What is a question?

Image by Eric Baus

This playlist is comprised of recordings related to questions. Bhanu Kapil, in her recent post on Harriet, Notes on Mutation, asks: “What is a question? How do questions work in your writing?  What do they perform?  What happens when you ask them?”  Today’s commentary might be considered an appendix to Kapil’s post, paying particular attention to the relationship between composition strategies, recording technology, and public performance. I’m also interested in grouping these recordings together in a playlist so that the questions from one piece might circulate through the others.

I’ll begin by quoting more from Kapil’s notes: “A question: Literally, it’s a way of gathering information but not of processing it.  As a mode of enquiry that’s also, linguistically, founded on doubt, on not having the words for what happens at the end of a relationship, the question seals space*.” I have excerpted a portion of Kapil’s comments contextualizing her own book of questions, The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers, from her Kelsey Street Press audio page. At one point in her discussion, Kapil describes the weaving together of the disparate material she has gathered from interviews as well as from her own answers to her questions as “a shared space for voices.”  On PennSound, you can listen to an excerpt from The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers recorded in 1999 at the Left Hand reading series in Boulder.

Jena Osman’s Series of Questions begins “There’s a voice in the room and what are you noticing?” Earlier in the reading, Osman mentions that most of the questions were composed a few hours before the reading. Recorded at the Segue Series in 2004, this piece seems composed with a specific space in mind while also considering the common experiences one has while listening to a live poetry reading. However, as a recording, the questions Osman asks also function to heighten the self-awareness of the listener beyond that site. When Osman asks “What kind of sound are you hearing beyond the voice that is sounding?” it cues the live listening audience into sonic elements one often seeks to filter out, such as people moving in and out of the room and the sound of traffic outside, but it also has a similar effect if, for example, one goes for a walk while listening to it on headphones or plays it on repeat in private at home. Questions such as “Is this its own performance or part of something else?” acknowledge the malleable qualities of the text and foreground process and presentational contexts. In her introductory comments, Osman quotes the artist William Kentridge. On Youtube, you can watch a video of Kentridge discussing process in his work.

Steve Benson’s 2003 reading at the Bowery Poetry Club explores similar issues in a series of live improvisations of questions. Many of the questions from this excerpt center around the role of expression in the work and the location and nature of the self  (“In what sense are you expressing yourself?”).  Some questions, such as “Why have you wrestled me to the floor like this?” and “Have you found your hat yet?” suggest imaginary scenarios that allow listeners to drift off and fill in the missing information. I’m especially interested in the pacing, the pauses, and the sonic manifestations of cognitive holding patterns such as “um” or “uh” that sometimes appear in questions such as: “Are those little [um] spikes peeking out from the sides?” You can hear the sound of Benson’s thinking marked in his intonational patterns.

 Tan Lin’s RPT from Seven Controlled Vocabularies, recorded on Close Listening in 2005, opens with the question “What is the relation between a fruit and a vegetable?” and moves into an oblique series of investigations into reading, repetition, substitution, duration, sensory experience, and forgetting. Lin punctuates the anecdote about eating at a restaurant with half-aphoristic, modular-seeming sentences such as: “Only things that are consumed endure beyond their shelf life.” After listening to the rest of the playlist, I heard this line in terms of the decay and re-contextualization of texts and sites of performance.

In this excerpt from her 2005 Close Listening reading and conversation with Charles Bernstein, Tracie Morris answers some questions about the relationship between composition and performance in her work. On PennSound you can hear From Slave Sho’ to Video a.k.a. Black but Beautiful, one of Morris’s sound installations from the 2002 Whitney Biennial Exhibition. The sound installation shifts and rearranges the words of a limited number of sentences so that they move between question and statement to critique perceptions of the body related to race and gender.

I will close with some excerpts from a 2004 interview on Cross-Cultural Poetics with Rosmarie Waldrop, in which she discusses Edmond Jabes’s The Book of Questions with the program’s host Leonard Schwartz. Listen to Waldrop’s initial comments on Jabes. Listen to Waldrop read an excerpt from the first installment of The Book of Questions.