Eileen Myles, Aloha / irish trees, Fonograf Editions, 2016
Reviewed by Jake Syersak
"fuck...it's so hard," quips Eileen Myles, expressing the frustration of stumbling over her reading of the LP's first poem, 30 or so seconds into the recording. "I think I'm just going to read that one again," she informs the audience. "Sorry," she says, before reintroducing and laughing over the poem's suddenly ironic title: "Sorry."
This is one of many spontaneous charms that frequenters of poetry readings are familiar with—the quirks, foibles, and tweaks occurring when the page comes to life before an audience. Precisely because of moments like this, it's pretty easy to justify the advantages of listening to poetry out loud. But the cynic will inevitably ask, "why listen to poetry on vinyl, of all things?"—especially when online archives like Pennsound, the Naropa Poetry Audio Archive, University of Arizona's Voca—or even YouTube—exist. Fair enough.
The answer?—I think it's the same any record collector would give you when asked, "why listen to music on vinyl?"—when, of course, music is so easily accessible by way of more advanced technological mediums. The truth is, some—let's call them archaic—mediums retain allure in the way of intrinsic, timeless charms (hi, poetry). Notably, when it comes to vinyl, at least some of that charm has to do with its constraints (hi, again, poetry): you can't skip around, shift back, or pulse forward in systematic fashion (in fact, I damaged my copy of Aloha/Irish Trees permanently while jerking the needle back and forth trying to get these quotes right).
With vinyl, as with live performance, you sit and you listen and you are, for the most part, at the mercy of the performance. In this way, it's a medium that is intrinsically immersive, in that you are giving yourself over to moment of voluntary captivation. It's the same with poetry readings. So in terms of poetry readings on vinyl, the form fits the content. It becomes almost anachronistic to think of listening to poetry on something like Spotify. Listening to Myles' Aloha/Irish Trees, you are consenting to both the whims of vinyl's largely uninterrupted contiguity and the integral tenacity of the reading. This makes for an altogether different experience than reading. For example, here's how the first poem Eileen Myles reads on the LP originally looked in print:
Now, here's how a listener of the LP hears it:
Myles' eccentric and excitable reading style, in conjunction with the immersive qualities that of the vinyl format, produce what Eric Baus refers to as poetic moments of "reduced listening" in his Granular Vocabularies: Poetics and Recorded Sound. In this lecture, Baus notes that particular sonic environments—repetition, for example—are capable of creating pockets of intense focus, exposing what Barthes called the "grain" of the voice. Through repetition, the semiotic "meaning" of the language is stripped away and what is left is the "meaning" in the texture, the so-called "grain" of sound that remains. We are made miniscule to navigate that texture. The ramifications are numerous: "What new sensations might emerge?" asks Baus, "Is your sense of...your experience of your own body somehow enlarged by your momentary departure?"
Anyone who has heard Myles read before has probably taken pleasure in the "grain" that emerges in her Bostonian accent, alone: "Darkness" becomes "dahkness" and "party" becomes "pahty," etc. But there's another texture that accompanies keeping up with Myles' exuberant pace on the LP that—at least in my own listening—requires a momentary departure from the language as semiotic text. Borne on the texture of Myles' voice, her sinuous asides, stutters, enunciations, repetitions, and fuck-ups become a pleasurable whirlwind as she interprets and then reinterprets herself. Here's my best go at a transcription of her reading of "Memorial Day":
What's refreshing about listening to this "grain," as it appears on the LP and outside of Myles' written text, is how it forces us to read the tonal qualities, those of the reader, or even those of our reading ourselves reading the reader. I'm not promising an out-of-body experience while listening to Myles' Aloha/Irish Trees, but there's an intimacy impressed upon the record that echoes, and that contemporaneous technologies tend to betray us. It's exciting to think about how far Fonograf Editions will take this and run with it. There are whispers of potential future records by Rae Armantrout and Harmony Holiday, authors well-aware of the sensuous musical qualities of the word.
In any case, I think Jeff Alessandrelli, Fonograf Editions, and those at Octopus are already onto something special here, setting poetry to vinyl. It's a beautiful product too—simple, pressed on clear vinyl, and accompanied by a sheet of brief liner notes doubling as a fragmentary broadside of one of Myles' poems. Feel it out for yourself.