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.