Features

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.

On Myung Mi Kim

Myung Mi Kim at the Kelly Writers House, 2010. Photo by Arielle Brousse.

In a discussion with Divya Victor included as part of this feature, Myung Mi Kim quickly arrives at the following problem: “I can’t quite imagine a relationship with a poem, the fact of writing or reading a poem, that would be permanently inscribed.” The sentence reads like an aphorism. It’s portable enough to invite reuse as a doctrine of reading or an imperative of process. As advice, it’s even sound. At this sentence, I experience a familiar sensation in my reading of Kim’s work: like a good (ex-) Baptist, I memorize the verse; I want it on a post-it note above my computer, and I wonder if I shouldn’t forward it to a friend or two. But to resist the urge to pry this instigation, this challenge to poetics, apart from Kim’s work at large is to prepare for an encounter with that work. Kim’s is an effort to inhabit the change, to resist the permanent inscription of — and yet to continually pursue, grow, and foster — relation(s).

So it’s fitting that this collection of materials ranges and doesn’t attempt a comprehensive account of Kim’s thought and her practice as poet. It makes sense that the feature even touches back on a previous gathering of writing on Kim’s work. The pieces here engage Kim’s page work and her voice work, they close read, close listen, and even light out with Kim’s thought as instigation elsewhere. They mark an accretion (over at least the last couple of years) of new responses to Kim’s writing, and as such, they also attest to the continued urgency of that writing — but they needn’t be read as indelible. Later in the same interview with Victor, Kim offers a musical analogy for the performed or published residue of writing: “One ‘publishes’ and that’s the recital. But [the moment of performance] is never cut off from all the other permutations, all the other possibilities, all the other iterations, and all the ways in which I could hear, or could process, or could place this passage next to that passage. It is perpetual, even while there is the thing called the recital or the thing called the book.”

So, too, the pieces assembled here.

North of invention

Participants and audience members at North of Invention (photos by Aldon Nielsen).

In January 2011, I had the pleasure of hosting ten Canadian poets (and one Belgian collaborator!) first at the Kelly Writers House in Philadelphia, and then at Poets House in New York. For months, Charles Bernstein and I had been hard at work planning a festival that would showcase various different strands of experimental writing in Canada, from sound poetry and multilingualism to activist and communitarian interventions to scientifically inflected conceptual practices. Our title was adapted, I think, from a shared mispronunciation of Steve McCaffery’s North of Intention, and was intended to gesture toward the long history of experimental writing in Canada. We also wanted to signal the long history of cross-border relations between Canadian and American practices — a history as rich in missed connections as it is in dialogue and exchange.

The readings, presentations, and conversation at North of Invention by far surpassed our expectations. It seemed clear to me that North of Invention represented a real moment of cross-pollination, not only between Canadian and American practices, but between emerging and established writers, between East and West Coast conceptualisms, between activisms, between different ideas of silence, stutter, and fluency. The invited poets, a.rawlings and her collaborator Maja Jantar, Adeena Karasick, Christian Bök, Fred Wah, Jeff Derksen, Jordan Scott, Lisa Robertson, M. NourbeSe Philip, Nicole Brossard, and Stephen Collis, represented many regions of Canada, many social groups, many generations, and many types of artistic practice. Debates were staged, but with characteristic Canadian politeness (if I may say so); people spoke to rather than past each other in a way that we rarely see in poetic communities, let alone in the broader culture. Our American audiences also surpassed our expectations, and greeted the invited artists with warmth and excitement — real and lasting connections were made.

Prior to the festival, of course, we had created extensive poet wish lists with the help of Stephen Motika and other collaborators. Although we received generous funding from the Canada Council and incredible support from our two hosting institutions, there was simply no way to bring everyone to the East Coast in the dead of winter. Some of our invited writers were unable to join us, and we couldn’t afford to bring the dozens (hundreds?) of poets we dreamed of. Of course, eleven is a tiny number, and as with any conference or festival, our main regret was that our imaginations had to be constrained by the cold, hard practicalities of organizing an international event. In the months that followed, however, we began to hear from people who had watched our webcast, from teachers and professors who were using the PennSound videos of the festival in their classes, and from local writers who had been inspired by the performances they had seen. We came to view this online activity as an opportunity to extend North of Invention, an opportunity to overcome some of the limitations that a live event necessitates. We devised the idea of asking a number of writers to respond to the videos of the readings and performances. These new responses, we hoped, would continue the dialogue on North American poetics begun at the festival.

The respondents, Sandra Alland, Melanie Bell, Gregory Betts, Mark Goldstein, Susan Holbrook, Ray Hsu, Sonnet L’Abbé, Robert Mazjels, Kevin McPherson Eckhoff and Jake Kennedy, Meredith Quartermain, Jenny Sampirisi, Steve Savage, Christine Stewart, and Sharon Thesen, represent an equally broad range of regions, poetries, and writerly communities. Their responses range from careful close readings and experiential accounts of close listening to entirely new poetic works in text, sound, and video. These responses map lines of influence, networks of community, and sites of opposition. They take us further north of invention, or intention, and begin a lively debate of their own.