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Conceptual Writing [verb, repeat] and Silence

By Mark Nowak

I think I’m finally beginning to understand Conceptual Writing thanks to Kenneth Goldsmith, who, in his consecutive posts on 4.27 and 4.28, drives home his point by employing the sentence “Conceptual writing [verb]” something like twenty-five times. As conceptual writing’s (oops, sorry, Conceptual Writing’s) spokesperson, Goldsmith uses very direct, clear sentences (though imperatives might have been yet more forceful) to convince readers that Conceptual Writing is [blank] (there are 20-some variations in these two posts, from populist to a-ethical). Like the best pitch-persons—think Brooke Shields for Calvin Klein or William Shatner for Priceline.com—Goldsmith identifies himself with his brand and tries to convince his audience that they should, no, need to, no, must buy into the spokesperson’s product.

I say this not as an enemy of Conceptual Writing, by the way. Back when I was trying to get an MFA in the cornfield flatlands just beyond the shadows of Toledo, Ohio in the late 1980s, an angry Thomas Merton biographer refused to allow me into the second year workshops and wanted me expelled from the program for my “conceptual writing” project (I use lower case because, as we now know, Conceptual Writing is a movement of the 21st century and the future, not the late 1980s). After I threatened to bring in the ACLU during a meeting in the program director’s office, I was allowed to finish my second year of MFA via “correspondence courses” instead of attending the required workshops – Juliana Spahr once joked that perhaps I should be cited as one of the creators of the low-residency program. So, for an entire year, I wrote letters to Ted Enslin and John Taggart and John Cage, among others, and this correspondence counted as my workshop credits in lieu of the actual MFA poetry workshops, which I was barred from attending by the angry Merton biographer who was hosting them.

In addition to writing voluminous letters during my second MFA year, I participated in a poets-in-the-schools program in that small Ohio town, teaching creative and uncreative writing to third and fourth graders who otherwise had little exposure to poetry. We did exercises from Kenneth Koch’s Rose, Where Did You Get That Red and Conceptual Writing (oops, conceptual writing) projects based on the work of Jackson Mac Low. We made elementary school versions of Emily Dickinson and Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks poems. And ever since then, subgenres of poetry (be they Conceptual, documentary, new or neo-formalist, whatever) have been significantly less important to me than poetry’s social function, i.e., what role poetry plays, or might play, in this world.

Just this week I was fortunate to host a visit from fellow Harrieteer Patricia Smith here on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. I invited her to read at the Rose O’Neill Literary House where I now work as well as to lead the final session in the inaugural writers-in-the-schools program that I initiated my first year here (in collaboration with the local public school system). Patricia magnificently drew words and rhymes from about 50 high schoolers for whom contemporary poetry—any poetry, to be honest—is something to which, in the words of the school’s principal and teachers, they have had almost zero exposure.

If we believe even half of what we’ve all been saying about poetry (and yes, Conceptual Writing, too, a-ethical as it claims to be) here at Harriet during National Poetry Month, there seems to me an urgent need—made more urgent by the politics of massive cuts to governments arts funding during the current economic crisis and the Draconian policies of NCLB (No Child Left Behind)—for everything that poetry claims for itself to be leveraged more fully and more regularly as a social form and in a social process. More of us in schools. More of us in elementary and middle and pre-college classrooms. More of us in after school programs. More of us in public libraries. More of us collaborating with social institutions.  More of us, maybe, like Craig Santos Perez in Guahan; more of us, maybe, like Kevin Coval in “Louder than a Bomb”.

In the end, I worry what poetry sans the larger social might eventually lead to (i.e., if a poem falls in a forest and there’s only poets in the audience to hear it, does it make a sound)?  And I urge everyone to listen to the masterpieces of no one talking—if you’re a Conceptual Writer, it can be John Cage’s 4’33”, if you’re not, listen to section 18 of Patricia Smith’s “34” (which comes in at about the thirty-six minute mark in the link/podcast). Inside those silences is everything we need, poets.

Inside those silences is need.


And thanks to the plural you, silenced commentators, for listening to us all month, too. We await your revolutionary and vocal return on May Day (i.e., International Workers Day), a fitting shout-out to the termination of National Poetry Month.

Posted in Uncategorized on Thursday, April 29th, 2010 by Mark Nowak.