Combining Text and Sound with Laura Wetherington

Laura discusses the experimental art of text and sound from her online journal, Textsound.

JS: When and how did you begin to write poetry?

LW: In the fifth grade for a project, the class made a little book with poems in it. That was probably the first poem that I wrote. As for feeling like a poet and a person in the world, that’s an ongoing process. I went to school as an undergraduate and studied English in a place that didn’t have creative writing as a major, and then decided that maybe I could call myself a poet. I applied to graduate school thinking “maybe I could do this,” and then I graduated from poetry school thinking “maybe I could do this,” and then I published a book and I’m still thinking… “maybe I could do this.”

SM: Tell us a little bit about your online journal and what kind of things you guys publish.

LW: Textsound started in 2007. There were four of us: Anna Vitale, Anya Cobler, Adam Fagin, and myself. We knew we wanted to make something with sound, and we knew we wanted to make something that built community. We wanted to make something that would reach out and connect people through the internet because we thought, “What better way to use the internet than to connect poets and artists, right?” We met for six months and thought about what would be the format of the magazine, what we would call it, what color would the website be, etc. Somebody built the actual website for us and we launched in 2008. We publish some poetry that is read aloud without any background, but mostly we publish things that are edited, or sound based. It’s not just me reading a poem or a guy with a guitar, but someone reading a poem and a weird guitar in the background. We like disjunctive sounds. We like to be surprised. We like conceptual kinds of works — things that you don’t really understand until you go to the contributor’s page in the website and read the artist’s notes where they describe what it’s about. There’s this guy that has a piece called Swarm of Sun Valley where he overlaid a song that sold a million copies over and over and over again like a million times, and the sound is like a very loud buzz. That’s all the thing is, but when you read the background on the contributors page — what he’s doing, what he’s thinking about — it makes the sound a completely different thing. So we like that kind of stuff- things that make you think.

SM: Where do you draw the line between poetry and noise or music, sound poetry, etc.

LW: I don’t draw the line. That’s what I like about the magazine. I feel like it crosses. It’s at an intersection– like a twelve way intersection. A lot of people send us work and they don’t necessarily send us a bio, so we’re listening to something and we’re not sure, “Is this an artist who has sent us this piece of art, is it a poet who sent us their poem, or a musician who sent us his music?” Because you tune your ear a little bit different depending on what the thing is, what its being called, and where its coming from — the field out of which it arises. We listen to a lot of things cold and have to take it at its auditory value. So I’m not thinking about categorizing things. I’m trying to break out of that mode.

JS: Do you have a selection process and what would that be?

LW: The selection process has evolved over time because we started out with four editors, and when there were four of us we would listen separately and then come together and have a discussion. It took a while for us to figure out how to say yes to a piece because we’re not always gonna agree, and we had to have a way that somebody could say “It’s life or death that this goes in,” or “life or death that this stays out.” We had to have some kind of extreme “yes” and “no,” and then there was a kind of “maybe” thing going on in the middle. And there were moments where we would all kind of say “Well, I’m fine with it,” and then we realized “Well that’s not good enough,” so we had to have at least some extreme in one direction or the other. Sometimes it would be that extreme where one person would be like “Life or death, yeah!” and the other person would be like “Life or death, no!” and we would have these amazing discussions. I feel like it really shaped my understanding of poetry — listening to these things that were maybe art or music and having someone say life and death things about the piece. It was a really challenging process. We moved from four people into three, and then from three into two, and when there were less people in a discussion it got a little bit easier because then its just one “life and death.” It became more a matter of me or my co-editor saying “I believe in this so much,” and then the other person would say, “Well then of course we’re gonna put it in, and now let’s have a conversation about why, what’s going on and what we think is happening.” It became less of a struggle and more of a fun conversation, and now for the last couple of months my-co editor has moved on, so I’m in a transitional phase where I’m moving into editing the thing completely by myself, which I’ve never done before. I took it over for a year and put out the issues, but I still had in mind that the other people were gonna come back, and the aesthetic needed to stay in that realm of that thing that we had made. Now I’m thinking about how I can make it mine, because now it can be mine, which also is scary because I liked the idea that there would be things in the journal that I didn’t love — that I thought were important, but I didn’t love — and now I think if everything in there is gonna be the what I love, is that gonna be boring?

JS: So you’ve had it by yourself now, and the site says that you’re expanding in visual art and moving pictures. So what kind of submissions in those disciplines are you looking for?

LW: About a year or two we started to think that what we were gonna edit the webpage so that it would have the archive of the old Textsound and maybe would turn into Text-Image-Sound in another portal. We would be expanding it, and I was very excited about visual poetry and for art working with sound. I spent a while putting together a proposal for that new portal and tried to get a little bit of funding and I think I just don’t have, as a single person, enough time to pursue that and publish the magazine at the same time. I just haven’t gone and updated the fact that we’re not doing that anymore.

SM: What do you think are the parallels between poetry that uses words and poetry that just uses sound?

LW: I think that poems happen on a continuum with absolute meaning being one end of the continuum, and absolute dissolution of meaning being the other end of the continuum. Those sound poems that are only sound, that are phonemes, that are phonetic like — A BIT DOE BADALOW BOWBA — that kind of thing is at the absolute dissolution of meaning. Very often, playing with words at the level of phonemes reflects what poetry is about and what poetry is for. When you’re talking about layers of a poem you’re thinking about playing at the level of language and making multiple meanings. You have a metaphor and it stands for this thing, but it also stands for this other thing, and theres a kind of cloud that happens around those two things it’s standing for — like a kind of ambiguity that’s happening at the level of metaphor. I think that the sound poem is one extreme of that one part of the poem that’s making a metaphor so I think thats how they… talk to each other.

JS: So going along with the idea of text sound do you think there is an element of poetry that’s lost when its simply printed and not read out loud?

LW: Its hard to say that about all poetry. I think that there are some poems that are better aloud. I think about June Jordan, and how I’m just weeping when I hear recordings of her poetry. She does this thing to my heart and my soul. It’s like an arrow; it goes right into you. When I read her stuff on the page it’s not always as provocative, or it doesn’t always elicit the same level of emotion from me. In that respect I would say there are some people who, when they present the poem, you can tell that there is something living inside of them. When they give it to you in person you’re like “WHAT?!” but when you see it on the page you think, “Oh yeah… Yeah, thats good”. I feel like its difficult to think about how to place things on the page in a way that will transfer what you’re hearing in your mind as the writer to the reader’s mind. If you write a poem and you have it in your mind and you know what it’s supposed to sound like, you wrote it so you know what its supposed to look like. You hand it over to me, you ask me to read it, and I might read it aloud and you think, “Well that’s not how it’s supposed to sound.” When you hear a thing in your mind, how do you make the line breaks in a way that transfers all of the sound over to the other person? I think in that way the page and the sound are at odds with each other. In a way I think you’re asking about translation. How does sound translate to the page or how does the page translate to sound, and of course any time you’re translating, things are gonna be lost. You can’t move the word for “cat” into another language without some part, either culturally or soundwise, being lost. Absolutely, there’s something lost.

SM: I was reading the masthead in the journal and I read a quote from you that said that you find comfort in discomfort. What is it in discomfort that comforts you and how do you think that communicates effectively?

LW: I’ll tell a story about a friend of mine who was disabled. She had a disability and physically lived in a wheelchair. She really liked watching slasher movies. When I asked her, “Why? They’re so traumatic?!” she said “Well there’s something comforting about it, because my life has been so hard.” She had a hard upbringing and lots of people making fun of her and being rude to her and staring at her when she’s going around in the world. She said, “I feel, in the face of all of that stuff… somehow normal.” I think that there’s something about that in Textsound. Like the parts in Textsound that seem really discordant or jagged parts of sound- there’s something about my initial response to that which is to feel like an elevation in my nervous system– to feel a little anxious or weirded out. There’s something about that feeling that reflects how fucked up the world is, and all the things that make me feel mad, or a little bit crazy, or that- I just don’t have answers to all the things that are messed up in the world, and that’s the feeling that I have. There’s something about art which makes me feel those most important elevations. That is somehow comforting and I don’t know how that gets communicated… Was that your second part? What do you mean?

SM: There’s a conception that art is, at its very core, communication, and I’m just wondering if you agree with that. Do you think that discomfort communicates as an art?

LW: You have to turn to something artistic in order to try and communicate feeling because you can’t say the word “sad” and feel the sad. But I can show you a painting or write a story and you can somehow suddenly feel like you’re a part of the sadness. I think discomfort is an emotion like any other, and transmits itself through art in that way by somehow putting the reader or the listener into the subject position so that you feel like you’re the one inside it.

SM: How do the things that you publish connect to your own writing and your own experience of poetry and art?

LW: I think those conversations that we had as an editorial board, those really heated discussions about what makes something the best. We were talking earlier about “what does the best mean?” Those kinds of discussions really helped me hone and articulate my ideas about what I value in experimental work. I think that because I don’t really work in sound and I only curate it, it makes me think about how I transmit sound in a page in a way that I wasn’t really thinking about before working with that magazine. In poetry a lot of times you’re thinking about meter, and you’re thinking about iambs and trochees, and now I’m thinking more about discordant musicality rather than really fluent music.

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Sabrina Melendez is a poetry/song/fiction writer who also sings, plays piano, and makes things out of clay. She dislikes carpet and firmly believes in the sanctity of loose leaf tea.