I’ve Always Believed in a Very Open Meaning of the Word ‘Poetic’

Maintenant series interview, second act, #101: Maja Jantar

If we are to be able to create a discourse about European cultural and artistic traditions, practices we can speculate upon, historicise, and draw inspiration from, while avoiding nationalism, we eventually have to settle on something concrete to not lose ourselves to amorphousness. We need to think regionally, or perhaps equally banal though it might be, continentally. We have more reason to do this in 2019, being in Europe. What then, with poetry, might we consider European? Again in a reductive way, we might speak of a poet who speaks numerous languages but often performs in none, or all, depending on one’s perspective. We might speak of a poet who has lived in a dozen European nations, who crosses borders with her work as much as her person. We might speak of the best of European tradition being the ability to be critically minded but generous in action, being able to incorporate all that is decidedly not poetry (be that mark or fragment or gesture or other artforms, music, theatre, performance and visual art most distinctly, in this case) in order to make works more poetic than most can conceive. We are left with a poet like Maja Jantar, who for the past generation, has been performing, singing, fashioning and building her poetries across the continent, constantly shifting, reforming, transforming and collaborating, to the point where she now stands for a 21stcentury poetic tradition. One that is sensitive to the real material of poetry, a poetry that knows its past to be future facing. In the first interview of the Maintenant series second act, conversation #101, we present Maja Jantar.

One of the words I find useful when talking to others about your work is composure. Perhaps composition comes in here to, as an antithesis, but your performances, and the character of the sound you produce, seems always composed, even with entirely improvised work.  What is the relationship between the composed and the improvised to you?

For me there is a line stretched between the two of them, even if the work is fully improvised that doesn’t mean it is random. Composure might simply come from the act of being present, present as in not trying to be anything else then one is at that moment. A hard exercise, but a valuable one. It reminds me of how actors never can compete with children or animals on stage in ‘presence’ since they always try to be something they are not. 

My first improvisations were called ‘instant compositions’ - maybe it was just a way to give myself the feeling that I was structuring the sounds that came from me - but the work felt like composing, because in my mind i maintained a line, a dramaturgical thought throughout the whole piece. Sometimes these lines were more or less scored in advance, for instance i would know that i would start with a certain sound, build up, add a song, climax, create a suspension and end. This would still leave tons of space for improvisation on a 20 minute performance. Redoing certain performances provided me with experience and building blocks. A turning point came when meeting Lê Quan Ninh and Tony di Napoli when we were recording the soundtrack for the film Cavalcade, and witnessing their improvisational work. Ninh on a big drum, Tony on his self made lithophone. The work seemed to have no direction, yet felt fully organic. It was very interesting to hear Ninh talk about how the sound just came from itself, from a movement, how he would be sucked into that and would witness it, witness it change as ‘accidents’ happened, leading to more sounds. This inspired me to take more time, to ease into the ‘not knowing’ where something would lead me, to rely on it to lead me somewhere, without having to know where that would be, and to try to fully embrace whatever happened.  

You seem to be getting at immediate but often profoundly inexplicable feelings through a method that is often faithful to the nature of those feelings, through your body and your voice and your composure and gesture. But this seems entirely organic, not necessarily formulated. Is this simply because these are your concerns, or your instincts, (if you think this is true?)

This is a tricky question for me to answer, maybe it is my interest in something universal, in language without words, that makes it appear that way. I love letting things unfold in performance, and am thrilled when i find out that the road the moment is leading me to, is a scenic route that i had not yet visited. The main thing seems to be to stay true to the moment, be it improvised, or scripted - to stay anchored in the body, and not swept up by reflection. With reflection i mean the type that undermines what you are doing at the moment, the ‘oh, that sounded off’, or the ‘is what i’m doing relevant?’, ‘oh, they don’t like it’ … we all know these, the thing is, that most of the time when they pop up, it takes us out of what we are building up, making the blocks of our tower to collapse, and in itself that is not a big deal, because rebuilding them can be very satisfying, the trick is to realise that that is happening, to anchor back to something in the moment, be it in the body, be it in the audience, the text, the sound, and not to get bound into panic mode. Though riding that can also be quite an experience. Saying this, i might not really have  answered your question, it is of no interest to me to evoke feelings, or emotional states, if sounds are produced that resemble that, they are used for their material qualities, their sound color or texture, for the pleasure of exploring their vibrational (sound is vibration) capacities, and technical challenges. 

And how has your work evolved, if you're able to step outside yourself and track how you've changed? 

There are several layers of evolution, though they are inclusive, as in, that the evolution is only there to embrace more, not to exclude what has been done as no longer relevant. One could say there is one from the written to the vocal, or from the written page, to the fully improvised, from directed to aleatoric. One could say that I’ve explored various media, going from the page, to composed sound through soundtracks, to improvised sound through objects, from video compositions to live video, from directing to co directing etc. A lot of this came about in collaborations, or through the challenges that came through commissions. 

Seen in a less linear way one could speak of a simplifying, a trusting in being caught in the moment, a putting myself more at risk, sometimes falling, stumbling, catching new footing, understanding that those moments are the most ‘alive’ as in full of life, in performance, that those are the moments an audience remembers, learning them to be strength, not failure, not seeing the performance as something ultimate, but as a transition, a passage, a rite of passage.

And there's perhaps few better poets to ask about the differentiation of practise between what is live, in liveness, and what is marked, on the page. What's your conception of the difference, in the work you want to do?

The performance to me is where the most exciting things can happen - it is there that one opens up the shell, and allows vulnerability. Even when coming purely from the page, the act of reading / performing - via the voice - is an opening, a showing, sharing of one’s ‘humanness’, weather one intends it to be or not. The marked, the page, in performance, to me always has the meaning of a bridge, and should not interfere in the communication that happens between the body of the performer and the audience, let stand be used as a shield. Therefore when i’m teaching performance to my students, I alway encourage them to rewrite their written texts that they want to perform, as to create space in them, to welcome the audience into them. If we fill our texts, as we do in the written, to behave as an autonomous and sometimes hermetic, body on page, and to be self sufficient, (this specifically is the case for highly written material), we block the possible entry points for the audience. We don’t invite to co create the image, the experience, of the piece in the moment, and miss the opportunity to connect. Rethinking the page for the live, rewriting the written for the voice, is a necessary step if we want to do something more than just read out loud.

What you think of the designation poet, and poetry, as opposed to other words like artist, writer, singer, musician?

I’ve always believed in a very open meaning of the word ‘poetic’ one that goes beyond the written word, that taps into something deeper, human, a sense of how we perceive the world, how we tap into a bigger network of meaning. It might be the most elusive of designations, and also one that can infiltrate easily in all the other disciplines. It’s the undercover agent, but somehow also the one that comes the closest to the core.

How much of your work is responding to outside commissions or environments now, and how much remains the genesis of your own intellectual journeys? Has this balance changed over the time you've been working?

Sometimes it’s like being an oyster - in the beginning it might have felt weird to accept commissions, to work from an experior premisse, but with time it becomes a part of yourself, and so does the commissioned work. I find them very beneficial in spurring, and speeding my workflow. There is always a need for balance, there must be time to free flow, even to not think of any particular piece but to play, to put the hands in the clay and see what wants to appear, and to notice what impulses will pull at one.

Over time i believe i’ve become better at seeing what process that i’m working on can be implemented in the commissions, making it simply a part of my natural process.

How much is there a culture of performance and performers who work in the soundpoem, songpoem, improvised vocalisation, musicpoem tradition, across Europe, now? 

There actually is a real tradition that builds on all the different branches of sound poetry, Klangpoesie, poésie sonore, poésie lettriste, concrete poetry, poly poetry etc. There are some very strong performers that have made this niche a part of their vocabulary. I’m thinking of Jaap Blonk, Tomomi Adachi, Giovanni Fontana, Maja Ratkje, David Moss, Leevi Lehto just to name a few and this is not to speak of all the poets and artists that take influence from this field, just to mention some of my collaborators Angela Rawlings, Vincent Tholomé, Steven J. Fowler. It is an undercurrent, but many young poets are intrigued by it and maybe the momentum is rising. There is an excitingsound poetry exhibition planned for march 2019 - at Palais de Tokyo in Paris- La Voix Libérée - with an amazing line up. It combines both the pioneers (Ernst Jandl, Gerhard Rühm, Brion Gysin, Sten Hansen, Bernard Heidsieck, Paul de Vree…) with the established (Jörg Piringer Tomomi Adachi Jaap Blonk Caroline Bergvall, Eduard Escoffet, Giovanni Fontana...) and the young generation (Kinga Toth, Zuzana Husarova…). It is a hybrid form and a very personal one, so finding the common denominator is not always evident. Personally the performer that struck me a lot last year was Natascha Nikeprelevic - working with impressive overtone singing, and building her improvisations in oracle style.

How much effect does your multi-lingualism have upon your work? You seem to be able to function with remarkable accuracy and delicacy in many languages, French, English, German, Polish, maybe Flemish, Icelandic?

When i started being serious about  writing poetry in my early twenties, i started writing in Dutch, since that was the language that surrounded me at that moment. Though all through my childhood i had written poems, and diaries in various languages, Dutch, Polish, German (when i was living in Austria), English (since at some point during my childhood it was the language we spoke at home). Very soon i started reading and performing my work on stage, as staged monologues, with rudimentary sets and lighting (this experience taught me a lot about directing, and the apparatus of theatre, since it was more or less a one girl show). It happened that at some point in the text flow, i added a single sung line, and instantly felt how the tension changed in the auditorium. How the listening sharpened, and a space came to be in which it became possible to listen to the words afresh. Experimenting with this principle, i started to mix languages. In doing so it became more and more clear to me how the colors of the language, the frequency range the language was playing in, affected the way the meaning was transmitted. Inspired by dada, and the ancient tradition of grammelot - a commedia dell'arte technique of gibberish, used amongst others by Dario Fo with incredible refinement, making the fake language sound like actual languages, using their pronounciation, i started to shift between the language and the sound world. I guess my multilingualism does have a great impact on my work, traces of Italian, Icelandic, French, and the languages mentioned above, pop up in my work regularly. 

And by extension, your life has been spent travelling Europe, and living in many different places across the continent. Do you think this has had a profound effect on your work?

A friend of mine once said, that even if a bird would fly over it would have an impact on my work. Everything has an effect, the landscape, the language, the air, the light, the humidity, the company or lack of it. I truly believe we are not islands, we are interconnected. And work is an emanation of life. The act of travelling and living in various places makes you carry your roots with you, makes you question the nationalistic principles, since in essence what are borders, but man made, fiction. In travelling you step through layers of story, and history, since more than borders, the nuclei of cities or regions contain a true sense of identity. Maybe my suspiciousness to the idea of borders also comes from my family history taking place in Poland, a country that has had many borders, and at some point, none. A country that ceased to exist. My family's displacement falling across lines, in White Russia, Ukraine, even Siberia where they were deported during the Second World War. 

Travelling and living in different places only makes you more aware of what binds us all, our humanness. 

What do you conceive to be the relationship between the written and the spoken, the script and the act, the mark and the noise? You have worked a lot in visual art ideas, making scores that seem indelibly connected to your performances. Do you think there's a hierarchy between these things in certain practises or places or cultural traditions?

It all depends from what road you come at it, and what choices you make. Though in theory they all function autonomously. I do enjoy weaving lines in between them, pulling them out of their comfort zone and translating the one to the other. For me it is interesting to ask what the sound of a red line is, or the movement of a comma. To me, in there lies poetry. In crossing over from one cultural context to another, i’ve often experienced  that a certain aspect of my work gains more weight in that specific context, so yes i would agree that there are hierarchies between these things in different cultural traditions. Some cultures place a high value on written poetry, here i think of the French and German tradition, others will place high value on the spoken or sung, here i’m thinking of the Persian or Icelandic tradition. Also it depends on the artist, where their background lays, from what angle they approach their work, But mostly i see it like a Calder mobile - unities, connected, to be seen from various sides, but in balance.