A Conversation with David Antin
David Antin & Charles Bernstein
Published by Granary Books Inc NY
Copyright 2002 David Antin, Charles Bernstein & Granary Books
Bernstein: Your talk poems raise a number of issues about the relation of orality to textuality and I wanted to get your thoughts on a few of these. For one thing, is the term “orality” useful for you to describe the compositional practice involved in your talk poems? My own sense would be to call this work postalphabetic just as I think we are now entering an age of postliterary: one that assumes alphabetic literacy but in which that is only one form of textuality. That is, I would take your work as textual practice even though it is composed in improvised speaking, since it exists in the context, and is “read” against, alphabetically composed poetry (your own and others) and relies on a range of writing technologies (if not to say modalities) for its realization. I realize the fundamental ambiguity of all these terms. But there are some significant distinctions here, amidst the terminological morass. One stream of thinking from Walter Ong’s Presence of the Word to David Abraham’s Spell of the Sensuous has suggested that alphabetic literacy, compared to what preceded it, puts its users in a fundamentally more alienated relationship to language and the body. Such thinking suggests the value of a return to “orality,” which often strikes me as nostalgic, in the sentimental sense of the word, although I find the idea of “return” (nostos) that allows a reimagining of where we are quite resonant. That may be close to Olson’s sense of such things, and again his idea of composition by “breath” in “Projective Verse” is another possible frame for your talk poems. Do you find that terms of “Projective Verse” valorize speech over writing? An alternative is, I think, provided by Olson’s articulation of a poetics of embodiment in “Proprioception” — a person speaking their mind through their body (can you say “speaking their body”?). OK — then there is the relation between your performances and the writing that comes out of them. These are not, it seems to me, “documentation” in the conceptual art sense of that term, but literary works on their own terms. They are not “transcriptions” in the sense that Dennis Tedlock talks about in The Spoken Word and the Work of Interpretation. Nor are they, in my interpretation, “secondary” (and I say this as an extension of the argument I make in the introduction to Close Listening: Poetry and the Performed Word that the performance of a poem at a reading is also not “secondary” but a distinct realization or version of the work — this is where I propose the idea of “anoriginality”). Finally, there is the insistence on the vernacular in your work — vernacular essays, vernacular poems — vernacular thinking, which is not just a matter of vocabulary or syntax but of composition. This insistence on the vernacular is, as you suggest, in Stein, and also Williams, and is in that sense fundamental to radical modernist writing. Here again the relation of “speech” to “writing” is complex and productive.
Antin: I don’t really think the distinction between “alphabetic” and “analphabetic” is a good one. There are many forms of writing down that are not “alphabetic,” that are not based on graphemic analyses of phonological distinctions. Chinese writing is only the most obvious example. But my main objection to the term is that the distinction is not fundamental enough. I am also quite unsatisfied by the distinctions between the “oral” and “literate” laid out by Ong and Havelock, brilliant as their pioneering work in this area has been. The two fundamentally different ways of proceeding still seem to me the ones I laid out 25 years ago in “the sociology of art” the differences between an “oral” and a “literal” culture — the “oral” conceived as embracing all the ways of organizing behavior relying upon the wide range of mental and physical procedures (including body learning) we can call remembering; and the “literal,” which includes the whole range of procedures laying access to some form of “recording” or spatialization of memory, including drawing and mark-making of any sort, and perhaps also nonspatialized but ritualized repetitional, recitational memorizing. You can see the most extreme form of this spatialization in the ancient “art of memory,” whose invention is usually attributed to the 6th-century Greek poet Simonides but was apparently handed down in the classic rhetorical tradition to the Greek and Roman rhetoricians and from them to their successors in the European Middle Ages and Renaissance. This tradition is described in great detail by Frances Yates in her marvelous book The Art of Memory. The idea was to call to mind a familiar and complicated building and stage a mental walking tour of all of its rooms, imagining precisely and in their places all of its decorative details, and then to place each of the images of a projected speech in a particular detail of the building in the sequential order that it would have to be recalled in the speech. It’s a kind of mental roadmap with illustrated “view points” or “rest areas.” This isn’t writing, but it is a way of spatializing memory, especially if you bear in mind that the “images” that the rhetoricians intended to place were visual images either of “arguments” or of “words.” So what they placed were like emblems or rebuses that could evoke a chain of logical connections or particular phrases that they wanted to make use of. Now the Greeks already had writing in the 6th Century. Simonides’ lyrics were written down and were memorized. So they could place texts on columns or niches, physically as well as mentally. But memorization of texts, the mode of the rhapsode who recited a poem that had a completely accomplished verbal form, is very different from remembering. Memorizing isn’t remembering, and recording isn’t remembering. But I don’t want to be pious about the oral. The literal recording has distinct advantages. The tape recorder that recovers my talk pieces distinctly belongs to “literal” culture. I couldn’t be having this e-mail dialogue with you and I certainly couldn’t go back and reread Frances Yates or “the sociology of art” without it. The ancient Greek “oral poets” all had this anxiety about the deficiencies of their memories and always began poems by praying to the muse to help them remember. The invocation of the muses may have been a purely formal element by the time we encounter it, but it very likely reflected a real sense of the anxiety that the memory of forgetting could induce in a sensitive artist of an “oral society.” But the situation, as I tried to describe it in “the sociology of art,” is more complicated. There probably never were any purely “oral” societies, as there are no purely “literal” ones. Because the self is an oral society in which the present is constantly running a dialogue with the past and the future inside of one skin. So we’re really dealing with two different cognitive modalities. The oral in my sense is present in the most literal societies, though it may be underground. There is good reason to consider how readers in “literal” societies actually read. Any reader will find that the act of reading evokes uncontrolled and uncontrollable memories, and these haven’t been stored in building niches, and they may or may not be similar to the memories out of which the author created the text. On the other hand there is probably no oral society that fails to mark the spatial distinction of left and right, peculiar as this distinction may be for bilaterally symmetrical animals, and all societies I know of make the easier distinction between front and back, that is supported so clearly by the difference between our own front and back. And once they have this settled, they all seem to be able orient themselves by facing in the fairly constant direction of the rising sun and distinguishing the four directions of frontal east and dorsal west, sinistral north and dextral south in the real world. This is the beginning of a literal mapping strategy I suppose the whole “sociology of art” piece is an elaborate enactment of this argument, which it makes at great length. But that’s not the whole story. The epistemological argument I make against the notion of “understanding” in the twin pieces “tuning” and “gambling” is a direct consequence of my argument about the “oral.” Understanding is a literal idea based on a geometrical notion of congruence, and tuning is a notion of a negotiated concord or agreement based on vernacular physical actions with visible outcomes like walking together or making love. So here we are back at the vernacular again. That being said, I am not pious about the idea of the “oral” and my written pieces draw on all the aspects of “literal” culture I find useful for my purposes. In a way, I suppose my works — the “talk performances” and the written “talks” — run a kind of dialogue with each other. I wasn’t always aware of this, and it may have been pointed out to me by others — Fred Garber and Henry Sayre. But I’ve come to believe it’s true, because there’s no other way I can account for my persistent attachment to both ways of working.
Image: David Antin, talk piece, 12 November 2009, performance at Cabinet, London