Ich Bin Ein Pumpkin Deityby Eliza Bent
Sibyl Kempson’s sparky presence on stage and page first caught my attention in 2009 with Crime or Emergency, in which Kempson inhabits a myriad of characters and sings some early Bruce Springsteen songs. Her powers of mimicry are as epic as her Joycean word play. As a language nerd, I nearly fell over when I caught a snippet of Ich, Kürbisgeist at 2011’s Prelude festival. Characters speak in a made up tongue and meanings get twisty and turny. Big Dance Theater tackles the project at the Chocolate Factory through November 10. I caught up with Kempson over Skype while she was in Austin working on a New Dramatists/Full Stage USA collaboration known as the Pig Pile.
Eliza Bent: When did you begin working on Ich, Kürbisgeist?
Sibyl Kempson: I started writing it before I left Brooklyn College in 2006 and never dreamed anyone would produce or present this play—let alone Big Dance! Mac Wellman and Sherri Kronfeld arranged a reading at the Flea Theater. I was paired up with Jessica Brater, who has a theater company called Polybe + Seats. I loved what she did and asked if she’d direct a workshop at Dixon Place, which was still on the Bowery.
We worked on it for about a month. The actors were very brave and diligent and memorized the treacherous text. That production will live in my heart forever. People who saw it were intrigued, but it never picked up any momentum with presenters or anything, which was heartbreaking, and self-production wasn’t possible at the time.
Years later I sent it to Paul and Annie-B at Big Dance because they aKempsoned if I had any “back-to-the-land” pieces. I had no idea what they meant by that really, but I sent them Kürbisgeist, which at that time was called Zeit Af Der Kürbisgeistnachten. Years after I had sent it they wanted to talk about it and we had a really fun luncheon with Suzanne Bocanegra and Ashley Connell, a college student I was working with at the time. I then read the whole thing out loud for them at Suzanne’s house one night. What a blast. But I didn’t think they were going to do it. I thought we were just having a good time. I was very confused when they called me and said they were going to do it.
Rail: What were your initial impulses and inspirations when you began writing in this amalgamation language?
Kempson: I had been on tour for a couple of autumn months as a performer in Richard Maxwell’s play The End of Reality. We had been to a number of European countries including Sweden, Austria, Belgium, Wales, and Germany. So I had been hearing a lot of different languages and was driven into a sort of ecstatic frenzy by the overload of discovery. (Overload of Discovery—that’s a title for some kind of opera that you and me can do together sometime, Eliza. REMIND ME!!)
Rail: Ooh I will!
Kempson: I was into the letters we don’t have in the English alphabet, and the accents on the letters that we do have, and of course all the pronunciations are so delightful. Tom Bradshaw was another performer in that piece, and I loved traveling with him and the others in the group. So there was a lot of banter about the different languages. I made some good friends in Germany and always found it very relaxing to sit among them while they were speaking their language. It took a lot of pressure off of social situations, which comes from the encumbrance of having to know what to say.
When I came home I was abuzz with this ecstasy of language influence. Plus, it was around Halloween time. I was living a couple of blocks from Prospect Park, and they were having some kind of haunted corn maze for the kids in the evenings. I could hear the canned cycles of cat screams, witches’ laughs, monster groans, and wind wafting over to me in my room next to the chilly open window.
Rail: Love it. So, what are the rules to this language?
Kempson: I had a primer in an old notRailook to help me keep track of what vowels replaced which. But then I kept breaking and changing up the rules, being very, very bad. This was no way to make a new language! But it was more like a code that kept changing to fool the people who were trying to crack it. And that became different dialects that the different factions of characters in the play speak. I started replacing consonants then too. The puritanical characters have words with “dd” replacing “th” for example. And then it just spiraled.
Playwright and phenomenologist Thomas Riccio recently told me that vowels are divine and spiritual and consonants are material and secular. This sheds some interesting light on what happened. I would imagine that one would start with the secular and then you transcend to the spiritual. But if what he is saying is true, I did the reverse. I started messing with the vowels and they led me to the consonants.
I also became aware of how so much of other languages is present in English. It’s spooky and thrilling, because many of those languages are dead languages, like Latin! And so in that way our language is a haunted language. And that’s. You know. Perfect for a Halloween play.
Rail: Do you speak other languages?
Kempson: Enough to order in a restaurant in like two other languages. It’s a source of major shame for me. A shame which I think more Americans should feel besides just me. I don’t want to be the only one who feels remorse and is ashamed not to be able to read original texts of philosophy, science, and literature. We are many of us failures in this way. Not just me. I can’t take all of the blame. But a lot of what drove me to make this piece is that shame, and the wanting to share the blame I heap on myself with others. To spread that shame and blame. [Laughs.]
Attempting to speak a language and failing is a beautiful thing to me. It cuts us down to a very basic level because it is humiliating and embarrassing. And we need to be on that level more often, in more moments. At the mercy of our fellows. Of those who belong and are natives with native tongues.
Rail: I remember on a panel at the Prelude festival you described how as a kid you had categories of words, like a kind of synesthesia—like “Pepsi” words. Has that been in your head while writing?
Kempson: I still have words with tactile associations, like “celery” or “encumberance,” which reminds me of cucumbers. I wish I could remember all of them. While writing this I kept thinking how if you alter the spelling of a word it can have more meanings than just one.
Paul Lazar who acts and co-directs really wanted to know what everything meant and in the beginning we did a lot of talking about what things actually meant. He was trying to nail down what the story. Categorizing words and making double meanings feels very personal, like it’s a private thing. It became painful having to make explicit what I was trying to say—I’m not sure why—it’s not like the play is private in that it’s about my life!
Rail: You’re not divulging some big secret.
Kempson: No. I haven’t changed syntax of the sentences. I’ve just gone through words changing out consonants and vowels and thinking about what the sound of the word will be. What does that lead me to? How does it relate to a tactile sensation? You would know because you are such a mimic.
Rail: Takes one to know one!
Kempson: You can get into someone’s mentality if you can imitate the way they talk. It’s like a key to a way of thinking or interacting. If you’re like “Ooooo!” [Kempson makes the sound of a petite, well-dressed elderly lady cooing over a dog.] That tells you something about where the person is coming from and what they mean. Beyond just what they are saying. So I am also interested in ways of getting that down on paper. How can we communicate that? How can we mess with it on paper and in written language?
Rail: Is there a clear narrative structure?
Kempson: When I was on the NYC Players tour bus coming from the airport we went past a field of broken and smashed pumpkins. First of all if I see a field of pumpkins I get pretty excited because I think they are magical. It’s an organism and for me there’s something really human and super human about them.
The pumpkins were smashed because they were harvesting the seeds and making them into an oil and letting the bodies rot. It was disturbing to me because it seemed wasteful but also a little sacrilegious toward a thing that I personally felt was sacred.
I also thought about agricultural societies and how superstitious they were, relying on the weather for their crops and survival. They had nature deities that they were dependent on. So the story is more or less about a group of people that are disrespecting, for their own survival, these vegetable organisms. There is a deity that is like the Great Pumpkin that gets angry and takes revenge on them and they kind of know its coming. But the characters also feel like they’ve been disrespected by the passing of time and the fading of their traditions and the land where they are doing their existence.
There are different layers of time and habitation that the characters interact with, which I got from Carl Dreyer’s Day of Wrath, a Danish puritanical film. There’s a puritanical clergy situation at another temporal level as well as medieval dark ages and a renaissance medieval group—like the gals you see on tarot cards. I was also reading the Mabinogion, the Welsh version of the King Arthur stories.
So I had all these influences bearing down upon me and I just wanted to respond to them in this piece of writing and obscure it—maybe I was obscuring the fact that there wasn’t enough of a plot! There’s a huge storm and that’s when this force (the pumpkin deity) enters. And there’s a young woman who is like a guide. Ach, plot. It’s more like events. I don’t know if they contribute to a summarizable plot!
Rail: How do you pronounce the title?
Kempson: Eecsh keuur bist geist. There’s a u with an umlaut. So after the u there’s an “e” sound. These are sounds that humans make while talking to each other. Not us, but other people do.
Rail: And that affects their mentality.
Kempson: And it affects us that we don’t make those sounds. I think there’s a lot to be said about that. I work for this Japanese fellow and he sounds like a different person when he’s speaking Japanese. You can learn a lot about a language through syntax, but the sound counts too.
Rail: I love the notion of sacred vowels and earthy consonants.
Kempson: Yeah, it’s very mysterious. There are religious resonances of language. When I heard that vowels are divine and consonants ground us in the earth and keep us in our environment I was like holy shit, that makes sense.
Rail: I wonder what that means for a language like Polish! Okay, so can we hear some examples of how people speak in the play?
For the “Ooldstres” characters here’s a key:
a = o
long e = i
ow = ø (see pronunciation guide for how to say this one)
o = æ
ea = aa or å
i = y or short u
Then for the “GentleClergy” and his mother, they are the ones who replace “th” with “dd” and it's always a joy to see what the actors do with that one.
For the “Warrior Fairr Ronn” who basically came straight outta the Mabinogion I have lines like these “Eh har a shrekkning at deybrekk Eh arise in meh shirt an trussers, an meh swrod about meh neck, and oot Eh come.” Which means “I hear/heard/have a shrieking/reckoning at daybreak I arise in my/me shirt and trousers, and my sword about my/me neck, and out I come.” It is always weird to change pronouns like “I” or “you” to something in another language. It throws us off I think worse than replacing other words. We're totally lost if we don't have ourselves and those immediately around us in our references.
For the witches or “writches” I replace any ings with enks and it gives it a Slavic or Romanian feel which is nice and mysterious and very different.
Some of my favorite lines I just winged , and didn't worry about the rules of the code. Like: “Sormetymes ut seems lykke der wrild durn’t morkent senser” which, translated would mean “Sometimes it seems like the world doesn't/didn't/durned make/making sense.” (You can see here how the words take on extra meanings or tenses to sort of open up for more possibilities of meaning.)
“Cun’t stop der turning of der wheel jost becose one or two han’t looking ond gert catchen umblernath” meaning loosely, “Can't/cunt stop the turning of the wheel just because one or two weren't/aren't/ain't/hadn't been looking and got/get caught/catching underneath.”
There are expletives like “Ho hho Sornem schtuppflidder ho!” or “Hup! Hup! Hinder hup! Hup!” Those are a lot of fun. I always tried to sneak some dirty, bad words or associations with dirty bad words in. Later on, for instance, there's an expletive like “Hornay! Hornay! Ho ho!” I think that is also tied in with the word-associations I made as a kid too. There are words that sound like the meaning of other words, and words that sound exactly like their own meaning. That was really great to get to play around with in this piece.
Ich Kürbisgeist is co-presented by Performance Space 122 and the Chocolate Factory. All performances at the Chocolate Factory. October 25 – 27 at 8 p.m.; October 31 – November 3 at 8 p.m.; November 7 –10 at 8 p.m. http://www.bigdancetheater.org/schedule.html
ELIZA BENT will perform in Half Straddle’s The Seagull (thinking of you) in January at the Coil Festival. Her play The Hotel Colors will happen in May at the Bushwick Starr.