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

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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.

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