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Creative Speaking: Fiona Templeton

By Thom Donovan

A week ago, St. Mark’s Poetry Project celebrated the launch of The Kenning Anthology of Poets Theater 1945-1985. To mark this event, last week I posted responses to the question “what is poets theater?” provided by four exemplary scholars and practitioners in the field. Someone whose response I had wanted to include (now posted below) was Fiona Templeton’s, an excerpt from an essay of hers called “SPEAKING FOR PERFORMANCE / WRITING WITH THE VOICE,” which had originally appeared in the Palgrave/Macmillan anthology, Sensualities/Textualities and Technologies: Writings of the Body in 21st Century Performance (ed. Susan Broadhurst and Josephine Machon).

Reading Templeton’s work for over a decade, and attending a handful of her performances in recent years, Templeton’s work is highly original for its process, which uses movement–and speech-based movement primarily–as the principal means of composition. In a tradition which encompasses border ballad, folk song, traditional theatrical elocution, improvisation, Socratic peripatetics, and post-Beat (Burroughs, Ginsberg) composition via tape recorder, Templeton is led by a writing which is simultaneously speech and vice versa–what we would say if we ever knew what we were going say during the discontinuous present of performed utterance. What occurs through Templeton’s poetics is a radical intention defying the autonomy of speech and writing and proving creative expression once again to issue from embodied conditions.

Reading Templeton’s 1997 book Cells of Release again recently, a book which seeks through continuous written composition to introject and exorcize (“release”) the suffering of prisoners at the sites of their imprisonment, I am struck by an interruption which occurs within and between the short and long centered lines of the text. It is such an interruption I believe which evidences thinking (the process of thought, living through a present of consciousness), rather than the dominance of writing or speech per se. Which is to say, interruption (the discontinuous within the continuous) is a kind of limit point of what can be expressed in language, whether oral or written. It is this boundary, this mobile border, which Templeton continuously brings us to through her writing, as well as through her brilliant practice as a director, performer, and theoretician.


2. Creating through speaking

I began speaking into a recording device as a way of bypassing the experience of living through the blanks, the as yet unfilled pages, that are always part of the writing experience, and that are collapsed for the reader. The equivalent is a blank on the recording (possibly the on/off click of the pause button, otherwise the duration of the sound of breathing), but lived thinking in time rather than confronted as a visibly unchanging space, the mirror of non-production .

The practice was a form of discovery before it was a method of generating ‘text’. But gradually what I was discovering was the range of means within it that made it most suited to how I wanted to relate to language, to think in language, and to be in a process of decision-making about language.

I had a history of improvisational methods of generating language in performance, as distinguished from character-based or situation-based speech, so this new approach was more about thinking through speech than about enactment of speech, though that did also come into play as described below in terms of multiple voice.

The first few tries represent a progression of experiments: from simply reporting the scenes before the inner eye, hypnogogic imagery, to finding included in the visual fields fragments of language, morphemes which in turn began trains of meaning, to hearing such fragments, to interrogating these, to fully fledged dialogue, to multiple voices.

Regarding the dialogic, an aspect of the method may be represented by the following: in the 90s I had translated Kleist’s ‘On the gradual production of thought by speaking.’ For Kleist the presence of an addressee is important:

There lies a special source of inspiration for him who speaks, in a human countenance facing him; and a gaze that lets us know that it has already understood a half-expressed thought, often offers us the expression for the entire remaining half.

While the recording device may not offer us a return expression (and I’ve written elsewhere about the speaker/ listener or performer/ audience relation), it is a less far stretch of the imagination for me to address a possible presence by speaking than by writing. But it was in particular the title of his essay that interested me.

As ‘voices’ or trains of thought replied to or interrupted each other, I wanted to give as many as possible of them room, despite the singleness in time of my speaking voice. Distinguishing ‘speakers’ came later, in the editing process, sometimes to ‘make’ a sense, although sometimes this was clear.

And so this practice goes beyond a field recording of myself, to a dialogue with the situation of recording.

At the level of the texture of the language, both language and thought seemed to be inventing themselves and each other. Above all, the experience of the process remains one of choices. While sometimes known features of oral poems came naturally, like rhythmic patterning, I could also conversely choose, at each juncture, to make a different kind of choice to those I had made till then. Then there was a new patterning, of the new and the known. This is a process familiar in experimental improvised music.

In a process where what has been made so far is less readily checked than on the page, different syntaxes evolve as well as different leaps of thought. Memory is functioning differently. At times the process is even amnesiac , allowing the next point to be fully present. But at others, the sentence, if it is a sentence, is woven out of the cadences and clauses of breath and thought.

I would distinguish this practice from notions of automatic writing. In the generated parts of the language, the absence of the visual page allowed a different concentration, lived in silence not in blank. I was involved in and aware of the intense mental activity of most of these silences – they are suspensions into silence, not falling silent as a disappearance or end to thought. Often the cadence would remain lifted, the effort is audible in the voice, a word continued several minutes later after multiple silent expansions sideways from the crossroads of possibilities. The trope may not be unfamiliar to any writer, but here the journey was not from my mind to its expression via my hands, but via the more intimate organ of my mouth.

I was involved in how expression had to occur through an articulation of the embodied voice, the lips, tongue, sound and intimate movement; how sometimes this would even linger in the lallation of effort of mind, the mind’s trying to meet directly what it holds in its eye or the form it perceives, and the expression not being the faithfully teleported recreation of that onto the other bank, but the product of that meeting. Such forms might also include themselves the meetings of forms and thoughts and the meetings of phonetic responses.

The lacunae could represent, not a specific absence or omission, but a moment of thought, either too quick to record, or passing through territory that might not have been explored as the straightest journey to the page.

In a less discursive piece of speaking I might have described there (there being a moment, one of those lacunae that I can only tell you happened in the brief paragraph blank before this sentence) some feature of the landscape that struck me as I made my specific way along. Not a chance feature necessarily, though it might be, but perhaps also a feature conjured by the road.

And, unlike on the page that these texts found their way to in the editing process, silence returns in performance. In performance, silence is both the most and the least sensual part of speaking. The last because silence may be flesh closing upon itself while thought takes place, takes its place, and the most because in silence, the voice of the rest of the body can turn up the volume.

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Posted in Uncategorized on Thursday, April 15th, 2010 by Thom Donovan.