1/10/07

OVERHEARD

In the Anglo-Saxon world, eavesdropping was a crime punishable by having one's ear cut off. In the Roman world, where eavesdropping was considered to be theft, it meant the loss of an arm.

Today, however, in our world of cell phone conversations and robustious power lunches, eavesdropping is not only an important research marketing tool, but a form of poetic flarf as mischievously delicious as a box of found letters. Growing in popularity, both in the writing workshop and as an online phenomenon pioneered by such websites as www.overheardinnewyork.com, eavesdropping is not only expected, it's hip.

Even the term eavesdropping, which carries a connotation of surveillance, has been reduced to the more static “overheard”, a term imbued a feeling of atmospheric happenstance. But to consider the overheard as nothing more than a recitation is to miss the gesture—indeed, the flarf!—of the observer (sometimes called the “spy”) as an active participant in a poetic process of erasure, weaving dislocated fragments of language into whitespace. What keeps me interested and excited about the overheard is not only the surprise of reframing meaning on the page, but the performative aspect of listening—limbs intact—to an uncertain world that may or may not be my own.

Pearl Street, Boulder *
--Frank, you still there?
--Yeah, still here.

Bear’s Café, Hilo
--How is that chicken honey?
--Excellent.
--Excellent.
--Oh, Dan, this is tuna.

Market Chef Café, Friday Harbor *
--I like your jacket.
--Oh, I don’t know where I got it but…
--It’s like a sensitive mafioso.
--Did I hear you correctly?
--It’s like someone in the mafia who is, like, interested in poetry, but he’s still in the mafia. It’s like that.
--…
--It’s a compliment.
--Oh.

Gaylord’s Cafe, Oakland *
--I have a short attention span…a low tolerance…a short attention span.
--…
--Did I just say that?
--Who?

Trident Café, Boulder
--What is your favorite movie ever?
--Uh, oh, hmm…I guess I’d have to say…you ever see Lost in Space?
--Yes.
--What’d you think about it?
--It was mmm alright.
--Okay. Well. I’m gonna hafta get back with you on that.
--My two favorite authors are Orsen Scott Card and Carl Sagan. What about you?
--Uh, well, let’s see. Um. Hmm. Well…you ever read Jack Kerouac?
--Jack Kerouac? Really?
--Is that good?
--He’s your favorite author?
--He’s good, right? I mean…
--He’s your favorite author?
--Um, sure. Yeah, I mean, I guess, why?
--Nothing.
--What?
--That’s great.
--…
--He’s gay you know.

McMillins' Dining Room, Roche Harbor
--I put it in the pressure cooker. I skinned it. I ate it.
--…
--Wait, I ate something else.

Comet 1 Hr Cleaners & Laundry, Boulder
--I am going to explain to you why you have to go.
--Why do I have to go? I don’t want to go.
--BECAUSE IT’S YOUR STUDENT ORIENTATION THAT’S WHY YOU HAVE TO GO!!

Guatamala Airport *
--Ouch!
--Sorry, he’s in training.


*
Excerpted from American Dust (2007, Unpublishable Texts)
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27 comments:

Linh Dinh said...

Hi Jamba,

I'm teaching a course called State of the Union at the University of Pennsylvania. Yesterday I had the students discuss the notion of public space, in America and elsewhere. A truly public space is where all members of the public are welcomed, where a person can just hang out and loiter, observe and eavesdrop, without spending a dime. The piazze in Italy are ideal public spaces, where people could gather everyday, during a ritual called the passeggiata, where they could see their neighbors, young and old, many of whom they only knew by sight, or not at all, but where everyone could feel the pleasure of just being together. In England, they also have squares, but most of the churches are surrounded by graveyards. Because of the pissy weather, they sit around in pubs and drink pints. In the US, you also have pubs, but children aren't allowed in, one must be 21 to enter. If you don't drink, then where do you go to watch people, engage in or overhear conversations? The foodcourts in malls are wretched substitutions. Nowadays, the Internet is about the only public space left for many people, where they could see and hear other human beings, while ignoring the ones they're with.

Linh

Ton van 't Hof said...

Hi Linh,

I don't know. It looks like Jamba is showing that there are still many other places to 'overhear' people. Internet, to me, is just another place, but a great one, to do the same. Or are you referring to something else?

Linh Dinh said...

Hi Ton,

You can still overhear people in many places, that's true, but, at least in the US, there are very few spaces set aside for just loitering. It's actually a misdemeanor here! Generally speaking, unless you're living in certain East Coast cities, or Chicago and San Francisco, there are very few places you can go to just watch and hear people. At the other extreme, you have a country like Vietnam, with cafes and eateries everywhere, so much happens on the streets and where people live on top of each other, that you can't help but hear all sorts of human noises all day long.

Linh

Linh Dinh said...

Hi Ton,

In Vietnam, the distinctions between inside and outside, private and public spaces, are often fudged. You can observe the activities inside a house by simply walking pass it. Their doors and windows are wide open. Most eateries also leave their steel gates wide open, with their chairs facing the streets. Out for a beer, you'll have to deal with a constant stream of peddlers, shoeshine boys and beggars. All types of commerce are conducted on the sidewalk and, occasionally, even in the street. It is not unusual to see vendors squatting on the pavement behind baskets of fruits, vegetables, meats, and fish, slowing traffic to a crawl… The streets of Vietnam are theaters. By contrast, Americans sit in darkened pubs, at a horseshoe bar, looking inward, or up, at a bank of televisions, showing several sporting events simultaneously. Sometimes they look at themselves in the mirror behind the bar.

That's why I think piazze, plazas and zocalos are such great solutions.

Linh

Jamba Dunn said...

Very thought provoking conversation. American Dust was a three year project of daily recordings. What I learned (aside from the fact that I spend far too much time in cafes) is that people everywhere want to be heard. Every place is an opportunity for overheard conversation. People will actually raise their voice if they believe someone might be listening. These moments are not akin in any way to a dialectic, which might take place in the areas you mention, but more an invitation to the stranger to become an audience member. In this way, I believe the overheard as a literary device is particularly Western (consider The Canterbury Tales or reality TV). Everywhere I go there are people yearning to be heard. In fact, even in their not wanting to be heard they speak louder than needed.

Red Letter Books, Boulder
--Shhhhhhh. Act like you’re in a library, this guys listening.

Part of the gross fascination of the overheard is the uncensored and unashamed communicative act where the speaker, by use of eye contact, fishes around for an audience for even the most personal revelations.

Grove Street, Boulder
--Alright, so I left my tampon in my tool belt for work. Which is bloodied and, after two days is dried and brown and it’s left on a shelf that…
--You left your tool belt at uh…
--Yeah, and it’s kinda like sticking out a little bit and I guess it kinda like fell out on the floor…
--Oh, no.
--And so one of my coworkers sees this bloodied, you know, like toilet paper tampon thing on the ground…
--OH, NO!
--And so he leaves this horrible note for the entire staff to see about how I’m, you know, ‘disrespecting the staff with my personal,’ you know, ‘issues’ and how I should really ‘take care of these matters’ and ‘it’s not for other’s to be seen’. And so my, uh, supervisor finds this note during the weekend and stuffs my tool belt and the tampon into a plastic bag and puts it on the shelf.
--With the tampon?
--Yeah. She leaves it in there, and I show up on Monday morning and she’s like, ‘Jessica is that your tool belt over there, because I think you should go look at it,’ and I’m like oh-kay and I find this note, which is totally humiliating and embarrassing you know my, my, my feminine just functions are totally exposed to the white-trash world of America to be like exploited and just judged, to be…
--Mocked?
--Mocked.
--That’s so sad.
--And then so I like go to work. Clean for two hours. Get off work. I’m like, ‘hey, I haven’t seen my pseudo-boyfriend for a few days so I think I’ll stop by and say hello to him because I’m sure he drank all last night. He’s probably hung over and sleeping in’. I go to his house and he’s…
--There with another girl.
--I hear this: Uhhh! Uhhh! so I bang on the door. ‘Hang on. Hang on.’ I wait for about three seconds. I open the door. Blond. Tan.
--No!
--Full-breasted. I introduce myself to her. I say: ‘hi, my name’s Jessica, I’m his pseudo-girlfriend. Nice to meet you.’
--Dude, she’s just fucking buck-naked getting fucked?
--No! Well, she hid herself under the covers but he’s just standing there leaning against the door. He’s a wreck. He’s just like ‘oh god, this is so embarrassing. I can’t believe I got caught’.
--Wait, when did you two get back together again?
--Well, were not, technically, and that’s why I can’t get too mad at him, but I am deeply, deeply betrayed.
--So then what?
--So then what nothing. So then I got totally fucking wasted out of my brains and here I am.

My personal favorites spots for gleaning overheards is the gym locker room, talk radio, and populated public streets. In the gym there is an almost constant barrage of idiomatic speech that almost defies belief. I can't tell you how many of these such fragments I have recorded:

Espressoria Café, Boulder
--Hey buddy.
--Hey there buddy.
--How’s it goin’ buddy?
--Good good, bud, real good there buddy.
--Good.

Of course this is the type of thing that fascinates me and so this is what I tend to hear. So while there are not always opportunities for the conversation in the European sense of the word, there are incredible opportunities for overheards. And let's not forget radio, another personal favorite of mine:

KRKS, Denver
--Plastic fruit…there aren’t too many things more frustrating in my life than that. I would sit in front of that bowl of fruit and I just wanted to take a bite out of it, but d’ d’…. I think I must have tried because apparently I knew it wasn’t going to do anything for me. I think oftentimes that’s how ‘m God must feel when he looks down and he sees re-li-gion—it kinda looks like fruit. It may even look sumptuous on the outside, but it’s plastic, it’s artificial. It…it doesn’t do anything, it’s not natural. And that’s what happens verse ten as he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath the old, there was a woman who had a spirit of infirmity for eight-een years, and she was bent over and could in no way raise herself up. So Jesus comes across this woman and she’s hunched over and she’s been that way for eight-een years. And Jesus had compassion on her and he saw her and he said, ‘woman, you are loosed! You’re set free from your spirit of infirmity.’ She had a spirit, we’re told, of infirmity.

Linh Dinh said...

Hi Jamba,

Great snatches of conversations! Before my liver went south, I'd sit for hours in bars. A result:

Which Not

The man on my left stank so much I had to
Chain-smoke Lucky Strikes to cancel his funk.
“We’re all the same,” he’d been muttering,
In a castrato voice, odd for a nose tackle,
“You’ve got to thank God for everything.”
The grimacing woman across the bar
Suddenly waved in my direction, grinned,
Became a little less shopworn. I wobbled
Before waving back, smiled,
Before I heard a baritone bellowing
Behind my back: “Sorry I’m late.”
The guy on my right cleared his throat:
“I’ve just moved to Center City
A month ago. I’m still trying
To figure out which bars are cheap. Which not.
Which bars are queer. Which not.
When I came in here and saw no women,
I thought maybe Frank’s a queer bar,
But all youse guys are just too pitiful-looking.
Queers like to dress up, from my experience.
Not you, pal.”

Jamba Dunn said...

Linh: That's rich material! I agree with the importance of place when it comes to the U.S. I had moments while living in Egypt when I would have my journal or book slapped from my hands because it was considered rude to integrate private space with public space. It's that opposite extreme you were talking about. The constant dialog made it difficult to pick out moments to capture in writing.

Murat said...

My first reaction reading Jamba's post was that the Anglo-Saxons and the ancient Romans had a greater sense of privacy that we have today. Being able to access -and BEING ACCESSED IN- almost all our gestures, moves, etc., does the very concept re;evant any more.

My very favorite places of eavesdropping were restaurants and bars. But the background "music" in all these is so high now that, for my, it is almost impossible to do so. My ears are not p to it. Pity.

I think there is a difference between accessing information on the web and eavesdropping. Eavesdropping projects transgression, as Linh's piece does. The others are more found pieces, which, for me, are a completely different project.

I am fascinated by Linh's description of Vietnam, I assume the Ho Chi Minh City. In my experiences in China, including Hong Kong, I was struck by the very paucity of street life, which depresses me. Istanbul also has a vibrant street life, a lot of it deriving from sounds -music emanating from shops, venders' cries, traffic- and constant change of visual effects.

My son lives in Hong Kong and my wife and I every year visit him. Maybe this year we will also go to Vietnam, where my son has been and loved it.

Ciao,

Murat

Linh Dinh said...

Hi Murat,

Every Vietnamese city has a vibrant street life, Hanoi, Saigon, Hai Phong, Can Tho, Hue... Saigon is the craziest one, but Hanoi is more charming. Soon, I hope, I'll get to visit Istanbul. The liveliest, most chaotic European city I've seen is Naples. Goethe wrote, "Whoever's been to Naples can never be unhappy again." And "Naples is a paradise: everyone lives in a state of intoxicated self-forgetfulness, myself included." It's interesting that wild, outrageous Boccaccio spent many years in Naples... By contrast, I feel that America has painted itself into a corner with its impossibly wide streets, vast parking lots, front and back yards, and shiny, blinking gadgets that keep people separate from each other. We don't even know how lonely we are. The liveliest, most colorful and eccentric American neighborhoods are populated by recent immigrants. They just got here and don't know any better. The all-American Main Street is dead. To experience it nowadays, people go to Disneyland. America's solipsistic poetry reflects this condition.

Linh

Jamba Dunn said...

Murat: I like what you have to say about the projection of transgression. I believe this projection is also present when recording dialog. By found do you mean objective? Although I love the concept of found language, I'm not sure I could be an objective listener?

Linh: The Middle and Near East is similarly active. The cafes are always brimming with scholars and people playing games or talking.

Jamba Dunn said...

Linh: A few random, ill-formed thoughts bumping around in my head. The discussion of public vs. private space has me thinking about how public societies like Egypt historically relied upon social interaction as a form of curtailment against the creation of self-narration, whereas in the U.S., the advent of automobiles, televisions, and suburban housing meant the advent of a narrative “market-niche” self. Knowing the fascination with the autopsy during the Renaissance, and how that may have led to writing as a metaphorical scalpel for introspection into the true nature of the self, I wonder if the overheard as performative utterance is not indirectly a form of biography?

Murat said...

Jamba:
By found I mean documentation (not necessarily objective) or, in another sense, a fragment.

Reznikoff is perhaps the most prominent American poet of documentation, of court papers, tabloid events, etc. Interestingly, he has a poem (the title escapes me) consisting of the speaker's listening to/overhearing a conversation in a bus (here is one poem where the distinction between found and transgressed into blur). The poet speaker, who himself is somewhat of a stranger, comments on the other two speakers' "accents" -another subject this blog has been discussing fervently the last few days.

The poet Benjamin Hollander has a very interesting essay on this poem. discussing the implicit/unconscious accent which exist in Reznikoff's voice.

The idea of found as "fragment" has a epistemological basis that through time everything gets transmitted as fragments -in their {re)discovery partly misread. This is another line of inquiry which also, I think, has to do with what translation means, how it really occurs.

Linh:
Of course, my heart goes with you.

In Istanbul, when I was a kid, I remember someone saying there are only two cities wjich resemble Istanbul, Naples and Rio, the same mixture of beauty and chaos, violence and sophistcation.

In his "Journals" Herman Melville describes his, I think, eight day visit to Istanbul (Constantinople). It is an absolutely amazing piece of writing, the longest single section in the journals on any place. It gives a cinematic view of how it feels like, looks like to be in Istanbul even today, the same mixture of beauty and stench. Do you know Olson's (and later Susan Howe's) reference to a passage from it in "Call Me Ishmael"?
Of course, the entire modern Turkish poetry partly revolves around the idea of the city as a chaotic/erotic, moving space, contra the idea of the city as being rational, geographically and economically geometric (Main Street)?

Another city with the qualities of a dream is of course the 19th century Paris in "The Arcades Project."

Ciao,

Murat



I have heard diametrically opposed reactions to Naples. The poet Bob Hershon told me once that many years agao he and his wife and two of their friends had visited Naples. On the very same day they arrived, they bought tickets -I think anywhere- to leave the same day.

Do you know Walter Benjamin essay on Naples

I think p

Linh Dinh said...

Hi Jamba,

Very interesting what you said, that "public societies like Egypt historically relied upon social interaction as a form of curtailment against the creation of self-narration." Sounds like Vietnam. It's true that when everyone knows and comments on what you're doing, they're trying to write your narrative, present and future, for you.

Murat, thanks for mentioning those texts about Naples; I'll check them out. It's curious what you wrote about Bob Hershon. If he left the same day, he didn't give Naples much of a chance, did he? In Italy, I met a Sri Lankan who had lived in Sicily but was terrified of Naples. He hadn't been there, only glimpsed it from a train, passing through. It's true that shootings are common in Naples, practically every week, but there's a shooting murder almost every night in Philadelphia.

Linh

Linh Dinh said...

Talking of shooting murders, here's the top ten countries in the world, Murders with Firearms, per capita:

1)South Africa
2) Colombia
3) Thailand
4) Zimbabwe
5) Mexico
6) Belarus
7) Costa Rica
8) United States
9) Uruguay
10) Lithuania

For more such statistics, go here:
www.nationmaster.com

Linh Dinh said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jamba Dunn said...

Murat: Lots of great information.

I'm a fan of Charles Reznikoff and also the concrete pooet Kennth Goldsmith (who is publishing American Dust). I've often considered my fiction and overheard work to be a process of translation. I'm happy to learn learn about Benjamin Hollander.

I might be teaching a course on epistemology at CU Boulder next fall. The link between fragments and overheards had not occurred to me. Thank you for the interesting direction.


Linh: In Ancient Egypt there were many saying about the flow of information. One such was that the Pharaoh had a million hands and a million eyes. I searched online and found this quite interesting and extremely relative link: http://press.princeton.edu/chapters/s7283.html

Throughout this last week I've had images of "The Vertical Ray of the Sun” stuck in my mind. It's often the image I've called upon when considering your information about Vietnam. You've got me interested in checking out “Green Eyes”.

Murat said...

Linh,

I just ordered Cyclo on Netflix. I can not trace Green Eyes, nor your piece in the Guardian. Can you give me a bit more information on Green Eyes.

I had seen The Vertical Ray twice when it had first come out. The things I remember most are the sensual, subtle colors of the movie, and the theme of incest which pervade it. Of course, also, the idyllic lake with the other woman and child.

I was not aware the film had taken place in Honoi. At that time I was struck by how much the Vietnam War was NOT in the movie.

Also, in its very subtle sense of color, there was an aristocratic/maybe European? tradition. I loved, I was seduced by the movie; but isn't this movie quite different from the sense of street we have been discussing?

Ciao,

Murat

Murat said...

Linh,

The sense of a secret, separate life, which at least two characters in The Vertical Ray lead -is that an characteristic, a running theme in Vietnamese art and literature?

Murat

Linh Dinh said...
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Linh Dinh said...
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Linh Dinh said...
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Linh Dinh said...

[Hi Murat, the link keeps getting broken up each time I post it. Please see below...]

For a filmic treatment of Vietnamese cities, check out Tran Anh Hung's wonderfully complex and atmospheric "Cyclo," a portrait of Saigon, and "The Vertical Ray of the Sun," a meditation on Hanoi. In almost all American movies, Vietnam is unrecognizable to me. One exception is John Erman's excellent, totally forgotten film, "Green Eyes" (1977). In 2001, I wrote in the Guardian about the supposedly greatest Vietnam film of all time. You can read it by googling "Apocalypse Lies."

Linh Dinh said...

Hi Murat,

There is much duplicity, lying, cheating, living a double life, in Vietnamese fiction, as well as in real life, unfortunately. I've written about one aspect of this in my novel-in-progress:

"In a country with few private rooms, where people live on top of each other, lies and half-truths become the only forms of privacy. Lying, they assume everyone else is a liar. Those who don’t lie must be either a saint or an idiot, or just plain rude. In this shimmering world of big and small deceits, people tend to become spies just to get at the impossible truth. There is an instructive story of a poor man who won a lottery. He moved his family into a mansion where each of his 13 children could have their own room at last. For the first time, they could think in silence and examine their firm or flabby flesh in a full-length mirror. They could hear the creaks and hums of their own brains, feel the drafts of strange doors being opened. The oldest boy realized he had a flat chest, a beer belly and no muscles. The oldest girl discovered a condor-shaped birthmark spanning her behind. After a month of daydreaming, reading, masturbating and an unbearable loneliness bordering on madness, they decided to all sleep in the same room again."

Linh

Linh Dinh said...

Hi Murat,

Here's a page on "Green Eyes":

www.imdb.com/title/tt0074590

Linh Dinh said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Linh Dinh said...

Hi Murat,

You observed that "Vertical Ray of the Sun" has "a very subtle sense of color, there was an aristocratic/maybe European? tradition. I loved, I was seduced by the movie; but isn't this movie quite different from the sense of street we have been discussing?"

It's true that Hanoi came off cleaner and neater in the movie than in real life. I think Tran Anh Hung exaggerated the idyllic aspect of Hanoi, to contrast it with Saigon. "Cyclo" is much more aggressive, violent and chaotic. Hanoi is about a 1,000 years old, with an old quarters of 36 winding, maze-like streets, and several lakes. Saigon is only 300 years old, and shows more of an American influence. Many French buildings remain in both cities. The layouts of most streets, with traffic circles and all, were done by the French, but then you have thousands of alleys behind these streets that are 100% Vietnamese. If you go to either city, just turn into any of these alleys and keep going. You might not get out again but you'll see the real Vietnam.

Linh

Murat said...

Linh,

The passage from your novel, including the house with thirteen rooms, is stunning.

saint or idiot or plain rude: the thought has the beauty of mathematics.

The way you explain it, having a secret life is the only way of surviving. Come to think of it, is that not what each one of us has to do?

I think when you are in Istanbul I will be in Vietnam.

Thank you for the information about Green Eyes.

Ciao,

Murat