Cicadas in the Mouth.
Divya Victor
Leslie Scalapino Memorial Lecture
San Francisco, June 1 2014

Thank you all for being here. Samantha Giles, Michael Cross, Tom White, Tracy Grinnell, and
the poets in the Bay Area that have made this place feel more and more like a home away from
my constant nomadism—thank you. Thank you, Simone White— I‟ve learned that collaboration
is one way of not remaining strangers. A lesson I seem to need more and more these days.

When I moved to Buffalo, some 7 years ago, I met Michael Cross. He let me in on a secret about
poetry and poetic community— “If you want something” he said “and it is not there in the place
you are in: you must make it.” I think of this talk as a way of continuing a praxis based in that
shared secret. In an interview with Michael some years ago, Leslie Scalapino disclosed a
discomfort with the word “voice: “The use of the word “voice” or vocabulary “finding a voice” I
think is inappropriate, in fact antithetical to my writing in the sense that I‟m aware in any/all
writing (of mine at least) of one‟s fake or created constructions of voice, there in any case in
anything, and the whole idea is to peel these away, exposing and using them.”

Peel these away. Expose them. Use them. I will try to do some of these actions today.

In preparation for writing this talk, I‟ve been doing two things. I‟ve been reading Scalapino‟s
poems and I‟ve been watching some YouTube videos to practice my Indian accent for you today.
This is what one video said: Pull your tongue to the back of your throat and then imagine that
you have a boiled egg in the back of your mouth so that your tongue backs up and down. I was
also told to try tapping my Rs slightly and to upwardly inflect the ends of my sentences. And
finally, I quote: “Practice a slight darkness in the sound that you might hear because of how far
back the tongue is pulled back.” I hope that you can hear the way I am practicing my darkness
for you, today! (If my tongue falls too far back, I‟ve asked Michael to help me pull it back out.)

I borrow my tongue from centuries of Tamil speakers and like many Indians, I have a difficulty
splitting Ws from Vs— often, this results in sentences like “He vas wankquished from the
vindow” or “Vee vent to the wol—kay-no.” The borderland runs along the ridges of the tongue
and I cannot decide when to board up the air at my teeth or when to pucker my lip around an airy
O. My generational separation from my children will be drawn along the double glyph of the
double „you‟. The first generation Indian American child will pass this language test, will tame
my tongue, will neutralize the Indian, scrape off the slough that deafens me to the difference.
The V and the W: I have one or two valleys to trespass through. Every time this is the landscape
that I risk.

see Delirious Hem‟s Tribute to Leslie Scalapino

Thus, my voice is both my betrayer and harbinger. Where are you from? I love your accent. It’s
so cool. Are you British. Any British inflection marks a pleasant, unobtrusive authority—the
difference between a martini shaken or stirred in Her Majesty‟s Service. The authority of an
Hogwarts education. Or the absurdity of the Ministry of Information‟s war-time motivational
poster KEEP CALM & CARRY ON topped off with a Tudor Crown bandied about in the States.
Appropriations in a time of crisis that masquerade as parody, or that ventriloquize an attitude of a
bygone era in an impossible and displaced present. Keep calm and carry on answering this
question: No, where are you from-from?

My tongue is read in public by strangers who run their hands over-it as if it were a subway map.
This is the mouth of the poet, in other words. In other words: This is the published mouth. I
allow these hands to search inside my mouth— thrum at my uvula, prod at my molars, press
against the spongy fungiform— an oral tourism of what you, my dear listeners, are making of my
speech. My throat is a veritable transit lounge— the tongue is unheimlich, uncanny, unhomely—
in transit

In Considering how exaggerated music is, Scalapino describes a dream in which a woman,
parenthetically, a speaker, “woke up in bed [obviously she had been dreaming] and said that she
had one of them, a cicada, in her mouth so that she was pressing it with her tongue to the roof of
her mouth to make the sound come out [saying to him as she woke up „I was spitting its innards
out‟]” The mouth-in-transit, the roving mouth is a cradle for such cicadas. Derrida has called this
an „abiding alienation‟— the hosting of an alien form in your own body so that it becomes
“alienation without alienation, [an] in alienable alienation.”

The cicada is pressed against and popped so that its innards trickle into your innards.

The host and the guest— into the colon of the colony. One does not merely clear one‟s throat of
this. One does, however, ventriloquize. There is a whole chorus of cicadas up in this mother.

I want to speak with you today about this “abiding alienation”—about this condition of having
cicadas in one‟s mouth— not just a dream, but a lived reality for some of us. This condition
comes out of the post-colonial situation— which produces the mouth in transit, a mouth not at
home with itself. And I want to talk about the forms this takes in contemporary poetics, even
when the poets or the poetries may not be explicitly post-colonial, and are, rather, intra-imperial
or imbricated within American imperial citizenry.

The plurilingual subject has a cumbersome tongue. It begins near the hyoid bone and extends all
the way through to the bowels. The hyoid bone is the only suspended bone in the human body. It

see Sigmund Freud‟s “The Uncanny” (1919)
is couched between the chin and the thyroid glands. It is the only bone that remains disarticulated
and it is also the twig that helps me articulate
. The voice that emerges even in everyday, phatic
circumstances hello, how are you, great weather implicates a row of sphincters— the rings of
discipline and training and pucker and release on command— say moth, say mother, say other,
say there there, now, there there. This disarticulation is inherent in our articulacy. And yet we

At the core of Gloria Anzaldua‟s Borderlands, there is a memorable and caustic description of
“how to tame a wild tongue.” Anzaldua describes being stuffed in a dentist‟s chair with her
mouth agape like an open wound:
“„We‟re going to have to control your tongue,‟ the dentist says, pulling out all the
metal from my mouth. Silver bits plop and tinkle into the basin. My mouth is a
motherlode. The dentist is cleaning out my roots. I get a whiff of the stench when I gasp.
“I can‟t cap that tooth yet, you‟re still draining” he says.”
The stench of her roots, the stink of her accent—these are wound together, these are wounds
together. Like all Chicano students at Pan American University, Anzaldua had to take two
speech classes to “get rid of [her] accent.”

For us pluralinguals, this is the first amendment. The first amendment is the taming of our
tongues. Our ventriloquy is a form of civic survival beyond this amendment. Those who fail at it
are both taking and are risks.

The Book of Judges describes one of the oldest such risks: “neighboring groups at war had a
minor but easily detectable difference in the way they pronounced words containing a particular
consonant sound: One group pronounced such words with the palato-alveolar fricative /sh /,
whereas others pronounced it with the sibilant /s/, so the test involved asking a person whose
identity was in question to say the word “shibboleth” and depending on whether they said shib-
boleth or si-bboleth, their identity would be revealed, and if they were found to be an enemy,
they were killed. To survive would mean retraining the voice to hiss rather than shush.

The shush of “sh” or the hiss of “s” marks you for death. As did the pronunciation of “Brot and
Cawse, for Bread and Cheese.” This marked the Flemish and Dutch strangers during the English
peasant rebellion (1380s). As did the pronunciation of the Spanish word for „parsley‟.
marked the Haitians living in the Spanish dominant Dominican Republic under Rafael Trujillo.
Holding up a sprig, a soldier would ask: o o se aa e sto” The Creole tongue of the

see also my essay on pedagogic voice “To Call into Question…To Make Common” in Building is a Process /
Light is an Element: Essays and Excursions for Myung Mi Kim
Ed. by Michael Cross and Andrew Rippeon (2008)
see Gloria Anzaldua‟s Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza (1987)
see Tim McNamara and Carsten Roever’s Language Testing: The Social Dimension (2006)
Haitian would fold out the flat R instead of rolling out trilled R— his carpet to freedom.

These are the consonant consonants; the vowels of vulning.
For some, opening the mouth to simply say “I” also means saying “Aye”, assenting to certain
Our methods for taming the tongue have grown more sophisticated— it no longer lolls out like
some crude Imperial leash— and yet, hundreds of thousands of Indians today undergo accent
neutralization as part of the service industry‟s commitment to providing Americans with an
emotionally secure and trustworthy consumer experience. Wash your mouth with soap, slip into
on your jeans, wear your new tongue around your collar like a Banana Republic tie, and you‟re
no longer in Chennai, India but in Modesto, California helping some dude get this printer-queue
un-constipated. How. May. I. Help. You. Today. How will I Say No To This Commitment?

This ethos finds its roots in Colonial methods of controlling the tongue through ventriloquy. Let
me quote an old white guy here. Arthur Burrell‟s advice for […] Public Elementary School
[teachers] from 1891: “It is the business of educated people to speak so that no-one may be able
to tell in what count[r]y their childhood was passed.” To wear the appropriate tongue to work
today is to locate yourself in the same neighborhood as your caller, even if you are thousands of
miles away in a former Colony.

A neutralized accent tuned for the caller‟s ear is a voicing of the empathetic vocal symptom
required for harmonious consumer relations. Empathetic ventriloquy— that is to say, sounding
like you while sounding like me— is still a matter of survival. And this has been fully
instrumentalized— we holla for the dollah. This is empathy that is distinct from its common
usage, which has positive emotional connotations. This is an empathetic performance that puts
the listener at ease. It is still part of the performative and emotional labor of the employee who
displaces their vocal production into alien (and alienating) contexts. Whereas the listener is
comforted by the recognition they hear— ah, she sounds just like me—this vocal masking is a
ventriloquy that generates profit. A naturalized sense of voicing, giving voice, or vocal
expression in poetics fails to acknowledge this. There is no other side to this performance— flip
me over and you will find another mask. While I say this to you, I am abiding with my
alienation. Liberating me from this means tearing out my tongue. And I‟ll ask you to kindly
refrain. The poetics of ventriloquy is one way of asking this of you, again and again. Until you

Thomas Babington Maculay, the man who legislated the English education Act of 1835 in India
stripped native Sanskrit and Arab cultural curricula. He explained that the British empire would
need “a class [of subject] who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern,

see Caroline Bergvall‟s Say Parsley
—a class of persons Indian in blood and color, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in
The fantasy of the British railway chugging its way into the esophagus and into your
ear, the coal hissing and cooking its way out of my flesh. Sugar and pepper plantation growing
like thrush— a rush of invasive species in the mouth. Homi Bhabha called this class of person
the “mimic man”— an obedient subject who mimes the discourses of power, performing as a
“reformed” happy puppet— a brown paper package tied up with string (my favorite thing).

A poetics then, emerges from these pressures—and responds to these pressures— a poetics of the
inappropriate tongue is also a poetics of the appropriated tongue—one that borrows other
people‟s tongues, tries them on for size, pilfers, loots, happily assimilates, or courageously tests
in the live flesh through ventriloquy. The mimicry of the mimic man continues through me, but it
is also possible to hear mimicry as mockery— to grin and not bear it anymore.

I‟d like to share a brief record of recent acts of such ventriloquy as I have observed them in many
cities— Philadelphia, Oakland, Chicago, New York.

At Simone‟s event Conceptual Writing by Women at the Poetry Project, I am in the audience
when Vanessa Place reads, in her signature flat affect, a series of „rape jokes‟ from set up to
punchline. The audience lets out starts and ruptures, guffs and grunts, legs twitching nervously,
hands over mouth.

At the same reading, I read a list of harms in the Old Testament— instances of wounding or
maiming instructed by those in power. Later, a woman slips me a note asking how I am like a
Futurist and later, another stranger asks me how have I not harmed those around me by saying
these harmful words over and over. I run my hands over hers and say that I see no blood. I do not
know what else to do. For I have endured the words too. I too have listened to them as they have
been uttered.

In a reading at the Kelly Writer‟s house Tracie Morris frills and stutters out a version of Irving
Berlin‟s “Cheek to Cheek” while playing her own sternum like a flounced out heart— percussion
for the song in which she instrumentalizes her own chest.

I am in the audience when Rob Halpern reads from his manuscript at a post-MLA conference‟s
reading (Vulnerable Rumble). Lily Robert Foley picks up the first sheet of his set and begins
reading in offset tandem to Rob‟s poem, even as he continues: “Looking sadly at my cock, I
begin reading the autopsy report.” The audience giggles because Robert-Foley can‟t look at
her cock, sadly or otherwise, but also because they didn‟t yet know how/when to hyphenate the

see T. B. Macaulay “Minute by the Hon'ble T. B. Macaulay” dated the 2nd February 1835.
see Homi Bhabha “"Of mimicry and man: The ambivalence of colonial discourse" in The Location of Culture
see my Partial Derivative of the Unnamable (2012)
sad-funny in Rob‟s first iteration of the same. A permission is granted (or taken?) when one
voice is interrupted and then uninterred with another voice.

I am reading Hugo Garcia Manriquez‟s Anti-Humboldt: a startling erasure of the North American
Free Trade Agreement in English. Hugo has returned to the retina what I ought to see everyday
just by retelling and reissuing what has told of our times for decades. His is a visual of
ventriloquy— of the mouth moving silently next to one that doesn‟t open at all. An afterimage
produced as a stress symptom produced when the eye‟s cone-cells adapt to the traumas of
overexposure and lose their sensitivity to the real object in front of them. An afterimage is a
symptom of my failure to reckon; a failure to see something for what it is; to say it as it lays.

These poets have used ventriloquy in many forms: the whole-scale appropriation of historically
belated texts, the recitation of language that is otherwise loathsome or oppositional, the citation
of forms that have belonged to others, more powerful or visible than the poet, the remediation of
discourses that are unapologetically unpoetic. These poets— Vanessa, Tracie, Hugo, Lily, Rob,
myself— we‟ve run our mouths over these words as if they were ours, allowed their curves and
edges to occupy us. We become channels through which the syntax of rape jokes, the adjectives
of autopsy reports, the semantics of bureaucratic and Biblical discourse have trespassed into the
present. And with this role of channel or cipher, our innards or interiorities lace what emerges.
Rather, I should say: what the audience imagines and projects of our interiorities lace what
emerges. What becomes really obvious is how little of us there is in our speech. And this absence
is unbearable. This absence is hard to resolve for the listener who is caught in the teeth of what is
being said and who is saying it. This discord is in the displaced chord.

What is heard is loqui (speech) + ventri (through the belly)— speech through the belly. This is a
poetics that draws a tension between speaking from the gut, the absolute figure for sincerity and
intention— one „spills one‟s guts‟— and speaking another‟s language.

A tension marks the acts of ventriloquy that, in all these recent instances, show the poet
mouthing belated documents to witness violent and catastrophic events into legible forms in
illegible bodies. This tension marks a refusal to be transparent on stage. These are acts that
witness legible forms of discourse through suddenly illegible or confrontational bodies. These
are live rehearsals of sensory exchange— a confession of what it feels like to utter alien
discourses out loud. This is a recitation that tests what words can and cannot be said before you
are escorted off the stage— sequined shibboleths that we have trained with— language
competency exams in discourses that we both create and are constituted by. ¿Dónde está el
baño? Vous êtes-vous plu ici? आप (आए) ? This is the cicada‟s innards running
back into your own. Abiding alienation.

An emerging poetics of ventriloquy takes its cue from post-colonial models and shifts its
participatory limits as a way of negotiating the poets‟ own roles as those whose agencies are
knotted with imperial complicity and resistant citizenry.

A poetics of ventriloquy acknowledges the extraordinary pleasures and pressures of surviving
with inappropriate tongues, with the lived discomfiture— the mismatched seams— of not only
borrowed bilingual statuses but also with the reckless suturing of whiteness to the fantasy of a
monolingual American idiom. A poetics of ventriloquy speaks with an “abiding alienation”;
speaks with a chorus of cicadas rushing out. It has allowed poets to be hosts of their own
indwelling as aliens unto themselves— some may call this alterity— I call this an ingrown
tongue: where the tongue grows back and inward, both introverted and extrospective like some
fleshy periscope. This continues a poetics that a few years ago Caroline Bergvall described as “a
cultural practice that speak[s] or work[s] with a cat in the throat. Practices that are of here, and of
there. Practices that are hairy.”

This is not a liberatory poetics. It is not a poetics of simple inversion or reflexivity; of rescue or
resuscitation. And it is thus necessary.

This is a poetics of great discomfort with voices that we have heard, of voices that have occupied
us. When I was a schoolgirl in Trichy, India, talking out of turn had one punishment: The teacher
would ask you to stand on the desk with your right hand literally holding on to your tongue.
Silenced, the drooling child would hold her tongue until both arm and tongue went numb.

To use this tongue yet again is in itself oppositional.

This is a poetics of pulling out one‟s own tongue. This discomfiture accounts too for the shock of
being appropriated as a name on two legs— a brown paper package tied up with string— by
institutions. Without my consent, The Poetry Foundation includes my name on a list of “Asian
American Poets,” without my consent Drunken Boat publishes my work written in Philadelphia
under the category “Arts in Asia,” without my consent Small Press Distribution categorizes work
about Western hysterics under “Asian American” poetry. This is my own ventriloquial
performance being ventriloquized by others—my skin is made into a leather saddle to ride into a
different war: my resistance is made useful to someone else‟s agenda. When these institutions
call me by my given name they also give me a name: the reckless circuit continues. This too is an
alienation that one abides.

I would like to conclude with one memory of Leslie Scalapino‟s— or perhaps you could say it is
two memories of having had one memory. The first, an instant from her book published in 1982

see Caroline Bergvall‟s “Cat in the Throat: On Bilingual Occupants”
Considering How Exaggerated Music Is, and then again, in 2003, in Autobiography. The first
memory of memory:
“We take the train which stops at a village by rice [fields] when a Chinese girl is killed
on the tracks. The villagers come out to the side of the track. I thought they didn‟t like
female children; but they bend over and are crying sounding as if they are laughing.”
Later, this memory will be re-memorialized, after fifteen years memorizing, and she will recall it
on October 21, 1997:
In regard to laughing— crossing lush, green Taiwan in a train car seated together, my younger and older
sister and I were singing [I was seven] .... A six-year old girl had been killed, run over by the train. Her
arms and legs had been cut off and were lying beside the track// The entire village of adults stood by the
embankment all in a line shaking as bending appearing to be laughing because the gesture of laughing and
weeping were the same// Later, knowing it was a manner of extreme emotion of crying, I asked my father
They were laughing? He said No, it appears to be the same but they were expressing grief.

I am struck by the return to her misunderstanding of wailing as laughing. I am also struck by the
number of times Indians in India are called Indians, just as the Chinese in China are called
Chinese. These names that we do not have when we are at home. The scream of mourning
misunderstood as laughter in the ear of the other. How our gaping hollow howls may sound like
speech or laughter; how the bent over torso and the slapping of the chest sounds like the joy of
guffawing, how the choke sounds like a chortle; how the joke is unheard.

This wound sound is the sound of the poetics of ventriloquy.

When the throat becomes the registry of trauma and displacement— the cry, the wail, the howl
of grief, the heaving and choking of weeping, the open maw of the breathless scream— it
threatens the voice‟s expressive and communicative faculties. Wound sound emitted from the
source of the wound is fundamentally estranging. It has often been observed that when a knife or
nail or pin enters the body, as a weapon, one feels not the knife, nail, or pin but one‟s own body,
one‟s own body hurting one. It sounds pain‟s anti-sociality and causes the wounded subject to
reject both herself and the social relation. Wound sound sounds the bodily alarm that both
gathers and repels any community around the spectacle of grief; around the spectacle of
witnessing grief. Pain splits the subject to make one appear as “not oneself.”

It thus doubly alienates the suffering subject from the self and from society. It does not welcome
or need your comprehension and understanding, and yet it produces you while you listen. When
we are in pain we are both turned against and barely ourselves. When we witness the pain of
others, how shall we purport to be ourselves?

see Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain
this is a question asked also by Nancy Spero in Torture of Women
The poetics of ventriloquy produces the sound of “something—someone— taking distance from
the self and letting that distance resonate.”
To perform this wound sound in our polyvocal
throats is to confound the difference between the wail and the laugh, to trick its difference and
ours. This does not mean that we do not recognize the difference between the laugh and the wail.
Rather, we acknowledge that this misrecognition has produced us others in the first place. This
performed ventriloquism, this fleshy show and tell, is more telling than any assumption of an “I.”
It tells of the predicament of those of us, who, with our various forms of abiding alienation,
cannot represent our difference but must enact it in the wagging of our ingrown tongues; those
who have taken distance from ourselves and have let this distance resonate. So gather the cicadas
and swallow them now— there is so much to be said and someone like me is saying it.

see Jean Luc Nancy, Vox Clamans in Deserto (2006) and Listening (2007)