Oral Fixations. A Field Report

Alejandro Rubio
Let’s talk about a book written on water, a poem that the wind will take away, a story that emerges dialogically and develops under the changing rules of a game where the roles of actor, audience, and playwright are confused and transmuted. Let’s talk about tradition, folklore, and  culture—adding popular or not—even if theoretical frameworks rain down over us. Above all, let’s talk about talking and speech in terms of what they have of gesture and theatricality. Let’s talk about songs and sing about words. Let’s write forcing prose to appear as dictation, to shape a character using their idiolect. Let’s talk, sing, verse, friction, and fictionalize orality and say words not included in the dictionary, like, for example, oraliture.

In May 2023, it will be two years since I first read that word in the unlikely company of the word academy. I was irremediably attracted by the expression and in particular by its use in another new word for me: oralitores [oral creators]. Wow, there are several of them, I thought and, curious, I clicked on the ad that offered a course called La décima y la canción [The décima and the song]. Thus, I stepped for the first time into this territory whose exact location on the map of literature is elusive and whose definition falls into the orbit of impossible questions. Just one fact: the word oraliture does not exist, so much so that it has no entry in Wikipedia. And yet…

Originally coined by Alexis Díaz-Pimienta, the expression oraliture can be seen as a neologism, a contraction more typical of marketing than of art, a finding—time will tell—or simply an occurrence. Whatever reason for the word to exist, I believe it persists—the rhyme is intentional—because of the need to specify a moment of confluence between what academy defines as oral literature, a much-debated concept that would include very varied sets of texts under the common denominator of the predominance of memory as a medium and the voice as means of transmission, and whose main territory would be tradition and the emergence of expressions such as spoken-word, hip-hop, or theatrical improvisation, among many others.

Oraliture could also be a vindication of the letter in the oral, extending the meaning of the concept of Orature, originally proposed by the Ugandan linguist Pio Zirimu, as an alternative to avoid using expressions such as folkloric literature or oral literature. Walter J. Ong, in Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (1987), instrumentalizes the term by suggesting to dissociate the oral text from its conception as a category annexed to written literature, to see it then as a unique artistic manifestation that would include repertoires in which the written and the oral word are combined, either because written texts are disseminated mainly in that form or because written compilations of oral texts are made in their origin.

But, above all, Oraliture is an experience for me.



The scene shows a lesson on poetic improvisation. Children, no more than twelve years old, explore the notion of the semantic field through the tool of rhyme. Earlier they explored the octosyllabic meter, by speaking in a common language they call Octoñol [Octo-Spanish]. Later, they bring these two experiences together in a variety of games that owe much to Rodari’s The Grammar of Fantasy (1983).

The Método Pimienta para la improvisación poética [Pimienta Method for Poetic Improvisation] (Diaz-Pimienta, 2014) is a manual that emerged from experiences such as this session, depicted in the Italian documentary Il campo semantico (Riondino, 2017). For those of us who have been involved in reading promotion, this is a portentous scene that responds to the least heeded provocation, in my opinion, of the many that Rodari suggests: let us promote writing and reading will come with it.



A group of children between nine and ten years old, their parents, and teachers swirl around the legendary TR-808 Rhythm Composer machine. They take turns improvising rhymes over the beat. In the background, another group paints a mural. Later, children dance to the beat that has already incorporated the improvised rhymes; they capture the dance with a camera and those images go on feeding Scratch, a platform for teaching programming, as a basis for animating a character that was drawn using only code. Finally, everyone dances to the rhythm of their community product.

Conceived by the MIT Scratch Team, the Hip Hop and Scratch Coding project extends the notion of writing to the realm of computing. For those of us who have ventured into these languages, these are encouraging scenes. The common denominators of community and improvisation are evident, the codification of something that seemed impossible to teach—improvisation—has powerful effects and its capacity to generate community ties multiplies its impact.

Regarding Alexis Díaz-Pimienta’s merits as a writer, I personally place the development of his method and the theoretical construction that supports it, expressed in Teoría de la improvisación poética [Theory of Poetic Improvisation] (2013), as a major achievement due to its binding capacity.

Oraliture could then allude to a practice and its techniques, which allow those of us who were not born inside current and living traditions of our countries (such as payar, repentismo, cumanana or son Jarocho [see box]), and, of course, who did not grow up with hip-hop, to assimilate a series of creative tools that shoot arrows to multiple directions and are fixed in songs, stories, or poems.



In one of the frames, there’s Janet, a Spaniard living in Venice, who holds a master’s in Spanish Literature. In another, a Mexican, guitar in hand, who is learning to make décimas espinelas [a poetic genre from Spanish Golden Century] and proposes a melody. Janet improvises and we write down. Later: we composed a song by fixing the words and notes released into the air.

In other frames on the screen, there are people from more than ten countries. Some of them are actors, others are poets, payadores, repentistas; several are beginner singer-songwriters, and many are young rappers eager to find in Spanish Golden Century stanzas the key to their next punchline. People of very different ages and backgrounds, but all under the great republic of the Ñ. Every day, in a WhatsApp chat, more than 50 décimas parade, with their respective comments, corrections, proposals of improvement, musicalization, or just applause. For those of us who, for many years, have conceived and lived writing as a solitary act, this is a great experience: festive and friendly. It is in these connections where we can give a chance to the word, to the experience and practice of Oraliture.

Is there a resurgence of poetry and, especially of rhyme? It is too early to tell, but perhaps the pandemic has given Díaz-Pimienta’s initiative a golden opportunity to build a field from which the oral text and its richness can prevail, and tradition can generate novelty and more paths.



Anne Carson (2020) is speaking: 

And to consolidate our new relationship of grace, I would like to perform, for you and with you, a little poem. It’s an interactive poem, which means that I say a piece and you say a piece and the two come together, somewhere in cyberspace, to shape a little meaning. So, here’s your part. You have to say: “Let’s buy it! What a bargain” when I tell you. I will count to three so you can practice. (“Let’s buy it! What a bargain!”) Okay? Remember your stanza. Small talk about the sensation of an airplane taking off. Well, you know, that could be true love, running towards my life with its arms up in the air, screaming… 

And maybe chanting a poem is also Oraliture… 
Alejandro Rubio was born in Guadalajara, Jalisco. Much of his professional life has been related to writing, including songs and jingles. In 2009 he founded Philias, a consulting firm dedicated to conversation technologies, of which he is the creative director. Musician, madman, and poet, although he has never stopped writing poems and songs, The encounter with the espinela stanza (mediated by online workshops in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic) was also a new meeting with his own voice and with the decision of publishing. He plays guitar at La Súper Cocina. He wrote De diez en diez, diario de una cuarentena (available for free at https://diezendiez.com/). His poems are included, among other anthologies in Bichos en vitrina (Andrea Montiel, editor, 2021; Mexico: Tinta Libre).

Carson, Anne (2020). “Discurso en la ceremonia de premiación de los premios Princesa de Asturias de las Letras”. ABC Cultura (https://www.abc.es/cultura/libros/abci-anne-carson-gracia-y-viene-entre-creador-obra-arte-y-audiencia-como-entre-y-recibe-regalo-202010161849_noticia.html). 

Díaz-Pimienta, Alexis (2013). Teoría de la improvisación poética. Almería: Scripta Manent Ediciones. 

Díaz-Pimienta, Alexis. (2014). Método Pimienta para la enseñanza de la improvisación poética. Almería: Scripta Manent Ediciones. 

Ong, Walter G. (1987). Oralidad y escritura. Tecnologías de la palabra. México: Fondo de Cultura Económica. 

Riondino, David. (2017). Il campo semantico. Documental. Italia/Cuba, financiado por la Unión Europea (https://vimeo.com/225996879). 

Rodari, Gianni (1983). Gramática de la fantasía. Introducción al arte de inventar historias. Barcelona: Argos Vergara.
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