David Tomaloff convinces Whale Sound

There is the poem-as-text/page and the poem-as-sound/voice. How do they relate to each other? When I started the Whale Sound project, I was feeling pretty anti-text (in fact, it was one of the reasons I embarked on the project, I should acknowledge) and for me it was all about taking the poem off the page and into the realm of just-sound. This conversation with David Tomaloff (reproduced here with his permission) helped sharpen my thinking in this regard, and am reproducing it below as part of the Whale Sound process notes. It is also referenced in the Woodrat Podcast on Whale Sound posted today at Dave Bonta’s Via Negativa. (Thanks, Dave!)

The conversation started when poet David Tomaloff (who writes in the experimental vein) submitted poems – here, here and here – to Whale Sound as part of the regular submissions process. I was intrigued, but flummoxed, by the submissions, as you will read below.

David to Nic — I have just come across Whale Sound and would be very interested in your reading any one of my poems. Whale Sound is an incredibly interesting idea to me. I am a musician who has more recently been focusing more and more on poetic works. A small amount of my work has been represented through print media but I have been somewhat selective, much preferring to submit to on-line journals.

I have found that many poets tend to shy away from anything that does not resemble the paper and staple format, though, many of these poets will often complain that it is difficult to get people to read their poetry. This seems contradictory to me, as I believe that anyone who wishes to connect with people (particularly concerning things that people are not especially aware of), will find it most beneficial to use those means of communication that are most commonly used by people on a daily basis. In modern terms, we are talking about the internet and, more specifically, social networking.

That said, much of my recent published work has been of the more experimental persuasion but I’d love for you to have a look at a few examples and decide if you might be able to make any of it work for you. Particularly, I could imagine you taking on the first poem in the first link above, American Vernacular.

Nic to David – One of the reasons I started this project was to push my own poetry boundaries and understanding, so I am very glad and interested to hear from you. That said, I have to admit I am very much at a loss vis a vis your poems. To me they seem wedded to the page in a way more mainstream work is not. One of the things I enjoy most about Whale Sound is that it takes the poem off the page and reliance on text, and constructs (re-constructs?) it separately in the realm of just-sound. And generally it is a straightforward process to create an audio poem entity – poem-as-sound/voice – that stands independently of poem-as-text/page. Looking at your poems, however, I find myself somewhat flummoxed. The page and the text arranged on the page just so seem in essential ways to be the poem. How to separate the poem from page/text without destroying it?

I think what I am saying is that I don’t understand enough about experimental poetry yet to tackle your work. But I am interested and willing to learn. Are you able to point me to any audio of experimental poetry readings I might learn from (including any of your own)?

David to Nic – I totally understand if you don’t feel comfortable tackling the work. This sort of work might seem a bit “personalized.” That said, one of the many things that draws me to this sort of work is that it is often able to speak in a language that is altogether its own.

Regarding the text being wedded to the page….I don’t necessarily see it that way at all. I do agree that it might be one aspect, but the interpretation can be done in almost any way one might feel the words “translate” for them. One could choose to read simply in strings of words as they would appear conventionally, one could dramatically sound things out for purposes of implication, or one could even leave certain aspects out of the reading altogether. For instance, in the first link I gave you (from ditch poetry), I think the first poem, “American Vernacular,” reads pretty well straight through. EXCEPT! I wouldn’t read the “bulleted” bits (a. b. a. b. 3. ). I would interpret those as pauses….as I might the en dashes.

As a rough example, I am attaching to this email a new poem along with a “trial” reading I gave it. I think it might serve to illustrate how the text and its reading can be interpreted very differently.

David’s reading of what is tense:

As far as some of my favorites, I’m a big fan of the works of poets like Andrew Zawacki, Felino A. Soriano, and J.D. Nelson. I believe they all do varying degrees of “experimental” quite well and can be found pretty easily around the internet. Andrew Zawacki exudes a particular confidence and sense of implication that I greatly admire in his reading style.

I should point out I’m no expert on any of this by any means….I just do what appeals to me and sort it out later. ;)

Nic to David – Thanks for sending me your audio for what is tense. I realize, of course, that there are as many interpretations of any one poem as there are readers of that poem, but here’s my own reaction: It felt to me that you took this at a galloping pace in your vocalization, while the text, in my view, is not laid out that way – my personal sense was that there is nothing ‘galloping’ about the text. My take is that to match your reading, the text would have to be squished up tight against itself and all running together — not long drawn out and lazy/deliberate as it is. How does that strike you?

Here is the Nic version, as I heard the instruction of the text:

The reading is somewhat stilted but quite inevitable, in my view — I did this three times and for me the timing, pauses and extensions were about equivalent in all three versions. For me, there are definitely strong audio imperatives in the text as presented on the page, even though am not yet sure how they come together as a cohesive emotional narrative.

David to Nic — I really appreciate your taking the time to share with me your take on the poem. Frankly, I was more than a little impressed with it. I can understand where you might not have agreed on my reading of the piece. Your points are well taken….and my response is simply that, for me, while I can absolutely respect that there is a school of thought that says reading and presenting should be closely intertwined, I still believe in the idea that it does not have to be necessarily so.

I believe in a sort of duality to this work. In one sense, this type of poem could be thought of as a piece of visual art. While in another, it is still a collection of words I believe can live beyond any single medium. I think of it in terms of how someone like Bob Dylan interprets his own songs from record to stage – the two can differ quite vastly and someone will almost always inevitably say, “that’s not how it’s supposed to go.” They are both right from their particular standpoints. I guess that’s part of what I love about art.

When I read the poem, I was working off of the idea that it read something like a letter to someone – a letter one might write out of a sense of duty in an almost guarded fashion, hence the way in which I approached the word “ambiguous”— as if it were an antithesis to “with love” or “yours truly.” That said, I absolutely admit it was a bit rushed…damn my over caffeinated lifestyle!

Not surprisingly, your rendition of it brought out another dimension for me. I remember reading on your site a comment about how one reader didn’t understand the full potential of his poem until he heard you read it. I can completely relate to that. You brought out all of the nervous “ticks” in this poem. What you call stilted in this case, I call a certain “uneasy tension” or trepidation. The irony might be that, for you, despite your reading, the piece did not come together as a cohesive emotional narrative, whereas, for me it finally did.

Nic to David – I do understand what you mean and in general, I have to say I agree with you. In many cases I find that the imperatives of the vocalized narrative simply override the presentation of text – stanzas and linebreaks that work well on the page often actually turn out to be either meaningless or actual stumbling blocks in the context of vocalization. In fact, sometimes, for reading purposes, I actually rearrange the text of a poem to suit the way I feel the narrative is asking to be read, and in those cases the poem-as-page on which I base my reading often ends up looking like nothing the original text. But I ask myself why this ‘text override’ function (which you employ in your reading) didn’t kick in for me with what is tense. I’m guessing it’s a function of my unfamiliarity with reading poems such as yours, where there is such a high degree of deliberation and precision in the placing of each letter on the page. Could be it’s the focus on letters that has thrown me and somehow disabled the ‘text override’ function for me, putting the piece on a different level, in my view as a reader. And having broken it down to that extent, I begin to wonder whether differentiating between whole words and individual letters is in fact a helpful way to go at all.

David to Nic – I should reiterate that I do not in any way claim to be an authority on any of this. I can speak only for myself and my own work. I should also point out that, while I do love a heavy dose of the surreal, I do not necessarily label myself an experimental poet in any strict sense. The fact is that this particular type of work tends to present itself to me much in the fragmented fashion it appears on the page and my sense is simply to follow its lead.

That said, I believe we are both right and can still stand to learn a great deal from the factors that shape our respective takes on this subject. As I said earlier in this correspondence, that’s part of what I love most about art.

Nic to David – Thanks for your patience, David! This has been a complicated submission for you! Whale Sound will be happy to take a shot at your poem, American Vernacular and we’ll put it on the slate. Thanks again!

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Nic Sebastian

Nic is the author of Forever Will End On Thursday and Dark And Like A Web. She founded the now-archived Whale Sound site and is co-founder of The Poetry Storehouse. Nic blogs at Very Like A Whale and Voice Alpha.

13 thoughts on “David Tomaloff convinces Whale Sound”

  1. This was a very fun and rewarding exchange, Nic. Thanks for posting it and I look forward to your reading more of my work in the future. I still love your version of the poem in this post….far better than my own, in fact. Wonderful work. Thanks again!

  2. Fascinating account, loved hearing the two versions. I agree that Nic’s version carries more of the tension suggested by the title and fragmentation on the page, and David’s reading sort of defies that, while making sense of the words in quite a natural way. So, even though you began this project as “anti-text,” as you say, Nic, you brought the actual text (from the page) into our ears. David, you, as the writer, could trust that it was there (the written poem) in your reading, as you had written it, but I am also impressed by your trust in Nic’s reading and your willingness to be astonished! Great fun.

  3. Great idea to contrast the two audio recordings like this, and a lot of fun to read the conversation and find out where each of you were coming from. For me as a reader, I find I almost have to read poems like David’s out loud in order to recognize retrieve the words from the arrangement, as it were (an example what Nic means by the voice as an instrument of investigation, perhaps?). So there’s a kind of paradox here — that these very visually oriented textual artifacts necessitate translation into the aural realm in a way that more conventionally printed poems do not.

  4. It’s these kinds of postings online that make the internet invaluable to me. Thanks so much to Nic and David for sharing this discussion. I’m fascinated with the interworkings of artistic presentation – the different (and similar visions). (I’ll hit Via Negativa this afternoon.)

  5. Wow. I loved being in on this dialogue.

    When can we turn this into a conference??? Conference for Web-Active Poets? Any takers?

    I have strong and conflicted feelings about reading my work, and about poetry readings in general. I enjoy almost all types of readings, but unless I know a little something about the reader, find that I miss much of the work in the sound (I miss the shape and the words on the page). I would love for audience members to take home a program of poems read, or even be able to download an mp3 of the reading after for repeated listening.

    One of the best readers I have ever heard is Jordan Scott, reading from Blert: http://www.fullcristiano.com/video-11/fwoNtePaNcc/7th-poet/Jordan-Scott-Reading-from-Blert

    Among everything else, he writes gorgeously on language (and the poetics of stuttering). His text comes alive in his readings, for me.

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