Episode 19

From cante jondo mixtape by Rowan Evans

 

Rowan Evans reads from cante jondo mixtape and discusses the sequence with Mark McGuinness.

This poem is from:

Penguin Modern Poets 7: These Hard and Shining Things 

Last Things book cover

Available from:

Penguin Modern Poets 7 is available from:

Bookshop.org: UK

Amazon: UK |US

 

 

From cante jondo mixtape

by Rowan Evans

orange blossom

he must record the light
in columns
over the epitome.

atrium of a lake

death of Lorca

/

in the diminishing acoustic
white cracked walls
of the mission courtyard.

full breaths over the mountain
half breaths lain in heat

oranges.

the acoustic
diminishing.

/

his mouth.
a sodden cloth in his mouth

ink and vinegar.

waking in white stations
sending into them
vows.

something he wouldn’t imagine
in other brickery
in other words

hard, brown, Andalucía.
olive, green, Andalucía.

/

a second light in the gorge.

dangerous little walkaway.

ask him, is he thirsty.

yes, those are flamingoes.

/

the brown mare
looks at the white egret.

if he could smile.

for a moment
the tower is everything

swifts above the innocents

swifts swifts

south-trending
tower!

/

beauty overbore me

so much movement in it.
if I had a voice
of math

(only he
must record the light
only this
orange blossom)

said the virgin
said the mudéjar
this would be the spring
of algebra


 

Interview transcript

Mark: Rowan, where did this poem sequence come from?

Rowan: Okay. Well, it’s getting on for quite a few years ago or maybe 10 years ago now when this poem first came about, and I think it came about over a number of years when I was lucky enough to be in Spain around Easter time, traveling with my mum and some friends. And we’ve been traveling down to the south of Spain into a region of Andalucía. And often when we’ve been making those trips and spending time in that part of the world, I liked to read poetry and writing that’s associated with where I am.

So I’ve been starting to look at Lorca, Federico García Lorca, the wonderful Spanish poet who was writing, sort of, between the 1920s and 30s until he was disappeared or murdered in the 1930s. So I was reading a lot of his texts, and this particular sequence, I think, began on the train journey down to Seville and looking out my window just at things that were going past. And I was also reading bits of Lorca and jotting down lines.

I suppose the other thing to say is that I’d also been using Lorca’s poems and Lorca’s poems in Spanish. I don’t speak Spanish, although I think I did… Did I do GCSE? [Laughter] No, I did Spanish briefly at secondary school, but I’ve been using various poems by Lorca as starting points for bits of translation or experimental translation. So trying to translate Spanish texts, only knowing a handful of Spanish, responding to the sounds of the words rather than the meaning and seeing where that took me. So that had been floating around for a while as well.

And this sequence became eventually the core sequence in what would be a slightly longer work—Cante Jondo Mixtape is the name of the full sequence—which moves back and forth between some moments of text taken from translation of Lorca and, sort of, playful responses to his poetry and his life as well. So I think that was all, kind of, bubbling away, but this particular sequence began, I think, yeah, on that train journey and with notebooks, just jotting things down in my notebooks while I was wandering around and looking at oranges and strange architecture.

Mark: Bit like a Spanish version of ‘The Whitsun Weddings’.

Rowan: Yeah, yeah. [Laughter]

Mark: And what was it about Lorca that you were responding to? I mean, what was your sense of what he was like as a presence in your mind as you were writing this?

Rowan: It’s interesting. So as with a lot of my writing, Lorca, in terms of his text, forms one of several little nodes of association that were going on at the time. So I’d been introduced to Lorca by the wonderful poet, Peter Gizzi, who was, sort of, mentoring me at the time. And he introduced me to Lorca via another poet, Jack Spicer, who in the 1960s wrote this wonderful, strange lyric sequence called After Lorca. And in that sequence, Jack Spicer has a dialogue with the ghost of the dead poet and writes lots of poems, which pretend to all be translations of Lorca—some of which are, lots of which aren’t—and also letters from Lorca responding grumpily to Jack Spicer’s interventions and attempts at translation.

So that, sort of, put me onto this territory of a, kind of, playful idea of response or dialogue with a text or body of work or a dead poet. But I was also particularly drawn to this sequence, the Lorca sequence that I’m kind of working with, is called the Poema del cante jondo or Poem of the cante jondo. I think ‘cante jondo’ means ‘deep song’, and it’s a sequence that Lorca writes which are very interested in folk traditions, ballads, songs. And their language is quite minimal. They are full of repetitions, very short lines, colors and simple elements. And I think, first of all, when I was trying to translate bits of the Spanish, they were very short lines and simpler words, which was, sort of, an easier task to start out with.

But it also, I think, appealed to my sensibility at the time, and I was reading quite a lot of post-war American poetry, people like George Oppen, I associate with the objectivist school of writing, again, often foregrounding or being drawn to more minimal or whittled down forms of writing or expression. And I found that in Lorca and enjoyed, sort of, mapping that onto the things that I was seeing around me in that part of the world as well. So, yeah, that’s where lots of these things are, sort of, hopping back and forth between Lorca in the 1930s, Jack Spicer in the ‘60s, Peter Gizzi now, and seeing what came up from it

Mark: And presumably the view from the train as well.

Rowan: Exactly, yeah. So the poem is divided into these small sections or sub-stanzas, and I think initially lots of those began as literally just glimpses out the window in the same way that a view from a train window will offer a sudden snapshot or framing which has then moved on from quite quickly. And I think that lent itself to… I was also working, I think, in a very small pocket notebook which had small pages with, you know, not very wide margins. So that again lends itself to these quite small snapshots or moments of observation which then became these very short lines of these single images which, sort of, accumulated across the sequence.

And when there were other things that I was observing or thinking about later on, just looking back over the poems now, they could then be, sort of, fitted into this minimal form that had been established by the train window as it were. So there are bits in this that aren’t me looking at a train window anymore, but they’ve been put back into these small spaces that the train window observations allowed. In fact, the first one definitely is an orange blossom. That’s from the streets of Seville. Yeah, but I mean, we can talk about individual sections as we go on if you like. There’s lots of things bubbling away.

Mark: I guess one of the things I’m curious about right away is how much of this… because it’s a mixtape, which I guess maybe for the younger listeners, maybe we should explain what a mixtape is?

Rowan: Yeah, so a mixtape, I guess, is the, you know, analog equivalent of a playlist and it would be… I mean, even when I was growing up, we weren’t really using tapes so much anymore, but the idea would be that you’d use a double tape recorder to find different tracks that you liked by different artists or my mum used to do recording things off the radio, off Top of the Pops, and you’d create your own compilation albums of different songs that you liked, a bit like, you know, making a Spotify playlist these days.

But the idea of a mixtape… And, again, this particular poem is, sort of, the core of a longer sequence. I suppose it was this idea of playfully accumulating or moving between different moments, different observations, different sounds different bits of sensory information and splicing them together. And I think I liked particularly when you put, you know, the phrase cante jondo, deep song, it’s just quite grand, that collision of, sort of, folk poetics. I quite like the playfulness of putting that next to the idea of a mixtape, which is also a folk form or a way of sharing songs and putting things together. So that seemed to speak to the original one in, kind of, a playful way. And, yeah, I think that’s where it came from.

Mark: Well, I mean, this is a characteristic of your work I really like, that you will engage with some quite deep or classic or heavy text, however you want to…what adjective you want to use. High-cultural stuff. But then you’ll have a playful, reverent, low, maybe even pop culture reference like a mixtape. And certainly when you… Your description of the mixtape, it reminded me of when I… because I’m, you know, a little longer in the tooth than you. I can remember waiting, listening to, you know, the chart show on a Sunday night, waiting for this certain song to come on and hitting record when it did, because you would only hear it once and you had to capture it. You know, and you didn’t want to get the DJ talking, but you want just the opening bars of the song. And that’s how I would build up, you know, my first mixtapes. And, you know, hearing you describe that process of being on the train and seeing all this stuff flashing past and capturing it on your notepad, maybe it is quite an accurate description of that moment of, “Oh, I’ve got to get this now,” because it’s gone otherwise.

Rowan: Yeah, I like that, sort of, the suddenness of it or the flash. Yeah, definitely. And it is interesting if you look at Lorca’s poems and how they’re gathered in his sequence. Lots of them are these sudden shouts or utterances. There’s a tradition around Easter time in the south of Spain and in Seville where we were where they have these terrifying processions in the streets, sort of, reenacting or memorializing the events of Easter, the passion and the crucifixion. And you have these women singing from balconies. I think they’re maybe referred to a saeta, or I need to look up the exact word that he uses, but the sudden flashes of emotion and song, which kind of shoot out of buildings and are being uttered. And there’s lots of cries and oh’s in most of the poem as well.

And I suppose thinking often, I mean, in British writing as well, how folk material is gathered and put down particularly when it’s coming from an oral tradition. There’ll be this idea of assembling or creating a mixtape quite quickly and then shaping that to your own devices. So, again, I suppose, I quite like the idea of maybe, sort of, sampling bits of the Lorca poems as well. Yeah, as you know, I’m very interested in sound work as well and, sort of, using musical approaches to writing as well. So this idea of going around and recording the light, as I put it, but also, you know, mixing in bits of these Lorca poems, which are themselves imperfect recordings of snapshots of folk melody, that all seemed to, kind of, fit together for me in the moment of pulling it together.

Mark: Okay. So I will include in the show notes a mouthful of air.fm. I’ll include a link maybe to your music, Rowan, because you’ve got some really interesting musical and ambient work on there that I think would be really interesting for people to look at in the context of your poetry or…

Rowan: Yeah, sure. Thank you.

Mark: …to listen to rather. And this idea of, you know… Coming back to the mixtape and mixing in, so when you say he must record the light, presumably that’s you seeing yourself?

Rowan: Yeah, it’s interesting, and I think it’s maybe something to think about is how the ‘I’ functions in this poem or in lots of my work. It’s often quite fluid or particularly when I’m engaging the other writers will perhaps shift form or borrow from different positionings. So I think the original, a friend I was traveling with was doing…I think he was doing analog photography, and he had this, sort of, light meter, literally a device for measuring the light intensity to set up the camera properly. So I just wrote down something about recording the light, which I quite liked.

And the ‘he’ then, yes, I think it could be me at various points. It could also be Lorca or some sort of implication of Lorca. It becomes almost a bit Christ-like in the ink and vinegar section, the cloth in his mouth.

Mark: Absolutely. And, again, when I read this, obviously I thought of Jesus, and the gall and vinegar on the cross, and, you know, you’ve got the stations. And then that made me think of, you know, maybe the Christ-like sacrificial image, which is one image of Lorca. But also you’re saying that maybe this came directly from one of these processions around Easter, that, you know, maybe that’s what sparked it for you.

Rowan: Yeah, that’s interesting, and it’s really nice diving back in and unpacking some of these lines, because I’ve got so used to just reading this poem as it is. And, yeah, the white stations, that’s quite interesting. And I think just being in that part of the world as well, the texture of that particular brand of Catholicism and Christianity is very surface-level and so the things like ‘the innocents’ was the name of a street that I think probably refers to a biblical episode of the Virgin Mary appearing as well at the end.

And I think, yes, the ink and vinegar, sort of, being transposed this idea of, I don’t know, a mouth being stuffed full of, I don’t know, texts being generated or I’m not sure. But, yeah, that was definitely floating around in there. I’m not personally religious or of the Christian faith, but I have at various points been interested in religious and other spiritual forms of language and how they make use of repetition and certain symbolism as well. So I think that that was all certainly in there as well, and I was certainly porous to it being Easter time in Seville with these very intense displays going on and reading Lorca’s reactions to those as well

Mark: And coming back to the idea of the mixtape and obviously in preparation for talking to you about this, I had a look at Cante jondo, and I noticed there were some… You know, so the orange blossom in the first section, that occurs in the poems several other images I was picking up from Lorca. I mean, are any of these lines direct translations or is this more of just an impressionistic, you walking around within the world of Lorca and literally in the landscape?

Rowan: Yeah, I think what’s really nice is that I can’t remember anymore. I would have to go back to some of my old notebooks but, like you, I was looking back over the Cante jondo sequence by Lorca today, and there are lots of little bits and pieces that I recognize which may have had previous lives in translations or things I noted down, things like the olive green and the colors of brown, the oranges, and also just the way that the poems at points repeat themselves. We have this diminishing acoustic which comes back phrased differently, the orange blossom that keeps reoccurring.

I think it’s likely that those were things that I translated or noted down and over time became integrated into what was eventually the fabric of this poem rather than a, sort of, direct translation, “Here it is. Here’s my version of X”. I suppose that’s where, again, this idea of the mixtape or a translation process that’s slightly looser or more fluid comes in, sampling or spending time with another text, another writer and allowing pieces and elements to shift over into your own writing. I find that very, very rewarding, or that’s often where texts come from for me. So, yeah, I like that you spotted some that maybe I haven’t remembered.

Mark: And this is something I remember. So a few years ago, I came to your class at the Poetry School in Bristol. And one thing I remember was your fearlessness with languages that you don’t speak. And you were saying, “No, you don’t need to go and study…you know, you don’t need to know the whole thing. Dive in, engage with it, lift some of it, play with it.” You know, this is very much a part of your wider practice, isn’t it?

Rowan: Yeah, that’s right. And so strangely enough, I mean, with these Lorca texts, it’s slightly uncharacteristic in that I’ve tended to work with early medieval languages, so, you know, pre-11th century texts, and that’s the subject of my PhD thesis as well. So I work a lot with Old English, Old Norse as well, some bits of Old Irish, and other strange languages and texts as well.

But yes, when I’m working with those texts, I’m often interested in this position of, sort of, only partial knowing or partial understanding, and the grey areas and understanding that can allow us to step outside of ourselves or provoke something into being or into writing that was unexpected. So the partial cognition that you get from working with a language you don’t understand or only partially understand is very valuable in creating that state, I think, or that state of mind or receptivity.

So particularly if you’ve maybe, you know, done a handful of Spanish or French at school, you might look at a poet like Lorca or a French poet like Mallarmé and find in there bits that you do understand, words that sound familiar but don’t quite ring a bell and responding to those and allowing them to move into your own writing can create some quite unexpected and interesting results. So, yeah, I think that’s what was going on with the Spanish. But as you say, I’m much more used to doing this with languages that literally aren’t spoken anymore, dead languages. And I think there’s an extra freedom there in, sort of, being able to play with meaning or the change of meaning

Mark: And, you know, coming back and spending a bit more time again with your work this week, is it fair to say that you require something of that spirit of play and fearlessness from your reader as well? Because, I mean, you don’t give us many handrails to hold onto with a sequence like this, do you?

Rowan: Yeah, it depends. I mean, it’s always the question with notes and how necessary they are and thinking, what do I put in this – what do I put in the Penguin version of this? I say: “Responds to Federico García Lorca’s Poema del cante jondo and Jack Spicer’s After Lorca. So I flagged some texts there. I don’t know. I mean, you know, this is obviously something that I think about a lot and particularly when I’m working with texts that are heavily embedded in a previous and perhaps ancient text that might not be familiar to a reader. And the place that notes an introduction have, in that context, I think, will change and is often very important

So, for example, my chapbook, The Last Verses of Beccán, that came out with Guillemot Press a few years ago, that has a much fuller introduction, sort of, explaining the context of working with several Old Irish poems and a glossary of terms at the back as well, because there’s more of a linguistic density there to those texts. I think, with this particular poem, because at the surface level it has this minimalism or quietness, I don’t feel that it’s one that needs a great deal of intervention to be able to read it or hear it for the first time. I mean, that’s what we’re obviously doing now is providing a bit of that intervention or context.

But I would hope with a poem like this, that it might have something in itself or a musical or stillness to it without anything else that would be interesting regardless of whether you’d, you know, followed up Lorca or anything else. But, yeah, it’s definitely an ongoing process, I think, in between different projects, kind of working out the happy medium between offering enough for the reader to get a handhold but not destroying a poem by completely overexplaining it and just giving a list of sources.

Mark: Exactly, exactly. This is the reason why I always play… The first thing you will always hear on the podcast is the poem, on the basis… Exactly what you just said. Even if you don’t get all the references and you’re not entirely sure what’s going on, you should get the experience of the poem. You know, when I first started reading poetry, if I’d come across something like this, I would have been a bit more intimidated and anxious and, “Oh, my gosh, am I not clever enough to work out what’s going on at first glance?” But you know, if anybody’s feeling like that, then that’s a normal response if this is new to you. But where I’m at now is I’m much more likely to just go with the experience. It’s like, the first time you listen to a song, you don’t necessarily need to have all the… Often you can’t even hear all the lyrics, let alone understand what they’re all about, but you can get something from the song.

Rowan: Right. Yeah, and I think that link to song making as well that we have in the lyric tradition of writing I think is valuable to have in mind as well when approaching a text like this. And it may be more useful for thinking about how to initially approach it or how you might want to experience it. And I think often… I don’t know. You might get, sort of, a bit hung up if you were looking for a narrative here in this particular text or a storyline or a single development of a particular viewpoint. I think that’s obviously not what’s being offered here, but perhaps more of a kind of ambience or movement around a space or a set of coordinates, which hopefully evoke something or give something to the senses.

Mark: Absolutely.

Rowan: I guess in the longer sequence that this is a part of which sadly I think is sold out now from If A Leaf Falls Press, but that was in 2017. There are some other surrounding poems which perhaps, sort of, fill out slightly more where this poem is coming from. But I don’t know, I’m just thinking about it. Yeah, they speak a bit more from my position as a writer in relation to some of this stuff. But they’re also, again, I suppose most interested in this playfulness or this idea of a broken dialogue between this poem and something or somewhere else.

Mark: Yeah. I mean, I would never have got, for instance, the train journey framework from this. But what I do get very strongly is that images stick. They’re so clear and so vivid. You know, now you describe it, tt is a bit like the effect of being on a… when you come off a train, there were maybe a few things that you see that really stay with you, but there’s a wonderful economy of language to evoke each of these little vignettes, and the syntax always feels very considered and precise and suggestive with you. I mean, I’m curious. How close is this to the original notes that you took? In other words, what was the process to get from there to the form it’s in now?

Rowan: Yeah. I’m wondering where the notebooks are that I have them in, they’re probably somewhere. I don’t know. I’m just looking at the lines and reminding myself. I imagine they wouldn’t be hugely dissimilar. I think one of the things that obviously changes the lineation and things look very different between handwriting and on a computer screen, word processing. So that’s often been a bit of a watershed in terms of when I’m making poems or writing things. That will be the notebook version or maybe the on-paper version. And then once it reaches the computer and starts to be lineated more precisely, then it will slightly solidify and perhaps change in form. And that’s where I might start to make these smaller tweaks to moving lines around, moving words around, so that the, sort of, cadence of a certain line falls in the way that I want it to.

But I don’t think this text is so far removed from how it began from memory, but I suppose… Another thing I’m often interested in and I maybe take this from what I learned with Peter Gizzi as well is being interested in sometimes playing against how a phrase first comes out or a set of lines. So one of the things he would get us to do is if we’re writing a poem or doing a bit of free writing would be to… and I think I probably did this with you as well in the class, to read the lines backwards or in the wrong order…

Mark: Oh, yes. Yes, I remember that. Yeah, yeah.

Rowan: …or shift things around and to just slightly estrange it from where it began and see if there’s something that can be adjusted or can become something new. And that can sometimes apply to syntax as well. So just slightly rearranging the word order so that it sits just beyond how you first stated it or perhaps the more you usual way of saying it. So I think an example of that would be, “sending into them vowels”. “Sending vowels into them,” I guess, or “sending vowels into white stations,” would be a more conventional way of saying it. So I think there may be a few examples of that where maybe I’d have slightly rearranged the syntax from the original. But they do have quite a minimal notebook feel about them though, even in the finished form.

Mark: And for anybody listening, you know, the lineation is interesting though, because you’ve got vowels on a separate line. So if you are listening to the audio version, I would encourage you to go and have a look at the text and see, because Rowan’s always very considered in the way he arranges the text on the page. So to me, you really push the poem both ways because it’s an experience to look at the layout of the poem on the page and take it in with the eye, but you’re also very attuned to the auditory aspect of the poem particularly as a musician as well. Could you say something about the relationship between the text and the spoken poem?

Rowan: Sure, and I often remember coming back to this poem, that it’s a particularly nice one to read for that reason, because I was obviously thinking quite a lot about the acoustic quality or the ways in which the lines play out in the ear. I’m just looking over it again now but… And, again, I think I was probably taking this from what Lorca is doing in his sequence as well where often he will quite consciously repeat a line or a phrase or even a single word several times. So there were moments like that, “in other brickery / in other words // hard, brown, Andalucía, olive, green, Andalucía”.

Yeah, and perhaps the repetitions of the oranges and these other elements that come back also have, I suppose, a different quality when you hear it, and the poem seems to fold in on itself or repeat these small motifs or melodic lines. I think the other thing that really comes across when I read it and that I enjoy discovering is there’s quite a lot of space. There’s colour and space, I think. And so really the line breaks perhaps more so in this poem than other things I’ve written really afford or invite moments of, “full breaths over the mountain / half breaths lain in heat”.

And so probably, if you compare the written text and the recording, you’ll probably hear/see me pausing quite a lot at these moments of pause or break. And we have these markers, these four dashes, which would separate between the sections as well, which again, I take quite a pause at. So, yeah, I think there is quite a strong relationship here particularly into what’s going on with my breath and how the spaciousness of this text unfolds when I’m reading it and that I hope comes across. And that was sort of there in the original experience of being in this fast and very sun-baked, vivid landscape with these baked colors, these greens, and browns, and oranges, and reds. I suppose I’m talking in quite, sort of, like almost painting terms now, but I think that that translates into an auditory one as well.

Mark: Yeah, that’s absolutely true for me, Rowan. So, I think this would be a good time for us to hear the poem again and to savor that color and space in the landscape. So thank you, Rowan.

Rowan: Brilliant. Thanks, Mark. It’s been lovely chatting to you.


 

From cante jondo mixtape

by Rowan Evans

orange blossom

he must record the light
in columns
over the epitome.

atrium of a lake

death of Lorca

/

in the diminishing acoustic
white cracked walls
of the mission courtyard.

full breaths over the mountain
half breaths lain in heat

oranges.

the acoustic
diminishing.

/

his mouth.
a sodden cloth in his mouth

ink and vinegar.

waking in white stations
sending into them
vows.

something he wouldn’t imagine
in other brickery
in other words

hard, brown, Andalucía.
olive, green, Andalucía.

/

a second light in the gorge.

dangerous little walkaway.

ask him, is he thirsty.

yes, those are flamingoes.

/

the brown mare
looks at the white egret.

if he could smile.

for a moment
the tower is everything

swifts above the innocents

swifts swifts

south-trending
tower!

/

beauty overbore me

so much movement in it.
if I had a voice
of math

(only he
must record the light
only this
orange blossom)

said the virgin
said the mudéjar
this would be the spring
of algebra


 

cante jondo mixtape

This passages from cante jondo mixtape by Rowan Evans is from Penguin Modern Poets 7: These Hard and Shining Things, published by Penguin.

The full sequence cante jondo mixtape was originally published by If a Leaf Falls Press.

Penguin Modern Poets 7 is available from:

Bookshop.org: UK

Amazon: UK |US

 

Rowan Evans

Rowan Evans portrait photo

Rowan Evans is a poet, composer and sound artist. His most recent chapbook is The Last Verses of Beccán (Guillemot Press, 2019), which won the Michael Marks Award for Poetry 2019. He received an Eric Gregory Award in 2015 and a selection of his work appears in Penguin Modern Poets 7: These Hard and Shining Things (Penguin, 2018). Rowan is editor of Moot Press and artistic co-director of the performance company FEN. He is currently undertaking practice-based PhD research in modern poetry and early medieval language at Royal Holloway, University of London.

rowan-evans.com

A Mouthful of Air – the podcast

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The music and soundscapes for the show are created by Javier Weyler. Sound production is by Breaking Waves and visual identity by Irene Hoffman.

A Mouthful of Air is produced by The 21st Century Creative, with support from Arts Council England via a National Lottery Project Grant.

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