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  • Improvisational Insurrection:The Sound Poetry of Tracie Morris
  • Christine Hume (bio)

Tracie Morris conceived her first sound poem while walking down the street. Imagine: the rhythm of walking replicates unwilled rhythms of her body—breathing, beating heart—and paces a limbo between being and doing, idling and vigilance. Walking home drives her outward. A sentence catches the rhythm and repeats itself as the sensorimotor connectivity of walking repeats. Each city block is an imbrication of familiar terrain and unscreened encounters that the sentence strides through, shifting with minute perceptions and their thresholds. Language walks itself out of habitualized routes. Sounds pace through the body; the body paces through landscape. Walking makes a single chord of mind-body-world out of which Morris makes oral poetry in tour-de-force performances that send language-as-we-know-it out for a hike. Her sound poems strip language down to its acoustical-rhythmic potencies and potentialities to engage with the world while traveling in it corporeally.

Morris made her artistic debut in the spoken-word scene of the 1990s—garnering championship titles in the Nuyorican Grand Slam and the National Haiku Slam—where the premium is on performance, especially "authenticity" of emotion and tone, and improvisation, especially audience responsiveness. Her poetry's musical influences run deep, though in style, technique, and attitude, rap has cleared a definitive space for the spoken-word culture on which Morris cut her teeth. Both antecedents are predicated on a paradigm of improvisational (re)iteration and autobiographical narrative that gravitate toward themes of cultural and physical [End Page 415] abuse. "Project Princess," one of Morris's signature poems, packs a fools-not-suffered political audacity; inventive rhyming; vernacular swagger and playfulness; amphetamine-driven, balladic rhythm; and mobile facial expressions and bodily gestures that we might expect from a winning slam poem.1 The poem is an ode and rallying cry addressed to young black women, like Morris herself, from Brooklyn's housing projects. In this, as in Morris's later sound poems, which tend to be more explicitly protest poems, we hear an effusive jocularity and a delight in pleasurable pathos that bolsters the confidence of its political power. "Project Princess" hints at the half-spoken, half-sung recitative style that will go on to inform her sound poems, yet the intonational patterns and rhythms exist so fully within a predetermined slam style that the work comes close to feeling commodified. If it's true, as Icelandic singer-songwriter Björk says, that "every genre has these mechanical clichés that get implanted in the voice and start to hide the power of words" (qtd. in Ross 50), then much of Morris's accomplishment in sound poetry is to break away from those clichés while retaining the riveting intensity and renegade virtuosity of her earlier feats. And "Project Princess" provides a good measure of just how much pressure she has put on ratified modes of expression in order to fabricate entirely new ones. Though her spoken-word poetry in many ways anticipates her sound poetry, the latter amplifies the techniques and goals of the former to such a volume that it now travels in "experimental" and high-art venues. By existing between easy definitions and within a wealth of osmotically integrated sources, Morris's new work swims in the wide ocean of sound poetry. This work bypasses the more programmatic features of the two poetic praxes she has been associated with, slam and contemporary avant-garde, by standing against reified notions of authenticity and sincerity as well as ready-made loopholes of indeterminacy and alienation.2 It also, [End Page 416] as Harryette Mullen laments, strains critical narratives of representative identity: "'Formally innovative minority poets,' when visible at all are not likely to be perceived either as typical of a racial/ ethnic group or as representative of an aesthetic movement" (28). No matter how far her work cuts across the twilight zone of poetic alliances and artistic disciplines—Morris has collaborated in theater, dance, music, and film as well as written books—we want to stay within earshot.3

In a series of sound poems that she performs live and records for museum installations, Morris fuses...


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