I begin with research, research, research, not so much because I am interested in gathering information but because I want to be free of it. I look for contradictions, confusions, chaos. I court them. I love to find experts who disagree. It is really a kind of meditative process. When the "facts" and "counter facts" reach critical mass, they explode, dissolve, and what I am left with is the hint of a voice, a gesture, an impression I can coax into light and sound.
The early drafts of the script are mere lures - super-structures into which I pour my own ideas, propositions, suggestions, nuances, in order to draw out the persons (and voices) that lurk in the dark. Some are more eager than others to tell their stories. Others less trusting. Some extremely shy.
I LISTEN. Listen for the characters to interject, disagree, champ at the bit of the script I have so cold-bloodedly fashioned from the conflicting opinions of research and forgetfulness. I listen, listen for the broad rhythms of speech and silence, sensitising myself to the physical movements that accompany the sounds, learning the characters' pecularities. Some times these come stampeding out and I get carried away and go on writing way past the actual stampede. Next day when I return to the script-in-progress, I see it is only the actual stampede I can use; the willful parts must be deleted.
I listen and refine. Listen and argue. Listen and dispose of more and more of the cold-blooded wilfullness. It is a stripping away. Stripping away the writerliness, the literariness, all that is an expression of my ego and fears and not the egos of the characters whose voices are a part of me and somehow not me.
I guess what I am talking about is the unconscious. One enters into a kind of dream, a reverie; communes with spirits. Sometimes, often, their voices are audible. I have frequently been heard talking "to myself"... actually I am talking to "them". In the midst of my luring we enter into a kind of marriage. They become more real, more substantial, more interesting, than the people one stands in the queue with at K-Mart. One begins to feel rather fictional oneself in the presence of those heavily materialised masses trudging down Main Street. One loses the self one shows to the world and enters their world, their voices, their fears, their hope.
The Pound play was a four year marriage in which we (Pound and I) often fought most hideously. He offering, then withdrawing assistance. Back and forth. I never bowed to his threats, but I learned his idiosyncracies enough to know how to deal with him. We grew to understand one another. A kind of love-hate relationship. A marriage. When the play was finally produced it was like some horrendous separation. Neither of us wanted it to end quite so soon. Maybe there was more that could have - or should have - been said. But it was over. A divorce without mental cruelty, other than the self-imposed cruelty which occasions all creative acts.
- Billy Marshall Stoneking
A NOTE ON THE PLAY
In 1943, the American poet, Ezra Pound, was indicted by the United States government on the charge of treason. It was alleged that Pound, an American citizen, had made anti-American broadcasts over Italian radio during wartime, and that these same broadcasts had given "aid and comfort" to the enemy. By war's end Pound found himself in the custody of U.S. marshals.
Mindful of the political hysteria of the times, and fearing for Pound's life, his wife, friends and colleagues, urged him to enter a plea of insanity as a means of escaping trial and the possibility of a death penalty. This he did, and the court subsequently upheld the plea. However, instead of releasing him into the care of his wife as had been expected, the government chose to confine him at St Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, D.C., an institution that housed hundreds of the criminally insane. Pound - "one of the great literary figures of our time" - would remain incarcerated at St Elizabeth’s for nearly thirteen years.
Sixteen Words for Water takes up Pound's life in the final days of his "imprisonment", when the balance between life and death had reached its most critical point. The Ezra Pound of the present play must choose between sanity and the possibility of the electric chair, or insanity and the surety of safety at the expense of freedom. In the midst of this, he finds himself invaded by strange thoughts - memories of the ancient Aboriginal myth of the Wandjina... the creative spirits of the Dreamtime who fashioned the world out of words and who, in the act of naming, threatened the world with chaos.