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A word in your shell-like: Nia Davies on The Listener

Posted 11 February 2013 by | Comments Off

 

The maxim ‘seeing is believing’ is enduring. We’ll believe it when we see. Meanwhile we may distrust what is only heard, smelt or felt. Hearing is essential or unavoidable in the experience of most art that isn’t music or sound-related and yet it very often ‘eclipsed’ by the visual when it comes to discourse around that art. Many recent commentators such as Casey O’Callaghan, David Toop and Adelaide Morris have attempted to refocus on the auditory and move away from ‘visuocentric thinking’.

Much of the talk around poetry in particular, especially if you attend creative writing workshops, is about ‘imagery’. A dog barks in a poem and this is described as an image.  Sonics are often regarded as a prettification or an effect in these discussions, their significance played down. ‘Don’t drown in sound’.  Another obscuring happens when we talk about a poet’s voice – most usually generalised to mean their idiosyncratic style and not necessarily the timbre of words or how their lines are voiced by a reader, listener or poet.

At the 2012 Berlin Poesiefestival I met Lithuanian poet and artist Gabriele Labanauskaite. Around her neck she wore a large ceramic pendant – shaped and sized like an ear. ‘I wear this when I need to remind myself to listen,’ she told me. The first interpretation of this might be that she is making a memo to herself to politely listen rather than just hear. But Gabriele is a poet with an interestingly broad relationship to sound, voice, performance and noise. What might her listening process be like – does it go further than simple openness to the audible?

As a short-sighted musically-fixated poet I think, maybe like Gabriele, I’m not a visuo-centric person. I feel too that the auditory dimension of poetry is central to the experience of making and consuming poems.  Garrett Stewart points out that all reading, silent or otherwise, is voiced. And so reading poetry is always an act of listening and voicing.

It’s almost blindingly obvious to call attention to the centrality of the ear’s role in art. But I do feel we still need to be reminded that listening is the first sense we experience in the womb. It is absolutely essential for orientation and communication. Even those who cannot hear will feel or perceive sound in a profound  way. It is the sense you can’t switch off – we must instinctively block much sound out of our lives otherwise we would never be able to concentrate, communicate or even sleep or rest.

Poets listen to create. They eavesdrop on conversations to make aural ‘found-text’. After they listen-in to others by day, they will then listen to themselves at night. In a hypnagogic or hypnapompic state – coming into or out of sleep – a cacophony of voices emerge. In me these are voices of distinct characters, both familiar and strange. Many of my poems begin in this echo-chamber and just as soon as I’ve turned out the bedside light. Perhaps poets eavesdrop as regularly on the internal talking melee as they often as they see visions of Xanadu.

There are other listening devices for creativity. Rhythm gleaned from music or other more obscure sources such as tapping, dripping or drilling, animal squawks, walking or running rhythms and incantations – these can all emerge in poems as metric, rhyming or syllabically ordered lines or in mnemonic devices, repetition, assonance, alliteration or mirroring. In the Welsh tradition, if your cynghanedd is good, it sings. Music has been linked (namely by Gilbert Rouget) to trance, possession and other shamanic states of transcendence. Replication of the trance state can be utilised by artists to initiate or lead composition or creation.

Are poets good listeners? Perhaps not always in ways we’d wish! Perhaps they are often listening to what believers of Electronic Voice Phenomena  hear when seeking communication with the ‘other side’ in mediated sound: something linguistically other.

In his book on listening Sinister Resonance music writer David Toop describes how he is able, lying in the garden on a spring night, to hear insects munching through leaves and burying through soil. How might poets ‘microlisten’ or pick up on these distant resonances – how do these tiny ticks, hums and interferences migrate into poems? Language-shaping is so closely linked to listening, could we even say that language perception is a sense – a sixth sense? Perhaps it is true that poets are particularly good at developing their sixth sense – the audio-linguistic.

And listening doesn’t stop with composition (well of course it never stops, if we are lucky). It is also at work in a finished poem. Whether performed live, recorded or printed on a page, a poem is, for me at least, what Peter Gizzi calls a ‘lived vocal fabric’. An intrinsically an aural event.

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Further reading / listening

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Nia Davies was born in Sheffield in 1984. She studied English at the University of Sussex where she won the first Stanmer Prize for poetry. She writes poetry and fiction and works for Literature Across Frontiers. Her poems have been published in several magazines and anthologies including the Salt Book of Younger Poets. Her pamphlet Then Spree came out from Salt Publishing in 2012. She lives in London.



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