by John Melillo
Tracie Morris is a poet, performer, singer, sound artist, and professor who lives in New York City, but something is lost in that simple enumeration. It’s not just that she occupies all these roles: she embodies the movement across, between, and around them.
In her work, speech—in all its sonic, semantic, and narrative complexity—holds together this moving-between. She reveals how speech is an act of community: a way of enacting our conventions and our abstractions. But this convening of sound and sense also embeds divisions and contradictions: our language also contains long histories of hate, violence, and dissembling. In a poem-performances like “It All Started” she takes a phrase—“It all started when we were brought here as slaves from Africa”—and cuts, twists, stops, stammers, repeats, reshapes, and reconstructs the language so that we hear new possibilities of expression and experience within what seemed, initially, to be a simple statement. Morris’s work asks us to unsettle the layers of history embedded in the sound of speech. It uncovers and resituates the movements of power that violently enforce limits of race, class, nation, and hierarchy of all kinds. It reminds us: no statement is simple. Sound leads the way into—and out of—that complexity.
Morris’s latest book, handholding: 5 kinds, published by Kore Press, combines text and sound in a work that has the author reacting to and interacting with five of her major experimental predecessors—Stanley Kubrick, Akomfrah, Gertrude Stein, Kurt Schwitters, and John Cage. The poems trace not only a history of one poet’s affiliations but also a broader history of performance and experimentation with language, sight, and sound. As in all her work, Morris rewrites and remakes a tradition in her poetry: she calls on us to listen anew, to hear new sounds, new bodies, new worlds in this everyday thing we call speech.
I had the chance to ask Morris a few questions in advance of her trip to Tucson for a series of live events—including a “talk-back” performance for which she will give a responsive, “not neo-benshi reading” of the Stanley Kubrick film “Eyes Wide Shut.”
John Melillo: First off, in handholding: 5 kinds you loop listening, watching, reading and responding. What is your relationship to the works (and the hands that made them) that you chose?
Tracie Morris: Each one of these “holdings” has been very intimate, personal, special. Very different from each other. They kind of showed up after being “introduced” by various people. It’d be more accurate to say that they chose *me*!
My introduction with Kubrick was as a kid: first “2001: A Space Odyssey,” and then “Clockwork Orange.” He blew my mind! Many years later I saw “Eyes Wide Shut,” and he blew my mind, differently again! The piece I wrote for that film was my attempt to figure out why/how I was transformed and what Kubrick says underneath what he says. How he embeds layers of meaning. Its a great film. His sophistication makes you come back to them again and again.
I’d met John Akomfrah at an event at NYC that Africana Studies held years ago. I’m an admirer of his work. I was asked to perform in London during Black History Month, on the anniversary of his assassination. I decided to converse with his work partly because I was thinking of Malcolm X far from home, far from Harlem, and because I recognized so much of myself and my culture in his framing of the film. This project was built on love, Black love and admiration. I like to think of Malcolm’s legacy that way. If there’s another printing of this book, I’m changing the title of this piece. It kinda “showed up” later so you’ll have to see what it’ll be if Kore prints more of them! Hint: It has to do with power.
The Cage piece was based on a conversation with theorist Jean-Michel Rabate in Kentucky. It was quiet there and I was on my way to a silent meditation retreat. Cage just showed up! I’m a big fan of his.
The Schwitters piece showed up during a workshop I was conducting at Millay Colony. It was fun and I started preparing to introduce the students to Ursonate. The germination of the Stein piece also started there and then came to full flower when I was asked to write a comment on he 100th anniversary of “Tender Buttons.” All different routes to the book. Originally I thought it would just be a chapbook for “Eyes Wide Shut,” but you can’t call something “handholding” and not end up with five. I didn’t realize that when I started writing it but my muse has her own agenda…
JM: How does poetry frame the way that you listen? Or another way of saying it: why poetry as a form of listening? (Or do you privilege poetry at all in relation to performances?)
TM: I do privilege poetry over other performances. I *interpret* other performances as poetry. I can’t help it. I learned the hard way: trying to communicate my thoughts to collaborators or just other folks when we see a piece of art, share a cultural experience, I tend to think in poetic terms, I experience things that way. It’s my basic cognition. And usually the interpretation is very language-based, the mechanics of language, mainly sound but also organization of letters. When I hang out with dancers and others I learned that they don’t experience the same event in the same way. This predisposition helped me to understand that I was in fact, a “word” person overall, a poet in particular.
JM: Your sound poetry and performance technique is fascinating: what are some of your first memories in and around the sounds of language? How did they affect how you think about sound in language now, as a performer and poet?
TM: It all started… well, that’s a long story. It started with word-play, then image. Dr. Seuss, Mother Goose. I liked the way the words worked together (like most kids). Then Poe, Ezra Jack Keats, Sesame Street, lots of word play there. Speculative Fiction also really opened my head up. I’d put the revolutionary, far-reaching music of the 1970s in that genre too. Stevie, Marvin, Labelle, later Prince. Also people that I considered outside of my culture who were great storytellers in popular culture like Jim Croce, Janis Ian. When we were tiny, my brother had a little record player that only had AM radio so we heard a bunch of that — goodness, I haven’t thought of that in decades — so between that radio that we used to sneak a listen to after we were supposed to be asleep. This music was the flip-side of Frankie Crocker’s panoply of Black music and his own performative utterances during the day that was required listening in all Black households in New York; we got full imaginations. As we got older, more speculative fiction writers deeply influenced us as well as political thinkers throughout our lives. This “stew of sounds” and interpretations affected me and I think many of the first-generation Hip Hop appreciators. Jazz was opening up in new ways. All this was part of the wheelhouse. It’s no surprise that such radically different sounds, including uttered sounds, have been used by DJs in Hip Hop from the inception of the genre’s inception. It was my exposure to Hip Hop that lead me to sound poetry. Last year I realized that I also performed at the Vision Festival the same year I presented my first sound poems. I’m sure that’s not a coincidence.
JM: In your recent essay in Jacket2 on the sounds of Black grief in the wake of Prince’s death last year, you talked about how, despite a Puritanical strain in American expressions of grief, “there is, though, the construction of saying through swaying as musical speech acts.” What relates “musical speech” to grief, and, more generally, to our emotional lives and self-consciousness? Does handholding: 5 kinds think of its musical speech acts (another word for poetry?) as a way of building a life, a self, a body out of feeling?
TM: Hm. This is an interesting question. I’m still finding it difficult to wrap my head around Prince’s death. He was beloved…he was, and continues to be a *force*, now a force beyond nature. I was a founding member of the Black Rock Coalition in the mid-late 80s, and Prince was a bellwether. He still is. Poetry isn’t always musical but it always a speech act, or a series of speech acts. Handholding is an attempt and an embodied conversation over time, distance, death (all of the masters that I’m responding to have passed away with the exception of Akomfrah who is referencing someone who passed away). It’s an embodied “out of body” conversation. A sense or kind of séance — but I think it’s one that most artists practice. We are all inspired and continue to speak to those upon whose shoulders we stand. These are all corporal experiences, even through the life of the mind.
When I was little I was very sick. I was bedridden at points. So in some ways my experience to language and feeling has always been abstract and very physical. The consciousness of who the self “is” in the body and outside of the body, beyond and sometimes, in spite of the body, can motivate us to speak with others irrespective of their corporeality. In a way this collection is an homage to their work, but it’s also just a chance to *hang out with them!* I mean, who wouldn’t want to hang out with these five folks?
JM: What is “handholding”? What does it look and sound like? Is it a gesture of love and protection, a gesture of aid in the midst of danger, a kind of ironic even somewhat frustrated gesture (“how much handholding do you need?”), or?
TM: It takes different shapes but I want to encourage the visualization, care and intimacy that this gesture references. It’s definitely not “ironic.” (Maybe that’ll change depending upon whose hand it is, but for now, I’m only thinking of it as caring. I care about these works, these creatives. I want to delve into their meanings.) I’m continuing to evolve the concept and I have a few ideas on how to do this in future books.
John Melillo is an assistant professor. He received his Ph.D. in English and American Literature from New York University in 2010. John was an ACLS New Faculty Fellow at the University of Arizona from the fall of 2011 to the spring of 2013. His book project, Outside In: Noisescapes from Dada to Punk examines the influence of noise on poetry and poetics during the twentieth century. He has written and presented work on empathy in sound poetry, the World War I poets of the Western Front, folk-song utopianism, the post-punk band DNA, and other matters of sound and sense. In addition to his academic research in noise, John plays guitar and sings in the band Algae & Tentacles.
Contributed by John Melillo