A Writer’s Garden of Sound

Emma Hine
From the November/December 2021 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

Visitors to Oral Florist, an online sound library that features short recordings of writers and other artists reading encountered texts, find themselves on a rich green landing page laced with the outlines of brighter green leaves. At the page’s center is both a signpost and a button: Enter Garden, which upon clicking dissipates into several icons abstractly reminiscent of buds. Select one and it blooms, both into visuals and sound: “This is Mimi Lok reading for Oral Florist,” a voice might say as a five-petaled yellow flower twists into view and, spinning slowly, accumulates an array of purple spokes. “Today I’m going to read you an excerpt from the manual for the Jeep Wrangler JL, which is a miniature radio-controlled car.”

Click on other buds and, while what looks like a dark thistle or a red zinnia erupts in yellow filaments or magenta stalks, you may hear novelist Jesse Ball read instructions for handling bunches of greens, songwriter Dougie Poole read a post from the relationships sub-Reddit, or fiction writer Joanna Ruocco read a note about frogs that she found tucked in a folder from a thrift store.

Oral Florist is the creation of Rita Bullwinkel, the author of the story collection Belly Up (A Strange Object, 2018) and an editor-at-large for McSweeney’s. The idea for Oral Florist came to Bullwinkel several years ago, as she became interested in how writers and artists she admired were attuned to language they encountered in texts not conventionally considered literary. In particular she recalls that during her time as an associate editor at Noon, the publication’s founder and editor, Diane Williams, “would often begin editing sessions reading texts she’d encountered out in the world that she thought were bizarre or funny or beautiful.” This, Bullwinkel says, got her to thinking: “If this is what Diane is noticing, what is Christine Schutt noticing? What is Ismail Muhammad noticing?” As a virtual artist-in-residence in February and March 2021 at the San Francisco–based art initiative Minnesota Street Project, she received funding to bring the concept to life with the help of Chris Garringer, a graphic and web designer. It was Garringer who, riffing on the name Bullwinkel had already chosen for its gesture toward sound and variety, suggested the flower design. Photographer Jenna Garrett sourced, dissected, and scanned blooms; Garringer then wrote an algorithm to autogenerate imaginary flowers from these real parts. Bullwinkel solicited entries from writers she admired, including Catherine Lacey, C Pam Zhang, Benjamin Booker, and Vi Khi Nao, and the first recordings, all under three minutes, went live in March 2021. Her hope? “To expose the serious noticing that goes on with people who work with language closely.”

Mimi Lok, author of the story collection Last of Her Name (Kaya Press, 2019), is one of the writers bringing this penchant for observation to Oral Florist. She says, “I thought of the Oral Florist invitation as a bit like a literary, aural equivalent of putting an object in a white space and calling it art. That mere act of selection and display suggests it is worthy of a different attention, that it has value.”

Catherine Lacey—whose fifth book, Biography of X, is forthcoming from Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 2023, and who shared police reports from her hometown paper in Oral Florist—also pays close attention to the language she encounters throughout her day. “I find a lot of joy in seemingly arbitrary pieces of text—signage, family court documents, brochures, catalogue copy, etcetera,” Lacey says. “Anything written that is primarily intended to convey basic information inevitably conveys a personality, for better or worse.”

Bullwinkel says that more than anything this project has helped her “notice more closely the diversity of the emotional tenor of the things we consume,” explaining that some of the recordings she receives are “quite funny,” some address “the absurd in the world,” some are “very emotional,” and some engage with “the cruelty of the world.”

C Pam Zhang, for instance, considered choosing a funny text but settled on a Reddit comment that is profoundly moving. Zhang says, “I browse Reddit when I need to hear voices that haven’t been polished to death—and when, in the pandemic era, I needed to ‘hear’ voices, period. What stays with me are the bits that are beautiful, or eerie, or both.”

It’s the intimacy of hearing these authors’ and artists’ voices—and the intimacy of knowing what details and feelings have stayed with each—that makes Oral Florist so special. Thankfully, Bullwinkel already has a large bank of new installments she is excited to release, including from translators reading texts encountered in other languages and then translated. “I would love to have that feeling of overwhelm, of an archive,” Bullwinkel says, adding that she envisions this as “a multiyear project in which there are hundreds [of recordings].” The ever-growing archive can be accessed through not only the flowering Sound Garden, but also the website’s more traditionally organized Sound Library, as a limited-edition cassette tape available for purchase, or on Apple Podcasts. As the project moves toward its first anniversary, Bullwinkel hopes that each person who comes to Oral Florist “will have some emotional reaction, will simply be moved.”


Emma Hine is the author of the poetry collection Stay Safe, which received the Kathryn A. Morton Prize and was published in January 2021 by Sarabande Books.