Sunday, August 31, 2008

Molly Tenenbaum on ventriloquism

My grandparents were ventriloquists, and so were their two sons, my father and uncle. By the time I came around, my grandparents’ show days were done, but my grandfather often made birds rustle in a paper bag which he would open at the window, releasing the birds to chirp away into the distance, and my grandmother, when she wasn’t dancing around the living room singing “Hello Dolly,” would sometimes take out her old figure, John Henry, and practice her now completely unacceptable caricatured black dialect. On my childhood birthdays, my father would open the old checked suitcase and pull out Joe, the black-haired, apple-cheeked figure he’d used as a boy.

When I was nine or ten, I took ventriloquist lessons from my grandfather—that’s him on the BPJ cover, Ted Tenny, an early stage name. He’d made his living on the vaudeville circuit from about 1913 to 1924, with breaks for the army and for getting married to Grandmother Minnie and teaching her the trade, after which they toured together. My first lesson was all about breathing from my diaphragm, which I couldn’t find. I never got over that first frustration, took only one or two more lessons, and never practiced. I wasn’t ready to explore ventriloquism again until I became a poet, and even then I had no idea how to approach it.

It was easier to know what not to do: I did not want to say what people always say, that the dummy is the alter ego of the ventriloquist and can say what the ventriloquist won’t. If it’s true, no need to belabor it, but it may not be true; maybe that particular dynamic between the vent and the figure evolved because audiences laughed at it. Besides, I wanted to get at something else, though I wasn’t sure what. Along the way of working on these poems, and many other ventriloquism poems, I’ve tried to get at some of the mystery of making other voices from one’s own breath. And I’ve been reminded that ventriloquism is a human craft with a long history, that it comes from the human body, all its parts practicing and working together, and is a creation of individual genius and the broader culture.

It turns out that you can’t get away from the traditions—the figure is the smart-aleck who always one-ups the vent, and certain tricks and skits are continuous, from age to age, act to act. My more successful poems embraced this instead of fighting it—hey, it’s entertainment, if you don’t wow ’em in your twelve minutes, you’re out. I wanted the poems to be “deep,” but you can’t be deep by trying. I still feel bad that I never learned the actual art from my grandfather, and suspect these poems are not enough to make up for that failure.

Before you read “Difficult Speech” and “Easy Oration” on the page, read them aloud in front of a mirror, trying not to move your lips.


  1. When reading your poems, in particular, "Difficult Speech," I was most struck by the careful balance of retaining a serious and deep subject matter while still having a sense of whimsicality to the voice of the "act." Clearly such a tension and balance is not easily attained. I'm curious--in the earlier drafts of this poem, were you more originally inspired by the deeper nature or by the voice of the poem? Which came first and which was more difficult to unearth? And did you originally set out to write in this voice or was it something that came about in the process?

    These poems were such a joy to read.


  2. I'm interested very much in poems about the crafts of family members. It seems to touch on so many themes related to both a respect for heritage as well as respect for a kind of artform, which ventriloquism certainly is. What role do you see in poems that talk about other crafts and about the lifework of parents and grandparents?

    Thank you for these lovely poems.

    - Matthew

  3. Hi Jacques,
    Well, I think what happened was this: I'd been thinking for a long time, years, about how to work with this ventriloquism business, wondering what it had to say and how it could say it through me. Most of my work on the project had to do with rejecting approaches that seemed obvious and boring. At a certain point I decided to shut up and listen. I did a lot more reading, I went to the annual ventriloquist convention in Fort Mitchell, Kentucky (thank you Artist Trust), and I visited Vent Haven, the ventriloquist museum in Fort Mitchell (thanks to the curator, Lisa Sweasy), where my grandparents' figures now live. I still had no idea how to write poems, but I had a lot of swirling thoughts about my grandparents and my father: Non-specific and perhaps even trite musing about how the past is gone, the dead are gone, but not gone. There are pictures, artifacts, a heritage of family jokes and verbal habits. I was thinking about my dad, whose fussiness backstage pretty much took my grandparents off the vaudeville circuit (though also his older brother had grown to school age, and vaudeville was shutting down anyway), thinking about that voice of my father as a baby. Also, I was imagining my grandfather, creating a character out of him, thinking about him as a young man, before he married, alone on the circuit.

    But what to do with those thoughts? If I paid attention to them and tried to do something with them I'd never write a thing, I'm sure. I decided to ignore them, and, in the case of "Difficult Speech," just write a poem that contained as many as possible of all the problem consonants. And "Easy Oration" of course, contains none of them.

    So the quick answer to your question is that the voice came about in the translation from thinking and feeling to actually writing: I realized that the writing would have to use ventriloquist breath, so to speak, and face the physical challenges of ventriloquism.

    I'm glad you liked the poems, and thank you so much for your thoughts.


  4. Hi Matthew,
    Thanks for your thoughts--

    I love the words associated with all crafts, how they contain the history of human motions, specific motions of hand, fingers, arm; and they contain material, actual material, wood, straw.

    I don't understand your question, though, about the role for such poems. I just enjoy savoring the words and the motions, so I like to be around that kind of poem and that kind of activity. I love all things that humans create (well, not all, like bombs for example), but all the handcrafts and hand-arts. Sewing, luthierie, music-playing, woodworking, blacksmithing, cooking, writing. I love to think about them, look at the tools....

    I certainly do wish that more people did more of these things instead of watching TV and consuming crap, but I think what I'm in poetry for is pretty much appreciation: appreciation of all the human spirit, mind, and hand can do.

    Maybe time or spirit or love or body is the real subject of any poem that talks about Grandma's sewing or Grandpa's mandolin-playing.

    Really, I'm just a poet who can't draw people, so I draw everything around them and hope that what's in the middle comes through.

    One book I've found influential is Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's "The Age of Homespun." Each chapter is titled after a particular object: "An Indian Basket: Providence, Rhode Island, 1676"; "Hannah Barnard's Cupboard: Hadley, Massachusetts, 1715." Ulrich tells not only all about the object, but about everything known about the person it belonged to, the social setting it existed in, the political implications...truly a fascinating book.

    Thanks again for your thoughts, and I'm glad you liked the poems.


  5. Hi Molly,

    I am struck by so many things while reading your ventriloquist poems, but mostly by the amazing use of assonance, consonance, and slant rhyme, as in

    "Oh, honey-croissant, though the internal aorta
    lunges, though these kissy gesticulators

    Question: how do you come up w such completely fresh combinations, such as "kissy gesticulators"? Do you keep a list of favorite words beside your desk as you write, or do you revise and revise until the best word occurs to you? Is it a slow process, or is your mighty brain at the ready to fire off these amazing words after years and years of reading and study? Where did you learn the importance of music in poetry? Where do you put it on your list of Musts for a poem--toward the top or near the bottom?

  6. Hi Martha,
    You are attributing so much more thinking to me than I am capable of! "\Kissy gesticulators" is basically a work-around, as are so many of the phrasings in these poems: How do I say "lips" without using a "p"? And then when you think, What is the attitude of this poem, what does the speaker want--he wants to kiss, he wants to communicate, but he can't say "me," he can't say "lips," he can't say "moon"--well, then you come up with "kissy gesticulators."

    I do keep lists of words, but I lose them and find them and never remember what all the words mean. I had a wonderful list of words from Robertson Davies's novel The Cunning Man. "Hirpling" was one of them, but the rest? I forget. And where did I put that list, anyhow?

    I do have a very early memory of lying in my crib having a wonderful time playing with sounds, playing with my tongue, going "la la la mmmm eeee aaa la la bub bub" or something like that, and I think my urge to poetry comes from that enjoyment. One of my earliest favorite poems was "Pied Beauty," too.

    I feel I have to be careful not to go overboard in poetry with playing with my "la la las", as I can be prone to cutesyness. So it's not that I rank music or intellect or any of those qualities of poetry--but I tend toward playing with sound for my own entertainment. My training did teach me that if the poem's music wasn't right, the poem was dead, and I do continue to act on that principle. But poems need other things too.

    Mostly, it's a slow process to find the right music. A phrase or a word will bug me and I won't know how to fix it, so I keep returning to it and trying to think of things--I browse in a lot of books while I'm thinking: visual dictionary, field guides. I look up obscure mythology, I allow myself to follow some internet search tangent to tangent, I try to get my mind to expand to some surprising place that brings out something in the poem, and if I'm lucky I'll find a word that is right.

    I feel like other people's poems sound so easy, like the right word or image just came to them (your poems, for example), and I wish it were that way for me, but I'm sure it's not that way for them either.

    So, la la la blum boo boo, I say, and let's see where it takes us.

  7. Molly -- What terrific poems. I assume you're approaching or have achieved manuscript velocity, and as a sucker for backstory can't help wondering if there are narrative poems as well as these cantatas (there's an easy one to say!) The idea of his teaching Minnie seems so suggestive, a poem in his voice about the fussy baby... There. I'm doing it -- trying to sit you on my knee and get you to move your lips. Shades of my old Jerry Mahoney. Please, though, in your fear of being trite, remember that some of what's obvious to you would be entirely novel to us. Looking forward to others -- Susan Ramsey

  8. Hi Susan,
    Yes, the ventriloquist project is very slowly approaching manuscriptiness. I suppose I have about a third of a ms., and it goes, as I said, very slowly, because life is complicated this year and also because other poems keep intervening.

    Most of the poems develop imaginary characters and situations, but real characters and events flow through them. Many of the poems are in the voice of an invented character called "The Whistling Ventriloquist," one of my grandfather's early show-biz titles. But this character is a lot more serious than he was--he was a jokester and punster. Well, so is my character, but I've invented interiority for him. I do have one long ballad based on some incidents in my grandfather's life, and using a lot of language that I found in some of his old letters at Vent Haven, the Ventriloquist Museum. That ballad may be too silly for publication, I don't know. I do want to do many more poems based on these letters, but I haven't had time.

    I also have a poem in the voice of a baby crying backstage, a poem prompted by hearing about my dad as a baby. The Baby Cry is a traditional ventriloquist vocal trick, and I have a couple of other poems based on that topic, and the one about the real baby fits right in.

    I do have trouble bringing Minnie, my grandmother, into the poems, and I'm not sure why. Perhaps because she lived longer and I knew her better, she is less accessible to my imagination. Or maybe I have some inherent sexism going on. Which means that I must bring her in, to see what happens, and to challenge myself, but I haven't done it yet. Like I said, life is very complicated this year.

    I do have another small set of ventriloquist poems in the current Floating Bridge Review (apologies to BPJ for mentioning another journal)--

    I suppose the ms. might be ready to send out in another couple of years, but I certainly can't know. In the meantime, I work on the poems when they come up and when I can. I'm working on one now about Joe, my dad's figure, who was not as well-made as the others. The others were made by the Mack brothers in Chicago, very famous makers, but Joe was a cheaper, less finely made guy. I grew up with him, though, and always liked him.

    Hey, I don't mind hearing what other readers would like to put in my pen. Maybe we're all in this poetry basket together.


  9. Dear Molly,

    After reading your poems I was so intrigued that I went to the library in Stuttgart, Germany, where I live, to look for a book on "Bauchreden", the German name for ventriloquism. I found only one book, by Dan Ritchard and Kathleen Moloney, a translation from the English "Ventiloquism for the Total Dummy." Ha ha.
    Since then I have been practicing a bit, based on Mr. Ritchard's suggested techniques, and am surprised how many sounds one can make without the lips: replacing the b with a kind of softer d, for example, or creating a breathy w or v that comes from inside the mouth. Sometimes now I catch myself reading out loud on trains or in the park, trying not to move my lips. Will people notice where the voice is coming from? If a tree falls on a ventriloquist dummy...
    I have also become curious as to whether or not there is an international history of some languages it might be easier or more difficult to "throw the voice" than in English (maybe Chinese would be easier, and German, for example, more difficult)?
    In imagining a character I wondered if there have ever been any serious (as opposed to comical) ventriloquist dummies. A dummy who recites poetry? A dummy who only does monologues? A philosopher? Historical figures? A melancholy dummy? Several dummies who talk together only in sign language? Could that be interesting? You write that one can't get away from the traditions. True, but as with any art, there must have been people who tried? Who are the lesser known, weirder, fringe ventriloquists?
    The topic you raise in "Choosing Your Ventriloquist Voice" is interesting to me because it asks why our own voices are what they are. Just vocal cords and hormones, or combinations of upbringing, mimicry, choice, and aesthetics? Fates? And how much does language influence voice? In my own voice, and in voices of friends who speak a number of languages, I have noticed that the pitch of the voice is different, depending on the language. Hungarian is deeper than German, for example, in one friend's voice. Why is that? Have we already invented new characters for ourselves in learning a second or third language?
    I just wanted to write to thank you for spreading your enthusiasm for this rich subject, in your fantastic poems and pictures. It was an honour to share a publication with you! I wish you all the best of luck with your manuscript.
    If you care to share your bibliography, I would love to read more!
    Best regards,
    Molly Bashaw

  10. Hi Molly,
    Yes, I know that Ritchard and Maloney book. I like quite a lot of their exercises as lines of poetry.

    I also have tried finding out about non-comic ventriloquism, and, though I haven't been a meticulous researcher, I will tell you it is not an easy or obvious thing to find. Probably the most serious early uses of ventriloquism were with oracles and prophecies. Then you have your mediums, voices from the "other side," etc.

    I don't know if you know the puppeteer Bruce Scwartz--he used to do amazing heartbreaking monologues with beautiful puppets he made; I would love to find something the equivalent in ventriloquism, but I have not found it. Perhaps this kind of work is ready to be invented.

    A really good all-around history of ventriloquism is Valentine Vox's I Can See Your Lips Moving. Another good book is called Dumbstruck, I forget who by. It's a little more philosophical than I have attention for, but buried in the philosophy are many historical details.

    I would certainly suspect that we are different people in different languages. As for the question of is it easier to ventriloquize in other languages? I bet each language its challenge. I do know that my Grandfather's figure, the Chinese dummy Won Lung (yep, those vaudeville days were racist as hell) was probably the only Yiddish-speaking Chinese dummy in existence, and one of my Grandfather's specialties was "Chinese Gobbeldygook." He also specialized in the distant voice--one of the tricks no figure is needed for. In fact, the actual ventriloquist figure came along much, much later than the art of ventriloquy itself. But Valentine Vox will tell you more...

    Molly, your poems in this issue are stunning. I hope to read more of your work. Please let me know where I can find it.


  11. Molly, I have loved reading and rereading your ventriloquist poems. Thanks for the tip about reading "Difficult Speech" and "Easy Oration" in front of the mirror. I knew you were playing tricks with consonants, but knowing isn't the same as seeing and feeling. Years ago I was in a workshop where David Wagoner suggested the "bardic exercise" of writing a poem without the sounds that require lip movement. Now I see how that can lead to a wonderful poem. The "work arounds" are delightful. They remind me of creative lengths my ESL students go when confronted by a word they are afraid to mispronounce. (Some all always "go to the shore," for fear of being heard to say "go to the bitch.")

    "Choosing Your Ventriloquial Voice" resonated with me in a different way. When I was first trying to write poems seriously, we talked a lot about "finding our voices." But thinking of this a "choice," and furthermore one in which matters of physiology and craft have an element, changes things, I think, and opens up possibilities for (serious) playfulness. And, as in the other two poems, you do a wonderful job of directing the reader's attention to the what is happening physically in the mouth.

    Reading your poems and your discussion of your grandparents’ life in vaudeville, I was reminded of a graphic novel I read last year: "The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam," by the film-maker Ann Marie Fleming, the great-granddaughter, I believe, of the Chinese magician and acrobat of the title. She also made a film, which I have not had a chance to see.

    As a final note, I was pleased to hear several more of your ventriloquist poems on the Jack Straw podcast:
    I look forward to reading and hearing more.

    Jay Klokker

  12. Hi Jay,
    Wow, that's interesting. I did not know or had not remembered that David Wagoner prompt--he was my huge influence in graduate school, and still is now. I have a long list of suggested assignments-projects-whatdoyoucallems from him, very few of which I've carried out, but which I remember often and use as a way to give myself my own assignments. This discussion makes me want to return to that list now with more focus.

    Yes, in "Choosing Your Ventriloquial Voice" I was thinking of all the different kinds of "voice-choosing" one must do (though "thinking" is probably not what you'd call what goes on in my head). It interested me that in choosing a voice and character for a ventriloquial figure, a ventriloquist has to be deliberate, considering show-biz and craft; but if creativity and surprise and some kind of soul or authenticity don't come into it, the enterprise is probably lost. I suspect the same is true not only for poetry, but also for being human; with a goal of leaving all the deliberation behind and learning to soar.

    In that poem I was partly influenced by some of the puppets I saw when I went to the ventriloquist convention in 2005; they were not subtle, most of them, but were made to Show Up on the stage. Bright colors, exaggerated features, cutesy-ness. That annoyed me: I had been imagining a sort of delicacy and depth. But now I feel fondly for the brightly colored over-the-top the orphan I invented in that poem. It makes me think that as much as we try to be graceful human beings, we're always blowing it, exaggerating the ego, scattering faux pas everywhere we go.

    Wow, you even followed up, looking at the Jack Straw website. I'm honored.

    I do get ideas sometimes from ESL students; I wish they knew how wonderful some of their creativities are. The human brain, what a device.

    I haven't read the Fleming book. Thanks for suggesting it.


  13. Hi, Mollie.

    What fun poems! I especially admire your enactment of sound in “let aaaay / splay like a tossed daddy longlegs.” It would be fun to hear readers from all over the English-speaking world render that “aaaay.” The l’s further down (“for life, so make it someone who’ll / fall in a well, who’ll bawl after bedtime / (from under the pillow), yodel. . .”) remind me of Eudora Welty.

    When you use vintage words (plaint, pipes up, brilliantines, carpet-weavers, betimes, fops, etc.), do you harvest them from family letters? Have you found recordings or print copies of vaudeville introductions or patter? The beginning of “Difficult Speech: Welcome” suggests a barker who has turned to poetry. Fun!

    Muriel Nelson

  14. Hi Muriel,

    No, those vintage words didn't come from any specific place. I have been reading histories of vaudeville, and some skits--there are several sample ventriloquist skits in the how-to books you can get, and some of these books are at least a bit historical: Arthur Prince's The Whole Art of Ventriloquism, and Practical Ventriloquism, by Robert Ganthony, which is a facsimile edition. Also Edgar Bergen's How To Become a Ventriloquist. But I cannot tell you if I was using words from those sources. I kind of think not.

    Mainly, the words came to me as I tried to inhabit an onstage persona who used as many Ps and Bs as possible. I did picture a shabby dark red velvet curtain, ratty once-gold ropes, and an audience in which some of the quieter members crave to be emotionally moved while the boisterous members entertain themselves by heckling the performer. I tried to enter the emotional state the person on stage to truly wants to connect but cannot reach these two groups simultaneously, each requiring a different approach.

    I'm always looking for vaudeville and vaudeville-like shows to see--in real life, on film, or anywhere. I wish I had time to seek more of them out, but I wait for them to turn up instead. I do have a passel of old vaudeville magazines, the Variety of the day, and in it are printed thousands of ads in tiny print for different vaudeville acts, and performer lists of some of the shows of the time. These are awfully fun to browse.

    Hope to run into you at a reading somewhere soon, take care,

  15. Hi Molly,

    What great poems! The second stanza of Difficult Speech especially caught me--I'm envious.

    I also liked reading your comments about your grandparents and knowing about the strong artistic impulse in your family. You're honoring them not only by writing about their craft, but by practicing your own. How interesting that in your comments about ventriloquism you just as well might be talking about poetry: "[it] comes from the human body, all its parts practicing and working together. . . ."

    Thanks for these poems that celebrate the voices of our past in such an intimate, fun way.

  16. Hi Erin,
    Well, the artistic impulse in the family has had to fight for itself.

    I wonder if a poem about any craft or art can be read as a poem about poetry? Probably. I almost like to think of these poems as poems about breathing.

    --Molly Tenenbaum