. . . i had always had mixed feelings
about being considered a poet “if robert lowell is a
poet i dont want to be a poet if robert frost was a
poet i dont want to be a poet if socrates was a poet
ill consider it”
A poet finds a grammar book from the late 19th century and, inspired by Gertrude Stein’s confession, “I really do not know that anything has ever been more exciting than diagramming sentences,” proceeds to parse the entire 185 page book—every word and letter, from the table of contents to the index—by its own system of analysis.
Another poet teams up with a scientist to create an example of living poetry by infusing a chemical alphabet into a sequence of DNA, which is then implanted into a bacterium. Thousand of research dollars later, they are in the process of creating an organism embedded with this poem, strong enough to survive a nuclear holocaust, thereby creating a poem which will outlast humanity and perhaps even the lifespan of the planet earth.
Yet another poet decides to retype an entire edition of a day’s copy of the New York Times. Everywhere there is a letter or numeral, it is transcribed onto a page. Like a medieval scribe, the poet sequesters himself for over a year until he is finished. The resulting text is published as a 900 page book.
Sounds like something out of a Borgesian fantasy? No. These works are key examples of conceptual poetry, a broad movement that has been receiving a fair amount of attention lately. Conceptual writing or uncreative writing is a poetics of the moment, fusing the avant-garde impulses of the last century with the technologies of the present, one that proposes an expanded field for 21st century poetry. Not satisfied to exclusively be bound between the pages of a book, this new writing continually morphs from the printed page to the webpage, from the gallery space to the science lab, from the social space of the poetry reading to social space of the blog. It’s a poetics of flux, one that celebrates instability and uncertainty. And although its practitioners often come from disciplines outside of literature, the work is framed through the discourse and economy of poetry: these works are received by, written about, and studied by readers of poetry. Freed from the market constraints of the art world or the commercial constraints of the computing & science worlds, the non-economics of poetry create a perfectly valueless space in which these valueless works can flourish.
Conceptual writing’s concerns are generally two pronged, as manifested in the tensions between materiality and concept. On the materiality side, traditional notions of a poem’s meaning, emotion, metaphor, image, and song are subservient to the raw physicality of language. On the conceptual side, it’s the machine that drives the poem’s construction that matters. The conceptual writer assumes that the mere trace of any language in a work—be it morphemes, words, or sentences—will carry enough semantic and emotional weight on its own without any further subjective meddling from the poet, known as non-interventionalist tactic. To work with a machine that is preset is one way of avoiding subjectivity. It obviates the necessity of designing each work in turn; thus, it is the plan that designs the work.
In his introduction to the UbuWeb Anthology of Conceptual Writing, Craig Dworkin posits, “What would a non-expressive poetry look like? A poetry of intellect rather than emotion? One in which the substitutions at the heart of metaphor and image were replaced by the direct presentation of language itself, with ‘spontaneous overflow’ supplanted by meticulous procedure and exhaustively logical process? In which the self-regard of the poet’s ego were turned back onto the self-reflexive language of the poem itself? So that the test of poetry were no longer whether it could have been done better (the question of the workshop), but whether it could conceivably have been done otherwise.”
If it all sounds familiar, it is. Conceptual writing obstinately makes no claims on originality. On the contrary, it employs intentionally self and ego effacing tactics using uncreativity, unoriginality, illegibility, appropriation, plagiarism, fraud, theft, and falsification as its precepts; information management, word processing, databasing, and extreme process as its methodologies; and boredom, valuelessness, and nutritionlessness as its ethos.
Language as material, language as process, language as something to be shoveled into a machine and spread across pages, only to be discarded and recycled once again. Language as junk, language as detritus. Nutritionless language, meaningless language, unloved language, entartete sprache, everyday speech, illegibility, unreadability, machinistic repetition. Obsessive archiving & cataloging, the debased language of media & advertising; language more concerned with quantity than quality. How much did you say that paragraph weighed?
Conceptual writing’s primary influences are Gertrude Stein’s densely unreadable texts, John Cage & Jackson Mac Low’s procedural compositions, and Andy Warhol’s epically unwatchable films. Conceptual writing adds a 21st century-prong to a constellation of certain 20th century avant-garde movements that were concerned with the materiality of language and sound: Mallarmé’s spatialist concerns, the Futurist page, Zaum’s invented languages, concrete & sound poetry, Musique concrète, plunderphonics, sampling, and rap. On the conceptual side, it claims allegiance to the works of ‘pataphysics,’ Marcel Duchamp, James Joyce, process & conceptual art, as well as aspects of 1980s consumerist-based appropriation in the fine arts.
In its self-reflexive use appropriated language, the conceptual writer embraces the inherent and inherited politics of the borrowed words: far be it for the conceptual writer to morally or politically dictate words that aren’t theirs. The choice or machine that makes the poem sets the political agenda in motion, which is often times morally or politically reprehensible to the author (in retyping the every word of a day’s copy of the New York Times, am I to exclude an unsavory editorial?). While John Cage claimed that any sound could be music, his moral filter was on too high to accept certain sounds of pop music, agitation, politics, or violence. To Cage, not all sounds were music. Andy Warhol, on the other hand, was a model of permeability, transparency, and sliver reflectivity; everything was fodder Warhol’s art, regardless of its often unsavory content. Our world turned out to be Andy’s world. Conceptual writing celebrates this circumstance.
With the rise of appropriation-based literary practices, the familiar or quotidian is made unfamiliar or strange when left semantically intact. No need to blast apart syntax. The New Sentence? The Old Sentence, reframed, is enough. How to proceed after the deconstruction and pulverization of language that is the 20th century’s legacy. Should we continue to pound language into ever smaller bits or should we take some other approach? The need to view language again as a whole—syntactically and grammatically intact—but to acknowledge the cracks in the surface of the reconstructed linguistic vessel. Therefore, in order to proceed, we need to employ a strategy of opposites—unboring boring, uncreative writing, valueless speech (these will all be explored this week in depth)—all methods of disorientation used in order to re-imagine our normative relationship to language.
David Antin’s sentiments in the epigraph are correct: conceptual writing is more interested in a thinkership rather than a readership. Readability is the last thing on this poetry’s mind. Conceptual writing is good only when the idea is good; often, the idea is much more interesting than the resultant texts.
And yet . . . there are moments of unanticipated beauty, sometimes grammatical, some structural, many philosophical: the wonderful rhythms of repetition, the spectacle of the mundane reframed as literature, a reorientation to the poetics of time, and fresh perspectives on readerliness, but to name a few. For an ethos claiming so much valuelessness, there’s a shocking amount of beauty and experience to be siphoned from these texts.
I teach a class at the University of Pennsylvania called “Uncreative Writing,” which is a pedagogical extension of my own poetics. In it, students are penalized for showing any shred of originality and creativity. Instead, they are rewarded for plagiarism, identity theft, repurposing papers, patchwriting, sampling, plundering, and stealing. Not surprisingly, they thrive. Suddenly, what they’ve surreptitiously become expert at is brought out into the open and explored in a safe environment, reframed in terms of responsibility instead of recklessness.
Well, you might ask, what’s wrong with creativity? “I mean, we can always use more creativity.”(1) “The world needs to become a more creative place.”(2) “If only individuals could express themselves creatively, they’d be freer, happier.”(3) “I’m a strong believer in the therapeutic value of creative pursuits.”(4) “To be creative, relax and let your mind go to work, otherwise the result is either a copy of something you did before or reads like an army manual.”(5) “I don’t follow any system. All the laws you can lay down are only so many props to be cast aside when the hour of creation arrives.”(6) “An original writer is not one who imitates nobody, but one whom nobody can imitate.”(7)
When our notions of what is considered creative became this hackneyed, this scripted, this sentimental, this debased, this romanticized . . . this uncreative, it’s time to run in the opposite direction. Do we really need another “creative” poem about the way the sunlight is hitting your writing table? No. Or another “creative” work of fiction that tracks the magnificent rise and the even more spectacular fall? Absolutely not.
One exercise I do with my students is to give them the simple instructions to retype five pages of their choice. Their responses are varied and full of revelations: some find it enlightening to become a machine (without ever having known Warhol’s famous dictum “I want to be a machine”). Others say that it was the most intense reading experience they ever had, with many actually embodying the characters they were retyping. Several students become aware that the act of typing or writing is actually an act of performance, involving their whole body in a physically durational act (even down to noticing the cramps in their hands). Some of the students become intensely aware of the text’s formal properties and for the first time in their lives began to think of texts not only as transparent, but as opaque objects to be moved around a white space. Others find the task zen-like and amnesia-inducing (without ever having known Satie’s “Memoirs of an Amnesiac” or Duchamp’s desire to live without memory), alternately having the text lose then regain meaning.
In the act of retyping, what differentiates each student is their choice of what to retype. One student once retyped a story about a man’s inability to complete the sexual act, finding the perfect metaphor for this assignment. Another student retyped her favorite high school short story, only to discover during the act of retyping it, just how poorly written it was. Yet another was a waitress who took it upon herself to retype her restaurant’s menu in order to learn it better for work. She ended up hating the task and even hating her job more. The spell was broken when purposefulness and goal-orientation entered into the process.
The trick in uncreative writing is airtight accountability. If you can defend your choices from every angle, then the writing is a success. On the other hand, if your methodology and justification is sloppy, the work is doomed to fail. You can no longer have a workshop where people worry about adjusting a comma here or a word there. You must insist that the procedure was well articulated and accurately executed.
We proceed through a rigorous examination of the circumstances that are normally considered outside of the scope of writing but, in fact, have everything to do with writing. Question arise, among them:
What kind of paper did you use? Why is it on generic white computer paper when the original edition was on thick, yellowed, pulpy stock? What does it say about you: your aesthetic, economic, social, and political circumstances?
Do you reproduce exactly the original text’s layout page by page or do you simply flow the words from one page to another, the way your word processing program does? Will the texts be received differently if it is in Times Roman or Verdana?
For a task so seemingly simple, the questions never end.
A few years ago I was lecturing to a class at Princeton. After the class, a small group of students came up to me to tell me about a workshop that they were taking with one of the most well-known fiction writers in America. They were complaining about her lack of imagination. For example, she had them pick their favorite writer and come in next week with an “original” work in the style of that author. I asked one of the students which author they chose. She answered Jack Kerouac. She then added that the assignment felt meaningless to her because the night before she tried to “get into Kerouac’s head” and scribbled a piece in “his style” to fulfill the assignment. It occurred to me that for this student to actually write in the style of Kerouac, she would have been better off taking a road trip across the country in a ‘48 Buick with the convertible roof down, gulping Benzedrine by the fistful, washing ‘em down with bourbon, all the while typing furiously away on a manual typewriter, going 85 miles per hour down a ribbon of desert highway. And even then, it would’ve been a completely different experience, not to mention a very different piece of writing, than Kerouac’s.
Instead, my mind drifted to those aspiring painters who fill up the Metropolitan Museum of Art every day, spending hours learning by copying the Old Masters. If it’s good enough for them, why isn’t it good enough for us? I would think that should this student have retyped a chunk —or if she was ambitious the whole thing—of On The Road. Wouldn’t she have really understood Kerouac’s style in a profound way that was bound to stick with her? I think she really would’ve learned something had she retyped Kerouac. But no—she had to bring in an “original” piece of writing.
At the start of each semester, I ask my students to simply suspend their disbelief for the duration of the class and to fully buy into uncreative writing. I tell them that one good thing that can come out of the class is that they completely reject this way of working. At least their own conservative positions becomes fortified and accountable; they are able to claim that they have spent time with these attitudes for a prolonged period of time and quite frankly, they’ve found them to be a load of crap. Another fine result is that the uncreative writing exercises become yet another tool in their writing toolbox, upon which they will draw from for the rest of their careers. Of course, the very best result—and the unlikeliest one—is that they dedicate their life to uncreative writing. Later in the week, we will actually look at works of uncreative and conceptual writing by mature writers who, in fact, have dedicated their oeuvre to this type of practice.
1 Marc Chagall
2 Philip Yeo
3 Richard Florida
4 Dr. Wayne Dwyer
5 Kimon Nicoliades
6 Raoul Dufy
7 Gail Sheehy
I am a word processor. I sympathize with the protagonist of a cartoon claiming to have transferred x amount of megabytes, physically exhausted after a day of downloading. The simple act of moving information from one place to another today constitutes a significant cultural act in and of itself. I think it’s fair to say that most of us spend hours each day shifting content into different containers. Some of us call this writing.
In 1969, the conceptual artist Douglas Huebler wrote, “The world is full of objects, more or less interesting; I do not wish to add any more.” I’ve come to embrace Huebler’s ideas, though it might be retooled as, “The world is full of texts, more or less interesting; I do not wish to add any more.” It seems an appropriate response to a new condition in writing today: faced with an unprecedented amount of available text, the problem is not needing to write more of it; instead, we must learn to negotiate the vast quantity that exists.
Contemporary writing requires the expertise of a secretary crossed with the attitude of a pirate: replicating, organizing, mirroring, archiving, and reprinting, along with a more clandestine proclivity for bootlegging, plundering, hoarding, and file-sharing. We’ve needed to acquire a whole new skill set: we’ve become master typists, exacting cut-and-pasters, and OCR demons. There’s nothing we love more than transcription; we find few things more satisfying than collation.
There is no museum or bookstore in the world better than our local Staples.
The writer’s solitary lair is transformed into a networked alchemical laboratory, dedicated to the brute physicality of textual transference. The sensuality of copying gigabytes from one drive to another: the whirr of the drive, intellectual matter manifested as sound. The carnal excitement from supercomputing heat generated in the service of poetry.
The weight of holding a book’s worth of language in the clipboard waiting to be dumped: the magic is in the suspension.
The grind of the scanner as it peels language off the page, thawing it, liberating it. The endless cycle of textual fluidity: from imprisonment to emancipation, back to imprisonment, then freed once more. The balance between dormant text warehoused locally and active text in play on the Web. Language in play. Language out of play. Language frozen. Language melted.
The text of a newspaper is released from its paper prison of fonts and columns, its thousands of designs, corporate, political decisions, now flattened into a nonhierarchical expanse of sheer potentiality as a generic text document begging to be repurposed, dumped into a reconditioning machine and cast into a new form.
A radio broadcast is captured and materialized, rendered into text. The ephemeral made permanent; every utterance made by the broadcaster—every um and uh—goes onto the ever-increasing textual record. The gradual accumulation of words; a blizzard of the evanescent.
Cruising the Web for new language. The sexiness of the cursor as it sucks up words from anonymous Web pages, like a stealth encounter. The dumping of those words, sticky with residual junk, back into the local environment; scrubbed with text soap, returned to their virginal state, filed away, ready to be reemployed.
Sculpting with text.
Sucking on words.
Our task is to simply mind the machines.
Andy Warhol: I think everybody should be a machine. I think everybody should like everybody.
Interviewer: Is that what Pop Art is all about?
Warhol: Yes. It’s liking things.
Interviewer: And liking things is like being a machine?
Warhol: Yes, because you do the same thing every time. You do it over and over again.
Interviewer: And you approve of that?
Warhol: Yes, because it’s all fantasy. (1a)
Writing is finally catching up to Warhol. And it’s just the beginning. Soon we will not have to be bothered minding the machines for they will mind themselves. As poet Christian Bök states:
We are probably the first generation of poets who can reasonably expect to write literature for a machinic audience of artificially intellectual peers. Is it not already evident by our presence at conferences on digital poetics that the poets of tomorrow are likely to resemble programmers, exalted, not because they can write great poems, but because they can build a small drone out of words to write great poems for us? If poetry already lacks any meaningful readership among our own anthropoid population, what have we to lose by writing poetry for a robotic culture that must inevitably succeed our own? If we want to commit an act of poetic innovation in an era of formal exhaustion, we may have to consider this heretofore unimagined, but nevertheless prohibited, option: writing poetry for inhuman readers, who do not yet exist, because such aliens, clones, or robots have not yet evolved to read it. (2a)
1a G. R. Swenson, “What is Pop Art? Answers from 8 Painters, Part I”, ARTnews, November 1963.
2a Christian Bök, “The Piecemeal Bard Is Deconstructed: Notes Toward a Potential Robopoetics,” Object 10: Cyber Poetics, Kenneth Goldsmith, ed (2001), http://www.ubu.com/papers/object/03_bok.pdf.
I am the most boring writer that has ever lived. If there were an Olympic sport for extreme boredom, I would get a gold medal. My books are impossible to read straight through. In fact, every time I have to proofread them before sending them off to the publisher, I fall asleep repeatedly. You really don’t need to read my books to get the idea of what they’re like; you just need to know the general concept.
Over the past 10 years, my practice today has boiled down to simply retyping existing texts. I’ve thought about my practice in relation to Borges’s Pierre Menard, but even Menard was more original than I am: he, independent of any knowledge of Don Quixote, reinvented Cervantes’ masterpiece word for word. By contrast, I don’t invent anything. I just keep rewriting the same book.
John Cage said, “If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all.” He’s right: there’s a certain kind of unboring boredom that’s fascinating, engrossing, transcendent, and downright sexy. And then there’s the other kind of boring: let’s call it boring boring. Boring boring is a client meeting; boring boring is having to endure someone’s self-indulgent poetry reading; boring boring is watching a toddler for an afternoon; boring boring is the seder at Aunt Fanny’s. Boring boring is being somewhere we don’t want to be; boring boring is doing something we don’t want to do.
Unboring boring is a voluntary state; boring boring is a forced one. Unboring boring is the sort of boredom that we surrender ourselves to when, say, we go to see a piece of minimalist music. I recall once having seen a restaging of an early Robert Wilson piece from the 1970s. It took four hours for two people to cross the stage; when they met in the middle, one of them raised their arm and stabbed the other. The actual stabbing itself took a good hour to complete. Because I volunteered to be bored, it was the most exciting thing I’ve ever seen.
The 20th century avant-garde liked to embrace boredom as a way of getting around what it considered to be the vapid “excitement” of popular culture. A powerful way to combat such crap was to do the opposite of it, to be purposely boring.
By the ‘60s and ‘70s in art circles this type of boredom—boring boring—was often the norm. I’m glad I wasn’t around to have to sit through all of that stuff. Boredom, it seems, became a forced condition, be it in theatre, music, art, or literature. It’s no wonder people bailed out of boredom in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s to go into punk rock or expressionistic painting. After a while, boredom got boring.
And then, a few decades later, things changed again: excitement became dull and boring started to look good again. So here we are, ready to be bored once more. But this time, boredom has changed. We’ve embraced unboring boring, modified boredom, boredom with all the boring parts cut out of it. Reality TV, for example, is a new kind of boredom. An American Family, broadcast in the early ‘70s—strutting its ennui—was the old boredom; The Osbournes—action-packed boredom—is the new. There’s no one more tedious than Ozzy Osbourne, but his television presence is the most engagingly constructed tedium that has ever existed. We can’t take our eyes off the guy, stumbling through the dullness of his own life.
Our taste for the unboring boring won’t last forever. I assume that someday soon it’ll go back to boring boring once again, though for reasons and conditions I can’t predict at this time.
I don’t expect you to even read my books cover to cover. It’s for that reason I like the idea that you can know each of my books in one sentence. For instance, there’s the book of every word I spoke for a week unedited. Or the book of every move my body made over the course of a day, a process so dry and tedious that I had to get drunk halfway though the day in order to make it to the end. Or a book in which I retyped a day’s copy of the New York Times and published it as a 900 page book. I’ve transcribed a year’s worth of weather reports and a 24-hour cycle of one-minute traffic reports every 10 minutes, resulting in textual gridlock.
Now you know what I do without ever having to have read a word of it.
I think that there were a handful of artists in the 20th century who intentionally made boring work, but didn’t expect their audiences to fully engage with it in a durational sense. It’s these artists, I feel, who predicted the sort of unboring boredom that we’re so fond of today.
Andy Warhol, for instance, said of his films that the real action wasn’t on the screen. He’s right. Nothing happened in the early Warhol films: a static image of the Empire State Building for eight hours, a man sleeping for six. It is nearly impossible to watch them straight through. Warhol often claimed that his films were better thought about than seen. He also said that the films were catalysts for other types of actions: conversation that took place in the theatre during the screening, the audience walking in and out, and thoughts that happened in the heads of the moviegoers. Warhol conceived of his films as a staging for a performance, in which the audience members were the Superstars, not the actors or objects on the screen.
Gertrude Stein, too, often set up a situation of skimming, knowing that few were going to be reading her epic works straight through. (How many people have linearly read every word of The Making of Americans? Not too many, I suppose.) The scholar Ulla Dydo, in her magnificent compilation of the writings of Gertrude Stein, remarked that much of Stein’s work was never meant to be read closely at all, rather she was deploying visual means of reading. What appeared to be densely unreadable and repetitive was, in fact, designed to be skimmed, and to delight the eye (in a visual sense) while holding the book. Stein, as usual, was prescient in predicting our reading habits.
John Cage proved to be the avant-garde’s Evelyn Wood, boiling down dense modernist works into deconstructed, remixed Cliff Notes; in his Writing Through “Finnegans Wake” he reduced a 628-page tome to a slim 39 pages, and Ezra Pound’s 824-page Cantos to a mere handful of words.
At a reading I gave recently, the other reader came up to me after my reading and said incredulously, “You didn’t write a word of what you read.” I thought for a moment and, sure, in one sense—the traditional sense—he was right; but in the expanded field of appropriation, uncreativity, sampling, and language management in which we all habit today, he couldn’t have been more wrong. Each and every word was “written” by me: sometimes mediated by a machine, sometimes transcribed, and sometimes copied; but without my intervention, slight as it may be, these works would never have found their way into the world. When retyping a book, I often stop and ask myself if what I am doing is really writing. As I sit there, in front of the computer screen, punching keys, the answer is invariably yes.