a publisher for other points of view

FOCUS - May 2013

James Wilkes

A Q&A with one of the contributors to What Matters Now? (What Can't You Hear?).

Daniela Cascella:
Your contribution to the first Noch anthology is entitled Poor Wat, with Listening Ear. Who is Wat?

James Wilkes:
'Wat' is a folk name for the hare; in Venus and Adonis, Shakespeare writes about 'poor Wat' who 'stands on his hinder leg with listening ear' as hunting dogs pursue him.

W(h)at ties Hear, Ear and Hare?

One link is a simple mishearing, the productive phonetic slippage between what-wat, hear-hare and ear-hear. This is reinforced by the fact that hares have acute hearing, and of course remarkable ears (which, according to one 17th century commentator, they would use as sails or oars to help their flight).

Could you give a short introduction to how your text was generated, and in general to how your recent work has been operating in relation to your Research at UCL's Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience?

I composed the text by letting my response to Shakespeare's description of the hare move in several directions at once and then recombining these elements. The 'labyrinths' with which Shakespeare's hare confuses his foes suggested the physiology of the ear; the creative mishearing which already informed the link between the titular question of 'What' and its answer of 'Wat' moved towards other homophonic puns around matter and mutter. I was interested in using the form of a commentary on a poem, thinking of it as a textual form of 'listening', but one which is plagued with noise and misinterpretation.
This particular text isn't directly related to my poetry residency at the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, as its terms are set quite closely by the question 'What Matters Now' (even if it responds by misunderstanding that question). Other work that I've been doing has probably informed it though, in particular my experience of spending time in UCL's anechoic chamber. Listening closely in an environment of extreme aural deprivation, I was surprised by the amount and the quality of noises generated internally by my body, which I experienced as phenomena like birdsong, a sense of dull pressure, or the sound of sand being scattered over foil. I suppose what has carried over into this piece is a sense of a baseline of sound that is in a sense completely misheard, and the idea that the meaning of a sound is remade every time it's described (even if the first moment of description is simultaneously the end of 'pure' listening, if such a state were ever possible).

Our publishing project stems from an idea of expanded listening beyond specialist discourses, thinking of listening as a methodology that includes a myriad voices and languages. How do you inhabit listening?

I don't know how I 'inhabit' listening exactly, but for me, listening and describing have a very close relationship, which is mediated through different kinds of documentation – writing, sound recording and performing. Working with found material as I do, and often using speech as material for poetry, I try to pay attention to the textures, rhythms and timbres of speech – those elements that vanish most easily from transcription.