»Shaking language til it cracks«

James Worse – So throon in pollitation: Voicing & performing the surreal whirl of lingo’s deep structure

Text & Interview by Martyn Schmidt

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Photography by Chris de Coulon Berthoud

James Worse (born 1970, UK / Australia) is a spoken word performer and a vocal and percussion improviser. His »Worsicles« have been heard on Jarvis Cocker’s Sunday Service on BBC Radio 6 Music as well as at the Rochester Literature Festival. In recent releases and live performances, Worse collaborated with well-known avant-garde project Nurse With Wound. James Worse is focused primarily on collaborate projects and organizes informal workshops to encourage the public to participate in creating improvised music. James is a founder member of the sound worker’s collective Hand of Stabs.

James Worse, »master of surreal spoken word« (The Quietus), whirls like a mystic, vocal dervish through (british) language’s deep structure. He performs his Worsicles, as he calls his highly musical sound-language, as an adept of the voice with a dynamic elocution between Shakespearian deepness and dadaistic elegance.

Every Worsicle is a british word that doesn’t exist (that way), every worsicle a vehicle of sound-linguistic tickle, every Worse-verse a Freudian etymologic lingo-drill being a handshake between Tolkien and Chomsky. Similar to Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky, Worse’s language is idiosyncratic and playful, but in a subtile way made of unsettling deepness and dramatic performative sensuality.

Even when Worse doesn’t write lyrical poems, his proclaiming prose is pure soundpoetry. Worse performs sound, rhythm and »british« dance-of-sense. There is a listening experience of a mind-cracking, language-fracking done by voice-drill and tongue-thrill, it is some britishly Speaking in tongues in surreal, precise absurdity.

His current release on Atemwerft, »Testuary to Lulluba«, displays James Worse as a magic druid in the midst of an archaic forest of signs and tokens, as a skald of semiotics, as an infectious teller of tales and fables made on the pure sound of the voice. For the album’s five tracks and one bonus-piece James Worse is a word-shaman who by magic chants conjures unknown myths, who calls and digs for speech and who finds both – myth and its language – in rich, free-floating linguistic gestures.

Listen to »Fillibous Nightcrakes« from the album »Testuary to Lulluba« (atemwerft 2017):


    »I want to enjoy how the words feel as they leave my mouth – it has to feel good on my tongue«

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When and why did you start with Worsicles? Is there a (hidden) meaning in the word »Worsicles«?

I’ve always written automatically, I always carry a notebook and I have done for nearly thirty years, but it wasn’t until the birth of my twin boys six years ago that I began to read aloud to another human being. The sensation was wonderful and they were a captive audience – I read a lot of my favourite poets to them, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Kerouac, Ginsberg and I soon realised that they were enjoying it despite clearly understanding nothing. They responded simply because of the way I read. So, the sound of my voice, my performance, was really pleasing to them and any meaning was irrelevant to this basic human response to voice. I learnt that you could captivate a listener simply with vocal sounds.

Watching their language developing has been a sort of parallel to my writing. they are far more inventive than I could ever hope to be!

In terms of a hidden meaning to the word »Worsicles« – not intentionally, it is just my own descriptor for the elements that make up my work. I suppose »Worse« is close to »Verse«, so there is that suggestion – though only in a flippant way.


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Photography b Sara Norling

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Do the Worsicles emerge rather as ideas or as sounds? What is the role of sound in the Worsicles?

Their sound is integral – I compose them so that there is balance, dissonance, colour. Also, I want to enjoy how the words feel as they leave my mouth – it has to feel good on my tongue. I reject any Worsicles which appear in my mind that do not sing when they’re spoken.


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So the vocal performance of your Worsicles seems to be important. What does the phenomenon voice mean to you?

They must be performed, it is what they are designed for. I like to letterpress my Worsicles, but only for my own enjoyment.I have always insisted that I will never publish my epic »Flark of the Dandibus«. Every Worsicle written becomes an entry in »Flark« – which is now approximately 630 pages in length. So, this stuff is very much intended to exist as a performance or a recording.

The spoken word to me takes you on a bit of a journey, it works a bit like a spell – you leave the everyday world and travel somewhere else, somewhere mythical and full of possibilities. as a child I loved the narration on kid’s TV like Bagpuss, Ivor the Engine, Noggin the Nog, the Pogles. All of these shows were voiced by Oliver Postgate in the late ’60’s and early ’70’s and were produced not far from where I grew up in Kent. Postgate’s voice was just incredible, hypnotic and totally evocative – I very much attempted to use a Postgate-y voice on my earliest recordings. His voice was so comforting, but the stories could often visit dark places. the narrator is usually a trusted figure in storytelling, you put your faith in them and they reveal a world you had never seen before. I’m very interested in myth and the recurrent patterns and tropes that appear throughout cultures globally. I think they show us the way to navigate life.

»Language is dangerous, it is inadequate, but is also obstinately beautiful.«

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Speaking with linguist Chomsky, the Worsicles build a firm surface structure, but with seemlingly no meaning. But it would be wrong to say that there is no deep structure, no lexical information. I think you are playing around with this the deep structure, it is being splintered, it is being build upon association, sound, assonance. Is this a key to your works? What do you think about this?

You’re spot on. I am in a way bound by the mechanics of my own speech. I can escape this only by reducing it to sound energy, depending on the capacity of my lungs. Structure is essential to what I’m doing. The words arrive from my subconscious in a structure.

James Worse live @ Eastgate House in Rochester, Kent, during the Garden Poetry Party on Sunday July 22nd 2012 // Footage by Glenn Prangnell:


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Do you see any similarities to such a phenomenon like s
peaking in tongues? Or any connections to sacredness?

Well, there really are two ways I currently perform vocally – the Worsicles which (although generated by the unconscious) are delivered in a very exact and controlled way, and my vocal improvisations (which are literally me making my larynx do new things). My vocal improvisations have developed later and have taken a lot longer to feel confident in performing publicly. I spent a year or two umming and ah-ing about how to open my voice up and take it beyond the written word, but it wasn’t until fairly recently that I tried it infront of an audience. Now I know I can do it. I feel the same sense of release improvising vocally as improvising with percussion or other instruments. There’s the physical release, the energy expended, but there’s also this cerebral aspect – you are at once extremely focussed but also allowing yourself to behave intuitively. In this way I think there could be a link to speaking in tongues or some such – there is a real feeling of transcendence in that situation which is exhilarating and exhausting.


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Would you describe your work as poetry? Or rather as some kind of sound poetry?

I really do not feel comfortable with the word poetry, even sound poetry. Everybody calls themselves a poet today. I have never referred to what I do as poetry, despite appearing at events that advertise themselves are containing »poetry«. To me, to be a poet is to live heroically and to open up a world that hasn’t existed before. Perhaps I aspire to that, but I think it’s for history to decide who the poets are.

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Photography by Helen Frosi

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Do you think there are any links to sound poets like Kurt Schwitters, Hugo Ball, Bob Cobbing? Are there any connections to Dada? Or to surrealism?

I think there’s too much of a narrative thread to what I’m doing to declare it sound poetry.

I’m a great admirer of the Dadas and the Surrealists, although I am aware that today we can really only experience them through the prism of a museum vitrine. I feel I share their urgency about shaking language till it cracks. Language has failed humanity, language is cruel and without compassion. It dictates our thinking, our prejudices, our dreams. We are judged by how we use language, we are killed for speaking the wrong language at the wrong time, killed for speaking differently. Language is dangerous, it is inadequate, but is also obstinately beautiful.


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Working with Worsicles, do you have an increase of (maybe inspiring) mishearings in everyday live’s communication?

This happens very often, also things my kids say I write down and use them in my work!

◊ Excerpt of an extensive atemwerft-interview. The conversation between James Worse and Martyn Schmidt took place in February 2017.    © atemwerft  2017 / aw 008

Listen to »Testuary to Lulluba« (available as HiRes-Download & CDr: www.atemwerft.de.

»Testuary to Lulluba« comes as CDr and Digital-Album atemwerft. Download includes complete printable CD-artwork for Jewelcase and interview (above) with James Worse (pdf, english & german).

The CDr-release is a limited edition of 99 numbered copies, the first 33 copies come signed by James Worse. Every CDr is handstamped & handnumbered, provided with a white seal and comes in cardboard fold-out-cover with handmade 246grams-linen-paper folder including sleevenotes. Black CDr in vinyl-look with haptic grooves.

Available at www.atemwerft.de

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