Adventures in Sound Poetry: Interview with Lane Chasek

What got you interested in sound poetry?

Lane Chasek: I learned about the Dada movement from a friend I used to attend poetry open mics with, and I learned about sound poetry soon after. I never attempted writing a sound poem back then, but the idea always lingered in the back of my brain until I started writing this book. This was during my freshman year of college, so that would have been 2013.

What was the writing process for the book? Was it different in any way from your usual writing process?

This was my first attempt at long-form nonfiction. Given the nature of the Fair-Minded Fraud & Forgery series, I always thought of this project as creative scholarship. Compared to past projects, I was surprised by how much of my time writing this book was spent . . . well, not writing. Most of it was spent researching. I’d often go weeks without writing a single word. This was agonizing at first, but this process took me to some unexpected places.

The original working title for the book was “Notes of an Aspiring Sound Poet.” How did the book evolve from when you first sat down to start writing it?

Initially this book wasn’t going to focus so heavily on religion or science. So at the time, Notes of an Aspiring Sound Poet made sense as a title — I was (and still am) an aspiring sound poet, and these are my notes. But as my research expanded into cosmology, religion, and thermodynamics, I realized there was more at play here than sound poetry.

The book is partly about your journey in writing your first sound poem. Did writing this book help you become a better sound poet?

It hurts to say this, but no. If anything, my research and my attempt at writing sound poetry proved how much I still have to learn. Sound poetry is a deceptive topic. It looks simple, but beneath the hood there are so many intersecting webs of music, politics, theatre, and history — very daunting. I wasn’t an expert when I started this book and I’m still not an expert. I’m a sound poetry novice, and I’m fine with that.

Sound poetry is a form of language but without semantics or syntax. How can you judge a good sound poem from a bad one? Is it mostly about the performance?

That’s a tricky one. It’s hard to put into words what works and doesn’t work in a poem that doesn’t use words. But I think I’ve developed a sense of what I prefer in a sound poem. For example, I prefer Hugo Ball’s earlier sound poems to his later ones. The later ones are so jagged and cacophonous, while his earlier attempts felt like an otherworldly imitation of human language. Noise is noise, but nonsense that sounds like it might have meaning is more interesting.

Your book introduces a cast of historical figures who are all distinct and fascinating. Would it be fair to say that sound poets are some of the most colorful figures in the history of poetry?

If we limit ourselves to Dada, a touch of color seems to be a defining characteristic of many artists in the movement, not just sound poets. And it makes sense — Dada was ultimately a movement for people who were fed up with what Western Civilization had been peddling for the past five centuries. The anti-structural, anti-authoritarian ethos of sound poetry and Dada attracted the disaffected, the angry, and the eccentric. In terms of today’s sound poets, I’m not sure. Every sound poet I’ve encountered has just looked and acted like a poet. The only unusual thing about them is their genre of choice.

There have always been artists who are drawn to nonsense, or pure expression without any clear meaning. Famous writers who dabbled in nonsense include Lewis Carroll, Alfred Jarry, and of course Hugo Ball. Do you know why nonsense is such an enduring quality of art?

A lot of it’s probably frustration. At least in literature, there’s this gulf between writer and reader that isn’t present in other media. You have to translate events and phenomena into words, which are imprecise. Sometimes you can’t find the right word or phrase, and even if you do, you can’t guarantee that the reader will understand what you meant. Theatre, painting, and music are more direct — the medium is the experience. Having to think about that gulf as a writer is discouraging. I often feel like a painter with my hands cut off, and that frustration is probably universal.

Hugo Ball viewed sound poetry to be a partly political art form. Can you explain the political side of sound poetry? Also, do you have any opinion about the role sound poetry — or art in general — should play in politics?

Sound poetry is (basically) language, so I’d say it’s inherently political.

Do you think sound poetry has a future as a poetic form?

Sound poetry will be around forever, I think, but it probably won’t gain popularity anytime soon. In its purest form it just doesn’t appeal to a mass audience. It’s always been a niche genre, but I don’t mind. There’s something special about discovering a writer or performer like Jaap Blonk and only one or two of your friends really “get” what he’s doing. You can share that forever.

What are you working on now? What’s your next writing project?

I’ve been juggling two ideas for a while now. For the past six months I’ve been working on an autobiographical analysis of T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. A lot of Eliot’s theological and political themes from works such as “The Hollow Men” and Ash Wednesday, oddly enough, feature heavily in Practical Cats, and they make an interesting backdrop for a story about exploring sexual identity in the Midwest.

Author of “The Singularity Survival Guide” and Editor at JokesLiteraryReview.com. Read more at petermclarke.com. Follow me on Twitter @HeyPeterClarke

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