How to Write Fieldpoetry: Sound Poems
Updated: Feb 5
Sound poems are poems written as sounds or as an evocation of the experience of listening. Sound scholar Jonathan Sterne writes that "sound studies [...] begins with hearing the hearing of others" (215: 74). When I was learning how to hear the hearing of bomb technicians and others living in the old battlefields of Laos, I adapted sound poems as a field research method. Sound poems became an important part of my fieldpoetry toolkit. Fieldpoetry: fieldnotes written as poems, or poems written out of fieldwork material.
Last year, I created a series of videos about my method of sound poetry. These were intended for a workshop on fieldpoetry at the ETHOS Lab, University of Copenhagen, that wound up going remote during the pandemic. There's a lot of good stuff in these three videos, including a 5-minuted guided sound poem exercise (second video below)!
Listening is a deliberate act of paying attention to sounds. These sound poems are a record of one's attention, a kind of sound log. Sound poems, or any other type of sensory poem, may be used to investigate sensory attunements. Bomb technicians are "listening for" or "listening out for" explosions as a way to manage their safety in an uncertain landscape. Here's a sound poem from my book Bomb Children that I wrote during a controlled demolition of cluster munitions carried out by an explosives clearance team (2019:97).
Fieldpoem 23: Blast Radius
This space and
all precious beings
Searchers use bullhorns to shock the cows
from the yellow sapless field
I imagine the birds going dumb inside it
falling from the sky
At the safe point on the far side of a pepper tree
“He holds the wire from his box of nerves
Praising mortal error”
Premonition flattens my view
Startled by birds
I listen to the hushing wind—
This space and nothing
This poem might more rightly be called a "listening poem," because the sound I'm listening for doesn't occur in the poem. There was an error with the trigger mechanism and the demolition didn't go off as planned. The steady stanzas of the poem mimic the "1,2,3,4,5..." countdown to a explosion. But instead of a boom, at the end of the poem, I only "listen to the hushing wind." The quote in the fourth stanza is a reference to the war poems of Dylan Thomas.
Many of my poems from Laos are about unsounds, fearful vibrations at the peripheries of our senses. As a method of participant-listening (not only participant-observing), my sound poems have a quality of listening for danger.
Fieldpoem 21: Unsound
There is another sound that I don’t hear nothing makes it go off —breath on a mirror; the word faintly reappears
I wrote this poem after waking up from a nightmare of a bomb explosion (2019:113). I heard the sound of the explosion in my dream, but opened my eyes to an eerily silent and dark city beyond my bedroom window. I was learning to hear the way that a bomb technician hears, listening for explosions that may never come, asleep in a silent city. In my book, I theorize this mode of attention as "apprehension" (107), or the fearful sensibility of hidden risk.
Poetic attention can ground us in our senses and help us to hone our ethnographic skills. This method encourages sensing and re-sensing the world. I've led many workshops on fieldpoetry--these sound poems are especially easy and satisfying to learn. It brings me joy to help other researchers and writers develop their poetry and research skills.
Building on these methods, I've got a "how-to" guide on fieldpoetry in An Ethnographic Inventory: Field Devices for Anthropological Inquiries, forthcoming from Routledge's Theorizing Ethnography series . The book is an off-shoot of Adolfo Estalella and Tomás Sánchez Criado's fabulous and endlessly inspiring ethnographic inventory project.
I recorded these videos in my millinery studio, so in the background you'll also get to peek at my hat making hussle Atelier Zani. The bookcase behind me is full of my wooden hat blocks and tools. The small cylinder on the top shelf of the bookcase is called a "spinner," if you can guess what I use it for!
I hope that you enjoy these videos as much as I enjoyed making them!
Sterne, Jonathan. 2015. "Hearing." In Keywords in Sound, edited by David Novik and Matt Sakakeeny, pg. 65-77. Durham: Duke University Press.
Zani, Leah. 2019. Bomb Children: Life in the Former Battlefields of Laos. Durham: Duke University Press.