Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Sunday, September 18, 2005


I read David Antin's new book, "i never knew what time it was," a few weeks ago.

I haven’t read this interview with him, but the intro paragraph gives an idea. This interview happened before his 3rd book of Talk Poems. The one I just read is his 4th. For me, his work really took off with his 3rd book, "what it means to be avant-garde," when he gave his talks over more to telling stories, and lightened up on the modernistic stance. His description of modernism feels right to me. I don't think he'd mind that I don't remember exactly how he put it. A commitment to the disjunctive is a big part of the modern, since Stein and Apollinaire "and the rest." Since his talks are improvised, and the mind is naturally disjunctive anyway, and since his transcription technique for his improvised talk poems is uniquely his own, his stuff fo' sho' is modern. But as it has turned away from the disjunctive, it has deepened in emotional resonance and impact, according to the stories he's had to tell at the time. And he can be defensive about how funny his talks can be, and therefore how close to "entertainment" they become -- he's definitely attached to the notion of being an "artist" as opposed to an entertainer. Which is in itself kind of funny, and sweet and endearing in its snobbishness. But it's also sincere -- he really doesn't care if his talks veer off into the abstruse and opaque, if that's where his thinking takes him. His mandate, unlike a "storyteller" or "monologuist" or "comic," is not to be poignant or moving or funny, though he is often all these things; his mandate is to think.

He's in his mid 70s now, so for many years he's been having to deal with aging and dying parents and uncles and aunts, and many of his stories in his last 2 books have been about that. It's an emotional topic, obviously. And it's a measure of his fidelity to his self-claimed mandate that in most pieces I remember being struck by his thoughts more than by his stories, as poignant as they often are.

As the title would indicate, one of the major threads in his new book, "i never knew what time it is," is the topic of time. It's one of the most mysterious and all-pervasive topics in the world, and he characteristically has some resonant things to say about it. Again, I'm going to honor his method by paraphrasing from memory, not quoting.

Time, he says, is how we measure change. And he makes the standard observation that time passes in different speeds. Something I've noticed as I've grown older -- in general it seems to pass more quickly now. Two ways to look at this, I tell my cohorts -- it either means we're having fun, or it starts rolling faster once we get over the hill. Or maybe both.

Antin also describes a distinction he makes between plot and narrative. Plot is story or event from the external point of view. Narrative is the inner story, and it has to do with the efforts the characters make either to effect or avoid a transformation. Marriage, getting a job, graduating from school could all be transformations that characters tend to work toward making happen. Death would be a transformation to avoid for most people, as my family is dealing with now. (I'll be updating this post on my dad’s cancer as I feel like it, rather than always making new posts about it. I may or may not make new posts on it as changes continue to happen.)

I've usually been casual about time, to the point of rudeness and self-destructiveness. I try not to be late to appointments any more. But I've always been struck by that word "deadline." Some transformations really are irrevocable, and "deadline" alludes to one of the big ones.

Antin has known a lot of people in the art world for 50 years now, and he has a lot of stories as well as interesting observations and insights and resonant descriptions of complex phenomena. A friend of his once tried to talk H. R. Haldeman into hiring Herbert Marcuse for a job (Haldeman was on the board). Marcuse had previously thundered that Antin's wife a sophist. Many amusing anecdotes, only some with such famous names. Glad to have read the book, sure to re-read parts of it.
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