Project update: listening, waves, unfurling

Back in 2019 I wrote about my hopes for a new poetry project, which I called “that listening space” for the time being. I now call it CYMA, for ease, and as the project evolves. I thought I’d share an update on where the project has taken me to date, some of the challenges I’ve come across, and my plans for the next stages of researching and writing CYMA.

CYMA (swell, wave, curve, unfurling of young cabbage leaf) is a poetic exploration of spatial sound in different media: the body, urban space, and the ecology of a richly historied coastal saltmarsh. The poems are inspired by and take the forms of the sonosphere – bubbles, fields, and waves of all kinds – investigating environmental sound as a way of knowing and voicing, and how listening remains possible when hearing is frustrated or silence pervades. The project builds on my abiding interests in bodies, ecology and systems, and challenges me to find ways to privilege the aural over the dominant visual in my writing and thinking.

This year has been both helpful and unhelpful to my process. Reduced traffic noise has made my urban listening more possible and pleasant; at the same time, I have been unable to get to my primary research site for months at a time. I’ve discovered the works of so many artists, those living and those who have gone before, engaging with listening in their work; it’s been impossible to meet fellow writers and researchers as usual. This feels particularly important for this project, which was begun in 2018 after a conversation with my friend Robbie about the work of Pauline Oliveros, and I’m really missing being surrounded by creativity and sharing ideas and processes with others. That said, I have been able to attend online events that I wouldn’t usually have been able to get to, which has been fantastic. I’ve also taken solace in reading and writing more than ever before, returning to old favourites and reading genres that I wouldn’t usually choose; at the same time, the public libraries have been closed and I have access to even fewer resources than I usually do, especially as an independent researcher without the resources of a large institution. The fields of sound art, field recording and composition have been eye-opening and exciting new territories for me, and I’ve dived right into them, flailing in my waterwings; I’ve realised that it’s no mean feat to learn about a whole new discipline. And like everyone else, I’ve had urgent concerns for the health of my loved ones and myself that have blown my creative work out of the water. I’ve had no choice but to immerse myself in a sense of strangeness and disquiet. At least this feeling is exactly what first made me want to write about sound, space, my particularly eerie site and its military and surveillance history.

In terms of output, I’m generating a lot of material: notebook fragments, poems, annotations, dictated notes, photos, videos, sketches of cymatic patterns. I’ll still be in the researching and writing stage for the rest of 2021 I expect, although I edit some of the poems as I go. I’ve had to develop new methods and rhythms of researching, and to return to old ways that I haven’t exercised in a while. I’ve looked at history, ecology, geology and physics, and used notes, videos, field recordings and imagination. I’ve also instigated a parallel practice of writing “letters to S” – a cipher standing for sine waves/ sound/ site/ signal/ space/ spirit. In these letters I write to my subject about my process, research findings, as well as the “noise” of everyday life, and then “post” each letter into a sealed box. The letters form a secret diary of the project that is secret even from myself, for now, as I keep no record of what I’ve written. At the end of the project these signals will be received and incorporated into the final output(s) in some way.

I’m hugely lucky to have this project to sustain and entertain me, and look forward to sharing more of it over the coming months. In the meantime I’d love to hear from others exploring similar territory and can be contacted via my contact page.

Snail experiments

Over the last few weeks I’ve been revisiting a project that I undertook in 2014, in which I collaborated with snails.

I noticed that after periods of summer rain, the gravelled front garden of the house where I was living with friends would come alive with snails. I remember that summer as one of warm rain, grass flowers, and slow mornings drinking lots of black coffee with my friend Meg.

At that time, I had just started keeping a notebook again after a few years of being without a daily writing practice. It occurred to me to try bringing literature and snails together to see what would happen. I did this by taking my notebook outside, and placing snails upon it, and then repeating the experiment indoors, to see if anything changed.

It was fascinating to observe them – they way they moved around, towards and away from one another; the variations in colour and pattern on their shells; the patterns they formed on the page. Most interesting to me was the way they interacted with the paper itself. Outside, almost all of the snails slid off the page and away into the gardenafter a short while, leaving very little trace that they had ever been there. The couple that I brought indoors started to chew the paper, and their munching was surprisingly loud and powerful. These snails did leave the marks of their presence, either biting through a few layers but leaving the page intact, or creating a hole in my ink-scribbled pages. After a while, I removed the snails and replaced them in the garden to go about their days as if nothing much had happened.

To document this process I took photos on my phone. They weren’t of fantastic quality, but gave a nice sense of the snails interacting with the paper, capturing their tentacles fully extended and the translucency of their bodies. Later, I would go on to use one of these images in my poem “Song for a lisp” (a version has been published in The Interpreter’s House, along with two of the photos from 2014). I’ve also referred back to this experiment as part of my ongoing “Compost poems” project.

In “Song for a lisp” I call this experiment “an ecoliterary intervention”, with a wink and a nudge. Having trained myself out of lisping over many years, I had wanted to write myself a tongue-twister that would undo that training and release my voice as it was/is, without the internalised social pressures and shame that too often accompany having a speech impediment. The visual experiment with the snails eventually connected with my writing about tongues (both physical and as languages). Initially wanting to explore physical similarities in texture of the tongue and the snail’s foot, I realised that the snails also helped me to employ a certain faux-academic, formally observant register in the poem, which is about mistakes, slippages and speech impediments. Using a mock-serious, verbose and procedural register allowed me to sit the poem in that space of training/being taught whilst also undermining it, letting out something freeing, uninhibited, and “incorrect”. My hope is that the effect would enact mistakes and impediments as a valid means of aquiring and communicating knowledge, and one that opens up the potential for play, irreverence, trying things out, and collaboration (even with other life forms).

Now that my first pamphlet will be published in 2021, and is currently being typeset and possibly illustrated, it has been fun to repeat the experiment in the hopes of getting some photos of higher, printable quality. I’m still working through this process, making plenty of mistakes and slip-ups, but am enjoying it and wanted to share a few of the new photos.