Poetry News

Get Your Own Wax Cylinder: Sophie Mayer on Sound Archiving, Holly Pester, & Phono-Poetry

By Harriet Staff


If you're interested in poetics and sound recordings, there are so many good things about the arc and the hive in this post by new poet-in-residence at Archive of the Now, Sophie Mayer--from pointing out that Charles Bernstein's “Making Audio Visible” ". . . in Textual Practice 23.6 (2009) . . . remains a key article not so much for its claims about the nature of recorded poetry, but for its demands for the future" to looking at "rich research pickings" and questioning Katy Price on how she "formulate[d] the magical idea of Phono-poetry." Phono-poetry?

Rather than bringing a particular angle or methodology, I want to see what the Archive has to say for and about itself. Is it ”a market for riots online” (Redell Olsen)? How might its Britishness relate to Jeff Hilson‘s disquisition on the impossibilities of Britishness at the start of his bird bird readings? What can and does poetry do – in relation to aesthetics, language, technology, and social relations — when “liam fox/cuts/fox/defence/defence/armed forces/liam fox/cuts/cuts/cuts/aircraft carriers/strike fleet/jets/cuts/trident” (Holly Pester)? Olsen, Hilson and Pester are part of this summer’s major Archive of the Now project: Dr. Katy Price‘s Phono-poetry experiment for the Modernist Studies Association conference, recording their work on wax cylinders to play on phonograph records. Price, a lecturer in modern and contemporary literature in the Department of English at Queen Mary, kindly answered a few questions about the origin and intentions of the Phono-poetry project, which is combining Edison’s nineteenth-century technology with digital media, including a fundraising campaign on Indiegogo that gives you the opportunity to get your own wax cylinder.

“marks which, whispering Bill,” says Hilson, suggesting a relation between printed “marks” and vocal “whispering” — a relation that has been long debated. The phonograph (re)translates sound into graphic marks as it makes the groove in the wax cylinder, but there is no visible digital equivalent of the relation between marks and whispers (although graphic visualisers often try to give a sense there is). Yet at the same time, the digital is entirely graphic — whether the 0/1s of encoding, or the textual nature of programming — but invisibly. In the seminal “A Cyborg Manifesto,” Donna Haraway comments that, “The silicon chip is a surface for writing; it is etched in molecular scales disturbed only by atomic noise, the ultimate interference for nuclear scores.”

Eventually Mayer and Price get to talking about sound artist and poet Holly Pester:

[Mayer:] What projects might you be interested to see AoN users panning or undertaking with the material that’s available in the archive (given that not every listener has access to an Edison phonograph)?

[Price:] Once when I was preparing a lecture using the Archive my iTunes accidentally started up in the background. It shoved some Sigur Ros alongside Jeremy Prynne reading John Weiners’ 'Cocaine.' It was beautiful. I’d love to see an AoN mixing app where people could share their blends.

Which poets were historically recorded on an Edison phonograph? Where can people access those recordings, if any?




In her poem “S.C.R.U.F.F.,” Holly Pester — one of the three Phono-poets — says “scruff is part scratch part fluff.” That sounds like a good description of the phonographic process, which produces a groove (scratch) in which the information is encoded, but also the waste wax (fluff)! Could we say that poetry — particularly experimental poetry — is scruff, taking place across and between the signal and the noise, between the information and the excess? Or at least has a strong interest in fluff — errors, found materials, excess, repetition, etc.?

Fluff yes – the material that is scratched off a cylinder in the recording process is called ‘swarf’ (see image below). I love the idea that weird, difficult text art could have a kind of material life like sweepings or lint in relation to smooth and shiny official or acceptable language. But there is lots of swarf, fluff, lint language, isn’t there? Animal sounds, baby sounds, babble on the bus, people who communicate vocally but not verbally. These can often be the main form of communication, not just offcuts. There are sometimes brilliant moments with experimental text art that makes gold from swarf. I think this can depend on how the audience get engaged.

Pester is particularly engaged with radio: in Scruff she mentions Orson Welles (instigator of the infamous radio hoax with his production of HG Wells’ War of the Worlds), and her serial poem “News Piece” — of which 16-19/10/2010 is included on the Archive — samples Radio 4′s Today Programme. How important is radio as an intermediate sound technology between the phonograph and digital for music and poetry?

I think radio invented our heads for us, or a large part of them. It has shaped how we experience sound, distance and information more than we can fully recognise. Radio has also been a very nationally shaped and shaping medium. And that is there in the back of our minds even as we use the internet and apparently more global communication technologies. An idea I find perpetually useful on technology and text is from Lori Emerson who says that we do the same old things with new media – so we read in ways that we learned with books, even on the internet. Familiar approach in a new context. Things don’t change as much as we might fancy they do. One thing that art can do with technology is tickle the part of us that recognises this blend of the familiar and the new, and draw us into playing with it. I think that a lot of the Archive poets are doing this kind of thing with their uses of sound and recording in the texture of their writing.

Read the full post.

Originally Published: June 10th, 2013