Mary Cappello





“I have nothing to say and I am saying it and that is poetry.” –John Cage


1. Why Lecture?

In 1934, in curious approximation of a correspondence between Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein titled, “Why War?”, Virginia Woolf published an essay with the cryptic title, “Why?” It was a call to bring the then over-abundance of lectures and lecturing to an end: if print media had replaced the lecture, why must we still attend lectures? “Why lecture, why be lectured?” At the heart of Woolf’s essay lodges an unforgettable aphorism that goes: Now the human voice is an instrument of varied power; it can enchant and it can soothe; it can rage and it can despair; but when it lectures it almost always bores. Of course Woolf’s essay, which quite possibly began as a lecture, does not bore. It is shot through with humor, and novelistic mise en scènes; it is punctuated with fury and a series of ever-mounting repetitions that sound and resound into a magnificent rallying cry against the lecture and lecturing.

Why,” Woolf asks, “continue an obsolete custom which not merely wastes time and temper, but incites the most debased of human passions—vanity, ostentation, self-assertion, and the desire to convert? Why encourage your elders to turn themselves into prigs and prophets, when they are ordinary men and women? Why force them to stand on a platform for forty minutes while you reflect upon the colour of their hair and the longevity of flies? Why not let them talk to you and listen to you, naturally and happily, on the floor? Why not create a new form of society founded on poverty and equality? Why not bring together people of all ages and both sexes and all shades of fame and obscurity so that they can talk, without mounting platforms or reading papers or wearing expensive clothes or eating expensive food? Would not such a society be worth, even as a form of education, all the papers on art and literature that have ever been read since the world began?…Why not invent human intercourse? Why not try?”

I am totally with Virginia Woolf in wanting to create a new form of colloquy, to move with others and across affiliations in the collective formation of ideas—to converse—to arrive at a dwelling in common where real discussion can be had; but, rather than ask “why lecture” with Woolf, I want to know if it is possible to re-inhabit what was great and stirring about the lecture when it was a form of art. This requires restoring the lecture’s affiliation with the essay, not, in the process, to arrive at a lecture that comes to its point, and does so with dazzling aplomb, but to re-value wandering ways: to distinguish the boredom that lectures characteristically instill from the even-hovering attention they can incite; to court the counter-intuition of going on a journey with a wandering guide, then to share what is noticed—the marginal, the ephemeral—precisely because of the way that lecture holds you, as the necessary effect of its hover and drift.

Midway between a sermon and a bedtime story, the lecture is knowledge’s dramatic form.

Nonfiction’s lost performative: the lecture.

Cousin to the essay, or its precursor: that non-genre that allows for untoward movement, apposition, and assemblage, that is one part conundrum, one part accident, and that fosters a taste for discontinuity.

But I’d better slow down lest I lose you entirely, because, yes, I am getting all meta on you. If it’s not yet clear, I’m hoping to present you with a lecture on the lecture as lost and forgotten literary form.

But why? as Woolf might ask. Why here? Why now?

It’s 2017, and as women we’ve still to take back the night, to say nothing of the lectern. We need to take back the lectern from Sean Spicer who uses the lectern as a prototype for his boss’s wall, or as Melissa McCarthy instructs us, as a weapon: a literal bludgeon. “Don’t lecture me!”—now lecture has a superannuated superego effect. When “lecture” becomes a homonym for “hector,” we know we’ve fallen on bad times. I prefer “intone” as the lecture’s operative verb—a lecture as an intonation on…an invitation toward…fill in the blank, fill in the verb.

Why turn our attention in the direction of the lecture? Because as writers we want always to be rediscovering the forms that are at our disposal. We take nothing for granted. It’s not enough to be conversant with the very modes by which the order of things is understood, conveyed, and shaped. We need actively to reinvent those. Following Foucault, we want to “grasp the implicit systems which determine our most familiar behavior without our knowing it” [and thereby] “make the cultural unconscious apparent.” To put into question our modes of enactment and conveyance, even to revolutionize them.

We want to create genealogies of forms that we take for granted, and by which we come to know the world, or for that matter “learn” what we learn. Yes, what is at stake here is the relationship between nonfiction and pedagogy; between nonfiction and performance—nonfiction off the page; between nonfiction and information; and between nonfiction and perhaps most paramount of all—voice. Think of the great lecturers you have known if you’ve had the good fortune of knowing any. The essence of the lecture isn’t the what but the how, how they say it, which is to say, inhabit it, embody it, dare I say, sing it, or, to put this another way, is attendance at a lecture about a will to knowledge or a will to listen?

Mary Ruefle’s wonderful Madness, Rack and Honey, subtitled “Collected Lectures,” is really a gathering of anti-lectures. There she writes of how her “innate horror of lectures” has to do with producing more language on language rather than involving herself in the creation of what Nemerov might call the silence of understanding to which all art aspires. She likens her recalcitrance around lecturing on poetry to the silence best kept around the thrush: “I do not think I really have anything to say about poetry other than remarking that it is a wandering little drift of unidentified sound, and trying to say more reminds me of following the sound of a thrush into the woods on a summer’s eve—if you persist in following the thrush it will only recede deeper and deeper into the woods; you will never actually see the thrush…but I suppose listening is a kind of knowledge, or as close as one can come. ‘Fret not after knowledge, I have none,’ is what the thrush says. Perhaps we can use our knowledge to preserve a bit of space where his lack of knowledge can survive.”

Is this collection of “untethered pieces” and “accumulated debris” in which subjects float by and never manifest into lectures, reflective, in the end, merely of Ruefle’s ambivalence toward lectures, or does it find her mining that other form whose genealogy is also worth tracing: the note—the note as the origin of the lecture and the end toward which the lecture tends until, if we’re lucky, we strike upon the note as pure form: aphorism. “A poem is a neutrino—mainly nothing—it has no mass and can pass through the earth undetected,” is one of my favorites in this book. “Capitalism, like the Arctic environment, is a system THAT DOESN’T CARE IF YOU LIVE OR DIE,” is another.

This is what her lecture delivers. Just bring these two aphorisms into a room and let them rub up against each other. Leave your books at home. Forget the lecture.

Not exactly and not for long because whether a lecture unwinds across a long stretch of time (like this one), or is intent on condensation à la Ruefle, it makes me present to a new form of listening; it creates a new listener in me (like all great literature). The lecture as I want to imagine it is pedagogic without being didactic—the student it conjures doesn’t work by way of a one-to-one correspondence as in a me here lecturing to a you there listening—listening for what it going to be on the test. The test will be your writing, the test will be your striking of a tuning fork, in harmony or in dissonance but never for or against, resonant and reverberant, nearby rather than opposed.

For many of us, the lecture is the stuff of bad dreams, a sure locus of anxiety. If I’m a student in the nightmare, the lecture is the thing I’m impossibly late for or have missed; if I’m a teacher, it’s that for which I am hopelessly unprepared. But what if the lecture were an opportunity for freedom; a conduit to a deeper place, a brighter consciousness rather than the medium for regulating what counts as knowledge, for measuring success or managing our failures? It’s not what I say this morning but what it reminds you of or helps you to remember or tempts you to want to know that I hope you feel encouraged toward today, and that relies on hints and whiffs, not information. In fact, subjugated knowledge is the thing I’m interested in. No matter the genre of art I am experiencing, that’s usually where I want to be taken—to the left out and the leftover, to the forgotten or subordinated.

I say this, and yet I admit a nostalgic fondness for the thing that one must always say in a lecture, the phrase, “As we all know…” followed by a list of books and references that you know nothing about and after which you run to the library to find. Or, “As we will all remember…” It is an arrogant presumption, but, at the same time, I have to say I love the share of knowledge it tries to dream: the lecture as a rite of passage into a readership or a community or, well, I hope not, a club? Perhaps this is where the lecture fails, but if it makes us want to run to a library, or run from it, or toward something we didn’t know enough to want to run toward or away from before we heard it, that may be all to the good; if it tempts us to move differently, maybe that is all good.

In a 2013 interview for Jezebel, Anne Carson said, “I’m really trying to make people’s minds move, you know, which is not something they’re naturally inclined to do…We have a kind of inertia, sitting and listening. But it’s really important to get somehow into the mind and make it move somewhere it has never moved before…Given whatever material we’re going to talk about, and we all know what it is, how can we move within it in a way we’ve never moved before, mentally?”

As we will all remember, “the grove or garden in which the philosopher had walked back and forth as he spoke with the students was named the Lyceum, and the term was kept alive by virtue of this association.” Should I amble then? Should you do something other than sit still? Or is it that in essaying I rove in ways my body could not for trying? The Lyceum movement that began in the late 1820s U.S., according to Carl Bode’s book on the subject, The American Lyceum: Town Meeting of the Mind, helped to shape a distinctive prose style in American literature (what would its analog be today? I’m not really aware of a distinctive prose style in America). An institution through which lectures, dramatic performances, debates, and the like are presented to a community, the “main purpose of the movement originally was to provide practical scientific instruction for workmen, and to have as a result a more intelligent worker as well as a better product.”

“Fully three quarters of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s published writing began as lectures” that he delivered in the Lyceum. The lecture began to prove an essayistic ideal for him. We will remember the famous entry into Emerson’s journal, 5th of July 1839: “A lecture is a new literature, which leaves aside all tradition, time, place, circumstance, and addresses an assembly as mere human beings, no more…it is an organ of sublime power, a panharmonicon for variety of note…” But the thing about Emerson was that he did not entertain his audiences, and in fact often irritated them: moreover, though they often did not “understand what he said,” they invited him back again and again.

Let’s imagine together an ideal toward which we might move. Imagine a world in which I can never know in advance the form the lecture is going to take, and so, too, the public reading.

In 2017 America, there is so much that holds or demands our attention without requiring my attention or altering my attention.

Imagine the lecture as a radical opening.

When will we build the rooms to meet the form of our inquiry or of art rather than slot every talk, panel, and reading into the same rank and file?

How can nonfiction’s lost performative call us to listen in terms of a different arrangement?


2. Lecture Miscellany, or Stray Cats 

Is the space between writing and lecturing that in the former we ask questions of ourselves (in private) and in the latter, we ask questions “openly in public”?


I once listened to a lecture that lasted three full hours and was not for a moment bored. (It was an historian’s assemblage of the vast networks of people who came and went through the doors of a villa in Central Europe that is now a meeting place for artists and intellectuals. He was supposed to create a pamphlet, but he got carried away. He carried us away. His commission was cancelled).


When James Baldwin or Gilles Deleuze answers questions, it is not quite accurate to say that they reply “articulately”—it’s not that they are eloquent merely—it’s that they respond in essays, performative essays. Try mapping their moves and get a feel for the shape of their thought. Baldwin gives us prolonged parentheticals, emphatic turning points, gasps that give life to the gap between the Real as he knows it and racism’s blaring falsehoods: list-like and conversational at once, his “answer” is a paean to a genre of knowledge one rarely finds in lectures—that which one must, of necessity, learn in order to Be. 



Deleuze moves from preferences to self-effacement; propositions to questions; fascinations to definitions; self-questioning to neologisms all of which lays the ground for his arriving at a wild card as explanation for his original point of departure. 




The PechaKucha as contemporary innovative lecture claims to really condense the PowerPoint presentation, to insist on focus, but I think it confuses focus with speed.


When Gertrude Stein set out to lecture in America, she tried to free herself altogether of a discourse of questions and of answers.

I considered working a performative silence into this lecture, but I was afraid it would upset people too much so I refrained. Even though I think we could all use a little more jolts born of disarming quiet to cut through the static and the noise.


In a lecture, I compose myself and comport myself, but maybe it would be better if I incarnated myself as a bird and cooed from the rafters out of earshot and out of sight, inviting you to follow me into silence.


In the lecture, speech meets writing rather than serve as its passive or inert delivery system.


During those same years in which Stein was doing her thing on the lecture circuit, there was a woman named Mary Brooks Adelsperger doing hers. “Adventures of a Modern Head Hunter” was the title of Adelsperger’s larger than life lectures-in-sculpture, each of which represented a different human emotion. Reason is a face whose contour is a reversed isoceles triangle. Credulity is represented by a grotesque white head covered with yellow hair. It has no eyes. (Adelsperger was obviously prescient).





In some disciplines, the lecture will always be accompanied by a plaque. When I read from my book, Swallow, in medical contexts, the physicians almost always gave me a plaque to commemorate the talk. My studio is filled with such slabs like so many headstones to a length of little deaths. 


Richard Hamblyn in his Invention of Clouds describes “one of the great lost lectures”—it was the lecture that Constable was never able to materialize on the new science of meteorology before he died. Why would we want this lecture if we have his art? 


When I was but a wisp of a girl, maybe ten years old, my mother hailed a bus for us out of our working class suburb to attend a lecture by Margaret Meade in center city Philadelphia. I don’t recall a thing Meade said, but I was rapt by the staff she carried and how it propelled her to the stage like a holy crutch or divining rod. During this same era, and in this same room, we went to hear Allen Ginsberg give a reading. In lieu of a sampling of his poetry that day, he chanted OM for a full twenty minutes.


David Antin’s talk poetry is a type of poem-talk or poetry-as-lecture and it doesn’t pay to try to read those on the page and hope to get the full effect.


“I dance, romp, howl, whimper, rage, lecture and spit on the page now.” Siri Hustvedt closes an essay about coming into her own via psychoanalysis with that line. 


Erving Goffman in his wonderful “Lecture on the Lecture” (1977) meditates on the aspects of a lecture that cannot translate into printed prose, reminding us, “As a source of potential noise, the podium itself is a many-layered thing. One source we owe to the fact that lecturers come equipped with bodies, and bodies can easily introduce visual and audio effects unconnected with the speech stream, and these may be distracting. A speaker must breathe, fidget a little, scratch occasionally, and may feel cause to cough, brush back his hair, straighten her skirt, sniffle, take a drink of water, finger her pearls, clean his glasses, burp, shift from one foot to another, sway, manneristically, button and unbutton a jacket, turn the pages and square them off, and so forth—not to mention tripping over the carpet or appearing not to be entirely zipped up.” Is corporeality the essence of the lecture or its enemy: is the real lecture to be found in the lecturer’s bodily marginalia—all that escapes the lecture even as it pleads for attempt at access—or in her words? 


I will never forget the first time I was moved to tears by a lecture: it was that of Susan Howe on Emily Dickinson’s fascicles circa 1986. Imagine being present to Audre Lorde as she addressed the Modern Language Association in 1977. What a different Association that must have been then—I mean, has there ever been a more significant lecture in those precincts before or since? And with it, the seeds to ZAMI, inspired, in part, she said, when she heard Barbara Smith at a plenary session at that same convention stand up and identify herself as a black lesbian literary critic wondering if she could actually do this at the MLA and live to tell the story. 


I wish I had been alive to attend the lecture halls of France in May ’68; or how about the shadowy nooks and hushed hubbub of the halls that bedeck great modernist novels? The Bostonians or Howard’s End?


TED Talks give me the creeps. Please do not confuse them with lectures. They all have a whiff of organized religion about them and the feel of the sermon on the infomercial mount.


The lecture will have succeeded, if, like the essay, it cannot be summarized, but only experienced.


Now I’m remembering the time I suggested we play the “lecture” game with the eight and nine-year-old children of my friends. We pretended each to give a lecture on the subject of “nothing.” We used the word “indubitably” a lot; we put on airs; we donned regalia; we tapped on our students heads during the Q and A; we broached a great deal of nonsense and we had a lot of fun. 

The zero is the nothing of the no-time and if we WERE to consider this ahem as in the hem that is missing all about your skirt thus is absence this is indeed the preview of the non-matter that is the none-sense of no-THING pings and all this nottingale and ahem ahem ARE you listening I fear you have MISSSED the point quite rightly or wrongly and there-there yes hold your horses young man I’ll call on you in time but first some words on the goose egg of minus-1 before but never aft open but not closed after all at the beginning and at the end this is the garble of the garbage that I chomp and nothing more quoth the raven never is anything like nothing or is it not?

We played like this, the kids and I, basically saying whatever came to mind on “nothing” until we were overcome with belly laughs, and what came to the fore as we played The Lecture Game was how the kids already knew what “smart” sounds like and how to imitate it by way of emphasis but also how, by putting the authority of the lecture in quotation marks, we were able to experience free associative fun rather than the need to “get things right,” to “know one’s stuff.” The lecture as liberatory.


Look, there’s something serious going on here…

When I was a young writer, newly eighteen, I pictured myself literally as a man when I visualized giving voice to my poetry in public. As though when I tried to dream myself into a writer-in-public, or to fantasize, a male dummy entered where my voice and body should have been. Thirty years later at the verdant epicenter of a small amphitheater in Palazzolo Acreide, Sicily, I felt I’d found my place, the spirit welling within me and the words sprouting from foot through crown in vowels that could stir as much as quiet, even though I knew, in its (ancient Greek or Roman) day, no woman would be wanted there except as figure or idea.


Could my voice fill an amphitheater, or my body? Can yours?


Etymologically: lecturer means “reader”; he who reads to.


3. Brief Encounters With Some Lecturing Modes (excursion, compression, adaptation, and reinvention)

I’m convinced that I learned how to read and I learned how to write by listening to the Americanist scholar Martin Pops lecture. When my mentor, the great essayist Marty Pops, gave this lecture on Henry James’s The Aspern Papers at SUNY/Buffalo in 1985, he hadn’t lineated it, though I’m certain he did compose it in the way a musician creates a score. He was the age I am now when he wrote this lecture-as-incantation, and I am the age he was then listening to it as though hearing it for the first time and with the fullest, most startling force of its import, of what it not only addresses or invokes but intones. I’m literally listening to the lecture again because I have a cassette recording of it. It was I who had suggested the tape recording when Marty was otherwise to miss his class on account of minor surgery. “I’ll bring my recorder to your house,” I said. “You can record your lecture in your own time and then I’ll bring it to the class so we can listen to it. It appears you’re not too ill to lecture, right? It’ll be fun.”

Let’s listen to the first two minutes of Marty’s ninety-minute lecture, knowing that it is in its entirety, rendered like this:


In any case…

arrogates consciousness to itself
as Rabelais argues
in his great book
that the king of all men
to whom
even earthly kings bow down
is venter,
the body,
a deeply materialist explanation of human events,
that life in the hospital
or in Rabelais,
though Rabelais is endlessly more exuberant,
is life in the lower body,
though Rabelais himself allows for the Abbey of Theleme
at the end of his book Gargantua
a realm of higher consciousness
…in any case he is fundamentally concerned as life in the hospital is fundamentally concerned with such things as
the consistency of bowel and the quantity of urine,
the blood the bowel the body and the baby talk,
the sacred mystery of your body here revealed
the private text of your body here inscribed,
it’s as if these were newspaper headlines
you are the victim of vandals

Near the end of his life
Henry James, in medical crisis,
it’s one of the most touching episodes in James’s life,
“sobbed and panted and held my hand”
said his nephew, one of William James’s sons,
but that of course is not the James we know,
and love,
and it is the James we can hardly imagine,
James reduced to blood, bowel, the body, and baby talk.
the Jamesian protagonist, as we have observed,
is out to “see, to see all she can,” “to live, live all he can,”
the passionate pilgrim of a higher consciousness,
one who like John Marcher in the Beast in the Jungle awaits the event,
the distinguished thing,
(James called “a distinguished thing” the onset as he thought it of his own death)
awaits the unique experience,
Mrs. Prest says in The Aspern Papers, “One would think you expected to find in those papers, the riddle of the universe,”
these papers
which elsewhere are called “sacred relics,”
admitted irony,
and, which are characterized as possessing esoteric knowledge
admitted irony.
These are, in any case, high stakes
and stakes away from the lower body.
Or so they seem.


I revisit Marty’s lecture and continue to learn from it twenty-five years after the fact, understanding just a little bit more than I had at twenty-five years of age. These were the utterances not of an emergent but a fully formed voice, which doesn’t mean that the lecture wasn’t full of gaps and tentativities. It is hard to know, listening back on it, how the unformed blob that I was heard it, or what part of it I was able to then take in. Marty’s lecture was not really preachy, though it was pronounced in sacral tones; it preserved the bass-y concatenations of a chant underscored by the textures of a Brooklyn Jewish accent (the sound of one kind of leather—a baseball’s, hitting another kind of leather—the glove). It’s a genre that may have gone out of fashion, if it ever existed at all. It is a parsing of knowledge riddled with enjambment. It’s thinking as a form of breathing. Though it sounds authoritative, it is all about submission, since it asks a student to witness a reader submit himself to a book; to listen to the sounds of an idea played upon the improvisatory instrument that is the teacher’s voice.

“Arrogate” was a new word for me even at middle age. “Pain arrogates consciousness to itself”; pain claims consciousness for itself, leaving no room for anything but itself. Would you believe me if I told you that I once wrote a hundred-page essay based on Marty Pops’ lecture? I think what I’ve been driving at all along is a poetics of the lecture. So let’s come back to silence and restraint (neither of which I’m good at), and to poets.

The University of Pennsylvania features something on their website called the 60 Second Lecture. It’s a PR ploy to allow prospective students a taste of the kind of thinking that an education at the university affords. The tantalizing minimalist constraint, though, is lost on most faculty who feature there—no one really uses the directive to test the form’s liberating finitude. Instead, in true academic fashion, each tries to squash as much information as possible into their slot as if in a sort of speed-dating mode until the one minute charge morphs into two, three, and four minutes. In fact in some cases the constraint seems to have made mad scientist-type figures even more crazed as they rush and sputter to a finish line, unable to pack it all in, leaving us with the feeling that they might have served their subject better with the instantaneity of an Ice Bucket Contest. Except in the case of experimental poet, Charles Bernstein. Rather than use the one-minute lecture to present his subject, he exploits it in order to perform his subject. He occupies time and discovers the amplitude of one minute of utterance or one minute of life. He does this by subverting the positivism of the lecture mode via a series of negations; by fashioning a list poem (that poetic envelope of bounded boundlessness); and by, in the end, literally timing himself without taming himself. He makes the constraint his instructive subject, and, by mapping it onto a matrix of poetic practice, infuses it with JOY. This is this lecture’s element of best-of-all: Bernstein uses the lecture mode, a la Roland Barthes, to restore saveur to savoir, to bring a savoring into contact with a knowing: or in Roland Barthes’ words, in his own 1977 lecture to the College de France, he makes “knowledge festive.”

Let’s listen to Bernstein’s lecture, “What Makes a Poem, a Poem?”



Last but not least, you will remember John Cage’s 1949 and 1950 Lectures on Something and Lectures on Nothing, in which Cage made use of methods similar to those he used as a composer. Fragmented and collaged, Cage’s lectures come equipped with answers he would give to the first six questions in Q and A no matter what those questions were. They are:


1. That is a very good question. I should not want to spoil it with an answer.
2. My head wants to ache.
3. Had you heard Marya Freund last April in Palermo singing Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, I doubt whether you would ask that question.
4. According to the Farmers’ Almanack this is False Spring.
5. Please repeat the question…And again…and again…
6. I have no more answers


Let’s listen to a particularly stirring moment in John Cage’s “Lecture on Nothing.” 



Carl Bode opines in his book on the lyceum that “the mass media of radio, motion pictures, and television [and now we could add the internet] have triumphed unconditionally over the lecture.” I don’t agree. Rather than render the lecture obsolete, rather than negate or displace the lecture, they have each in their way called for a newly vital lecture mode. We just haven’t known how to heed their call and reinvent. We haven’t cared to create a lecture that could adequate the essay once more. But which essay would that be? An essay rendered in an earlier age whose form has not yet been exhausted, or a twenty-first-century essay: a lecture that could “work against information machines toward the creation of a new becoming art, to deliver us from our informational automatisms and our communicational stupidities” (I’m quoting here John Rajchman on Gilles Deleuze.).

In the recurring lecture nightmare, the students aren’t paying attention, but this misses the point of the lecture as I want to dream it while we’re still awake. Because the lecture, if it’s doing its job, must suspend one form of attention in order to allow another form to wake.

“Lectures for me are bad dreams,” says Mary Ruefle. In Roland Barthes’s “Lecture” to which I earlier referred, he said, “A professor’s sole activity [is] to dream his research aloud…”

Perhaps at the end we must conclude that I have not lectured but have dreamt—yes, I’ve been dreaming up here—which doesn’t mean that this lecture never took place, but that the place in which it occurred is not one accessible without an alteration of sense and sensibility. It is available only so long as we long, so long as we listen, and note. Yes, I’ve been dreaming up here, which is to say, hoping to conjure lost souls, lost loves, lost arts, and lost teachers.

We’re forty-five minutes in, and I’ve not yet asked the most important question: what unplumbed mode would you wish to smuggle in to your own elaboration of nonfiction form? Can we do what I’ve done with the lecture with the genre known as “the panel”?

What keeps us holding fast to forms we barely know the origin or import of? The assumptions that undergird them, the effects they serve, the modes of knowing and desiring that they keep in place?

Now I want a meeting place fashioned of differently angled and differently scaled inclined planes. Instead of sitting at long tables, each person lies on her back looking up. Each speaks without facing the other as at a campsite at nightfall, our documents in common: one star-stud or a spiel of constellations. Some are silent, while others carouse and carry on. Everyone murmurs on the verge of sleep.

But this is for another lecture.                        



A regular contributor to the world of literary nonfiction and experimental prose, Mary Cappello is the author of five books, including Awkward: A Detour (a Los Angeles Times bestseller); Swallow, based on the Chevalier Jackson Foreign Body Collection in Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum; and, most recently, the mood fantasia, Life Breaks In: A Mood Almanack. A Guggenheim and Berlin Prize Fellow, a recipient of the Dorothea Lange/Paul Taylor Prize from Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies, and the Bechtel Prize for Educating the Imagination from Teachers and Writers Collaborative, Cappello is a former Fulbright lecturer at the Gorky Literary Institute (Moscow, Russia) and currently Professor of English and creative writing at the University of Rhode Island. She lives in Providence, Rhode Island, and Lucerne-in-Maine, Maine. A co-authored experiment in essayism is forthcoming in 2018 from Spuyten Duyvil—with James Morrison and Jean Walton, Buffalo Trace: A Threefold Vibration. For more information:




I would like to thank Eric LeMay, Dinty Moore, and Dave Wanczyk whose invitation to deliver a reading and a “lecture” at Ohio University’s Spring 2017 Literary Festival provided the opportunity for my bringing these formulations to the stage (and to the page). Thanks are due as well to the late Georgiana Peacher for introducing me to the unusual presentations of Mary Brooks Adelsperger. References include: James Baldwin, “Who Is the Nigger?,” a clip from Take This Hammer, KQED/National Education Television, 1963; Roland Barthes, “Lecture In Inauguration of the Chair of Literary Semiology, Collège de France, January 7, 1977,” October, vol. 8, Spring 1979: 3-16; Carl Bode, The American Lyceum: Town Meeting of the Mind (NY: Oxford UP, 1956); John Cage, Silence: Lectures and Writings (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1961); Gilles Deleuze and Claire Parnet, Gilles Deleuze: From A to Z, Pierre-Andre Boutang (director), Charles J. Stivale (translator), (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2012); William Gass, “Emerson and the Essay,” in Habitations of the Word, (NY: Simon and Schuster, 1985); Erving Goffman, Forms of Talk (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1981); Richard Hamblyn, The Invention of Clouds: How An Amateur Meterologist Forged the Language of the Skies (NY: Picador, 2002); Siri Hustdvedt, “Inside the Room” in A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women (NY: Simon and Schuster, 2016); Audre Lorde, “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action” in Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (Crossing Press Feminist Series, 2007), originally delivered at the Lesbian Literature Panel of the MLA, December 28, 1977; John Rajchman, The Deleuze Connections (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2000); Mary Ruefle, Madness, Rack, and Honey: Collected Lectures (Seattle: Wave Books, 2012); Jenna Sauers, “Anne Carson Wants Her Writing to Move You,” March 15, 2013; John K. Simon, “A Conversation with Michel Foucault,” The Partisan Review, Spring 1971: 192-201; Virginia Woolf, The Death of the Moth and Other Essays (NY: Harcourt, 1970).

  © Ninth Letter, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.