SoundBox Signals

Is That Me?

Episode Summary

Host Karis Shearer, curator Mathieu Aubin and guests do a "close listening" of a recording of bill bissett’s previously unpublished poem from circa 1966. "Is that Me?" features guests Mathieu Aubin, Lauren St. Clair, and Nour Sallam. This episode was co-produced by Karis Shearer and Nour Sallam.

Episode Notes

Host Karis Shearer, curator Mathieu Aubin and guests do a "close listening" of a recording of bill bissett’s previously unpublished poem from circa 1966. "Is that Me?" features guests Mathieu Aubin, Lauren St. Clair, and Nour Sallam. This episode was co-produced by Karis Shearer and Nour Sallam.

You can find the full-length recording of the bill bissett clip at See what our UBCO SpokenWeb team is up to by following us on Instagram at @amplab_ubco and be sure to check out the larger SpokenWeb network at @spokenweb.

For the shout-outs mentioned at the end of this episode, please visit the links below:

bill bissett's Breth (Talonbooks):

bill bissett on PennSound:

Cut and Run Podcast by Brady Marks:

Sarah Tolmie's The Art of Dying (MQUP):

Ian Ferrier at the Inspired Word Cafe:

Episode Transcription

[00:00:00] [Theme music].

[00:00:31] Karis Shearer: This is SoundBox Signals, a podcast that brings archival recordings to life through a combination of curated close listing and conversation. Together we'll consider how these literary recordings signify in the contemporary moment and ask what listening allows us to know about cultural history. Full-length versions of these recordings are available online in our SpokenWeb archive at  

[00:00:58] [music ends].  

[00:00:59] KS: I'm Karis Shearer and I'm joined today at UBC Okanagan by guest-curator Mathieu Aubin, who recently finished his PhD with a dissertation entitled “Here and Queer in Vancouver,” which touches on the work of bill bissett. I’m also joined by Lauren St. Clair, who is a Computer Science major, Data Science minor and is the president of the Quantitative Science Course Union here at UBCO. Also joined by our Podcast Producer extraordinaire, Nour Sallam, who is pursuing her Honours English degree here at UBCO. Welcome everybody!

[00:01:35] Lauren St. Clair: Hello!

[00:01:35] Mathieu Aubin: Hi!

[00:01:36] Nour Sallam: Hi!

[00:01:39] KS: We are here today to listen to a clip by bill bissett. So we're going to rewind to 1966 and listen to that recording, which is part of our SoundBox collection here at UBCO. 

[00:01:55] [tape click].  

[00:02:04] bill bissett: [performing] This well. Palpitating jelly gold. Warp. Sing.  [] tomato. You got that. Should be enough. Look like needles and watches and fires. Enter greenly splotch us belly holes and ice and stitches and wrestle them water in haywires. Is that blood on my pillow? Is that me? Splurged there. Becoming a puddle in their sitting room. Is that me on the window sill in worms sliced. Ooze. how did she do it [at feet]  radiators and a swerping unslow on my you know. Keep wishing we were in his forty cent bed. This is the second we left Istanbul, which is Mediterranean. 

[00:03:13] [tape click]. 

[00:03:15] KS: So what you just heard is a clip from a longer recording made on magnetic tape. It's on reel-to-reel, probably made by Warren Tallman. It was part of his collection, and is by poet bill bissett. Mathieu, do you want to give us a little bit more context of this recording? 

[00:03:34] MA: Yeah, of course. So, in this recording, what we have is, if it is in fact from 1966 as the material of the tape indicates, bill bisset is likely around 26 or 27 years old. It is one of the earliest recordings that we have of bill bissett reading his work and what he's reading in the recording as a whole beyond this clip is some poems that have been published later on in some format. And We Sleep Inside Each Other All was first published by Ganglia Press in Toronto, 1966. And one of the exciting things about this clip, in particular, is that this poem was never published. As bill bisset indicates, lines of this poem were published in other poems such as Veronica, which were previously unpublished, and now published in his new book with Talonbooks called breth. But otherwise this is an unpublished poem. And what we have access to is a really raw bill bissett and a very youthful bill bissett, which you can tell by his voice. And what's really exciting about this as well is we don't really know where it took place necessarily based on bill, it possibly was recorded with Warren Tallman, but also perhaps with Doug Giesman who he recorded with a lot, and we don't have access to any sense of audience, which is a little odd for people who are often used to going to his readings and hearing the audience banter back with him. There is mostly silence between the poems, which gives it a different feeling. 

[00:05:01] KS: Yeah, yeah, it sure does. It was an exciting recording to discover in the sense that I think the performance is quite different from bill's typical performances today. Lauren, you were one of the early listeners to this recording, you helped digitize it, and it's a strange and fascinating style of reading to encounter, isn't it?

[00:05:25] LSC: Yeah.

[00:05:26] KS: Can you talk a little bit about your impressions of it, what it reminds you of in terms of style? 

[00:05:32] LSC: Yeah. Like, it sounds almost robotic and it definitely is not based in sounding robotic, because it's from the 60s, but, to me when I first listened to it, it almost sounded like a literal voice translation of sticking the poem into a machine and having it be played out. Like when he speaks, it sounds almost spliced together and not like he is speaking in the actual moment. It's kind of like a collage of words in a way, like if you took a bunch of words from a magazine and kind of just stuck them together and read it out. That's kind of the impression it gave me when I first heard it. 

[00:06:13] KS: Yeah, it has kind of a very chopped sound to it. Nour, you were thinking about the way in which the style is connected to the content of the poem and that kind of fragmentation that we're hearing both stylistically, but then also within the body of the poem. Do you want to talk a little bit about how that fragmentation is playing out here?

[00:06:35] NS: Yeah, it's a lot like what Lauren was saying. It's very spliced and it does give off the feeling that it's a little bit like a collage, which I find really interesting because the fragmentation kind of gives you that feeling of isolation that he is experiencing from the body when he says, “is that me splurged there becoming a puddle,” “is it me on the windowsill,” “ is that my body,” you really got that sense of fragmentation and isolation especially in the way he reads it and the way he sounds out the words and pauses between them. 

[00:07:17] KS: There's a kind of an alienation almost from the body isn't there? 

[00:07:21] NS: Yeah, an alienation from the body. I picked up on it specifically through the way he sounds out and pauses between all the words or pieces them together in a way that if he was just saying them and if he was just speaking in a non-performative way maybe you wouldn't have picked up on that. 

[00:07:42] KS: Yeah, because we're getting a lot of blood. “Is that blood on my pillow,” right? That's part of him but he's also seeing it, right? So there's the speaker looking at pieces of himself. He's a puddle. He's blood on the pillow. 

[00:08:00] NS: And the form of questioning too. It almost gives you the sense that he is unsure. Is it me? Is it someone else? What am I looking at?

[00:08:11] KS: That's a great observation. That kind of uncertainty around what he's perceiving. 

[00:08:17] NS: Yes, exactly. 

[00:08:18] KS: That's wonderful. Mat, I'm going to come over to you and ask you a little bit about continuing on this question of style of reading.  Can you talk a little bit about how this style that we're hearing here that Nour and Lauren just talked about in terms of its fragmentation. The kind of almost computerized voice, which so curious, you know, 1966, it is not modelled after anything that, you know, we would necessarily be familiar with now. How does the style that we're hearing here differ from bisett's contemporary performance style?

[00:08:55] MA: Yeah, there's so many great threads that you've been bringing up so far in the sense of technology perhaps, or the technological voice, in some sense. bill bissett is very much interested in the idea of, well, he is using the typewriter to write most of his poems and the idea of like, what is a tape recorder- perhaps be able to bring to it too, what does it mean to become maybe like a robot in that sense? But the question of college, too, is essential to his practice. He's often thinking about inter-splicing different lines of poems in his oral performance of the poetry and even on the page he's really thinking about putting things together and collaging them literally, so I really like that observation in the sense of, like, what you're hearing, which also carries over to the page. What we have here in this recording is a really young bill bissett, and what surprised me when I first heard this last spring was that youthfulness, and having been to many of his readings in the past few years, what surprised me was some of the elements that were perhaps different or maybe missing but I was expecting, and perhaps it's because of it being maybe an early recording or the fact that it's a private context, but there's something he said about the private versus the public. When he's reading in the public context, there's an audience very much knowing his work and are able to respond to him. And he is very humorous in his performance. You still hear that a bit in this recording, however the humour depends on obviously an audience responding to it and that's not as present in this recording. The other thing, too, that I'm surprised with is there's no instrument that's being played in this and he's known for having a maracas on stage very often and, you know, chanting with it and there's no "hamuna hamuna," you know, in the ways of, like, bringing different lines together. And what doesn't surprise me, though, is when I found out that this is a poem that was of course never published but has lines that have been published in other poems, is this improvisionational aspect of it. And part of his performance today is still that idea of improvising and working with things. And I was re-watching some of his performances on YouTube the other day and I thought it was really interesting that he would often stop with philosophical questions. These kinds of questions that Nour is bringing up are in this poem, but of course are being asked differently. So, I think there are a lot of similarities but there's of course a development on that idea of a public audience listening, that isn't in here. 

[00:11:15] KS: Yeah I like that, so you're saying you're kind of seeing or hearing a through line from his early work through to his performance now, but also seeing some of the differences particularly around the live audience, right? The improvisation, the responding to the audience, we hear that a lot in his contemporary work. I'm going to come back to Nour and I want to ask you about, again, that question of listening or hearing a lot of onomatopoeia and like real sound play here around words. We hear words like "ooze" that really play out in a way that point to or signify the concept that they represent. Can you point to a couple other moments where we're hearing that sound play?

[00:12:00] NS: Yeah. Specifically in the beginning of the recording that we heard, there's a theme of liquids going on and you can hear that a lot in the specific words like "ooze" and like "palpitation jelly" that he, like, splices, or stresses and so on.  And "splurged" and words like that where he is really emphasizing that idea of liquids, but also the theme of fluidity which is really interesting to me because of the fragmentation of the poem. 

[00:12:35] KS: Yeah. There's kind of a tension between like the chopping up of words, right? “Palp-itation,” which is about poking, right- 

[00:12:41] NS: Yeah, and the "oo-ozing." 

[00:12:42] KS: Yeah, the elongation of the sounds to signify liquid or fluidity. 

[00:12:48] NS: Yeah, it truly is a masterful reading, I think, of what he's trying to portray. 

[00:12:55] KS: Yeah, that's nice. Mat, do you want to say... I mean, we're hearing so much sound play in this particular performance, particular poem. Can you comment a little bit about what we're not hearing in this particular recording? 

[00:13:12] MA: Yeah, so again, I think, of course, we have the silence and the vocalization and the polyvocality that we are talking about here, and the playing with that. But again to return to my earlier point about what I don't hear in the recording is one, an audience, which surprises me. Because I know that based on what he shared with me, bill is not reading alone in this room. What would the person be responding to? Were they responding at all? Were they maybe having a cigarette, let’s say? What were they doing, were they just casually listening? If not, if there is no audience or no response from the audience, if there likely is an audience, what does it mean for him to just be reading it this way? And it is a work in process or progress, or whatever you want to call it, but he is reciting this and I'm thinking back to this close listening that we did last summer at Congress and Jason Camlot talked about the idea of it sounds almost like a recitation of the poem. And knowing a bit more context about the poem, it sounds about right. That it is just him working through a poem that never ended up being published. But the other part that I'm surprised that I don't hear is, you know, the musicality and almost like a sense of a lack of banter, which is so essential to his practice today. There is just banter and he would stop and say something hilarious in the middle of a poem and then go on to reading the poem. Here what you have is someone who is reading the poem and, of course, emphasizing some words like "splurge," but he's also, like, very much going through the poem. And something we might not hear too is, what is the context? Are we in a living room? You kind of hear the hum in the background of the digital, not the digital, the analog technology in the recording, but we have zero idea of where this takes place. We're assuming that this is in Vancouver if it is in fact with Warren Tallman, but we don't hear that. And then the other thing, too, is often when you see him on stage he is opening up a water bottle or all those other kind of sounds. But this is such a crisp recording that makes you think okay, what is he, is he just sitting here at a table reading his poem? In other parts of the recording, though, you hear him turn a page. And that poem is from We Sleep Inside Each Other All but since you're seeing [] is that poem has even been changed? So looking at the archival material my partner, Emma Middleton, was thinking about like, okay, well is it exactly how it sounds in the recording? And it's not. So what are the pages? How is he going through this? So we know at least that we can hear the page because of that. But we have very limited context about that. 

[00:15:56] KS: Yeah, so in the body of recordings that we have of bill bissett or that are available online for listening in PennSound for example, this becomes quite an unusual example because of that kind of studio quality if you will, quite uncharacteristic of bill bissett. So it strikes me that one of the research questions that a person could pursue would be to map the arch of the recordings and to maybe  kind of point out where we start to see some of the contemporary style that we have. Lauren, I'm going to go over to you and I want to ask you this kind of question around the difference between the studio recording and the live recording. You're a real music fan, I know. And so my question for you is, what is, for you, the difference between a studio recording and listening to, I mean not necessarily experiencing a live show, but hearing the live recording of something? Do you have a preference, and what are you listening for in those contexts and what makes those different for you? 

[00:16:53] LSC: Yeah. I guess it really depends on what you're listening for and more of, like, the technical way. You might be listening for the studio recording for, like, how the sound is balanced or whatnot between the live version but if you're listening to it for more of, like, the piece itself, you might be listening to the live because it feels more intimate. You might be hearing, like, banter that you wouldn't be hearing otherwise. You hear those intimate moments shared between the musician and the performer, having with the audience, that you wouldn't have captured otherwise, or is only shared in that specific recorded moment. 

[00:17:32] KS: Exactly. Yeah, they're event based, aren't they? So you have that unique interaction of that particular concert or that particular event, which we don't have here in this recording because of that lack of play with the audience, or even as a, you know, someone who recorded a lot of material Warren Tallman doesn't on this recording introduce it or tell us exactly what date this was recorded or where, which was fairly typical that he often did do that. So even in our collection it becomes an unusual example. 

[00:18:04] (music) 

[00:18:07] KS: I'm going to fast forward now to contemporary, we're going to take us out of 1966 to the contemporary moment. I want to ask you about any shout-outs that you have to poetry, sound events that are happening, any digital archives that you want to mention that are maybe inspired by or related to this archive. I'm going to start with Mat. 

[00:18:33] MA: Yeah, so, as I mentioned the book breth recently published by Talonbooks is a collection from basically the whole of bill bissett, including works that have never been published. So if you pick up that book what would be great to see is that parts of this clip that we just listened to, some lines would be found in different poems in that book. And he's also been celebrating his 80th birthday, and tons of events in the greater Toronto area including St Catharine's, Ontario, that are just really commemorating his career and the amount of publications that he has done. So it's really exciting so really make sure to check out that book. And one thing that I wanted to mention too is that idea of PennSound, and another recording 30 years later, is making sure that there are other places that you can also access this and compare that if you're really interested in doing that. 

[00:19:20] KS: Yeah, thanks so much. Lauren, I'm going to go over to you. A kind of event or thing you want to mention? 

[00:19:28] LSC: Cool, yeah. I want to give a shout out to the podcast, Cut and Run, which is run by Brady Marks, who is a computational sound artist based in Vancouver, and she also has the handle @furiousgreencloud, if you're interested in following her on social media or checking out her website or you can go check out her computational art that's usually based in sound. It's very cool, and the Cut and Run podcast is a focus on music and specifically, like, experimental music usually. 

[00:20:00] KS: Cool, that is very cool. Nour I'm going to go over to you, do you want to give a shout out? 

[00:20:05] NS: Yeah, I'd like to give a shout out to the Candian poet in the contemporary setting, her name is Sarah Tolmie, I recently came across her poetry because I picked up a copy of the Griffin 2019 Poetry Prize and she was one of the shortlisted winners. And her poetry is really beautiful to the contemporary setting specifically in, like, contemporary issues. Yeah, she's super cool. 

[00:20:33] KS: Awesome, Sarah Tolmie. 

[00:20:36] NS: Yeah, her book is The Art of Dying

[00:20:37] KS: [overlaps] The Art of Dying. Fantastic, thank you so much.

[00:20:37] MA: [overlaps] Sounds optimistic. 

[00:20:40] KS: And I'm going to give a shoutout to close. Ian Ferrier of SpokenWeb and much other fame is going to be here in Kelowna on January twenty-third. He is reading with Samuel Archibald, 7 p.m. Cool Arts Studio on Cawston as part of the Inspired Word Cafe series, so that should be a lot of fun, and we're looking forward to welcoming Ian to Kelowna. I want to thank all of you for being here today and bringing in some really great insights into this particular recording, doing a curated close listening, and listening and talking! That's what this is all about. I also want to thank bill bissett for giving us permission to use the particular clip and host it on our website and to the estate of Warren Tallman for their permission as well. 

[00:21:32] [music].  

[00:21:38] KS: That was episode one of SoundBox Signals. You were listening to a recording by bill bisset from our archive called the Soundbox Collection which is housed in the UBCO AMP Lab. You can find full-length versions of our recordings online at I'm your host Karis Shearer and I'll see you next time. 

[00:22:00] [music fades to end].