Poetry News

Talks From Copenhagen REVERSE Festival: Steven Zultanski on Conceptual Writing, Vanessa Place on Divya Victor's 'Race Card'

By Harriet Staff


Just a few weeks ago, an international poetry festival—REVERSE 2014—took place in Copenhagen. Participating poets and scholars were Steven Zultanski, Vanessa Place, and Robert Fitterman from stateside; Susanne Christensen, from Denmark; and Natalia Fedorova, from Russia, among many others. Martin Glaz Serup, poet and contributing writer to the literary collective Promenaden, has published the talks from Place and Zultanski, both of which are interesting acts of demystification—in particular, as is the case for Place talking about Divya Victor; and in general, for Zultanski, who breaks down the mode of Conceptual Writing into two kinds:

Both kinds of conceptual writing have their pros and cons. The first kind is more radical in what it proposes as literature. It rejects familiar ways of reading and composing literary texts. But, in doing so, it can be a drag to read. And, honestly, as someone who loves to read, this can be a turn-off. Moreover, it can easily slide into aesthetic and intellectual laziness. When the radicality of poetry is based entirely on the rejection of literariness, it can foster work that resembles bad undergraduate art projects: poems of unreadable code, poems that don’t exist, poems that are empty files, etc. The sort of shit that seems like it’s trying to blow your mind, but is more or less just kind of dumb.

The second kind of conceptual writing, on the other hand, is more enjoyable to read and offers a different sort of complexity because you to deal with both a more traditional literary object (which changes as you read it) and a concept that governs the work (which totalizes the work, and doesn’t change in the same way). You have to trace the concept through the work, and through the cracks in the work. This is the kind of poetry that I try to write, and that I’m most interested in now. However, such work also forfeits something valuable: the sense of a hard break with tradition, and the sense of a new beginning. It risks retreating to established and familiar forms, and to validating these forms with the excuse of increased readability. At worst, it can risk becoming another version of watered-down hybrid writing, in which there are no high aesthetic stakes, but merely a pleasant mixing of styles.

In "Playing Divya Victor’s Race Card," Place discusses Divya Victor's recent project, Race Card, "first performed in an artists’ centre [in] Ontario, Canada in 2012." The rhetorical move here is away from a strictly visual consideration or rather, to make undeniable the vocal/aural connection to proffered image. Race Card, as Place notes, is directly aligned with, as Victor cites, Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece (1964) and Adrian Piper’s Calling Card #1 (1986) and is "intended to 'engage[] the cultural expectation that an artist’s visibility in her industry/coterie and the visibility of her racial marking must converse in order for the art work to become visible to audiences.'"

Place invokes the acousmêtre, an acoustic presence that "may or may not ever become visualized: it may remain a pure sound presence, the voice as remainder that leaves nothing but its inscription." "In this sense, the ordered image here is a lure, used to expose the acousmêtre, or the great voice-over that seems to cast the image into being, but it’s the trick of the keyhole to train the gaze and render invisible the keyhole." Eventually, we're left with a POV that actually inverts invisibility?

...To be truly invisible within the game of race is to be rendered fully vocal, to have the capacity to assert the image of transparency, of refusal. To remain “off camera,” to insist that one is not being capable of being understood as such for there is no “as such,” though there are experiences, but like the joke goes, you had to be there. What I am suggesting here is that we cannot win at Race Card because we are fooled into thinking that, like the score suggests, and workshops encourage, the voice belongs to the poet.

Excerpting won't do any of it justice, so read everything at Promenaden.