‘If it’s hard, try spelling it phonetically’: Poetic Text as a Sonic Event
Author of the Week: Slovenia
Poetry and Sound
The Croatian State Archives hold in their depository a poem titled Logorski vrabac (en. The Camp Sparrow). It was signed by ‘Dalmatinke u Beogradskom logoru’ (Dalmatian women in a Belgrade camp) in August 1944. It is not known exactly in which concentration and/or extermination camp in or around Belgrade it was written. The Sajmište concentration and extermination camp was officially closed in July 1944, so perhaps the poem was not written there but rather in the camp Banjica, in the suburbs of Belgrade, which was fully operational until at least October of that year. Furthermore, Camp Sparrows were a sort of literary institution in Banjica. Begović writes in the book Logor Banjica that ‘there were different kinds of activities [in the camp]: from storytelling and lectures … to composing “the sparrows”, short satirical stanzas with educational political content […] In the night hours, the prisoners of Banjica would find ways to improvise a stage and perform skits and even more serious stage pieces once they gathered appropriate materials and the inner strength to perform.’ As a form, a camp sparrow was a frame or a channelling mechanism for critical contemplation about domestic and foreign politics, and satire directed at the camp guards as well as fellow prisoners. Pieces that were written down and sometimes also performed (incognito) in the camp shacks. The concentration camp, a space separated from books, media texts, etc.: a space where histories are brought into knowledge via listening, reflected and (re)written down – sonic composition –, then sounded (performed) or not sounded.
In Banjica, just as in most if not all concentration camps, spontaneous singing was forbidden. ‘A song was defiance towards the enemy, it was belief in freedom’, Begović explains. ‘But singing was forbidden. The enemy was most furious when they heard a song.’ Begović continues that ‘the political and cultural activities of the prisoners in Banjica were inseparable because they served the same basic goal: to strengthen the morals, raise awareness and guard the purity of the national-liberation movement.’ It may be said that a poem that was constructed in a camp also served as a historical document – as a document ‘for the world’ which is somewhere else.
A text, written in a concentration and extermination camp.
To be a document of violence and destruction.
So that the world would know.
A text, perhaps written to be performed to other inmates and thus, through sounding, to create space that eludes the lived reality. An organisation of space. Deleuze and Guattari write that ‘the forces of chaos are kept outside as much as possible, and the interior space protects the germinal forces of a task to fulfil or a deed to do. This involves the activity of selection, elimination, and extraction, to prevent the interior forces of the earth from being submerged, to enable them to resist, or even to take something from chaos across the filter or sieve of the space that has been drawn. Sonorous or vocal components are very important: a wall of sound, or at least a wall with some sonic bricks in it.’
Here we have a different setting. A concentration camp – an inverted space created within chaos. Not a space of chaos, notably the chaos of the quotidian, but taken out of it and then, in the very form of being taken out of, returned within it. Outside of chaos; chaos is inaccessible to it precisely when it is within it, yet placed within it. Chaos is then perceived not in the least as a space of uneasiness or unbearableness, but as a direction of a cautious desire. Performing a poem or a song or its mere documentation for the world is in this context not available for opening the circle of the wall of sound ‘in order to join with the forces of the future’, to quote D&G again, as it may be in everyday sounding practices, for around this circle there is yet another one that needs to be opened. And because of that: to recognise this first circle of a sound wall: a wall which by being cracked into or opened wide will not cause stepping into the world, but the very creation of a world: this is the emergence of poetry text as a sonic event.
Poetry text: not as a formal organisation, as that which is written in verse and seen as such, but as a processual space that allows for invention and articulation. How does this space come into being?
Writing produces a consciousness of potency – that which defies both productiveness and the imperative of accumulation for the sake of accumulation. In poetry, a language that is not present germinates. This language: the becoming of a space for the habitation of the idea of change. Poetry: a sui generis principle of spatialisation. Special: to differ from, to come apart. After coming apart: the anticipation of unstable settlement. Constructive, but not a part of established production modes. Not a product but a process. Constructive of the world and is in it. Cannot be owned or made into currency because the sonic sphere of poetry, the sound’s elusiveness, evades ownership. (Which is of course not to say that sonic events avoid social hierarchisation.)
Perhaps the crucial aspect of poetry I wish to emphasise is that it comes into being as a sonic processual event. This implies its audibility. A resonance. Herzogenrath writes that it might prove reasonable to connect resonance with reasonance: ‘A kind of knowledge is involved here’, he tells us. ‘A kind of thinking [...]’. And that perhaps ‘sound is not a knowledge about the world, coming to you only in retrospective reflection, but a thinking of and in the world, a part of the world we live in, intervening in the world directly.’ Could Herzogenrath’s thesis be supplemented by another one, namely that it is not only that sound is a kind of thinking, but that thinking is a kind of sound, a kind of sounding to be exact, a kind of sonic phenomenon-process?
In the opening lines of Wim Wenders’s Alice in the Cities, Phillip Winter tells himself: ‘Talking to yourself, it’s more a listening than speaking.’ A kind of knowledge is involved here. But also, a kind of sounding that one then hears by listening: images and codes as knowledge, presented on one’s personal stage, all taken from the subject’s socialised accumulation and interpretation of social realities, from its specific class, gender, sexual, racial, ethnic status, ideological position, etc. All of these images and codes, however conventional they may be, are equipped with social sonorities as another set of conventions and deviations from these conventions, all of which are applied, perceived, and dealt with from the above-mentioned status positions and political perspectives. While human hearing capabilities are not universal but lie on a broad spectrum, sonorities play an important part in perceiving and constructing the social sphere. The dual appearance of sonic events in social dynamics: sound is a medium of expressing society, its discourses, ideologies, even everyday use of speech or any audible presence, and a tool for the creation of society, its discourses, etc. In other words, the sound is not only a product of social realities but their constructive element. Which brings us to the infusion of this constructive element into the construction of social realities, their articulation, presentation, representation, multiplication, or annulment. That is to say, it brings us to thinking. Which is, of course, the starting point for poetry.
Franco Berardi, trying to elaborate on Guattari’s concept of spasms as a ‘stiffening of vibrant bodies’ as a consequence of the established social orders, tells us in his book Breathing: Chaos and Poetry: ‘The spasm provokes suffering and breathlessness in the nervous system and the consciousness of the social organism. But the spasm is “chaosmic”, in Guattari’s terms, in as much as it invites the organism to remodulate its vibration and to create, ex nihilo, a harmonic order by way of resingularization.’ The spasm might be a well-welcomed drive to create music as a specific harmonic order. But it is here that Berardi slips into what I believe is an error. He says: ‘In the spasm, sound collapses into noise, a tangle of inaudible voices.’ Flip it over: it is in the spasm that things could not be any clearer in their audibility. The voices might seem noisy in a trivial (and widespread) concept of noise as something unpleasant and thus spasmatic, but they are hardly inaudible – on the contrary, the voices in the spasm are nothing but audible, and this, along with thinking as sounding, where thinking is more like listening and listening includes a kind of knowledge, is exactly what makes it a spasm. Thomas Bernhard’s Rudolph declares: ‘Everyone is a virtuoso on his own instrument, but together they add up to an intolerable cacophony.’ Cacophony: harsh discordant series of sounds. Discordant: disagreeing, in conflict, never blended. What Berardi calls noise and a tangle of inaudible voices might be quite the opposite: spasm doesn’t occur when sounds are blurred and mashed together, but because of their severe clearance. In a spasm, one is not faced with not being able to differentiate between signals, but rather with the hyper-ability to differentiate between them. Moreover, if the spasm is a contemporary consequence of experiencing the overwhelmingness of imposed social order, it is precisely the successful result of this order. If it’s hard, try spelling it phonetically, writes the poet Talib Kweli.
The common understanding of silence is that it is an initial state of any space or subject that is then filled with sounding. Before and between soundings, there is silence, a non-sounding. It is this binary distinction between sounding and silence that allows for other binary structures, such as passivity and activity, impotence and potency, non-vitality and vitality. Through the social favouring of potency and vitality, the binary structure is further organised into a hierarchy. And from this comes the sonic patriarchy. But with the understanding of these processes, this binary hierarchy, which is presented as a matter of fact, essentiality now appears as nothing but a social construct. It is open to change. So we say: silence is not non-sounding, it is a form of sounding. It is a part of the sonic and listening spectrum. This is crucial, as writing poetry is said to be a solitary affair, a silent affair. But where silence is not non-sounding, but a form of sounding, this silent affair becomes a sounding affair.
In the contemporary condition, this so-called open-air prison which presents itself as an open-air playground, poetry is necessary both as text and as something which may be performed, turned into a song – precisely because it is a sonic processual event. As a process in which the destabilizing of the dominant language structures is possible and desired, it doesn’t strive for a totalised unity, it runs past it. As a sonic event, as that which is both listened to in the process of its own becoming and open to listening, it may serve as a plane of already sounded possibility. ‘Bridle my mouth, or I’ll tell the truth’, writes Dominique ‘Femi’ Matti of the Black Quantum Futurism collective: ‘Light me up then, cowboy, like a torch! … Hang me, make my tongue swell in my mouth. My voice will still echo in the chambers of your chest, haunt the halls of your head.’ This specific ‘truth’ is in the very instance of writing it also lived. There is no auditory lack in poetry.
The authors of The Camp Sparrow are forcibly excluded from public social life, then left to violence, including sonic violence, and extermination, including sonic extermination:
Kad ujutro još ne svane
dežurni se derat stane
i često nas oni psuju
Al se žene pobuniše
Tada Nijemci pristupiše
Kajšima oni tuku …
Before the dawn in the morning /
the guard is already yelling / They shout
at us / often rail against us.
But the women revolt
Then the Germans approach
With belts they hit us …
Prohibition (sanction) of their sounding leads to the inevitability of their listening. Under such extraordinary living conditions, writing poetry enters as a possibility of an explicit turn from these very conditions. It is crucial that it is poetry. Poetry is not about writing down reality and recording events for a future reader, but about constructing a specific sound-listening composition. Poetry writing is not about conveying a message, but because poetry as a language practice allows free entry into expanding the linguistic horizons, it may establish the possibility of imagination. It is in this possibility – also in a purely material sense – that a different sounding-listening relation can be construed. One that does not repress or restrict the author’s sounding potential but also – and this is crucial – does not direct her listening potential: it leaves this navigation to her. Writing poetry is, just as the dispersion of sonic material, capable of avoiding linear succession: it relates to conjuctivity.
It is this sonic aspect of thinking that can accumulate into the construction of utopistics because 1) it allows for the construction of a space, and 2) by being sonic, therefore constructively evasive, unattainable, and untouchable, even intangible, it is crucial in the construction of poetry as a practice of creating the aforementioned space. The only obstacle to making this construction socially constructive is then the ability to thoroughly evaluate the historical conditions of economic and political social systems. And this is precisely what the poem Logorski vrabac attempts to do: the verses in the final stanza – posljednji se adut sprema – could be in situ understood as utopia, as wishful thinking, but a precise construction of this wishful matter via sonic language runs first through a critical description of material reality and into the execution of another reality, one which is different (necessarily better). Since the ‘wall of sound’, created by the humming of the poem amongst other inmates never opens towards a different future but merely stays within the circle, it must be something else that is capable of doing that. Not the humming of the poem, but the process that precedes it: the sonic thinking of it before and while writing it. The sonic aspect of thinking within poetry is that which makes a crack in the wall of sound, not to go back into the world, but to construct one.
Begović, Sima. 1989. Logor Banjica 1941–1944. Vol. 2. Beograd: Institut za savremenu istoriju. (pages 182 and 191)
Berardi, Franco. 2018. Breathing. Chaos and Poetry. South Pasadena: semiotext(e).
Bernhard, Thomas. 2010 . Concrete: a novel. New York: Vintage.
Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari. 2005. A Thousand Plateaus. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press.
Herzogenrath, Bernd. 2018. Sonic thinking. New York and London: Bloomsbury.
Kweli, Talib & Hi Tek (Reflection Eternal). 2000. The blast [album Train of Thought]. New York: Rawkus Records.
Matti, Dominique. 2016. “The Inextricable Linking of Us”. In: Matti, Dominique and Rasheedah Phillips (eds.): Space-Time Collapse 1. From the Congo to the Carolinas. Philadelphia: Afrofuturist Affair/ House of Future Sciences Books.
Pjesma i članak o boravku žena u logorima. 1944. Hrvatski državni arhiv, Nacionalni arhivski informacijski sustav. http://arhinet.arhiv.hr/details.aspx?ItemId=1_121256
Wenders, Wim [director], Genée, Peter [producer] and Joachim von Mengershausen [producer]. 1974. Alice in the cities [feature film]. Germany: Axiom Films.
 Begović 1989: 182
Nina Dragičević is a writer/poet and a composer, with a Ph.D. in Sociology. Dragičević is the author of several books: Kdo ima druge skrbi (Škuc, 2014), Slavne neznane: Zvočne umetnice v konstrukciji družbe (Škuc, 2016), Med njima je glasba: Glasba v konstrukciji lezbične scene (Parada ponosa, 2017), Ljubav reče greva (Škuc, 2019), To telo, pokončno (Škuc, 2021), Kako zveni oblast (Založba /*cf, 2022, in print), and Ampak, kdo? (Sončnica 2022, in print). Her texts have been translated into Macedonian, Serbian, English, German, Portuguese, Czech, Croatian, Spanish, and Dutch.
She is the artistic director of the Topographies of Sound International Festival and a member of the Slovenian Writers’ Association and PEN Slovenia.
Dragičević is the recipient of the 2021 Jenko Award and the 2020 Župančič Award. In 2018, she was the first poet to be awarded both the jury and the audience award at the Knight of Poetry Tournament. In 2019 she was shortlisted for the Jenko Award and Veronika Award and was the Artist in Focus at the International Festival of Contemporary Arts - City of Women. In the same year she was presented the Outstanding Achievement Award of the University of Ljubljana. In 2018, she was among the finalists for the European award Palma Ars Acustica.
Photo by Manca Jevšček