Writing after Speech: Dialogues on ‘Epiwriting’

Kathy Groan
  1. Certain forms of writing can be described simply as modes of ‘utterance.’ Someone speaks, and through the act of speaking, that someone addresses the presence of a ‘listener.’
  1. And yet a text is a written piece of evidence. That is, even if we figuratively ‘listen’ we do not really ‘hear’ a text in any literal sense.
  1. Nevertheless, when we read certain texts [The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain, Ulysses by James Joyce, The Waves by Virginia Woolf; the poetries of Gwendolyn Brooks, W.S. Graham and Alice Oswald] we choose to suspend our disbelief. We read as a form of listening to or over-hearing utterance.
  1. Denis Donoghue makes the distinction between ‘epireaders’ – readers who “[interpret] experience in terms of voice, speech, utterance, logos understood as action” – and ‘graphireaders’ – those who deal “with writing as such and [do] not think of it as transcribing an event properly construed as vocal and audible.” (1) 

4.5 Are you receiving me? Could you breathe down the line so I might catch a trace of exhale? Like that, yes. So the line flexes and hauls its roots. That’s the stuff to gauge which way the softly language.

  1. He says: “Speech is the shape of my feelings, the form of my desire. […] Breath, the rhythm of taking and expelling breath, represents the only understanding of presence, which persists […] by committing itself to a moving form as vulnerable as the heartbeat. Our bodily presence in the world is equally vulnerable. The aura which suffuses the idea of dialogue, conversation, communication, and communion arises from the sense of vulnerability in common.” (2)
  1. Donoghue describes the voice which speaks as “a mode of action and not an instrument of reflection.” (3) Thus, a speaker is implicated in a wider action of human behaviour, activity, negotiation and community.
  1. As a consequence, when we engage in speech-acts we make ourselves peculiarly – somewhat appallingly – vulnerable. For example, to speak and not be heard; to speak and be talked over; to speak and be ignored or worse, dismissed. Each scenario involves a humiliation which reminds us that to speak is to expose ourselves to the utmost peril.
  1. To be spoken to exposes us to another kind of peril. Judith Butler says: “Our very being exposes us to the address of another […] We suffer from the condition of being addressable. Our emotional openness […] is carried by our addressability. Language navigates this.” (4)

8.5 Here we are then. Two strangers engaged in a casual game of make-believe. Only now I note this anxiety provokes an odd, rapid pleasure. Am I carrying my speaking towards you? Do I hold you in my gasp?

  1. Whether as speaker or addressee, when caught in the act of dialogue we are at our most linguistically vulnerable. Moreover, utterance is far messier than ‘literature.’ Utterance refuses to summon ‘the best words in the best order.’ It is a muddled, imperfect business. Utterance is partial and incomplete. It stops, starts, hesitates, struggles; it is fraught with the dangers of ‘thinking on our feet’, saying the ‘wrong’ thing, ‘thinking out loud’ etc.
  1. Yet ‘writing after speech’ both acknowledges and refers to its own paradoxical demands. That is, ‘epiwriting’ is bound to its writtenness while simultaneously asserting its spokenness as a verbal, voiceable utterance. And ‘epiwriting’ is bound to a single voice while simultaneously asserting its status as a dialogic mode of utterance, action, thought.

10.5 Like now, for instance. Do you feel the reaching I am fastening you to? I am listening very keenly to the spaces you come out of. We are both [admit it] on the ropes, aren’t we?

  1. For we enter speech events as co-conspirators and, in the true spirit of collaboration, set up a contract. Furthermore, the precariousness of utterance and address is such that a dialogue can go one way or another. Its potential hangs, suspended in the balance.

11.5 You are dangling at one end of an utterance which traces us both. You are waggling the wire at your end of the linegauge. Waggle waggle. Do not let go of it or it will let go of me.



(1) Donoghue D., Ferocious Alphabets (London: Faber, 1981) p. 151

(2) Ibid. p. 98

(3) Donoghue D., quoting Malinowski in Ferocious Alphabets p. 118

(4) Butler, J., quoted by Claudia Rankine in Citizen: An American Lyric (London: Penguin, 2015) p. 49

Both this piece and Kathy’s poem ‘The Red Cycle’ were inspired by Clare Archibald’s ‘Congealed‘. 

Kathy Groan has worked as a bartender, busker, chambermaid, life model, usherette and waitress. She is currently working on a book of creative and critical essays on language, violence and desire.

‘The Red Cycle’ is taken from Issue Five of The Lonely Crowd, which may be purchased here.

© Kathy Groan, 2016. Banner image © Jo Mazelis, 2016.