Whale Sound poet interview – Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé

1. Please comment on the following:a. The experience of hearing your poem on Whale Sound (WS). 

Absolutely breathtaking. Nic’s voice is simply beautiful, crystalline, and so attentive to the lyrical quality of language. It serves up the phonic echo in such a lilt. All oral renditions are lovely to witness, including poetry recast and recomposed into song. This happened when Vanessa Fernandez, an unbelievably talented singer, gave her original take on one of my poems years ago. Poetry already harbors its own musicality, but when a musician successfully takes it to another level through an elevated vocalization, it’s a beautiful act of creation. It’s as if the muses stayed around to watch, and rained down an ineffable light, beyond its natural position or speech. Having read my own poems, I’ll freely admit I’m not the sort of poet who expects the singular, immutable reading. I actually like delivering the utterance in as many ways as possible to underscore the notion that texts travel, all the time evolving a new expression or rendering or interpretation. Ezekiel Black of Pismire just published a reading which he calls the Google Voice – I had to call long-distance to record the poem. There’s a strange, alluring energy to the electrical noise of the hum or crackle, its gritty rasp of technology. It’s a brilliant rawness, the same shellac with our hasty recording of Vanessa’s live performance of “Caramelized Love” on 98.7FM, a superb radio station in Singapore. We had such short notice, the sound engineer spending a great deal of time on the noise reduction – we eventually included both that guitar-accompanied track and the sleek studio original because we so enjoyed the slippage, the difference, the translation that happens in a work of art.

The vignette that Nic read inhabits the fine space between the prose poem and microfiction. There’s constantly a jostling between the lyric and the narrative within it, the same thing with its other 23 installments, all of which have just been published as a chapbook by Silkworms Ink, huge thanks to editors Jon Ware and James Harringman who were an absolute joy to work with. Clearly, this isn’t syllable count verse or a villanelle with its rhyming refrains, forms where there’s some discernible pattern in line and stress, however muddy or haphazard. This makes it even more rewarding to look at the prosodic elements in Nic’s reading, how deeply complex and buried any metrical variation may be, and how the image-making is reproduced through sonics.

b. The WS decision to focus only on web-active poets.

An interesting angle that prizes the medium. I’m more familiar with the making of books, with most of my life’s work appearing in print. I grew up in the age of rotary dial telephones after all. When I started college, the university was just outfitting its computer workrooms, and very few people owned a personal computer. The web with its multiple platforms has been extremely liberating for the author, who now enjoys a greater degree of self-sufficiency in making public his or her writerly voice. Important and meaningful relationships are being built in ways that were simply not possible before.

c. The WS third-party submissions policy.

It creates a community of shared joys. I always like hearing about what another writer is reading. So it’s great that poets are nominating their favorite poems for a reading. Web-active and living poets aside, I would so love a feature section where Nic reads some thickly lyrical material from the canon, reviving its old-world charm. Like Ezra Pound’s alliterative verse in “The Seafarer”. Or Baudelaire’s pantoum “Harmonie du Soir”, translated by Lord Alfred Douglas, replete with an ab-ab rhyme scheme. That would be awesome.

2. What does WS do well?

That Nic Sebastian is its premise and brand. It’s ace! I remember thinking what a novel idea, to have a really gifted reader take on such a tall order, to read such a diverse array of poetic material crafted by such different writers. To have all those textual energies – borne of such different sensibilities – regain a centre through one performer’s reading is just wonderful to behold, and to experience. I’ve just been invited by the National Book Development Council of Singapore to speak at this year’s Young Writer’s Seminar as well as the Asian Festival of Children’s Content, and I’ll make sure to give Whale Sound a big shout-out.

3. What could WS do better?

I’d say the next step is putting together a book of these recordings, over and above the audio chapbooks already being made. Such a collection reminds me of the monumental work, Poetry On Record: 98 Poets Read Their Work (1888-2006). Of course, for Whale Sound, it would be an inversion, more like 98 Poems Read by Nic Sebastian. In her preface, Rebekah Presson Mosby writes of “trends and movements in English language poetry over the past century and a half or so”, as well as “how the style of reading poetry has changed, how technology has influenced the way poetry is performed and, of course, how new technologies have changed the sound of the recorded voice.” I think Whale Sound is doing something that’s already a part of this evolution. And it’ll be lovely to have a documenting of it, of this relationship between text as word and text as sound.

4. Anything else you’d like to say about the WS experience?

I’ll leave you with an excerpt from Fred Moten in his essay “Sound in Florescence”. Here goes a bit of his scholarly rumination: “Words don’t go there: this implies a difference between words and sounds; it suggests that words are somehow constrained by their implicit reduction to the meanings they carry – meanings inadequate to or detached from the objects or states of affairs they would envelop. What’s also implied is an absence of inflection; a loss of mobility, slippage, bend; a missing accent or affect; the impossibility of a slur or crack and the excess – rather than loss – of meaning they imply. Where do words go? Are they the inadequate and residual traces of a ritual performance that is lost in the absence of the recording?” For Whale Sound, the text is offered another ritual presence unto itself. And that can only bode for it a bit more of that rich feeling, the feeling of the performative and the celebratory.


About Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé.

Desmond’s poem on Whale Sound: Vignette 016

More Whale Sound poet interviews

bad blogger!

Poor Very Like A Whale is getting short shrift these days, with all my online poetry communications energy going into Whale Sound, Voice Alpha, Facebook and Twitter.

Some bits of frabjous from the last week or two that haven’t made it here yet:

Five poems up at Escape Into Life. I was thrilled with this publication — EIL is doing great things and not just with poetry. Recommend you get in and browse around. The artwork accompanying my poems by Ruud Van Empel was just stunning. I was particularly pleased to have the poem ‘Thirst & Decay’ selected. It was written many years ago in response to a KJV Bible verse prompt (Leviticus 25:35):

And if thy brother be waxen poor, and fallen in decay with thee; then thou shalt relieve him: yea, though he be a stranger, or a sojourner; that he may live with thee.

Really what I wanted to use was the phrase ‘a stranger and a sojourner’ but the second half ended up falling out, as often happens with spark quotations. And the whole, rather surprisingly (or maybe not), ended up being about dysfunction and co-dependence, a perennial Nic Sebastian theme. (More recently, my poem Yew, in this group at Eclectica, tells more or less the same story).

In other excellent news, Whale Sound was featured at the Best American Poetry Blog by Emma Trelles, a Whale Sound poet herself. One of the terrific side effects of being interviewed about what you do is that it forces you to actively think about what you do (as opposed to just doing it) and articulate those thoughts. I find it is the articulation of those thoughts that helps me discern the ‘next step’ for a project. So, with Whale Sound, the idea of audio chapbooks, the idea of group readings, the idea of Voice Alpha – all grew out of being questioned about the project and having to respond to those questions. In that vein, in addition to Emma, I must thank Dave Bonta and J.P. Dancing Bear for also taking the time to interview me about Whale Sound.

Lastly on the frabjous front: I have begun writing poetry again, after a long hiatus (intensified by starting up the Whale Sound and Voice Alpha projects). I think of them as post-Whale Sound poems, because they are different in genesis and (at least, I think) in style from pre-Whale Sound poems. Getting into the skin of someone else’s poem close enough to read it aloud for Whale Sound five days a week is inevitably going to change (has changed) my ‘poet-ness’ – how I hear, feel, apprehend and write poetry. So far, one new poem has been accepted by Anti- and three by Canopic Jar. Onward!

Whale Sound poet interview – Adele Kenny

1. Please comment on the following:

a. The experience of hearing your poem on Whale Sound (WS):My maternal grandmother’s family came from England, and I’ve been especially close to that part of my ancestry all my life. Hearing “The Trains” in Nic’s British voice was like hearing the poem the way it sounds “inside.” Never having heard anyone read one of my poems before, I was very pleasantly startled by Nic’s pauses and modulations in places I hadn’t placed them in my own readings of the work. Nic’s interpretation of the poem introduces a quiet aesthetic and a haunting quality that complements and enhances the content. (If only I could read so beautifully!)

b. The WS decision to focus only on web-active poets: While this approach may be, to some extent, limiting, and necessarily excludes poets who are not web-active, the current approach does offer a new kind of web presence for poets whose work appears online. The “playing field” is different, and in my reckoning, vital and refreshing.

c. The WS third-party submissions policy: This is a rare and generous approach to submissions — a wider entryway than typically found in print and online poetry journals.

2. What does WS do well? The quality of the poems and their great variety are superb. WS has also created a community of poets and listeners who come together online to share, comment, and hear one another’s work read by one perfect voice.

3. What could WS do better? Keeping up with the volume of poetry has been a challenge at times (I’m sure for Nic too). As already planned, moving to one poem per day will make a difference for those who wish to savor the readings in “single file.”

4. Anything else you’d like to say about the WS experience? I’m grateful! Thank you, Nic, for including me!

About Adele Kenny.
Adele’s poem on Whale Sound: The Trains
More Whale Sound poet interviews