More Tree Frogs, Less Commercials
OUTSIDE THE UNITED STATES, there is more to radio than corporate-controlled stations churning out 12 hours a day of the same dozen songs, and another 12 hours of commercials. In Germany, freeform radio stations regularly blast their audiences with a mix of subterranean noise, international spoken-word recordings, and such oddities as field recordings of chirping tree frogs. Here, a half-hour spent with an ear pressed to a receiver might make anyone believe Neil Strauss's deliriously hopeful intro to his seminal collection of essays about the radical possibilities of radio, called Radiotext(e). "You'll find radio is still as dangerous and mysterious as a call to arms on a quiet Athens night," Strauss writes. Naturally, the Germans have developed a word for sound recordings that fall somewhere outside easy definition: Hörspiel, or, roughly translated, "soundplay."
Fans of Hörspiel listening to Bayrisch Rundfunk radio in Munich recently heard the entire run of a six-part series produced in the Twin Cities. Titled Voys, the recordings are, in essence, a small-press literary zine put out on a CD. For Voys, radio play in Germany represented something of the closing of a circle. As explained by Erik Belgum, who co-produces and edits the CDs with fellow St. Paulite Brian West, the inspiration for the project came from a similar audiotape journal that originated in Germany. Called S Press, the project began in the Sixties.
"They put out recordings by William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, an interview with John Cage, sound poetry, plays, oddball things in the literary world," Belgum says. "Their cassettes were amazingly expensive--like $30 for a tape. I don't know why they cost so much!"
Voys began four years ago when Belgum and West decided to release recordings of noted poet, author, and translator Raymond Federman reading his novel The Voice in the Closet, which had originally been broadcast on Bayrisch Rundfunk. Since then, the journal has included varied material such as recorded adaptations of plays by Gertrude Stein and a fascinating aural memoir by Brenda Hutchinson in which she explores her mother's gambling addiction and her aunt's senility. "We're looking for stuff that has an edgy, experimental quality," Belgum explains.
The editors, who share backgrounds in fiction writing and electronic music, discourage submissions, preferring to approach authors and performers they already know. Often Belgum and West ask that contributors produce their own 60-to-70-minute DAT tape, although they have gone into the studio with writers for several issues of the audio journal. Hutchinson produced her own tape, blending her narration with sound effects and recordings of her mother to form a complex tapestry of sounds. Hutchinson's rambling, spoken memories intersect with, and sometimes contradict, her mother's. "She's a gambler, a compulsive gambler, and she's been doing that since I was a child," Hutchinson declares at the beginning of the CD, to which her mother, recorded separately, retorts, "I don't know how you could think that I had a gambling problem on three dollars a week!"
The most recent issue of Voys, which can be purchased (along with all of the back issues) at Ruminator Books, is a strangely charming fable by author Alvin Greenberg, formerly a professor of English at Macalester College. Called "The Power of Language," the story tells of the narrator's decision to remain on a small, New England island after it begins to float out to sea. Abandoned by its human population, the narrator is left alone but for a pack of feral pigs, one of whom the narrator suspects of having scratched the word love into the ground near where he lives. "I would not have thought the pigs were familiar with such a word," Greenberg intones, "let alone able to spell it correctly."
This CD is minimal, consisting of nothing but Greenberg's droll storytelling, and there is great pleasure to be found in listening to a narrative that is so meticulously underproduced. "The Power of Language" relies entirely on Greenberg's voice to propel the listener's interest--there are no tree frogs chirping here--and it turns out to be enough. (Max Sparber)
Poetry for Mature Audiences
OUTGOING ARTWORD QUARTERLY editor Carol Robertshaw is struggling to remember the contents of the Winter 2000 issue--a struggle she is losing. "My short-term memory is shot," she explains. "But whatever was in it, I'm sure it was excellent." After a pause, she adds, "I'm not modest."
With Artword, there doesn't seem to be much call for false modesty. This 40-page collection of poetry has, in its five years of existence, received two Pippistrelle "Best of Small Press" awards, and in 1999 a poem first published in its pages won a Pushcart Prize (which Robertshaw calls "the Big One.") Artword has assembled a national, and even international, following despite its tiny print run of a mere 200 copies. The audience for small-press poetry magazines is generally other poets and writers; sometimes it seems that, whether they want to or not, poets write nearly exclusively for other poets. And the upshot of this is that readers of these magazines can be unusually critical; several years ago Matt Groening published a cartoon in which he claimed that the best way to piss off a poet is to be "another poet."