Woodrat Podcast

Nic S. and Whale Sound avatars with listening tree
Nic S. and Whale Sound avatars with listening tree

A conversation with Nic S. about the challenges and rewards of reading poetry and sharing it on the web. There are three essential links connected with this interview:

(Update 11/15) Nic has just launched a new companion site to Whale Sound, Voice Alpha, “a repository for thoughts, theories, suggestions, likes and dislikes and anything else related to the art and science of reading poetry aloud for an audience.” She is actively searching for guest bloggers.

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Theme music: “Le grand sequoia,” by Innvivo (Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike licence)

Harold Myers and family
Harold as a boy, left, and in the center front of the photo on the right, with his brother and father, both named Walter, his mother Georgina Dresch, and his grandfather Valentine

Harold C. Myers (1914-2003) was my maternal grandfather, A.K.A. Pop-pop. Today I present part of an interview my brother Steve tape-recorded in 1997, subsequently digitized by Jeff Suydam. Pop-pop’s description of his childhood, first in the little “coal patch” called the Vulcan on Broad Mountain near Mahanoy City, then in the steel town of Pottstown, Pennsylvania, is full of great details about the way people used to live, and the way boys in particular used to almost raise themselves, spending many days away from home on fishing or berrying expeditions, or building go-carts and pipe bombs and generally running wild. Pop-pop was unusual both in his love of reading and his love of the outdoors, two things he definitely imparted to his oldest daughter, my Mom. I’ve selected and edited the best parts of his earliest memories, and really wish we’d been able to record more. If you have elderly relatives or neighbors whose stories have never been recorded, I hope this will inspire you to preserve something before it’s too late.

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Theme music: “Le grand sequoia,” by Innvivo (Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike licence)

spectral frequency display of this podcast
spectral frequency display of this podcast (click to see larger)

On a long-ago family trip to Europe, we were amused and impressed by a national park sign in the French Pyrenees that urged visitors to turn off their radios and “listen to the music of the mountain.” But do these have to be mutually exclusive? Today’s podcast episode is what a radio station devoted to the music of the mountain might sound like. Following my five-minute spoken intro, it’s nothing but natural and anthropogenic sound recorded from my front porch between dawn and full daylight, 7:00 to 7:35 a.m., on Wednesday, October 27.

Readers of my Morning Porch microblog sometimes seem to think I live far removed from the human world, but as this recording shows, that’s hardly the case — and yesterday morning was a quiet one, especially for this time of year when strong inversion layers often mean that the highway noise from over the ridge to the west drowns out everything else. I was also fortunate in that the wind was hardly blowing, and because it had rained during the night, there was a steady if irregular beat as water dripped off the top roof onto the porch roof.

I used my new toy, a Zoom H2 portable digital recorder, which packs front and rear mikes and records in a non-lossy, .wav format. Just listening through it with ear buds while it records really focuses my attention on the soundscape. As I say in the intro, I’ve long been interested in natural sound. John Cage is a hero of mine, and I was pleased to read a new appreciation of him in the October 4 issue of the New Yorker — it isn’t online for non-subscribers, but Lorianne DiSabato was kind enough to send it to me. The author, Alex Ross, quotes John Cage about his infamous “4’33””: “There’s no such thing as silence.” And he quotes composer and scholar Kyle Gann, who recently published a book with that phrase as its title, and describes the composition as “an act of framing, of enclosing environmental and unintended sounds in a moment of attention in order to open the mind to the fact that all sounds are music.”

Making a podcast strikes me as another way to frame “environmental and unintended sounds,” though in the natural soundscape birds and other animals do occupy distinct aural niches, so I think it’s no accident that natural sounds seem more “right” than, for example, mechanical noise. The fact that we evolved in concert (pun intended) with the former obviously colors our perceptions as well. But I do think there’s value in learning to listen to all sound, even noise — which is increasingly inescapable — as if it were composed. It’s a practice perhaps similar to religious faith, increasing one’s sense of gratitude for the givenness of the umwelt. Perhaps I’ll repeat this experiment next May or June, at the height of migratory bird breeding season, so y’all can hear a real dawn chorus, but the more minimal sound of an autumn morning has its pleasures, too, as I hope you’ll agree.

Many cultures recognize natural sound as the ultimate inspiration for human music. The 4th-century B.C. Daoist classic Zhuangzi includes a paean to “the music of heaven” — the sum of environmental sounds — calling it superior to all other forms of music. And the Irish Fenian Cycle includes this exchange, translated by James Stephens:

Once, as they rested on a chase, a debate arose among the Fianna-Finn as to what was the finest music in the world.

‘Tell us that,’ said Fionn, turning to Oisin.

‘The cuckoo calling from the tree that is highest in the hedge,’ cried his merry son.

‘A good sound,’ said Fionn. ‘And you, Oscar,’ he asked, ‘what is to your mind the finest of music?’

‘The top of music is the ring of a spear on a shield,’ cried the stout lad.

‘It is a good sound,’ said Fionn.

And the other champions told their delight: the belling of a stag across water, the baying of a tuneful pack heard in the distance, the song of a lark, the laughter of a gleeful girl, or the whisper of a moved one.

‘They are good sounds all,’ said Fionn.

‘Tell us chief,’ one ventured, ‘what do you think?’

‘The music of what happens,’ said great Fionn, ‘that is the finest music in the world.’

Here’s some of that music.

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A few highlights. Those who bore easily might skip ahead and start listening about half-way through, when bird calls are more or less continuous.
4:49 end of blather, start of recording
4:50 first of numerous loud taps that punctuate the recording: water dripping onto the roof
5:30 distant horn/whistle, not train
6:35 first bird call (white-throated sparrow, I think)
6:55 unidentified mechanical noise
8:54 more sparrowish chirping
9:36 the flock moves closer
11:00 first cardinal
11:15 brief cut to erase noise of wind filter being inserted over mikes
11:36 first Carolina wren
11:49 beginning of jet overflight (cruising altitude)
13:03 blue jay calls intermingle with wren song
15:19 song sparrow singing
17:00 Carolina wren getting closer
17:47 first crow
18:44 crows getting closer
20:00 two wrens greet each other
25:40 distant plane
27:10 nuthatch’s “yank yank” call intermingled with red-bellied woodpecker’s “cha cha cha” and crow caws
28:36 plane still going over
29:26 begin loud/close crows
31:36 call of pileated woodpecker on fly-by
37:00 another, more distant jet is going over
38:21 crow flies over house
38:30 second snip in recording to remove very loud sound of me leaving porch to answer call of nature

spectral phase display of this podcast
spectral phase display of this podcast (click to see larger—it's beautiful)

Sherry Chandler
Sherry Chandler (r) and her Aunt Gladys, posing with a hay rake

Sherry Chandler is one of those rare poets who actually does research. We talk about her delvings into family lore and Kentucky history in between poems, many of which are from a new online chapbook from the Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, Firing on Six Cylinders, which she calls “a romance of the road.” We talk about the car culture, and where that restlessness and rebellious streak might’ve come from.

In addition to her regular blogging, Sherry posts micropoems at Identica and Twitter, where she has more than 2000 followers. She has a good bio on her blog, detailing her publications and awards.

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Theme music: “Le grand sequoia,” by Innvivo (Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike licence)

Mark Bonta with juke joint and swamp
Mark (left) in Po Monkey's, a local juke joint. Right: old-growth cypress swamp.

Part 2 of our conversation (here’s Part 1, if you missed it). Mark and I share an interest in the blues and in ivory-billed woodpeckers, and if I know a little more about the former, he knows way more about the latter. (Long-time readers may remember my Peckerwood Pilgrimage in 2005.)

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Mark Bonta with books and cycads

Part I of a two-part conversation with my brother Mark, a professional geographer. It’s become fashionable for writers to use the term “geography” loosely (The Geography of Love, The Geography of Childhood, The Geography of Home, etc.) but what is geography, anyway? Turns out it’s really all about memorizing state capitals and principal imports and exports. Or not. Listen and find out.

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Theme music: “Le grand sequoia,” by Innvivo (Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike licence)

Julia Martin of Bread for the Head
photo credits, l-r: Sarah Tribuzio, Margareta Vranicar, Mary Beth Meyer

Julia Martin has been a witty and erudite presence in my corner of the blogosphere for several years now, first simply as a commenter on other people’s blogs and eventually at a site of her own, Clumps and Voids. But I wanted to talk to her about her day job as executive director of Bread for the Head, whose mission is to provide books to low-income children in the Chicago area and try to convert them into life-long readers. This is Banned Books Week in the United States as well as National Literacy Month, but outright banning isn’t the only thing keeping books out of the hands of children, and all too often literacy programs fail to inculcate a love of reading. Bread for the Head, which Julia founded five years ago, takes the radical position that, as their mission states, “pleasure reading is no indulgence, but a necessity.”

If you don’t have time to listen to the podcast right away, at the end of it, Julia asks listeners to share the titles of their own favorite books for children (which don’t have to be children’s books per se). Please use the comments below, or contact Julia directly: juliaannmartin at gmail dot com. And of course if you live in the Chicago area, Bread for the Head can always use more volunteers.

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Theme music: “Le grand sequoia,” by Innvivo (Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike licence)

Dylan Tweney and tinywords
Dylan Tweney and tinywords (photos by Jonathan Snyder)

Dylan Tweney is the editor and publisher of tinywords, which has been serving small poems daily since 2000. The Haiku Society of America has recognized it as the “largest-circulation journal of haiku in English.” Dylan is also a senior editor at Wired, in charge of gadget news, new product reviews, and other ultra-geeky topics. The motto at the top his website reads, “If you’re bored, you’re not paying attention.” I spoke to him last month by phone, and got him talking about everything from how he handles a large volume of submissions on a part-time basis, to what he learned from studying poetry with Louise Glück, to why he decided to live-tweet a Wagner opera.

Here are a few of Dylan’s favorite haiku and micropoems from the past ten years of tinywords.

Tinywords is currently accepting submissions (through September 30) for the next issue, on cities and urban life. If you’re on Twitter, you can follow the magazine: @tinywords as well as Dylan himself: @Dylan20.

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Theme music: “Le grand sequoia,” by Innvivo (Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike licence)

The internet is great, especially since the advent of modern search engines, but what if you don’t know what you’re looking for until you find it? Then you need either a revelation from God or a shortwave radio. You never know what you might stumble upon late at night on an old radio! This appears to be a reading from Ahmed Ali’s translation of the Quran, Sura 6, “The Cattle.” There are a few words missing toward the end, presumably from problems in the recording or the transmission, but otherwise it seems to be a complete reading, delivered in one take.

Here are some links to help contextualize things:

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Lorianne DiSabato
left: in San Diego; right: in Dharma teacher robes (photos by Jim Gargani)

Lorianne DiSabato is a writer, photographer, naturalist, college instructor, and Zen teacher who’s been blogging at Hoarded Ordinaries for nearly seven years. We’ve been friends for almost that long, and first met in person in March 2005, but I realized there were still some questions I’d never asked her. I got her talking about how she got into nature, how or whether she would categorize Hoarded Ordinaries, journaling versus blogging, getting married at the zoo, nature writing as a pilgrimage, the myth of the literary hermit, blogging and Buddhism, the danger of Zen books, and more.

Theme music: “Le grand sequoia,” by Innvivo (Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike licence)

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