Marc Degens: ERIWAN

März 2002
Enno Stahl

Jaap Blonk:
First Meetings
Buzz Records 2002

Jaap Blonk: First Meetings


E-Mail-Discourse on Sound Poetry today editor Enno Stahl and sound poet Jaap Blonk (Arnhem)

Jaap Blonk: Sound-Poet

Enno Stahl:
Many people are saying sound poetry is a discipline of the beginning of the 20th century, today it has no use anymore, nobody can be better or go further than people like Haussmann did (or if they know a bit more: Carlfriedrich Claus). What do you think?

Jaap Blonk:
I find this an utterly stupid stance. Who can be better than Bach?!? So there shouldn't be new music any more …? In sound poetry, the level of voice performance of Raoul Hausmann (of course), but also of Claus and other sound poets of the second half of the 20th century leaves plenty of room to go beyond it.
Speaking of the composition aspect, there have been many good and original works, but even more bad ones. In my opinion this is due to the lack of quality standards in the young discipline of sound poetry (like the ones that exist in music and other more developed arts). Sound poetry still suffers from a surplus of artists with an attitude of 'anything goes' (in a lesser degree, this also goes for performance art). So I would say, as for composition in sound poetry in whatever form (writing on paper or with electronic means, or including improvisation) there's still plenty of room for good and original work. I maintain sound poetry is under-developed, rather than at the end of its development!

Enno Stahl:
What can be an innovative approach to sound poetry? Is it a movement towards experimental music or performance or has it the strength to establish as an own discipline?

Jaap Blonk:
I don't think new work can be innovative by the approach or concept only. It needs the strength and originality only a good artist can provide a work with. Too often (no doubt partly due to the lack of financial resources) in the sound poetry scene composers/poets or even academics perform their own work, where they would do better, and also do their work more justice, if they found good performers to present it.
There are of course no rigid borders between sound poetry and either music, performance or poetry. For me personally the most important feature of the sound poetry field is that both poetic and musical creative principles can be used in one work or body of work. This has given me a great sense of freedom from the moment I started writing my own voice pieces. In this synthesis I think lies the true opportunity for originality of sound poetry.
Still, I don't know if it is good for sound poetry to strive for establishment as a discipline of its own. It might be better off if it were welcomed into both the literature and the music world as an evident and respected family member …

Enno Stahl:
You are talking about composition aspects and quality standards. Isn't it difficult to establish those standards if sound poetry operates between the disciplines and stays a "hermaphrodite". Composition of what kind? I understand quite well a relationship towards contemporary music, which operates with similar structures.
But organisation of a poem seems different to me. The composition aspects as well as the semantic aims of contemporary poetry are pretty far from what sound poetry does and can do. Some of their means (like intertextuality, citation, form vs fragmentation or "classical" poetico-musical effects: assonance/dissonance, alliteration, rhime) could be used in sound poetry, but in my opinion they are not realized then in such a wide range as in 'conventional' poetry (with words) or at least they have another meaning.
Couldn't it be that the real strength of contemporary sound poetry lies in its "organismic poetics" (how somebody said about Haussmann's work), that it's made with the mouth/body and that it exists only in certain moment, that it might evoke atavistic reminiscences in the recipients? What do you think? What's your specific way of using poetic or musical principles in your work, how do you involve them and how do separate the poetic from the musical part?

Jaap Blonk:
To begin with the last question: I do not separate the poetic from the musical part. That for me is the richness of working in this field: to be able to use musical and poetic principles in the same piece. To use musical principles for the organisation of poetic material, and vice versa.
It may have to do with the fact that I was both a musician and a poet (in Dutch) before I even was aware that such a thing as sound poetry existed.

Some examples from my own work, off the top of my head:
on the CD "Flux de Bouche" I use Hugo Ball‘s "Seepferdchen und Flugfische" as a springboard for an improvised solo, just as jazz musicians do with a theme;
in "I Promise" (on the double CD "Consensus") one part of the dialogue is played by the instruments and, for me, works as sound poetry against the English text I speak;
in the 5-movement suite "Geen Krimp" on "Vocalor" the refrain was actually inspired by the music of an Amsterdam hiphop group, the "Osdorp Posse", who rap in Dutch; nevertheless the piece is very much sound poetry, I think;
in the piece "Achgottoch", a duo for Michael Lentz and myself, I used expressions that are close to bad words (swearing) in Dutch and organised them rhythmically in a musical way, only to find out later that it contained a lot of the classical verse meters;
in the pieces "Schele Schoft" and "Muzikaret", both found on the BRAAXTAAL CD "Speechlos", I used mathematical principles (variations on the Fibonacci series) to organise the text;
in the piece "Hakjetoe" on the CD "Averschuw" I took some clean and unprocessed samples of my voice, looped them in a 23/8 meter and improvised with this set-up, which produced a piece that skews at minimal techno;
for the recent CD "Dworr Buun" by BRAAXTAAL I wrote a set of poems in an artificial language, so they could be considered sound poetry in the purest form, but on this record they almost work as ordinary pop lyrics.

I could go on and on and on …for me the question whether something is sound poetry or not is much less relevant than the great creative possibilities in being both a poet and a musician.

I‘d like to interpolate some questions from my side:

  • is "Finnegans Wake" sound poetry?
  • is "Empty Words" sound poetry?
  • is Steve Reich‘s "Come Out To Show Them" sound poetry?
  • is "Mouth Pieces" by Paul Dutton sound poetry?
  • is "Stripsody" by Cathy Berberian sound poetry?
  • is Perec‘s "La disparition" sound poetry?
  • is Schwitters‘ "Wut des Niesens" sound poetry?
About the first point you mentioned: when I wrote about "quality standards" I clearly meant the quality of performance, not the quality of composition, which is probably even harder to judge.
As for the judgment of the quality of performance: I agree there is some subjectivity here, but on the other hand I find I have the right to be of the opinion that in the field of sound poetry there are quite a number of performers (of their own work) who are only allowed on stage because there‘s no strong competition as in music, and because they would deserve sympathy as practitioners of the almost extinct art of sound poetry. I repeat here that a lot of their work is well written and would benefit by a performance by good performers. The whole field of sound poetry would benefit if those sound poets whose stage performance is below a certain level (if they look at themselves honestly, they will know), would engage good performers to present their work, instead of doing it themselves.

Regarding the "atavistic" angle, I think you are right: like I wrote in the liner notes to "Flux de Bouche", sound poetry can be very direct communication, maybe the most direct there is in all art.

So far for now. Maybe you could re-think the questions you raised in the second paragraph ("But organisation of a poem …") in the light of the works I mentioned in my interpolated questions?

Enno Stahl:
I understand your point, especially that for you "the question whether something is sound poetry or not is much less relevant than the great creative possibilities in being both a poet and a musician." If I look at your examples, I think it is a question of perspective, of self definition: for the one view, the artist‘s practise, it is certainly not so important to define or seperate the disciplines very strictly. In fact the opposite is true, for the acting artist it might be better just doing it, just handling these means with complete freedom. Theorizing to much could then happen to be a blockade.
But from a more "scholary" point of view it is not satisfying to judge the disciplines as just being hopelessly interwoven. Sure, "Finnegan‘s wake" or "La disparition" works with onomatopoetic effects, but is this the most important part of these works, or only one aspect? So, this quality maybe plays a role in the organization of the whole work, but not the essential one. In my opinion, the organization of modern poetry follows spiritual insights, it is a result of logos, not of a-rationality. I am sure, that one could find sound poetry which is built on similar structures. But perhaps there is this simple difference: sound poetry transcends sense and goes over into the area of a-rationality, conventional modern poetry still wants to say something, it maybe comes from a-rationality, goes through the part of logos, and then remains in the area of logos, it is still a communication with words, sometimes dark words, but words, that could be interpreted. The aim (and the strength) of sound poetry is beyond logos, ZA-UM. Others of your examples, as far as I know them, would rather belong more to sound poetry, in my opinion.

But it‘s not my point, that I want to specify rigorously.
I just see a situation in modern arts (and not only in the arts), that it becomes more and more important to categorize - for the critics, which are getting more and more multiplicators. That means, that they have the quality of "trail blazers" who lead the recipients through the underwood of modern art, who also can push one artist or trace of artists because they fit into the critic‘s scheme.
Any art, which operates between the disciplines, which prevents itself from a simple categorization and consumption, gets in danger, such as sound poetry and even more as the "classical" performance art. This is not a problem of a specific audience, which takes part in a certain performance, but of a general public opinion. That some people might have prejustices on these art forms and others don‘t even know anything about it, means that they know less than the people in the times of historical avantgarde.
So, my attempts to specify sound poetry are going in this direction: to find an understandable modus that makes it possible to tell everybody what it can be and why people are doing it. That contains a practical device as well: what can sound poetry be in the age of MTV? Is it necessary to react on this or is it important not to react? Or could there even come a positive influence of popular music and their presentation?

I didn't know all your examples (what is "empty words"?) so I couldn't talk about this too concrete. Anyway, I hope that I made clear in the next part what is my proper intention of the "definition discourse", it is not so much, definition of all times, but definition today …
with best regards

Jaap Blonk:
Most important question to you at this moment: Is it possible that a particular piece is a poem as well as a piece of music as well as a sound poem?

Enno Stahl:
well, again I think, it is a question of the perspective. In my opinion: probably yes, it just has to work in different dimensions: as a written text, because "conventional" poetry (usually) must be printable in a book, put on stage, it can be a sound poem (chlebnikov's laughter-poem), maybe more difficult if it then can also be music?! chlebnikov's poem might be music, if someone listens to it, who doesn't understand Russian, but is it music by essence? what is its deepest sense? difficult to decide. but: from the perspective of a literary scholar it maybe could not really be all the three of it (they try so hard to define the categories, what's a poem, what's a short story, what's a novel - if something is music, poem und sound poem, the whole work is destroyed!).