Situating Sonosophy: De/Constructing Alex Caldiero’s Poetarium

(Cross-posted here.)

Back in April, I presented some of my recent research on Alex Caldiero’s performance poetics at the annual conference for the Association for Mormon Letters. Since then I’ve been thick in the middle of preparing for, then taking (and passing!), my comprehensive exams for my doctoral degree. Now it’s time to dig into that dissertation, which is on Alex’s work. The presentation I gave at the AML Conference, of which this post is an extension, is a result of my dissertating. It seeks to represent the performance ecology out of which Alex’s poetics has grown and to which it responds.

In order to get the most out of what follows, it’s probably best to view my Prezi presentation in conjunction with my commentary (maybe you can split the screen, with my comments in one window and the Prezi in another? I leave the logistics to you…). I’ve tried to make this as simple as possible by correlating my comments to each stop you’ll make as you move through the Prezi. And after you’ve made your way through it, I hope you’ll leave your comments on my ideas, which are, as all poetics, in process.

With that in mind, here goes:

Title: Situating Sonosophy: De/Constructing Alex Caldiero’s Poetarium

Stop #1: This is Alex Caldiero.

Stop #2: Alex thinks flowers are amazing.

Stop #3: Again: this is Alex.

Stop #4: Alex calls his performative poetics sonosophy (pronounced suh-NAW-suh-fee).

Stop #5: This is sonosophy, in an overly-reductive nutshell: as neologism, epistemology, and praxis. Alex isn’t the only sonosopher; neither was he the first. Many language artists of the Futurist and Dada strains were also sonosophers, including Raoul Hausmann. (Wikipedia on Futurism and Dada.)

Stop #6: This is Raoul Hausmann. He lived in Austria and looks kind of like a bulldog with a monocle in this picture. Intense, eh? He was “a founding member of Berlin Dada, and one of its driving forces” (ref).

Stop #7: This is an example of Raoul in the throes of his sonosophic project, which essentially breaks language into its constituent parts, defamiliarizing it in an effort to make people think differently about words and communication and art. (Again: this is sonosophy in an overly-reductive nutshell.)

Sonosophy didn’t die with the founders of Dada, however; I’ve got two more examples of contemporary sonosophers.

Stop #8: This is Sten Hanson. He’s from Sweden. In 1998 he released an album called The Sonosopher Retrospective, which, as I presume the liner notes observe, “is an excellent example of sound poetry treated extensively in an electronic studio” (ref).

Stop #9: This is Sten riffing–solemnly, in primal grunts–with an electronic recording of himself. A bit unsettling, isn’t it? But, again, I think unsettling assumptions about language through processes of defamiliarization is one of the points.

Stop #10: This is Penn Kemp. She’s a Canadian sound poet. She thinks “sounding is such a hoot!” (ref).

Stop #11: This is Penn in a 2011 performance in St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, Ontario, Canada. During the performance she said she wanted to translate the cathedral into sound; so she stepped from the stage, picked a window, and began sounding what the window felt like to her. What a hoot! In this clip she invites the audience to join her. (Notice the woman on the front row. She looks like she’s thinking, “What the . . .?”–as I imagine some of you may be saying at the moment.)

Stop #12: Back to Alex. More specifically, to one of Alex’s “Poetarium” performances at the 2010 Utah Arts Festival in Salt Lake City. What’s a poetarium, you ask? Well. . .

Stop #13: Here’s the introduction the audience received from Alex’s helper during one of his Poetarium performances. Doesn’t she look very exotic, very gypsy-esque?

Stop #14: Some context: this little girl was the first taker during this performance. Just before this clip picks up, she’d handed her paper to the Mysterious Alissandru, only to have it handed back because it wasn’t filled out–she hadn’t chosen how she wanted her poem to be delivered. As the helper explained to the audience: “It needs to be chosen. You need to choose how you would like it delivered.” So the little girl chose and re-presented herself before the poet, though I don’t think the poet’s response was quite what she expected.

Stop #15: In which the Mysterious Alissandru delivers a Sicilian proverb.

Stop #16: Now to take a step back and to consider how the Poetarium is framed, both literally–as in the building itself–and performatively–as in the constituent parts of Alex’s performance act.

Stop #17: First, the writing on the wall, er, the shack: “Poetarium.” And one of the questions motivating this presentation, specifically, and my research on sonosophy, in general.

Stop #18 & Stop #19: More writing on the wall, suggesting that the Mysterious Alissandru is a bit of a poetic magician, that he’s something of a mystic, as also suggested by. . .

Stop #20: . . .the all-seeing eye, which also appears on the Salt Lake Temple and, according to Marcus von Wellnitz, “above the altar on the ceiling” of some “renaissance and Baroque churches.”  In these churches, the all-seeing eye of God is “either painted or sculptured as a real eye, often surrounded by a triangle, or less obviously represented as a circle from which rays emit, or even as a round window through which light pierces down into the sanctuary” (ref). When paired with the mouth on the Poetarium, the eye calls forth the image of the poet-seer, a mystical wielder of word-power, represented here in the figures of Joseph Smith, William Blake, Walt Whitman, and Allen Ginsberg.

Stop #21: The exotic, itinerant feel of the Poetarium set-up; the poet’s nom de performance, Alissandru, which is the Sicilian form of Alexander and the poet’s given name; and his recitation of numerous Sicilian proverbs–all of these taken together call forth another poet-seer figure: the cuntastorie, a Sicilian itinerant storyteller. Alex self-consciously associates with this tradition, which (among other places) he admits in his bio note in Richard Kostelanetz’s anthology of sound poetry, Text-Sound Texts.

Italian scholar Antonio Scuderi observes that the cuntastorie, who performed epic lore in the Sicilian cunto (songs), were part of a living tradition in Sicily through the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In fact, Scuderi continues, “Nowhere else in Italy (or in Europe for that matter) have the Carolingian stories [the cuntastorie told and retold] been so diffused and so integrated into the culture and popular psyche than in Sicily” (ref). Beyond the observation that the epic tales of the French Renaissance were widespread and well-received in nineteenth century Sicily, this also suggests that the presence of the epic storyteller was widespread and well-received. Scuderi describes a typical performance:

Surrounded by an audience of men and boys, elevated on a small wooden platform, and with only a cane or wooden sword as a prop, the storyteller would recount the epic tales. These were based primarily on medieval prose compilations, such as I Reali di Francia and Guerrino il Meschino by Andrea da Barberino (c. 1372-1432), and the seventeenth-century novel Il Calloandro fedele by Giovanni Ambrogio Marini (c. 1594-1662), though elements of other literary epics were present as well. [. . .] [S]ome cuntastorie could perform each day, until the cycle of tales would end [. . .].

The cuntastorie‘s presentation was a captivating and, at times, hypnotic theatrical performance. Like many traditions around the world, the performer would alternately narrate the tale and enact the parts of the various characters, and from [folklorist Giuseppe] Pitrè’s description [as follows] we note that gestures and mimes were essential to the performance as well:

Head, arms, legs, everything must take part in the telling: mime is an essential part of the narrator’s work. Standing on a sort of platform . . . he marshals his characters, presents them, has them speak. He repeats their discourses word for word, declaims their harangues, draws the soldiers up for battle, he has them fight, agitating his hands violently and stomping his feet as if it were a real fight. The excitement grows: the orator’s eyes widen, his nostrils dilate with his increased breathing, which, evermore agitated, forms the words. He stomps his feet on the platform, which, due to its empty bottom, resonates. . . . And the narration, always in monotone, returns to calm, as if no one died, as if two hundred or four hundred listeners had not been held in suspense, hearts palpitating, cruelly uncertain of the outcome. . . . This is true art, which the adult population wants and embraces. (ref).

And Alex seems to have embraced this “true art” as a constitutive part of his poetics.

Stop #22: In Palermo, Sicily: A twentieth-century cuntastorie captured mid-story around the same time Alex was a young boy in Sicily. Notice especially the stick and the wide eyes.

Stop #23: (Just do it. You know you want to.)

Stop #24: The Poetarium performance in process.

Stop #25: This performance is reminiscent of several religious rituals. I observe here how it calls forth/relates to the Catholic liturgical rites and Latter-day Saint temple rites (especially the temple veil ceremony).

Stop #26: Speaking of ritual: Alex on his experience as an altar boy and his continued pursuit of connection with others, with the natural world, with the divine through the architecture of ritual and sound.

Stop #27: This is the veil in the Salt Lake City Temple ordinance room, circa early 1900s. Just as the Poetarium’s veil intimates the actual temple veil (as well as the cathedral altars that were “veiled in by a screen” [ref]), the Poetarium performance seems to parallel the process through which a supplicant approaches God and receives knowledge of Self and Other through the veil. Consider the following description of what takes place in the Poetarium performance each time a spectator steps forward to receive a poem:

Having been tutored in the proper way to present oneself to the poet-seer, a supplicant approaches the veil. Here the supplicant–with a helper’s aid–offers keywords to the man behind the curtain, who reaches his hand through the veil to receive them. Once received, these keywords cue the poet’s performance. As the veil is drawn back, revealing what other space the poet inhabits, he offers personalized knowledge to each supplicant, welcoming them into his presence, as it were–into a moment of greater communion and fellowship than those that generally occur in everyday interactions.

As the Mysterious Alissandru might suggest at this point: they who have ears to hear, let them hear. Which is to say:

Stop #28: The Poetarium embodies and calls forth and upon these different performance traditions–and more. And if we spend some time listening to Alex’s cultural history, we can begin to hear more clearly the constituent strands of that history and how deeply they resonate together in and from Alex’s body and voice.

Stop #29: Now, back to where my analysis began, with a twist:

Stop #30: Remember my question: How might the Poetarium frame Alex’s performative poesis and in so doing provide means with which we might decode and respond to what’s going on in the performance itself, as well as in Alex’s sonosophic project more broadly? Well, here’s an answer:

Stop #31: As I’ve tried to show in my analysis, the poet rhetorically roams among different performance traditions. This performative roaming parallels the work of the performance ethnographer, who leaves home to visit other cultures, only to return from these host cultures with knowledge and performance traditions–with sounds of otherness–that lead him to question and move to unsettle his home culture’s often silently-accepted assumptions and institutions. In other words, the sonosopher draws sound from his environment (cultural, material, textual, spiritual, etc.) and creates from it performative space in which to make and remake the world. Space in which to unsettle his and his audience’s assumptions about sound, cultures, the material world, texts, language, rituals, spirituality, human institutions and relationships. Space for encouraging those with ears to hear to become critical subjects of the cultural performance traditions they’ve inherited and those into which they’ve otherwise grown. Space in which all parties involved in the sonosophic event (including performer, spectator, researcher, etc.) might be changed, transformed, healed by the words–the sounds, the poetry, the poesis–pulled from within their own and others’ hearts and performed before them in rhetorically compelling, playful, and provocative ways.

At least that’s where I currently am in my research on sonosophy.

More to come…

13 thoughts on “Situating Sonosophy: De/Constructing Alex Caldiero’s Poetarium”

  1. There’s definitely a pedagogical aspect to sonosophy, Mark, as there is to experimental poetics and to performance ethnography in general. In terms of experimental poetry, poet Lyn Hejinian suggests the pedagogical connection in this line from her book My Life: “Isn’t the avant garde always pedagogical?” (For more on the theme, for starters, see Alan Golding’s article “Isn’t the Avant Garde Always Pedagogical”: Experimental Poetics and/as Pedagogy” and Craig Dworkin’s thoughts on inviting such poetries into the classroom). And in terms of performance ethnography, among others, Norman K. Denzin observes the ethnographer’s role as critical pedagogue. I see both strains at work in Alex’s poetics (he is a teacher, too, after all).

  2. I took a peek. I didn’t get it. Or I didn’t dig it. I checked out a couple of videos on YouTube and got the impression that it was at least partly about oral presentation of text, but in your clips the performers appear to be issuing non-linguistic sounds. I’m open to trying to see what you see in sonosophy, but at the moment I can’t help wondering if the emperor is actually just undressed.

  3. So interesting. And disturbing to me, actually. I loved the poetarium clips. As to emperors and undressing, I’m wondering, Mark, what you’d say the clothes are.

  4. Thanks for taking the time to read and respond, Wm, Mark, and Sarah.

    @Mark: A couple questions for you before I respond, a) because I’m not sure on a couple of your points and b) because I’m curious how others respond to Alex’s sonosophy. I’ve spent so much time with his and related work that I realize I may see or hear things others may not see or hear and I’m always on the lookout for fresh perspectives. Anyway, question #1: what didn’t you get or dig? Your antecedent’s a bit ambiguous. Is “it” the presentation itself? Sonosophy in general? Alex’s performances and/or performance style?

    Question #2: Like Sarah, I’m wondering over your analogy: What/who is the emperor and what are the clothes?

  5. @Sarah I’m curious, for the same reasons I mention in my comment to Mark: what aspects of “this”–of sonosophy, of the performances I’ve included, etc.–do you find most interesting and/or disturbing?

  6. I think most disturbing to me is the kind of ungrounded feeling the deconstruction brings. I also have difficulty watching people do things that would mortify me…I feel mortified for them even when they aren’t in any way mortified for themselves. On the one hand I want to toss it out as ridiculous gibberish, and on the other, I want there to be something to it, and sense that there is something in it that could possibly help me own understanding of phonetic flow and make me a better poet.

  7. As I respond, Tyler, bear in mind that I was in my pajamas in a four-bedroom apartment on a typhoon day with three boys between 5 and 10 years of age and a wife who finds that kind of confinement rather taxing. Not the best environment for focused study of unusual presentation styles.

    Also, I find as I go through the prezi again, the clips were clipped the first time. I’m not sure why. Anyway, there was no recognizable speech in any of them but the gypsy and poetarium one—and that only by the gypsy, so I had the impression that these people were speaking entirely in noise. This didn’t mesh with the videos I saw on YouTube, so I was a bit confused.

    I’ve got to work out now, so I’ll get back to you on updated impressions and reactions.

  8. Basically, I think the ideas of taking time over the sounds and performing rather than reciting are interesting and enlivening. Naturally, I have reservations about some of the instances, past and potential, but in general I think sound could stand a little more attention and reading could stand to be less static and stentorian. There is something to the idea that oral and written poetry differ, the same basic something that I once heard Niel Young said to have said about the balance between music and lyrics: more complex music, simpler lyrics; more complex lyrics, simpler music.

    Caldiero’s “prophet of God/charlatan of God” characterization of Joseph Smith and subsequent discussion of the move away from magic in the Church in a YouTube excerpt from The Sonosopher: Alex Caldiero in Life…in Sound strikes me as trenchant and gives me ideas for poems and stories. I’m grateful for that. Caldiero strikes me as self-consciously over-the-top-and-then-some, but that’s his right and he does seem to essentially believe what he says. I respect that. I’m sure he livens up a party (and did the same for church meetings before he and the Church left each other). He also strikes me as having trouble not asserting himself on people, but then I’m going by material specifically about him. I’m sure anybody who’s paid any attention to my comments in all these Mormon lit blogs wonders if I am even capable of shutting up and sitting quietly during a group discussion or social event. I assure you I am, but that won’t often come through online, will it? Lurking is invisible.

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