‘Is it Literature?’: Finding the music in ‘Finnegans Wake’

An interview with Kevin Spenst

Conducted by Sara Jewell

Waywords and Meansigns:  Recreating Finnegans Wake [in it Whole Wholume] is an unabridged musical version of James Joyce’s famously difficult novel, Finnegans Wake. It is freely available online at waywordsandmeansigns.com

Waywords and Meansigns brought together Seventeen different musicians from all around the world, each assigned to render a chapter aurally. The only requirements: the chapter’s words must be audible, unabridged, and more or less in their original order.

As described by Mark Traynor, Managing Director of James Joyce Centre: “the aural textures and rhythms of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake are intrinsic to its structure, so much so that early supporters of the work like Eugéne Jolas stressed the vitality of its ‘musical flow’. Waywords and Meansigns have embraced that principle…” The project aims to make Joyce’s work widely accessible to audiences new and old. A second edition of the project is planned to premiere winter 2015.

Project contributor, Kevin Spenst, is a poet, teacher, and artist fromVancouver. He is the author of Jabbering with Bing Bong (Anvil Press) and the chapbooks Pray Goodbye (the Alfred Gustav Press), Retractable (the serif of nottingham), Happy Hollow and the Surrey Suite (self-published), What the Frag Meant (100 tetes press) snap (Pooka Press), and Surrey Sonnets (JackPine press). He has done a one-man show at the Vancouver Fringe Festival and over a hundred readings across the country. His work has won the Lush Triumphant Award for Poetry and has most recently appeared in BafterC, Poetry is Dead, Lemon Hound and the anthology Best Canadian Poetry 2014. His work on Waywords and Meansigns can be experienced by listening to chapter 6. 

Hello! 

Kevin Spenst: Hello.

Before we get into the Wake, could you talk briefly about your work prior to Waywords and Meansigns?

Kevin Spenst, poet and musician. Interpreter of 'Finnegans Wake'

Kevin Spenst, poet and musician. Interpreter of ‘Finnegans Wake’

Kevin Spenst: That’s a lot. I’ve been a writer of prose and poetry for over ten years. Previous to that I’d acted, made a number of short films and had one art show. I started with fiction in 2003 at my website. The idea for the site was that I’d put up a new story every day. In addition to being fiction, I suppose it was a performance of sorts. The stories were often surreal or odd adventures. I did this for several years.

And what was your experience with Joyce’s work prior to being involved with Waywords and Meansigns? When did you first encounter Finnegans Wake and what impression did it make on you?

Kevin Spenst: In University, I had a professor who used the book as an example of an aesthetic dead end. I’d just read Ulysses and the idea of something even more dense and complex was intriguing. It took me a decade of reading and rereading Ulysses to get to the basecamp of Finnegans Wake. In 2008 I started a book club where we devote one evening a month to three pages of Finnegans Wake.

You also ran the twitter page @twinneganswake, which auto-corrected the text of the Wake. What was the inspiration for that?

Kevin Spenst: HCE is sometimes written out as Here Comes Everyone and everyone and everything is squeezed into the book, so I thought that a social media filter of the Wake should involve everyone referencing Finnegans Wake. The book is, after all, often about itself. I’d used websites and blogs for my own writing but once I came across autocorrect it seemed a perfect way to actually get to one of the “genuine meanings” of the portmanteaus. It’s akin to the Chinese translation that’s such a hit in China right now. I believe her translation often reduces words to one of their meanings. It’s like that, only there are no billboards for my twitter project.

Yes, Dai Congrong’s had quite a bit of success with her translation. You’ve talked in the past about how much of your work, like your emailing project, embraces incorporating the digital world. A lot has been written about The Wake being uniquely suited to the web; a recent Guardian article headlined it as “the book the web was invented for”. Do you think that the internet has opened up new and previously inaccessible ways of reading and experiencing The Wake?

Kevin Spenst: Certainly. There’s Stephen Crowe who’s drawing his way through the Wake. His blog, which features his beautifully and smartly illustrative work, is a medium of communication for something very niche. I don’t know if he would be investing so much of his energy to something without that potential for communicating it with others. In other ways, the Wake wikis are online to provide people with interpretations of words and ideas that perhaps lend readers a certain confidence at “cracking the code” Of course, there was a great deal of scholarship that exploded in the 60’s, but that wasn’t as accessible to us masses.

Yes, I believe the same Guardian article talked a lot about how the digital-age interest has also really opened the book up outside of academia. So, how did you initially get involved in Waywords and Meansigns? What appealed to you most about an aurally-focused approach to Finnegans Wake?

Kevin Spenst: ‘Is it literature?’ Joyce was asked by a somewhat stunned reader. ‘It is when it’s read,’ he replied. It’s no more itself existing solely on the page than beef stew is as a recipe in a book. It needs to be ‘cooked’ up in the mouth of the reader. The challenge of reading is it needs to happen in order for accents and puns to come to life. There are so many passages that have such a distinct tone of Huck Finn or musical or radio, and these genres are harder to get without the assistance of the ear. As for me, I saw waywordsandmeansigns on twitter and had to get involved.

More digital-age stuff, eh? As a poet, you’re likely more attuned than exclusively prose writers to the way that your writing sounds when read aloud. Did you approach the Wake more as prose or poetry?

Kevin Spenst: Good question. I don’t think Joyce is too invested in the categories of “poetry” or “prose”. His prose is in fact very poetic, very much attuned to the melody of sound. Maybe I became a poet at Joyce’s insistence or at least under the influence of reading and rereading his work. I thought of my Pub Quiz passage as an improvisational opportunity to play through all sorts of sounds and songs. It was a kind of “sound poem performance.” 

Your chapter for Waywords and Meansigns is incredibly ambient – reminiscent of websites like coffitivity.com, which is founded on the idea that the ambient noise of a coffeehouse enhances creativity and concentration (a contention supported by scientific findings). Was there something that influenced this particular creative choice for you?

Kevin Spenst: The background ambience was added by my nephew, Josh Pitre. He has an MFA in Classical Guitar from the University of British Columbia and can do all sorts of amazing things on the guitar but also enjoys modernist experiments. We talked about the setting of a pub and he found the background sounds to add.

Was there anything about your chapter that you found particularly challenging?

Kevin Spenst: Yes, the chapter. Hahaha.

Hahaha fair enough! What was it like knowing that every chapter was being handled by a different artist or group? Did it feel less cohesive, or more suited to the spirit of the book?

Kevin Spenst: Very much suited to the book. The next step would be to have readers take every Xth page or something and read it in their own style and then sew all of them together, so that there’s a constant shifting. I mean ideally, you’d get one person from around the world reading one word and then have that patched together into one recording. I’m sure a child in India is already at work on something like that. (a variation on what Joyce predicted). It’s a colossal book that inspires colossal weirdness. Bless Joyce for his perseverance

Did you use your usual reading voice in your chapter, or did you make adjustments?

Kevin Spenst: Oh, I made all kinds of adjustments, embellishments, changes, accents and sing-songy shifts. I trusted my familiarity with the gist of the text to take me through all sorts of aural adventures. I’ve written one poem about reading the Wake that I made into a “video-poem” where you can hear my regular reading voice.

Is there anything else you’d like to say about being part of the project before we wrap up?

I’m honoured to be amongst such a talented lot. I’m also in awe of how much Derek [project director Derek Pyle] has done to bring together so many diverse voices. Within a relatively short time, he’s whipped together a wonderful project. I look forward to seeing and hearing what he’ll do next.

Sara Jewell is a student at Hampshire College interning at Waywords and Meansigns. She is studying graphic narrative. You can support work on her upcoming graphic memoir at https://www.patreon.com/saraluna