Monday, April 24, 2006

Day Seven

Today I read I Never Knew What Time It Was by David Antin, a collection of his talk pieces. Like Jackson MacLow with whom he was friends (it seems like he was friends with everyone), David Antin is another poet from the 60s and beyond whom I saw speaking before I realized who he was exactly or what he did. I saw him at a memorial event for Kathy Acker at NYU a few years ago - he was also a good friend of Kathy Acker. At the event, he did what he has become known for: he talked. His pieces are not planned, but neither are they improvised; they are quite obviously distinct from MacLow or Cage's non-intentional writing - they are more like hyper-intentional writing, in that he can evidently be swayed in his intentions during the actual performance. Intentions may crop up that he didn't realize were there. One way to describe what he does is as an attempt to dramatize the actual process through which writing becomes imbued with significance. Aside from that one time I saw him speak when I didn't realize that what he was doing was what he always does, I haven't seen him perform. But I imagine that as you watch him speak, knowing that he is speaking extemporaneously, you imagine that in his head is going on something very similar to what is going on in your head: the process of words igniting ideas that weren't there before. It demonstrates how similar the process of writing is to reading, and speaking to talking. Antin had a great idea - or rather he had a certain sort of chutzpah - that I'm quite jealous of: he realized that performance (ie. speaking to an audience) is one of the best compositional states of being, and hewasn't afraid to use it that way. I see this when I'm teaching, when I walk into class not knowing what I'm going to say about a certain text, and leave wishing that I had brought a tape recorder.

Antin does take a tape recorder along when he does a talk piece, and later he transcribes the pieces (maybe this is not a standard practice for him, I don't know), adding to them and editing a bit as he sees fit, although he says that the original performance is essentially respected. Some of these transcripts make up the book. He tells stories for the most part, although one story will run unannounced into another story, and there may be only a quirkily tangential relationship of the story to the subject of the talk. One of my favourites is titled "The Theory and Practice of Postmodernism," but it's really a rather drawn-out story about buying a mattress. Or, in a story about time he will talk about his son trying to hire a prostitute for an elderly poet friend and ultimately failing to find anyone who is willing to listen to poetry for money. Some of these stories are surprisingly sentimental, but they are presented in such a nonchalant way that there is at the same time a rather detached, critical flavour to them. I should correct myself when I say "story" and say "narrative" instead because in one piece Antin draws his own distinction between these two: stories have a plot, like what you read in a newspaper, but narratives are really about desire and may not actually have much of a plot. His pieces may be made up of stories, but they are really narratives.

The other thing that sort of fascinates me about Antin's texts is that even though I enjoy his style and I was excited by the practice, in reading them I actually got bored sooner or later - this wouldn't be remarkable in itself, except that Antin seems to anticipate this and even encourage it as an essential part of his process. The stories are drawn out, get interrupted, and often seem to have no point: a catalogue of characteristics of a bad storyteller, in fact. But Antin says this is because he is entertaining ideas (in the sense of nurturing them), not entertaining people. I am both impressed by and skeptical of this resistance to entertaining the audience, and I'm not sure I accept his claim at face value. He says: "im quite happy for people to feel free to get up and leave whenever they stop finding this entertaining and thats how i know im a poet and not an entertainer" And then later: "in my case i always imagine i should put a sign over the door that says ABANDON ALL HOPE YE WHO ENTER HERE." And yet because so many of his talk pieces address the art world or make reference to particular people and scenes and practices, it seems clear that his unique process makes it possible for him to tailor the "writing" to the audience. Which would seem the opposite of the conceptual autonomy he wants to claim for himself in saying that he doesn't entertain.


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