Poets are archeologists as much as they are artists, scraping through the grit of culture and loam of biography for artefacts, worn down by time and memory, for deployment in an ongoing negotiation with language. Only occasionally do we see that raw material before it is refined and buffed and held up to the light for due observance. So you can check out Ezra Pound’s elegant gutting of Eliot’s bloated manuscript for The Waste Land in its facsimile edition, for example, or see how Gordon Lish’s pruning transformed Raymond Carver’s overgrown drafts by perusing a copy of Beginners. The Process, a collaboration between Chicago poet Marvin Tate and similarly-located experimental musician Joseph Clayton Mills, is one of those instances, almost. Where most collaborations between poets and musicians tend towards tasteful settings of complete works (think of the carefully-produced grooves of those old Gil Scott Heron and Linton Kwesi Johnson records, calibrated precisely to prevent any disruption to the oral flow), The Process subverts this literal transmission of meaning, instead privileging a flux and fragmentation in which the coherence of individual elements is jettisoned in favour of wider truths.
The starting point for The Process was a portable recorder full of fragments – personal recollections, works-in-process, songs, thoughts about life in general – that Tate, a word-shaper who crosses the freewheeling wordplay of The Last Poets with the gimlet-eyed shuffle of Tom Waits, had been carrying about his person for several years. He handed it over to Mills, who arranged slivers of muted, evocative sound around Tate’s words, his syllables fading in and out of hearing, borne on warm currents of static, blank-eyed sine tones or ghostly echo. Other sounds – environmental recordings, keening bursts of clarinet and cello, an elementary school choir – bleed in and out (you can read more about the process of The Process in an article by Mills for Reductive Journal, here). The result is a series of subtle electroacoustic collages that make a virtue of Tate’s impressionistic, open-ended source material. And while the allusive soup of Matana Roberts’ Coin Coin Chapter Three: River Run Thee is an obvious analogue, as is brutal flow of Moor Mother’s Fetish Bones, Tate and Mills swerve away from the big-picture politics of the latter and the historical deep-dive of the former, choosing instead a nuanced path that, while acknowledging the deep trauma and fractured violence of the African-American historical experience, is nevertheless able to rejoice in the consolations of art, of connection, of sex, of music – of domesticity, even.
Of course, just as The Process invites us into Tate’s memory archives, it pushes us away. Its compositional elements work as distancing devices, reminding us constantly of the mediated nature of what we’re hearing. To quote Tate: “When you start remembering stuff, you don’t know whether it’s fabricated or not anymore”. Occasionally we can make out an autobiographical reminiscence, as on the ominous cutup of Self-Portrait (“There’d be guys.. in front my house.. trying to. … my sisters’ window…”) or a chunk of poem (the crumpled monologue of The Walk, presumably recited during a spot of Tate flaneur-ism). But comprehension is usually as slippery to pin down as a half-remembered dream. And it’s this opacity that makes The Process so amazing. Tate’s words, however fragmentary, are packed full of often-surreal resonances, and the subtlety of Mills’ treatments are astonishing. If The Process had been another run through Tate’s stanzas in the manner of the wonderful Family Swim, or if it had simply been an album of Mills’ enigmatic, pared-back compositions, it would have been perfectly fine. But together the duo gives us something more, a synergistic bonding of two practices that is both a contemplation of the act of artistic creation, a celebration of community and a nuanced reflection of the messy, incomplete nature of memory.