What makes a genuine conversation? And why is it so difficult to have one? Frances Grace Fyfe is on a quest to find out. This madcap talk therapy session has the SpokenWeb RA consider the literary concept of the dialogue, the verbatim transcription of speech in writing (through an exploration of—what else?—Charles Dickens’s early forays in court stenography), especially “expressive” phonemes, and david antin’s experimental talk poems of the 1970s. An investigative journalist, a peer supporter, and one especially sincere friend weigh in to help FG orchestrate the most genuine conversation of all: one that’s scripted, recorded, and edited for distribution in podcast form.
February 6, 2023
Frances Grace Fyfe
|(00:04)||SpokenWeb Podcast Theme Music:||[Instrumental Overlapped With Feminine Voice] Can you hear me? I don’t know how much projection to do here.|
|(00:35)||Katherine McLeod||What does literature sound like? What stories will we hear if we listen to the archive? Welcome to the SpokenWeb podcast, stories about how literature sounds. [End music: SpokenWeb Podcast theme music]
My name is Katherine McLeod, and each month I’ll be bringing you different stories of Canadian literary history and our contemporary responses to it, created by scholars, poets, students, and artists from across Canada. Conversation. When was the last time you thought about conversations, thought about what exactly makes them conversations? In this episode, SpokenWeb research assistant Francis Grace Fife thinks about the literary concept of the dialogue, about conversations by having conversations.
Fife has conversations with an investigative journalist who conducts interviews for a living, with a friend whose thoughts on the capabilities of speech over writing informs how their most genuine conversations take place, with a peer supporter at Concordia who intentionally makes use of non-speech responses to create connection in conversation and even with herself, in the style of talk therapy. But Fife goes a step further delving into what happens to conversations when they are transformed from speech into writing.
Taking up Charles Dickens’s foray into court’s stenography and David Anton’s experimental talk poems of the 1970s, Fife thinks about those aspects of genuine conversation like those affirmative “mm-hmm’s” in conjunction with their written representations.
Digging into expressive phonemes, the pathological urge to mirror your conversation partner’s speech style, and the discomfort of silences in speech conversations. Fife reflects on when and how speech might be inescapably performative and considers what happens when speech is literally performative, but also genuine, like in David Anton’s talk poems. We invite you to listen with us to what Fife calls the most genuine conversation of all, one that’s scripted, recorded, and edited for distribution in podcast form. [SpokenWeb theme music begins] Here is episode four of season four of the SpokenWeb podcast. Genuine Conversation. [SpokenWeb theme music ends]
|(02:58)||Phone Voice 1||Hey, how are you? [clears throat] Hey, how are you? Yeah, good, thanks. Yeah, thanks, um, for agreeing to talk with me today. Hopefully this won’t take up too much of your time, but, yeah, as you know, the idea for the podcast is about genuine conversation.
Hey, [laughs], how are you? Yeah, good, good. Thanks. Thanks for agreeing to talk with me. Um, yeah. Hopefully this won’t take up too much of your time, but, yeah, as you know, the idea for the podcast is on the topic of genuine conversation, and I just thought I’d reach out cuz I thought you might have something to say about that. [Sound effect: phone rings] Oh, shhh Sorry. [Soundeffect: Answer phone] Hi, sorry. Can you hear me? [Music begins: calm jazz with high hat and piano] Um, sorry. This is kind of awkward.
|(04:10)||Narrator||In Aldous Huxley’s short story “Over The Telephone”, a young poet mentally rehearses a whole conversation between him and the woman he hopes will accept his invitation to the opera. [Sound effect: phone rings] But when the operator finally makes the connection, he stumbles hopelessly and she declines. Nothing, in other words, goes as planned over the telephone.
[Music fades and ends]
|(04:33)||Phone Voice 1||Sorry, I don’t really know where to start.|
|(04:37)||Phone Voice 2||That’s okay. Why don’t you start by telling me what it is you want to talk about?|
|(04:44):||Phone Voice 1||Yeah, I guess that’s partly what I came here to find out or, yeah. To talk about. I guess I’m seeking an occasion for the kind of conversations I wanna have or, yeah, I don’t know. I guess I could just use some practice.|
|(05:01)||Phone Voice 2||Practice talking?|
|(05:02)||Phone Voice 1||[overlapping] Talking [laughs] Yeah.|
|(05:06)||Phone Voice 2||Okay. Well, why don’t you start by telling me how long you’ve been feeling this way?|
|(05:13)||Phone Voice 1||There was, there was a period where it was hard to talk to people. You remember, I’m sure. A lot of people thought that would make it a good time for writing. I don’t know. I, I, I guess I just feel like being away from people writing began to feel so insincere and then, you know, since I’ve started this master’s degree in English, I’ve just been feeling like, I don’t know, I don’t wanna read books anymore. I wanna talk to people, actual people.|
|(05:42)||Phone Voice 2||That sounds difficult.|
|05:44)||Phone Voice 1||Yeah. I mean, it’s [laughs], it’s, it’s whatever. Yeah. I guess.|
|(05:48)||Phone Voice 2||I think you might benefit from talking to a specialist. I have someone in mind. I’m gonna transfer you over. Okay? [Sound effect: phone dialing and then dial tone starts]|
|(06:00)||Hannah||I essentially had to learn how to interview people twice or maybe even three times as my working practices changed and learning how to construct conversations all over again, such that they were delivered in a human and interesting and relevant way was a really important part of what I had to learn how to do.|
|(06:21)||Narrator||[Music begins: electronic with drum beat]
This is my friend Hannah talking. She’s a journalist working in current affairs and investigative reporting. As someone who has, according to her LinkedIn profile, a proven track record negotiating difficult access to people for print and television reporting, I thought she might be a good person to give me pointers on how to structure a conversation in the first place.
|(06:41):||Interviewer||I’m interested in the human aspect of it. Are there some strategies you can use to prod someone to speak in a sort of interesting or even humorous manner to get a good clip for your video?|
|(06:53)||Hannah||Absolutely. There are ways of working that are very helpful. The first of which is most profoundly is like, just don’t be a jerk, right? Show up and be human and be present. And people like to act sometimes, like there is a way of gaming a conversation or short cutting it somehow. And there isn’t. The most important thing that you do is show up and engage with someone in the way that they expect to be engaged with. And you get very good in a slightly pathological way at mirroring people.
You become very good at matching somebody else’s conversation style. If they crack jokes, you crack jokes. If they take it more seriously, you take it more seriously and you catch yourself doing it in non-professional situations and you realize that it is really quite a creepy thing to do. But we’re responding to someone as they hope to work is a really important part of what I do.
|(07:55)||Interviewer||I have written in my notes, “don’t be a jerk”, which seems like a good maxim, generally speaking.|
|(08:00)||Hannah||It’s a good rule in life.|
|(08:02)||Interviewer||[laughs] Yeah, I’m interested in what, and maybe it’s not a good question, but maybe you can answer it to the best of your ability. What is it that makes a good question to ask?|
|(08:19)||Hannah||[Music begins: electronic and spare] So I have a couple of answers to that. The first and most obvious one right, is open-ended questions. We like open-ended questions. What you want, again, it’s that people are more comfortable expressing their experience, which is something that they know to be true rather than an opinion or even a fact that they just think to be true.
And beyond that genuine engagement and that genuine sort of interface, there are a couple of things that are helpful. The first of which is being genuinely passionate and curious about people’s own personal experiences. People are uncomfortable talking in hypotheticals, talking about things that they may not be sure about, all those kinds of things, but people are always secure in their own experiences and their own perceptions. I think the other thing that you always want to do when you’re asking someone questions is, again, so where people are more comfortable expressing their own experience, make it clear that that is what you value and that is true for personal stuff as well as for professional stuff. What you value is them as people and what they bring to this conversation and not what they think or what they know. They’re not quantities to be known to you.
|(09:36):||Interviewer||[Music ends] Well, I value your skill as a journalist, [laughs], just so you know. [Hannah laughs] And you know, and keeping with the kinda self-reflexive nature of question asking and the open-endedness. Maybe you could tell me like, how do you feel this interview has gone so far?|
|(09:54)||Hannah||I think it’s gone really well. I think, so what you’re trying to do here is something really difficult, right? Which is that you’re trying to record for academic content fundamentally and record the building blocks of something that will prove an academic point, but in a performative way. And that’s actually a very difficult thing to do.
And I’ve said this before, but, you are doing now what I do professionally, and I am both paid money to do it and given a lot of time to do it in, and I still find it difficult. [Music begins: soft tones] So I think you should be proud of this interview and I think you’ve done a good job with those questions in as much as they’re reflective from me, they’re interesting for me, and it’s a selection of questions that I don’t think I remember being asked before, which makes this feel like a contribution that you value, which is good.
|(11:00)||Interviewer||I really was not fishing for anything. I just wanted a sound bite. But [Interviewer and Hannah laugh], I appreciate- [Soft tones music fades into jazzy piano music]|
|(11:05)||Hannah||Happy to provide.|
|(11:15)||Narrator||Now that I had some formal training from Hannah, I figured it was time to test out some genuine conversation skills in real time. So I called up one of the best conversationalists I could think of, my friend Ben. Remembering Hannah’s advice I try to ask open-ended questions and show a genuine interest in the subject matter. Here’s me asking Ben about his own relationship to making conversation.|
|(11:40)||Ben||[Music ends] It used to be that it would happen on the fly. And then I was introduced to the phenomenologists and that really made a difference in the way that I speak. I can’t remember what made me stop and then start to hesitate before speaking, but there was some shift in second year university where all of a sudden the words that I was using, um, got caught.
Uh, and I started to have more trouble just speaking off the cuff. And then with Sarah Ahmed she writes about, and Alia Al-Saji both write about, uh, hesitating and stopping and how that might interrupt, uh, some unconscious sort of, well, racism that can, that can come out in speaking and just that has really, uh, that has really impacted the way that I have conversation with others. I think I hesitate, um, out of a fear of stepping into, out of a fear and also a care.
|(13:07)||Interviewer||I mean, that was a great answer. I really wasn’t expecting anything [laughs]. And because I, you know, the final form of this podcast is interested in the relation between speech and writing. It’s interesting to me that you’re kind of telling me you’re getting some of these ideas about how to speak from texts that you were encountering. Well, did you feel like it, this kind of fearful and careful speech is an imitation of text, or is that maybe not,|
|(13:44)||Ben||I wonder, that’s a good question. I mean, as a, I mean, I think, I imagine that you are someone who, are you someone who is more comfortable with text then speech for that reason because of the hesitation? [Interviewer gasps]|
|(13:59)||Interviewer||Um, I don’t know. I just, I also feel similarly to you in that speech and speech patterns were molded so much from being in university and studying writing and, but, you know, there’s also, I think that the writing that happens in the classroom and also the kind of teaching in and outside also equally inform modes of speech. Yeah. I don’t, I don’t know, but interesting too that you’re using this metaphor too, of like the words getting caught, this sort of, yeah. Yeah. Interesting image of-|
|(14:37)||Ben||Yeah. And I think mm-hmm. I think that when I am too thoughtful about what I say, well, I’ve been thinking, I’ve been thinking more about speaking from the heart, as opposed to speaking from my head. I think a lot of times I’m speaking from my head, especially when I’m having a higher level theoretical conversation with someone. But also, when I’m having an uncomfortable conversation with someone or a conversation where there’s a, there’s a power asymmetry, or we’re talking about a power asymmetry. [Music begins: calm tones] But oftentimes if I can manage to surrender that and speak from the heart, then I surprise myself with what comes out of my mouth. And, sometimes that can be a good thing.|
|(15:41)||Interviewer||[Music ends] So beautiful. [Interviewer and Ben burst out laughing] It’s so weird. It’s like, I’m, I’m, I’m conscious thatI’m trying to interview you and I’m thinking about how this is gonna sound on the podcast, and also thinking about Yeah. Syncing up this audio and not wanting to interject too much [laughs] Like, woah, it’s such a great conversation. I wish I was just jumping in a little more, but, well, yeah. Let’s see.
We can, that can be an interesting reflection, I guess, later. But, um, I, I also wanted to ask part, the reason why I wanted to interview you as well was I know that you spend a lot of time by yourself or at least last year when I knew you, you were kind of spending maybe two weeks at a time in your kind of cabin in the countryside. And I’m just curious, like if you spent, well, if you consider that time alone and if you spent any of that time talking to yourself?
|(16:45)||Ben||Mm-hmm. I did spend a lot of time alone last year, and I haven’t spent very much time alone this year. And I almost feel a little bit lesser for it. I think it’s because of the conversations that I’m not able to have, but I don’t talk with myself too much when I’m alone. [Music begins: soft tones] I have really appreciated speaking to the non-human environment around me. [Sound effect: birds singing]
That was something that I think I got into a little bit more. And it has brought me a lot of joy to be in, like a conversational relationality with the birds and the squirrels and the trees. And yeah. So it’s not something that I do regularly, but when I do do it, it feels pretty good. [Music and sound effects end]
|(17:45)||Interviewer||I mean, are you also writing down the things that you’re speaking aloud?|
|(17:49)||Ben||Not very often. Yeah. Not very often because I get, um, sometimes the hesitation. I feel that stronger when I’m writing. And oftentimes, like, this has happened a couple times recently where I’ve had friends request significant conversations over text. So, you know, there’s a difficulty in our dynamic, and I’d like to attend to this with you in this text messenger format. And I’ve had to set a boundary and say it like, let’s call on the phone or speak verbally because when it comes to expressing myself, I really have a block textually. I can write an essay, but if I want to, um, yeah. If I want to articulate how I feel I really struggle. I, it’s like pulling teeth, to get that into a paragraph that, that I can then read back and think, yeah, that’s, that’s how I felt.|
|(19:06)||Interviewer||Hmm. I’m trying to think about what question to ask you then about the relationship between speech and writing. Is it because?|
|(19:17)||Interviewer||Speaking is- no, you go.|
|(19:20)||Ben||There’s just so much that I, I mean, I say this with trepidation to an English student [laughs].|
|(19:28)||Interviewer||I really don’t know anything, don’t worry about it.|
|(19:29)||Ben||But, okay. Well, just that, there’s a lot that I haven’t, there’s a lot that I can’t capture in writing, like the medium of writing doesn’t deal well with silence, [Music begins: instrumental and electronic] with pauses, with those little ums and ahs. And yeah. And that means that I think I really depend on those to express myself. And without them, there’s sort of a certainty that I don’t think is genuine to where I’m coming from.
And there’s also, I’m just realizing this now as I’m thinking while speaking, there’s also a tugging that happens when you are in conversation like a requirement to finish the sentence. Whereas you can take however long you want to finish a sentence on paper.
|(20:42)||Interviewer||Yeah. Well, there’s, I guess it’s something riskier about, I mean, this is a bit basic, but about speech in that it can’t be edited. But maybe that also speaks to, I think, your desire for it to feel. Hmm. Yeah. The real possibility-|
|(21:02)||Interviewer||Oh, no, go.|
|(21:04)||Ben||It’s the question of like, when you’re thinking of the art of talk, is the talk or the conversation, is the conversation the medium of the art? Or is it the object of the art? And, you know, maybe it’s the object of the art if you are featuring a conversation, a powerful conversation. But if it’s the medium and it can’t exist in any other, like by putting it into a podcast takes away, that’s something that, yeah, that’s something that really interests me is what is possible within the medium of conversation that isn’t possible in text or in recordings or in an image?
Yeah. Which is why I love, which is why I love live radio as opposed to a podcast, [Sound effect: radio voice talking and ends] because live radio seems to me it’s slightly more conversational and, huh. I love silence and radio silence, and the awkwardness of radio silence. I hope that you include it at least somewhere in your piece.
|(22:20)||Interviewer||Yeah. What do you mean by radio silence?|
|(22:23)||Ben||Oh, just this idea of dead silence and in an audio format that is to be avoided at all costs. Like, you know, you’re just, at least with radio, you’re just supposed to talk, you know, it doesn’t matter what you say, just don’t let it get silent, because that silence is so discomforting to someone who’s listening. Um, but I really, I really love that discomfort. [laughs]|
|(22:51)||Interviewer||Yeah. Well, I’m curious about that because most people don’t. In real life do you also like that discomfort?|
|(23:01):||Ben||Um, if there’s, [long pause] depends on how it ends. It depends on how it ends. Sometimes it ends in conversation with an inability to find the other person, to attune yourself to them again. And the conversation falters and then it ends awkwardly. And that’s a horrible feeling. [laughs] But on the flip side, some of those uncomfortable silences have opened a space for a really deepened, beautiful connection. [Music begins: soft tones] And so maybe you can’t have one without the other.|
|(23:58)||Narrator||Ben’s conversation left me thinking much about the differences between conversation and the written word. For Ben, the genuineness of the encounter, or in his words, a deep and beautiful connection is made possible only because of the failings of conversation. The fact that it can hesitate, stumble, or lag into silence. Writing feels disingenuous to speech then, in Ben’s terms, because we don’t have the notation to represent these hesitations in the first place.
It’s the same way Isaac Pittman, a British teacher felt when reading the London journals in the early 1900’s. Reporters at that time, he felt, didn’t accurately transcribe parliamentary speeches they were reporting on. Rather, they recorded them in the way they were accustomed to writing. That is to say, in grammatical English, but spoken English, as Ben gestured to, isn’t grammatical. People “um” and, “uh”, or more accurately to the Britain of the time,” irm” and, “uh”. In order to better capture these noises, Pitman invented phonography, a new system of shorthand that would allow for a more exact registration of speech than ordinary writing could claim.
As Ivan Kreilkamp writes, “shorthand promised not simply an efficient system of information storage, but a means by which writing might be infused with orality and the living breath of vocal articulation.” One photographic manual went so far as to claim that phonography would indeed render a greater service to mankind than the discovery of a new world.
|(25:23)||Newspaper Boy||Extra, extra! Read all about it!|
|(25:26)||Narrator||Phonography was interestingly enough, essential to the writing career of one Charles Dickens, who learned the craft first as a court stenographer, and later as a newspaper reporter of public speeches. As Kreilkamp writes, “Dickens characteristic style, the vivid immediacy of his character’s voices owes a significant debt to the shorthand mastery that meant so much to him.” Indeed, Dickens’ experience with phonography was essential to pioneering a new type of Victorian realism. Where before a novelist like Jane Austen might present a highly stylized representation of conversation, as in some sense, speech itself, Dickens shorthand could more accurately represent conversation generally. All the speech patterns and mannerisms of the characters in his novels have a corresponding sign where every sign represents a real life sound.|
|(26:13)||Narrator||Dickens’ mastery of phonographic shorthand led some people to consider him something of a writing machine. Here Dickens describes the mechanical movement of his writing hand when listening to a dull speech.|
|(26:25)||Charles Dickens||I sometimes beguile the tedium of the moment by mentally following the speaker in the old way. And sometimes, if you can believe me, I even find my hand going on the tablecloth taking an imaginary note of it all.|
|(26:37)||Narrator||Dickens’ idea of a mimetic representation of speech in writing mirrors my own experience putting my conversation with Ben through my computer’s automatic transcription software. Going over the transcript I noticed the prevalence of one word over any other one my computer spells h-m-m.|
|(26:56)||Narrator||If automatic transcription exists in Pitman’s words, to eliminate all ambiguity from language by creating a one-to-one correspondence between sound and sign, what exactly does this sound signify? Let’s replay the tape. [Sound effect: tape rewinds]|
|(27:11)||Interviewer||I know that you spend a lot of time by yourself-|
|(27:16)||Ben||Hmm. [Sound effect: tape fastforwarding]|
|(27:16)||Interviewer||-or at least in the classroom, and also the kind of teaching in-|
|(27:20)||Ben||Hmm. [Sound effect: tape fastforwarding]|
|(27:20)||Interviewer||And it can’t be edited.|
|(27:23)||Ben||Hmm. [Sound effect: tape fastforwarding]|
|(27:25)||Narrator||[Music begins: jazzy piano] On its own I find the “hmm” sound has a soothing quality unto itself. It seems I’m not the only one with this mysterious intuition. In his book, What Makes Speech Patterns Expressive, for example, the linguist Reuven Tsur looks at sound patterns in six “especially tender” poems by the Hungarian poet, Sándor Petőfi, and finds that what they have in common is an unusually high frequency of the “m” phoneme.
There’s this 1995 study by British linguist David Crystal that seems to confirm the poetic mode of speech perception Tsur writes about can’t be separated from the way we perceive speech more generally. What Crystal did was pull a whole bunch of writers alongside the general population, and found that they all agreed one of the prettiest and most relaxing consonant phonemes, at least in received British pronunciation, was the M Sound.
At the same time, I also read this M or “mm” sound in my conversation as a sign of responsiveness or attention to the conversation at hand. Here’s Irving Goffman on the discursive power of this word: [Music begins: electronic]
“In conversation, there are messages primarily serving to establish, to prolong or to discontinue communication, to check whether the channel works, to attract the attention of the interlocutor, or to confirm his continued attention. Are you listening or in Shakespearean diction, lend me your ears. And on the other end of the wire mm-hmm.”
|(28:47):||Phone Voice 2||Can you hear me?|
|(28:48)||Narrator||This sound, in other words, is an expression of the state of a social relationship, one in which one participant consents to their continued participation therein. I noticed in my conversation with Ben that the sound also acts as a way of vocalizing or making legible what would be an otherwise silent listening practice. To learn more about this noise and its relationship to listening more generally I decided it was time to consult another expert.
[Music ends] [Sound effect: phone number dialing]
|(29:15)||Mirdhula||I’m Mirdhula and I am a peer supporter at the Concordia Gender Advocacy Center.|
|(29:22)||Interviewer||Perfect. That’s great. And just for people who maybe don’t know, what does a peer supporter, what does that role look like?|
|(29:29)||Mirdhula||So, as a peer supporter, you can actually come in and we can provide you with a space where you can feel validated and where you can experience any feelings that you’re feeling and maybe not feel so alone in those feelings. Because we’re not certified professionals, we don’t offer advice. But that’s kind of the concept of peer support.
It’s to offer validation and to remove that power struggle between a mental health professional and the person seeking support. So the way we even out that power struggle is by being a person who doesn’t lead the conversation, doesn’t offer advice. We purely let the person navigate their feelings in however way they would like to. Whether it’s in silence, whether it’s just going on a rant, we don’t control the conversation in any way.
|(30:30)||Interviewer||Yeah. I’m so interested in this really particular form of conversation because it’s a different form of conversation than we’re used to. What does it look like for you as a peer supporter to not lead a conversation? What actual kind of methods are you employing to signal to the other person that it’s their time to talk?|
|(30:50)||Mirdhula||[Music begins: quiet drum beat]
Basically, as a peer supporter, we specifically received training, because it’s not something that comes very natural to everybody. We’re taught to constantly kind of riff off of what people are saying and to keep a conversation going. The importance of keeping a conversation going is really important in our society. But what I had learned personally, what really was like, so jarring to me in this training was how much I felt like I needed to quickly respond to things and not actually listen to what people were telling me. And to exist in the silence that is required to really think about what people are telling me, you know?
But some methods that we use, including [laughs] incorporating some silence to give people time to think is reflection. So we reflect what the people are telling us. And what that is, is like not assuming any emotions that somebody may be feeling unless they explicitly express that they’re feeling those feelings, and to kind of mirror what they are telling us in order to validate what they’re telling us. So that they don’t feel any pressure to feel a certain way or to even figure out how they’re feeling, but to really just live in that moment.
|(32:14)||Interviewer||Are you conscious about other kinds of gestures or things like nodding your head, like, I’m really interested in, in the technical aspect. What other kind of signals besides sitting in silence can you show to somebody that you’re paying attention to?|
|(32:28)||Mirdhula||So, this has been my saving grace as for my impulsivity. Like, basically the replacement for every single interjection that I wanna insert, because I always wanna, I’m very expressive in the face, vocally. Anything you were just saying, every time I nod my head, it’s me preventing myself from being vocal about it. And that’s also a skill that we learned. We learned about different ways of expressing your validation, or sorry, expressing your validation by nodding your head. And for me, that’s a big one. And then the “mm-hmms”. And the “oh, yes, of course”. Like, I try not to use too many cop outs. So there are some, there’s some terminology that could be seen as surface level, like, oh, I’m so sorry. I’m sorry about that. They really tell us to avoid terms like that just because it can come off as insincere.
And sometimes we just say that. So sometimes when we apologize for somebody and offer them our pity, it could be seen as us trying to get through our discomfort with their feelings. So I try to stick to the “mm-hmm” and “yes”, like just very simple terms for validation. But the head nodding is big for me. It’s my, one of my biggest ways of validating what someone is saying to me. [laughs]
|(34:06)||Interviewer||It’s interesting to me that you’re talking about how you’re such an expressive person. I mean, it’s coming through just in the interview. It seems to me like part of peer support isn’t getting rid of that personality. It’s about mobilizing expression in a way that feels really conscious and sincere. And yeah. This is something actually, I think a big part of the podcast is that I’m really interested in words like “mm-hmm” or sounds that we signal to someone that we’re paying attention, that aren’t necessarily words, but they do signify something. Do you feel like you’re using those more in your everyday speech now?|
|(34:44)||Mirdhula||Definitely.I’ve noticed, like with this training, I’ve noticed more how much I was rushing through conversations in my day-to-day life. So these are my tools to stay more grounded and to be more present in those conversations. So I definitely, like, even my friends have actually noticed a difference. They’re like, I’ve really felt heard, and I thought that was so amazing. It’s really validating to feel like you can give someone, you can give someone a safe space with just a head nod and a few, like, sounds, you know, like validating sounds, and I think it’s really powerful. Um, but the “mm-hmm,” that’s like my big one, that’s my big validation sound. [laughs]|
|(35:33)||Interviewer||And it also makes me think about, you know, the particular dynamics of talking on the phone with someone, like in peer support, it seems like body language is really important, but in a context like this, you know, especially if we couldn’t see each other, then those words become a lot more helpful.|
|(35:53)||Mirdhula||They’re an anchor.|
|(35:54)||Interviewer||Hmm. Yeah. That’s a good way of putting it.|
|(35:56)||Mirdhula||Like that! There you go. Yeah. You got it. [Mirdhula and Interviewer laugh]|
|(36:02)||Interviewer||Okay. Great. Thanks. Well, that was super helpful. I won’t take up any more of your time unless there’s one nugget of wisdom you wanna share us with me? [Music begins: soft tones]|
|(36:09)||Mirdhula||[laughs] Nugget of wisdom. That’s a lot of pressure. [laughs]. Um, honestly, this training alone, I’ve felt transformed. I know that’s so dramatic, but I’ve truly felt transformed. It was very difficult to face these things because they feel like failures at first. But when you can face them, and that’s what they teach you to do, to face these things that are so ingrained in your person, these dynamics of conversation that are so drilled into us, like from a young age, to face that and to realize that I can change, it’s like, it’s, it’s a different kind of education that I’ve received in my lifetime.
It’s a different type of learning. And I really had to accept that I wouldn’t be comfortable in it. I had to accept the discomfort of changing the way that I communicate and connect with people. And I think that is so powerful and so important for people to experience in life. So what they’re doing at the center is just amazing. I am so happy to be a part of something, something so groundbreaking.
|(37:22)||Narrator||Mirdhula’s conversation helps me reframe this noise, not just as a signal of responsiveness, but of genuine responsiveness. Interestingly, it seems to me that the authenticity of this responsiveness comes from a failure to speak or find the appropriate words to say in the first place.
Indeed, both Ben and Mirdhula talked about silence’s ability to create a sense of meaningful connection between speakers when faced with a difficult conversational situation. Maybe then, what we can say of this noise is that it’s a sonic representation similar to what Goffman writes about eye contact. It allows us to quote, “monitor one another’s mutual perceiving and develop a heightened sense of moral responsibility” for both participants’ speech acts.
|(38:03)||Phone Voice 1||I have a confession to make. I’ve noticed that ever since talking to Ben and Mirdhula, I’ve been making this hmm humming noise more often than I ever have. [Music Ends]|
|(38:14)||Phone Voice 2||Well, that sounds like a good thing, right?|
|(38:16)||Phone Voice 1||Yeah. Although I have to wonder, how can I be sure it’s not just an imitation of responsiveness? Or like, I’m worried I’m modeling my own speech patterns on them because I wanna be read as someone who’s responsive. Didn’t Hannah say something like that? Hang on, let me find it. [Sound Effect: Tape rewinding]|
|(38:34):||Hannah||And you get very good in a slightly pathological way at mirroring people. You become very good at matching somebody else’s conversation style. If they crack jokes, you crack jokes. If they take it more seriously, you take it more seriously, and you catch yourself doing it in non-professional situations and you realize that it is really quite a creepy thing to do. [Sound Effect: Tape fastforwarding]|
|(39:02):||Phone Voice 2||It still surprises me that you know how to do that.|
|(39:05)||Phone Voice 1||Okay, but can we get back to this issue? How do I know if I’m being genuinely responsive and not just mirroring responsiveness in a performative or worse still, pathological way? I’m thinking of something Isaac Pitman said about phonographic shorthand, that it would eliminate all ambiguity from speech and writing by creating this kind of perfect correspondence between speech and science.
But doesn’t the hmm noise evade signification in some way? Or like, isn’t it a representation of the ambiguity of the silence generated by awkward or difficult conversation? I just worry I’m imitating Ben and Mirdhula becoming like Charles Dickens, but instead of a writing machine, I’ve become this speaking machine, a kind of automatic generator of conversational noise.
|(39:48):||Phone Voice 2||Well, let me ask you this. What is genuine anyway?|
|(39:52):||Phone Voice 1||Okay, Socrates, take it easy.|
|(39:54):||Phone Voice 2||No, for real. That was a real question or object of scholarly inquiry. I was just reading about the invention of the typewriter and its relationship to the development of the aesthetics of modernist poetry. It made it so that language could be edited down to seem artificial, and it also at the same time made the mechanical reproduction of poetry easier. So it was this kind of generation of distance and proliferation that made poetry’s intent… Hmm… Unclear. It’s what led people to think of modernist poetry as insincere. They thought they were being duped somehow.|
|(40:25):||Phone Voice 1||It’s funny, the ambiguity surrounding the intent of modernist poetry reminds me of some conversations I’ve had about David Antin. Have you heard of him? [Phone Voice 2 affirms with a “mhmm”]
He was this conceptual artist who in the 1960s started performing these improvised talk poems at readings and exhibitions. What he would do is come up with a theme beforehand, or sometimes whoever was getting him to perform would give him the preassigned topic, and then he would talk off the cuff sometimes for an hour, hour and a half at a time.
Meanwhile, he would use a tape recorder to record the whole thing, then go home and transcribe the work onto the page. But even before the transcription, Antin was really adamant that what he was doing wasn’t just talk or like a means to communicate something else through it. Rather, his talk was actually poetry. It had this distinct aesthetic quality.
|(41:09)||Phone Voice 2||Let me get this straight. The talk itself wasn’t necessarily adhering to a regular meter or rhyme? So what is it about the practice that makes talk poetry?|
|(41:18)||Phone Voice 1||Well, that’s part of it, right? What enabled Antin to define his talk as poetry was that he had defined himself as a poet from the outset. You know, someone who gets contracted to perform poetry allowed at universities. And actually most of his poems are preoccupied with the institutional forces that make something like poetry happen or legible in the first place.
Literally, the opening lines from the written text of “Talking at the Boundaries” starts with him recounting getting contracted to perform the poem. Antin writes, “when I agreed to come here to Indiana, Barry Alpert didn’t have a title for what I was gonna talk about. I think maybe he forgot to ask me, which was I suppose just as well.” And on and on and on. [Sound Effect: Take being put in player and someone pressing start]
|(42:01)||Clip of David Antin from “Talking at the Boundaries”||When, uh, I agreed to come out here to talk, Barry didn’t have a title for what I was going to talk about. I think maybe he forgot to ask me, and I think it probably didn’t make a terrible great difference. Uh, it was probably six or one half dozen or the other, whatever you called it. But, uh, he did wind up with a title, which somehow reached me, some voucher form came back to me in the mail that I had to sign, and then I signed in the wrong place and I had to sign it again.
But on it, it said what I was gonna talk about. And I was very relieved because, uh, until then I thought I would have to find out myself. But it said, “talking at the boundaries.” And, uh, I think in a way it was kind of a great piece of good fortune to encounter my subject on a voucher and in a sense… [Audio fades] [Sound Effect: Tape stops]
|(42:55):||Phone Voice 2||Hmm. That’s interesting. On one hand, I can see how Antin’s self-consciousness about the institution of poetry can be read as kind of maddening or self-indulgent. On the other hand, well, I don’t know, like, do you consider the talk poem a genuine work of poetry? Or-
|(43:10)||Phone Voice 1||-Well, I guess-|
|(43:12):||Phone Voice 2||-I dunno. Oh, no, sorry. You Go ahead-|
|(43:13)||Phone Voice 1||No, I was just gonna say, well, yeah, I guess the proliferation of new recording technologies like the typewriter in the case of modernist poetry or the tape recorder Antin used to record as poems generate a kind of multiplicity of artworks in our society that don’t necessarily allow for the focus or time or one-on-one interactions required to establish sincerity.
Leonard Diepeveen argues that because of this in the 20th century, people had to come to rely more and more on news signs of sincerity, like the professional certification to attest to a person or a work’s genuineness. I think Antin’s playing with this idea, his poems are sincere in so much as they’re insincere. He knows he needs to market himself as a professional poet or performing artist to get the university to pay him to perform in the first place. But then again…
|(44:01)||Phone Voice 2||Then again?|
|(44:02):||Phone Voice 1||I don’t know, it seems to me like the talk poems portray so much an interest in conversation in the first place. Like, there’s this funny conversation, Antin recounts between him and his cab driver in “Talking at the Boundaries”. Here, I’ll play the clip. [Sound Effect: Tape being put in player and starting]|
|(44:18):||Clip of David Antin from “Talking at the Boundaries”||And he said things were like that then. He says, it’s not like that now. He says, now everybody’s got money. He says, I don’t have money. He says, everybody’s got money. My children now have money. He says, so much money. He told me they sent me to Israel for my vacation. I said, they sent you to Israel for your vacation. I said, was it dangerous? Uh, he said, um, he said, well, dangerous. He says, like, they said to me, what do you want? Do you want to go to the islands? What do you want? They’ll send you, they’ll send you anywhere. What do you want? And he said, I’ll go to Israel. So I went to Israel. I said, for long? Did you get a good look at it? What was it like? He said, well, he said, I really saw it. He said, I was there for five days. He said, one of those tours you got at Athens and Rome, and then you go to Israel. And I said, that’s great. I said, you know, like, uh, did you stay in one place for the five days? He said, no. He says, I went all around. He says it’s a very interesting place. [Audio fades] [Sound effect: Tape ends]|
|(45:09):||Narrator||Notice how many times in this clip Antin repeats the word, said, his recollection of verbatim dialogue signals to me, this kind of sincere interest in the poetics of talk more generally, the way it generates this rich, sad, and often funny social life we co-create or yeah, I guess it returns to talk this kind of especially poetic quality.
And for me, these rambling kind of elliptical accounts of other conversations that populate Antin’s work, they’re doing something like Erving Goffman’s idea about eye contact. They don’t mean anything but a desire to participate in social life in the first place. I see in Anton’s preoccupation with representing conversation in literature, my own preoccupation with the study of literature. I’m interested in books the way I’m interested in people.
|(45:57):||Phone Voice 2||That’s nice. [laughs] A little cheesy, but nice.|
|(46:02):||Phone Voice 1||Do you want me to open up to you or not? [laughs] No, that’s actually fair of you to make fun of me for that. I maybe wasn’t being totally sincere. And by that I mean I was actually quoting someone else. This book critic Parul Sehgal. I’m thinking about an interview where she’s asked about the initial process of marking up a book for review. Here, let me pull it up. [Sound effect: Old Dial Up sound effect]|
|(46:25):||Parul Sehgal||My inclinations are so much, I think maybe a little eccentric in the sense that I’m interested in the way that texts can be like people, you know, they can falter, they can fumble, they can have secrets from themselves. They can be very flawed and very, very beautiful and very, very noble. All of these adjectives, I think, are more interesting to me than good or best even.|
|(46:45):||Podcast Host||So, you’re, you’re sort of like figuring out what you think as you write.|
|(46:48)||Parul Sehgal||Yeah, I think that I only think when I’m writing, I think it just goes blank when I’m not writing. [laughs]|
|(46:53)||Podcast Host||Like you’re not taking like, uh-|
|(46:54):||Parul Sehgal||No, I take notes. I take notes and I’m like in the margins and it’s just like, you know, all my gormless checks and, you know, um, sad faces and all that’s happening there. But-|
|(47:01):||Podcast Host||Wait, you use sad faces.|
|(47:03):||Parul Sehgal||[laughs] All kinds of embarrassing marginalia.|
|(47:07)||Podcast Host||But tell me about it. No, but it’s, I want to know how you do your job!|
|(47:08)||Parul Sehgal||I mean, I, I talk a lot back to the book in the margins. You know, um, there’s definitely a lot of, I mean it’s stuff some, some of it, I’m flagging it for myself, but there is also a real way that, yeah, you’re reading this book and you’re reacting to it constantly, you know? I’m not gonna give you any more embarrassing stories about you. No [laughs]. I know, but yeah. But it’s, I mean like it’s-
|(47:32):||Phone Voice 1||I’m interested in the way Sehgal frames the initial critical impulse as a kind of conversation, what she refers to as “talking back to the book in the margins.” Funny too, that this marginalia, really the work of the book critic, should be seen as something embarrassing, maybe because it’s too sincere or impressionistic to be taken for a professional practice. Or maybe because talking back to the book in the margins too closely resembles talking to yourself, which at least in our society is kind of a faux pas.|
|(48:02)||Phone Voice 2||Is it? I wouldn’t know.|
|(48:05)||Phone Voice 1||[laughs] [And then sarcastically] Oh my God, so funny. Haha.
No, but I mean, speaking about things that are embarrassingly sincere, talking to Ben and Mirdhula reminded me of the way I sometimes markup favorite passages for my own text with this kind of shorthand, m m m, which stands for hmm. But when I think about it, I only really do it for passages that really moved me, but I can’t quite articulate why.
|(48:34)||Phone Voice 2||Hmm. This kind of initial sonic or onomatopoeic response to text you’re talking about is reminding me of a passage from Roland Barthes’ The Pleasure of the Text. I’ll pull it up. Although be warned, it’s kind of sexy, [laughs] Ahem, here it is:
[Music Begins: soft electronic tones]
“Writing aloud is not phonological, but phonetic, its aim is not the clarity of messages. What it searches for are the pulsional incidents, the language lined with flesh. A text where we can hear the grain of the throat, the patina of consonants, the voluptuousness of vowels, a whole carnal
I guess I take Barthes’ idea of reading aloud as a kind of metaphor for the sonic aspect of the way text elicits a bodily response. I read into your own marginalia a kind of textual representation of the sonic expression of the way text moves you. That hmm, is articulated as a kind of expressivism incident, to use Barthe’s terms. It makes me think too of Wordsworth, you know, for him what sincerity was, was expression itself, which is interesting, right? Because that word means two things. There’s artistic expression and then expression as vocalization.
The romantic idea of expression is tied mostly to a sense of overwhelming emotion that needs to be expelled from the body somehow. And they developed conventions for this in writing that epitaph or the elegy were seen as more sincere because they were tied so strongly to this overwhelming emotion. But I guess from Barthes, we also get the sense that emotion is so overwhelming it can’t necessarily be bound by any form.
The response that elicits from you is totally bodily. I see a parallel to this idea in Ben’s sense that conversation is more sincere than writing because it’s less conventional. It can’t be edited in real time. Or maybe the lack of the edit is its own convention, which is symbolized for me, at least by this hmm noise. [Music Begins: jazzy piano] And to return to Barthes, there’s pleasure in that, I think.
|(50:31)||Phone Voice 1||Wait, what do you mean “there’s pleasure in that”?|
|(50:34)||Phone Voice 2||Well, for me it’s the pleasure of recognition. I see my own ability to hesitate in speech in someone else’s, and that suits me. You know, this version of me that’s always rehearsing what I’m gonna say and then inevitably fumbles when the time comes.|
|(50:46)||Phone Voice 1||Now, I didn’t think you did so bad there.|
|(50:49):||Phone Voice 2||[laughs] You mean that?|
|(50:51)||Phone Voice 1||I do. I really, really do.|
|(50:58)||Phone Voice 2||Hmm. [laughs] Hmm.|
|(51:01)||Narrator||Okay. Time to cut the tape. Enough of this genuine conversation. I talk about this too much. [Music ends]
Special thanks to Hannah Cogan, Ben Heywood-MacLeod and Mirdhula Kannapathapillai. Although their audio didn’t make the cut, my conversations with Alia Hazineh, Barbara Saldana, and Matt Fyfe informed a part of my thinking for this podcast. [Music Begins: Soft tones with the sound of wind rushing through trees]
The inimitable Matthew King performed the voice of Charles Dickens.
|(51:31)||Scrooge||Ba humbug! [Music ends]|
|(51:47):||Katherine McLeod||[Music Begins: SpokenWeb outro music]
The SpokenWeb podcast is a monthly podcast produced by the SpokenWeb team as part of distributing the audio collected from and created using Canadian literary archival recordings found at universities across Canada. Our producer this month is Francis Grace Fife, an MA student at Concordia University, and a research assistant on the Concordia SpokenWeb team.
Our supervising producer is Kate Moffatt, our sound designer and audio engineer is Miranda Eastwood. And our transcriptionist is Zoe Mix. Special thanks to the interviewees and voice actors of the episode, Hannah Kogan, Ben Haywood, Mirdhula Kannapathapillai, and Matthew King. And thanks to Jason Camlot for providing early initial script and audio feedback.
[Music fades into the SpokenWeb theme music]
To find out more about SpokenWeb, visit spokenweb.ca and subscribe to the SpokenWeb podcast on Apple Podcast, Spotify, or wherever you may listen. If you love us, let us know. Rate us and leave a comment on Apple Podcasts, or say hi on our social media @SpokenWebCanada. Stay tuned to your podcast feed later this month for ShortCuts with me, Katherine McLeod. Short stories about how literature sounds. [Music fades and ends]
Frances Grace Fyfe
Frances Grace Fyfe is an MA student in English and Research Assistant for SpokenWeb at Concordia University. She’s interested in reading, writing, speaking, and the body—basically, everything. More recently, she’s thinking about “communication difficulty” in literature: how writers navigate what is too hard to say in the first place.
antin, David. “Talking at the Boundaries.” How Long is the Present: Selected Talk Poems of David Antin. Edited by Stephen Friedman, University of New Mexico Press, pp. 31-64. Barthes, Roland. The Pleasure of the Text. Translated by Richard Miller, Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 1975.
Diepeveen, Leonard. Modernist Fraud: Hoax, Parody, Deception. Oxford UP, 2019.
Goffman, Erving. Behavior in Public Places. Simon and Schuster, 2008.
Kreillkamp, Ivan. “Speech on Paper: Charles Dickens, Victorian Phonography, and the Reform of Writing.” Voice and the Victorian Storyteller, Cambridge UP, 2005, pp. 69-88.