Mainly The Mysteries

A few days ago, the publisher of the excellent print journal PAJ invited me to contribute to PAJ 100. The question: what do you still believe in, through all the riptides of the past decades? Since I doubt there is much overlap between the readers of PAJ and Netartery, I thought it might be of interest to post my response here as well, with a few ancillary web links.


Everything I had is gone

My first major radio play Dead Letters* had its premier broadcast in 1985, offering public radio listeners an hour of voiced bodies or ghosts of bodies that are hard to figure, hard to name. The broken memory of an ancient war story bleeds into the Elena Makropulos paradox of immortality while the crazed smear of Hitler’s bunker signature dances a jitterbug with the blackened phantom fingers of a young pianist, and while the hand of Judy Garland singing You Go To My Head reaches out to touch Napoleon’s dried and withered penis, the private property of a New York urologist.

Taken by themselves, such stories may seem fated (fingered) for the Dead Letter Office, unable to be delivered or returned. Yet when rubbed up against each other in consort, the bits and bites create a colloquium whose keynote themes are discovered, rather than announced. No preening host, and no smarmy theme or sentimental pretense. Simply an invitation to drift, ruminate and make connections where a split second before there had been nothing but bafflement and darkness. Utopian aspirations, to be sure, but I still believe in the pure power of free association, and since Dead Letters still receives copious airplay a quarter century later, perhaps there is something to it.

Unhosted Radio Play

In those early days, I embraced analog broadcast radio as my ideal creative home because the airwaves seemed to vibrate with the same qualities I sought to capture in my own plays, and in my own thinking: indeterminacy, fragility of signal, random access, tension between public and private, ambiguous borders, modulating rhythms, complex polyphony, and a pulse rate set by a wild heart.

No Data Miners Live Here

Such qualities drive the digital data miners nuts, and the assorted masters of corporate media would love to see the stubbornly unruly spaces of analog broadcast foreclosed upon, and eventually demolished, like the communal squats of Kreutzberg. They will fail, because for every data miner with an ice pick, three radio pirates are born into the airwaves. Nonetheless, for the past decade or so I have certainly been conscious of sending work into a space that many have forgotten, written off, or even condemned.

Potato God Scarecrow, completed only a few weeks ago, offers up a media philosophy quite resonant with Dead Letters, though this time shaped into the acoustic figure of a beaver lodge. I am fascinated by the neurosensual implications of the North American beaver, an artist engineer whose creative capacity is not centralized within its tiny brain but dispersed from head to tail.

To flow or not to flow

To my mind, such capacity has significant implications for narrative structure, and somewhere in the middle of the intricately beavered wetlands, along one of those rich edges where a few loose blazes suggest bright neural pathways cutting through dense limbic muck, a voice says, We have these many many many many mysteries and it’s mainly the mysteries that enthrall me when I’m walking along. A few things I know where they came from, most I don’t.

Many many many many mysteries

It is still mainly the mysteries that enthrall me, too, and I still believe in the poetic vitality of edges, which is where the mysteries reside. Edges between eros and thanatos, seduction and oblivion, order and chaos; between sense and nonsense, facts and fables, the living and the dead; between the lover’s whisper and the warrior’s scream. Friction among all these edges still creates ample energy to float my canoe among the beaver lodges.

And yes, I still believe in the power of radio to create community, even for an hour or two, and to feed the imagination with nutrients not offered elsewhere, and I believe that offering such a feast remains a worthy mission for public broadcasting in particular. Diversity is always desirable, and that includes poetic and aesthetic diversity. When we drop these qualities to the bottom of the pecking order, we crush our capacity to imagine a viable future for our mysteries.

What remains of Geronimo

A few days before I am writing this, a body codenamed Geronimo was scrubbed clean, wrapped in a white sheet, zipped into a bag, and slipped into the Arabian Sea. A few days before that, another body was scrubbed clean and wrapped in white as well, but this first body pursues a destiny as distant from the codenamed corpse as Buckingham Palace from Fort Sill, Oklahoma . With these two bodies in play, the essential question for the poet, the playwright and the philosopher remains: how do we get from the first white sheet to the last?

The Dress?

*  A complete transcript was published in PAJ 41 (1992). Though I conceived Dead Letters as a new kind of radio play, the source materials were gathered via documentary interviews, including one with PAJ editor Bonnie Marranca, who contributed her interpretation of the voice, hands and body of Judy Garland.

Gregory Whitehead is a writer, sound poet, playwright and radiomaker. Potato God Scarecrow will be broadcast as part of Radiophonic Creation Day 2011.

2 Responses to “Mainly The Mysteries”

  • One of the things your work has always been truly great at is trusting the listener/reader to explore the tantalizing relations you set up, Gregory. It’s that way in Dead Letters and it’s also true in ‘Mainly the Mysteries’. Your work requests with the viewer an active engagement amid tantalizing relationships. We have to ‘put it all together’. It’s like an interactive piece that way. But it’s not without direction by you in that you have a strong sense of how some of the things can be put together or related.

    Your net writings are related to your radio works. In works such as Dead Letters ( http://writing.upenn.edu/pennsound/x/Whitehead.php ), you use stories you record from other people; in your net writings, the links you provide function in related ways. In both cases, the relations between the stories/links are tantalizing.

    I’m so happy you’re still a continuing initiate into the mysteries, Gregory, and encouraging us to contemplate them.

  • Thanks Jim. Researching the links gives me alot of pleasure and fresh insight, too. I laughed out loud when I came across the photo of Princess Kate in the canoe. And the analysis of the Geronimo codename is excellent – I would never have come across it if I had not been looking to flesh out the text with a few links. Same with the connection between maelstrom and nebula: I may have had some intuitive sense of their connection, but it was sheer joy stumbling across that full NASA page of nebulae.

    In my radioplays, it has always been the same sort of process, with me often discovering connections or resonances in the process of making the piece, such that the broadcast becomes a kind of invitation into my own discoveries and associations, but allowing plenty of space for alternative interpretations by never nailing anything down; just let the sounds and ideas float and go where they want to go.

    Open forms do ask more of readers/listeners, but then again, the pleasure and enjoyment is much more, too, for those who decide to play.

    Do you know Chris Marker’s film Sans Soleil? To my ears/eyes, that is a remarkable example of an open form that also conveys strong narrative flow. I’ve watched it possibly once a year since it came out, and I have different thoughts each time. I’d like to think that Dead Letters has that same sort of open flow.

    So many people (public radio veterans) told me in 1985 that Dead Letters would air once, then disappear without a trace: that listeners would never be able to cope. To the contrary! Hundreds of broadcasts, and then wonderful, rich postcards and notes from listeners all over the world, each one with a totally different spin on what it all means. I’ve learned more about the piece from listeners than I ever consciously knew while I was making it, no question.

    Most programs I hear on NPR I would never give a second listen to, not even a second thought, even the ones that are from the supposedly “creative” programs. There’s just no mystery there — too much handholding, and too much grouping of materials in obvious, brain dead sorts of ways. Zero friction, zero paradox, zero surprise, zero life.
    Radio degree zero?

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