Let Me Clear My Throat: Six Questions for Elena Passarello | Harper's Magazine

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Elena Passarello on the animal appeal of the human voice and the art of the lyrical essay

Photo by Joanna Eldredge Morrissey.

How would General “Stonewall” Jackson spell the rebel yell? What will aliens make of the “Johnny B. Goode” recording on Voyager’s Golden Record? Elena Passarello, University of Iowa Writers Workshop graduate and the first woman to win the annual Stella Scream Contest in New Orleans, asks these questions in her debut essay collection, Let Me Clear My Throat (Sarabande).

 From whispers to shouts, Judy Garland to Marlon Brando, the mush-mouthed croaking of Kurt Cobain to Howard Dean’s “BYAH!” Passarello carefully considers the nature of human vocalization and what it means to truly feel a sound. Using my inside voice, I asked her some questions about the book; she answered back with a holler.

1. Your essays examine the many facets of the human voice, ranging from our need to scream, to how we make music with our voices, to the effects of making an utterance. How did you come to explore vocal expression?

I worked as a theater and voice-over actor for about a decade, and obsessing over human sounds was pretty much part of the job description. During that time, I became especially interested in the voice’s ability to trick us, fail us, and misbehave. It’s really uncanny to be surrounded, as I was, by humans with above-average vocal knowledge, and to constantly hear them use phrases like “I don’t know where my sound went tonight,” or “just try to stay in good voice,” or (my favorite) “My words are just corpsing out there.” I found myself struck by how much mystery and fear exist in the  folks who get paid to control their voices for a crowd.

This mystery doesn’t just lend itself to failure, though. Take last Christmas, when the truly great Billy Porter emceed this holiday revue I saw in Pittsburgh. Porter, who had been suffering from significant vocal troubles (I hear he’s on the mend now), was hired only to tell jokes and charm the crowd between other vocalists’ songs, but of course he was urged to sing a carol. He’d open his mouth to sing a note, and nothing would come out but a rasp of air, or the note would begin in earnest and then crack and fade.

But I left that show feeling decidedly sung-to by Porter, as if I had heard him in concert. This is because he was still singing, even when no sound came out of his throat. All the other components were there—breath, a wide and relaxed mouth, the words, his beautiful presence, and the gears of his voice. That connection, which went beyond the pretty notes of a melody, helped lead me to make a book like this.


2. Any trained vocal performer knows that the diaphragm is essential to good sound. Many of your essays suggest that the best utterances—the ones with the most power and conviction—are guttural and require the whole body to produce them. In the essay “Hey Big Spender,” for example, you examine such phenomena as the castrati and the symbolic and aural beauty of the “high C”, as well as the story of Enrico Caruso destroying his body singing. Why does the most worthwhile and important sound often entail sacrifice of the body?

From Let Me Clear My Throat:

“Though humans are significantly less-attuned to sound than other animals are, we still experience multipronged arousal in the presence of loud noises, especially the noises of our own species. I’m talking about that shot of norepinephrine that drips all over the cerebral cortex, heightening the senses in the presence of a human scream. Elsewhere in the body, it sends a jolt of adrenaline to quicken the heart and tense major muscles, prepping them for a sprint across the veldt away from danger.” (45)

Listen to Caruso sing Vesti La Giubba, from Pagliacci:


I’d counter that bodily sacrifice is part of most cultural performances, sonic or not. Look at a ballerina’s feet, or the life expectancy of a running back, or a red-faced oboist in the middle of a long passage of circular breathing. These all involve bodies taught to hurt in order to make a unit of culture.

Plus, there is something doubly special about a sacrificial voice. Vocal communication first began as a physical, rather than emotional, report. Way back in the day, a scream could tell the surrounding community a body’s locale, the type of threat it faced, the level of corporeal damage. This is a silly example, but earlier humans could, in essence, hear in the scream of a person being eaten by a lion not only where the screamer was, but where on the body the lion was biting them. So we were connecting loud, or “extreme,” voices to damaged bodies long before Caruso’s reign.

Add to this the fact that a sacrificially loud sound makes the listener’s cerebral cortex go crazy, regardless of what the sound is communicating. Our muscles and nervous systems also thrill to hear a powerful and punishing voice, probably because we are wired to run when we hear loud voices. And that’s where the pop-culture pleasure lies, I’d wager: to sit still in a room as another body makes sounds so that our bodies can feel how physically taxing they are to the performer. I think it partially explains why humans line up for screamo shows and hollerin’ contests, and why they once did so to see Caruso sing so hard the veins in his forehead nearly burst.

3. The first section of the book, Screaming Memes, is about the reuse, recycling, and reinterpretation of sound clips in the internet age, from the “Wilhelm Scream” (a 1951 television and movie stock sound effect) to Howard Dean’s campaign-killing “BYAH!” What do you think happens as these cultural memes become means of personal expression? Correspondingly, what did you discover about yourself while preparing for the annual Stella Screaming Contest in New Orleans, which you went on to win?

What the Wilhelm and Dean screams have in common is that we as a cultural group became inexplicably fascinated with them. It was a surprise to us, I think, that we wanted to hear those two sounds again and again. I spend most of my time in each essay trying to figure out why this happened. Why make a cult sound out of someone pretending to be dying? Why say that a one-second scream cost a man his chance at the presidency? What made these sounds worth discovering, repeating, and transmitting?

Brando’s “Stella!” prompts the same questions. One day my four-year-old nephew was whining at the dinner table, and we teased him by whining “Stellaaaaa!” in return. He immediately parroted us, again and again, because he found the “Stella!” yell so fun. What about “Stella!” is attractive to a four year old who surely hasn’t seen Streetcar? I still don’t know for sure, but I think the appeal lies in contradiction, in force, and in sonic anomaly.

My own take on “Stella!” for the contest arose from a very silly exercise in confronting fear. I was terrified to do it for a few reasons: I hadn’t performed seriously for several years; I was afraid I wasn’t going to be able to control the noise that came out of my mouth; and I worried it would be puny and therefore embarrassing. I had to force myself to go through with it, and I wouldn’t have if I hadn’t made a promise to my publisher. There was also something about being a female out there, making the Stella noise, that added some pressure related to reassigning the sound to a female body. I knew that whatever bellow came out of my mouth would be either unladylike or un-Stanley-like, and that lose-lose situation terrified me.

But all that uncertainty gave me the juice necessary to freak my body out a little bit, which can yield an interesting (if uncontrollable) performance. I was tense and upset, a little delirious and a little more tipsy (it was New Orleans, after all). You can see the weird state of my body in the YouTube clip of the final scream; my arms are swinging all over the place, my shoulders are back and my chest is up, and I’m just trying to shake all that fear out of me, trying to flatten out my body to get sound to come from it. All those moves didn’t turn me into Stanley Kowalski, but they gave me plenty of energy to rile up my body and make a sound that came with force from an anomalous place, like all good memes do.


4. Your book uses intercalary segments between each essay, featuring the voices of speakers such as a teenage girl after her first Beatles concert, a sportscaster doing a play-by-play, an unenthused American Idol contestant, and a motor-mouthed auctioneer. Why did you include these moments of transition in your book? How were they intended to complement it?

It felt really strange to be writing a book about the voice and have the only major “speaker” be my narrative voice. Also, the big essays in the book are quite long and busy; when I began looking at them collectively, I sensed a need for little interstitial sorbets, little breathers. I envisioned something like those fun mini-interviews of older couples that are spliced between the larger plot of When Harry Met Sally.

So I started hunting testimonials to deepen the chord of my “story.” Instead of adorable older couples, I sought vocal pros, survivors of certain throat ailments, classic radio broadcasts, etc. I saw a clip of an impressionist doing Shakespeare in dozens of celebrity voices and I called him up; I scoured the internet for champion auctioneers until I found Joseph Mast and grilled him for answers. It became one of my favorite challenges of the project: to conduct a long interview and then edit it into a “monologue” that reproduced the sound of that speaker on the page.


5. At the same time as I was rereading your collection for this interview, I was also going through E.B. White’s collected essays, and I was struck by the extent to which the two books employ digression as a rhetorical tactic. You seem to push it, however; for example, in the essay “And Your Bird Can Sing” you start with bioacousticians’ theory that birdsong begat human singing, then move the reader through the cold winter you spent admiring crows in Iowa, then list some of last century’s most popular songs with “crow” in their titles—all of which lead the reader to your idea that there is subtle hope in human vocalization. When you’re writing essays like these, how do you strike a balance between pursuing the lyrical, with its allowance for the digressive and the associative, and ensuring that you retain your audience, which might be more accustomed to the traditional five-paragraph essay?

Well, I don’t think I could write a 5-paragraph essay to save my life, so those readers were out of luck from the get-go. I know what you mean, though, about a traditional expectation for an essay to first introduce a topic, then develop our understanding of that topic, and finally to reach some endpoint that “closes” or “concludes” all that earlier work. That is a venerable essayistic track/ framework, and I do think a few of the book’s essays—like the one on Howard Dean, for example, employ it.

But there is another track, too, and it ties into what we now associate with the “lyric,” but more so to Montaigne, the Big Poppa of the Western essay. So many of his longer pieces run counter to the track I described above; the reader instead follows his mind in and out of allusions, contradictions, lists, and stories, all while he tries (or essays) to bring us alongside the workings of his mind. Not a teaching or theory or proof, but the course an associative mind takes when tackling a particular subject. This kind of work asks for a different commitment from a reader, but it is a commitment readers have happily made for centuries. It’s live-action, empowering, and in a way it’s also traditional, so I lean on that a bit when I allow myself to move far down a digressive course.

One of my favorite teachers, the totally badass David Hamilton, once challenged me to write an essay after Montaigne, and I answered him with an early version of “And Your Bird Can Sing,” which starts by looking at birds in my yard and ends by ranting about punk-rock voices. The “essaying” was to get the reader from that yard to the mouth of Lux Interior in a way that best resembled how my mind got there on its own—the shifts from sight to sound, the breaks for wandering commentary, etc. I’m not interested in doing this in any stream-of-consciousness sense, but in the sense of a course or pathway filled with stops for association and reference, the workings of a mind just asking itself “what do I know?”

And when I showed David the piece—I’ll never forget this—he drew a box in the top margin, with a triangle and a circle side by side inside the box. “That’s what your essay does,” he scribbled beside the drawing. And I do think that’s a very generous and Montaignean précis of I want essays like “And Your Bird” to do—I want to build a circle and a triangle (or a heart and a star; or a stick figure, a smiley face and a heart) so that they sit, side by side, in a meaningful frame.

6. Aside from the intercalary segments, most of the collection is driven and unified by a voice that is curious about both the personal and the universal. I felt as though this inquisitive nature often lent unity to your the tangents in your essays. I say “most” and “often” because the last essay, “A Monstrous Little Voice,” is formatted as a questionnaire that has been filled in by a ventriloquist’s puppet. It is wildly different in voice, form, and tone. Why did you choose to write this essay in such formally experimental way, and why did you close the book with it?

I see the personality test as yet another way of being inquisitive, to use your word. What’s more inquisitive than a questionnaire? I wanted to ask a submissive voice what it was like to be puppeted, to be spoken for, and I wanted a very different final gesture for the collection. And I wanted to treat an invented voice (like that of a dummy) as though it was real. A straighter narrative wouldn’t accommodate those interests, as far as I could tell. I knew I needed to get out of the way a bit to give these two inquiries center stage.

Then I found Hector, the anxious dummy of video and performance artist Teresa Foley. Teresa and I both had been slogging through these heavy texts about “ventrioloquial theory,” and we were surprised at how little performative energy existed out there. I thought we could address many of the questions introduced by Mladen Dolar and Steven Connor with more vaudevillian pizzazz.

So we hatched a plan: I read a whole bunch of Cosmo quizzes and Myers–Briggs tests, and I made a personality quiz for Hector, imagining that he, like many dummies, would see his voice both as his livelihood and as the greatest injustice foisted upon him. He wants a voice of his own! But unlike the dozens of voices discussed in the collectin’s previous 250 pages, he has to do without a voice, a “self,” until he makes one. So in this last essay, he’s sort of a new frontier for the book—a silent, homeless vox wannabe. The only thing that follows him is a monologue by a man who has had a laryngectomy.

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