Q&A, circa 1:30 pm, 02 16 2010, Bathhouse Reading Series, Creative Writing Program at Eastern Michigan University, Ypsilanti, MI.
Carla Harryman and Christine Hume, staff in the program, hosted this event in their series and made a sound recording of it.
What follows is a transcript of the session of questions and answers exchanged with the audience, primarily undergraduates at EMU, immediately following the presentation of manipulated recorded sounds with some oral commentary on them by audio artist Stephanie Rowden of the University of Michigan School of Art & Design and the reading-performance by Steve Benson, in which he moved about in a space including a large table, a couch, and a dry erase board, reading diverse texts from various sources that he had brought with him. A recording of Benson’s performance, titled “All Words Spoken Represent Words Being Read,” can be heard at http://writing.upenn.edu/pennsound/x/Benson.php
Questions and answers regarding the reading/performance by Stephanie Rowden were interspersed with those concerning Steve Benson’s work, during this exchange, but they are not included here.
Permission to present literal transcriptions of language other than Benson’s and Harryman’s have not been obtained, so, in this transcript, audience comments and questions are summarized and paraphrased, while Benson’s and Harryman’s words are verbatim, edited only to leave out meaningless language. When a question is addressed to both presenters, Bowden’s responses are summarized and paraphrased.
Carla Harryman: (After some uncertainty about which mikes might be working or how well we could hear one another.) Let’s go. Steve can yell, and I can yell, so let’s ask some questions, and we can just belt them out! Come on down! . . .
Steve Benson: . . . or reactions, or anything.
Question asks if I only read words on the page or if some were otherwise filled in.
SB: Well, I’ve not done this before, but I was trying to do something so that every word I read was on the page, but some of them were misread, as well as repeated and jumbled around. Occasionally I would read a word slightly wrong, and then I read cat as had or had as bad or something like that. But mostly I tried to just read words on the page, and I thought I might add words, but I didn’t really.
Question whether those are all books I’ve read or want to read.
SB: They’re mostly books I’ve written or read or want to read. Yeah. Mostly read, or written, yeah. And then I had all these notes and things that are mostly things I’d jotted down in recent days, too, thinking I could read them.
Question what my button says.
SB: Oh my button says ‘A L O C No lecturer left behind E M U F T.’ It’s to support the adjunct faculty at EMU. Any other questions, thought, reflections, reactions to Stephanie’s work or me – yes?
Question as to whether it was a coincidence or did I throw in some quotes from Stephanie’s piece.
SB: Yeah they were on some of the little slips of paper. They were some references or pieces that I heard that I liked. I thought I might be able to use them.
Question as to whether my works are mostly selections of different works that are juxtaposed together.
SB: Today it is, yeah.
Same questioner remarks how hard it was to hear the microphone at the beginning, asking whether this was part of my work “on purpose” or ad libbed.
SB: I talked about the microphone—I read about the microphone, but I didn’t know the microphone was not—
CH: It wasn’t working—
SB: heard well, I only figured that out when Carla walked up and gave me a microphone to hold. And then she took it away again, so I still didn’t really know. I don’t really even know if it’s working now.
CH: Well that was because the two signals on the microphone were competing—
SB: This one and this one?
CH: and we didn’t know that until somewhere—so something wasn’t working—so they suggested that I give you the microphone, turned on, but then it turned out that that just meant the two were competing signals, so that in fact the best solution would have been to have taken that microphone out of the room, . . .
Question how she had worked that out. Questioner assumed that the two of us had just worked it out in advance.
CH: Well I tried to remember our collaborations of the past while I was giving it, just so that it didn’t seem too discombobulating—
SB: I was happy to see you, you know. It was a moment of partnership, even though I didn’t know what the full intention of it was. I thought it might be that you thought this might be a good added piece.
CH: And I was happy to be trying to do something!
Questioner remarks on enjoying the moment when Carla and Christine walked out of the auditorium and the next words I read were “Two people are talking in another room.”
SB: Wow, I didn’t even know that. . .
CH: Well, here’s a question that connects to this conversation and that maybe both of you can engage because I think it has something to do with different kinds of activity and putting anything that’s ambient and listening and how certain forms invite unanticipated relations within some area of attention or focus. Maybe both of you could talk about that.
Stephanie spoke on how this occurs within her listening, recording, and processing of sounds in her environment. Just as she says this happens most in the moment of recording, a huge wave of feedback absorbs her speaking voice and fades again. I put something on mute, so this will stop happening.
CH: But it’s something you’re choosing to include in the work in process, showing a simultaneous diversity of sounds, voices, and iterations that distrivuted ideas in ways that didn’t construct an argument. It made an experience. That seemed a little related to what Steve is doing.
SB: I don’t have any consistent sense of an argument. If there’s an argument, I sort of discover it as I’m going along, and I might just as easily abandon it, as I go further along. So it’s thrilling or exciting to discover it, but once I start flogging the argument or trying to drive it home, it becomes really empty or useless in my work. I can’t sustain that too long. A lot of the best things that have happened in some of my pieces have been accidents, like we’ve been talking about, accidents of interacting with technology that have paid off in surprising ways, like where a playback tape that I thought the audience couldn’t hear and I could hear was being heard by the audience too, due to some mixmax, mismatch of other things at the time.
After Stephanie tells us, at Carla’s request, about the work she didn’t play due to time constraints, how bumping up against limits can be liberating. She spoke of working on a piece that, instead of rooted in a memory, grew out of some experience in the present. A certain mishap in the social world helped make a work based on interactions in the world while allowing things to unfold.
A long pause followed.
SB: One thing I was thinking about as I was working with the piece that I was working was that I didn’t know what really the effect would be, of trying to do what I was trying to do today, either for myself or for the audience. I just felt that I wanted to find out, so it was sort of an investigation, and then as I was working on it there would be different moments where I would find some way that something was working, or I would try some way to work with something. And so, as a group, all 150 or 200 of us were party to that, though I was kind of carrying the ball in one sense all of the time, but in another sense there were ways that each of you was carrying the ball and probably wondering, sometimes, what in the world is the point of this? Even the parts that were different were redundant with each other, and other times where there may have been an electricity, or sense of curiosity or discovery, or satisfaction. And so I’m interested in that. It’s sort of like a big field composition in which different parts are probably interesting in different ways, and I’m not sure what’s good or bad about that. I’m just feeling, as I think about it, that maybe that’s what happened today. I’m curious, any thoughts that anybody else has, too.
Question whether pieces of this will rise to the top for me as I reflect back on it, as something I want to try again, or not try again.
SB: Probably, maybe, and that will happen because I’m listening to a recording of it or transcribing it to see how it works, word to word. It will happen through my reviewing the documentation. I can’t really say based on my experience here today what was good or bad about it, because I’ve had things, I’ve had performances that I thought were really humiliatingly terrible and then later been able to review them through a videotape or an audiotape and found out something really interesting and challenging and vital, for me, about it. But I never know just what anybody else has felt.
Questioner notes that she felt I was taking audience “through a modern pedestrian experience,” which she thought wonderful, showing “the abundance of what happens in our minds all the time and what we take in and how we’re constantly processing new texts,” on the screen, from the book, through an audio, and so on, so she was “trying to think about that and also to distill that to focus just on the individual moment” and what she could get from that, what certain place that might bring one to, or a person, or personality—“it draws that out.”
SB: Thank you. That makes a lot of sense to me.
Question about whether the sounds my laptop computer was making were vital or just another piece.
SB: They were room noise that I recorded at home. They were kind of intended—I meant them to be sort of extra, sort of a background, not actually vital to the piece. So I have this compelling curiosity about that. I was interested in them as something that the piece measures itself against, as just more events in time, in a sense, but that aren’t necessarily pertinent to what’s happening. In this case they are Steve Benson’s apartment, back in Maine, three days or so ago, in the kitchen and that sort of thing. So it’s another time of place, and so it provides a sense of measure and something that I was pulling against, but actually I was hardly ever listening to them. In fact when I heard noises, I wasn’t sure whether it was the stuff I’d recorded or something else that was happening, in the room. It was pretty confusing.
Question about my stage movement, including kneeling down like a young child, all dressed up, confusing her. She interpreted my work as a lot of mixed up thoughts she thought I might not know how to interpret, myself, since, as a younger child, in my innocence I might feel unsure what’s going on around myself or what’s happening, so my imagery might convey that, as what I’d meant to have happen to begin with – on purpose, to represent how confusing it might be and how frustrating it is for someone. She asked whether she was completely off.
SB: No, I don’t think you’re completely off, but I think that part of the image of myself as a young child when I was kneeling down on the floor wasn’t really in my brain as the reason I was doing it. But I think that, all the same, the resonance that you picked up there is really appropriate. There was that quality, throughout, that there’s all these words and all this experience of reading, and there’s the interplay and the overlay and the aftereffect of having read, along with the reading and wondering where that goes. The innocence of the young child is really pertinent to that. I think that carries along with all of us, through life.
Question about whether I have a system about what I will read from each juxtaposed text – do I start at the top of the page or at the third line, especially when I go back and forth between two different texts I may be holding in my view at the same time.
SB: Generally, no. There might be a method that I’m just trying—sampling out—at the moment, but I don’t have any set system, at all. There’s one poem that I’m reading, you saw me turn the page again and again, there’s phrases that reminded you of each other, and that’s a poem that’s actually written that way, in my first book, across the pages. There are 8 different 15-line poems or something like that, and in each one the same line in the same position in the next poem is based on the previous one. But that’s unusual. Mostly I was just letting my eye jump and wander, and sometimes I was really trying to make syntax follow and sometimes I was trying to let it be blurts. So there’s very little—no consistent system.
A question as to whether I prefer pieces that I improvise more than pieces that I take months to create, whether it’s a better experience for me.
SB: I can’t remember any pieces that I put on that aren’t very largely improvisational. But I don’t necessarily prefer those over things that I’ve written, either that are written carefully, or that are written and rewritten and rewritten and rewritten carefully. Those provide three different categories, since the middle category is an improvisation on the page, which quite a number of my works are—they weren’t rewritten. I think of revising often as a sort of improvising, moving it in a direction where I don’t know quite where it will go. No, I don’t really have a preference. Some of them work better for me than others.
After discussing with audience whether or how her work might have a therapeutic potential, a question is asked about the relation between documentation and the work itself, in both Stephanie’s process and my own, through extending a document into other times and places. Stephanie answered first, carefully, speaking about how interested she is in coming to know something about a place or interaction through attention to the particulars in material that she chooses for investigating, whether questions can or can’t be answered, learning about the potentials for relation with other people.
The questioner pushes the question back toward how documenting the work itself, rather than resource materials it may develop in relation to, for instance, how the recording of the performance . . .
SB: In your work, Stephanie, it seems to me—my feeling at the moment is that you take a document sometimes, like the story about the bicycle bell, or Wolfgang’s and other people’s verbalizations, and you’re handling them, with great interest, and you’re working with them by adding sounds and modulating sounds, and there’s a quality of taking something as a document and trying to preserve it but also shape it, which is very delicate in a way and very interesting and ambiguous, too—both keeping it as it is but also selecting, and shaping, and adjusting through what goes with it. That’s what I noticed, anyway. And for me, a document is more like—there’s action in the world, and technology applied to it, and it renders something—a sound on tape, or a videotape, or something. And in a way, there’s reflection in that: in what way can I use the document as a presentation of the art work, and is that the art work or is it just a representation of the art work that people who weren’t at that show, if it’s the document of a performance, can’t see or hear, or if it’s an audiotape that’s on line, and anybody can dial it up on their computer and listen to it, is that the art work or is it just a representation of the art work? But I also realize, today, I’m handling written materials, some of which are poems I’m very proud of and love, and other of which are idle notes or documents that I picked up as hand-outs from here and there, and handling all those as documents, they’re just a lot of documents, in a way. So I’m kind of throwing the art value of my own work or Malcolm Cowley’s novel Under the Volcano, or something else, into question, for myself, by doing that. Not necessarily a comfortable experience, but I notice myself doing that.
A question to Stephanie about hearing and remembering sounds that she records and whether they may retain a special value or change in significance for her over time, receives from her a generous, complex, and anecdotal response, including discussion of both presence and absence as abiding within a sound one attends to, as well as her sense of a change of location in response to sounds, an affirmation which leads her to ask the same of her questioner.
CH: So that seems like something, Steve, that you’re very much investigating all of the time—some kind of a question about what sustains itself or lasts or is preserved and what disappears—and that there’s this meeting of those two things happening continuously in your work, and in fact partly what you seemed to be doing in your performance was sort of illustrating or enacting that.
SB: Yeah. I seem to pay attention a lot to the slippage—between “Oh, I’m knowing this now,” and “The moment has passed, and what do I retain from that, and did it change into something else or is something else just replacing it, how do I know the difference? how do I understand that?” And so, if I’m writing, and there’s something I’m trying to track or say, something that’s occurring to me right now, there’s all sorts of selectivity that comes into that if I’m keeping it up. It’s impossible, I find, to do it purely, to write only what’s in my head, and then I’ll make editorial or aesthetic choices. But also what you’re saying Carla reminds me of a work—when I was reading aloud from the brown-covered journal, it’s like a long long poem that I’m writing now, where I only write a few lines, close to the time I go to sleep, and then I think I know where it’s going to go when I get back to it the next night, but I’m cut off arbitrarily by a kind of choice that I have, that I’m not going to write beyond the end of that third line, or whatever, and so when I come back the next night often I don’t have a clue where I thought it was going, and I have to decide all over again, what the rest of that sentence is, where that thought is going to go, because I am looking for a continuity in that piece of writing. So that quality of loss is also a discovery that happens, but it can be challenging.
CH: (after a long pause) Thanks!
SB: (to Stephanie) I didn’t know we would do this. It’s wonderful. We really got to talk a long time. It’s great.
[transcription by Steve Benson, 10 18 2014 – 03 29 2015]
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