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some notes toward poetry radio

filed 21 April 2004 | Chicago
by Paul Nelson, edited by Kurt Heintz

The following is based upon notes drafted by Paul Nelson for e-poets Geoconference 2, held in Chicago in August 2001. As the relationship between spoken word and radio continues to evolve, we can see what endures and what is problematic. e-poets network partner, broadcaster, and poet Paul Nelson identifies the significant points in his push to put poetry on the air. -KEH

Paul, please tell us a little bit about your background in and perspectives on radio.
I have worked in radio since 1980, having started here in my home town of Chicago, which is one of the best radio markets in the world. New York has Broadway, L.A. Hollywood and Chicagoís media people are its celebrities. I worked at WMET, WXFM which was a Jazz station with Daddy-O Dailey, Dick Buckley and Dave Freeman and I interned at ĎXRT. It was ĎXRT that motivated me to be in radio and picking the brains of Shel Lustig (who is still a good friend) and producing the morning show for Garry Lee Wright helped me on my path.

What motivated your work in radio and poetry? What are some of your long-term goals?
I moved into producing my own radio show into 1990 and realized that radio interviewing was my calling, but the subjects I was interested in were not the focus of the mainstream media. In 1990 I had been investigating natural medicine for a couple of years and started hearing things about a paradigm shift. I was always getting books from touring authors and it became clear to me that that shift was from a male, mechanistic/patriarchal/control-oriented world view, to one more organismic, feminine and partnership in nature. Riane Eisler and Matthew Fox have books which clearly spelled out the new paradigm for me.

I felt this was not being addressed adequately by the mainstream media, so when I was fired from KKNW-Seattle for trying to organize the station (I found out later) it seemed that a non-profit dedicated to creating this kind of programming was the best way to go. I founded It Plays in Peoria Productions. Itís based on the old vaudeville line and I am convinced mainstream America is ready to implement a Whole Systems approach if only because it would be much more efficient. I have recorded 440 hours of original programming and continue to syndicate it to 14 stations mostly in the Northwest. We will soon be ready for international syndication, and we have changed the name of the program to reflect that. We're now Global Voices Radio.

What happens when we can archive an artist's voice as well as their written text?
You may have heard the voice of Whitman, recorded by Thomas Edison on a wax recording. There is something magical about that. The text on a page is dead. It is breath which gives life to anything.

Seattle poet Paul Hunter likens the word on the page to a glove. When you read a poem out loud, itís like your putting your fingers in the glove and wiggling them around. Charles Olson recognized in 1950 in his essay in Projective Verse that poetry had lost its speech-force. When the poetic line was shaped by the breath, he felt, that allowed heart into a poem. According to research done at Syracuse University, the magnetic field of the human heart was 100 times stronger than the human brain and Olson was seeing the poem as a high-energy construct, so he certainly was onto something.

What does spoken word tell us that text may not?
The spoken word gives us inflection, which can help us derive meaning from the poem. It gives us that breath, that energy, the life that the printed page can not. Poetry was an art long before there was literacy. Homer was blind and there was no Braille in his day, so it was the spokenword that preceded the written. I think also the poetís historical role as shaman, sorcerer, chanter of incantations comes across more clearly in the spokenword, though it can come across in the written word as well. It just has more life-force when itís sound.

Concerning the basic mechanics, there are successful techniques for poetry in an aural space. Which ones are most important to you?
One can not mumble when reading aloud in public. Obviously some people are more charismatic than others. But the advantage is for people who recognize that the voice is the original musical instrument. Having worked in radio for 21 years, I have received a great education in how to use the voice, although some of that was innate.

How does poetry make sense for the radio?
Radio, speaking in general, operates at the same speed of the mind. Olson references this in Projective Verse. This makes radio very powerful. For the unindividuated, it can be like their own voice in their head. This might explain the power of Rush Limbaugh and Hitler. If people were to see Hitler on TV, they likely never would have taken him seriously.

After I finished my interview with Gordon Davidson and Corrine McLaughlin when they toured with their book Spiritual Politics they mentioned an obscure prophet who mentioned how radio would be the medium that would facilitate the great human evolution. (I believe that punctuated equilibrium is happening right now, that paradigm shift.) They thought the woman was wrong, because TV had not been invented, but after doing their book tour, they realized the power of radio. Of course control of the radio is the first thing progenitors of a coup try to do. The Internet is making this an even playing field for everyone.

Poetry radio, if broadly realized, would have clear social and political implications. What can poets hope to achieve with mass media?
Michael McClure said that if poetry and science can not change oneíe life, they are meaningless. If poets work on their own individuation, this will be reflected in the work. I think all American poets ought to aspire to a Whitmanic consciousness.

Do you believe it's realistic to suppose that somehow, someday, poets will breakthrough to mass audiences with mass media?
I think, to quote Victor Hernandez Cruz, it is not poets who have marginalized themselves, but society that has done that. If we make poetry more accessible to TV watchers, we weaken the art. Alfred North Whithead said it is the business of the future to be dangerous. I think poets ought to be concerned with the future by direct attention to the present.

What "poevangelism", if any, is appropriate to draw the public into active engagement with the spoken language arts?
I donít like evangelism, but I will say that what we are trying to do at SPLAB! is build community through shared experience of the spoken and written word. Writers are the outcasts of the outcasts and need a community more than anyone. So I feel community-building, encouraging all kinds of diversity in an intergenerational setting is some of the most important work in society. Teens especially need this.

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