sitting too smoothly inside the song structure, I write the lyrics exactly how I want them, not thinking about song structure and then using a musical structure where not all the lines fit. Then I either have to speed up my mouth to fit in all the syllables, or simply take a break in the music and sing the line in its own tempo.
- Using words in songs that are not often used in songs. That plop out and surprise. Like: refrigerator, smorgasbord, telephone poles, pandemonium, fledermaus, aeropuerto, tintenlumpenhand.
- Using foreign words or going between languages. Allowing the way I experience language in my mind and mouth to flow into songs.
How sound travels in space and how we perceive that traveling is another element of the attention to the physical experience of performing language. One of the most interesting things about acoustics to me is the experience of the “sound check.” We often arrive at a venue in the late afternoon. The chairs are still on the tables. Cool daylight through the windows reveals a stained and abused room with dusty monitors and the odor of late nights and spilled drinks mixed with chlorine. I know this feeling of disappointment when entering these sobered-up places. I know not to let it get me down. “This room will change,” I remind myself. It will be dark. There will be lights and everything will sparkle in the dance of disco-ball reflection dapples. And eventually, it will sound nothing like it sounds in the afternoon, with the daylight through the windows and the chairs on the tables. This tinny feedback, the way everything bounces through the stale dusty air, will be transformed. There will be bodies in the room that will change the sound. That will soften it around the edges. That will create many points in the room where the sound will come into contact with doughy, furry skin and fabric warm and electric from its inhabitants. Whether we are performing with or without a PA, the shift in the experience of the sound from the afternoon set-up to the evening performance is always dramatic. The experience of words and sounds in space is directly affected by the architecture of the space, the people in the space, the fabric in the space, the electricity buzzing through the lights and sockets and especially the attention or inattention of the audience. Everything plays into how sounds and words enter the body in the shape of frequencies, the altered air, the altered shapes of sounds. For example, the experience of saying out loud the line “Is there room in the room that you room in” by Ted Berrigan will change depending on the volume and tone of the one speaking or singing and the space—architecture (church, bedroom, hallway, basement, shack, tent, garden). And the words spoken in a particular space and to the people of that particular space begin to alter the space and the people. Notice how a room is changed after a reading or a performance. Or the way a room looks different after a fight. Or smells different after a beautifully sung song. Do rooms collect all these experiences?
I don’t always perform amplified, but when I do, the microphone and PA become part of my physical experience of performing. When I talk or sing into a microphone I perceive it as an extension of my body. I feel my voice hit the rounded metal of the microphone, sense it get sucked into its core and then I hear it propelled out into the room. Sometimes the monitor echoes my voice back. There is a crackling. I feel my voice reach through the uncurled xlr cable into the PA and back through the main speakers. I imagine the fingers of the sound person on the sound board. We are working together shaping the sound. I hear her changing the frequencies of my voice by turning the knobs. Sometimes it feels good right away to hear my voice amplified, sometimes it startles me and I move back from the microphone. Sometimes my ears start to hurt. The p’s pop, the “ssss” hisses. I move farther back. Whether it is a good amplified situation or a bad one, it becomes an experience. Sometimes pleasurable: bathing the voice in the aura of the microphone and listening to it reach the outer corners of a room even when I’m whispering. Sometimes it is painful to hear amplified words metallic and sharp echo back. I wonder, “Is that really what I sound like?” and I become self-conscious, as I do when I look into a magnifying mirror. But even though this is painful, and I hope the audience is wearing earplugs, there are the words, as if through a telephone or as if from outer space, and that sound starts to color them. My intention becomes altered, the voice estranged, and through this transformation I am often surprised to hear my voice as if through another body, as if through someone else’s ears. As much as I appreciate a nice microphone, where I hear all the details of my voice, but also a kind of soapy finish, I also appreciate a shitty microphone that sounds as if it’s from another time, or as if I were singing through a karaoke box. Working with beat-up equipment or an exhausted sound person adds a different kind of challenge to the experience of performing, and it often makes me extra attentive and, ultimately, more present.
Memorization is an important part of allowing a text into the physical body. Some songs are easy to memorize, especially songs that are tightly intertwined with the structure of the music. And when a song also has a kind of story and some rhymes, often the words just stick. These are catchy tunes. Ohrwurm, we call it in German. Earworm. Songs that loop around in your mind. But texts that were perhaps never meant to be songs, or are intentionally counter-structured, are more difficult to memorize. I have memorized Gertrude Stein texts and set them to music. Once I was involved in a dance theater piece based on Gertrude Stein’s text “Orta or one dancing.” The rehearsal time was very short and I was binge-memorizing Stein, and within a few days I started to feel hijacked by the text. Soon I heard only those lines, often scrambled, and in the middle of the night. When I tried to memorize a different song or text, there were gaps, as if suddenly this new text was re-coding everything else I had previously memorized. A kind of virus taking over. Setting the text to music gave it some order and a place and it became easier to remember it, although I still felt like I would never be able to hear or speak a sentence again without hearing Stein in it somewhere. This kind of hijacking is one of my favorite parts of memorization. Before I started to write songs, I hardly ever memorized anything. I thought I had a poor memory.
Once I started to memorize my writing and that of others, I unhinged the text from the page and let it move through me. That’s when the text starts doing its own thing. It shows up at odd moments, and sometimes it doesn’t show up when it should. One time I severely injured my right middle finger and had to re-finger the way I was playing chords, and suddenly I had trouble remembering parts of songs. I don’t think this was just because of the extra effort my mind and hand had to make to figure out how to keep my fingers going without the middle finger. It was clear that there is a kind of relationship between the finger, the chord, and the words. As if they become inseparable. As if the fingers are part of the memory process.
Memorizing a text written by someone else, especially someone from my adopted ancestry of artists and writers, is a way of connecting to a lineage. It feels like entangling the DNA of another writer with my own. Anselm Hollo always spoke of “Rilke damage” when he could sense that a student had read too much Rilke. I think of this damage as desirable, as a kind of allowing texts into one’s consciousness in a way that honors the work of others. Also, if one really knows a text, knows it “by heart,” one is less likely to plagiarize unknowingly and more likely to properly quote a text. Making covers or re-mixes of the songs of other artists is an interesting practice that also honors lineage and can bring the work of artists who are either not touring or have been forgotten back on the road. In my community of musicians, this practice of covering songs, or memorizing the work of others, is an important practice. It is also an amazing way to learn a song from the inside, to lift it from the experience of the other artist, to make it one’s own. The most successful covers are songs that have been completely re-imagined.
But back to the process of memorization. There are different stages of memorization. First there is the phase where you just sort of know a text. It is mostly there, but your mind has to work very hard to connect all the parts, and it is exciting and exhausting. Then the text sinks a little further and it is fun to play with it, to sing or speak it in different ways, to enjoy the mouth knowing its way around a syntax, the tongue being quick about word sequences it remembers. Now autopilot might set in, another kind of disassociation, where the text gets rattled off seemingly not connected to anything, where the words might as well be empty sounds connected in a chain. Sometimes this kind of inattention leads to a break in the chain of words, and suddenly you don’t even know where you are. This has happened to me performing, and it is a very strange experience, when you wake up out of an autopilot slumber and feel cold sweat on your back and your fingers tingling. These sensations wake me up, and when I’m lucky I find some kind of playful awkward way to pick up somewhere, or just enjoy the weirdness of what just happened. Boredom is another thing that can happen from performing something over and over. Boredom I find more useful for performance than autopilot, because I usually stay connected to my physical experience. And sometimes, this boredom leads to a kind of breakthrough, a new connection to the song or text. I have worked in all kinds of different band constellations, and some songs have gone through radically different arrangements. Each arrangement changes the relationship to the song.
How an arrangement changes the intention of a song and the experience of a song continues to amaze me. It is as if the words get spun by the music, giving them a new cadence and resonance. Adapting a piece of writing that was never intended to be sung often results in an interesting marriage. I am fascinated by the work of the Nature Theater of Oklahoma, a New York–based theater company directed by Pavol Liska and Kelly Copper. They have a series of pieces called “Life and Times” based on taped phone conversations with company member Kristin Worrall. During these conversations she retells her life, in its mostly uneventful entirety, from birth until now. The language is in itself not poetic. It is conversational, mundane, and repetitive, with a lot of “ums” and “likes.” But once transformed through staging and choreography, and infused with a lot of language and stylized gestures, the language starts to stick out and become extremely present, and the phrasing turns poetic and interesting.
When you want a text to move through you and out into space, it is helpful to think about anatomy. What are all the parts of your body that are producing the sound? How is your tongue working in relationship with your palate, your lips and your teeth? How is your diaphragm moving air in and out of you? Do you feel like you have enough air to get to the end of a line? Are you pushing air against your vocal cords? Do you know what your vocal cords look like when sound passes through them? Have you googled “larynx” and watched a video of it on youtube? How does your voice sound when you sit, when you lie on the floor, when you jump up and down, when you stand casually, when you stand with your hands above your head? What do you sound like when you are tired? What do you sound like first thing in the morning? When you listen to your voice amplified, can you trace the sound you hear in the room back to your larynx? What parts of your body are engaged in the listening process? If you are standing, how are you standing? If you are reading “out loud” in front of a group of people, how is fear moving through your body? Is it moving? What is the choreography of that movement? Can you dance with it? Can you still wiggle your toes and keep reciting your text? I find it particularly helpful to pay attention to my mouth and lips when articulating words, and to be extra attentive to the larynx when listening and making sounds. If my voice feels a little strained, I place my hand on my larynx and hum. If my words are getting sluggish, I bite my lips a little to wake them up. Or I suck on my tongue. Or I jump up and down for a little while. Raising my level of energy will also often raise my level of attention. Fear is helpful for this, too. Being excited or fearful right before performing gives me that extra energy that I need to pay attention.
Listening to a text being read or sung out loud with a physical intention heightens the experience of that text. I like to conduct a kind of body-snatching when I listen to voices. I imagine myself right next to the voice, the breath on my skin, I hear the way the tongue skirts around a lisp, how the person is holding their throat. Sometimes I touch my larynx to intensify this kind of listening. Or I climb into their body, take on their posture and try to sense through their body. This way I also heighten my attention to what is sung or spoken, as if experiencing it from the inside. This kind of empathetic listening has become an integral part of my practice as a listener and performer.
This sense of „out loud“ and the physical experience of text in space has also informed how I read text „quietly“ to myself. Reading too has become more physical, and when I’m alone I am often reading out loud or mumbling along. I try to continue to pay attention to my body, and when a text is particularly difficult, I pause and say in my own words what has just happened or how I understand the text. So this practice of „out loud“ also becomes a way of understanding. I remember as a child noticing people singing or talking to themselves in the street, or mumbling something as if talking to a book or a newspaper. This was in the analogue age, of course, when talking „out loud“ to your device wasn’t common practice. I remember thinking that talking or singing to oneself was a sign of craziness. I remember hoping I would never do such a thing or get caught doing such a thing. Though I remember the thoughts of my former self, I have gladly become one of the crazies mumbling and singing on walks and being curious about all things „out loud“ and amplified.