Stressed out again . . .

Doing a little search on scansion, I find several other systems have been proposed in the past century, all of them moving away from the binary stressed/unstressed. Most of these waver between three and four stresses. American poet Alfred Corn proposes a three-stress system that merges the half-strong and the half-weak categories of Otto Jesperson’s four-stress system, devised in 1900, leaving strong, medium and weak stresses. Corn puts forth this argument in his 1997 The Poem’s Heartbeat. But Derek Attridge proposed a super-complex system in his 1995 study, Poetic Rhythm: An Introduction. Corn and Attridge need further study. Nabokov’s work on prosody also needs to be looked at, if for no other reason than he seems to have hated the idea of poetry and music sharing notation, or perhaps even the same aesthetic space.

One very interesting item is that Unicode characters have been devised for metrics. Unicode, a computing industry language for consistent representation of text found in most of the world’s languages with writing systems, include such things as Greek metrics: triseme, tetraseme, pentaseme. These ‘semes’ designate the length of a syllable’s sounding rather than its stress. For example, a pentaseme would be the length of five syllables, and the stresses within that length may shift. It could, I suppose, have a rising or falling stress. When I lived in Greece, most of my English-speaking friends had trouble understanding Greek because the stresses, or lack of them, made the language sound like one continuous flow. That was explained to me as a difference from most European languages, which would have a weak stress, that is to say, three levels of stress, whereas Greek had only two stresses. It was very difficult for us to hear the stresses in the language. Homophonic words, distinguishable only by stress, sounded the same to us.



Choosing a series of 12 or so short poems I decided to make a recording so that Nikki would have something to work with. The poems in this series are all about six lines long, and the individual lines are only a few words: eight at the most, one at the least and three on average. They were created in a sort Dadaist/Oulipian manner by going to the website The site describes itself as:

The idea for the poetry machine was conceived as a response to musings about Dada. We wanted to create something that combined machinery and poetry for the “Navidada” – a Christmas Dada event in Barcelona, Spain in 2009. Our initial question was could we create a machine which would generate poetry?

Designed by Harriet Sandiland and Alena Widows, The Poetry Machine asks the poet-player to answer a series of five questions, such as: What’s in your bag? What remains? Where will you go? What shade appeals to you? What shape was the morning? Spontaneous answers are asked for. Once the five questions are answered The Poetry Machine mixes the words and lines to present a “new” poem. The poet-player can then edit the results. Because I wanted to create a series of twenty poems for an artist’s book I was making, I concentrated on an especially beautiful locale near where I live, trying to include the imagery that would then spontaneously arise. After that the poems went through several versions and revisions until I was happy with them – or as happy as I can be.

I chose this series for our dance/poetry experiments not only because I was working on it at the time but because it was set in the southwest English landscape, in a locale on the edge of Darmoor. This fits in with the idea of space that is so crucial to dance.

More on the poems later. What I wanted to talk about in this post was the recording. I recorded the poems into Garage Band, which like most such software imitates a soundboard in its look and its affects. What struck me at the time was that the stress and unstress of traditional scansion is not really suggested by the images the software produces of the recorded sound waves. There are levels of stress and perhaps more important is that there is a kind of decay with each sound made. Is this why scansion is so difficult for people? Would the digitization of speech recording change traditional scansion? More to investigate.

Four beats to the bar

The first thing Nikki and I had to agree on in this collaboration was how and where poetry and dance intersect as art forms. What necessary property do they share in common?

Where the two art forms intersect is in the dimension of music. Both dance and poetry need some form of musicality as the basis of their emotional and physical realisation. Accept that axiom and the next question is: Which aspect of musicality is not only inherent but also necessary in both forms?

There are a number of components to music, and a quick search lists them as melody, harmony, rhythm, timbre, and form. All of these have analogs within poetry and dance, but only two are shared as absolutes: rhythm and form. And of those two, form has almost no immediate meaning or relevance. So …


The one thing Nikki and I agreed upon from the very beginning was that we would approach the intersection of dance and poetry from rhythm. Other things, like form and melody, would follow in the future.

A little background music

This project began in spring of 2013 when a Call for Papers was listed on Facebook. The conference was about experimental women poets and was held in the UK. There were some glaring oversights and some odd citings, which led to an online discussion of why writers such as Geraldine Monk, Denise Riley and Wendy Mulford had not been listed as experimental writers. Of all the comments, Vahni Capildeo’s seemed the most insightful, and so backchanneling her, I asked Vahni if she wanted to write a proposal with me. She was game, and we decided to try to do something as experimental as possible in the proposal topic. Somewhere in the conversation I mentioned that I’d be up for anything: we could dance the text, or something along those lines. Later she emailed me:

Are you serious about dance performance? I know a dancer who interprets text! She choreographs now and also performs/teaches but has a PhD in prose poetry from King’s College London…

The conversation continued:

So far we have:
Your text to Geraldine woven in with Geraldine’s poetry
Perhaps alternating with:
My as-yet-unwritten text to Denise woven in with Denise’s poetry
Both sets of texts interpreted by Nikki OR Emma in another musical / dance performative medium

Sounds pretty good.

Nikki was interested, and Vahni and I managed to throw a proposal together:

Renegade Rhythms: Dancing the She-Poets Geraldine Monk, Wendy Mulford and Denise Riley

Poetry by women, especially in the experimental mode, has long been identified in literary theory as a means to celebrate the body. Does this perspective succeed in overwriting the conventional dualism of mind versus body and its alignment with good/man and evil/woman, however? … Poet/ academics Jaime Robles and Vahni Capildeo, with dancer/ choreographer Nikki Santilli, propose a new way of understanding, literally re-presenting the body in movement, in an exploration of the kinetics of poetry. Their panel focuses on the work of three of the UK’s most influential experimental writers: Geraldine Monk, Wendy Mulford and Denise Riley … Nikki Santilli extracts the rhythms of these three she-poets’ writings, setting them in motion on the screen and through space. Vahni Capildeo and Jaime Robles provide the verbal beat.

The proposal was rejected, and Vahni got caught up in a web of job searching.

Nikki and I, however, seem to be holding on to the project like a couple of pit bulls attached to an intruder’s pant leg. One of the advantages of having the CFP proposal rejected was that it allowed us to change focus, so we didn’t have to immediately address the work of other authors or even a variety of work. We could, in a way, start more slowly and with work that was completely our own.

First moves from the dancer

The Color of Tourmaline (US version!)

We began with only the rhythm of the poem (no words). Jaime read aloud the first line and clapped the rhythm. Gradually she let go of the words until she felt she had extracted the rhythm. This rhythm, we noticed, had separate identities, dependent on whether Jaime was working it out from the text, reading it aloud, or reading it out loud repetitively.

Eventually we settled into a version that struck Jaime as appropriate for the poem she had composed, in its new form.

My first challenge was to let go of any ghostly musical structure which provides an overarching consistency, particularly in early jazz & swing music, of the 32 or 12 bar chorus, which I usually work with. Instead, I had to take each phrase as a new base structure. From this angle, I noticed that my attention was on “what next?” much more so than when choreographing or improvising to a piece of music. Recorded music may include stray bars, but mostly I can navigate an unknown piece, with some accuracy, after hearing first chorus. The unpredictable rhythmic phrases in the poetry was very enjoyable to discover and work within.

Another lesson for me was the importance that physical weight demanded. Although weight was necessary particularly for stress-emphasis (eg: stomp / stomp for Tourmaline), we were both slightly surprised by the lack of weight which seemed to best convey “the floor” even though it had a similar rhythm (and rhyme) to “of Tourmaline”.

This also introduced the idea of texture, quite early on. A slide was deemed best for “unsteadily” and while I was busy seeking a solution to “seems”, Jaime put an end to the matter by telling me there was a gap afterwards, so I’d better find something that landed me on two feet!

The end of the poem was also interesting to work on. I suddenly, instinctively, resisted pinning down the line “in the land between my palms” and Jaime corroborated this when she described to me her sense of the poem as fading away. Finally we were both satisfied by a side step pushing  into the hip followed by a dragged foot weaving its way back to the meet the other and a silent weight change to mark the end (which Jaime may not even have seen).

Once we could both present an agreed version of the rhythm of the poem, we each of us acted as the “base” against which the other could play. From my point of view, when I was the one free to improvise, I noticed that I immediately began to incorporate body motions, spins and contra-body expression to ornament the basic rhythmic pattern. As the “base” it was a lot harder to keep time, while hearing Jaime riff her lines, as I naturally heard her as my base and tended to follow her.

I found it easier than I imagined to get going and thanks to Jaime’s patience, I was able to work repetitively as needed to isolate, capture and refine her poem into these initial sounds and movements. To hear her approve of a move or a sound was thrilling as I knew it had illuminated some aspect for her that was non-verbal which remained un-articulated, but was now expressed.

First words from the poet

Nikki and I met this afternoon over at LASSCO Ropemakers to begin work on Passing Moments (ha! why change the übertitle?). We started with the first poem:

Red leaves p5

What has become clear to me in the past month or so is that the traditional way of scanning poetry, which is as a set of stressed versus unstressed syllables, doesn’t really work as an accurate rhythmic description of poems. There seem to be at least three levels of stress in any line, and there is a shift of speed between syllables, though I suppose those might be related to stress. Unstressed syllables may run together faster than combinations of stressed and unstressed. Is that true? Maybe not. The second syllable of ‘colour’ follows the first syllable much faster that the syllables in ‘unsteadily on the floor’.

Back to binaries: The first syllable ‘colour’ is stressed more strongly than either the first or last syllable ‘tourmaline’, which in turn are more stressed than the second syllable.

We began by beating out the rhythm, without the words. The meaning of the words somehow interfered with their rhythm. At one point I clapped the rhythm, but both Nikki and I were disconcerted by the differences in the sound of clapping. If I hit my hand in the centre I got a very different sound that if I hit the heel of my hand, so I had to make the strongest stress by hitting the centre of my hand and the least stressed on the palm of my hand. Differences in degree of stress depended on how hard I hit the palm or heel of my hand. These differences are very well sketched out in flamenco palmas. They have names: fuertes (secas) and sordas. But I think there are only two of them, the additional percussion is added by stamping the foot, and where you stamp on the foot: golpes (full foot), plantas (ball of the foot), punta (tip of the foot), tacon (drop of the heel). These bodily created percussive sounds have more variety.

Once Nikki had worked out a series of steps to the rhythm of the words. We tried a little improvisation: first Nikki improvised to the words while I tried to repeat the poems in the same rhythm several times. Then Nikki kept the steps steady in rhythm and I shifted around the reading including repetitions, speeding up, slowing down, varying the length of pauses.

All of this worked better than I thought it would. But then I’m a woman of principle, not a woman of faith!