Poetry and Music Workshop – Perth Poetry Festival, 2014


Jeltje (voice) & Sjaak de Jong (guitar, vocal improvisation)



Poetry Live in the House (Publicity statement)

Poetry, although mostly written in private, is a public event. In the nineteen seventies and eighties many poets took to the stage in live Rock music venues, as the Beat poets did before them, inspired by, and performing with Jazz musicians. Were these “real” poets, or just inspired by the momentum of the times? Is there a place for poetry, alongside contemporary music, or even, performed with musical accompaniment? For the last decade or so, Jeltje has been performing and recording with improvising musicians, and her collection, “Poetry live in the House” was accompanied by a CD of poetry and music by “jeltje and friends”. In this workshop she will discuss how, working with musicians, she became more aware of the rhythms of speech inherent in her own poetry. It also allowed her, as a migrant poet, to reach a larger audience as the music made her poetry performances more accessible to audiences not familiar with speech patterns associated with writers from non-English speaking backgrounds. She has, however, like other sound-based poets, always written her poetry with the page in mind, as well.



Background notes




My first memorable poetry and music experience was “Der Erlenkonig” by Johan Wolfgang von Goethe, set to music by Franz Schubert, on a 1960s recording with the German Tenor Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (see YouTube). It’s an incredibly emotional piece of poetry transformed into song. Goethe and Schubert were part of the Sturm und Drang (proto Romaticism) movement in Germany in which individual subjectivity and extremes of emotion were given free expression, a reaction to the perceived constraints of rationalism imposed by the Enlightenment.


In the late sixties, as an undergraduate student in Australia, I’d tried my hand at writing poetry for the page. Perhaps it was my lack of a substantial English Literature background, but I found the whole thing perplexingly tedious.

Instead, I became interested in film production, excited by the possibilities of constructing, preferably, non-linear narrative with powerful imagery and by editing with a sense of rhythm. I later became involved in the production of more experimental programmes for ABC Radio.


In the mid seventies, I met Π.Ο. in the Sound Effects Office of ABC Radio (I did some effects for him), and we became friends. Together, we founded collective effort press, and the magazine 9-2-5 was born, poetry about work.


The poetry in the magazine 9-2-5 was, I suppose, influenced by Charles Olsen’s poetics, but also, I’d say, the Beats, with their emphasis on performance with improvising Jazz  musicians; the anthologies compiled by Jerome Rothenberg, and the directness of traditional poetry, such as Indigenous American ritualistic field recordings; the New York poets who defied the earnest tone of spontaneity with their cosmopolitan irony and wit (Frank O’Hara: “a poem should have the immediacy and direct communicative power of – a telephone call”); the Russian Futurists, especially Vladimir Mayakovsky, with their poetry based on the “A slap in the face of public taste” manifesto; Bertolt Brecht, and DADA.


I think you can say all these influences favoured intersubjectivity i.e. face-to-face, personal interactions with live audiences, rather than be read, for example, quietly to oneself, from a book on one’s bed-side table, or as part of a peer-group reviewed, university published academic project.


I loved writing and performing the “work poems”. Mine started off as, mostly non-linear, short narratives, based on snatches of direct dialogue. I was trying, I guess, to be as direct (as opposed to oblique) as possible, capturing speech patterns and intonations, including my own.


We performed 9-2-5 work poems everywhere, and I think that’s probably the most decisive factor in my poetry, still: I aim to be accessible to as large an audience as possible, not just “other poets”. As well as being a Melbourne poet, I’d like to think myself as an Australian poet, and I write with an international audience in mind, as well.


Over the years, I’ve also been involved with the Melbourne International Arts Festival, and this gave me scope to engage, freely, as a writer, and not be constrained by what others might decide poetry to be.


In my first venture with MIAF, I worked with the musician Zane Trow, putting poems I had constructed from oral history interviews, to music. Zane made a home studio recording of me performing the (finished) poems, which he then proceeded to weave in and out of his compositions. This process of working with poetry and music, which the ABC too, likes to broadcast from time to time, seems to be the preferred option, still.


However, I also wanted to perform the work live, at the launch of the project. As it turned out, at a rather late stage in the project, there was no funding for this, and I had to abandon the idea. But it was, also about this time, that I was introduced, by the sound poet ACR, to Sjaak de Jong at the Art House, a poetry and music venue, of which Sjaak was one of the convenors. Sjaak, inspired by ACR, had become interested in collaborating with local sound poets. As a result, together with Sjaak and Unamunos Quorum, the improvising group of which Sjaak was, and still is, the convenor, I made some recordings of sound based poetry, for a cassette tape that Sjaak was putting together of poetry and music improvisations. I also had the opportunity to perform some of these collaborations, live.


Through Π.Ο., other 9-2-5 contributors and, in particular, the late Jas H. Duke, I’d come in contact, with concrete (visual) poets and sound poets, and this also had a profound influence on my work. Jas based a lot of his sound poetry on the legacy of DADA.


In one of my poems on Sjaak’s cassette tape, UQ uses the voice as percussion and, also in this performance, language breaks down to mere sounds (morphemes). “Cheer-squad News” consists of a narrative that progresses like a sequence of news items, where the actual content is replaced/made irrelevant, by the drama of my mother’s cat behaving badly in the kitchen, in front of the television. What remains of the news is an emotional response to the depressing content of the items, expressed in my mother’s anger and frustration at the cat biting the carpet. I’m also using repetition to convey the relentlessness of the, almost always, bad news. At the end of the poem, I mimic the usual closure of bulletins when we’re reassured, by the tone of the newsreader, not to get too excited about all this, and that everything, really, is ok.


Sjaak introduced me to the Saxophonist Robert Calvert, a long-standing member of the UK/Australian GONG band, which had been working with poetry and music for many years. Robert started recording the three of us in his home studio, with the idea of performing the work, live, as well. Robert called these collaborations “performed improvisations”, of which we put together a selection on the poetry and music CD So Be It.


To put you in the picture, the sort of improvisation in music, dance and poetry, that most of us are familiar with, today, can be dated back to developments from Swing music (Bebop and Rock and Roll), as well as more philosophical movements such as Existentialism, Gestalt and Zen Buddhism.


Robert Calvert


Beginning in 1972 I began studying and participating in two improvisation workshop groups in London, one led by John Stevens, the other by Maggie Nicolls. In 1976 John asked me to join his group John Stevens' Away. During the four years I worked in this band I was able to put into practice much I had learned from the workshop experience.


In November1982 I emigrated to Melbourne, Australia where I failed to find any comparative improvisation activity until, at a recording session at the old Richmond Recorders in 1987, I met Harry Williamson. I was recording with a band I was then working with and Harry was the engineer on the session. He asked if I would stay behind after my session and join with some friends who were laying down a track for 'The Invisible Opera Company of Tibet'. Harry knew nothing of my background and I knew nothing about what he expected of me on his session. As we walked into the studio he popped the question, "can you improvise"?


I remember we were all very excited about the music that came out of that session so Harry asked if I wanted to do more of the same, this time including his then wife the poet Gilli Smyth of 'Gong' fame, and the Melbourne drummer Rob George.


Being an improviser I preferred to collectively and spontaneously create a musical backdrop that followed Gilli's word imagery. Such a way of working immediately freed us from having to conform to musical form, we felt no compunction to make the words fit a musical structure, the music ended when the poem ended. Well, sometimes! Being a group of strong minded individuals with differing thoughts on how we could organize ourselves many approaches to providing the sonic underpinning to Gilli's poems were used. Some formal techniques such as counting bars, strict tempo, time and key signatures, etc. found their appropriate place in the general scheme of things. However, my personal preference was biased toward allowing the music to emerge from the collective interaction of the musicians with the poet. In my opinion our most original and atmospheric work was created in this way.


In the Gilli Smyth 'Mother Gong' setting my role was confined to playing the saxophone. For some years prior to this I had been exploring sound synthesis with my Ensoniq ESQ 1. I was not interested in it as a keyboard as such but as a machine capable of manufacturing sounds, including any sound you could possibly imagine. After meeting Sjaak de Jong and Jeltje in the mid 1990's and performing a few informal gigs it was suggested we could set a series of Jeltje's poems to music. This gave me an opportunity to be more than just the saxophone player, I could put to use the vastly expanded palate of sounds I had been exploring and creating in my synthesizer.


Quite a few of Jeltje's poems broke with poetic form, concerning themselves with repeated patterns of words and the ever changing sound and timbre of repeated words.

I thought the synthesizer lent itself ideally to these poems, it was so flexible, I could instantly change and layer sounds as Jeltje's word imagery progressed. This enabled me, as someone who had long pondered what could be said to be musical originality, to wrap those sounds around Jeltje's poems thus further breaking with existing form and structure. I saw this as a liberating open ended approach in which form was created parallel to the music, collectively and extemporaneously.


The result of the collaboration between Jeltje, Sjaak and myself became the cd 'SO BE IT, Dark Into Light'. Nearly every track had a different musical treatment; some formal, some radical, some in-between. This was governed by the poems themselves and whether it was Sjaak or myself who created the musical settings. I'm still proud of the outcome we achieved considering it was recorded on my home equipment (Tascam 244 four track recorder).


It seems like many musical endeavors I've been involved with (particularly in Australia) have been beyond the understanding or the reference points of most people, whose role ought to critically and objectively consider the output of our homegrown artists. But this raises the question of how important, or indeed essential, it is to understand the relevance of the arts in determining a unique identity for ourselves in this country. However, that would be totally outside the context of this discourse. 


Sjaak de Jong

I’ve often reflected on approaches that musicians have used to provide musical accompaniments for poetry, such as the walking bass-line (often used by the Beat poets), and 12-bar blues constructions. Perhaps these musical structures had their origin in underscoring narratives. There are also structures in forms of Indigenous music that naturally meld with poetic and prose narratives. 

At a cross disciplinary art event, some decades ago, I was asked by “Tom the World Poet” to provide musical accompaniments to his work. His poetry was improvised without any paper to read from or other visible clues. Each day he’d digest local and international news and made notes (poetic or otherwise), read poetry of others and made notes, listened to recordings of his performances (he recorded each performance) and analysed how he had put things together, paying special attention to phrases and poetic fragments that were new, came in out of the blue so to speak. It illustrated the paradox of improvisation: an intense process of preparation, followed by a clearing of the mind to spontaneously compose material.

I became aware of how my own musical accompaniments to poetry were an amalgam of previously encountered fragments and phrases, with also a component of real-time innovation. It made me also realise that all performances, no matter of how tightly scripted, have an improvised element within them, but that the proportions of established and spontaneous material can vary a lot, depending on the parameters one sets one-self (either consciously or unknowingly).  

It seemed I had generated a sort of “Toolbox” with various musical elements. There was always a certain amount of original material that I generated that did not fit in with any standard musical forms, they weren’t songs (with defined elements such as chorus, verse or middle-eight) or instrumentals. They were little rounds and themes that perhaps could be used as interludes in some forms of symphonic rock, but I didn’t really have the opportunity to use them in such a way.  I discovered, when I started to work with poets, that these fragment fitted certain pieces of poetry more or less like pieces of a jigsaw fitting together. It appeared that it was their natural function. 

Also during this period I was sharing a house with the piano player Peter O’Keefe who, besides giving me many insights into some of the more theoretical aspects of music, also introduced me to the Jazz drummer Brendon Jeary. One day Brendon came around the house with a carload of equipment, some wind instruments and a veritable plethora of percussion instruments. Next, we went to a VCA performance space and, together with the keyboard and wind-instrument player Greg Gear (who was a lecturer there), we did a series of recording sessions resulting in a cassette release of free music under the name of Bre’Ja’Dan.  

For many years I had been a listener of the ABC Program “The Listening Room” really enjoying programs featuring free form Jazz and, also occasionally, sound poetry which appeared as a sort of vocal free improvisation to me at the time. I was really excited to suddenly be involved in sessions that were actually recording such material. 

At that time, bands I was involved with often had line-up changes. It became rather tedious for members of these groups to be almost constantly introducing musicians to the material and methodology of these musical ensembles. Inspired by the improvised recording sessions, and faced with more tedious rehearsals, I decided to form the free improvising vocal group Unamunos Quorum (UQ for short). 

Around this time I came in contact with the saxophone player Robert Calvert who was impressed with the Bre’Ja’Dan recordings, and joined in with performances and recordings in a variety of line-ups of this group. He also occasionally joined UQ and gave us a lot of invaluable input with suggestions towards methodology and workshop ideas, some of these he acquired from studying and playing with John Stevens. We further expanded on the workshop methodology by using ideas developed by Augusto Boal, published in his book “Games for actors and non-actors”, as well as eventually generating and developing our own workshop techniques. 

Individually, as well as with the group UQ, I started to provide musical structures and soundscapes, as backing for poetry performances by jeltje, Ashley J. Higgs and Peter Murphy. It was particularly interesting that some material we were using as “backings” which were odd musical time-signatures such as 5/4 and 7/8 which often presented considerable difficulty to musicians. Poets, however, seem to have no such difficulties at all and immediately feel at home in these structures. This led to the discovery for us that poets always work with rhythms and patterns of speech that are not at all as constrained to certain patterns that (western) musicians are. UQ started to use certain words for odd rhythms, rather than counting the beats, smoothly working in all sort of strange time signatures and linguistic structures to use as backbones for our improvisations. This was a very good background to further work with poets, giving us a good feel for patterns of speech and rhythmical structures in the poems that we worked with.  

When working on poetry and music collaborations with Jeltje, there is always an element of improvisation. A starting point is occasionally a mistake, such as miss-fingering a chords or musical phrase (on guitar), generating a new starting point. Sometimes new melodies more or less escapes one’s fingers and, the mind quickly and slightly alarmed, tries to remember what the body just produced (“Barmah Forest”, ”Snake story”). Sometimes an initial improvisation yields a structure or rhythm (percussion) that would suit a particular poem, it is then carefully rehearsed and analysed before finally being used (“She’s going with the boys”). At times, the poem might immediately suggest a certain vocal improvised approach (“My mother and the cat”). 

But even in more structured material, where the poem is accompanied by a musical fragment out of the “Toolbox”, regular rehearsals and performances continue to change the structure and more tightly interweave the music and poetry. These truly unique and integrated pieces are an ongoing adventure, rather than a trend towards an ideal form.

Jeltje (Summary)


Working with improvising musicians has provided me with an invaluable opportunity to explore my own rhythms of speech, as well as becoming aware of how much my exposure to Jazz and Rock, especially during formative years, has actually influenced the rhythms and structures in my poetry.


Jas H. Duke, interestingly, used to talk about the “3-minute poem”, how we all wrote to that length because of the duration of EPs in Jukeboxes, and on the radio, and he, more often than not, consciously, went against this trend.


When I first came to improvising with musicians I definitely brought 3-minute poems to those initial sessions and, later, wrote them especially (e.g. “Poetry alive in the house”, “Migrant Blues”, “Bricks to Concrete”). However, others are more like snatches of dialogue (“Cheer-squad News”, “Before there was work“). And then there are the more abstract sound pieces, hard to define, a bit like concrete poems put to music: (“(you) angel you”, “She smiles like a fish”, “Fly away, good bird”, “Tall straight”.)


As time went on, the poetry and music collaborations have become a lot longer, and also more complex (“From them took us”, “She’s going with the boys”).


After recording the poems I’ve also performed some of this work solo or in other collaborative arrangements but, always, the rhythmical structures remain very much like they were in those initial sessions.


However, by performing the pieces live, to different audiences there’s been an ongoing process of subtle change as well. For example, in “Catching Worms” we stumbled on an understanding of the almost childlike structure of the poem and, subsequently, the music, which seems to express stunted emotions often inherent in the migration process. We now emphasize these qualities in both the poem and the music.


Sjaak and I performed at the 2006 krikri poetry festival in Ghent, Belgium, organized by music researcher Jelle Meander who coined the term “polypoetry” (poetry of many possibilities). We’ve been calling our collaborations “polypoetry” ever since.