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  • Talking and Thinking: David Antin in Conversation with Hazel Smith and Roger Dean
  • Hazel Smith and Roger Dean

David Antin is a “talk poet” who gives provocative talks which combine the genres of lecture, stand up comedy, story-telling and poetry. They juxtapose anecdote with poetic metaphor, philosophical and political debate with satirical comment. The talks are improvised, that is they are created during the performance and no two performances are the same. In his talk piece Gambling (Tuning 148), performed in the seventies, Antin refers to the recreativeness which dominates many poetry readings and which he is reacting against; simply reading a poem is like “returning to the scene of the crime/you try to reenact it and the more you try to bring it back to life the deader it becomes.” The medium of the talk restores to poetry its lost oral dimension; the opportunity to bridge the gulf between creative process and product and the opportunity to create in a public forum. Although there is no written record of many of Antin’s talks, some of them have been published in two volumes Talking at the Boundaries and Tuning.

David Antin was born in New York City in 1932 and graduated from New York City College and New York University. He is currently Professor of Art at the University of California at San Diego. He is married to the performance and video artist and film-maker Eleanor Antin. He is also a distinguished critic who has written on the visual arts, postmodernism, television and video art, and the role of art in technology.

The context of the conversation was our forthcoming book Discovering the Discourse: improvisation in the arts after 1945 in which we are investigating the importance of improvisatory techniques and approaches in art, film, literature and theatre. In this book we will rebut the naive conception of improvisation as a purely spontaneous and intuitive process and demonstrate how improvisation has been a complex creative procedure used by many artists since 1945. We were particularly interested in David Antin’s work because it is one of the few examples of improvised poetry. We wanted in the interview to ascertain how David went about his improvisations, what his technique for improvising was and how this related to the effect of the improvisations.

The interview took place in San Diego in February 1992 shortly after David Antin’s talk at Carroll’s Bookshop in San Franscisco on the subject of the other. Although David’s work over the years was the main focus of the interview, we also alluded from time to time to that specific talk.


In what sense do you think your talks are improvisations?


Probably in the same sense that most people’s improvisations are improvisations. One person I could imagine myself in a relationship to, though I’ve never said it before, is Coltrane. Coltrane was constantly working over scales and examining other musical manoeuvres, to keep his hands on a lot of things that he could do; he was listening to timbres of different mouthpieces and playing with different ways of making music, so it is not as if he went in as a blank slate.

Jazz improvisation is work that in some ways I feel very close to, because the language offers you a well-formed grammar. I am not interested in transforming English grammar, but I am interested in the full range of English and its varieties of speech- registers and its ways of movement from here to there. It allows you much more freedom than anybody really knows. I mean we know very little about the full range of colloquial English. In fact most grammar that is being used in the schools of the high levels of linguistics, which I did doctoral work in, I regard as highly idealized. There are so many things that it doesn’t explain, although it’s a very eloquent family of explanations for the things it does explain.

But it seems to me that language is a reservoir of ways of thinking, because what I am really interested in, at least as much as language, is thinking: not thought but thinking. And...

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