Poetry News

Amy King Considers What Unrest After Conceptualism's Institutional Embrace

By Harriet Staff

Vanessa Place

At The Rumpus the other day: Amy King backs up and moves forward in her breakdown of community, capital, Conceptualism, and poetry (specifically poetry as capital as seen in the "eyes" of the new VanessaPlace, Inc.). King also invokes Dada, Langpo, and other schools/movements/descendents; and remarks on the deliberate lineage-creation via celebrity trajectory that Place and Goldsmith, among others, work toward/quickly inherit (i.e., Place's self-alignment with Warhol). "As public knowledge, this intentionality is no revelation and can even be theorized away as an institutional embrace that they will use, as the argument goes, to change the definition of poetry from within." More:

The justification of irony at work may be suggested, but as these members populate the stages of academia and the art world, one is forced to wonder when the irony will give way to destabilize those seats of power. When do we see actual shifts? Which brings me back to Place’s latest biz, “Poetry is a kind of money.” It can be boxed as such, as poetry can also be a million other things. Here’s the rub. One mode, Conceptualist writing, is premised on and requires the devaluation of other poetries, so that its purpose is contingent on the necessity of liberating us from the oppressive capitalism we inhabit, “All fine and good and true enough for ordinary inquiries and poetic ventriloquisms, but what conceptualism does differently is block the exchange of capital by that transference” (Place, “I is Not a Subject”). We are all mere participants in a poetry game that is exchanging capital, valuing “selves” and shuffling those selves about with no effect on changing the game itself. But there is a self-proclaimed “game changer.”

In short, Place does not generate content; she chooses to appropriate and re-present material and thus ‘hold up mirrors’ (“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.”), presumably so that we might see the exchange of poetry parallel to how we consume everything else in capitalist-driven measure: as mere products in context. But moreover, another not-to-be-overlooked point is that, in the larger framework of our “status quo” culture, the employment of sensationalism via these declarations and performances foregrounds & sells the artist herself as capitalist product. A recent example can be seen in the boast of a press run of Place’s books comprised of twenty one dollar bills that sold out at $50 each – because “Vanessa Place” presents as a capital marker of value now to be cashed in on, symbolically and literally (“I reasonably expect to be offered a tenured position within ten years” “Notes on Conceptualisms”). Other Place-isms employ this sound-bite sensationalism, “Poetry is dead, I killed it,” “Poetry is now 15 minutes ahead of art,” again, calling attention to the artist (in conquering and competitive capitalist mode, no less), while aligning her with Warhol (conjured in the promise of 15 minutes of fame), etc. Both the assimilation of the poet in the aforementioned “poetry history” and as direct descendant of Warhol seats the artist in a central Establishment position. Without disruption, the seamless perpetuation of commodification continues, to the benefit of Place & Co. as evidenced by institutional reward.

Similarly, Kenneth Goldsmith popularizes this ascent in the canon via the institutions of academia and the art world by utilizing a reductive definition of “lyric” poetries, although he does offer a very brief and limited nod, “Encouraging, too, has been the Eco and Slow poetry movements that have worked to engage communities, both local and global … what I would term activist poetry.” But he does so primarily as an opportunity to reinforce the narrative of the aforementioned liberator again: “With the emergence of conceptual poetics, the possibilities for critical, self-reflexive devices have become somewhat commonplace,” an “evolution” that hinges on the implication that poetries before the conceptual group were uncritical, loping along without any devices for self-reflexivity. Indeed, he has coined the term, adopted and popularized by the group, of turning a “readership” into a “thinkership.” Again, we are to understand the readerly “I” as misguided by the cultural-conditioning of her emotions and unaware of how and why she receives and is affected by content (other poetries can’t foreground such notions presumably), and note that she is incapable of questioning as such (she lacks the self-reflexive devices). But a “thinkership” – having mastered one’s emotions and prioritized the intellect above all — can enable critical awareness, etc. “Thinkership” is implicitly premised on the Western mind-body split that values the intellect over the susceptible emotional life (which happens to be the symbolic feminine), and the shift away from that susceptibility has only been enabled by the Conceptual poetry group, or so the story goes.

King concludes with a questioning of the unrest effected by such an "institutional embrace." "For all of the claims to avant-garde gestures, including ‘institutional critique from within the institution,’ these institutions are the opposite of threatened, proceeding with business-as-usual and rewarding Conceptual group members in the process." She also recalls Aldon Nielson's recent essay on Conceptualism and whiteness. This is just Part 1; Part 2 to come soon.