Fel Santos: Violent Affection

Paolo Javier

for Alan Ramón Clinton

Fel Santos – Kitchen Of Sister Gigil


Perhaps one could speak of language experiences which are an embarrassment to literature. They embarrass literature because while they are not of it, they encroach upon it. Such experiences may be as embarrassing to the encroacher as they are to those who are encroached upon. Think of Antonin Artaud, who spent his life wondering how to escape personal and public hells, and yet writes in a letter, a form we may already think of as para-literary, too intimate to be conveyed directly, “Someone who does not know depression, who has never felt the soul encroached upon by the body, invaded by its weakness, is incapable of perceiving any truth about the nature of man.” (Artaud, 48) Think of New York’s own Hannah Weiner. She did not set out one day to “see words” on her forehead and everywhere else, to write clairvoyant poems which granted her access to things she should not be, by training, allowed to speak of (such as Native American rights). Her clairvoyance is an embarrassment to literature and clairvoyance, when most of her “revelations” have to do with purchases she should or should not make at Macy’s, colors and textures that she is “allergic” to. Think of Gertrude Stein, whose use of sound “conveyed” not only taboo sexualities about her training with the scientist William James, himself an embarrassment to science as a theosophist in search of occult worlds. Georges Bataille would remind us that the essence of embarrassment is transgression, and that it is not something that we can wish away lightly, “But the taboos on which the world of reason are founded are not rational for all that. . . . a calm opposite to violence would not suffice to draw a clear line between the two worlds. . . .Only unreasoning dread and terror could survive in the teeth of the forces let loose.” (Bataille, 63) When considering an individual named Fel Santos, we must not forget that he too brings us a certain embarrassment, that the phrase “violent affection” is an embarrassment separated only by space and not a “clear line.”

In December of 2009, I got a last-minute invite from John to attend a salon at the East Village apartment of Charles, a common friend of ours in the poetry community. This was the first time I would hear of Fel Santos who, John texted, would be “debuting some sound poetry.” For the most part, my own experience with the sound poem has been limited to recordings and videos online, a few printed texts. The sound poet is a rare bird in NYC’s (avant-garde) poetry scene, but when John sent the invite, he was aware of my recent interest in the language art. Earlier in the fall, I’d played him some mp3s of Dada pieces by Kurt Schwitters and Raoul Haussman that I recently uploaded, and professed my new found obsession with bp Nichol and the Four Horsemen. Santos’ name also struck me as sounding Filipino. John confirmed. “Not only is he Pinoy,” he wrote back, “but he lives in Woodside, too.” A sound poet who is Flip and from Queens? I’m so there.

Running on island time (of course), I arrived at the salon just as Santos performed his last “piece,” “Swill Cottages”, a seven-minute recording with electronic artist David Mason (not present). Lit only by the screen of his smart phone (from which the Mason soundtrack softly played), Santos screeched, hissed, growled, cooed, hummed, wailed, read, and breathed with abandon. When he finished, the rapt audience of eight, maybe ten (there were about fifteen people present in total) seated on the floor, couch, and lounge chairs of Charles’ living room (where Santos performed against a wall filled with floor-to-ceiling bookcases) did what audiences do—applauded, cheered, and walked over to congratulate him.

I remained in my corner, trying to come to grips with what I’d just witnessed. To be sure, I was floored by Santos’ extraordinary performance, though it wasn’t quite what I think of as “sound poetry,” at one point an embarrassment to the literary community’s logo-centric biases but has since, like everything else, long settled into genre status. It took me some time that night, but when I eventually gained Santos’ trust as a fellow Pinoy interested in his art, what he said surprised me. When I mentioned to him, by way of searching for a metaphor, that his live performances seem to surge out of him like a medium channeling a spirit, he said, “this language is unlike any I’ve ever spoken or known, one that, curiously enough, I only recall uttering with any frequency beginning in the summer of ‘86, following a demonic possession I experienced at age eleven. I remember the before and after part best, and very little of the actual hosting.” What I find compelling about Santos’ account is his insistence on being possessed, an endeavor he spent most of that summer building towards. Not much in the way of good Catholic practice for this former altar boy. Of course Santos didn’t tell his parents about the experience, and given the apparent harmlessness of a kid making weird sounds, they never bothered to have this new “ability” examined. Certainly there were some embarrassing outbursts at the wrong times and places, but they were easily explained away due to his youth and a certain Filipino practice known as gigil (gēgēl).

Gigil is a Filipino term for the trembling or gritting of teeth in response to a situation that overwhelms one’s self-control. My Tagalog dictionary offers two definitions: “to tremble or thrill from some irrepressible emotion,” and “gritting of the teeth because of suppressed anger” (English 530). A cursory google (gigil) search for the word’s meaning elaborates more on the dualistic nature of its experience. On the website wordsthatshouldexistinenglish.com, Bianca Ceralvo, for example, describes gigil as

{t}hat shivery, teeth-gritting thrill that accompanies a strong urge to lay your hands on something (while possibly holding yourself back from doing so). {Gigil} usually happens when you see something super adorable (ex. wanting to pinch a baby’s cheek), but can also be caused by something that makes you gut-wrenchingly angry (ex. wanting to punch someone).

This “thrill” is by no means unique to Filipino culture, and you need not look very far in everyday life or popular culture for individuals gripped by gigil’s North American equivalent. In PT Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love, Adam Sandler’s character tells Emily Watson’s: “I’m lookin’ at your face and I just wanna smash it. I just wanna fuckin’ smash it with a sledgehammer and squeeze it. You’re so pretty.” Unlike the infant domestic scenes where North Americans tend to confine their versions of gigil, Filipinos extend gigil into much larger temporal and spatial arenas. We will most commonly express such violent affection (my term) through the utterance of a language that mixes baby talk, motherese, and phonetic sounds from our native dialects. Mind you, this language is directed at the object, and aside from a warm hug or playful pinch on the cheeks, comprises the extent of the manggigigil, or the person doing the gigil’s, material expression. There is no threat of us pulling a Lenny from Of Mice and Men on the object-choice’s pet rabbit, however tremendous the urge.

This, of course, is the official, domesticated version of gigil, and does not fit particularly well with Bataille’s previously mentioned understanding of transgression or Santos’ utterances. Indeed, when one thinks of the “gritting of teeth” involved in gigil, it is hard not to detect a certain repression at work where gigil itself is as fully a domestication of cannibalistic, destructive instincts which exist in any culture, no matter how “developed” or “refined” we may imagine it to be, instincts that make individuals like Lenny seem more like limit cases (a limit that, anthropologically speaking, we could say moves both backwards and forwards in time, or eccentrically away from “polite society”) than exceptions. How could it be otherwise when we think of the cannibalistic infant suckling at its mother’s breast, when we hear endless tales of gods eating their children? And, there is as much love as destruction in what we must now call the violence of affection. English, for instance, is full of terms like “ravish” and “gorgeous” which make the romantic object sound like something we would like to consume. Perhaps the twentieth century’s most literary cannibal, Issei Sagawa, described it best when he said that he killed and ate his French girlfriend because he loved her so much, that he wanted her beauty and energy to exist inside of him. Anthropological studies of so-called “cannibalistic societies” confirm in less poetic terms that cannibalism is not about destruction of one’s enemies, but a magical act more like the one that Sagawa, as an art student at the Sorbonne, intuited on his own. In this sense we could understand Santos’ relationship to gigil as itself an embarrassment to gigil, just as gigil is embarrassed of what it actually alludes to in human desire.

Unlike most Filipinos who verbalize their violent affections through no more than a smattering of words or half-phrases, Santos will unleash a torrent. His own dad would often say to his mom “nagtatongues na naman yung anak mo” (your son is speaking in tongues again) during each of the poet’s spells. Such gigil is an invented, private language that’s mind-blowing, disturbing, and unlike anything I’ve every grown up hearing in my own Filipino household.

Indeed, one can (understandably) sense a certain embarrassment, a certain desire to repress, in Santos’ own descriptions of his sound art. “But unlike scat singing, demonic speech, and baby talk,” the poet claims, “my utterances are not about communication. They are a fundamentally subjective aural experience that offers abstract expression for the speaker and open interpretation for the listener.” Gleaned this way, it’s hard not to see (and hear) why gigil and its (dis)contents would appeal so much to a polyglot, experimental language artist like the poet. But perhaps when talking about his work we should revisit the concept of “experimental” and bring it back to its scientific roots. Each performance is unique to itself and Santos is not completely sure what he is aiming at. We can take him at his words when he says he is “exploring intimacy and emotion in a new way through sound poetry,” and gigil accords him “this material language that conveys something you cannot express, or something that really makes you happy at the moment, and you just want to squeeze that in your hands, and, um, express that to your subject of affection…to your subject…beyond cute…beyond lovable,” but we cannot stop, as he no doubt would admit, at his words alone.


In the tradition of the published sound poem, Santos sometimes chooses to write out gigil phonetically. This reverses the traditional mode of poetry written in literate cultures where the poem is composed first and then performed/read orally for an audience. In an age of ubiquitous recording devices, what would seem an impossible task (remembering an utterance often produced in a state of trance or semi-trance) becomes a new mode of production that differs from poems of the oral tradition in that one need not speak or compose in formalized, easily remembered patterns or rhythm. It also makes the “transcription” a work unto itself bearing an uncertain relationship to its initial production, a fact which Santos is relatively unconcerned about. Santos’ pronunciation is based chiefly on Tagalog sounds, though for the life of me, a native Tagalog reader and speaker, I can’t recognize them when I hear him perform. Truth be told, just looking at a word such as “koonamoonakoongooots” makes me wonder if it isn’t a caricature of the dialect. Tagalog’s orthography was created by the Spanish friars, and so the poet, who can read as well as write in the main dialect, uses the Roman alphabet as symbols for his gigil. “I’m not interested in inventing a whole new language, per se, and so I don’t feel the need to draw up new symbols for gigil. I’ve also grown up reading and writing Filipino just fine with the Roman alphabet, and since I’m sounding my way through much of this language, it’s a heck of a lot more manageable for me to write with letters that can already do the job” (Santos). He assures me that he isn’t being self-hating (at least, not consciously) when he transcribes things in the Roman alphabet, nor does he distorts the tones while gigilating, and that “some words would come off sounding as warped” because he speaks them through tightly clenched teeth.

But when the “words” almost offer no obvious semantic meaning, it begs the question: how on earth is the listener supposed to understand the speaker? “They can sense how I feel at that given moment,” Santos says. In a verbal exchange, for example, his tone of voice might give the listener a sense of what degree of gigil he experiences at that moment (shout, whimper, sneer, etc.), combined with other vocalizations that are communicative (laughter or cries or groans) that precede or follow the utterance.

The sound of the gigil word itself also offers some meaning to the (active) listener. For example, the fricative [š], followed by back-to-front vowels, that leads a word such as shtookoonamananee makes me think that the speaker might be in awe of the receiver. The word appears in an untitled poem from the poet’s unpublished manuscript, All Convulsions:

Hallo luv.
Happy valentine’s day.
How does this work.
I have no idea.
Say hello maby.
I love google.
How brilliant is this.
My super maby.
Say hello.
My loveliness say hello.
So my aunt.
At the japanese place.
What time hun.
Me missh da luv too.
Now say hello.
So sweet.
& he spelt my name right.
Now say hello. (24)

Clearly autobiographical (“maby”), the gigil in Santos’ poem is romantic in nature, the words a bit less elusive in meaning, sandwiched as they are between lines of recognizable English. Still, they offer semantic indeterminacy. For example, it’s not immediately apparent which role in the sentence the gigil plays in the following four lines: “How brilliant is this./ Koofa./ Hey. / Shtookoonamananee.” There are no dictionary meanings for koofa nor shtookoonamananee, but if the listener/reader sees and hears these as nouns, then both can function as terms of endearment in addition to the word “maby”, which is a contraction of the endearment ‘my baby’. “In marriage, playfulness with language—codes, nicknames, neologisms—is a source of the bonding that keeps the marriage active, alive,” writes Kay Turner in her introduction to her selection of love notes—again note the “embarrassment” to literature occurring or perhaps even coming into being in para-literary form—between the great American modernist Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas. (Turner, 35) To wit, Santos’ untitled poem reads like a “Lifting Belly” composed on G-Chat, a contemporary domestic valentine to his beloved spouse:

Shooper maby.
Hows my luv.
Wuddyaget to eat.
Unhealthy grub in C-town.
Fried fish, tofu, & bokchoy.
All for three buckarone.
Now say hello. (25)


I miss my maby
Lots of scholarly books under ten bucks.
Hello maby.
Bathroom break sooper luvliness.
See sale.
Lemme see.
More books. (26)


Hows da maby.
Not concentrating
I vant to give you a big kissarone. (28)

As he “gigilates” (Santos’ term), the poet’s romantic address isn’t about articulating sentiment, but aurally pointing to it, and sounding out the feeling of the most lyric propensities the recipient can listen for.

The audio recordings of the poet’s “gigilations” (Santos’ term, too, interchangeable with “gigils”), which he captures on his smart phone and portable Tascam digital recorder, sound like the incipient stages of a song, and are both beautiful and disconcerting. In each of these recordings, the poet’s gigil comes across as abstract sketches at the phonemic level buoyed along by the speaker’s improvised melodies. And yet, to speak only of melodies is problematic; perhaps the uncertainty associated with gigil’s relationship to cannibalism can be heard in the sudden, uncanny shifts of tone. If maintenance of mood contours is to classical western music what the “invisible style” is to classical cinema, we can definitely regard what Santos records as unclassical as anything produced by John Cage’s tossings of the I Ching.

For Santos, gigil, or violent affection (my term), is a fundamental language experience of his while growing up in Manila that continues to this day. “My wife, who isn’t Filipino, thinks I’m so weird when I gigilate [our one-year-old daughter] Lyra,” he says. “Well it can’t be helped. This is how my family expresses affection for each other. Less so on my dad’s side, but I’m pretty sure I’ve inherited extreme gigilation from exposure to my mom and her sisters. Apparently my Lolo (grandfather) Paeng, who was super affectionate and warm, set the gigil bar for all eight of his kids.”

Rio Santos, the poet’s mother, relates this connection to the poet in a brief exchange during her visit to Woodside last December.

FEL: How would you define gigil?

RIO SANTOS: Something you cannot express, or something that really makes you happy at the moment, and you just want to squeeze that in your hands, and express that to your subject of affection…to your subject…beyond cute…beyond lovable.

FEL SANTOS: Where does our family get it, because other gigilation doesn’t involve so much language?

RIO SANTOS: I guess we get it…we’ve seen it from Lolo Paeng, from the grandfather. Not so much the grandmother. It’s the grandfather.

FEL: Why? What would he do?

RIO SANTOS: He would just coin these words out of nowhere.

FEL: Like what?

RIO SANTOS: Like hampanay or hampanooonay. Just more of sounds…that will really make you smile and laugh because it’s just…it sounds silly and yet…it’s exactly what the person is feeling at the moment.

FEL: It’s happy-silly expression?

RIO SANTOS: It’s happy, silly, and beyond one’s ability to express that happiness…because there’s no exact words for that, so you begin coining the words for it.

FEL: Since you were a baby, [Lolo Paeng] was like that?

RIO SANTOS: He was like that since I was a baby. You were a baby, you didn’t really hear a lot of it until you were four or five years old.

FEL: Why not?

RIO: Because [it’s only at that older age] you begin to see he always does that as a habit.

FEL: Oh so YOU didn’t get it till you were four or five years old.

RIO: And then when you’re a grown-up, you hear him say it again. (gently squeezing cheeks of Lyra) Pootish, pootish, poooootish!

FEL: But me growing up—did I hear it all the time?

RIO: Not from your grandfather. He was not around.

FEL: Who did I hear it from?

RIO: Maybe your grandma. And your titas and titos. Because we got that from him also. (to Lyra, pushing cheeks in) Right, pooteet?

FEL: I guess Papa’s side didn’t really do it.

RIO: (pause) No. Not Papa’s side.

FEL: Do you know of any other families that do it like this?

RIO: No. I don’t think so. Because your cousins also do it to their children.

FEL: My question is, with me, I take it to an extreme. I don’t stop. Was that how Lolo Paeng was too? He wouldn’t stop, and go on and on?

RIO: Oh, yeah. And there’s always a new word every day.

Gigil functions less as/in conversation, and primarily as fleeting expression untoward the passive gigilatee (my term), who isn’t expected to exchange. More often than not, gigil will insist that its recipient endure such affection even if it turns physical. Under the site name Gigil All the Time, Filipina American blogger Wennan posts a picture of a young, fashionable, and cute (white) couple whose female playfully bites down on the male’s right cheek. The latter grins, but looks past his gigilator, waiting out (enduring) her PDA. Wennan’s own experience of gigil seems to take little interest in the male recipient’s experience of it:

“Gigil” is a Tagalog word which doesn’t have a direct English translation, but the meaning is something like having the uncontrollable urge to hug, kiss, squeeze or take a chunk out of someone because you find them so damn endearing and cute. Needless to say, my boyfriend has tons of bite and pinch marks all over his body (especially on his fleshy belly lol) – I can’t help it hahahaha. He is adorable on all levels. :-)

I’ve told Santos on more than one occasion that I’m convinced he’s a futurist jazz singer on the down-low. I’m half-joking, because a quick scan of some of his gigil words reveals a likeness with the legendary jazz vocalist Slim Gaillard’s invented hipster dialect, “vout” (from “devout”). Compare Santos’ “buckarone” and “kissarone” from the excerpted poem above with Gaillard’s “oreenie” and “oroonie”, some words filed under the O column of the scat singer’s Vout-O-Reenee Dictionary. A Cuban immigrant who spoke eight languages, Gaillard’s “records were so transforming that nobody who heard them could find a language to explain them except in the phrases of the songs themselves, which spoke in tongues: ‘A Wop Bop A Loo Bop,’ ‘Be Bop A Lula’” (Marc Beasley, Hey Hey Glossolalia, 68). To be sure, the wop bop a loo bop of Santos’ gigil is crystal clear in the first movement of the following sound poem “Scanners”, which runs close to two minutes:

You tell Papaya what the story is in the boom boom
Bee dee kong gong bee dee goong goong goong gooshee too boo doo dee gee dee dee dee
dee dee doo goo doo doo doo boo dee
(Lyra harrumph)
(Papaya kissarone)
Boo doo boo doo bee doo boo doo
This Lyra naka dee goo dee
(shawty rock to the beat for your boi, shawwwwteeee)
Doo eeee

“Scanners”, like scat, is completely improvised (and recorded) by the poet as he feels the stirrings of gigil while taking care of his daughter Lyra at her Pack and Play’s changing station. And, like scat, the poem is playful and funny. Santos’ written version here is strictly phonetic transcription, with little in the way of composition. “I’m never consciously trying to sing when I gigil,” he says. “It comes out that way, much to the annoyance of my wife and relatives.”

Unlike scat singing, however, Santos’ recordings grate on this listener. They make me anxious, if not mildly agitated. I want to laugh, but I also want to keep my distance. Santos’ gigil strikes me as the opposite of charismatic speech, whose pitch and tone remain constant after the speaker’s initial outburst. Glossolalia doesn’t typically go on extended stretches; Santos’ gigil can sometimes extend to an hour. At fever pitch, it resembles the dark speech of someone experiencing demonic possession, disembodied, like Mercedes McCambridge’s dubbing of Linda Blair’s possessed character, Regan, in The Exorcist. William Friedkin’s description of the actress’ work could apply to Santos’ darker gigils: “It was really something else….you would hear these things multiplied in her throat; these strange counter point noises; little skittering whistles and strange creaking rattles” (Hey Hey Glossolalia, 68).

So while Santos strikes me, at least in my initial intellectualization, as a poet steeped in the canon of 20th century European and North American sound poetry, it turns out that these influences, to the extent that they exist in his work, came only after he had been directed to them by friends he met in New York. Unlike Haussman, Schwitters, or even the second-generation New York School poet Joseph Ceravolo who wanted to grasp the “inner sound I physically and mentally felt reverberating inside,” Santos did not set out to “write sound poetry” any more than Hannah Weiner set out to receive clairvoyant messages in poetic form. Insofar as we understand poetry as a deliberate act, the poetics come afterwards. Indeed, what Santos does put on paper could better be described as a transcription of what comes out in recorded form: his gigil resists alphabetization, and its literal “writing” occurs when it is recorded on tape—to which the alphabetization forms a supplement, not a direct translation. This embarrassment of the alphabet itself is what sets him apart from his Western forebears perhaps even more than the incorporation of a distinctively Filipino language experience in his praxis.



The sonic rather than the alphabetic aspects of Santos’ praxis is the biggest draw for David Mason, aka Listening Center, a Brooklyn-based composer of electronic music who’s currently collaborating with the poet on an album of sound poetry and music. As a musician, Mason greatly appreciates the sonic ground that Santos’ work aims to break:

On first listening to these recordings, one becomes immediately aware of a sheer complexity of sound and emotion, and gradually moves towards an acceptance of the language as non-rational, but intelligent. The flow of discrete sounds, or “words” is measured but apparently not decisive in a self-conscious manner. Each excerpt is unique in its language, although similar patterns of sounds are discernible , and seems to relate to a unique subject or theme. (Mason)

Thus far, their collaboration includes ten recorded tracks, three of which Mason uploaded onto his YouTube account for public listening. The process behind the creation of these tracks emerged organically, both artists tell me. Santos records his gigil onto his smartphone, then sends Mason the mp3s via a dropbox account with no cues attached other than for Mason to give them a listen. From there, Mason creates the music in his recording space in Williamsburg. Close listening of the mp3s inspire the production of each track, and, according to Mason, there hasn’t been a need in this initial stage of the collaboration for Santos to meet up with him in the studio. The ten tracks that he’s laid down have proven a revelation to both performers, especially Santos, who never expected Mason to come up with anything coherent so quickly. “I think David gets my poetry more than I do,” the poet says.

Mason strikes me as too humble to admit to this, but he isn’t shy to discuss the aural virtues of Santos’ work, under whose spell he’s fallen since encountering it over four years ago at a salon in Long Island City. Mason describes the experience like a scientist:

In musical terms, rhythmic patterns dominate, often repeating, which give rise to melodic cells, the tonality of which informs the mood, or emotion of the passage. However, it would seem facile to judge the language in simplistic emotional terms connected by conventional associations of tonality and timbre, or to dismiss it as primitivism. A purely rational analysis would only yield preconceived notions of language, and so the language must be listened to with an associative ear – and an open mind.

Mason anticipates the usual charge folks unversed in the history of sound poetry make against the art when he cautions the listener not “to judge the language,” a defense echoed in most statements by the art’s practitioners and innovators of the past century. Khlebnikov, the heart and soul of Zaum, famously writes:

People say a poem must be understandable. Like a sign on the street, which carries the clear and simple words “For Sale”. But a street sign is not exactly a poem. Though it is understandable.  On the other hand, what about spells and incantations, what we call magic words, the sacred language of paganism, words like “shagadam, magadam, vigadam, pitz, patz, patzu”—they are rows of mere syllables that the intellect can make no sense of, and they form a kind of beyonsense language in folk speech. Nevertheless an enormous power over mankind is attributed to these incomprehensible words and magic spells, and direct influence upon the fate of man. They contain powerful magic. They claim the power of controlling good and evil and swaying the hearts of lovers.  The prayers of many nations are written in a language incomprehensible to those who pray. (Khlebnikov, 152)

Indeed, sound poetry’s relationship to incantation is apparent in Santos and Mason’s collaborations, which call to mind the recordings of a séance. “Focus 1” presents the poet’s voice weaving in and out of throbbing synthesizers and hypnotic drumbeats. In “Focus 2”, Santos’ vocals are indecipherable, favoring the tracings of a language over a coherent account. When the voice does take center stage in “Foreground 1”, the effect is “kind of silly and sinister and eventually fun/ny in a sort of ouroboros,” says Alan Clinton, author of Mechanical Occult: Automatism, Modernism, and the Specter of Politics (Peter Lang, 2004).

As the title of Clinton’s book indicates, Santos’ work sounds a lot like automatism, which the poet acknowledges. “A great majority are unaltered first takes,” he says. “When I have the presence of mind to do so, I record my gigil on my phone, which usually plays back a complete poem, with little need for editing or changes. There might be some liberties I take when I perform the piece live, but I try to honor the integrity of the recording, which captures a genuine language moment that is unmediated and comes from a place my rational mind can’t ever locate or drum up.”

Santos’ automatist recordings of gigil sound like fully-formed poems/songs, and it makes perfect sense why the poet leaves well enough alone when performing the pieces live. At his Dumbo salon, I remember being overwhelmed by “Gigil Post Dede On Couch Rene Fleming,” a virtuosic poem of a voice in extremis (to borrow Steve MacCaffery’s term), ranging from primal growl to roar to high-pitched cry; from gagged screaming to playful tongue-tapping to tender cooing. You also hear a human voice articulating seemingly non-human sounds: a buzz saw, an ambulance siren. Throughout the four minutes of this spontaneous recording, you hear a cd of opera singer Renee Fleming running in the background, offering a ghostly lyrical counterpoint to the harsh proceedings. When Santos played the original recording for me after his salon ended, I was stunned by his ability to match his spontaneous recording almost note-for-note, noise-for-noise, in the live performance. He revealed that the gigil came out of him as he concluded feeding Lyra one morning, triggered by the endearing way in which she pushed the jar of organic peas or kale puree (I forget which) held up to her face. It’s almost as if she were saying to her Papa, “Enough veggies! Time for some real meat!”

Humanity’s deep-seated associations between affection and cannibalistic consumption, already elucidated, suggest how an adorable moment with his daughter could inspire such an aggressive and harsh poem from the poet. But equally surprising is its appearance on the page in All Convulsions—as a sparse list of words that each suggest a category you might file the poem’s individual sounds under.

Lone Ranger
Lone Ranger
Doot doot

What you encounter on the printed page is a list poem, one that retains the title of the original recording but not its length. For the listener of the recording and its equally epic live performance, the effect of reading this seemingly dashed-off, minimalist “score” feels like a defiant gesture by the poet. It certainly opens up different possibilities for performing the piece. “{Given its improvised origins} {i}t didn’t feel right for me to over-determine the written version by resorting to phonetic transcription, which is the dominant appearance of most sound poetry in print,” Santos says. “I thought it might be interesting to write it as a short poem, instead, which you wouldn’t expect from the track’s length and density. And though I offered a rather faithful rendition of the original source tonight, I can go in the opposite direction should I choose to perform it again.”

Mason joined Santos in the poet’s salon last summer, during which these tracks were performed live. Certainly, the candle-lined floors of the living room spoke to both artists’ interest in the occult, but I was struck primarily by their intuitive interactions throughout the event. For one, neither performance of these tracks seemed rehearsed nor practiced. I also heard some deviation from the original recordings in the form of dead air where otherwise would be vocals, and masked song sample glitches where there’d be drums. In past conversations, Santos shared with me how he feels like an eternal beginner, expressing uncertainty about his own abilities as a poet that keeps him creatively motivated rather than discouraged. Perhaps the dissonant, sometimes buried vocals in his recordings with Mason offer traces of the poet’s hesitations, which are understandable given his compositional improvisation (always a risk, an experiment) and, to use André Breton’s reminder that endeavors like those of Santos have the potential to remind us of “the depths of our minds [which] harbor strange forces” we may not want to confront directly—or at all.


The last time I met with the poet was over a long and engaged lunch at Tito Rad’s, a popular Filipino restaurant on the border of Sunnyside and Woodside, in late autumn of the past year. When we sat down to order, I reminded him of how uneasy he felt about the designation ‘sound poet’ I’d used in our first meeting four years ago. He has since embraced the title, but with a caveat.

“I didn’t want to come across as pretentious, as I was fairly new to performing live, give or take two years, and I wasn’t entirely certain if what I was only just exploring at the time could fall under that banner,” Santos says.

Like me, the poet’s prior knowledge and experience with the art had been chiefly limited to books on the subject, and whatever recordings he could locate online. He points out there hasn’t been much of a sound poetry community or scene to tap into in New York City, where he moved in the early-90s from Connecticut to pursue a degree in design at Pratt. In 1990, his family emigrated from the Philippines to Stamford, and the years he spent struggling to assimilate in his new, ultra-waspy environs transformed him into a lover of books. It wasn’t until his sophomore year of college, though, that he began to immerse himself in poetry.

“I went to school and hung out with a bunch of gamers, neither of whom cared much for poetry,” he shared. “I kept my interest to myself. I took a creative writing class in my second year, but didn’t really care for the instructor, who was all about New Yorker poetry. I also registered for a workshop at the Poetry Project, but was immediately put-off by the coterie and groupie dynamics of the scene. I pretty much read and wrote for myself.”

Santos never sought to publish his poetry, let alone try his hand at engaging with the sound poem. But in his first year of working for CNN, where he continues to serve as one of the webmasters for its Money section, he stumbled across a recording of Kurt Schwitters’ performance of Ursonate online, which shook him to his core. Soon after, he was devoting his free time to absorbing as much about Dada and the sound poem as he could through printed books and online recordings. By the time the monumental and exhaustive Dada show rolled into town at MoMA in 2006, Santos had already composed pieces for performance, including his early investigations into gigil.

“I gave my first performance at my friend Bob’s backyard in Kensington in the summer of 2007,” he offered. “There were about eight of us guests present. It was dusk when he’d asked his [two featured writers] to share their work. Came my turn, the sun had set, and I asked Bob to keep his porch light off because I was nervous to do my piece. I used my cell phone as a light source, but for the most part, I performed from memory, and referred only occasionally to the printout I had in hand.” Holding court in the dark like this intensified the listening experience of Santos’ audience, and he enjoyed this aspect of it so much that he retains the set-up for every performance.

“You’re not the first person to presume I like to perform in the dark as some kind of homage to Hugo Ball; while I admire him, my decision to ‘remain in the dark,’ so to speak, has a less sexy reason,” he says.

Santos refers here to the founder of Dada’s bruitist concerts—performances of simultaneous phonetic poems

characterized by specific situations: light effects—that is to say limitations of Ball’s appearances by darkness before and after the scene. The platform or stage, on which Ball is acting and performing, separates the audience from the stage and so limits his appearances locally. The costume consisting of a cylindrical shaman hat gives the acting poet according to his own statement the appearance of a priest, of a “magic bishop” (43, Homo Sonorus)

Santos’ performances aren’t nearly as extravagant nor vaudevillian in design as Ball’s costumed “concerts”, but the influence is there. For example, each of the subsequent salons I witnessed Santos perform, the first two were conducted in complete darkness, and the remaining pair with a desk lamp lighting the floor behind him. In his last salon in Ridgewood, at our friend Gabriel’s loft, Santos wore a blank male mask that freaked out everyone present. The hallmarks of Santos’ work—its theatricality; its experiments with linguistic hybridity and poly-vocality; its material interest in nonsense, babble, and neologisms; and phonetic notation—extend beyond mere fanboy appreciation for Dada and onto a feverish engagement with European and North American 20th and 21st century sound poetry history.

German critic and publisher Christian Scholz, who wrote a three-volume investigation of the history and typology of the language art, characterizes the sound poem as “a poetic art which avoids using the word as a mere vehicle of sense or meaning and tries to compose phonetic poems or sound texts (Lautgedichte, Lauttexte) in a methodical autonomy in accordance with modes of expressing subjective intentions, which require an acoustical realization….” In sound poetry, he sees a “close connection between speech and music,” and insists that it “can develop {its} special effect only by the musical gesture of expression of the voice….{it} is both speech and music or speech music” (38, Homo Sonorus). Poet and lingua-artist Michael Lentz would second this: “The sound poem is a category of acoustic art that inhabits the intermedia borderline area between poetry and music, which in its genre-transcending multiplicity, especially since 1945, mobilizes all speech organs, auxiliary parts and the breathing mechanism that contribute to the articulatory process and makes the entire range of human sound effects perceptible” (132, Homo Sonorus).

Dick Higgins (1938-1998), U.S. poet-publisher and key figure of the Fluxus movement of the 60s who coined the term “intermedia,” begs to differ with either definition in his seminal essay “Four Points Toward A Taxonomy of Sound Poetry”:

One thing sound poetry is not is music. Of course it has a musical aspect — a strong one. But if one compares typical sound poetry pieces with typical musical ones, music is usually the presentation or activization of space and time by means of the occurrences of sound…. Thus sound poetry points in a different direction, being inherently concerned with communication and its means, linguistic and/or phatic. (24, Homo Sonorus)

In the same essay, Higgins’ own definition of the sound poem reads less prescriptively than most practitioners and critics of the art: “poetry in which the sound is the focus, more than any other aspect of the work” (26, Homo Sonorus). Santos is an admirer of the late poet/critic’s work, which he describes as “indispensable guides for my own praxis. I love {Higgins’ essay} particularly because it gets to the heart of what sound poetry offers: an explicit abstraction of words, both uttered and printed.”

Higgins’ taxonomy offers a meaningful classification for Santos’ work: 1) invented languages “without reference to any known language,” 2) nonsense poetry that shows “a way between the semantically meaningful lines or elements and those which are probably nonsense,” 3) “phatic poems, in which semantic meaning, if any, is subordinate to expression of intonation, thus yielding a new emotional meaning which is relatively remote from any semiotic significance on the part of words which happen to be included,” 4) improvised poetry (performed, not written), 5) poems notated, including visual poems that serve as scores, radio plays (35-37, Homo Sonorus).

“I suppose I consider myself a sound poet because I could never write a poem without sounding out its language first,” he says. “I struggled so much in my writing workshops because I couldn’t do the ‘craft’ aspect that they place such a premium on. I could never write the compact narrative lyric, the gold standard among every New Yorker-waving professor, which I suppose is due to my experience with language, which is neither compact nor lyrical, but fragmented, dissonant. Each time I tried to write that New Yorker-type poem, the language would not cohere. In fact, I would experience it like sand slipping through my fingers. By the end of the semester, I felt like I couldn’t write a single proper sentence, let alone poetic line.” That first creative writing workshop marked the last one Santos would take—ever. “If I had continued taking them, I would be a much different poet, and probably one whose work would be of zero interest to you right now, Paolo.”

Undoubtedly, his gigil-based sound poems will encounter resistance in most creative writing programs because they dismiss (the virtues and values of) the avant-garde, and continue to abide by a decidedly White European (American) centric view of the language arts, which Santos’ poetry challenges. Perhaps his gigil serves as an automatist reaction to the linguistic complexities of life in the empire as a neo-colonial subject and immigrant. What if it offers some kind of a psycho-linguistic response to/coping mechanism for the poet’s prolonged sense of dislocation following his painful immigration to the U.S. as a teenager? “Leaving Manila was my first experience with heartbreak,” he says. “I remember not eating on the entire plane ride to New York. And my parents told me that I didn’t have much of an appetite the rest of that first week.” Santos wouldn’t elaborate further on his difficulties with assimilation those early teenage years, but will offer his gratitude for the experience. “I suppose I wouldn’t be writing and performing much poetry if I didn’t have those hurdles to get over. Feeling that kind of alienation forced me to act, and I found my strength in a closer experience with the written art, i.e. language.”

Does he find much kinship within the avant-garde, particularly its sound poets?

“I don’t know too many sound poets personally, if that’s what you’re asking. As you can tell, I’m trying my best to keep my poetry and performances fairly low-key,” he says. And while definitely inspired by his early encounters with Dada and the other European movements such as Marinetti’s Futurism and Chopin’s Ultra Lettrisme, Santos finds himself increasingly distanced from their histories, given their problematic appropriation of non-Western cultures and traditions. “Much western European and North American sound poetry seems to be based on troubling essentialisms about non-Western cultures that are no longer around. It doesn’t take much to realize that these appropriations are colonialist in nature.”

You need not do much research to be piqued by the primitivism of Dada, and the orientalism of John Cage and Jackson MacLow. In the contemporary scene, Larry Wendt, a noted American composer and researcher of sound poetry, describes the art as “an exploration of what is primitive and simultaneous in perception…a recognition of the tribal /oral poetries that exist and have existed for hundreds of years” (248-50, Text-Sound Texts). Sound poet George Quasha, who performs percussion with poet-vocalist Charles Stein and keyboardist David Arner in the band Axial Glossodelia Trio, describes their live performances as “Language and music {that becomes} difficult to distinguish, like listening to strange tribal sounds in the distance and being unclear about what one is hearing” [internet]. And phonotextualist Jaap Blonk, perhaps the preeminent sound poet today, ended his virtuosic March 2012 Walker Arts Center performance with Cage’s “Solo for Voice – Song Books 64,” reducing a Zen proverb to an outright mockery of the sound of the Japanese, replete with bespectacled yellowface expressions that recall Mickey Rooney’s odious caricature of Audrey Hepburn’s Japanese neighbor in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

“I can’t really judge {these poets}, though,” Santos says. “I mean, who’s to say that my gigil, if you were to do an in-depth linguistic study of it, wouldn’t yield evidence of some kind of distortion of the languages I’ve grown up absorbing all my life? My best friend in high school was Indian, but I also grew up in Manila living next to an Indian family, whose language I heard on the regular. Is my gigil some kind of sounding out of the Hindi I would hear on a near-daily basis? Or maybe it’s a warping of my paternal grandmother’s Ilokano, or my Lola Isabel’s Davaweño dialect, which I would hear spoken at the house when they’d visit.”

Had I the luxury of time or a generous research grant to conduct such a complex linguistic study, I would certainly embark on it, as I find the poetry of Fel Santos unlike anything else I’ve encountered. Such a study might also include tracing the occult lineage that Santos’ poetry/poetics proceeds from: Andre Breton, W. B. Yeats, Jack Spicer, and Hannah Weiner. It would take more seriously Santos’ suggestion that his private language truly becomes his own in the summer of ‘86, following the demonic possession he experienced, and more closely examine this language poetry of occult sources (and sorcery).

As I consider the occult in Santos’ work, I would, perhaps, utilize what cryptozoologist Loren Coleman calls “twilight language”: the exploration of hidden meanings and synchromystic connections via onomatology (study of names) and toponymy (study of place names). Even before his encounter with surrealist and Berkeley Renaissance and language poets, Santos was a rabid consumer of American pop culture, particularly its movies and television. I would then devote a portion of my essay to chronicling Santos’ demonic possession during the month of July that he summered in New York City in 1986: when he absorbed, on consecutive days, an episode of the Twilight Zone involving a faustian pact between its characters (‘I, Newton’); a film about pagan demonic worship (Children of the Corn); and a film steeped in dream logic and fabulist tropes (Labyrinth). A possible example of the use of twilight language: what significance/s might the location—at his aunt’s apartment, which is right across from the UN building and down the hall from an apartment that had a ritual suicide earlier that year—of his demonic possession offer to each other?

A synchromystic reading would perhaps also trace correspondences between events, dates, and the names of these distinctly American cultural products leading up to Santos’ experience with possession. How was the poet a changed speaker of English following this experience? What are his recollections of experiencing gigil upon his return to the Philippines at the end of that summer? All of these are worthy considerations for an artist who has as much or more interest in using his work to explore hidden and repressed worlds than staking his claim in our greater world.


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Santos, Rio. Interview with Fel Santos. 14 Dec. 2013.

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Paolo Javier, author of Court of the Dragon (Nightboat Books, 2015). Editor/publisher of 2ndavepoetry.com. Queens Poet Laureate, 2010-2014.  http://epc.buffalo.edu/authors/javier/