A rehearsal video from May 31, 2017, showing an excerpt from the second section of the dance as a work in progress. Using videos we were able to see some of what Nikki was setting. Because both of us were dancing or at least “on stage”, it was impossible to know what the overall look and pattern of the dance were. This reminds me that Joe Goode works in a studio without mirrors. Since his choreography is collaborative with his dancers, it means that each dancer has a perspective of the piece, but no one sees the piece as a whole. The dancers are dancing to each other, rather than to an audience.
The rehearsal took place in a studio in south London. In the background the traffic noises blend with the recordings, creating a soundscape combining country and city.
The third poem we worked on that afternoon describes the flight of clouds over Dartmoor: ‘flight: amber tracings,/ shadows/ from clouds/ overhead. // the horizon’s tilt/ sheds vertical song // flashes with wings
Perhaps it’s the word amber, which described the color that passing cloud shadows turn the stiffer sturdier green grasses of the moor below, and that now describes the rough planks of the pub’s floor, but suddenly I can see the contours of Dartmoor mapped over a pub floor in Southwark.
Nikki has evoked this image by asking, ‘Am I the voice or the clouds?’
And following that, the exclamation: I’m walking around on a canvas. It’s still there.
It seems wherever we are we can throw down a meadow across the floor in our imagination. Locale has that great a power. As do words. As does the body in its flight across the surface of the earth.
Sunday, 24 May, 2015
We go out to the pub where Nikki has her Secret Salon, a Sunday afternoon dance event. It’s one of those upstairs rooms found at most pubs, with a rough wooden floor and lots of tables and chairs. Nikki clears the furniture to the sides of the room, creating a dance space in the midst of a cabaret setting. Nikki asks me to read the series and I do, several times; it’s a way to focus, to clear our minds from the train ride down to London Bridge, and the upcoming dance classes and event.
We begin with the first dance that she did over a year ago. She watches the video, refreshing her memory. And writes out the combination that she devised months ago for the poem that begins “the colour of tourmaline”.
We rehearse the poem and combination several times, and Nikki comments that the way I am reading is completely different from the first rehearsal in January 2014. It can be summed up, she says, in one word. I’m baffled; I have no idea what the word could be. She explains that the first version was about rhythm and the second about melody. I can see this in the dancing, which seems far more lyrical the second time around, but I can’t hear the difference in the reading, whereas Nikki can. We film the rehearsal and play back the two videos.
It makes sense though that the first version is about rhythm because we spent the bulk of our time in the first rehearsal trying to determine the stresses in the poem. This emphasis has switched somewhat in the following rehearsals. I have been thinking about the poems and how to speak them. I would like them to be as close to speech as possible without the rhetoric of ‘delivery’. Really, I want them to be like a caress. More present than a whisper, but without the need to compel or persuade. Something as quiet and as natural as the grass on the hills from out of which they came.
Saturday night, 23 May, 2015
One of the things discussed on Thursday was the use of the dockyards at Medway. I wondered if the text should be more site specific, referential like the poem that I just finished in response to Rimbaud’s “Aube”. In the French poem, Rimbaud chases the dawn across the surface of buildings, steeples and domes, the marble quays, until he reaches the woods. The possibility of mixing languages was a question.
But we decided to return to the small poems that make up “Passing Moments”. Perhaps because we are feeling our way in the project it just seems easier to deal with very small poetic units. Eventually the poetic units will add up and Anna’s layering of music and words and Nikki’s steps will work to tie the series into a unified performative whole.
We chose two more poems to set, and worked in the hallway, a small space but enough for marking, devising two more combinations. Working in the hallway, we seem to shift our focus to the spatial elements of the poetry. Nikki seems more affected by the content of the words. The poem with the phrase “the horizon’s tilt/ sheds vertical song” affects her sense of movement. This doesn’t seem to be a problem the next day when we are working in a much larger space.
From HD’s Poet and the Dancer:
dance for the world is dead,
dance for you are my mistress,
you are my stylus,
you write in the air with this foot,
with that foot,
with this arrow;
your flung hand
is that pointed arrow,
your taut frame
is one arrow,
I’ve been invited to give a paper on an aspect of prose poetry at a symposium in Liège. In order to maintain a degree of focus in my reading, thinking and practice, I’m working on an association between prose poetry and early jazz music. The link between these two forms was inspired by Baudelaire’s famous Preface to his Petits Poèmes en Prose:
Who among us has not, in moments of ambition, dreamt of the miracle of a form of poetic prose, musical but without rhythm and rhyme, both supple and staccato enough to adapt itself to the lyrical movements of our souls, the undulating movements of our reveries, and the convulsive movements of our consciences?
This obsessive ideal springs above all from frequent contact with enormous cities, from the junction of their innumerable connections. (translated by Rosemary Lloyd)
It seems to me that what Baudelaire is invoking here is a spirit of early jazz, avant la lettre. The hard part will be proving it.
After several months I’m returning to the blog. We’ve been interrupted by my traveling for work and returning to California only to leave and return again. Nikki’s time has been additionally impacted by her father’s being diagnosed with cancer.
Even so, earlier in the year, we met to experiment with poetry and dance. The question we wanted to answer was: Is it possible to set dance to poetry? Or further: Is it possible to take the unadorned rhythms of contemporary poetry and use them as the basis for movement without the aid of music?
I have to say it was with some uneasiness that I approached these questions.
Nikki and I met at her studio space at Seven Dials in London. It’s an open space surrounded by the business of people coming and going, antique and junk dealers, clothes merchants. People rent time. The space we used is a largish room full of old brocade upholstered couches, lace curtains, antique lighting fixtures. There are no doors and the walls are partitions, so noise seeps in from every surrounding stall.
We began by my reading the short poem posted early on the site: the colour of tourmaline. I read the poem several times, slowly, so that I could assess the emphases in the language as well as the duration of words. Figuring that out was more difficult than I thought it would be because the changes are subtler than we expect when we schematicise poetry into metrics.
We worked line by line. Nikki working out the patterns of rhythm not only in her body but also in the emphasis of her feet against the floor. The floor was definitely a member of the dance team. Once she had worked out a combination for the poem, we tried some improvisational work. First, with her changing the steps while keeping the basic structure of the combination; second with her keeping the combination while I made small changes in the way I read the poem. Both of us kept the reading and the dancing slow, while developing and memorising the roles of dance and poetry.
Terri Mester’s look at the influence of dance on literary modernism mostly examines how dance is used as a central image in the work of Yeats, Eliot, Lawrence and Williams. All four writers used dance or the dancer as a kind of symbol for an understanding that exceeds other human understandings. Yeat’s dancer is the most exalted, Lawrence’s the most primitive, seated more in the body than in a whole being. Both see dancing as ritualistic and somehow divine.
In Yeats’ schematic system for the progression of self and history, the dancer “belongs to the fifteenth phase along with others who achieve perfect unity of being” (37).
When I think of the moment before revelation I think of Salomé – she, too, delicately tinted or maybe mahogany dark – dancing before Herod and receiving the Prophet’s head in her indifferent hands, and wonder if what seems to us decadence was not in reality the exaltation of the flesh and of civilization perfectly achieved. (A Vision 273)
She does point out how the writers have dance-like forms, in one way or another. Eliot devising theories of rhythm and the poet’s ‘auditory imagination’, noting further that ‘keeping time orders the universe, so that both humans and beasts are in step or ‘reconciled among the stars’(85). And Williams mirroring the dancer’s movement in space in the fragmented lines slung across the page.
One of her more interesting observations is of Yeats’ fascination with the dancer’s “inward-looking expression. For while the body of a dancer thinks, the face, paradoxically, should not” (33). The difficulty and effort of dancing should be hidden. Further,
Yeats read in the dancer’s blank gaze an ideal of impersonality, which he tried to achieve in his own art. Yeats though that the poet should work on the raw materials of his personal life and “exhaust personal emotion in action or desire so completely that something impersonal, something that has nothing to do with action or desire’ results”. (35, quotes from Yeats’ Autobiography 332)
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.