Archive of the Here: Listening to Liverpool
On 15th August 2013, I went up to Liverpool to record five poets based in or originating from the north-west for the Archive of the Now. The Other Room: Experimental Poetry in Manchester reading series has an extensive audio-visual archive on its homepage, bearing witness to the prolific and creative trans-generational poetry scenes centred on Manchester and Liverpool. We recorded in the University of Liverpool School of Music‘s production studios – a first for all of us except for first reader, Fiona Curran, an experienced sound designer.
What struck me, from the other side of the glass, was the weirdness of listening as a live audience in the now of the recording studio, and simultaneously as time traveller from the future audience – you – to which the recordings were aimed. Adding to the sense of science-fictonal doubledness were the sonographic indicators projected on the wall in the image below: I could only see them on the sound engineer’s screen (for a hand-drawn illustration of early visualisation for vocal dynamics, see Norman McLaren’s amazing animation Pen Point Percussion). Even when readers employed vocal dynamics, the black Rorschach that indicated sound volume and pitch wavered close to the centre of the spectrum.
You can listen to the recordings in the order that they were made to get a sense of the flow of words through the day:
Below, you can also read my chronological account from outside the booth, and two accounts from inside the booth (and outside the studio) by Sarah Crewe and Richard Barrett. What they both note is the significance of the location of the booth in the north-west, its relation, despite the thick sound-proofed walls and pass-card locked doors, to the city around it. I found myself very conscious of locational and psychogeographical references when listening to the readings.
For example, to the ambiguity of the riverine and financial Banks that coalesce in Fiona Curran’s poem, or to the dizzying sense of words being sent from a known place into an unknown future in the ‘Postcards Series‘, where the materialities of St. Ives, Arran and Rome were layered by the presentness of Fiona’s voice in Liverpool right now (then), with the black box of the studio as the white rectangle of the postcard. Three Stories about My Mother had a different kind of address and containedness of form. “It has to be read as a oneness,” Fiona said on re-reading the second story, “The Coat,” which zeroes in on a specific incident in time and space, but works its ramifications through three generations. That oneness is a keynote of Fiona’s work: its intensity, its sense of spatial as well as sonic volume.
Richard Barrett’s work had a hereness – “the heart as A-Z page torn” in Fragment – but also a nowness, whether in references to Megan Fox or the contemporary post-crisis ConDemNation city in The Rushes: a psychoeconomy of queues, debts, headlines, rather than a psychogeography. “That clock is fast, isn’t it,” notes Hard Shoulder 8 – but not as fast as Richard, whose sonograph bunched and crowded and piled with the incredible density of postmodernity and its thought/language processes. “the sponsored event / against the blog post” proposes Rushes 15, measuring linguistic change. There’s a mercurial energy in this reading that both keeps time with, and calls time on, the ever-faster clock of “progress.”
In contrast to Fiona’s shifting accent and Richard’s Mancunian intonantion, Sandeep Parmar’s North American torque connected Liverpool to its Atlantic and imperial history. Vivienne with Household Goods awakens this connection, speaking of “an unctuous industrialist” in relation to a “slave girl, cinder girl / girl of a different color,” and Dido, the African queen. Like Fiona choosing her Postcard Series, Sandeep chose to read three from her series after Ovid’s Heroides, the male poet’s letters from abandoned women to their perfidious lovers, written while he himself was in exile on the Black Sea: Tartarus, Imbracia, and Ephyre. Like Archive for a Daughter, these poems are about the lonely necessity of relational location, insisting on the interconnection of there and here, even where that connection is one of conquest, colonialism, and/or exile.
Sarah Crewe, as she notes below, is the home poet: psychogeographer of a city where “Wendy James stalks witchhunt graffiti.” Redoubling the doubling of performance – or perhaps creatively managing that sense of doubling – Sarah read eight poems in her flick persona. flick’s sense of embedded embodiment in Liverpool – wavertree, the necropolis and newsham park – peeled back the black walls so the city rushed in like flick’s horses. The city transforms into discourse: “horses speak in snapshot” and Ulrike Meinhof debates “action vs. discourse / spit vs. swallow” (Nightshade). Red politics thread through Sarah’s selections, whether in the name of a female Jesus – Irina – or Clara Zetkin, who “write[s] in the language of sisterhood / adhesive … cleavage as class division,” or the defiant final series about Meinhof. This defiance spikes high on the sonograph.
Tall Tom Jenks requires Michael, the sound technician, to adjust the mike for the first time that day, but is softly and slowly spoken. “My ink’s favourite emotion is melancholy,” he anatomises in Anatomy of Melancholy, 5. His chosen readings all build by repetition: melancholy figures as a mode of critical apprehension, of rewriting (not only Burton’s book, but his own work), of reviewing one’s ideas, that again adds to that sense of double-listening. It is melancholy to imagine that the day of readings is nearly over, and also – somehow – to imagine them as recorded for the future, as if they are disappearing into themselves in the moment of recording, as if I have been displaced by the microphone and the computer. At one point in Items, he says “null” as if he too has become a computer, one that’s just made a system error. “Don’t write anything that could hurt your future career,” he warns, then cheers us up with 99 Names for Small Dogs, a melancomic tour-de-force of a peculiar Englishness.
Sarah Crewe: “I want to say how important it was to my own praxis to record in Liverpool, given that the bulk of my psychogeographic work is based on home turf. I felt able to record in my own voice and not have to worry about how it would translate, because I was speaking with that sense of place. I also wanted the recording to have the energy of the new (especially with it being Archive of the Now!) so for that reason, the bulk of my choices workwise were recent poems.
I was surprised by how much energy went into recording, and i really enjoyed that aspect of it. I felt able to deliver the poems just as though I was giving a reading. It made me realise that my performance is a far more physical entity than I thought. What struck me was the richness and diversity of poets present, in both content and sound. Several textures and layers occurring that i can’t wait to listen to myself on the website.”
Richard Barrett: “Poem choice for me was about wanting to try and show some of the range of what I do: an excerpt from a long sequence which deals with, at least in part, the 2008 economic crisis; a poem addressing Megan Fox; a couple of love poems; and, finally, a long-ish poem which, besides all else that I hope it does, acts as a statement of where my poetics currently are. I also wanted to present the work chronologically – just to try and give a sense of my poetic development and the interconnectedness of what I do and am interested in.
On the day of recording I got the train over from Manchester – arriving early as I wanted to walk from Lime Street to the University and I wasn’t sure how long that would take as I wasn’t sure of the way. As it happened I ended up with a bit of time to kill so had a walk round the University’s grounds and sat for a while in a beautiful park just near the music department. When I arrived at the recording studio it took me quite a few minutes to orientate myself to studio etiquette; I mean, I initially wondered if any noise we made in the room where we were might be picked up on the recordings. I remember stepping outside to cough.
After my reading I was, as I always am after a reading of any length, drained. Plans were made for a visit to the pub later but after a lovely lunch in a nearby café my tiredness triumphed and I returned to Manchester. I was very proud to be asked to contribute to the Archive, and am very pleased with my recordings which have now been uploaded. It also feels important to me that the current thriving north-west scene has been recognised and acknowledged in the recordings that took place that day.”