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Conceptual Writing: A Worldview
Conceptual writing and concrete poetry have a lot in common: both are / were international movements and both are / were based on the premise of not reading. By employing the use of icon-based imagery (poem as image), concrete poetry sought an international readership based on seeing rather than on reading. Similarly, once you “get” the idea of conceptual writing, you don’t really need to read it; it’s not predicated upon knowing a language, as much as it is upon knowing a concept. Thus, conceptual writing often invokes a thinkership rather than a readership.
In 1968, the poet and anthologist Mary Ellen Solt attempted to describe and anthologize concrete poetry’s international bent in her anthology Concrete Poetry: A World View (Indiana University Press). In addition to printing numerous examples of concrete poetry, she also attempted to portray the broad international scope of the movement with this overview, which included practices & practitioners from seventeen countries.
Conceptual writing, now nearly fifteen years old, has assumed a broad international following. What follows is a first stab at trying to asses the movement’s global breadth by asking poets from the United States, the UK, Canada, South America and Scandinavia to describe the proliferation, practice and practitioners of conceptual writing in their part of the world as they see it unfolding. Skeletal as it is—this is a history in progress, unfolding daily—it sets the stage fuller future investigation.
An Overview / Chronology of Conceptual Writing
The chronology of Conceptual Writing has always been slightly out of sync. The term was coined in 2003, in the title for The UbuWeb Anthology of Conceptual Writing, a gallery of on-line works that brought together texts from the traditions of Conceptual Art, the OuLiPo, and avant-garde poetry. A printed volume, Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing (Northwestern University Press), developed from that on-line collection, but would not be published for another eight years, by which time the idea behind the name had morphed. Although it used the same titular phrase (“anthology of conceptual writing”), the book presented a far more focused genre of writing than the website, and it made a diametrically opposite argument. Indeed, as became evident at the conference Conceptual Poetry and Its Others, organized by Marjorie Perloff for the University of Arizona Poetry Center in the summer of 2008, the label “conceptual writing” resonated in a peculiar way: everyone immediately seemed to know exactly what it designated, but it meant something distinctly different to everyone who took it up (the “Others” of the conference title and the plural of “Conceptualisms”—if not the allos behind the “allegory” central to Place and Fitterman’s book—all register this scope of alterity).
The topic thus had its first academic conference before it was anthologized, and its first anthology, in turn, before it had developed an in-house journal. While one can retrospectively trace emergent tendencies back to occasional issues of certain periodicals—Chain (edited by Juliana Spahr and Jenna Osman), Object (ed. Fitterman and Kim Rosenfield), Nypoesi (ed. Paal Bjelke Andersen); the poetry section of The Brooklyn Rail (ed. Mónica de la Torre); et cetera—the first soi-disant “journal of conceptual writing,” Riccardo Boglione’s Crux Desperationis, did not publish its premier issue until 2011. To be sure, the venerable Poetry magazine had included a portfolio in its summer 2009 issue, pitting Flarf in a fixed fight against Conceptual Writing, but with only a half-dozen authors (Fitterman and Place included) it merely hinted rather than offered any kind of clear or comprehensive definition. By the same token, Kenneth Goldsmith had publicly tested the phrase in a report for the Poetry Foundation in 2007, but there it appears as just one term among others: “uncreative writing,” “information management,” and the “unboring boring.” With a second major anthology, I’ll Drown My Book: Conceptual Writing by Women (edited by Caroline Bergvall, Laynie Browne, Teresa Carmody and Vanessa Place) forthcoming, the surprising chronology is worth reiterating. Against the expectations established by most literary movements, the initial presentation of the work under the sign of “conceptual writing”—the appearance of poetry as conceptual writing—followed not only its first academic conference but also its first critical monograph: Marjorie Perloff’s Unoriginal Genius: Poetry by Other Means in the New Century, published in 2010. Notes on Conceptualisms thus entered the debate, in 2009, with an epic timing belied by its diminutive format: in medias res, and with a strangely belated prolepsis. The title (“notes on” rather than “notes toward”) implies subsequence, but in many ways it came before the establishment of the subject it would seem logically to have to follow. This history adds another wrinkle to the curious chronology of “conceptual writing,” but more importantly it means that Notes simultaneously shaped the field it purported to describe, substantively remolding the subject on which it seems to coldly comment. Notes traces the swirl of a further circle of recursive influence and inflorescent reference.
If the response to previous avant-gardes is any indication, the wider reception of Conceptual Writing will swing between a focused roll-call of clubby signatories and a meaningless inclusiveness. First will come the anxiously pointed demand for a clear definition: what is Conceptual Writing? Second, threatened conservatives will dismiss it as nothing new, or they will disingenuously ask whether all writing isn’t conceptual. Then, the reverse swerve will try to sidestep definitions altogether by merely naming names: conceptual writers are those in a certain anthology, or on a certain list-serv (or in the Appendix to Notes…). Finally, the reaction will veer back broadly again as otherwise incompatible poetics absorb various surface techniques (cataloguing, reframing, appropriating, etc.); one will start to hear explanations like: ‘I’m kind of a conceptual writer,’ or ‘this is my conceptual poem.’ The remarkable sweep of Notes on Conceptualisms manages to provoke and preëmpt all of these phases at once, and this purview was possible, perhaps, only because of the chance moment at which Notes was published — a brief wink in which “Conceptual Writing” had apparently always long been being practiced, and yet was still not quite commenced. That world will not always be the case.
[first published as Notater om Konceptualismer (Århus: Edition After Hand, 2012)]
South American Conceptual Literature: A Very Brief (and Incomplete) Survey
It is hard to talk about a tradition or lineage of South-American conceptual literature of the 60’s and 70’s. On the contrary, Conceptual Art in Latin-America had since the early 60’s a major role in the artistic scene of the continent, and of the whole world. Often distinguished from the North American one, which was less directly politicized, Latin-American Conceptualism produced among the most prominent figures of the movement. Some of them had used books and literature as a medium of expression, generating what I would call a sort of “second-degree” conceptual writings. Below I list some of the most interesting cases:
- In 1967, León Ferrari, from Argentina, published Palabras Ajenas (Words by others, Buenos Aires, Falbo editor, 1967) a 233-page book which collects, as in an endless theatric dialogue, quotes from the most diverse sources (newspaper, poetry, magazines, official documents, politician’s speeches, the Bible, etc.). All quotes have to do with condemnation and contempt for the human kind.
- Brazilian artist Antonio Manuel created a series of oil altered stereotype molds, where he intervened pages of newspapers and magazines. In one of these pieces – Sem censura (Without censorship, 1968) he erased the central picture of a newspaper’s first page, leaving only the words photographed with a similar effect to the one produced by Matt Siber (that Goldsmith analyzes in Uncreative Writing).
- In 1965 Luis Camnitzer, Liliana Porter and José Guillermo Castillo established The New York Graphic Workshop in New York. Many of their works were language-based. Even after the Workshop ended in 1970, the Uruguayan conceptualist Camnitzer kept using words and sentences as primary elements of his ouvre. One of the last examples is Memorial (2010): the reprint of Montevideo’s phone book, with the names of hundreds of desaparecidos (with no phone number associated) of the Uruguayan military dictatorship, digitally inserted in it.
(((At the beginning of the 70’s Ulises Carrión, from México, began an exercise of de-liricisation of poetry, which led him to poems reduced to single words repeated as many time as to fill a given structure (for example a sonnet or a ballad only composed by multi-syllable phonemes, see for instance “tatatá”, 1972) or to draw the perimeter of the poem’s structures, completely emptied of words (Gráficas de poesía, 1972).))) I INCLUDED THIS EVEN IF HE WAS NOT SOUTHAMERICAN because his writing is extremely interesting.
More recently, I’d mention the work of the Uruguayan artist Alejandro Cesarco, especially: Dedications (a.r.t. press, ny, montevideo, 2003): “a compilation of author’s affection for their muses, mentors and motivators, as they appears in their books”; and Index (a novel), 2003: a spread of an “index of names” of a book that Cesarco has not yet written and probably never will.
Among various experiments by poets and novelists I would pinpoint the following two:
- Canto Sideral (Editorial Juan Mejia Baja, Lima, 1984) by the Peruvian writer and journalist José Luis Ayala Olazaval. It is an extreme example of combinatory poem, following the path of Raymond Queneau’s Cent mille milliards de poèmes. Here one can interchange the 396 strips of paper containing the verses, but can also modify the sequence of the pages thanks to the special binding of the book.
- In 1986, during Pinochet military dictatorship, Sergio Pesutic – a Chilean psychiatrist and a writer – published a book called La hinteligencia militar (Military Hintelligence, publisher not mentioned, Santiago de Chile, 1986): all of its pages are (eloquently) blanks. The only words are to be found in the para-text: cover, back cover and frontispiece. The book, in spite of its lack of content, was banned by the regime.
A couple of contemporary figures:
- Three books by Argentinean writer Pablo Katchadjian: El Martín Fierro ordenado alfabéticamente (Martin Fierro arranged alphabetically, IAP, Buenos Aires, 2007) from 2007, where all the verses of José Hernández’s long poem from 1872, are listed in alphabetical order; El Aleph engordado (The fattened Aleph, IAP, Buenos Aires, 2009) where Borges’ tale The Aleph is “enriched” with newly written parts by Katchadjian; and Mucho trabajo (A lot of work, Spiral Jetty, Buenos Aires, 2011), which reproduces a short tale by the author printed with such a small font that it is almost impossible to read.
- The “textured texts” of Chilean writer Anamaría Briede of the Escritura clarividente series (Clairvoyant Writing, 2004): words and letters connected by a black thread that perforates the paper creating patterns.
- Riccardo Boglione’s Ritmo D (Gegen, Montevideo, 2009), which is Boccaccio’s Decameron stripped of every words but punctuation and numerical structure, and Tapas sin libro (Cover without book, Gegen, Montevideo, 2011) which is the “negative” of Felisberto Hernandez’s Libro sin tapas (Book without covers) from 1926.
- Crux Desperationis (ed. Riccardo Boglione, Montevideo), the first international journal of conceptual literature.
Practitioners: Fionna Banner, Caroline Bergvall, Emma Kay, Peter Manson, Simon Morris, Nick Thurston
Nick Thurston comments:
The first British imprint to self-consciously commit to what we’re now calling conceptual writing was Simon Morris from 1998, who then became Information as Material from 2002. Nick Thurston, who met Morris in 2001-2, has been an editor since 2006. The main output/series of the imprint has been explicitly literary by making the tension between artists’ bookworks and literature conceptually productive. The other imprints whose catalogues ‘looked’ similar were artists’ book imprints that were publishing bookworks as postconceptualist art editions, like Book Works, whose most obvious candidate would be Worldview by Emma Kay (1999). Morris’s 2009 The Perverse Library (Coxwold, UK: Shandy Hall) exhibition was the first institutional art exhibition dedicated to surveying conceptual writing in the UK and possibly outside of North America. Information As Material’s residency at the Whitechapel Gallery in London, from 2011-12, has signified a serious acceptance or subsumption of Information As Material, and was the first serious programming of a series of events dedicated exclusively to self-consciously conceptualist writing in the UK.
Morris’ way into it was from Conceptual Art via an unhealthy case of bibliomania. Writing, or not writing, became his mode of work from 1999, but this was writing qua publishing — it was the ‘making it public’ of writing that drove his way of writing. The two volume series Interpretation (2001, 2002) — which quickly sold out, like his artists’ book classic, bibliomania (1999) had — is a pure conceptualist displacement experiment in writerly subjectivity, right down to its mirror card covers. Information as Material’s publications by Nick Thurston include Reading the Remove of Literature (2006) and Historia Abscondita, an An Index of Joy (2007).
Martin Glaz Serup
Inspired by the Dutch scholar Hubert van den Berg and his work on the historical avant-garde, I think it would make sense to try to understand this framework or movement or whatever as many different things and ambitions at the same time different places united by some common interests – if one understands this formation as some kind of rhizomatic network based on exchange and mobility and sharing (community), in some way, I think it would make sense to try to track down the meeting places and main persons. So what I’ll do here is hence to list different occasions, magazines, publishing houses, persons etc., that has been important in the dissemination and development of the Nordic conceptualisms – if we’ll call it that.
UbuWeb is definitely such a place. But also the Sswedish magazine OEI has played a key role; both in its physical form, with translations, introductions and the publication of new work, but also very much with its (massive) small press activities and as organizer for readings, seminars etc. One of these seminars was the POST-POESI (‘post-poetry’)-seminar at Biskops Arnö in Sweden in 2005 (arranged by OEI). What is really important about these seminars are ofcause the ideas and texts and talks and performances being presented, but more so, I think, the actual get together of people; that the different persons exchange and discuss and in that way form an environment, a milieu; and the conceptual ‘movement’ or milieu has in the Nordic countries very much been a Nordic thing – far more than individual national scenes, the scene is Nordic; which in many respects is a new thing. We had it 50 years ago, then it dried out, but with and around conceptual poetry a new Internordic poetryscene arrised again. Another important seminar at Biskops Arnö (Biskops Arnö is a Nordic ‘folkehøjskole’; a place for Nordic Culture, but also a place where you can follow summer schools and all-year-courses in many different things, amongst them writing; one of the most prestigious writer’s schools of Sweden is situated at Biskops Arnö; Ingmar Lemhagen has for about 40 years been literary the pivotal point of the place); was the seminar ALTERNATIV PULICERING / LITTERÆR INNOVATION ( ‘Alternative publication/literary innovation’ directly inspired by Charles Bernstein’s 1993-essay Provisional Institutions: Alternative Presses and Poetic Innovation). It was held in 2007, arranged by the Nordic web magazine for literary critism LITLIVE and with me as the main organizer. Among the keynotes were Leevi Lehto, Hubert van den Berg, Caroline Bergvall, Marianne Ping Huang and Magnus Bärtås. I insert a list of registered participants below – there were people not on the list as well and people on the list not coming. OEI would be, I think, one of the main inspirations for the (now not any longer so) new editors of the Norwegian magazine Vagant (amongst the people there is Audun Lindholm and Susanne Christensen). Susanne Christensen and Audun Lindholm have also been very important in the establishing and running of the poetry festival in Bergen called AUDIATUR together with amongst others Paal Bjelke Andersen. AUDIATUR is important in many respects – as a festival, a meetingpoint, a bookshop (for instance can you buy a lot of American and French conceptual poetry through their web booksshop, which would otherwise not be available in Scandinavia, but would have to be shipped) – and through their self-documentation, which up untill now has been made out of huge catalogues with translations and new texts, introductions etc. Audun Lindholm, Susanne Christensen, Paal Bjelke Andersen and I have also all been involved in the kind of closed seminars BERGENSBRAG (in 2003 and 2005), which also developed into a mailing list and included quite a lot of the people who have been working with different aspects of conceptualisms here.
Keyfigures and maini ntroducers of the specific conceptual work are Leevi Lehto (Finland) and Paal Bjelke Andersen (Norway; he’s doing many things, but the first real introduction and presentation was with the international web magazine NYPOESI, which was launched about ten years ago; since he’s been involved in many initiatives, besides the above mentioned, also his own publishing house and event organization label ATTÅT).
Other publishing houses of interest in this regard: After Hand (Denmark – who’re publishing Rasmus Graff, Lene Asp, Martin Glaz Serup and recently also Vanessa Place and Rob Fitterman), 28/6 (Denmark – with amongst others Martin Johs. Møller, as you’ve published on Ubuweb, and Rasmus Graff ), Gasspedal (Norway – with Audun Lindholm, and earlier also Susanne Christensen), Basilisk (Denmark – with amongst others Martin Larsen).
First taught full course on conceptualism at the university in Denmark (and maybe in the Nordic countries?): Martin Glaz Serup at the University of Copenhagen for first year student – a full course only on KENNETH GOLDSMITH: SOLILOQUY: 2008.
Much teaching/introduction/exchange/hosting etc. have taken place at the writer’s schools in Bergen (Norway), Biskops Arnö (Sweden) and Copenhagen (Denmark).
People I can think of very, very quickly who have been producing interesting work within what we could term as Conceptual Poetry in the Nordic countries within the last ten years would include
Ulf Karl Olov Nilsson (S)
Martin Glaz Serup (DK)
Leevi Lehto (FIN)
Paal Bjelke Andersen (N)
Pejk Malinovski (DK)
Rasmus Graff (DK)
Gunnar Berge (N)
Martin Larsen (DK)
Monica Aasprong (N)
Cia Rinne (FIN/GER)
Caroline Bergvall (F/N)
Eirikur Örn Norddahl (ISL)
Contributed by Darren Wershler, Christian Bök, and derek beaulieu
1993: Bill Kennedy writes “apostrophe” (the poem)
March 16-18, 1995: “Literature & Science: Historical & Global Perspectives,” American Comparative Literature Association, Athens, Georgia. Christian Bök and Darren Wershler [Henry] are on a panel with Steve McCaffery, where they meet Marjorie Perloff, Johanna Drucker and Craig Dworkin. Drucker invites Bök and Wershler to Yale symposium on “Experimental, Visual And Concrete Poetry Since The 1960s.”
April 5-7, 1995: “Yale Symposium On Experimental, Visual And Concrete Poetry Since The 1960s.” Steve McCaffery, Karen Mac Cormack, Marjorie Perloff, Johanna Drucker, Craig Dworkin in attendance. Bök and Wershler meet Brad Freeman and Dick Higgins, who shows them images of Kenneth Goldsmith’s gallery work.
1997: Christopher Dewdney gives Bök a copy of Kenneth Goldsmith’s No. 111 2.7.93-10.20.96 (Dewdney and Goldsmith are both published by The Figures).
1997: Wershler’s NICHOLODEON comes out from Coach House — the first “white book.”
Other conceptually-oriented Coach House “white books” edited by Darren Wershler [Henry] include: Bruce Andrews Lip Service (2001), Christian Bök Eunoia (2001), Dan Farrell The Inkblot Record (2001); Robert Fitterman Metropolis 16-29 (2002), Kenneth Goldsmith Fidget (1999), Damian Lopes Sensory Deprivation/Dream Poetics (1998), Steve McCaffery Seven Pages Missing, Vols 1 (2000) and 2 (2003).
Wershler’s animated version of “GRAIN: a prairie poem” goes onto UbuWeb. Brief email correspondence between Wershler [Henry] and Goldsmith.
June 13, 1997: EyeRhymes Conference on Visual Poetry, Edmonton . Christian Bök, Craig Dworkin, Johanna Drucker and Darren Wershler in attendance.
Kootenay School of Writing poets start to move to New York somewhere in here and stay for varying lengths of time: Dan Farrell and Sianne, Jeff Derksen, Nancy Shaw, Kevin Davies, Lisa Robertson(?). Social ties begin to emerge between them and Rob Fitterman and Kim Rosenfield, Judith Goldman, Tim Davis and Brian Kim Stefans. This is important because Dan Farrell is the first of them to make a stylistic break away from the Kootenay School of Writing 2nd-generation Language Poetry model toward something that is identifiably conceptual.
1998—”bpNichol +10″ conference in Vancouver in 1998. Wershler and Bök meet derek beaulieu.
1999—Dan Farrell Last Instance (Krupskaya) is published, with a cover by Stan Douglas. The last poem in the book, “366, 1966″ is particularly important — a kind of minimal one-year journal.
2000—The Tapeworm Foundry by Darren Wershler [Henry] is published by House of Anansi.
2001—Bök’s Eunoia is published by Coach House Books, spending five weeks on the bestseller list in The Globe and Mail (under the category of fiction, because there is no other place to acknowledge it). The book sells 10,000 copies in its first year of publication.
April 19-21, 2001: epoetry 2001, Buffalo . Christian Bök, Bill Kennedy, Kenneth Goldsmith, Darren Wershler [Henry], Craig Dworkin, Katherine Parrish, derek beaulieu in attendance. Marian Damon dubs them the “Ubu Boys.” Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young later pen “Foulipo” in response. Kennedy and Wershler [Henry] perform sections of the first versions of apostrophe generated by Kennedy’s Apostrophe Engine, which is live but living on a private server.
2002—Eunoia wins the Griffin Prize for Poetic Excellence
2006—ECW Press publishes Kennedy & Wershler [Henry]‘s apostrophe, the first book of poetry published in Canada under a Creative Commons license. The apostrophe engine goes public.
2007—Flatland by Derek Beaulieu is published by Information as Material.
2008—Local Colour by Derek Beaulieu is published by Ntamo (Helsinki).
2008 (December)—Eunoia is published in the UK by Canongate Books, and within hours of my promotional interview about the book on BBC Radio 1, the title goes on to become the most bestselling work of poetry on Amazon.uk (and the 8th most sold book of all genres on the website for December). The Times of London includes Eunoia in the “Top 10 Books of 2008” alongside books by Barack Obama and Nigella Lawson.
2009—Bök is awarded $120,000 CAN in funding to complete work on The Xenotext
2011 (January)—“North of Invention” (a conference about avant-garde Canadian poets) takes place at Kelly Writer’s House at the University of Pennsylvania, where much discussion ensues around the increasing influence of Conceptual Literature in Canada.