A lot can happen in five weeks. Just over the last seven days, I swallowed a gold filling, bought a sofa and organised party games for ten shrieking eight year-olds as Hebden’s flood sirens sounded. The centre of town has been underwater this weekend; thankfully, it emerged from the waves unscathed. I know lots of towns weren’t so lucky. Keswick, Carlisle, Lancaster, Appleby, Workington and others – I’m thinking of you, and I’m sorry.
Five online weeks ago, we set sail with the notion that ventriloquism is a simple matter of projecting your voice onto an inanimate dummy. Those of us who took part in the Open Workshop saw how this can apply in practice as poetry worked the magic of giving speech and life to a spoon, an ornament, a flagstone in a boundary wall. Fantastic poems showed the immense creative possibilities of throwing our voices into objects: how those unusual standpoints open up a fresh new perspective on issues as a varied as sexuality, loss and identity.
Emily Dickinson extorts us to “tell all the truth but tell it slant”; Andrew Motion claims “The best poems get written, not by going in the front door of the subject, but round the back or down the chimney or through the window”. Ventriloquism offers us that window. A viewpoint entirely different from our own; a chimney which delivers us if not into a different world, then a world transformed by the means of entry. (Obviously, Santa can for vouch for this). From the work of Jo Shapcott, Louise Gluck and Carol Ann Duffy – to name but a few – we can take it as given that ventriloquism has produced of the most powerful and memorable poems of recent decades.
But, being poets, we weren’t content to leave it at that. We just had to get all complicated and intense. So we engaged with the politics of witness, and the responsibility of “telling your people what you have seen”. How poetry offers the perfect vehicle for those experiences which might otherwise go beyond words. Alongside that, we engaged with the ethical obligation of speaking on behalf of people who may not be able to tell their own stories; and we considered the ethical complexities of speaking directly in the voices of those people.
Along the way we were joined by Choman Hardi, reflecting on her own poetry of witness: the passion, integrity and pain which fuel her remarkable work. In her poetry and in her interview, Choman engages directly with what it means to speak in another person’s voice – and the cost that can be paid by the subject and the writer. If you haven’t seen the interview yet, you can read it here (link).
And now it’s the last week, and time to bring it all to a close.
In last week’s blog, I explored the possibility that speaking in another person’s voice can act as a kind of colonisation or theft. I reflected on Choman’s Anfal sequence; which neither steals nor colonises, and asked what marked the difference. Why do I experience this poetry as a mouthpiece through which a people can speak, rather than an imposition by which they are silenced? In her Poetry School interview, Choman described the impact of engaging with the stories she recounts in the sequence: “Some of the sentences entered my dreams. Some of their fears became mine. I was full of voices, of painful stories repeating and echoing in my head. There were days that I wanted my life to end. I wished I would be run over by a car. I wanted to end my misery”. I said to her “in your poetry, there is the sense that, rather than you as a poet inhabiting other people’s stories, other people’s stories come to inhabit you”.
In the best kind of ventriloquist poetry, the poet does not throw their voice into another person’s mouth. Rather, it can seem that the poet becomes the puppet; the subject speaks through the poet. How does this happen?
The term “ventriloquism” comes from the Latin for to speak from the stomach, i.e. venter (belly) and loqui (speak). The noises produced by the stomach were thought to be the voices of the unliving, who took up residence in the stomach of the ventriloquist. The ventriloquist – who was believed to be able to speak to the dead and to foretell the future – would interpret those sounds.
This image of speaking from the gut nails it for me. It’s about projecting emotion, and conscious and unconscious knowledge from deep within the speaker, into the vessel of another person, object or animal. This approach which can be traced back through English Literature – in the work of William Wordsworth, for example. As this conflict with Coleridge shows, it was controversial from the outset.
In this brief summary, I’ve broken all academic rules and relied heavily on the overview “The Conflict” offered on Brit Literature Wikipedia; which in turns makes heavy use of the seminal – and rather more complicated! – article by Stephen Parrish (1958), The Wordsworth-Coleridge Controversy PMLA Vol. 73, No. 4 , pp. 367-374
Whilst Wordsworth and Coleridge collaborated with each other – for example, on the Lyrical Ballads – their work together was wrought with tension and difficulty. Wordsworth felt that Coleridge was unable to project himself into the lives of his characters – including, most famously, the Ancient Mariner. He believed that “having always too much personal and domestic discontent, he [Coleridge] couldn’t afford to suffer with those he saw suffer.” (Parrish, 369). Just as Wordsworth disagreed with Coleridge’s methods, so Coleridge disagreed with Wordsworth’s, which he felt gave a sense of ventriloquism – “the act of transferring the feelings of the poet into the body of the persons in the poem”.
Whilst Wordsworth may never have used the term “ventriloquism”, “he explains the importance of dramatic technique especially when the writer chooses to speak “through the mouths of his characters” (Parrish, 371). He believed that truth within poetry should be a psychological truth. A poet should take his own feelings and project himself into the lives of his characters, as to show genuine emotion. It is only through this act of ventriloquism that and author can reach his highest potential. Wordsworth believed that Coleridge could not reach this ultimate truth because he had yet to accept and be true to his own feelings” (https://britlitwiki.wikispaces.com/The+Conflict).
Whatever TS Eliot says, we write from ourselves. The truth of our own experiences is possibly the only truth we cannot deny. The truth of our own bodies, our own brains, our own fingertips and eyelids and genitals, is inescapable. The truth sunk deep in our gut. Who can argue with Mark Twain’s abiding instruction to “Write what you know”? I’m compelled by the argument that we are at our most engaging and authentic when we write from the familiar; from emotions known personally, deeply; from places we have visited, literal and metaphoric. But this is no injunction to limit your writing to your own small world: to toothbrushes and offices, fascinating as they may be.
Consider the many ways we know. We know by tasting. And like Denise Levertov reminds us, “the world us not with us enough”. Good writing is rooted in the sensory and specific; its ability to bring us to the known world of our bodies and senses is one of poetry’s greatest gifts. We know by experiencing, by living through an event – the “first person perspective” which, in the case of silenced peoples, is systematically undermined as a source of knowledge. The “expertise-by-experience” argued for in standpoint epistemology and identity politics as means of giving back voice to psychiatric patients, women, Black and Minority Ethic people, Disabled people, and those whose accounts were effectively disallowed as “valid” knowledge.
But we don’t always need to have lived through an experience to know it; we don’t always have to visit a place. We can know by imagination. We know by shared identity, shared experience, shared history and humanity. We can know by listening, and being with and empathy. Feeling with, and not for.
Unless we are sociopaths, we do not just experience our own lives. At an emotional level, we are part of a human community; other people’s lives impact on us. We have the capacity to understand and engage with the facts of their lives. However we connect with a person, we can absorb and experience their lives at a deep emotional level; and when we draw from that wellspring of authentic emotional experience, our ability to speak from their reality has greater authenticity, integrity, emotion.
Yes, when we ventriloquise – when we write in the voices of other people – our work will always involve imposing our own experiences and agendas onto the lives of others; and because of this, there is an enormous imperative to be authentic and powerful. The ventriloquist pieces which succeed in this are those which are spoken from the gut.
Toni Morrison argues: “People say to write about what you know. I’m here to tell you, no one wants to read that, cos you don’t know anything. So write about something you don’t know. And don’t be scared, ever”. And Robert Frost states: “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader”. Poetry is the place we take risks. When we, as Selima Hill puts it “Walk naked into the shower of truth”, when we submerge ourselves in the deep reality of our own lives, through sense, memory, intellect; when we swim in the deepest currents of our own emotions; when we bring creatures to the surface we didn’t know lived inside us. When we allow ourselves, using the resource of our shared humanity, to deeply connect with another person’s experience, and find that we can connect despite our differences; we know things we didn’t dream we could know, may never have wanted know. When we attempt to represent ourselves and other people in the most honest and complete light of our human failings and nuances and contradictions. When we expose ourselves to the possibility of getting it wrong; of failing to represent ourselves and other people as accurately or powerfully; of being misunderstood; of being a bad poet, even a bad person.
Because the price of not trying is silence. And we do not believe in silence.
The art of ventriloquism in poetry (with acknowledgements to WikiHow).
1. Learn to speak without moving your lips. The reader should be able to suspend the knowledge that you are speaking.
2. Change your voice. Match it most closely to the voice of your subject. If your subject is a pig, find an authentically piggy tone and help the reader to believe that the pig is speaking. Read Les Murray’s “Pigs” and Edwin Morgan’s “Song of the Loch Ness Monster”.
3. Bring your subject – and your poem – to life. Give it a reality of its own; specific, sensory, emotional. Draw on all of the tools in the poetry toolbox – meaning, imagery, metaphor, association. Make of it a thing; a sculpture which stands outside of you.
4. Try to find a shape which will fit the subject. “The Song of the Loch Ness Monster” looks just like Nessie! You too can draw on line break and space; layout and structure; informal and formal forms; rhythm and rhyme to match the voice, character, tone and story of your subject.
5. Connect with the reality of your subject. Immerse yourself in that reality. We all know what it is like to be sad, hungry, lonely. Be joyful, be hungry, be unrelenting in your pursuit of the truth of that reality.
6. Now speak from that reality in the way that best suits you. Whether you write directly in form; or through endless pages of free writing and heavy editing; chose the technique that allows the best welding of those felt truths, and a poetry that speaks for the subject, to the reader.
7. Have fun with it. A big factor in being a good ventriloquist is having passion. You must always practice the art. Practicing every day will eventually make you a fantastic ventriloquist. Whether you are taking up ventriloquism for fun or for a career, make sure you are having fun with it.
Now pick up your pen, and write. From every part of you, but especially the gut.
It’s time now for me to put down my pen, switch off the desk lamp, turn on the Christmas tree lights, and wish you all a Very Happy Christmas.
Thank you and goodbye.