When an old housemate of mine brought home a stylish, vintage typewriter, we decided to see what it could do. Since paper was scace in this student household, we opted to load it up with a roll of plain toilet paper. The clacking, mechanical sounds that came forth each time our fingers prompted another key was, to our touchscreen molded minds, an intrusive, harsh reality. After some test runs, one of my other housemates, Paul Plazier, sat down and clacked away as we wondered off into our beers. Once he finished, we gathered round and I was surprised to see that he had captured poetically the phonetics of a Skrillex song.
Skrillex’s music reportedly, and tellingly, obstructs the proliferation of the Aedes aegypti, a mosquito species known to spread yellow fever.[i] To me, his music is an undecipherable medley of conflicting sounds, often mimicking metals clashing and industrial radars revving. As such, the combination of thought, material and process that led up to the creation of this tiny piece of art excelled in professing its integral significance. The process of Plazier’s hands coarsely, yet deliberately, searching for the precise letters, symbols and spacings required to enunciate the crude Skrillectics, traced in its movement my frustration when I listen to the music. In its chaos, I find myself unable to follow loyally the sounds and rhythms inherent to Skrillex’s musical style, which causes a kind of bodily limitation that strains my enjoyment. It was only fitting, then, that this poem’s rhyme and meter adhered to an artistic freedom that challenged the reader to find coherence. Here, the articulation of the audial source by the mechanics of the type writer embodied the perfect extension from the musician, through Plazier’s mind, into our experience. Six years later, when I trace the words, or sounds, the poem still echoes the keys of the vintage type writer, as they remain captured in the texture of the single leaf of toilet paper (with all its appropriate implications). Considering the material and, moreover, the materialization of a work of literature, poetry or other art, specifically in relation to surpassing or extending beyond expected mediums, it can be truly invigorating to come across surprising decisions and outcomes. The abovementioned example is one that is personal, and perhaps does not resonate with my reader as much as it does with me. I do, however, think it showcases a kind of bold and ideal convention of circumstances that elevates the piece, as well as my understanding of the inspirational source.
Another example I would like to discuss are two renditions of Gertrude Stein’s “Shutters Shut.” Stein once recorded an LP with her reading (or performing) the poem out loud, which can now be easily found on YouTube.[ii] Her intonation, rhythm and overall vocal acoustics animates the poem in a vigorous way. By turning to audio, Stein rekindles the vocal tradition which, of course, is at the foundation of poetry. Coming across the recording was a happy surprise that refreshed my experience of the written word. Perhaps much like the somewhat ironic, yearning-for-yonder-days kind of way we appreciate the vintage typewriter. But, what made the vocal rendition stand out even more, is its collaboration with the choreographed duet that was conceived to this very recording. Sol Léon, from the Nederlands Dans Theater (NDT), created a dance sequence that denoted each word or sound that made up the avant garde poem.
Léon’s interpretation showed a couple of dancers, a man and a woman, as they performed each word with a unique bodily movement.[iii] The result is a spatial language, that embodies the cubist endeavor inherent to Stein’s poetry. The stilted repetition of certain words, mirrors a kind of shutter, like a camera shutter swiftly opening and closing, capturing an object from a series of consecutive angles and moments. Léon’s bold and demanding composition pushes the dancers’ bodies to their limits. As such, this particular poem journeys from Stein’s mind to the page, through her vocal chords to the record, and finally arrives on the stage as the dancer’s rigorous moves invade our visual understanding of what was once written. And Stein’s voice conducts the experience through the amplifiers. It is, in a way, ekphrasis performed. We find meaning in the textures of sound and movement, aspects crucial to understanding “Shutters Shut,” leading to a newly found profundity of its words.
In the materialization, in the performance, words can come alive in surprising ways. By animating meaning in bold and unexpected ways, words accumulate texture and dimensionality. Similarly, we come alive as we engage in a material process. For example, I continue to find myself drawn to the book as book. While online databases instruct us to find further reading according to their algorithms, the haphazard serendipity of browsing bookcase upon bookcase can relay our personal algorithms in unsuspected ways. This sensation is perfectly articulated in the excerpt below, rendered from William Carlos Williams’ The Library, meandering along the books in a library can lead to new perspectives.
A cool of books
will sometimes lead the mind to libraries
of a hot afternoon, if books can be found
cool to the sense to lead the mind away.
For there is a wind or ghost of a wind
in all books echoing the life
there, a high wind that fills the tubes
of the ear until we think we hear a wind,
to lead the mind away.[iv]
Lifting along on the cool of books, I float to new insights. The textural book, the feeling of its new or worn case, the look of its creative designs or old leathered tethered threads, the smell of the hands and minds that previously held it, can move us to new understandings. To be aware of these materialities, means to be open to the possibilities of text. Sound, movement and touch enhance our experience of the written word. The dimensionality of the thing is part of the story, and our interaction with poetry can be sculpted to a higher definition when we engage with it as a whole.
Written by Saskia Soelaksana
 To digress, I will always remember the episode “You Jump, I Jump” from my favorite TV-show The Gilmore Girls. The show is saturated with literary and cultural innuendos and this particular episode thrives on references to the surrealists. At one point, a character asks “May I quote Max Ernst?.” After receiving an affirmative answer, the character, in stereo with his two pals, promptly turns around and walks away. The surrealism evoked in the movement and non-verbal ‘quote’ is a perfect embodiment of absurdist reasoning. The performativity of the text holds all the meaning.
[i] Dieng, Hamady, et al. “The Electronic Song ‘Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites’ Reduces Host Attack and Mating Success in the Dengue Vector Aedes Aegypti.” Acta Tropica, vol. 194, 2019, pp. 93–99.
[iv] Williams, qtd in Howe, Susan. Spontaneous Particulars: Telepathy of Archives. New Directions, 2020. Pp. 11-13.