MY TUMOR IS MY GHOST PRODUCER - SHE LOVES PSYCHIC TOMS
forsure you can hold this
cloud dipped in vernix
twixt tongue & incisor
& bypass shrinkwrapped molar,
a pickline swimming
i saw it & i knew: first off
swapped earrings for cathodes
& fennel for codeine
An oscilloscope held all my meat,
all my drool in its dustbag humming & hawing
Patron saint of barium & shortrib,
i know you’re out there
though broken as belladonna teacup,
candyland of millet & lumen
since they couldn’t wrench the thing out in one piece
not even w a curette nor by human hand
patron saint of marionette’s hand hidden
under tarp & soil in the last-ever circus on earth
u are a ventriloquist but I hear you
‘cuz tumors stop your throat forever
even after they’re gone. It’s an iconic feeling.
Hi Reba, where are you in the world at the moment? What can you see?
I am in my partner’s apartment in Cologne, and it’s 5:16 pm & already rather dark outside. The sky is this almost-gray, almost-blue color: like I’m looking at it through the screen of an old TV set and the LCD settings aren’t quite right. Like it might rain lukewarm chamomile tea.
In the past you’ve talked about the musicality of poetry, and how it has affected its position and use within your productions. How does your training and practice as a musician affect your writing style?
This is a good question. Usually I’m asked how writing affects my music, and while the two are certainly intertwined as-practice, in hindsight having studied music is what led me to begin writing, that is, to begin developing my own voice within the medium. I’ve always seen poetry on-page as musical notation, alternate notation, and when setting out to write I usually consider the musicality of a poem first, always start with an inner rhyme or rhythmic parallel - a certain consonance or assonance - between two words (two notes, two units) that excites me.
Music and literature share directly in the same terminology, so when I began “seriously” (what does that even mean, though?) writing, I was lucky to have already been equipped with that toolkit, to have had already a firm, albeit conventional, grip on syncopation and voicing and so on. Of course, this hasn’t made & doesn’t make me a better writer. In fact, it’s probably held me back. In any case, my favorite poems have tended to be the product of a writer intentionally toying with musical forms: Paul Celan’s “Death Fugue,” for example, is made all the more terrifying, all the more harrowing, because of how it engages with fuguelike repetition & recombination.
I once saw your spoken word on Dual (with M-O-R-S-E) completely disorientate someone in a club - to the point that they could barely stand without support. What is the process of recording that material of that intensity like?
That’s incredible. I perform that poem every live set, though in that context it’s paired with different, original audio. I’ve also built a vocal effects bus for that poem with grain delay and a combination of filters that make my voice sound kind of like Bane in The Dark Knight Rises, which was how I imagined the poem to sound when I first began writing it. The original audio recording of the poem, though, I made before I got a proper mic; I was speaking directly into my laptop. Though I have a fairly decent microphone now, sometimes when I’m recording vocal bits I choose to record this way again: the sound is granier, more distant, oft better. With that said, in the case of the “hey girl” poem I suppose not having a microphone as-physical-intermediary makes having read it aloud all the more eerie: all vocal recording, really, is talking-to-oneself, an inherent acknowledgement of being alone.
Of course, if a microphone were involved, there’d be a whole other can of worms to open & gather as they flee: microphone as phallic object, as such the heft of history staring you down as you record.
There is a marked sense of corporeality within your work; often when the vocals are heavily warped or manipulated, there are breathy inflections and textures that prevent them from becoming “disembodied”. Is this deliberate?
Yes! First off, I love the sound of one sharp, deliberate breath as percussion. It makes for a great snare. I’ve also tended to keep certain aspects of the vocal recordings I use, like weird sniffles or coughs I emit while recording, in tracks, because those sounds can make for fantastic texture within the body of a song. When it comes to my music I’m always seeking that balance between the heavily manipulated and the organic. I’m more interested in the uncanny than I am in becoming-space-invader: the voice that’s both human & not, the dissociative voice. Recently, I read this great article about how hyperfidelity (in the graphic domain) kind of sours the new PS4 remake of Shadow of the Colossus, how something is, somehow, lost. I think the same thing applies to vocal mixing and fx processing: sometimes it’s best to momentarily discard enhancements, to let the voice as-is breathe.
When performing live, how do you negotiate this relationship between the voice and the body?
I asked myself this question the other night as I was playing live on a large stage, and I’m still getting used to this format, since I grew up going to and playing at house shows and tiny clubs where I was able to move around an audience & better navigate the performance space. Most of my needing to move around has to do with the fact that I have terrible - I mean, really bad - performance anxiety and ever since I was small I’ve paced around and hopped and skipped to ease my mind in times of stress. At the same time, I think movement also confirms that it’s a human bean behind the laptop, behind my midi controller, behind these heady vocal effects racks: again, this balance between the organic & the unreal.
Do you ever use found text or field recordings as a stimulus for spoken word? If so, where do you like to draw these from?
I’ve never used found text as a direct stimulus, or written “found poetry,” but there are occasions where I’ve loved a line in a poem and used it as a jumping point (for example, here: https://www.biglucks.com/journal/reba-fay where a line from the David Shapiro poem “Song for Chaim” serves as both first line & epigraph). There have been times I’ve utilized field recordings and poetry in tandem, such as “& wrench aught of death,” a collaboration amongst myself, Yoshitaka Hikawa, and DJ Heroin. In this case said field recording - of fireworks & my friends’ beautiful, chatty, happy voices woven through it all - was also the jumping point for the track’s synth work. But the process is fluid: I’ve found when I intentionally try to use a piece of literature or sound as a jumping point, I get frustrated and give up.
Your work is often described as “clinical”, and themes of healing and recontextualising trauma have been consistent in how you’ve talked about your use of samples in the past. Does this process extend to your use of text?
I’m not sure how to answer this question, because yes of course. At the same time, I don’t want discussions about the way I produce or use samples or write to just be about trauma or re-contextualizing/ re-claiming trauma. It’s a given that music has been healing, is healing, but I think people always want women’s work to be about that, or at the very least to subconsciously frame the conversation like that - how is your music about how hurt you are, how hurt you’ve been? It does hurt, life, doesn’t it? So, I think it’s important to mention that - especially now, being healthy, being content - I’m writing music for music’s sake, for the challenge of it all, the joy of, you know, pushing myself & my software to the limit.
You once said if you sold Swan Meat merchandise, it’d take the form of a custom Yankee candle. What would a Swan Meat candle smell like?
Wouldn’t it be cool to manufacture audio-reactive candles? I think I’d start there, though I’m sure this is already a thing, patented by someone somewhere. In any case, I’d want the default - the 4’33 scent - to be sickly sweet. Pure sugar.
Poetry and audio by Swan Meat
Interview conducted by Gribs