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A Poetics of Listening

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I have been reading about Lavinia Greenlaw’s Audio Obscura, an installation in Manchester’s Picadilly Station that invited participant listeners to overhear the voices of people passing through the train station and, I think, to begin to reassemble that human noise into a vestigial poetry. The work is currently “on tour” in London’s St. Pancras Station as well. These works are site-specific, of course, and I can have no direct experience of them myself, but the concept is resonant, for me. Listeners wear earphones as they circulate in the councourses of the stations, which seems to me to create, with a very tactile apparatus, a blur of public and private audition. The enclosed audio world of the iPod/earbuds wearer opens itself up, as what is heard — what they’re eavesdropping on — is the audio mix of the passing voices around them. The earphones become something like prosthetic membranes. Greenlaw herself (in a column about the work published about a month ago in The Guardian) associates this permeability with what she calls “unsettlement,” and in reworking some of the recorded overheard material into script or text or poem, she re-positions herself, as a poet, more closely in the role of orchestrator or listener rather than ego-centric speaker: “By listening instead of speaking, and orchestrating instead of editing, by doing everything I always do but differently, I prolonged the unsettlement in myself. I thought it was taking me to the edge of what I do as a writer but I can see now that it has taken me to the heart of it.”

This concern with the poetic work of listening has been a key part of her writing for a long time now. I have taught The Importance of Music to Girls several times, and one of its significant aspects is the refashioning of self in listening, in the byplay of fabrication and physiology. One of my favourite of her poems in “Millefiori,” in which she addresses an audiovisual-tactile mix by encountering a moment of resonance in glass, a glass eye. In a poem from The Casual Perfect, just published, she writes something like: “We have no choice. It is in our particulars and variables to write noise.” (I have this only via an audio version, in an interview; I still need to buy the book.) Making noise into poems doesn’t mean righting it, editing it out; it means turning an ear actively toward the in-betweens where audio reaches toward form, where it emerges into audition.

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