A possibly benign question posed to me recently, "are words sounds or concepts," seems like a starting point. I had a list poem I was working on last year which couldn't stop itself once the repetition claimed a spot in my brain. Once I found where the words could say almost the same thing with just a few changes, it just kept going, amassing speed, an uncontrollable urge running through every facet of my day. Like a catchy hook, I grew obsessed with fitting anything into its meter. I'd created a 24-7 fix I couldn't get off from, and my other writing suffered a parasitic suck of rhyme…like a bad open mic where every piece is the same but for one word. I had to lock it up and save myself…so the poem remains unfinished in its thousand stanzas. "i carry your heart with me / i carry it in my heart / i am never without it / anywhere i go you go, my dear / … / i fear no fate / for you are my fate, my sweet" (i carry your heart by e.e. cummings)

There are elements of sonic torture in poetry which are built around silence and repetition. Powerful tools of meditation used by Eastern practitioners to gain intelligence by going past the breaking point into enlightenment. That's what I discover in pieces that consume me in this manner, which is why I have to turn away from them after a while…when there's no end presenting itself and the piece dares me to keep it alive. But how much of that obsession really makes it's way to the audience, molding words into so much mental play dough? I'm skirting around the issue of Conceptual Poetry here…because while I don't always get its undeniable force, I do understand its undeniable shine. Like an executioner in the room that no one's talking about, the guillotine of the everyday, thrown in our face. But this is not where I meant to go when I began this post, by no means am I swimming in any movement…just talking about sound.

About silence, John Cage's "inner listening" talks about no need for sounds to be anything more than they are, not representative of another sound, it's just a sound. There is no metaphor clouding the impact…which means…sound is not poetry. Or at least one definition of poetry. Whereas the "concept" of words doesn't have to mean anything to give us deep pleasure. The sound experience of silence is the reinterpretation of silence…which is movement…the traffic of movement…as silence. A reminder that poetry is movement…before metaphor. Hmmm? Yeah, I lost me, but I like getting lost sometimes. "and it's you are whatever a moon has always meant / and whatever a sun will always sing is you"

The list poem and performing it, evokes a mantra…in Sanskrit "man" (to think) and "tra" (tool). So literally, a mantra is a tool for transforming the mind. Would a poem have that much magic? Sure thing! A traditional mantra invocation awakens the energies inside. "here is the deepest secret nobody knows / here is the root of the root / and the bud of the bud / and the sky of the sky of a tree called life;" This probably comes off cornier than I would hope, so just listen with the preacher out of your hair…but I think the audience represents the deity in charge of your mantra, your magic, your poem. The people I read to are usually ready for a mental state outside their own, which then alters mine on stage, a personal demon/deity that arrives once the air gets stirred. In many traditions, sound is used as both meaning and concept, a nexus for meditation…though "concept" gives a benign weight to "word." With poetry as a spell, a prayer from one recited by another, does the connection between meditation and composition explain the deep roots to transformation? Repeating them endlessly to align heartbeat with something like breathing? Ah, just something I've been investigating lately that I wanted to share with you all. I got myself something to let go of, but I had to conjure it first.

Originally Published: April 17th, 2010

A self-proclaimed “lingualisualist” rooted in the languages of sight and sound, Edwin Torres was born in the Bronx and is a longtime resident of New York City. He is a poet whose highly acclaimed performances and live shows combine vocal and physical improvisation and theater. He is the author of...