This is the fourth part of a five-part paper, a version of which was given April 26, 2013 as the keynote address at the symposium, "Lament of the Makers: Conceptualism and Poetic Freedom," hosted by the Princeton Graduate Colloquium on Contemporary Poetry. Other symposium participants were Timothy Donnelly, Jena Osman, and Kent Johnson. Monica de la Torre was the featured poet. Parts 1-5 may be found here.


As a lawyer, I am a mouthpiece, that is to say, I speak on behalf of others for a fee. As an artist, I speak for Others, that is to say, the institution of poetry permits me to articulate myself as a representative subject according to the parameters of the institution. And if art is the institution of the eye, poetry is the institution of the voice. Or the “I” as voice. As philosopher Mladen Dolar has pointed out, the voice is “by its very essence ventriloquism.”[1] The voice is an object, and as such, a trap. It is my rule, as evidenced today, to always walk into a trap.

The trap of poetry is thus the trap of the voice. The voice would convince you of a certain authenticity, an original aperture. But sound is born in the gut and brain. Conceptual poetry, and in particular, my poetry, has been decried as a-political at best, unethical at worst.

As always, my critics are always right. If they do not see politics or proper ethics in a work, politics and proper ethics must not inhere in a work.

And, as always, I am always right.

Because conceptual poetry as I practice it may have a surface as thin as glass, a surface with no allusive depths for plumbing or metaphorical fruits for plucking, but it is also true that such a surface, backed in lead, reflects and projects. Put another way, if politics is not in a work, politics is not in a worker. But am I not now dressed for work?

Are you?

Look at your shoes. If they are nondescript, you are an ordinary poet, willing to do the field-work of rhetoric. You would like to persuade me of something. Perhaps yourself. If they are quite descript, you are an artist, wanting to do the big house-work of aesthetic. You would like me to see something. Perhaps yourself. If you tender me your toes, you are a stalwart soul who would like to be seen.

I recently offered to buy the souls of poets. It was provisionally interesting to see how many nonbelievers discovered a kernel of belief when asked to relinquish control of that in which they did not believe they believed. Perhaps it is akin to giving up one’s citizenship, or the place of one’s birth.

In Russian, I understand that the word for “country” means both the territory and the government. They are on to something.

Let me clarify.

When my Statement of Facts was published, though I would aside that it was only printed on demand, thus shifting the responsibility for its material production, that is to say, its enunciation, onto the one with the demand, a prominent leftist poet with a great deal of cultural capital decried the book’s lack of surface ethos, saying in an on-line forum: “I at this point need Vanessa to talk some about her intentions, her alliances. Or if not, I just give up.”[2]

She was right.

The work—self-appropriations of narrative accounts of sex crimes, taken from appellate briefs—did not speak for itself. It was inert. Dead. Insensate. Incapable of being rightly read. And thus, the demand for the author. A resurrection, a revival, so to speak, to save the reader from the death of the text. But there is no poetic salvation, except, and here is where some of you come in, by way of the lyric.

So you see it may not be time for too much lamenting by you makers.

Now there has been some talk about a conceptual lyric, and this is fine and good and should be encouraged wildly and indiscriminately, but this is not what concerns me. What concerns me is the fact that conceptualism as such is insufficiently lyric to sustain the necessary degree of authorship and originality that copyright protects and institutions subject. The danger in conceptualism is that it has replaced authorship with authority, or at least there is the invitation, and one could say temptation, to render the distinction infra-thin.

This is problematic because conceptual works tend to be insufficiently capable of exchange value absent the authorial presence. Which can only be a performance of unlawful authority. In other words, what conceptualism does is free language from its idealized point of origin and point of terminus: without authorship, there is no readership. There may or may not be readers, but there is no, as the workshops say, “ideal reader,” just as there is no idealized author.

It hangs heavy about the hands.

To quote Samuel Johnson: “In vain shall we look for the lucidus ordo, where there is neither end or object, design or moral, nec certa recurrit imago.” In other words, conceptualism prompts transference of knowledge back onto the authorial mouthpiece because that is the only textual subject, so to speak, who is supposed to know.

For the mouthpiece is the subject that is authorized as such, even as it is so authorized by way of default, and even as it is the subject that knows it may not know.

Again, authority is personal, and the personal is political is the role of ideology as such.[3] For those of you who might think the political is personal, I would remind you of the case of Rogers v. Koons,[4] in which Jeff Koons was sued by a greeting card photographer for turning his stock photo of a couple holding puppies into a sculpture intended as an allegory of banality. Koons lost.

As Jacques Derrida put it, “What this institution cannot bear, is for anyone to tamper with language…. It can bear more readily the most apparently revolutionary ideological sorts of ‘content,’ if only that content does not touch the borders of language and of all the juridico-political contracts that it guarantees.”[5]

Or as Don Share, senior editor of Poetry, puts it: “politics isn’t the only way to speak for people; poetry is also a way to speak for people.”

[1] Mladen Dolar . A Voice and Nothing More. (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006), 70. In a 2009 interview, Dolar noted that the “object voice” is neither the voice of the subject or the Other, but “emerges in a strange loop between the two. It is unplaceable, yet one has to ascribe it a place and assume it.” Aaron Schuster, Interview. “Everyone is a ventriloquist: an interview with Mladen Dolar,” Metropolis M, 2009 No. 2.  [] The place, it could be said, of the sobject.

[2] From a post dated June 19, 2010. The question was whether my poetry said things that were untrue or damaging about poor Latinos. [] I did not respond. I do not believe that she gave up.

[3] In Barthes’ “The Death of the Author,” he notes writing begins as soon as “a fact is narrated no longer with a view to acting directly on reality but intransitively, that is to say, finally outside of any function other than that of the very practice of the symbol itself.” The difference lies in the social practice: thus in ethnographic societies, responsibility for narrative “is never assumed by a person but by a mediator, shaman or relator whose ‘performance’—the mastery of the narrative code—may possibly be admired but never his ‘genius.’ The author is a modern figure…the epitome and culmination of capitalist ideology, which has attached the greatest importance to the ‘person’ of the author.” Roland Barthes. Image-Music-Text. Trans. Stephen Heath. (New York: Hill, 1977), 142-143. This is where there is room for thought on the current distinction between enunciator, enunciation, and enunciatee, and the sobject function served by each.

[4] (2nd Cir. 1992) 960 F.2d 301.

[5] Jacques Derrida, “Living on: Borderlines,” in Deconstruction and Criticism (New York: Seabury, 1979), 94-95.

Originally Published: April 30th, 2013

Poet and criminal defense attorney Vanessa Place earned a BA at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, an MFA at Antioch University, and a JD at Boston University.   In her conceptual poetry, Place explores the impact of context and expectation. In a 2010 interview for Lemon Hound, Place has...