Holly Werner-Thomas on Experimenting with Senses

In OHR‘s upcoming Spring Issue, Holly Werner-Thomas shares her methods of detailing all five senses within an oral history interview in her article, “Sensory Roadmaps: How to Capture Sensory Detail in an Interview and Why Doing So Has Exciting Implications for Oral History.” Here she shares her zine, featuring ethnopoetic transcription and experimental writing forms, which showcase her interview with author Mark Thomas.

By Holly Werner-Thomas

In my OHR article, “Sensory Roadmaps: How to Capture Sensory Detail in an Interview and Why Doing So Has Exciting Implications for Oral History” (Spring 2022), I argue that focusing on the five senses allows oral historians to capture stories that are more evocative and emotionally true than oral histories—so often focused on “big events”—that skip over such detail. I describe why this is important for what we can learn about people’s lives today, but also state that this focus on the sensory is an exciting prospect for storytelling outcomes. 

But what are some of those storytelling outcomes? To me at least, they include nonfiction writing, ethnopoetic/poetic transcription, and performance. Here, I focus on the first two, using the interviews I conducted with Mark Thomas (on November 14 and 19, 2018, at the author’s house in Washington, D.C.; full disclosure: Mark is my husband) to show how I got “into his head” to write a short profile of him. I also transcribed interview segments using a technique first developed by anthropologist Dennis Tedlock that Tedlock called “ethnopoetic transcription.” My own storytelling outcome, in this case, also included a zine I put together, embedded here, which is just for fun, and displays the visual nature of the (transcribed) poetry. As for the performative aspect of the (transcribed) poetry, much has been written about it (see for example, Della Pollock, Remembering: Oral History as Performance), but the poetry of oral history is evident even in its written form on the page when using Tedlock’s method, (see below). I hope that it is also evident that no matter how seemingly insignificant, descriptive detail brings listeners and readers closer to events imbued with emotion and perspective that have the power to teach us about lived experience, and that focusing on the five senses is also simply beautiful.

Boy From Leeds, by Holly Werner-Thomas, 2020


Experimental Nonfiction Writing

I borrow my approach for the brief experimental profile piece I wrote for my zine from a nonfiction writer I cite in my article (Katherine Boo, Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, 2012). Boo, though she does not reveal how, so thoroughly understands the points of view of the people she writes about, that she writes with confidence from their perspectives as if inside their heads. Her nonfiction therefore often carries the psychological depth of great fiction, where writers are free to invent. For example, in this passage from page 43:

“Abdul felt protective of the undersized scavenger. The boy got excited about unusual things, like a map of the city he’d recently seen outside an airport workers’ canteen. Back at Annawadi, Sunil talked about that map as if it were a gold brick he’d found in the gutter, and seemed surprised when other scavengers took no interest. Abdul recognized this tendency to get punchy about discoveries to which other people were indifferent. He no longer tried to explain his private enthusiasms, and figured Sunil would learn his aloneness, in time.” – Katherine Boo

As readers, we cannot know how Boo learned how Abdul felt about the scavenger, described in the first sentence: did Abdul tell the author, did she observe him, or both? In the the last sentence, we don’t know whether Boo observed Abdul so long that she noted a change in his conversation to other people, or, again, whether it was a detail about himself that he related. Either way, her paragraph on Abdul and Sunil is a masterclass in interpretive research (including interview/conversation combined with observation) that she translates into an elevated form of nonfiction prose where she provides us access to the interior lives of her subjects.

For my own very short experimental profile piece, “The sound was the focus (chapel),” (beginning on page 8 of the zine embedded above) I combined a bit of historical research with what I learned about Mark’s life, both as a schoolboy at Leeds Grammar School in the 1970s, and more generally (in this case as a fan of Leeds United) in our interviews. I researched only part of the first sentence of the piece, about the Gothic/Victorian buildings, and combined that information with my own knowledge of industrialized Leeds. Otherwise, the writing is a translation of our interviews, with the last paragraph a mix of conversational samples of Mark’s language (“Elland Road” is the soccer grounds where Leeds play; “Hot Shot Lorimer” was the nickname of the great 1970s player, Peter Lorimer; “the winning strike” is a British turn of phrase). I combine these with what I imagined his thoughts—as a boy entering obligatory morning chapel—might be, which is also why I use the phrase “no doubt” in the last sentence.

Experimental Profile Piece

Embedded in PDF of Zine above, page 8

“The sound was the focus (chapel)”

Leeds Grammar School is a Gothic building that dates from 1552, but the school’s small stone chapel is probably Victorian, which means it was built around the same time that this northwestern Yorkshire market town industrialized. 

The chapel has an ornate stained-glass window, and carved wooden pews made by a local carpenter whose trademark was a little carved mouse, but it is the organ that Mark remembers most, and that the chapel’s ceilings were high, which created an echo when he and the other boys marched over the cold flagstones after shoving their school bags into their desks and before class. Typically, he said, his music teacher played the organ quietly as they shuffled in, “single-note-type music rather than big music,” which was reserved for holiday spectacles like Christmas, Whitsun, and Easter in which Mark participated, when he was very young, as a soprano in the school choir. He sang the descant for a carol called “Once in Royal David City,” as his son would decades later at a British Embassy in an American city. Otherwise, Mark said, the religious services, especially the school prayer, were “part of the wallpaper.” 

“Looking back now, to me it feels like something out of, The Name of the Rose or something, you know? You’ve got this sort of group of people standing up and saying: 

Our Father who art in heaven, 
Hallowed be Thy name, 
Thy kingdom come, 
Thy will be done, 
On earth as it is in Heaven.

But as a kid, it was just sounds to us.”

Because Mark didn’t know the meanings of half of the words—DOMINUM  NOSTRUM and REMISSIONEM PECCATORUM—that he was asked to repeat out loud, his breath visible in the cold, his school cap left on a peg near his desk, his thoughts, no doubt, about that afternoon’s rugby match, or whether his dad would take him to Elland Road that Saturday, where he hoped he could watch Hot Shot Lorimer score the winning strike against Chelsea.

The senses Mark recalls here are of a multitude of sounds (the organ, the Latin prayers, the echoing flagstones underfoot), of feeling (cold, formality, tradition), and of sight (the chapel, the organ and organ player, the stained glass, the carved wooden mice). Again, I contrast them with where a restless schoolboy’s mind might be. But the larger point is that only by focusing on the five senses can I gain this depth of insight into this narrator’s boyhood, where not even first-hand observation would be available to me, as it was for Katherine Boo in Mumbai, and is for nonfiction writers in general.

Ethnopoetic/Poetic Transcription

Because the poetry of the spoken word is evident when people use their five senses in describing their memories, focusing on sensory experience also breathes new life into the possibilities of ethnopoetic transcription developed by Tedlock in the 1970s. He wrote that,

“…the relatively casual conversational narratives, which are the more ordinary business of the oral historian, are themselves highly poetical and cannot be properly understood from prose transcripts. The meaning of spoken narrative is not only carried by the sheer words as transcribed by alphabetic writing but by the placement of silences, by tines of voice, by whispers and shouts.” – Dennis Tedlock

Among his instructions for an ethnopoetic transcription of an interview, Tedlock suggested that, CAPITALS can be used to indicate loud talk; small type to denote soft speech; that long dashes [—] indicate lengthened vowels while short ones at the ends of lines [-] mean that the speaker interrupted him or herself; also that other instructions can be put in (parenthesized italics).

I would add, however, that Tedlock borrowed the term “ethno” in what he labeled “ethnopoetic” transcription from his training as an ethnographer to lend heft to his insight into the poetry of the spoken word. Today I would ask if “ethnopoetic” truly best describes what is a form of spoken word poetry, a genre of poetry that is also rooted in oral tradition and performance. Transcription as spoken word poetry might therefore more simply be called “poetic transcription.”

Using Tedlock’s instructions, or what he calls his “Guide to Delivery,” I transcribed a few passages of my interviews with Mark to see what they would look like and hear what they would sound like, and it is striking, how naturally they lend themselves to both poetry and performance. Here is a poetic transcription of a section of my interview with Mark where he describes washing his face in the mornings before he left his house for his paper “round” when he was twelve years old (in the embedded zine beginning on page 4):

Paper Round (a cold morning in a northern city)

A Poem

There’s a thing I remember doing,

when I LEFT the house on my paper round,
which is, I would have,
before I went out, 
I washed my face with soap. 
And I guess I just, 
         I just got up and got ready. 

I think 
I didn’t – 
it’s not like I went out and then came back and had a shower or something. 
So, uh, 
got up and I did 
you know, 
I did quickly 
and left, 
So, I was, 

               I was already in school uniform, 

minus the tie,
or something.
But I was already dressed.
And so, 
              I would wash my face with soap in the morning. 
I mean, 
I was an adolescent, 
I guess I had greasy skin or whatever, 
so it was something that I felt I needed to do. 
And I remember going outside and walking down the drive, 
you know that feeling you have when you’ve washed off all the grease from your face 
             it’s kind of creaky? 

And I LIKED that feeling,
and it would often be COLD, 
and I remember, 
you know, 
I’d sort of GU––––RN, 
you know? 
[makes faces]
and I’d FEEL my skin kind of cracking, 
kind of like it does when it’s real, 
when your skin’s dry, 
when you just cleaned it. 
And it’d be cold, 
and I’d be breathing out, 
and there would be condensation. 
You could see your breath
I’d be doing that. 
And it was that, 
            that was the feeling of waking up, you know, on a cold morning in a northern city. 
And so that’s a really strong memory I have. 
I used to really like doing that.

In my OHR article, I write that in a literary sense, oral historians tend to focus on plot (“Tell me what happened then”) over explicit sensory description (“What did it smell like?” “What sounds do you remember?”). As we read the short profile of Mark at school chapel when he was a boy in Leeds and listen to the verbatim transcript-cum-poem, we can see that by helping narrators to evoke the five senses in an oral history interview, we allow the ultimate reader—or listener—to feel the texture of another person’s life, which is the basis for most good stories.

For more, see my zine, “Boy from Leeds”, above.

Holly Werner-Thomas is an oral history consultant and independent scholar. Her documentary play, The Survivors, won Columbia University’s Jeffrey H. Brodsky Oral History Award in 2020. The play is based on the interviews of gun violence victims she has collected for her ongoing campaign, “The 40 Percent Project: An Oral History of Gun Violence in America,” which will be housed at the Columbia Center for Oral History Archives (CCOHA) starting this year. She is a graduate of the Oral History Master of Arts program at Columbia University and has conducted major oral history projects for The Pew Charitable Trusts, The Vera Institute of Justice, The National Building Museum, and others. She is currently co-chair of the upcoming symposium entitled, “Assessing the Role of Race and Power in Oral History Theory and Practice,” in collaboration with the Oral History Association and the Oral History Center at UC Berkeley, slated for June 2022. She can be reached at: holly@hollythomasoralhistory.com. 

Featured image by Stanley Walker, Leeds Grammar School Situated on Moorlands Road it was built in 1858-59 by E.M Barry; now used as The University Business School. Used courtesy of a CC BY-SA 2.0 license.