“Without the loudspeaker, we would never have conquered Germany”
Listening Manifesto: Examining the Role of Poetry and Sound
Sitting in a cardiac intensive-care unit, amidst a pool of wires and monitors, small blinking lights, oxygen masks and white sheets, from deep inside his ribcage I hear his heartbeat slow and in pain. This is the only part of him I recognize. After fighting a twelve-year battle with heavy meth and alcohol use, beaten by drug dealers, everything is bruised skin. I open my mouth to speak, but nothing comes out. I am speechless. My brother’s drug overdose makes me uncomfortable, because it makes me ask, “What happens when language fails to affect in the same way as sound?” Although I can think of other situations where the opposite has been true, and language in the form of poetry has impacted me more than any sound, I am enthralled by this. I want to scream, grunt, and cry. Here I am, a poet, my brother dying, and I can’t express myself in words. What if poetry and sound could meet together, wouldn’t one enhance the other? I have lost something inside me. I don’t know what.
Trying to find what I have lost, I have begun by listening. To my iPod, to my cellphone ring, to skateboarders going up and down a ramp, to American Idol, to the noise in schoolyards and playgrounds, to slang words and rap videos, video games and shopping malls, to the do-it-yourself YouTube generation and MySpace-friendly global participants. I listen to all the sounds of the generation that my brother is a part of. In this world, there exists noise, music, and imagination, but there is no room for poetry. I mean poetry found in the ordinary, in the common, in the interaction between people; poetry of the spiritual, of the personal, of the ritualistic and ceremonial acts of young people. When I speak of poetry I don’t mean classical poets like Shakespeare or even non-traditional poets like spoken-word poets. I mean poetry in terms of storytelling. Every poem is a story condensed.
If there is a place where poetry and sound meet it is in listening. The first task of the poet is to listen. I compare this task to that of a DJ. A good DJ listens to multiple things at once. He listens to two songs at the same time, while he is manipulating their ranges, speeds, and the variations on the mixer. He listens, waiting for the right moment to make the transition from one song to another, letting the music flow. At the same time, a good DJ is listening to the audience to know whether they are enjoying the music. The poet is like a DJ. The poet listens to people tell multiple stories—the way they tell them and the words and sounds they use. Then, the poet finds the right place, the right moment when he transitions the listener from one idea to another. The transition must be smooth, so that even the paradox flows. When the poet reads the poem he should read with meaning, articulation, imitation. In other words, the poet is using sound to create a story.
Storytelling and sound-making are performative arts. When one tells a story, there is always a relationship between the storyteller and the listener. In poetry, the relationship is the same in coexistence with sound. In a class I taught recently, I asked students to record sounds happening in a mall and to listen how those sounds might tell a story. I introduced them to the basic poetic elements of repetition, rhyme, paradox, and metaphor. Students came back with their findings after two hours recording. One student’s soundtrack stood out; she recorded the sounds of hangers, the sounds of shoes against the floor, the sounds of the elevator, and the sounds of the cash registers. The student had been interested in these sounds because she remembered her mother working in a clothing store when she was little. There was poetry in the sound of the hangers—for her, it meant her mom would be off work soon.
Public spaces are the best places to listen. There are so many different sounds. A month ago, I visited a non-profit soul food restaurant called Nature’s Best in South Central Los Angeles. The restaurant was established by a retired lawyer and poet named Jacinto. Surrounded in his neighborhood by people who couldn’t afford to pay full price for food, Jacinto made his restaurant a place where one can pay what one can, no matter how much one eats. Inside the restaurant there is a waiting room equipped with chairs and tables where customers can play chess. There is a sound system, always on, just in case one feels inspired to recite a poem, share a message, or simply sing. There are drums and a guitar if customers feel like playing. While one waits, Jacinto and his wife are cooking. After the meal, Jacinto comes by and recites a couple of his poems: “Let me tell you, let me tell you…,” he begins. A place like Nature’s Best is a good example of a democratic space, a listening station. It is a model of resistance and alternative thinking, providing a space where different people can interact and where poetry and music are accessible to anybody.
The spoken and unspoken
A friend once told me that there are three ways to die: the first is physical death, the second a spiritual death, when no one remembers you, and the third is when no one mentions your name. The spoken never dies. I have lost in the process of writing this essay a confidence in words, my heart—my brother—but I have also gained insight. What happens when poetry fails? We create listening spaces in our mind, in our bodies, pocket holes where sound allows us to learn, allows us to understand and take action. There is a crisis in our nation that has affected our ability to listen. Living in a visual culture, we are often quick to judge, make war, and ignore the poetry surrounding us.
If we are to live in a democracy that establishes the freedom of sound—that is, the freedom to speak and hear what we want—then we, as citizens, should learn to be listeners, poets, and storytellers. We should in our work and in our speaking listening stations with which we can hear individual choices and the will of the collective. We must listen in order to respond and take action.