Discourses on vocality

Vanessa Place, Kim Rosenfield, Rachel Zolf, and Myung Mi Kim

l-r: Divya Victor, Vanessa Place, Kim Rosenfield, Rachel Zolf, Myung Mi Kim.

The discourses with the poets Vanessa Place, Kim Rosenfield, Rachel Zolf, and Myung Mi Kim are records of developing notions of performance, composition, and authorial agency. We center on the work of the “voice” in its many, glossolalic manifestations, asking how the poetic “voice” (through speech, performance, ventriloquy, enunciation) witnesses the contemporary moment. These discourses hover around the opening in the lower part of the human face, surrounded by the lips, through which the discourses are taken in and from which interviews and other views are emitted. Mobilizing new possibilities for historical strategies of appropriative, recombinatory, adaptive, and conceptual poetics, these discourses course through a broad range of questions and answers, tos and fros, calls and responses.

1584         R. Scot, Discouerie Witchcraft

“A wench, practising hir diabolicall witchcraft, and ventriloquize …”

1642          T. Fuller, Holy State

“Some have questioned ventriloquie, when men strangely speak out of their bellies, whether it can be done lawfully or no.”

1960         R. Barthes, “Authors and Writers”

“Contrary to so-called primitive societies, in which there is witchcraft only through the agency of a witch-doctor … the literary institution transcended the literary functions, and within this institution, its essential raw material, language.”

1998          R. Silliman, “Who Speaks”

“Once incorporated into an institutional canon, the text becomes little more than a ventriloquist’s dummy through which a babel of critical voices contend.”

An interest in the mouth, its activities, its cavernous possibility containing teeth and tongues, its emissions and enunciations, and its participation in the labor of performing, projecting, and appropriating identities, drives these discourses. These discourses also emerge as speech from an orifice distended to the fingers — typed, drafted, emailed, rehearsed, resaid, and resent. They are not spoken. They are written, and therein is a lack of lips and glottis, but also a lack of muzzle or hiccup. Vanessa and I, Kim and I, Rachel and I, agree to speak mouth-to-mouth but not face-to-face while sometimes seeing eye-to-eye.

These discourses are the record of a many months of correspondence between a conversant in Buffalo, New York, and another in Los Angeles, California; New York, New York; and Calgary, Alberta. The conversations locate, like a uvula locates the gate at which a mouth opens onto a throat, a pressing need to consider enunciating, performing bodies and the forms with which they conspire to name an emerging poetics of appropriation and ventriloquism driven by a pronounced commitment to defining new feminisms. In my discourses with Place and Rosenfield, we returned directly and sometimes by detour to issues of law and literature, trauma and subjectivity, science and sophistry, sexuality and performance. In my discourses with Zolf, we grappled with the poet’s role in the crisis of witnessing international catastrophe.

The reemergence of an interest in lyric voice and the re/decoding of vocality by contemporary strains of conceptualism and appropriative poetics have given critical pause over the assumptions with which we crowned Language writing and “A pause, a rose, something on paper.” Vocality is a pause which arose on paper but which is now once again pronounced by the loud, masquerading, ventriloquizing body; it is something that must give us pause; it is something we cannot readily appeal to or appoint to an author.

These conversations pause over the question asked by Roland Barthes in “Authors and Writers” — “Who speaks?” — which suggested a generational difference between the bon mot and the bon mort of the author. These conversations pause also over the curiously dropped question mark in Ron Silliman’s engagement with Barthes’s question in his essay “Who Speaks” decades later. This pause is a gesture to reinstate the importance of that question mark, a gesture to return to the question that still curls around any claim about the ordering of signs around the mouth and the ordaining of words on the page in poiesis. I hear our conversation as a way of pausing here to discourse around that question mark.