sea saying sea
by Audra Wolowiec
This syllabus is an invitation to consider how speech and water are connected through sounding bodies and embodied sound. It highlights the work of artists, poets, and musicians whose work explores our relationship with water through language, voice, and dysfluent speech. There are three prompts to participate in, activate, or to simply imagine.
Speech and Water
As a dysfluent speaker, and more specifically, as a stutterer, I’ve been interested in the relationship between speech and water. Water not only as a metaphor for fluidity and fluency, the flow of speech, but as a sonic and embodied experience.
In his resonant sound score and performances, The Clearing (the term clearing is also the word he uses to describe his stutter), JJJJJerome Ellis writes / sings:
“How can thinking about water help us think about dysfluencies, blackness, and musics together? The English language imagines speech as water. The words ‘fluent’ and ‘dysfluent’ come from the Latin verb ‘fluere,’ to flow. And the sixteenth-century theorist Guillaume Bouchet wrote that people who live near rivers are more likely to stutter. What do we make of the sonic similarity between the Latin words ‘balbus’ (stuttering) and ‘babulus’ (fool or babbler)?”
He continues in a later passage with writing from Toni Morrison:
“You know, they straightened out the Mississippi River in places, to make room for houses and livable acreage. Occasionally the river floods these places. ‘Floods’ is the word they use, but in fact it is remembering. Remembering where it used to be. All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was.”
A flag depicting an undulating wave pattern of ultramarine and sea-green was recently created by the collective Making Waves as part of the platform Dysfluent, to raise awareness for stuttering and to “symbolize stuttering as a natural, varied phenomenon.” They describe the meaning and significance of the flag:
“Water has long been associated with stuttering and speech. The Egyptian hieroglyph for stuttering features a wave-like motif. The iceberg analogy has been useful for people who stutter to understand their experience of stuttering. We came together as a group to make a flag that visually embodies the values, ideals and hopes of stuttering pride. We understand stuttering itself as a political act. With this flag we take pride in our speech disability.”
In Jordan Scott’s poetry and his book geared for children, I Talk Like a River, water and voice are intimately connected—syllables slip, words form rapids, language engulfs, and we are invited into the buoyant care that leads one to shore.
Speaking is an embodied experience; the connection is intimate and inextricable.*
Bodies and Water
Beyond speech, the experience of water is in relationship with bodies. When water is contained it forms a body. The ocean is a body of water. A celestial body like the moon is in direct relationship with the tides, whose material mass originated from the floor of the Pacific Ocean (speculates Rachel Carson in the book, The Sea Around Us). Our own bodies are composed of water. We need it to survive.
In the book Water and Dreams, Gaston Bachelard writes, “to hear the “o’s” of water (eau), the whirlwinds and the roundness of their sounds.” This slippage in translation is the editing structure for my series, O, to mouth the moon, merging the letter o’s from Bachelard’s writing with found images of the moon (from Exploring Space with a Camera by NASA), where the lines created in the photographic process resemble lined paper, and the existing circular craters sound alongside the letter o’s as syllables or musical notes.
The painter Agnes Martin invites the viewer to “look at my paintings as though you are looking at the ocean.”
In Roni Horn’s Saying Water, she observes and questions our relationship to water while walking along the River Thames in London:
“Thinking about water is thinking about the future… When you say water, what do you mean? When you say water are you talking about the weather, or yourself? When you see your reflection in water, do you recognize the water in you? The deserts of our future will be deserts of water.”
She continues in looping, wave-like repetition:
“What do you know about water? When you talk about water, what is it you’re really talking about? What do you know about water? When you talk about water, aren’t you really talking about yourself? Isn’t water like the weather that way? What do you know about water? Isn’t that part of what water is, that you never really know what it is? What do you know about water? That it’s everywhere, so familiar seeming and yet so elusive, a kind of everything without definition, and never quite graspable, even as an ice cube. What do you know about water? Only that it’s everywhere, differently.”
“Sound is a thing and no-thing, like air, money, time or love, complex to infinitude as one of the ungraspable phantoms of life.” —David Toop, Ocean of Sound
Participate / Activate / Imagine
Say the sea
Imagine that you are near the ocean.
What does the air feel like?
Are you on the shore, in the water, out at sea?
Create the sound of the ocean with only your voice.
Allow your breath to become the waves.
How does the water sound as it meets the shore?
One wave after another.
Try this a few times.
Then record your ocean sounds.
You can send your sound recordings to: firstname.lastname@example.org
The recordings will form a chorus, a collective body of sound.
Listen or participate at: https://saythesea.com/
Write a letter to water
Take a walk to the water, imagine that you are near water, watch a piece of ice melt, or turn on your faucet. Choose a form of address, perhaps it’s Dear Water, perhaps it’s more specific to the type of water you are writing to, or a love note to water, O, Water.
What surfaces in your writing: buoyancy, connections, the horizon? What questions emerge?
This writing could be private, or you could send it to someone. This letter paper is available to download and print.
What might typography look like if it were designed to reflect the variety and nuance of speech? What might the space and punctuation of dysfluent speech look like? Is it possible to create a lexicon of visual cadence? How might chance or inconsistency play a part?
What does your speech look like? Design or imagine a typeface with punctuation that takes into account cadence, inflection, tone, and the flow or disruption of your own speech.
“ALTHOUGH THE TERMS COMMA · COLON · AND PERIOD PERSIST · THE SHAPE OF THE MARKS AND THEIR FUNCTION TODAY ARE DIFFERENT · DURING THE SEVENTH AND EIGHTH CENTURIES NEW MARKS APPEARED IN SOME MANUSCRIPTS INCLUDING THE SEMICOLON ; THE INVERTED SEMICOLON ⁏ AND A QUESTION MARK THAT RAN HORIZONTALLY ? A DIAGONAL SLASH / CALLED A VIRGULE / WAS SOMETIMES USED LIKE A COMMA IN MEDIEVAL MANUSCRIPTS AND EARLY PRINTED BOOKS . SUCH MARKS ARE THOUGHT TO HAVE BEEN CUES TO READING ALOUD ; THEY INDICATED A RISING , FALLING , OR LEVEL TONE OF VOICE . EARLY PUNCTUATION WAS LINKED TO ORAL DELIVERY,” write Ellen Lupton and J. Abbott Miller in the article “Period Styles: A punctuated history,” in the book Design Writing Research: Writing on Graphic Design.
The typeface Dysfluent Mono, a custom-made font designed to represent the interviewees’ unique voices, was featured in Dysfluent Magazine, Issue 1.
“Liquidity is a principle of language; language must be filled with water.” —Gaston Bachelard, Water and Dreams
Reading + Listening List:
Saying Water, Roni Horn — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vn7VLSNm7zM
The Clearing, JJJJJerome Ellis — https://jeromeellis.bandcamp.com/album/the-clearing
I talk like a River, Jordan Scott — https://www.jordanscottwrites.com/i-talk-like-a-river
The Site of Memory, Toni Morrison — https://blogs.umass.edu/brusert/files/2013/03/Morrison_Site-of-Memory.pdf
Water and Dreams: An Essay on the Imagination of Matter, Gaston Bachelard
The Sea Around Us, Rachel Carson
Ocean of Sound, David Toop
Dysfluent Magazine, Issue 1 — https://shop.dysfluentmagazine.com/product/dysfluent-issue-1-digital
(the waves), Audra Wolowiec — https://cargocollective.com/promptcolon/Audra-Wolowiec-Workbook-for-a-Performance
*BOMB Magazine, An Address to Absence: Audra Wolowiec interviewed by Meg Whiteford — https://bombmagazine.org/articles/audra-wolowiec-interviewed/