Sound, Music, Musing
by Tracie Morris, for an AWP 2018 panel on sound and the body
It’s a great pleasure to be back at AWP and to attend the conference every year. It’s lovely to speak with friends and get advice about how to manage this big literary world. We’ve remarked on how to negotiate the grind of academia in general but also how to deal with the specific realities of being who one is in particular in academia, as a poet, as a person.
When I was asked by Samuel Ace to join this panel I thought I’d present my usual musings about working with music for most of my career as a poet (spanning more than 25 years). What emerged for this paper was something else connected to my intention, which is how my Muse generally operates.
What I want to talk about is the notion of inhabiting. How one takes in, is taken up, is swept. The reflections below are considerations about the body and how the body affects what happens when one utters, when one says something or does something with words, language, sounds in collaboration with another.
My new creative non-fiction book Who Do With Words through Chax Press is debuting here at AWP. It is a consideration of all these things in creative non-fiction, my first time in this genre, but it also reminded me of how much of the body is in engaged with “wiring.” In my intro to the book I said to write it was gut-wrenching, as I wrenched my own guts and this is as good a place to start this talk, finally, as any.
The churning of the interior is not how I intended to start but that is where it starts. This rumble that I used to think was dissatisfaction — an itch to scratch — but I’m not so sure I know that’s “true.” The body knows, but I’m not sure *I* know. One could say that the root chakra is activated but I don’t know enough about yogic practices to say if that’s for sure. Maybe a bit further up. Is it the sacral chakra? Well I looked it up on the internet so it must be right, constative (lol). I don’t know if I’m saying the same thing someone else has said about the body and where some things begin in it. I just know that I have ideas sometimes and the body has its own ideas. They’re not the same. Thank goodness. If they were, I’d be much worse off. To rely only or primarily on the thought, is to miss the plot, to miss most of the point, to miss everything else.
I’ve written about sound, silence, the body and sound poetry in many other discrete essays and occasionally at AWP. Maybe at some point I’ll review those earlier comments but not now. What I want to investigate today is a few of these categories together taking them one at a time.
I’m going to borrow from comedians, believe it or not. They have an adage to “punch up not down” or something to that effect. It means that to be funny, really funny, one jokes at the expense of those who are more powerful than you rather than those who are less powerful than you. This has to do with people’s natural empathy away from bullies and toward those who need us. That adage came to mind when I was writing this as I thought about how one could apply this notion to the body. Do we muse, do we consider, our creative writing at the expense of the body? Do we dismay the body, dislike it? Do we run away from it into our minds, the “legit” player? I think about how we can instead collaborate with the body not simply as a vehicle for our thoughts and feelings (as raw material) but based on its own intelligence, it’s own knowledge, as a full collaborator.
For the most part, this paper will talk about specific aspects of embodiment, poetics, music, sound but I am teasing this idea of collaboration at the outset. I’ll come back to it in a bit.
In the movie “My Favorite Year” with the luminous late actor Peter O’Toole he quoted another adage that says: “Dying is easy, comedy is hard.” Again with the jokes. Do we treat the body as a joke? How does one relate to the funny bone?
This ephemeral body part is interior, the funny bone. I know I’m supposed to be talking about poetry but my Muse is a jokester and she wants you all to know it as she whispers in my ear. Dying is something we all will master at some point but can we effectively tickle that funny bone? Can it tickle others? The interiority of this body/not body part is no different than anything else we are reaching for *inside.* The thing that makes comedy or any type of writing and embodied practice hard is the *timing* and the relationship between the body and timing includes silence.
I went to a silent meditation retreat a couple years ago — I know, me? — believe it or not. After one gets used to being silent, it is hard to go back to talking. The body is so freed up, one perceives of the larynx as a stopper not as an opening. Sitting in silence affected my work tremendously. The luxury of silence, the voice at rest, the mind at ease frees the rest of the body that defers to the voice. The only thing that got me back to speaking after I left the meditation retreat was working with musicians. More on that later. I’ll say quickly now that Music brought me back to myself.
Silence brought me into myself. Acknowledging silence helps me write, utter, sing. Without the silent retreat, I realize my first engagement with silence is through…procrastination. If one makes time for it, it’s not a bug but a feature. I’m sure you all know this: I start writing, I get on the internet, I start writing, I wash the dishes. I start writing, I phone a friend. I start writing, I finally do my laundry. I start writing and I start *writing*. Once I realized that the writing starts when I’m not writing, I made time to not write, to write. This is writing in silence but not in quiet. I am letting the writing write itself in the background while I get my ego out of the way. This is also, to me, a dream state.
The body often frames silence. It hums along without articulation through words but it vibrates. Identifying how the body indicates and does things without words (to mess with JL Austin whom I enjoy messing with) is true but it is also a performance to know, to identify with. The body is working, thinking and making without me. I’m not a movement person but I am a body person and silence allows my Muse and body to collaborate without the ego, without what I consider “me.”
The body is not only an animate “subject” it is animate beingness. It has its own knowledge and opinions. It has its own sarcasm and knows how to bring attention to itself, to prioritize itself. It knows how to scream. This we all know but it also has all these things like opinions, stillness, articulation, without sound. It has it in silence. When it’s not silent, I have found that its because I have not been paying enough attention to it when it was saying something in silence. So then it gets loud and I finally hear it.
Therefore, I’ve been cultivating the relationship to silence and time. To timing. Again with the comedy. “You’ll laugh so much your sides will ache.” Was the guarantee of the old cartoon Felix the cat, identifying the funny bone speaking with the feline, wordlessly? The purr, the body humming along, or the scream of ache are all utterances of the body. In sound poetry it is the reverb of the insides I seek to reach across to people. The sentience of the body connecting to others through invisible sonic waves. This independent being part of our beingness is our twin — our “better”? — half.
In hip hop “getting open” in a cypher indicates that the body is becoming a vehicle. One does not “get open” just with the mind. Being open with the mind is being smart, quick-witted, thoughtful. Getting open fully is to approach the open expanse of the dimensionality, beyond 3, that we all share, a place of exaltation. It knows stuff we don’t and so we are along side it, accepting its parallel commentary and what it offers us to know and to share, to *be* with others.
To come back to the voice, in time. It’s been on the silent sidelines in terms of me referencing it but truth be told, I use the voice a lot. I’m a voice coach, voice consultant, for singers and speakers (as well as an actor, singer, one who professes). I started on this vocal-specific track to discover more things about the voice and to protect it. I then realized I wanted to help others with their voices in a more refined way. This taught me much about how sound is produced through the muscles and bones of the body. We speak mechanically but what we say is based on the soul/spirit/noncorporeal self.
I read Grace Jones’ autobiography called, of course, “I’ll Never Write My Memoirs”, and she mentions being on the phone with Marlene Dietrich and once meeting Lauren Bacall who kissed Grace. She said they both remarked on how Grace’s voice was like their’s. A deep voice. Women with deep voices are part of a special club. I’m not in Grace Jones’ orbit in any way but I have enjoyed how my voice has deepened over the years. One thing I learned from being a voice coach is that the deepening of the voice cannot be achieved through technique. Technique can help someone to access the parts of the voice they didn’t know they already had but it cannot access heretofore non-existent lower layers. One can, with technique, reach the stratosphere and raise the pitch of the voice to unimaginable heights but deepening is something else.
Long ago, women sometimes used to smoke to get a deeper, smokey voice, or noted that it happened naturally. Because as one becomes older, a woman’s voice can naturally deepen without endangering her health, I carry this relief and joy of becoming more of an adult. My body, my voice say: You are ready to get *deeper.*
Doesn’t matter if it’s singing, poetry, professing or lecturing, utterances in all contexts are internal collaborations between the body, spirit and mind. It’s why my new book is the first of 3 in which I think through Austin’s idea of the utterance. I utter, think and feel about utterances through different lenses and aspects of the self. This first one is the “heart” book, the feeling book, the body-based book. The other two are coming. They aren’t separate but they are discrete and need their own forums.
The making speech act theory manifest through the body is beyond what Austin could, and would, talk about but it is the embodiment of his daily utterances, his speaking to his students who put together his book, How To Do Things With Words.
Embodiment is something that I had to negotiate in thinking about him and his work. In teaching poetry, theory and voice, often at the same time, I am stirring the pot, I’m conflating all these practices, somatic and intellectual. They are all doing things with utterances, sound and conceptualism. They are all experimenting. I take from Austin his prioritization of the utterance as the performance of forces and apply those to song, poetics and theater (3 applications he does not use). The page is yet another venue for this articulation. They are all of a kind and they work together.
I mainly want to talk about collaboration. As I conclude, I get to the point. It’s never the cartesian straight line of thought with me. In collaboration there is a certain part that one prepares for, that one gets ready to do to… improvise. Improvisation is “getting open” based on technique and connection with all parts of the self, connecting with other selves. In the collaboration there is silence. The waiting to *receive* from others. I distinguish between improvisation and spontaneity in my mind because one can prepare to improvise but one does not have to prepare, necessarily, to be spontaneous. In other words, spontaneity is of that particular moment, as a discrete entity where as one has to build up musculature to be able to improvise. One must prepare to. One must build the body up and care about what it has to inform. I used to improvise “off the top of my head” but now I’m learning how to lean into it, to let the body improvise from its whole self. Then when the spontaneity comes in, it’s a new, fun thing, but it’s not the only thing.
My true collaboration, is not just based on music, needless to say, it’s all art and all artists and all people, beings, the planet that I find resonate with where I’m at, where I’m feeling, thinking “in touch with,” including people, places ideas, art I don’t always agree with. One of the tough things about the silo-ing of social media, and why I got off of it, is because it only connects us to those we generally agree with and allows us to self-congratulatorily cut off everyone else. It limits cross-pollination by design. It often does so by happenstance and this means it de facto “others” everyone else. I learn more about connections by being present here with you than virtually in the 4th dimension.
The expression “you had to be there.” Is true. You have to *be* here. I’m not offering a luddite huddle around the campfire solution, I’m just saying that it’s more important to be with people physically if you can than to theoretically be with people. There is something else that happens with embodied practice, beingness.
I work with musicians a lot and have almost since the very first time I read poetry in public. I read poetry in public for the first time in a music venue, going before and after musicians. It’s always been in my artistic DNA. The utterances are related, relatable to me. I grew up this way because often Black affirmation and “knowledge of self” as they say in Hip Hop was not coming through my formal education in underfunded Black environments or racially-aggressive White environments. It was through activist music that I heard utterances that affirmed me, myself and I through embodied wholistic aesthetics.
Lately I have been working with very percussive collaborators: pianist Vijay Iyer, drummer Susie Ibarra and DJ Hprizm/High Priest. They are lyrical players and so I hear their work, I experience it, as voicing, as poetry. Less and less have we rehearsed. We do a little to “remind” ourselves of our voices but more and more it is the culmination of decades of work that allow us to “let go” and discover. To *try.* We leave our egos at the door and let our muses converse. Before that is all the work we regularly do to keep our instruments up, to keep our minds and brains up, to work on the work. When we get together though, we get out of the way. Then something else that is beyond us happens. This happens inside too. In fact it happens inside *first.* One has to get into the body and collaborate with oneself in silence and in sound before being ready to step to the side so other parts of knowing can work with other parts.
Similarly, my collaboration with the late Kurt Schwitters’ work is working with his embodied practice and that of his son Ernst without him being physically present. I “feel” you. As the MCs used to say. It’s what I say to Schwitters during Ursonate when I improvise. A recording of one version of that is connected to my 2016 book handholding: 5 kinds from Kore Press (2016). That book is a collaboration with 5 innovative artists including Schwitters, Gertrude Stein and John Akomfrah. All of the performers (except Akomfrah) are no longer alive but they are present. We are together at that spontaneous moment.
Their work, and they, are real and are embodied through/with me.
I hope these comments are helping in offering a perspective on how these seemingly disparate aspects can work together or at least how they are working together for me right now. I’d like to conclude with two pieces. One is an installation piece that I did for the Jamaica Center for Arts and Learning years ago. It’s satirical. It uses silence to mark the affect of dilettantes of various art scenes (and I can’t say I haven’t had my own moments of “striking the pose” so this is making fun of myself too).
The second piece is a layered sound piece that I did in collaboration with percussionist/mystic Val Jeanty many years ago. Thank you for your attention.