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Narrative 12.1 (2004) 93-115

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Talking Narrative:
A Conversation with David Antin

Brian McHale

David Antin, avant-garde poet and critic, visited the Ohio State University campus in Columbus on 15-16 October 2002 with his wife, the performance artist Eleanor Antin. Their visit was sponsored by the Wexner Center for the Arts, the Institute for Collaborative Research and Public Humanities, and the College of Humanities. Among the events of the Antins' visit was a conversation between David Antin and members of the Ohio State faculty, including Jon Erickson (English), Ann Hamilton (Art), Bruce Heiden (Latin and Greek), Rick Livingston (Comparative Studies), Michael Mercil (Art), and Amy Shuman (English). Dan Boord (Theatre) introduced Antin, and Brian McHale (English) moderated the conversation. The transcript was prepared by Anita Bratcher.

Boord: David Antin is a poet, performance artist, and critic of art and literature. He is best known for his "talk pieces," improvisational oral works which have been collected in print form in his volumes Talking, Talking at the Boundaries, Tuning, and What Does It Mean to be Avant-Garde. He has designed "skypoems,"short texts he describes as "commercials that aren't selling anything," which have been sky-written over Los Angeles and San Diego. He has also created "word walks" for urban parks, and has performed both improvised and scripted works for radio and television. He received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the NEH, and was awarded the PEN Los Angeles Award for Poetry in 1984. Among his critical publications is the review essay "Wittgenstein Among the Poets," in which he explores the interesting proposition that Wittgenstein's Tractatus could be regarded as a poem. [End Page 93]

Today we're having an informal discussion with David on narrative and storytelling. Brian McHale, Professor of English, has been asked to prepare a couple of questions to get the ball rolling.

I. "Why Narrative is Still Worth Talking About"

McHale: The title of your talk tomorrow at the Wexner Center is "Why Narrative is Still Worth Talking About," and that title all by itself constitutes a provocation. To prime the pump for today's conversation, you sent me a piece of yours about narrative and story, which can now be found in Pacific Coast Philology (Antin, "The Beggar and the King"), and I thought I would start there since that seems to be pretty much the latest draft of your thinking on this topic.

Antin: My ideas have developed somewhat since that essay, but I haven't gone too far from its central ideas.

McHale: So let's start there. As I take it, there you undertake to redefine narrative as a cognitive modality: not the concatenation of events over time, which you call "story," but the sense of someone's subject position as the defining feature of narrative. I think you would probably find some allies among the narratologists for that position. The more cognitively oriented narratologists might go along with you (Monika Fludernik, for instance). But I wonder how far they would be willing to follow you in taking your next step, which is to say, if narrative is identified with this sense of some subject position, its goal is to "make present," you say, but not to "make intelligible"—"making intelligible" being the function of story and not necessarily of narrative. I have the impression that narratologists would part company with you there. I think they want to have their cake and eat it too. I think they want narrative to "make present" but also to "make intelligible." Why can't they have it both ways?

Antin: The history of narrative is very long and tortured. I've been struck, partially confused, and stimulated by both Plato and Aristotle and the way the West has been obsessed with these two figures—obsessed for very good reasons. They're very entertaining writers and they're always worth reading. But if you look at Aristotle's Poetics, which I believe is actually a talk piece taken...


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