Wednesday, September 18, 2002

The Envelope, Please by Swifty Lazarus, a collaboration between Canadian expatriate poet Todd Swift and composer Tom Walsh, is the latest attempt to wed the impulses of poetry to sound recording in some format beyond the traditional reading. The major influences – & they’re right out front & center – include Laurie Anderson; the Bill Burroughs of Towers Open Fire; the Brian Eno-David Byrne project, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts; touches of Brecht & Weill; Godard’s sound tracks; and just maybe the backwards-talking dwarf from David Lynch’s Twin Peaks.

There is some good writing here, but mostly you have to read the liner notes to get to it. The problem is, I think, inherent in the medium. To carry over as anything other than pure reading, the text as literary signifier must choose to do one of three things:
<![if !supportLists]>·        <![endif]>focus solely on itself as signifier, becoming sound poetry
<![if !supportLists]>·        <![endif]>enter into a collaboration with other media and genre expectations, or
<![if !supportLists]>·        <![endif]>subordinate itself to another form altogether
Ultimately, those aren’t such attractive alternatives.

Collaborations between media are less common than those within one. The major challenge for any collaboration, regardless of the genre involved, is the surrender of control between players and between the conjoined forms. But whereas, within any single medium, two participants or players must arrive at a position that enables each to function, often enough something no one individual involved could have conceived of on his or her part alone, between media the gap can yawn so large that ultimately their interaction may not matter all that much.* It does matter in The Envelope, Please as a gathering of diverse poems (all by Swift, save for one by Adeena Karasick that is buried deep in the found-language layers of a 12 minute track) are transformed into the sonic shadows of recordings we already know, avant-garde as nostalgia. Several of the texts appear to have been written for Lazarus: there are generalizations so bald that they could not have been intended for consumption by a reader – “If History is dead, why do things still happen? / If there is no Truth, why do I bother lying?” But the title piece is a quiet surreal lyric that gets lost as a sort of preface in its 30-second format.

Texts that are subordinated within another form often work best when they immerse themselves without looking back. The poets who have had the most success with careers in popular music – Anderson, Jim Carroll, Patti Smith, Leonard Cohen – produce words for music that share relatively little with their best known writing. Similarly, the finest musical texts in recent years – the work, say, of Dave Carter or Townes Van Zandt – don’t stand up well on the printed page, precisely because they were never conceived as doing so.

Containing sound, reference, syntax, and context, language is déjà toujours intermedia. The instant it combines with any form of instrumentation, the entire history of song is invoked and the result, regardless of how well intended, can never be innocent. Consider from the perspective of poetry the comic inappropriateness of Steve Reich’s filigreed setting for the work of William Carlos Williams as art song in The Desert Music compared with the far more powerful use of found language a much younger Reich demonstrated in tape loops such as Come Out.**  In projects that recruit poetry into other media, the ultimate question of context cannot be begged: where is the language most itself? Collaborators who forget or ignore that question do so at their own risk.

*The most successful intermedia collaborations in recent years – between poets & painters and between poets & dancers – have been in forms where the text functions alongside the other medium, rather than within it.

** A participant in a riot explains on tape what he needed to do to convince the police to get him medical attention:
I had to, like,
open the bruise up
and let some of the bruise blood
come out to show them.
The tape adds, then phases out of synch, multiple tracks of this last line until it gradually evolves into a roar.