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conceptual or literal?

By Alan Gilbert

The Segue Reading Series is New York City’s longest-running platform for avant-garde writing. Started in the mid-’70s, it used to be more commonly known as the Ear Inn series, and was generally the territory of Language poets and their fellow travelers. In the late ’90s, it expanded its roster, and now features a fairly wide range of writers—much like the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church, another multi-decade New York City poetry “institution.”

Rob Fitterman, who’s been affiliated with the Ear Inn/Segue series for more than two decades, and John Yau, who’s always moved in and out of various experimental writing communities, read in the Segue series last Saturday. Fitterman presented a single long collage poem that consisted entirely of appropriated text from the captions of photographs archived at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC (and found online).

The reading was engaging, rigorous, and somber (most of Fitterman’s readings that I’ve seen contain a dose—or more—of humor). It also raised some interesting questions for me that connect with a number of Harriet posts this month, namely those regarding Conceptual poetics and Flarf.

Why is work like this called conceptual instead of literal?

Given that Conceptual poetics-affiliated texts enact quite literal procedures—transcribing every weather report broadcast on a radio station over the course of a year; appropriating a text and leaving it unchanged except for its gender references; compiling a list of captions; etc.—why isn’t Conceptual poetics instead called Literal poetics, Appropriational poetics, or Anti-writing poetics? If anything, Kenny Goldsmith’s description of this kind of material as “uncreative writing” is a much better fit.

Is an anti-aesthetic an aesthetic?

Is Charles Reznikoff a forerunner of Conceptual poetics?

As much as Conceptual poetics derives from certain tendencies in Language poetry (and other avant-garde literary and visual art movements, of course), it fundamentally differs from Language poetry in that its “conceptualism” isn’t embedded in its formal devices. One could make much the same comment regarding Flarf.

Yau read a number of poems that extend his ongoing engagement with identity, abjection, and the human subject as produced by, and resistant to, its social environment. Yau’s work utilizes absurdity in both its humorous and darker aspects. The most powerful poem he read functioned as a kind of disguised autobiography. He also read from a set of 100 short poems. One entitled “Disaster” stated: “The tip of the iceberg is missing.” After reading a poem about a bus trip to Mount Rushmore, Yau remarked that he’d actually never been to said national treasure. As it turns out, some of the ridiculous images were inspired by Google searches. Like Flarf, but again, without the literal reproduction of source material.

I saw Yau read a number of the same poems at an Asian American Writers’ Workshop-sponsored reading and discussion he did with Mei-mei Berssenbrugge a week or so earlier. The q&a was moderated by Jennifer Hayashida, and like Fitterman’s reading, it raised a number of Harriet-relevant questions.

Both Yau and Berssenbrugge were adamant in stating that they didn’t consider their work to be conventionally identity or ethnic based. Yet both admitted to referencing elements from their respective backgrounds. Yau’s poems are scattered with clichés of Asianness, whether silly or harmful negative stereotypes.

To what degree is all writing identity based?

What is the role of a politics of representation in the age of Obama? Or at AWP? These have been central concerns in posts this month by Rigoberto González, Patricia Smith, and Wanda Coleman.

In what way is identity dependent upon the positing of an other from which/whom this identity is differentiated? Who—or what—does this positing?

Does poetry—art—ultimately supplant identity with the intersubjective?


Posted in Uncategorized on Monday, April 26th, 2010 by Alan Gilbert.