Below is a short piece I wrote on the Audiatur Festival which will be published (in Norwegian) in the next issue of the Scandinavian literary magazine Vagant.
1) The all-grown-up 20th Century avant-garde: Christian Bök kicked off the festival with a virtuoso performance of Kurt Schwitter’s “Ursonate” and later that same evening we heard a remix of the same work in Tomomi Adachi’s “Schwitter Variations.” Over the course of the festival, work by Hugo Ball, Tristan Tzara, and Marcel Duchamp was also performed and/or reinterpreted. The ghosts of the Dada were present. When Hugo Ball gave birth to sound poetry at the Cabaret Voltaire, he said that he did so to “renounce the language that journalism has abused and corrupted.” It struck me as a curious twist that the creatively destructive impulses of the Dada in the early 20th Century have become codified in the 21st Century to the point that they now form the basis of entire school of poetic practices. The Dadaist impulse to use sound to tear down a corrupted language is now the basis of a developed and sophisticated architecture of non-semantic poetics. Can avant-garde practices that are nearly hundred years old still be considered avant-garde? Does it matter? No matter what else sound poetry is it is no longer a revolution in progress, but rather one that has already occurred, an experiment that has developed a room of its own.
2) The (humor) generating capacity of constraints: Another 20th Century literary movement which has lived far beyond it originary moment in the 1960s, the French ensemble of writers and mathematicians, The Oulipo, was well-represented at Audiatur in the person of Jaques Robaud. While to readers unfamiliar with the Oulipo, a writing practice based on mathematical principles might seem to promise only a dry and cerebral outcome, the constraint-based writing presented at Audiatur demonstrated the ample capacity for humor and play within constraints. Robaud performed a backwards retelling of the creation story in the book of Genesis, in which God successively undoes the layers of his creation, and sees that that undoing is good. In his “Brev” piece, Robaud took us down a cycle in of infinite regression in which a reply that likely will never come is amply addressed. Leevi Lehto read a constrained (N+7) poem that was additionally tortured by the use of all the Finnish vowels. Christian Bök performed selections from Eunoia, probably the most famous recent work of constrained writing, in which we heard hilarious passages about food, writing, and sex, each composed of words using only one vowel. One of the pleasant surprises of the festival for me was not that constrained writing practices generated compelling and complex uses of language, but rather that they were almost universally uproarious. It seems constraints enable poets to shed their high serious gravitas and locate their inner comedians.
3) The tower of Babel might not be so bad after all: Audiatur was truly international with readings in Norwegian, English, Swedish, French, Japanese, Finnish, Russian, among others. Several poems were read, notably a couple of pieces by Caroline Bergvall, which were multilingual. My own petty epiphany was that I found it as engaging to listen to poetry in languages that I absolutely no comprehension of, such as Japanese, Finnish and Russian, as I did when the poems were read in English. The odd middle ground of languages I half-understand, French, Norwegian, and Swedish, was more challenging. The musicality, intonation, body language and other physical performance aspects of poems in languages that I did not understand fascinated me. That is to say, just as one can appreciate sound poetry, perhaps one can appreciate the sound of any poetry, provided the meaning of lines and individual words doesn’t get in the way.
4) The shadows of the digital: The one aspect of the festival I thought was somewhat disappointing was that electronic poetry (forms of poetry that make specific use of properties of the standalone or networked computer) per se was not represented in the mix. As evidenced by works included in the recent electronic literature collection (http://collection.eliterature.org) many of the conceptual threads we saw gathered at Audiatur, from a revivification of 20th Century avant-garde practices to conceptual writing to cross-cultural multilingualism, are also present in recent e-lit. I think it would be revelatory to see these practices presented alongside each other, perhaps at the next festival. While e-lit didn’t rear its head, the influence of digital culture could be seen in many of the pieces presented, such as the bits of video game sound effects in some of Bök’s Cyborg Opera pieces, Martin Larsen’s use of binary code, and Adachi’s theremin-enchanced readings of concrete poetry. Perhaps it no longer makes sense to separate digital culture from culture at large, as computers and networks to some extent pervade all aspects of literary culture.